I love Hawaii. Viva the Hawaiian Islands!
When I first discovered this tropical paradise, I visited five times during a twelve-month period, and still hadn’t gotten enough. I bought an annual pass from the ATA Airlines in order to travel to Hawaii even more often in 2008. But then, as a perfect example of Murphy’s Law, ATA filed for bankruptcy protection that very year. The service was completely discontinued, and my dream of traveling to and from Hawaii for a year was flushed away.
Over time, I’ve been able to visit all four major Hawaiian islands, so I feel like I’ve learned a few facts worth sharing.
When people start planing their trip to the Hawaiian Islands, they may face some real challenges, like in picking their destination. I know, I’ve been there, I was confused myself.
It wasn’t until I visited all four major Hawaiian islands a few times that I was able to distinguish the real deal from pure tourist hype.
Here are the four islands most popular amongst visitors:
- Hawai’i, or the Big Island
- O’ahu, or “The Gathering Place”
- Maui, or The Magic Isle
- Kaua’i, or the Garden Island
All four are all very different as far as the necessary travel arrangements, and the experience once you get there. Before making any commitment, you need to figure out which experience could be most valuable for you.
Hawaii Island is also known as the Big Island, or the Island of Hawaii. You are entitled to be confused by its name.
The fact that some people call it “Big Island” and others “Hawaii” is quite confusing. Especially if you consider that the name “Hawaii” is typically used both for one of the Hawaiian Islands and for all of them collectively. So hearing that someone just came back from Hawaii doesn’t necessarily mean that they came from the Big Island. (Most likely they didn’t—this island isn’t the most popular one.) On the other hand, saying I am going to the Big Island, Hawaii, leaves no confusion on the table.
As its name suggests, Hawaii is the biggest island of the archipelago. This island impressed me. First of all, it’s so much bigger than any of the other Hawaiian Islands. Despite how small it looks on the map, it takes hours to get from one side of the island to the other. No wonder that in Hilo and Kona it features two major airports, located on opposite shores.
Then, too, Big Island is known for its active volcano, which is quite spectacular. It’s a very unique experience to watch flowing lava collide with Pacific Ocean. The volcano continuously generates natural fireworks, with lots of fumes and smaller lava chunks shooting hundreds of yards into the sky.
When you drive around the island, you often have to pass through lava flows that have solidified over many years. It’s incredible to see how a lava flow first kills everything in its path to the ocean, and then, decades later, slowly turns into a channel for new vegetation.
The Big Island offers impressive views of the erupting volcano. For a while, I considered the National Volcano Park a potential spot to make a proposal to Kristina. (Later on, though, a better opportunity came along.)
One fun fact I found amusing:
Lava from volcanoes flows towards the ocean and solidifies at its bottom. Over the years, enough lava accumulates underwater that it surfaces, creating a piece of land that didn’t exist before. Basically, the same thing that the Dutch did manually for centuries occurs naturally in Hawaii, without any human intervention and over a short period of time. This new land emerging from the ocean is always being settled by locals. Furthermore, I’ve seen people bring a trailer home, set it on the lava crust and put a For Sale sign on it. Entrepreneurial thinking at its best!
Another interesting Big Island phenomeno is the coqui frog invasion.
Every evening, as darkness falls across the lush east side of the Big Island, thousands upon thousands of tiny coqui frogs fill the night with their piercing, unrelenting ko-KEE-ko-KEE-ko-KEE mating call.
Listen it on your own and tell me if it puts you to sleep or wakes you up:
When I first heard the coqui frog call, it I thought it must be coming from some exotic bird. It can be very annoying when you’re trying to fall asleep at night. This species, not native to the Hawaiian Islands, was introduced to the Big Island from the Caribbean in 1988. Frogs hitchhiked on tropical plants imported from Puerto Rico. Unlike in Puerto Rico, this little creature has no natural predator in Hawaii. So its population shot through the roof within a few years.
In Hawaii, chickens, mongoose, rats and even cats have been known to eat coquis, but nothing is eating the frogs fast enough to make a difference. Other Hawaiian Islands are under threat of the Coqui frog invasion. Although a coqui control agent is yet to be found, recent research at UH-Hilo has found that Prozac suppresses coqui libido and aggression, leaving the frog no reason to chirp. But how 10,000 frogs might be put on an antidepressant has yet to be worked out.
The story of the coqui hitchhikers gives us yet another reminder of how fragile our environment is. Changing one little variable disrupt an entire ecosystem.
Oahu Island is also known as “The Gathering Place.”
Well, based on that, it must be full of people. I wish I’ve been told ahead of time. Every available patch of beach sand here seems filled with European, Australian, American and Japanese tourists. The latter come here exclusively to shop for designer clothes.
Oahu is home to the state capital, Honolulu. Frankly, if you have only one shot to visit Hawaii, I would recommend spending your time on some other island.
Nevertheless, Oahu is where first-time tourists with zero knowledge of Hawaii typically end up going. I was no exception to that rule. On my first trip, I plunged right into the middle of Waikiki Beach. This is a very wide sand beach, with the Honolulu Zoo continuing along one side.
There is no mystery as to why Waikiki Beach steals the show for first-time Hawaiian visitors. The prices for airfare, hotels and travel packages make it the most cost-effective sprint from the Mainland. Yes, The Mainland. This is what any Hawaiian person—any Kamaina—calls the other forty-nine states of the Union.
There is plenty of good stuff on Oahu, though.
The North Shore presents you with some of the archipelago’s most exceptional surf spots, such as Pipeline, Sunset, and Banzai beaches. Pipeline is one of the most prestigious ASP World Surf Tour spots. The show here is normally run by locals, so it might not be the ideal place to launch your surfing career.
Many Hollywood movies have been shot on this island, and you may recognize some of its beaches from seeing them on TV.
Honolulu, the major hub on Oahu, has a very typical downtown, with the skyscrapers and highways you can find in any average-sized American city. There are massive malls overrun by Japanese tourists shopping for high-end designer stuff “on the cheap.”
If I recall correctly, there are enough cars on the streets of Honolulu to make the simple act of parking feel like your worst nightmare. Can’t find street parking? Well, you can always park your car at a nearby hotel for $25 per day or more. There are some other creative ways to park your car, but it’s always a hassle.
None of that makes me enthusiastic about returning to Oahu any time soon.
This is where I went five times in a single year. I used to own this vacation rental condo in South Kihei. Any three- or four-night opening overlapping with a last-minute airfare deal would guarantee my presence on the plane to Kuhului (OGG), the major airport in Maui.
My all-around favorite things to do in Maui are the following:
The road to Hana
If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, as I am, make sure to get some pills. The Hana road through the rain forest is beautiful, but I’m getting dizzy just looking at its curves.
Red Sand Beach in Hana
The hill surrounding this beach is rich in iron, that’s why the sand is such a deep red color. Although Maui Revealed guidebook recommends it as a Maui must-see, keep in mind that you need to trespass on private property on the way to Red Sand Beach. You may get your shoes muddy, too, so dress appropriately, and go at your own risk.
The black sand beach
This one is hard to miss while you’re on your way to Hana. Many tourists will take the turn-off to spend a few moments walking along black sand, formed from lava rock ground all the way down over centuries. After seeing a lot of photographs of the beach, though, you might be disappointed, as it doesn’t look nearly black under the Hawaiian sun.
Makena State Park
Makena State Park is located at the south end of the South Kihei/Makena road, just two miles short of the Haleakala Volcano trail.
Makena Beach actually consists of two beaches, popularly known as Big Beach and Little Beach. Big Beach, a white sand beach approximately 3,300 feet long and 100 feet wide, is bordered by fingers of lava to the southeast and by Pu’u Ola’i, a volcanic cinder cone, to the northwest. Big Beach has a beautiful golden sand and steep foreshore, the result of high surf that periodically strikes the beach.
Little Beach is a small cove with a wide, white sand beach between two lava points on the seaward side of Pu’u Ola’i. The ocean bottom fronting the beach is a shallow sandbar with a normally gentle shore break. A short foot trail leads over the lava point separating the two beaches. Little Beach is known as a nudist gathering point, so get undressed, or at least be prepared watch out.
Watch windsurfers at Hookipa on a windy day
Hookipa Beach is the place to be on a windy day. Hopefully the swell will get big enough to produce overhead waves. This is when the windsurfing scene gets spectacular. I often think that these guys must have born with sails in their hands.
Grab a Mahi Mahi fish taco at Jawz cafe in Kihei or at their fish taco stand near Makena beach
The guys at Jawz make the best fish tacos I’ve ever tasted. Grabbing a fish tacos in their Kihei restaurant was always the first thing on my agenda after renting a car.
Order a fish burger from Paia Fish Market restaurant, then surf at Paia beach
If you didn’t try the Mahi Mahi burger at Paia Fish Market, you didn’t experience Maui to the fullest. Once it’s in your stomach, you can head to any beach you want to and stay happy.
Freeze your a** off at the top of Haleakala volcano
The view from Haleakala volcano is equally amazing at sunrise or sunset. Many people do hike up in the hours before sunrise. I took an easier route, driving to the top in time for sunset. Whichever way you prefer, please don’t think about attempting it without your ski jacket and a warm hat. It’s so freezing up there, I couldn’t turn the car key in the ignition!
If want a great experience in Maui, I recommend you check out the free tours from the Banana Bungalow Maui hostel. You may hop on their van (it’s not air-conditioned, though), or follow the van in your car. Just tip the tour guides for sharing all their knowledge about those hidden spots they take you to.
Kauai, the Garden Island. Its nickname says it all.
After visiting Maui and Oahu so many times, I was amazed to discover Kauai. From the moment your plane descends into Kauai, you can see how much greener it is than its neighbor islands.
From the Na Pali coast to Waimea Canyon, from surfing Hanalei Bay to visiting the art community of Hanapepe, from the luxury of Waipouli Beach Resort to camping at Polihale State Park, there is such a great variety of things to do in Kauai.
I think Kauai deserves its own blog post. Hold tight, it’s coming soon!
Do you have any other recommendations about the four Hawaiian Islands? I’m pretty sure you do!
Just share below!