There's enough beauty and activity in Hawaii to fill more vacations than we could take in a lifetime. With so much to choose from, first-time visitors need to be selective. Our recommendation is to settle first on the Hawaii you want to see. It might be beaches, a luau and nightlife; it might be rare orchids and hikes in the rain forest; it might be quiet countryside, small towns and scenic drives. Whatever the combination, there is almost certainly an island or islands best suited to your Hawaii vacation dreams.
Hawaii, quite literally, is growing. Active lava flows from Kilauea Volcano are forming new land daily. There's even a new island forming a few thousand feet/meters below the surface of the ocean, off the southeastern coast of the Big Island, that will someday become the newest Hawaiian island. In fact, it already has a name: Loihi.
Everyone will find something enjoyable in Hawaii, and different islands will appeal to different people. Each island is unique, with distinctive attractions, special places and geophysical features.
Here's a look at the eight primary islands and their major attractions:
Hawaii Island is commonly known as the Big Island for good reason. It's larger than all the other islands combined. But aside from Hilo (the county seat), Kailua-Kona (a popular visitor destination) and the luxurious resorts along the Kohala coast, it retains a rural flavor.
Major Destinations on the Big Island: the Kona coast; Kailua-Kona; Hilo; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with two active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea); Mauna Kea (the world's tallest mountain).
Big Island Attractions: If you're into the outdoors, this is the place for you. Attractions include sandy beaches in shades of green, red and black; beautiful coral reefs; snorkeling; deep-sea fishing; gorgeous flowers, including most of the orchids for lei made in the state; cattle and horse ranches; horseback riding; mesmerizing landscapes; cascading waterfalls; golf; watersports; and hiking. Nightlife and shopping are limited.
Access to this former U.S. Navy bombing target is strictly limited. Much of the island remains unusable because of unexploded ordinance.
Kauai is the oldest and northernmost of the inhabited Hawaiian islands. Nature is its biggest draw.
Major Destinations on Kauai Island: Waimea Canyon, Kokee State Park, Poipu, Lihue, Napali Coast, Princeville, Hanalei.
Kauai Island Attractions: Mountains; valleys; waterfalls; spectacular beaches; hiking; fishing; golf; whale-watching; kayaking and sailing; bird-watching; ziplining; and snorkeling, surfing and other watersports. Shopping and nightlife are limited.
The smallest of the main islands is quiet and uncrowded. It is 98% privately owned by Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corp. Tourism is now the mainstay of the economy.
Lanai Island Attractions: Sailing, fishing, golfing, ocean rafting, hunting and back-road exploring.
Maui is the second most-visited Hawaiian island, after Oahu.
Major Destinations on Maui Island: Haleakala National Park, Iao Valley, Hana, Ka'anapali, Kihei, Lahaina, Wailea and Wailuku.
Maui Island Attractions: Wonderful beaches; calm ocean bays; stunning mountain and volcano vistas; sugarcane fields; highland ranches; twisting mountain roads; whale-watching; upcountry agriculture tours; golf; hiking; ziplining; sailing and other boat excursions; deep-sea fishing; and watersports such as snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing and parasailing.
This rural island is best suited for travelers who want to see the old Hawaii and unwind quietly.
Major Destinations on Molokai Island: Kaunakakai, Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Halawa Valley.
Molokai Island Attractions: Isolated beaches, mountains, waterfalls, deep-sea fishing, history, hiking and relaxing.
This tiny, privately owned island is also known as the Forbidden Island. Home to about 200 native Hawaiians who live a traditional lifestyle, it is off-limits to visitors. Only those who book a tour with Niihau Helicopters can land there.
Oahu is the political, social, economic and population hub of Hawaii. It attracts the most visitors of all the Hawaiian islands.
Major Destinations on Oahu Island: Downtown Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, Hanauma Bay, the North Shore.
Oahu Island Attractions: City life, including theater, opera, museums, shopping, nightclubs and fine dining; lush greenery; beautiful beaches; great historic sites; sailing; surfing, windsurfing, kayaking and other watersports; golf; and hiking.
The state of Hawaii comprises eight main islands—Kauai, Niihau, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Hawaii—and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a string of mostly uninhabited atolls, small islands and reefs that stretch across nearly 140,000 sq mi/362,598 sq km of the Pacific Ocean.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands harbor more than 7,000 species of undersea creatures, one-fourth of which are found nowhere else in the world. Former U.S. President George W. Bush designated this region Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006. It is the single largest conservation area in the U.S.
Of the main islands, Kauai, with tiny Niihau off its leeward coast, is the oldest and northernmost. As you travel south down the island chain, you'll find Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe and Hawaii, or the Big Island. There, Ka Lae, also known as South Point, has earned distinction as the southernmost point in the U.S. The Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in origin, with active eruptions continuing on the Big Island.
Honolulu, the state capital, is located on Oahu. The other islands are sometimes referred to as the "Neighbor Islands."
Do's and Dont's
Don't use the expression "back in the States." Hawaii is part of the U.S., so say "on the mainland." Local residents who are of native descent are referred to as Hawaiians. Residents who have lived in Hawaii a while are considered kamaaina. Foreigners (generally Caucasians) are known as haole.
Don't be surprised if you see people waving their hands with the thumb and pinky extended. It's the shaka sign that is generally used in place of a wave when meeting or parting. It is a goodwill gesture that says "hang loose."
Do pay attention to the civil defense warning sirens affixed to poles in coastal, business and residential areas throughout the islands. Be aware: The sirens are tested at 11:45 am on the first working day of each month.
Don't leave the islands without sampling Hawaiian shave ice (ice shavings packed into a paper cup and topped with flavored syrup). Stores that are serious about their shave ice offer more than two dozen flavors, including unusual ones such as green tea, root beer, cotton candy, bubble gum and salty li hing mui. Perk yours up with ice cream, azuki (sweet red) beans and/or condensed milk.
Don't underestimate the power of the surf and the ocean currents. Newcomers to Hawaiian beaches should be exceedingly careful to follow all posted guidelines and warnings. Never turn your back on the ocean. In general, don't swim alone and never swim where others aren't swimming. If you're caught in a riptide, don't fight the current—swim parallel to the beach until you escape the current, and then swim to shore.
Do limit your time in the sun and use plenty of sunscreen whenever you're outdoors. Excessive exposure to the sun's rays can cause nausea, dehydration and permanent damage to your skin.
Do take off your shoes when entering homes in Hawaii; this is a Japanese custom that kamaaina have adopted.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Citizens of Australia and the U.K. need a passport and proof of onward passage but in most cases will not need a visa (contact a U.S. Embassy or Consulate for details).
All U.S. citizens must have a passport when traveling by air to or from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Mexico. Citizens of Canada, Mexico and the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda also must have a passport or other designated secure document to enter the U.S.
Passports are required for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders with the U.S. and for cruise passengers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada or Bermuda.
Reconfirm travel-document requirements with your carrier prior to departure.
Languages: Primarily English, though Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Ilocano, Samoan and other languages are also spoken.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Mormon), Buddhism and Judaism.
Time Zone: 10 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-10 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 808, area code for the entire state;
Hawaii has four distinct seasons, although their differences are subtle. Winter is significantly cooler, windier and wetter than the other seasons. Visitors will encounter more variations between elevations and coast exposures (windward or leeward) than seasons. The windward (eastern) sides of the islands are wetter than the leeward because of exposure to the prevailing northeast trade winds, which bring rainfall. The leeward (western) sides tend to be much hotter and drier. Individual islands also have variations in temperature and rainfall.
The best times to visit are mid-April to early June and mid-September to mid-November, when days are in the 70s-80s F/22-32 C, and nights in the 60s-70s F/17-27 C. (These are also the least crowded periods.) Winter is the wettest time, but rain generally won't spoil a vacation, as it is often interspersed with sunshine.
Regardless of when you go, take a sweater for the evenings. If you're heading to mountainous areas during the winter months, you will need a heavier coat, as it can be cold at higher elevations.
A number of domestic and international airlines serve Hawaii. Several of them fly nonstop between Honolulu and cities in North America, Asia, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia, and offer connecting service to other countries.
Honolulu International Airport (HNL) is the hub of island air travel. Kahului Airport (OGG) on Maui, Lihue Airport (LIH) on Kauai, and Kona International Airport (KOA) on the Big Island also have nonstop flights to cities on the U.S. mainland and to Canada. There also are flights between Japan and Kona International Airport.
There is interisland air service.
Minor renovations, repairs and upgrades are ongoing at all state airports. These include maintenance on infrastructure such as electrical and air-conditioning systems, escalators, elevators, moving sidewalks, lighting, painting, furniture, windows and roofing. The work is scheduled to minimize impact on travelers.