Going to Hawai’i for the first time is on a par with going to the candy store as a kid: everything looks good, but you need to make some decisions about what you want. The good thing is, just like in a candy store, you cannot make a bad decision about where you go in Hawai’i. Every island has beautiful beaches, mountains, and waterfalls, but if you’re going to Hawai’i for the very first time, my recommendation would be Maui.
The island of Maui is the version of Hawai’i that you picture in your head, the one that you’re shown in the movies — no big buildings, no traffic, lots of driving space, pretty resorts and plenty of wide, uncrowded beaches. You can wake up to see an out-of-this-world sunrise on Haleakalā (Maui’s highest summit in Haleakalā National Park), snorkel or scuba dive at Molokini Crater, drive the epic road to tropical Hana, treat yourself at a luxury resort, chill out on Makena Beach, and stroll through old Lahaina town for sunset. No matter what you’re looking to get out of your vacation, Maui really gives you a chance to embrace the true aloha spirit.
If you grew up with siblings, your parents might have joked from time to time about how they ‘can’t pick a favorite’ because ‘they love you all equally’. Well, this is exactly how I feel about recommending a ‘most beautiful island’ in Hawai’i. However, in terms of all-out-beauty, The Garden Isle of Kauai really does have everything. This tiny island is filled with dramatic scenery: lush mountains and rainforests, lots of waterfalls, the vast Waimea Valley, classic beaches and the massive sea cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. With these characteristics and its island-wide small-town vibe, Kauai is a great choice for visitors who are looking for an authentic Hawaiian experience.
The island of Oahu, otherwise known as The Gathering Place, is home to the city of Honolulu and is the most populated island in the state. If trendy spots, award-winning restaurants, museums, world-famous beaches, nightlife and Pearl Harbor history are your thing, this is the island for you. Aside from hikes and beaches, Honolulu is a melting pot of cultures and is home to some incredible eating and drinking spots. For large well-known restaurants, head to Waikiki where you can dine at Roy’s, Michael Mina’s Stripsteak, the Shirokiya Japan Village Walk at Ala Moana, Mahina & Sun’s, and of course Skinny Mike's Ice Cream & Shave Ice infamous beachfront restaurant. Head to Chinatown and Kakaako for a trendier vibe, and dine at spots such as Nobu, The Pig and The Lady, Lucky Belly and Moku Kitchen. Visit Fresh Catch in Kaimuki or Kaneohe for some of the best poke on the island and then head over to Honolulu Beerworks in Kakaako for a sampling of unique local beers. If you’re on Oahu on the first Friday of the month, your nighttime destination should be Chinatown to check out the art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques. After 9 PM, head out to the after party at Honolulu’s hippest nightlife spots such as The Manifest, Bar 35, or The Tchin Tchin! Bar.
The island of Kauai has some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state and the best part is that most of them are easily accessible without a 5-hour jungle trek. Located in Waimea Canyon, Waipoo Falls can be seen at various lookout points around the Canyon or on an approximately 3-mile roundtrip hike if you’re up for it. Likewise, Opaekaa Falls and Wailua Falls are also both extremely easy to see and require no hike — you just drive up to them and get out of your car. If you want the waterfall to be your reward after a long hike, grab your hiking boots and head up north to the Na Pali Coast. It’s an 8-mile roundtrip hike to the 300+ foot Hanakapiai Falls and the views along the way are some of the best out of all of the islands. Local tip: Start this trek early in the morning to beat the crowds, as it’s very popular.
Where to see lava in Hawai’i and where is Volcanoes National Park?
The only place to see lava in Hawai’i is on Hawai’i island (aka Big Island) at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, which is located on the southern end of the island. Upon entry to the park, you will make your way up the winding road, passing numerous steam vents and an eerie solidified lava landscape, until you reach the top of the volcano. Here you’ll find the Jaggar Museum (which has lots of cool info about the volcano’s history) and the main star of the show: a crater filled with lava! During the day, you have a spectacular view of the landscape and a chance to go hiking on one of the many trails that wind their way throughout the park. However, under the cover of darkness (the park is open 24/7) is the best time to see the red glow of the lava. As the volcano is active, it’s best to check the current conditions before you go.
There are times when lava is flowing into the ocean but this is subject to change — and conditions are not always safe for viewing. If this phenomenon is happening and if it is deemed to be safe, the best way to see this is by boat, helicopter, or hiking. A simple internet search can give you current information about the flow and will show a variety of companies with options such as a boat tour or a helicopter tour. The hiking route is subject to change at any given time, so you will also need to check for constantly updated information on the possibilities of making the trek. Just keep in mind that no matter how badly you want to see the lava, it is not advisable to trespass on Big Islanders’ properties or put your safety in jeopardy to get there.
Tourist season never ends here but the good news is that there are times when it seems to be slightly less crowded. This magical time generally occurs between the holiday season and summer vacation: April to early June and then September to mid-December. By no means will you have the place to yourself (we locals still live here) but it will definitely be far less crowded than if you came for the holidays or for summer vacation. If you’re looking for less crowded islands, any island besides Oahu will be your best bet, with the Big Island potentially being the least crowded of all.
Which is the cheapest island to visit?
Hawai’i is one of the most expensive places in the world to live, and visiting is not cheap either. But that’s not to say that Hawai’i cannot be done on a budget. Of all the islands, Oahu tends to be slightly less expensive because almost every imported good arrives here first and then is exported to the outer islands. Gas can be significantly cheaper here and since Oahu is the most populated island and contains the city of Honolulu, there are more store options which means that prices are more competitive.
If you’re staying in Hawai’i, here are some tips for stretching your dollar:
Do not buy groceries in Waikiki, within hotels or resorts, or at the ABC stores. Go to Safeway, Times, Foodland, Costco or Walmart instead.
Costco is your best bet for saving huge amounts of money on groceries, alcohol, and gas during your visit. Shop here and cook at your rental place.
If you’re going to eat out, beachfront dining — or really any dining — in Waikiki or at a hotel or resort will be the most expensive option. Consider checking out more local spots outside of the tourist zone. They might not have a view of the beach but they will make your wallet feel better while giving you a more authentic experience.
If you’re driving around for the day and need a light lunch or a snack, check out any of the 7-Elevens in Hawai’i. Seriously. They are nothing like their mainland counterparts and they have unique, tasty, and cheap items such as Spam musubis, spicy ahi handrolls, cold saimin bowls, pho and classic sandwich options as well.