Which Hawaii Is Right for You?

Here's a snapshot of defining experiences on the Big Island, Maui, Kauai, and Oahu: majestic landscapes, traditional dances and dishes, and beaches for every water sport. Get a sense of which ones fit your travel style and your budget.

Hanalei Bay, on Kauai's north shore, has a spectacular semicircular beach
Hanalei Bay, on Kauai's north shore, has a spectacular semicircular beach (Kevin Steele/Aurora Photos/Corbis)
(Map by Newhouse Design)

Shaped over the course of several hundred thousand years by five volcanoes, the Big Island is the youngest and largest in the Hawaiian archipelago—and still growing, thanks to Kilauea, which has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983. Its breathtaking, three-mile long caldera is part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where lush rain forest alternates with stark lava fields and active steam vents. Located 30 miles from Hilo and 95 miles from Kailua-Kona—the Big Island's main resort areas—the park makes an easy day trip ($10 per vehicle).

On Maui, the otherworldly landscape of 10,023-foot-tall Haleakala rivals the Big Island's volcanoes for showstopping views. Courageous visitors willing to make the winding, predawn drive to the summit are rewarded with an epic sunrise ($10 per vehicle). The road to the summit has the added draw of passing through the up-country paniolo (cowboy) town of Makawao, where you can break for award-winning Hawaiian regional dishes at Hali'imaile General Store. Drivers with a taste for sea cliffs and waterfalls should tackle Maui's 52-mile-long Hana Highway, an all-day affair involving 56 one-lane bridges and more than 600 curves.

Kauai's Route 550 crosses a succession of lush valleys that drop 3,000 feet and more to sea level as the road twists its way through Waimea Canyon State Park and Kokee State Park. About halfway through the hike along Kokee's 1.8-mile (one-way) Canyon Trail, you'll reach Waipoo Falls, a waterfall that cascades some 800 feet. The 80-foot-tall Wailua Falls, on the other side of the island, feeds Wailua River State Park, site of the remains of an ancient heiau (place of worship), a fern grotto, and the only navigable river in Hawaii. Smith's Kauai leads riverboat tours ($9–$20).

The hula, Hawaii's indigenous dance, takes center stage each spring at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo (April 4–10, 2010; $5–$30). Men and women compete separately in the hula kahiko (ancient) and hula 'auana (modern) categories. Tickets are notoriously hard to come by, but it's easy to catch free hula shows any time of year. The Volcano Art Center's Hula Kahiko Series on the Big Island showcases the kahiko version, performed on a stone platform near Kilauea caldera. The Kuhio Beach Hula Show has a different backdrop: it's staged near the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, in Waikiki.

A luau combines traditional Hawaiian dance and food. Maui's Old Lahaina Luau serves everything from kalua pork roasted in an underground oven to guava-glazed chicken ($92 adults, $62 children 12 and under). Lahaina also has more art galleries per capita than any other U.S. town, and they stay open until 10 p.m. on Fridays.

Hawaii's Plantation Village, a 20-minute drive from Waikiki, uses original and replica buildings to recreate immigrant life in the sugar plantation camps circa 1900 ($5–$13). Sugar's heyday has passed, but pineapples continue to be a cash crop. Dole Plantation, a working pineapple plantation in central Oahu, has the world's largest walking maze and a two-mile, narrated Pineapple Express train tour (admission free, activities from $3.50). Maui's Kapalua Resort hosts a tour that includes pineapple fields, a tasting, and the picking of a fresh pineapple to take home ($40–$45).


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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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