Which Island in Hawaii Should You Visit?

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Aug 04, 2016

by KENDALL HILL, Writer

Landscaped with emerald peaks and golden beaches, the Hawaiian archipelago is nature at its theatrical best. Kendall Hill shows us around five distinctively different islands… which one is for you?

OAHU

Best for history, culture, surfing, food, shopping

Most visitors will fly into Oahu, home to the Hawaiian capital Honolulu, with its peak-hour traffic and skyscraper sprawl that tend to shock holiday-makers expecting to escape the big smoke. Snuggled between mountain and sea, high-rise Honolulu looks like a slice of Hong Kong served in the Pacific but with far better beaches and a laid-back vibe. 

Its big-city charms include shopping – hit the Ala Moana Center for major labels and department stores or lose yourself in luxury brands on central Kalakaua Avenue – and dining. From street food to five-star, Oahu prides itself on its unique fusion cuisine of Polynesian, pan-Asian and American influences.

Many of the major tourist attractions are found here – the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands – from Pearl Harbor and the only royal palace on US soil (Iolani Palace) to late heiress Doris Duke’s waterfront mansion Shangri La, now a gobsmacking gallery of Islamic art.

The North Shore’s surf breaks are about an hour’s drive from Waikiki, Honolulu’s tourist strip. Winter’s monster swells see Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline and Haleiwa host international surfing contests but the north coast’s combination of sunshine and shrimp trucks is good for the soul any time of year.

Where to stay 

Town: The Royal Hawaiian is a 1927 Spanish-Moorish palace set in a parkland oasis behind the Waikiki strip. Its calamine-pink façade conceals more than 520 rooms and suites, with at least a third sporting balconies over the beach. Book now

Country: The colossal Turtle Bay Resort straddles a North Shore promontory flanked by forest and mountains. The resort’s tower wings, villas and cottages contain more than 450 rooms, all with vast ocean outlooks.

Where to eat and drink

MW Restaurant transforms classic Hawaiian into haute cuisine; the truffled tuna tartare with uni (sea urchin) is superb. Koko Head Cafe is chef Lee Anne Wong’s brunch house in Kaimuki and Australian cook Bill Granger is the (sourdough) toastof Waikiki at Bills. For drinks, soak up the views from the 19th-floor Sky Waikiki lounge bar or visit Bar Leather Apron – part Tokyo whisky bar, part NYC speakeasy. 

SEE ALSO: The 5 Most Instagrammable Spots Around Honolulu

MAUI

Best for hiking, beaches, whales, families, windsurfing, luxe resorts

Most visitors to Maui have an up-and-down time; up to the 3055-metre peak of Haleakala, an other-worldly scene of cinder cones and cloud forests, then down to beaches renowned for thrilling windsurfing and kitesurfing. Families flock here in winter for summer temperatures and whales; Maui’s waters are thick with cetaceans from November to April.

This is an island of choices. Opt for top resorts, spas, high-end restaurants and bars in Wailea and Kaanapali or kick back in chilled cowboy towns and enjoy the friendly charm of Hana.

The former royal capital of Lahaina also offers a retail and restaurant fix beside the Kaanapali resort strip; the drive there along a coastal road beside the West Maui Mountains is a stunner. 

As for golf, Maui tops Hawaii’s leaderboard with more than a dozen acclaimed clubs.

Where to stay 

Town: Andaz Maui is the newest address at Wailea, the five-star resort compound of groomed grounds and well-heeled guests that feels a bit like Bel Air by the sea. Andaz’s 300 balconied rooms overlook the coast and the hotel’s four palm-fringed, cascading infinity pools. Cool, earthy interiors feature beach-house-style bathrooms, Toto electronic toilets and supremely comfortable beds. Book now

Country: The drive to Hana is the stuff of modern fable – an 85-kilometre, three-hour odyssey of more than 600 bends and 59 bridges – but the 15-minute flight from Kahului is far less stressful. Fresh from a $US12 million face lift, the 28-hectare Travaasa Hana resort has an old-Hawaii charm that extends to a nine-room spa with lava-rock Jacuzzi, two pools and ocean views. Book now

Where to eat and drink

Ka’ana Kitchen at Andaz sets the bar for Wailea dining with an exciting wine list and ono (delicious) dishes by executive chef Isaac Bancaco – don’t miss his abalone braised in star anise and molasses. Coconut’s Fish Cafe, in the condo hub of Kihei, is known across the island for its fish tacos; ditto Monkeypod in Wailea for its lilikoi (passionfruit) mai tais. For poke (pronounced po-kay), the sashimi-like snack endemic to Hawaii, the deli at the back of Tamura’s bottle shop does marinated raw fish and meats. Follow the locals to Java Cafe for excellent coffee and free wi-fi.

MOLOKAI

Best for Culture, Digital Detoxing, Spirituality, Saints

If Molokai is the last true Hawaiian island, as locals are fond of saying, then the real Hawaii is a deeply spiritual, Arcadian place free from traffic lights, shopping malls and any form of nightlife. 

Molokai’s quiet isolation is a big attraction, as are its vibrant indigenous culture and dark history. “Talk story” with locals at the Tuesday kanikapila (jam session) at Coffees of Hawaii in Kualapuu. Hike into the Halawa Valley with resident kahuna – “one who knows secrets” – Anakala Pilipo Solatorio to explore Hawaii’s sacred heart. Ride a mule (muleride.com) down a hill to the former leper colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, where a handful of ex-patients still live in self-imposed exile. It’s an extraordinarily moving experience as much for the melancholy scenery as for the brutal history that stigmatised the island and forged Hawaii’s first saint, Damien of Molokai.

Molokai is not without superlatives – the world’s highest sea cliffs, the longest fringing reef in the United States (great for diving and snorkelling) – but its essence is untouched and unplugged. No hurry, no worries. 

Where to stay 

For full island immersion, book into a lodge room or family cottage at Pu’u O Hoku Ranch. When not feasting on the farm’s organic produce and free-range beef or venison, guests have a swimming pool, yoga deck, hiking tracks and basking monk seals at their disposal. Halawa Valley is right next door.

Where to eat and drink

Fine dining is not Molokai’s strong suit – locals tend to hunt and grow their own food so there’s not much call for fancy restaurants. Kualapu’u Cookhouse is a humble diner that dishes up prime ribs and Hawaiian jam sessions, while the drive-through Molokai Burger does a ramen special involving a “bun” of fried noodles. Hotel Moloka’i’s Hula Shores bar is the spot for live music and cocktails among carved tiki pillars.

KAUAI

Best for nature, adventure, movie locations, diving

Hawaii’s oldest island is also, arguably, its most wildly beautiful. Hanalei Bay is routinely ranked among the world’s most gorgeous beaches. The awesome Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of Hawaii. The Na Pali Coast, accessible only by foot, kayak or boat, is an absolute knockout.

An 85-minute chopper flight takes in the island’s scenic spots, from the ox-blood contours of Waimea Canyon and the Hanapepe Valley to the Manawaiopuna Falls made famous in Jurassic Park and even Niihau, the privately owned “Forbidden Isle”. Film buffs might also recognise scenery from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Navigate Kauai’s rivers by kayak, soar above its jungles by zip-line, dive the dozens of world-famous sites along its shore or drift gently in snorkel and mask at Tunnels Beach and the reef-protected Ke’e Beach.

Where to stay

With cinematic views across Hanalei Bay and pyramid-shaped Makana Mountain, the St. Regis Princeville resort on Kauai’s trendy North Shore captures the Bali Hai of days gone by. Its Murano chandeliers and African mahogany columns are all very well but guests in St. Regis’s 252 rooms have sights fixed firmly on their remarkable surroundings. With a 12-room spa, sunset terrace and typically slick St. Regis Bar, this is Kauai’s top hotel. George Clooney slept here – enough said. Book now

Where to eat and drink

The Kauai Grill at St. Regis serves up Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s greatest hits (foie gras brûlée, salted-caramel ice-cream sundae) in an unforgettable setting. In Poipu on the south coast, Roy Yamaguchi’s Eating House 1849 channels the multicultural tastes of plantation workers, while fellow celebrity chef Peter Merriman offers an authentic taste of Kauai at Merriman’s Fish House – about 90 per cent of ingredients are locally grown or caught. Lebanese-born chef Imad Beydoun prepares pan-Med dishes, from meltingly fresh fish to pizza, at Mediterranean Gourmet in the Hanalei Colony Resort.

HAWAII

Best for Volcanoes, Cowboys, Country Drives, Waterfalls

The Big Island is a primordial place. The Kilauea volcano hasn’t finished creating Hawaii’s youngest island yet; witnessing its fierce eruptions of flaming lava is like being a spectator at the creation of Earth. All the action takes place in the World Heritage-listed Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, an alien landscape of lava tubes, barren black plains and bubbling lava pits.

The state’s largest island has a small population and big open spaces. Drive north along Hamakua’s coastline past leviathan forests, old plantation towns and waterfalls to reach Waipio Valley, one-time sanctuary of King Kamehameha. Beyond lies Waimea, paniolo (cowboy) country, where the mountainside Kahua Ranch offers horseback or all-terrain vehicle tours and barbecue dinners. For the ultimate thrill, dive off a sea cliff at South Point, the USA’s southernmost tip. 

While the Hawaiian archipelago has eight major islands, two are virtually off limits to tourists and a third, Lanai, is privately owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison and has just three hotels. 

Where to stay

The Four Seasons Hualalai is a cluster of two-storey bungalows on the Kona coast housing one-, two- and three-bedroom villas and suites; some with plunge pools, spas and lava-rock outdoor showers. With discrete wings for families and couples and no fewer than seven pools, including one brimming with marine life, the complex regularly tops reader polls of favourite beach, spa and golf resorts in Hawaii. Do try the oysters – they’re reared on site and sold exclusively to guests. Book now

Where to eat and drink 

Merriman’s Waimea is chef Peter Merriman’s flagship Hawaiian eatery. It showcases the best of Big Island ingredients, including Kahua ranch lamb and grass-fed beef. Further north, at the end of breathtaking Highway 250, lies Hawi and the Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery, an old plantation house renowned for local produce and impromptu hula. In the sleepy main settlement of Hilo, the Hilo Bay Café serves sushi and Big Island pork. 

SEE ALSO: First-timer's Guide to Honolulu