The Ultimate Hawaii Travel Guide
What do you think of when you think of paradise? I’m willing to bet that it’s some combination of white sand beaches, swaying palm trees, sunny rays and lazy beach days. Well, throw in snorkeling, surfing, volcanoes & leis and say alooooha to the beautiful islands of Hawaii.
Growing up in California, we have always gone to Hawaii at least once a year on a family vacation, and thinking about it, I think I’ve been to Hawaii more than I’ve been to any other destination in the world! This is because it is simply the perfect spot for families, for beach-lovers, and for everyone. Some of my best memories as a kid are sliding down the hotel water slides, dancing with hula girls during a luau on Ka’anapali beach, and seeing my first sea turtle while snorkeling. I treasure all of our family trips to Hawaii, which is why I continue to get the can’t-fight-it urge to keep coming back year after year, and why I know that all of you will love it.
So now let’s get to the good stuff: Which island of Hawaii is best to travel to?
That depends on what you’re looking for! Hawaii is made up of eight main islands, all that cater to a different traveler.
Table of Contents
My personal favorite island of Hawaii, Maui is the resortiest of all the islands, and has a little bit of everything. Stretches of beautiful beaches, luxe Maui resorts, and great snorkeling make this island the top Hawaiian destination, year after year. There’s a reason Conde Nast readers have voted Maui the best island in the world — for 17 years and counting!!!!
Where to stay in Maui:
The Four Seasons Maui is one of Hawaii’s most beautiful, luxurious, and exclusive resorts, and is hands down my choice of where to stay for luxury in Maui. I love this hotel so much that it’s where my husband and I got married! We couldn’t think of a more perfect place, and now we make it back every year – it’s so special to us!
The Andaz is many people’s favorite hotels on Maui. It has a sleek, young, country-club ambiance and stunning oceanfront views, with 4 infinity pools, 2 restaurants, a full-service spa, and 15 acres on stunning Waikapu Beach. Each Andaz room also comes with its own balcony, perfect for watching those unbeatable Maui sunsets.
This has always been one of my favorite Maui resorts. Located at the end of Ka’anapali beach at Black Rock, the hotel boasts some of the best snorkeling on the island right outside of your hotel room. The pool is to die for, winding around most of the property, and the hotel staff does everything they can to make your stay memorable, from their luaus and activities to their nightly sunset jumps off of Black Rock (daring Hawaiian men jump off of the famous rock and into the ocean for the sunset show!). It’s also a Starwood Preferred Guest ( spg.com ) resort (look into becoming a member if you travel a lot, great discounts and earn points for luxury hotel stays).
You won’t find a more perfect hotel for the family. The Grand Wailea, with countless waterslides, beautiful coastal views, and more activities than you can imagine, this hotel is gorgeous and, as its name implies, grand. Although there is a little more going on in the area of Kaanapali, (where the Westin & Sheraton are located) the Grand Wailea has enough activities at the hotel to keep you and your family more than occupied during your stay. They also have a gorgeous seaside chapel that is always booked with beautiful coastal destination weddings.
Located a couple miles down Kaanapali beach from the Sheraton is the Westin. Another one of my personal favorites. It has five pools, complete with slides and waterfalls, a golf course, and great oceanfront restaurants. It is a top notch family resort with tons of activities that will definitely make your trip. Another Starwood Preferred Guest resort!
Where to eat in Maui
Mama’s Fish House
Located pretty far away from where I usually stay in Maui (Ka’anapali), I always find this restaurant worth the drive. The fish is incredible. Without a doubt the best, freshest fish I have ever tasted. The menu is contemporary Polynesian, putting a modern twist on Hawaii’s culinary history, and it is delicious. Do not miss out on this restaurant. Take one look at the menu and you’ll see why. Fresh caught swordfish sauteed in coconut milk over coconut rice? Crispy kahlua duck? Taha’a Island vanilla seared ahi? Take a sip of Mama’s famous Mai Tai, watch the sunset over the Pacific, feel your fresh caught mahi-mahi melt in your mouth and boom. You’re in paradise.
For something closer to your hotel, you can’t go wrong with Duke’s. And, as hard as it is for a UNC grad to be recommending you to go to a restaurant called “Duke’s”, this place is pretty awesome. Duke’s has expanded across Hawaii, so you can find one on pretty much any island you go to. The Maui Duke’s is right on Ka’anapali beach, a perfect beach walk from your hotel away. Great fish and hawaii faves! A great drink list as well, so if you’re not feelin’ a full meal, go for drinks and pupus (pupus is hawaiian for appetizers!)
Whether you’re celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, or just need an excuse to eat some amazing food and pop some champagne over the Hawaiian coast, Merriman’s is your place. Amazing sunset dining! The food is fantastic. A little pricey, but so fun for a special occasion. My favorite pupu? The warm crusted goat cheese with strawberries salad. Ah-mazing. You also can’t go wrong with a little tasting of the kalua pig and maui sweet onion quesadilla- yum. For your entree, you’ll have your choice of fresh seafood or impeccable meats, and don’t forget to save room for their delicious desserts. Merriman’s. One Bay Club Place, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.
Enjoy my breakfast overlooking the white sandy beaches of Hawaii in a beautiful gazebo? Why thank you, I shall. This breakfast place is soooo cute, has the best view, and is delicious! A little out of the way, overlooking Napili bay, but it’s worth it for the stunning setting. Gazebo 5315 Lower Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina, HI
Longhi’s in Lahaina is a great place to go! I love their breakfasts (especially the french toast) but they serve lunch and dinner as well. In old town Lahaina, so go for a sunny breakfast and of course a pretty oceanside view 888 Front Street, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii www.longhis.com
What to do in Maui
Go to a Luau.
Hawaiian luaus, a big dinner/dancing/drinking cultural celebration complete with a pig roasting, are definitely a must-do on your trip to Hawaii. Throw on your hawaiian party shirt and go out and have a great time. Your hotel will most likely host their own, and they don’t differ too much luau-to-luau, so my recommendation is to sign up for your hotel’s and enjoy your celebratory evening on the beach! Sometimes, hotels will also offer hula lessons for the kids. I did this at the Sheraton when I was little and they brought me and a few other girls, dressed up in hula skirts they gave us, up on stage during the nighttime luau to dance with the beautiful hawaiian girls- definitely memorable for my all-too-excited seven-year-old self.
Old town Lahaina is definitely a fun activity to do while in Maui. It’s a separate, less resortey area of Maui with great shops and restaurants. Sit back with a tropical drink and watch the sunset. Maui is all about relaxation. So don’t worry about planning your trip out too much and realize your most memorable moments in Maui will be doing a whole lot of nothing. All while seeing some of the most spectacular sights & sunsets you’ll ever get to see. Take it all in and enjoy the island life.
The island farthest away, Kauai, is one of the most scenic islands. It is more of a rainforest climate, with gorgeous, lush topography and absolutely stunning hikes and beaches.
Where to stay in Kauai
Located on the sunny side of the island in South Kauai, The Lodge at Kukui’ula is where to feel like a celebrity on Kauai. As a guest at The Lodge at Kukui’ula, you will enjoy private access to all the Club amenities – ocean view cocktails at sunset, gourmet dining with farm fresh ingredients, signature spa treatments, Peacock Bass fishing at the lake, private picnic at the upcountry farm, a round of golf on our award-wining Tom Weiskopf course, or a kayak ride or the spectacular Koke`e hike. Just a short drive away you will find The Shops at Kukui`ula, with great dining, shops, restaurants, cafes, galleries, etc.
The best hikes in Kauai
The Napili Coast Hike
This hike is TOUGH, but it is the most popular hike in Napili, and trust me, the views are worth the workout. If you go all the way to the waterfall, you’re looking at an all day hike, but we chose to do the “half hike” just to the beach, which was absolutely breathtaking.
Oahu is not only the island with the biggest population, it is home to the capital city of Honolulu. I love Honolulu. It’s one of the few true beach cities in the world (how many can you think of? Miami….Sydney….Rio) and it is bustling and beautiful. A completely different experience from Maui, but you don’t miss out on the stunning Hawaiian beaches (see my pictures from my last trip!) If you want the perfect combination of a relaxing beach vacation with the excitement of an urban city- Oahu is your island.
Where to stay in Oahu
An understated luxe, peaceful oasis with an emphasis on 6-star service, set right on the main strip of Waikiki beach. This hotel is casual-yet-refined and is home to two of the best restaurants in the city: La Mar for fine dining and House Without a Key. I loooved their breakfast!
A luxury resort also known as the Pink Palace of the Pacific, the Royal Hawaiian has long been known as one of Hawaii’s flagship hotels. Its iconic pink architecture has brought in celebrities and royal guests for decades, originally known as a getaway for classic Hollywood stars. Today, with multi-million dollar renovations and its prime Waikiki beach real estate (right near the Moana), the Pink Palace continues to be a traveler favorite on Oahu.
Want to get out of the city? You can also choose to stay on Oahu outside of Waikiki, as you can find more secluded beach resorts lining the beaches up the coast, as well as hotels on the North Shore, a stretch of Oahu famous for its huge surfing waves.
This Four Seasons gem is a short drive from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, making it a nice place to base close-enough to the city, but far enough away that you can fully relax. Set on a secluded protected beach, it is perfect for paddle-boarding and offers easy access to uncrowded West Side beaches. This is a fantastic option for anyone going on a Hawaii honeymoon that may want a bit more privacy but still want to be close by to the action!
Where to Stay on The North Shore:
You may recognize this resort as the setting of Forgetting Sarah Marshall! is where the “7-Mile Miracle” of world-class surf begins, and the lineup is endless. With this as your home base, you can explore North Shore’s shrimp trucks, pristine beaches, and plantation-style towns.
I absolutely loved getting away to North Shore Oahu and the sleepy, adorable town of Haleiwa. Ke Iki has awesome oceanfront bungalows, where you can enjoy romantic sunsets on an acre and a half of palm-fringed beachfront land. All beachfront bungalows has bean fully remodeled in 2020 and have beautiful ocean and sunset views.
Where to eat in Oahu
Where To Eat in Oahu
Coffee and Breakfast:
Kai Coffee at the Alohilani hotel – Where you can get a taste of Hawaii’s famous Kona coffee. I loooved their coffee, we went every day. My order is the oat milk latte, but they have everything, and the coffee is super good.
Kona Coffee Purveyors – Artisan coffee paired with flakey french pasties right on the Waikiki strip. This place will make you feel like you’re in Europe.
ARS Cafe and Espresso Bar – Half Cafe, half art gallery. This spot is perfect for a craft latte and an avo toast!
Island Vintage Coffee – Another classic spot with high quality craft coffee and small bites and amazing acai bowls!
Scratch Kitchen– Making all your breakfast dreams com true, from healthy bites to fried chicken on waffles.
Heavenly Island Lifestyle– Pop into the Shoreline Hotel in Waikiki for some fo the BEST breakfast around. Eggs benny, acai bowls and even breakfast Pho. The menu has a map of the islands showing where all their ingredients are sourced from.
Ono Poke – Casual but some of the BEST poke on the island!
Off the Hook – amaaazing poke off the beaten path.
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House Without a Key– A Waikiki staple located at the Halekulani Hotel. Go for sunset Mai Tais and live music!
Helena’s Hawaiian Food– While it isn’t overly fancy, Henela’s is a Michelin Star and James Beard Award-winner restaurant. They are the pioneers in defining traditional Hawaiian food. Not only is it delicious, but it is a cultural experience to eat there!
Morimoto Asia Waikiki– Calling all Iron Chef lovers! This is the flagship restaurant of Iron Chef Morimoto where you can indulge in Asian Dim Sum, sushi and large plates! I LOVED this spot.
Nobu Honolulu- For high grade sushi, great for a special date night or honeymoon outing, look no further than Nobu.
M by Chef Marvo– For arguably the best fine dining in Hawaii. Curated by one of Oahu’s most famous chef, this restaurant serves Hawaiian-French fusion cuisine! The food is refined and the ingredients are always fresh. Do the tasting menu for a truly unique foodie experience.
The North Shore
The North Shore is a bit more laid-back, you’re not going to find much fine dining here, but you will find delicious and healthy local eats!
Farm To Barn Cafe and Juicery– healthy buddha bowls, salads, smoothies and sandwiches! Also GREAT for breakfast!
Banzai Sushi– The best sushi on the North Shore! Hands down.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck– Long lines start to form around lunch and dinner time, everyone wanting the same thing: homemade shrimp scampi! There are other good food trucks serving up shrimp classics, but this one is the best!
Aji Limo Food Truck– For Peruvian / Japanese fusion lunch bites!
The Sunrise Shack – the Sunrise Shack is a North Shore MUST. Grab an acai bowl served in a papaya and an avocado toast! And if you don’t leave with an instagram photo here did you even really go to the North Shore?!
Haleiwa Bowls– Another crave-worthy Hawaiian acai bowl pit stop!
Beet Box Cafe– great for healthy, vegan and organic eats, a perfect lunch stop.
Kahuku Farms– an amazing outdoor cafe serving up fresh food directly from their garden (that is only 10 ft away). Grab a salad, panini or farm pizza!
What to see in Oahu
A must if you like American history and are staying in Honolulu. The Pearl Harbor site is incredible. When I went, they even had one of the survivors there talking to visitors, answering questions and taking pictures. I still remember him and how every picture he took he threw up the typical hawaiian hand gesture for “hang loose”. He was awesome, and told me and a group of friends stories about that day that will forever live in infamy.
Sunset sail. Catamaran sail boats depart right out of Waikiki. Talk about a beautiful and romantic setting. Definitely look into taking one if you’re staying on Waikiki Beach!
The Big Island
The Big Island gets its name because it is Hawaii’s biggest island (duh). The best beaches and weather are on the Kona side of the island, rather than the Hilo side. So, if you’re a beach and snorkel lover, you’re going to want to fly in and book a hotel on the Kona side or the Kohala Coast. Kona (also famous for its coffee) has some of the biggest and best hotels ever.
Here’s where I like to stay:
Four Seasons Hualalai is an oasis on the Big Island’s super dry Kona coast. It is only 15 minutes from the airport (huge win), boasts one of the most stunning golf courses in the world (Jack Nicklaus-designed), a gorgeous coastline and stretch of beach, and, my favorite part, SEVEN pools. That’s right – seven! Including one that’s a saltwater ocean lagoon full of wildlife for snorkeling! So cool.
The Best Activities on the Big Island
When it comes to Hawaii, I’m admittedly more of a “drop me on a beach with a bikini and some magazines and pick me up in 7 days” kind of vacationer. I mean, cut me some slack, with beaches as gorgeous as these, sunny days as beautiful, and snorkeling for when I need to cool off in the water, I think I’ve got all I need.
Luckily, I have a dad who managed to convince me, my mom and brother on a recent trip to get out of our ‘tan, rinse, repeat’ routine and go see the majestic Hawaiian volcanoes. Quite a drive away, but how many times in your life can you say you’ve seen HOT LAVA?! It is so, so cool. The Hawaiian islands were actually created from volcanic activity millions of years ago, meaning that they were originally just supposed to be the peaks of an underwater mountain range… Luckily for us and thanks to volcanic activity and plate tectonics, we now have the islands of Hawaii.
Ask your hotel about tours or how to drive to the Volcanoes National Park. Definitely an amazing experience. www.gohawaii.com/big-island/volcanoes-national-park
Daily scuba and snorkel trips depart out of Kona, and it’s some of the best! They’ll take you many places only accessible by boat, so it’s great to do these boat trips if you love to snorkel or scuba.
From late December to early May, whales make their way migrating from Alaska all the way to the warm waters of Hawaii, keep an eye out for their beautiful breeches! Take a whale watching tour or just keep an eye out from the shore. It sure is a gorgeous sight to see them in the wild.
Swim with dolphins.
Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you’re staying at the Hilton Waikoloa, they have it right there. If you’re willing to splurge for the experience, do it. Dolphins are my favorite animals, and I had the best time getting to swim with them
I’ve yet to find a more perfect beach vacation than Hawaii, and like I said it’s that place that you just keep wanting to come back to year after year. I love it for the sunsets, the ocean, the relaxation, the unique island culture, the one-of-a-kind beaches, and, yes, for the beautiful luxe resorts… I can’t help it- I’m a sucker for a great hotel. But, mostly I love Hawaii because of all the memories I have there.
Lanai is the best Hawaiian island for a honeymoon because of its focus on seclusion and total relaxation.
Where to stay on Lanai
A secluded luxury oasis with 5-star restaurants like Nobu and Malibu Farm, and an out-of-this-world breakfast buffet that will keep you full until dinner! This is one of the most exclusive resorts in Hawaii, and is hands down a favorite among honeymooners.