Few places on Earth more clearly embody the spirit of paradise than Hawaii, which is famous for its tropical flora, extraordinary beaches (including the jet-black sand at Punalu'u), and dramatic volcanic landscapes. Kaua’i and Ni'ihau were the first islands to bloom from the Pacific Ocean hot spot, which continues to shape and expand the Hawaiian Ridge. While there are hundreds of islands in the archipelago spread over some 1,500 miles, the eight largest are the center of Hawaiian life.
First settled by the Polynesians more than a millennium ago, the islands were named for an ancient hero, Hawaiiloa. According to myth, he first discovered the islands and led successive waves of settlers.
Before Hawaii became the 50th state in the union, it was an independent kingdom that flourished under two different dynasties for nearly a century. But the last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, was ultimately overthrown by a small group of American sugar planters, leading the islands to become a U.S. protectorate, and later a territory. It wasn't until 1959 that the island chain was finally granted statehood.
Since then, people from both the mainland United States as well as Asia have contributed to Hawaii's unique cultural heritage. Visitors travel great distances (Honolulu is an 11-hour, non-stop flight from New York City) to experience the islands’ natural beauty — like the stunning rainbow eucalyptus on Maui — and distinct cuisine. Dishes like lau lau (pork wrapped in taro) and spam musubi (a riff on sushi) are rarely found elsewhere.
Ni’ihau is the westernmost inhabited island, lying just southwest of nearby Kaua’i. The likelihood that you’ll wind up here is low, however, as the island is largely off-limits to visitors. Only U.S. Navy personnel, relatives of the island’s owners, and those who have been exclusively invited are permitted. Consequently, Ni’ihau has become known as the Forbidden Isle.
In 1864, a Scottish farmer bought the island from the Kingdom of Hawaii. Ownership of the island remains in the hands of her descendants, the Robinson family. Nearly all of the permanent residents are native Hawaiians who live rent-free, with horses and bicycles as the primary form of transportation (there are no paved roads). Locals are known for their lei pūpū: intricate and delicate shell jewelry.
Half-day helicopter tours of the island became available in 1987, but contact with locals is forbidden and there are no hotels. For those looking to get a glimpse of a truly insulated place, Ni’ihau is just the ticket.
One of the oldest islands in the archipelago, Kaua’i, is also known at the Garden Isle. It lies just 17 miles east of Ni’ihau, and is known for its dense mountainous terrain. Nā Pali State Park, on the northwestern coast, is a prime place to take it all in. The park offers access to the sweeping Kalalau Valley, which is only passable by foot, and a virtually untouched shoreline.
Travelers interested in a luxury stay should book a room at the St. Regis Princeville Resort, where over-the-top Prince Suites boast picture windows overlooking the mountains. The 121-room boutique Koa Kea Hotel & Resort is another popular choice for travelers, thanks to its prime location on Poipu Beach.
O’ahu is the most populous island, and the cultural and physical center of the state (it’s been aptly nicknamed The Gathering Place). Home to the capital, Honolulu, and a number of prime Hawaiian attractions, many visitors head directly to O'ahu to explore its various points of interest.
Surfers from around the globe are attracted to O'ahu's North Shore, which brings in the world’s largest waves during the winter season. On the island’s southern shores, the city of Honolulu draws tourists who seek the cosmopolitan-cool side of Hawaii. Cultural attractions here include the Bishop Museum, which boasts the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts, the ornate ‘Iolani Palace — the former residence of Hawaii’s royal rulers — and the landmark Aloha Tower lighthouse.
Waikiki Beach (one of the best and most iconic in the entire state) remains a top wading ground for swimmers, surfers, and eager onlookers. This crescent-shaped stretch of sand is best enjoyed with a cool mai tai in hand from the Royal Hawaiian.
Hotels on Oahu range from family-friendly Disney resorts to the hip Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, which is decorated with koa-wood furnishings and vintage postcards.
The Friendly Isle, as Moloka’i is known, has a much more rural vibe than O’ahu. It's a bedrock of pineapple production, and is also celebrated as the birthplace of the hula dance. Fittingly, Moloka'i hosts a hula festival every year.
Moloka’i has been somewhat more resistant to tourism than the other Hawaiian islands, though some visitors do arrive on its shores. One of the main sites to see is Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which was created to preserve the history of the leper colonies. (Until 1969, the island was a dedicated quarantine center for those afflicted with leprosy.)
Other worthwhile sites include the Moloka’i Forest Preserve, in the island’s interior, and the Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove — one of the last royal coconut groves planted in Hawaii.
Lāna’i is the smallest Hawaiian island accessible to the general public — but it's just as worthwhile to visit as an island with double the square mileage. While businessman Larry Ellison owns most of the island, tourism is still a thriving industry. The island goes by the nickname Pineapple Isle, even though production has greatly slowed.
Many roads in Lāna’i are unpaved, and the main city doesn’t even have traffic light. So it's unsurprising that there are only two resorts on the island. In addition to a trio of golf courses, the newly-renovated Four Seasons Resort Lanai (with a Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant and decorative en-suite woodcuts) is one of Lāna’i's main attractions. Owner Ellison has said his dream is to make Lāna’i a completely green, eco-friendly destination.
Of the eight major islands, Kaho’olawe is perhaps the loneliest. Uninhabited, it is also the smallest of the main islands. What’s more, Kaho’olawe lies in a rain shadow and suffers from land erosion. In 1993, the state legislature created the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve, which designated that the island and its surrounding waters can only be used for Hawaiian cultural purposes, fishing, and environmental protection initiatives. The only way to land on its shores is through volunteer work.
To understand how Maui earned its nickname, the Valley Isle, travelers need only to visit the 'Iao Valley — a lush, deep basin in the West Maui Mountains. Visitors can get to an overlook by way of a short hike, and admire the attraction's dramatic ridges and pinnacles.
Maui is Hawaii’s second largest island, and best known for its rebellious spirit. Go for a drive along the famed Hāna Highway (64 miles laced with 54 bridges and 600 turns that cut through dense tropical rainforest and pass by sacred swimming pools).
From interior lowlands to towering mountains and the unreal black sand beaches at Wai’anapanapa State Park, travelers can easily spend a trip to Hawaii on this one island. Consider staying at the award winning Montage Kapalua Bay (perfect for wellness-minded travelers who will love oceanfront yoga classes and healing seaweed treatments at Spa Montage) or the intimate, 72-room Hotel Wailea, which happens to be the state's only Relais and Châteaux property.
Also known simply as Hawai’i, the so-called Big Island is Polynesia’s third largest. It’s home to Hilo, Hawaii’s oldest city, which hosts the annual Merrie Monarch Festival (a nod to hula).
Mauna Loa — the world’s largest volcano — is located here, but no eruptions have occurred since 1984. Those looking for extremes should head to Ka Lae, a rocky, wind-blown cliff that’s the southernmost point in the United States. Other attractions include wildlife refuges (like Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge) and the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site. Here, you can find the remains of an ancient temple. And at the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, visitors can meander along a shoreline path created by ancient fishermen.
Golfers should bed down at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, which has a signature Jack Nicklaus-designed course carved directly into black lava flows. Another Big Island favorite is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, where guest rooms have private lanais and access to kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, and canoeing.