Kepuhi Beach and Kaiaka Rock in Molokai, Hawaii.

Kepuhi Beach and Kaiaka Rock in Molokai, Hawaii. Photo © Rose Braverman, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Traveling to the Hawaiian Islands? Here’s a helpful guide to choosing which islands to visit and when to go.

If you’re interested in . . .

  • beaches: Maui
  • nature: Kaua‘i and the Big Island
  • sailing: O‘ahu
  • surfing: O‘ahu and Maui
  • whale-watching: Maui
  • snorkeling or scuba: O‘ahu, Maui, and Kaua‘i
  • hiking: O‘ahu and Kaua‘i
  • beachside bars: O‘ahu
  • views: Kaua‘i
  • a family vacation: Maui
  • romance: Kaua‘i
  • authentic island culture: the Big Island
  • history: O‘ahu and the Big Island
  • getting away from it all: Moloka‘i and Lana‘i

Where to Go


Home to world-famous Waikiki as well as 70 percent of the state’s population, O‘ahu is the marriage of big city and tropical paradise. Enjoy all the comforts of city life, including diverse culture and nightlife, alongside verdant mountains and crystal-clear water. State capital Honolulu is home to historical sites like ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States, and World War II pilgrimage site Pearl Harbor. Legendary surf pounds the coast for much of the winter, while the summer offers magnificent diving. You can spend the morning sightseeing in downtown Honolulu, surrounded by crowds of people, but be on a secluded beach by noon, surrounded only by crashing waves.

Maui, Lana‘i, and Moloka‘i

The second largest island, Maui is lined with endless, accessible sandy beaches, especially along the south and west shores. With ample accommodations, Maui offers the complete resort experience, but much more spread out than the cluster of hotels in Waikiki. Maui is also the best island for whale watching and the windiest island—making it a mecca for windsurfers. The Road to Hana is Maui’s most popular attraction: a winding drive to a sleepy town in a lush setting. A quick ferry ride or plane flight away, the islands of Moloka‘i and Lana‘i offer secluded getaways–and glimpses of the Hawaii of yesteryear.

Big Island of Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i, better known as the Big Island, is a raw and powerful place, the youngest island in geological time. It’s the site of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, with its barren lava fields and emerging native forests. Snowcapped Mauna Kea is one of the best spots on earth for star gazing, while Mauna Loa remains active and Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Agriculture still permeates the of island residents. Hawaiian cowboys and coffee plantations mix with the spacious resorts that line the dry western coastline.


Kaua‘i is known as the Garden Isle for good reason. Its Mount Wai‘ale‘ale is one of the wettest spots on earth, where waterfalls pour down its vertical walls almost daily. Botanical gardens abound, as does hiking, both along the famous Na Pali Coast and in Waimea Canyon. Accommodations are split between the green north and the sunny south, where resorts, vacation rentals, and golf courses are abundant. Expect romance, freedom, and a slower pace.

When to Go

Hawaii is beautiful all year long, with a comfortable tropical climate that sees ocean and air temperature dip by only a few degrees between summer and winter. While winter and spring are known for more rain, showers and squalls are possible at any time, in any season. Thank the frequent passing showers for the rainbows they leave behind. The predominant trade winds keep the islands fresh and cool. The biggest seasonal difference is the surf. North shores see higher waves in winter (October through March), which produce world-class surf breaks. During this period, the south shore waters are flat, with better conditions for snorkeling and diving. The opposite is true during the summer (May-September), when south shore surf rises, although it’s still gentler for beginners.

Before You Go

No need to pack survival gear. No matter which island you’re visiting, you’ll find all the comforts of modern life. Pack light clothes for the warm, tropical weather. Shorts and slippers are the norm. Bring a hat for sun protection, as well as sunscreen and insect repellent. Binoculars are great for whale watching. A light jacket or cover is all that’s necessary for cooler winter nights.

Foreign nationals must have a current passport and most must have a proper visa, an ongoing or return air ticket, and sufficient funds for the proposed stay. Visitors from many countries, including Canada, do not need a visa to enter the United States for 90 days or less. Check in your country of origin to determine your requirements for U.S. entry.

Everyone visiting Hawaii must fill out a Plants and Animals Declaration Form. Items targeted for inspection include fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, and soil, as well as live insects, seafood, snakes, and amphibians. All pets are subject to 120 days’ quarantine, which includes fees for boarding.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.