Where to Stay in Hawaii: What is the Best Island for You

Where to stay in Hawaii

Each of the eight islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago has its own unique sense of identity, and they each offer different advantages for tourists. It’s important to know where to stay in Hawaii if you’re planning to visit this archipielago 

The islands of Hawaii are renowned throughout the world for having some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth, but Hawaii’s role in popular culture can sometimes obscure the sheer ecological and cultural diversity in Hawaii. 

But before you start considering the individual islands you want to visit, there are some basics you should know about visiting Hawaii. 

The first is that there’s a premium in paradise. Roughly a fifth of the Hawaiian economy is centralized in the tourist industry, and that means that there’s a constant influx of visitors. 

And since the weather is so consistent throughout much of the year, it also means that influx doesn’t change too much as the seasons do. 

You can expect to meet a lot of tourists whenever you visit Hawaii, and you can expect to pay at least a little more on just about anything.

Regardless of which islands you make a part of your itinerary, you’re probably going to want to get a rental car. While most of the major towns have public transit and there are shuttles that hit most of the main landmarks, Hawaii isn’t quite the same as all-inclusive resort islands. 

Exploring is half the reason for coming to Hawaii, and having the means to explore at your own pace is going to be worth the price of a rental for most tourists. 

Since really exploring the archipelago requires you to hop from one island to another, you’ll need to be a little more diligent with your planning. 

Having flights, accommodations, and rental cars booked in advance will be more crucial than it is at most vacation destinations.

But there’s a reason that people keep coming back to Hawaii year in and year out. It’s a gorgeous tropical state that really pays attention to its tourists, and there are beaches practically anywhere you turn. 

A unique Hawaiian law ensures that every beach on the islands is open to the public, and the diversity of beachfront territory is both expansive and awe-inspiring. Just be careful, as many of the beaches can be difficult to reach or even dangerous to swim in. 

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the best areas to stay in Hawaii, starting with the island the whole state is named for.

Where to stay in Hawaii: The Best Areas

1. Hawaii Island, the widest diversity

Where to stay in Hawaii: The Best Areas

If you compressed all of the other seven Hawaiian islands into a single landmass, it still wouldn’t encompass the scale of the “Big Island”. 

The state of Hawaii was naturally named after the island of the same name, and it’s probably the island you should be visiting if you want to experience the widest diversity you can find without having to visit multiple islands. 

Of the 13 climate zones in the world, Hawaii offers you the opportunity to explore 11. They extend from sandy beaches along the coastline to deep jungles to the frozen arctic tundras of the interior. 

While TV may represent the main island as an endless expanse of shoreline, there’s actually a lot more to discover once you dig in a little deeper. There’s a reason why Hawaii’s main island is also known as “the Island of Discovery”.

If you’re looking to use the main island as ground zero for your journey, there are two major regions to consider

The west side of the island is dominated by the Kona region, also known as the Kailua-Kona region. 

Kona will provide you with a visit that most closely resembles the Hawaii you’ve seen on TV and film. Since much of the region is volcanic, the soil here is particularly rich and lush. 

That’s transformed it into one of the main sources for growing Hawaii’s legendary coffee beans. 

Kona is also home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the Hawaiian islands. 

That said, much of the inland territory isn’t all that pristine. The volcanic fields are stunning, but they don’t provide the picturesque view that many Hawaiian travelers are looking for.

From a practical perspective, you’ll likely be spending at least a little bit of time in the Kailua-Kona region. It’s the home to Hawaii’s biggest airport, so chances are that you’ll at least have a layover in Kona. 

We recommend at least sticking around for a little bit, regardless of what your budget may be. While Kona is home to some of the biggest and most extravagant resorts in the Pacific, it also offers more affordable condominium rentals. 

But property comes with a high price tag in Kona. Fortunately, there are plenty of bed and breakfasts and hostels if you’re willing to take the time to hunt around. 

The town of Keauhou is still a bit touristy – and a major stop for cruise ships – but it offers some reasonably priced lodging. Travelers with significantly more to spend will want to turn their attention to the Gold Coast

This aptly named stretch of coastline is home to the best beaches, the most decadent resorts, and the priciest accommodations.

Visitors looking for an area with less of a touristy vibe should turn their attention to the west side of the island. The rainier climate of the Hilo region makes it less popular with tourists, but it still has plenty to offer the intrepid explorer. 

The main attraction here is the rainforests rather than the beaches. There are beautiful stretches of wildernesses and fantastic hidden waterfalls that don’t require venturing that far from the main towns and cities. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is absolutely massive, and visitors with a decent amount of time should set aside a couple of days to explore it. The two active volcanoes in the park are surrounded by a gorgeous expanse of lush and thick rainforest. 

That’s not to say there aren’t good beaches – merely that the beaches in Hilo are less acclimated to swimming. But the rugged shorelines and jagged cliffs of sites like Waipiʻo Valley Lookout offer a rare and raw sense of beauty.

If you’re staying in the Hilo region, your best opportunity for lodgings is going to be in Hilo. This is one of the best places to stay in Hawaii if you want an authentic feel for the life of Hawaiians without getting crowded out by tourists. 

It’s not the most cosmopolitan town on the islands, but it has a laidback sense of community and has something of a tropical bohemian feel thanks to the significant number of artists and musicians who call Hilo their home. 

If your main reason for visiting the Hilo region is to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you may want to set up shop in Volcano Town. Its close proximity makes it the perfect place for embarking on a jungle adventure.

Out of all the islands, chances are that you’ll want to spend the most time on the main island. A week on the island will simply allow you to scratch the surface of what there is to offer, and you could reasonably spend two or three weeks here without running out of things to do. 

If this is your first time in Hawaii, you could comfortably spend all of your time here and not feel like you’ve missed out. But if you’re going to explore a little wider, we suggest that you make the main island a source of attention at either the start or end of your trip. 

It’s a practical hub that can be used to explore the rest of the archipelago for your entire stay in Hawaii.


2. Maui, where to stay in Hawaii for first time

Maui, where to stay in Hawaii for first time

Hawaii’s reputation as a playground for the rich, beautiful, and famous is best typified by the island of Maui. Also known as the Beverly Hills of Hawaii, it’s arguably the most gorgeous and expensive place to stay in the archipelago. 

While Maui is the second-largest island in the archipelago, it pales in comparison to the scale of the main island. But you can still find enough activities here to easily keep you busy and occupied for a week or more.

If there’s one destination you need to see during your time in Maui, it’s the road to Hana. It cuts across the majority of Maui’s coastline and provides some of the most scenic views of both rainforests and beaches that you’ll find on the island. 

Verdant stretches of wilderness, stunning waterfalls, and steep cliffsides are all viewable from the road, and you should take at least a day to explore the coastal road. 

It’s the main artery of the island and offers plenty of opportunities to explore small beach towns and roadside attractions. 

You should also make the time to stop at the Garden of Eden. While it may be ostentatiously named, it’s hard to argue once you’ve seen it for yourself. 

And while there’s an entrance fee, it’s well worth the cost. 26 acres of carefully cultivated garden highlight the unique flora of Maui and the islands at large.

Maui may be known for its extravagance, but you don’t need to be a millionaire to have fun here. While the accommodations here are dominated heavily by expensive resorts, there are decently priced hostels, condos, and bed and breakfasts if you’re willing to put in the footwork. 

The main question you’ll need to ask yourself is which town you want to stay in. There are four major population centers in Maui, and each of them gives off a different vibe. The towns you choose to stay in can also have a serious impact on how much you spend.

Kahului is the busiest hub of the island, even though it wouldn’t stand out as a major metropolis throughout much of the world. It’s home to less than 30,000 people, but it’s the place you’ll want to go if you’re looking for a break from nature. 

It’s Kahului is home to some major shopping malls, restaurant districts, and bars. Visitors who want to go on a shopping bender or soak in the local nightlife will find what they’re looking for in Kahului. 

Lahaina couldn’t provide a more stark counterpoint to Kahlului. The town has a beach bum vibe and a sense of quirkiness that’s really not present anywhere else on the island. 

The restaurants and shops sit right along the beach, and there are plenty of smaller and more unique establishments to explore. 

The other two population hubs are Kihei and the upcountry area. 

Kihei is ideally positioned along the south shore of the island and is one of the bigger tourist hubs on the island. 

The upcountry consists mostly of beautiful scenery and a collection of smaller towns and villages. You won’t find as many amenities out here, but it’s a great place to set up camp if you’re looking to go out and explore the wilds thoroughly.

For people trying to explore the islands as much as possible, it would be sensible to schedule your exploration of Maui and Lanai back to back. 

Both islands are positioned relatively close to one another, and there are accessible ferry services back and forth that run throughout the year. 

You could reasonably spend most of your time on Maui and treat Lanai as a weekend or day trip, or vice versa. But the breadth of activities on both islands also means that you could spend all your time on them.


3. Lanai, exclusivity and remoteness vibe

Lanai, exclusivity and remoteness vibe

Lanai is located just nine miles off of the coast of Maui, but it can sometimes feel like an island lost in time. Not only is it the smallest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, but it’s also the most secluded. 

It’s one of the less popular tourist destinations in the archipelago, so you can get more of a feel of the local flavor here, and there’s still plenty to explore despite its smaller size. And just because it’s small doesn’t mean that it’s not accessible. 

Airports on both the main island and Maui offer direct flights to Lanai, and you can also take a ferry from Maui if you’d prefer to not fly.

If Maui has a reputation as the Hawaiian island for those who want to see and be seen, Lanai has a reputation as the Hawaiian island for those with the wealth that can afford luxury and privacy at once. 

It has an air of exclusivity that’s appealing, and 98% of the island is actually owned by a singular investor: Oracle founder Larry Ellison. The other 2% are simply private homes, and that means that almost all of the places to stay in Hawaii on this island are going to be expensive resorts. 

You can expect to spend at least $140 a night and spend nearly two hundred to make it to the island in the first place. And your options are limited too. To maintain the secluded reputation of Lanai, there are only three hotels on the island.

Lanai is really an island of two worlds. Owner Larry Ellis has been insistent about his intentions to create a more ecologically friendly way of living, and that means that much of the island is still untouched by serious developments. 

Most of the amenities you’ll find will be within the resort grounds proper, as the one major population center doesn’t even have a single stoplight in it. 

Spas and golf courses are dominated here, and the resort monopoly ensures that you can expect to spend a lot on just about everything, even when compared to the normally elevated rates on the other Hawaiian islands.

But the real draw of Lanai comes from its natural beauty. ATV tours are common here, and they offer a way to get up close and personal with the rugged and lovely landscape of Lanai’s interior. 

Sweetheart Rock offers one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world – with a sky that’s rich with pinks, blues, and purples.

It also solidifies the island’s reputation as one of the most romantic spots within the Hawaiian islands. It’s the ideal choice for a destination wedding or a honeymoon. 

Also of note is the Lanai cat sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to hundreds of domesticated cats that have been saved from the wild and from shelters.


4. Oahu, where to stay in Hawaii for nightlife

Oahu, where to stay in Hawaii for nightlife

Most vacationers come to Hawaii because they want to see the picturesque beauty that’s become the archipelago’s signature.

But it’s important to remember that these islands have a rich and vibrant community of residents that live their lives distinct from the tourists that drive the island economy. 

If you’re sick of hiking volcanos and laying out on the beach, Oahu is the island you’ll want to visit – and Waikiki is the crown jewel of Oahu. Waikiki is the best argument Hawaii has for a world-class city. 

Restaurants number in the hundreds and feature cuisine from around the globe. The city’s nightlife is rich as well. 

From live music to upscale cocktail bars to laid back restaurants right on the beach, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get out and explore the town. 

Shopping opportunities are abundant as well. The Waikiki Beach Walk is overflowing with cute boutique shops and other businesses, but it’s also a solid choice for simply soaking in the sun and people watching. 

Upscale shopping options are too numerous to name, but standouts include Luxury Row and the International Market Place.

Oahu is one of the few islands where you can reliably get by without a rental car or a tour guide. The city itself has a robust public transportation system, but it’s also perfectly pleasant to travel on foot or bike. 

Since it’s situated directly on the beach, there are always wonderful views and a pleasant beach breeze to keep you comfortable. 

The island of Oahu constitutes a lot more than just the city of Waikiki, but the city’s popularity does offer some serious advantages to outdoor adventurers. 

There’s never a lack of tours to nearby destinations, and usually getting on one is as simple as walking down the block.

If the hustle and bustle of city life are too much for you, there are three other major population centers to set up camp. Those in the know often skip Waikiki altogether in favor of a stop in Diamond Head. 

Not only can you find more reasonably priced accommodations for your stay in Hawaii, but you also have ready access to Diamond Head Trail. This stretch of walking trails is one of the most beloved natural attractions on the island. 

Fortunately, the city itself isn’t too far away. A 20-minute walk from Diamond Head can bring you into Waikiki proper.

Rounding out the options in Oahu is the North Shore and the West Side. The North Shore is home to the most popular stretch of beach on the island. An hour north of Waikiki, it fosters a more laidback atmosphere and has all the vibes you’d expect from a beach town. 

The beaches here are some of the best for surfing and snorkeling in the Summer, and the beachside food stalls are well worth your attention. The West side of the island is a little less known, but it’s just as beautiful as the North. 

The water here is some of the clearest and brilliantly blue in the Hawaiian islands. It’s also one of the best places to go if you’re trying to spot sea turtles out in the wild. 

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Hawaii that offers both culture and natural majesty, Oahu should definitely have a place in your itinerary.


5. Kauai, where to stay in Hawaii for nature and outdoor adventures

Where to stay in Hawaii: Kauai, for nature and outdoor adventures

If you want an adventure, Kauai is going to be where you want to stay in Hawaii. Known as the Garden Isle, it’s one of the more untouched islands on the archipelago and a great way to disengage from civilization and get in touch with nature. 

Most of the island is draped in greenery, and pristine white beaches give way to imposing but scalable mountains. If there’s an outdoor adventure that you’ve dreamed of having in Hawaii, it’s likely you can find what you’re looking for somewhere on Kauai. 

Kauai isn’t as exclusive as Lanai, but it’s a less popular choice for tourists. The north of the island can offer accommodations and modern luxuries for cosmopolitan travelers, while central and south Kauai is the place to stay in Hawaii if you want to venture further out from civilization.

Tourists tend to congregate around Hanalei Bay. It’s a beautiful town positioned ideally along the island’s waterfront and constituting two miles of shoreline. It’s also become a major stopping point for cruise ships and a mecca for tourists checking out the sights of Hawaii. 

If you really want to make the most of this coastline, there are plenty of resorts to scratch your itch. But chain hotels and smaller accommodations are available as well, and everything is close enough to the beach to really soak in the local beauty.

But Hanalei Bay constitutes only a minuscule portion of an island that’s 98% naturally preserved. The beaches on Kauai are pretty universally gorgeous, although Poipu Beach and Tunnels Beach are standouts that really highlight the magic of this island. 

If there was one landmark that would best fit the cover of a travel brochure, though, it would be Kalalau Trail. It’s easily one of the most difficult trails throughout the Hawaiian islands, but it’s also one of the most satisfying. 

The 22-mile round trip journey winds through cliffsides and hills. It’s an arduous trail and one you should seriously prepare for before undertaking, but that higher barrier to entry means that you’ll have access to some gorgeous and genuinely isolated beaches.

It’s definitely not hard to find peaceful solitude with nature on Kauai. Waimea Canyon is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and its raw scale can definitely make you feel humble.

If you want to hike but are intimidated by the difficulty of Kalalau trail, you might want to try Mount Waialeale. It’s easier to access and is home to the stunning Waipoo Falls. Just bear in mind that Kauai is even less accessible than the other Hawaiian islands. 

While renting a car is recommended no matter where you stay in Hawaii, it’s going to be a practical necessity if you’re journeying out to Kauai and want to see more than what Hanalei Bay or the other major tourist destinations have to show you.


6. Molokai, off the beaten path

Molokai, off the beaten path

Molokai is the island least visited by tourists, and there are a few reasons for that. There aren’t a lot of Molokai landmarks showing up in tourist guidebooks, and Molokai Island is irregularly visited by cruise ships. 

In all, the island is home to around 7,500 people, and it’s a mere 40 miles long and 10 miles wide. But that’s just how the locals like it. While other islands have centered their economy around the tourism industry, Molokai has stubbornly resisted.

That means that finding a place to stay in Hawaii in Molokai Island can be a little more difficult than on the other islands. There’s only a very few hotels on Molokai, and actually reaching the island can be more of a challenge. 

The single airport in the center of the island has direct flights from Honolulu and Maui, and there’s little in the way of public transportation. There are also ferries to and from Molokai twice a day. 

A rental car is suggested for any trip to the Hawaiian archipelago, but having your own car is going to be a practical necessity in Molokai unless you have a host family. 

If you’re planning on visiting Molokai, you’ll want to take a little bit of extra time to make sure that your lodgings and transportation are fully arranged for by the time you head out.

The residents of Molokai may be suspicious of the tourist industry, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly. You simply have to put in a little more effort to get them to open up. That’s well worth your time too. 

Many of the farms on the island offer visitors a free night’s stay in return for a day’s labor. While that might sound antithetical to vacationing for some visitors, it’s a fully immersive experience that’s also a sensible choice for those on a tighter budget. 

Getting to know the locals is also the best way to learn what there is to do on the island. Most of the coolest spots in Molokai aren’t in regular circulation, but a friendly relationship with locals can lead you to vistas that few tourists will ever see.

More than any other Hawaiian island, Molokai is a destination that requires some effort to really open up. The local population is as much an attraction as the natural beauty. 

The fact that Molokai stubbornly resists the label of tourist destination means that it will appeal to a more specialized audience. But there are some absolutely worthwhile sights here as well. 

Kalaupapa National Park is the most popular – a sprawling stretch of wilderness that also has a fascinating historical background as the home of former leper colonies. 

Halawa Valley is home to some of the most magnificent waterfalls in the archipelago: a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the large density of holy sites in the area.


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