Travel to Hawaii: which islands to choose and for how many days

  1. Hawaii
  2. Travel to Hawaii: which islands to choose and for how many days
Written by SandrineUpdated on 05/03/22

You have started planning your trip to Hawaii and you are about to draw your itinerary among the islands of the archipelago? Then this article is for you!

Choosing the right islands and the number of days to spend on each of them is essential to the success of your trip to Hawaii. We will therefore look at the different attractions of each one so that you can choose the ones that correspond to you the most, because you will probably have to skip one or more islands depending on the time you will spend there.

We'll also talk about the ideal number of days to spend on each of Hawaii's main islands so that you can plan your circuit and divide your days among them. Finally, we'll review the must-see features of each island to help you determine which areas to focus on.

1Oahu - The bubbling center of Hawaii

O'ahu is the most famous island because it's the most populated and also the most publicized in TV series, so many people still wrongly think that Hawaii is only the island of Oahu!

View of Honolulu and Diamond Head from the heights of the Tantalus Lookout.

Who Oahu is for

Oahu is a dynamic island that will appeal to all those who want to discover the lively atmosphere of Honolulu and its famous Waikiki beach, or plunge back into history by visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial, with its touching account of that tragic day of December 7, 1941. Oahu is also an interesting island for its central relief which will seduce hikers by offering beautiful trails on its ridges.

View of Lanikai and its islets from the bunker of the Pillbox trail.
Oahu Ridge from He'eia State Park.
View of the Koko Crater from the Kuli'ou'ou'ou Ridge trail

Oahu also has beautiful beaches along its entire coastline as well as some unspoiled areas where seals and turtles can be found.

Lanikuhonua Lagoon, a hidden and little frequented beach, our favorite of Oahu.

Oahu is also the most touristy island in the Hawaiian archipelago. So we advise you not to come to Oahu to find peace and quiet. You will have to expect daily traffic jams on the main roads of Honolulu, but also have to deal with the numerous tourist buses knowing that most activities are not free on the island.

The famous Hanauma Bay, beautiful from above but very touristy and quite damaged underwater.

How much time to spend in Oahu

If you wish to discover the island as a whole, we recommend that you stay at least 5 days so that you have time to enjoy its various attractions and go on a few hikes. If you prefer to make only a quick stop to get an idea of life in Honolulu and do only the essentials, 3 days may be enough.

If you can, we advise you to start your trip on the island of Oahu, as the hustle and bustle of the tourist traffic may disappoint you after you've been on the other islands!

Oahu's must-sees

2Big Island - The island of contrasts

Big Island, also called the island of Hawaii, is the largest island of the archipelago with 120 km wide and 150 km long. Thanks to its high peaks at more than 4000m, Big Island offers an exceptional climatic diversity. You can find here 8 of the 13 types of climates existing on Earth!

In front of a panoramic view of the ancient lava lake of Kilauea Iki.

Who Big Island is for

Big Island will delight nature lovers who will be able to discover here a multitude of varied landscapes, from active volcanoes to the tropical rainforest of the northeast, the desert beaches of the west or the sometimes snowy summit of Mauna Kea.

Makalawena beach, not easy to access but gorgeous!
Clear waters at Carlsmith Beach Park near Hilo.

On the hiking side, you will be served with a good number of trails of varying lengths, from short, easy and fast walks to difficult hikes lasting several days. There is something for everyone.

The turquoise waters of Kiholo Bay.

Even if at first glance Big Island is an island that seems quite austere, it is full of little hidden and little frequented corners that it is very pleasant to discover. It is also the island to choose if you want to meet the Manta rays that are only visible on Big Island. Finally, snorkeling enthusiasts will find there their account with beautiful spots on the west coast.

The Secret Pond near Kalahuipua'a Historic Park.
Fish at the foot of the James Cook Monument.
A Manta ray in Kona on a night tour.

How much time to spend on Big Island

To discover Big Island as a whole, we recommend staying ideally 8 to 10 days so that you have time to explore it at your own pace, as the island is quite large.

On average, count 3 days to discover the Kona region and the west coast, 1 day at the Volcanoes National Park, 1 half to one day if you want to go up to Mauna Kea, 1 day for the north of the island and 2 days around Hilo, without counting the travel times which are relatively long here.

If you don't have the opportunity to stay there that long, you will have to concentrate only on the island's must-see things that can be done in 5 days, but expect to have to drive a lot every day.

Big Island must-sees

  • Volcanoes National Park is Hawaii's most famous national park. Allow a minimum of one day to visit the park, and a little more if you want to hike longer. Please note that at the moment the liquid lava is no longer visible in the park.
  • The ascent of Mauna Kea will take you above the clouds at an altitude of 4207 meters. You will be able to spend at least one afternoon there to admire the sunset at the summit. Note that a 4x4 vehicle will be required by law.
  • Snorkeling or diving to meet the Manta Rays is an experience to be done absolutely! Excursions leave at the end of the day from Kona harbor.
  • On the beach side, Big Island has beautiful white sand beaches north of Kona, beautiful black sand beaches in the south of the island, some turtle spots towards Hilo and a very famous green sand beach (olivine) in the south.
  • The Akaka falls are also worth the detour, as is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, one of the most beautiful gardens of the archipelago.

3Maui - The island paradise

Maui is the second largest island of the archipelago after Big Island and has a great variety of landscapes thanks to its large dormant volcano, Haleakalā, which rises to over 3000 meters. Its climate is also known to be very sunny on a good part of its coastline, which makes it a very coveted island by holidaymakers.

Panorama from the Sliding Sands Trail at the top of Haleakalā.

Who is Maui for

Maui will satisfy travellers looking for a destination that combines relaxation and adventure! Its main asset lies in its numerous sandy beaches with a variety of colours, from yellow to black to red, making it a favourite place for relaxation. Maui is the family destination par excellence!

The small, hidden, quiet and little known Ka'opala beach!
Hamoa beach, a quiet little beach south of Hana.
The beautiful Red Sand Beach and its... red sand!

It is also impossible to miss the Haleakalā which offers an exceptional lunar landscape at its summit, or the Hāna Highway, a superb 109 km road across the island which allows you to discover a humid jungle dotted with waterfalls.

The Hāna highway seen from the sky.
The Waimoku falls at the end of the Pīpīwai trail.

Hiking enthusiasts will also be enchanted by beautiful walks without too many difficulties. On the sea side, Maui is the ideal island to meet whales or to surf the waves during the winter and why not swim with the turtles which are numerous and easy to approach (but not too many!) all year round.

Turtle under a wave in Maui.

The only downside is that Maui's reputation comes at a high price, its tourist development having been concentrated on the west coast of the island, concreting the shoreline of resorts and residences in series where prices explode especially in high season.

How much time to spend in Maui

The ideal 6-day trip will give you time to discover all of Maui's main points of interest, which you can extend by a few days to take full advantage of the multitude of fine sandy beaches along the island's west coast.

For those in a hurry, a minimum of 4 days will be necessary to get a quick overview of the island on the run because the trips are relatively long on Maui due to the topology of the island. Be careful also with Haleakalā which can sometimes be in the clouds several days in a row. A too short stay could make you miss the opportunity to climb there.

Maui's must-sees

  • Climbing to the top of Haleakalā and walking among the ash cones will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of your trip to Hawaii! Count a day to discover it.
  • With its 620 turns and 49 bridges, the Hāna highway will allow you to discover the sumptuous landscapes of East Maui. Allow one or two days to cover the entire route.
  • The Pīpīwai Trail is Maui's must-see hike! It will enchant you with its waterfalls and bamboo forest.
  • It is impossible to miss a relaxing break on one of the many beaches in West Maui or to discover the colors of  Kaihalulu Beach (Red Sand beach).
  • Stop for some snorkeling at Honolua Bay or one of the island's many marine reserves.
  • If you come in winter, don't miss the whales that come in large numbers to Lahaina.

4Kauai - The Garden Island

Kauai is a small, almost round island of 40km by 50km located northwest of the Hawaiian archipelago. Also known as the Garden Island, Kauai is reputed to be the most beautiful island of Hawaii and its reputation is the height of what awaits you there! It is our favorite island and the place where we decided to celebrate our wedding!

Plane shot with Tunnel Beach and the first ridges of the Na Pāli coast in the background.

Who is Kauai for

Kauai is a small wilderness paradise where nature lovers will be delighted! Although the island is small, it abounds in incredible landscapes covered with a luxuriant and often impenetrable nature that you will have to discover mainly on foot. If you like hiking, Kauai is the place to come!

The Nā Pali coast from the famous Kalalau Trail.
On the bridge that marks the end of the Kuilo Ridge Trail, in the heart of the jungle.
The last few metres of the Alakai Swamp Trail.

We'll also come to Kauai to recharge our batteries. It is a quiet island, where it is possible to be alone on a wild beach even in the middle of summer. Finally the sublime landscapes of the Nā Pali coast will not leave anyone indifferent as the wild nature of Kauai is so resplendent!

Lumahai beach and its rock, north of Kauai.

So if you are fond of hiking, nature, or tranquility, Kauai is the island not to be missed under any circumstances!

How much time to spend in Kauai

Given the multitude of trails and places to discover, we recommend staying at least 7 days in Kauai, and much more if you like walking and want to discover it from every angle. You should also know that the weather in Kauai is rather capricious and that it is better to have a flexible planning in case of bad weather conditions.

If you don't have much time in front of you, a minimum of 4 days will be necessary to at least discover the main must-see places in Kauai if the weather is good!

Kauai's must-sees

  • The  Nā Pali Coast is one of the most beautiful landforms in Hawaii! You will be able to discover it from the sky or the sea, but especially on foot from the ridges of Kokee State Park or by taking  the famous Kalalau Trail. Count at least 2 days to get a good idea of it.
  • The  Waimea Canyon will impress you and offers many trails to get a closer look. The day tour can be combined with a visit to Kokee State Park.
  • You will have plenty to do with Kauai's many beaches that are spread all around the island, most of which are great for snorkeling.
  • The final and one of the most spectacular highlight is the flight over Kauai an experience not to be missed! It is from the sky that you can fully appreciate the beauty of the island.

5Molokai - The little-known island

Molokai is located west of Maui. This still wild island is not very popular because its inhabitants defend it against mass tourism which they accuse of distorting the other islands of the archipelago. As a result, expect to be unwelcome on the island. But past these obstacles, you will discover a peaceful and wild island, bordered by a superb coral reef in the south, a paradise for snorkeling and huge impressive cliffs in the north.

Although we haven't been able to discover Molokai yet, we think it could be interesting to spend 2 to 3 days there if you wish to discover this other facet of the Hawaiian archipelago on a second trip for example. You will be able to reach it from Maui by plane or by taking the ferry. Expect very high prices once on the island.

6Lanai - The almost private island

Lanai is an island with only one city: Lanai City. The island was bought 98% by an American billionaire. Lanai still has a very wild side and almost all the roads are tracks accessible only by 4x4, which makes it mandatory to rent a 4x4 if you want to discover the island.

To venture to Lanai, you will either have to take a round trip in the day from Maui, or stay in a local house or in one of the 3 hotels of the island, but be careful, the prices are very high.

These constraints mean that few people take the trouble to venture to Lanai, an island that we have not yet discovered.

Here we are at the end of the main islands of Hawaii, which are easy to visit. Now it's time to make your selection and hope that the choice will not be too cruel! If you have to miss out on an island, know that many people fall in love with Hawaii and come back a few months or years later to discover more... ;-)

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About us

We are Sandrine and Flo, French thirty-somethings. In 2019 we quit everything to live our dream, become nomads and travel around the world. We left with our baby, Lena, who was only 5 months old at the time. After a first trip around the Pacific Ocean by plane and a long 3 months stay in Hawaii, we left to discover Iceland for 3 months on board our 4WD pickup truck and truck camper. Then we continued our adventure in North America.

Today, if we can continue this adventure, it is above all thanks to our blog, Smartrippers! We created it one day in 2016, with the desire to share our good travel tips, without thinking that it would lead us there! We have developed it a lot over the years and have become experts on our 3 favorite destinations: Hawaii, Iceland and the American West. We now guide you to these destinations to help you plan the trip of your dreams!

Follow our adventures!