What’s Your Hawaiian Spirit Island?

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson )

If there were a beauty pageant for the United States, Hawaii would have it locked up. But there’s more to this stunning archipelago than just good looks and fruity cocktails. Beneath her outer beauty, she’s full of personality — or personalities, rather. Each island has its own identity, its own strengths, and its own way of channeling the Aloha spirit. Here’s our very official guide to figuring out which island is the right island for you.

(Image credit: Aida Mollenkamp)

Oahu: Town and Country Girl

You’re a city girl with a surfer soul. Most nights you want to go out — on a bar crawl, to a gallery opening, or to scope out the latest hotspot — but the days are for kicking back and hanging ten. When you head to the beach, you’re all about catching some waves, trying your hand at stand-up paddle boarding, or hobnobbing with the pros.

Oahu is where you should head. The island is the center of life in the Aloha State and the definition a melting pot. Diversity is apparent in everything from the local boutiques to the art galleries of Chinatown to the endless variety of ethnic food. On the south shore, there’s Honolulu with its sleek hotels, world-class contemporary cuisine, and craft cocktails aplenty, but when you need to tap into your inner Blue Crush fangirl, you can head up to the north shore (aka “country”) where life slows down and the waves are world-class.

(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson)

Maui: Boho Beach Babe

Floating down a lazy river at a posh resort is all well and good, but you crave the feel of your toes in the sand (and a Mai Tai in your hand). But too much down time and you’ll get stir-crazy, so you want — no, you need — options. Luckily, Maui has over 30 miles of easily accessible beaches. There’s literally a beach for everything from snorkeling to kite surfing to big wave riding at Jaws, one of the biggest surf-able waves in the world.

Locals take pride in Maui, proclaiming “No Ka Oi” or number one. And it’s not just them saying it — the “Valley Island” was voted “Best Island” by Conde Nast Traveler for more than 20 years. In addition to the beaches, the island’s locavore food scene boasts some of the best dining in the state. There’s whale watching, too, and the breathtaking Road to Hana, with waterfalls, views, and pristine beaches.

(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson )

Hawaii (aka Big Island): Adventure Junkie

Go big or go home may well be your motto. You’re looking to check things off your bucket list, set personal records, and experience bold flavors. In short, you want it all: flowing lava, lush rainforests, canoeing races, and hula championships. Well, the island of Hawaii is all about superlatives. The biggest and the youngest island has two of the earth’s largest mountains, the world’s most active volcano, and is also the southernmost point in the United States (check, check, check).

Hawaii is known as the Big Island for a reason: it’s larger than all the other islands combined. It also has raw nature in spades, including the legendary black beaches, and is home to 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. You might hang in historic Hilo, known for its orchids and the annual Merrie Monarch hula competition; hike into Wai’pio valley to see a waterfall so stunning it inspired a love song; or head to Waimea for a peek into the local cowboy culture. Get out and adventure, but whatever you do, beware of the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors, aka the Night Marchers.

(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson )

Kauai: Haute Hippie

You’ve been feeling lately that your chakras need to be re-centered and some stunning scenery wouldn’t hurt. As much as you need some morning meditations, you also need Mother Nature to impress you with gentle surf, jaw-dropping hikes, or tropical fruit you can pick right off the tree and eat. You like things with deep roots, too, so the oldest island, Kauai, is for you.

Nicknamed the “Garden Island,” Kauai has lush greenery everywhere you turn. It’s the smallest of the main islands so you get convenience (yes, there’s a Costco) without the crowds. Each town beats to its own drum — there’s historic Kekaha, pristine Poi’pu, and the sleepy paradise of Hanalei Bay — and as you crisscross the island, the landscape also varies. Waimea Canyon, coined the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, has expansive views. The south is notable for its volcanic beaches, while the Na’Pali coast in the southwest has steep, verdant cliffs best explored by foot or helicopter. There’s no real nightlife, so it’s early to bed and early to rise, so long as the menehune (mischievous mythical people) don’t keep you up.

(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Dana Edmunds)

Lanai: Low-Key Luxury Lover

Your idea of unplugging is to check into a resort and never leave. A vacation isn’t really a vacation until it involves bubbly wine, lots of spa services, and plush terry robes you can’t stop (won’t stop) wearing. The small, secluded island of Lanai — a mere 18 miles across, with just 3,000 residents and 30 miles of paved road — is for you.

It’s known as the “Pineapple Island” because, for much of the 20th century, it served as a pineapple plantation, at one time providing nearly 75 percent of the world’s pineapples. But these days it’s a tranquil vacation spot. The island was recently named by Travel + Leisure as one of top places to visit in 2016, thanks in large part to the remodeled and reopened Four Seasons Resort (the only other hotel currently open is the 11-room Hotel Lanai, by the way). Should you tire of five-star luxury, you can explore the island’s snorkeling coves, ancient petroglyphs, or the red-rock desert of Kehiakawelo. But no judgment if you decide to just stay put.

(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson)

Molokai: Off-the-Grid Survivalist

Getting off the grid is a major priority — no, the priority. You might be all about the tech at home, but while you’re on vacation, you don’t want one Snap sent your way and you’re definitely not posting photos on Instagram. Kayaking into basecamp, pitching a tent, and catching your own dinner? Now that’s more like it.

This island (with not one single traffic light) is just your speed. Known as being “Hawaiian by nature” — over 50 percent of the population is native Hawaiian — Molokai is the alleged birthplace of hula (although Kauai also lays claim). It also has the state’s longest white sand beach and the world’s highest sea cliffs. Less touristy than other islands (there’s not one major resort on the island), Molokai is also more affordable, with plenty of charming B&B options. Although if you really want to rough it, you can always set up camp on the beach.