If I had a dollar for every single time I got a message saying “Hey Kait, I’m coming to Hawaii, which island should I visit?” — I would be able to afford oceanfront property. SERIOUSLY! I’m so excited to have my friends from Oahu Activities here today to talk about everything you need to know about deciding which island is best between Oahu and The Big Island of Hawaii. There’s nothing subtle about Hawaii’s beauty. Its volcanoes are among some of the largest in the world, its waterfalls cascade from heights of 1,000 feet, its waters teem with enormous marine life, even its waves surpass most breaks on the planet. In other words, vacationing in Hawaii is an obvious choice, thanks to all that it has to offer. What’s less obvious, however, is deciding on which island to visit. Those unfamiliar with the 50th state may assume that the islands are all alike, and while this is true to some extent—each boasts glorious beaches, lush rainforests, and unbeatable sunsets—the six main islands all have their own distinct vibe. For decades, the clear choice was to vacation on Oahu, but the introduction of high-end resorts and the increase in both activities and restaurants has rendered other islands just as appealing. Today, one of the biggest decisions vacationers face is choosing between Oahu and the Big Island. If you’ve narrowed it down between these two, here’s all you need to know before booking your plane ticket.
Oahu vs. The Big Island
King Kamehameha III may not have realized that naming Honolulu the capital of Hawaii in 1850 would one day turn Oahu into the most populous island in the chain (and the city itself the eleventh largest in the United States). Now, it holds the highest number of accommodations in Hawaii—as in, over 30,000 units across its 597 square miles. The lion’s share of its resort properties rest in sun-splashed Honolulu and its beachy enclave, Waikiki—a legendary spot that’s home to The Royal Hawaiian (aka “The Pink Palace of the Pacific”) and The Moana Surfrider, both of which broke ground in the early 1900s. Around them swarm other beauties, from the chic The Modern Honolulu to the romantic Halekulani. Outside of this tourist hub and visitors can rent private estates on the chill North Shore or a luxe room in Ko Olina—and pretty much everything in between.
The Big Island took a while longer to catch on to the tourist craze that became Hawaii; for much of its existence, it remained rural and definitively local. While it’s retained its country, unpopulated charm—to note, it holds 13% of Hawaii’s population, while 80% of Hawaii’s residents live on Oahu—it’s also become world-renowned for its resorts. Chief among them is the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a 62-acre property that features a saltwater lagoon teeming with aquatic life, three swimming pools, thirteen dining and bar venues, a museum, and a Dolphin Quest education center. The 5-Star Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai is a destination unto itself, thanks to bungalows that front a dramatic coastline, an open-air spa lush with foliage, a private golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and some of the most stellar restaurants in Hawaii. The island’s less-spendy hotels, condos, and resorts are often spacious and lovely, while unique finds—from a hotel on the edge of a volcanic caldera to a “hobbit house” in the middle of the rainforest—turn a standard night’s stay into something magical.
Soft sand and crystalline waters characterize many of the beaches on Oahu, some of which—Waikiki, Lanikai—are verifiably world-famous, and often have the crowds to match them. For good cause, too; their lulling waves, warm water, and sunny energy are indeed total crowd pleasers. Meanwhile, Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline (Ehukai) are three of the most coveted beaches on the globe; located on the celebrated North Shore, waves here set the stage for some of the most prestigious surfing competitions in the world.
Whereas Oahu’s beaches provide the prevailing view of paradise—hello, golden sand and turquoise water—the Big Island’s are radical and unique. One such oddity is Papakolea Beach, where the presence of olivine gives its sand an inimitable green (yes, green) shade. As the youngest island in the chain—and with volcanoes that are still active—the Big Island features plenty of black-sand beaches that present a startling contrast with the aquamarine water and gem-green vegetation. (Its newest inky-sanded beach, Pohoiki, is a sight to behold.) Those who like to couple sunbathing with sweat will also be stoked with the island’s selection of hard-to-find (and difficult to get to) secluded coves; Waipio Valley Beach, which sits at the base of 2,000-foot cliffs and requires three miles of hiking, is straight-up exceptional.
Bottom line: It’s a tie here, with the real bottom line coming down to personal preference. Those in search of wide, open spaces, no matter if the water may be too rocky to swim in, will be thrilled with the Big Island’s collection of remote splendors. Visitors intent on traditional tropical pleasures—longboarding, beach volleyball, easy-access swimming—will likely be happier with Oahu’s predominantly white-sand beaches.
On any given night on Oahu, one can splurge on mai tais and oceanfront sushi, take a trip to Chinatown to hear live local talent, slip into an art museum that doubles as a wine bar, belt out a song or two at a karaoke hotspot, dance to the beats of supremely-talented DJs—and end it all with late-night drinks on an illuminated rooftop. In other words, Oahu has got it all in terms of nightlife, from speakeasies and brewpubs to luaus and jazz lounges. Barhopping is a blast throughout Waikiki and Honolulu, Ko Olina’s resort bars raise the well, bar, when it comes to craft cocktails, and festivals and concerts often abound.
Nightlife on the Big Island is less go all out then kick right back. Far more country than city, its after-dark venues are known for blending food with a little bit of live music and lots of chilling out and talking story, rendering it just right for visitors who are keen on savoring each of their Hawaiian sunrises. Still, what nightlife it does have is quite nice, from entertainment and tropical libations at the Kailua-Kona institution, On the Rocks, to the cold drafts overlooking the water at Humpy’s Big Island Ale House.
Bottom line: There’s no real competition here—Oahu is the winner not just between the two islands but also in all of Hawaii.
The Great Outdoors
That first-rate nightlife doesn’t take away from the fact that Oahu’s outdoor gems are for the record books. There are copious opportunities for fun under the sun on the third largest island in Hawaii, from taking an ATV through the verdant grounds that served as the shooting site for Jurassic Park to hikes that go from urban to secluded to sweeping (that’d be the divine Waahila Ridge Trail). Ocean activities are ample, too; in a single day, one can surf, SUP, snorkel, sail, swim, fish, kite, dive, and windsurf, if they so wish. While some of this ocean fun is sure to be crowded—Hanauma Bay, a protected alcove flourishing with gorgeous marine life, sees roughly 3,000 visitors a day (and a million per year), while just putting your towel down on Waikiki Beach can be feat in itself—the island is nevertheless an Eden for outdoorsy-types. Home to some of the most outrageous al fresco things to do in Hawaii, Oahu activities include the top spot for skydiving over the gleaming Pacific.
Scuba diving, golfing, swimming with dolphins, even snowboarding—the Big Island seriously has it all when it comes to outdoor adventures. Those eager to witness the island expanding will certainly be awed by a guided tour that’ll take them to hot lava flowing into the ocean (some tours are by boat, others by foot). Indeed, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is easily one of the biggest attractions in all of the Aloha State; here, not one but two active volcanoes stun even the most blasé among us. (To note: Spanning 330,000 acres, its highest peak goes down as the second largest cone in the world—and the planet’s most massive single mountain.) Lava isn’t the only thing that falls here, either; in North Hamakua, the stunning Akaka Falls cascades from a height of 442 feet within a lush, uber-green forest. Equally green and spectacular is Waipio Valley, a mystical gorge that made an appearance in Waterworld and which brims with legends and a storied history; one of its most extreme hikes, the Muliwai Trail, requires nine switchback miles to reach Waimanu Valley. (It’s well worth it—the views are amazing.) Ziplining is another enlivening way to see the Big Island’s plentiful natural wonders; horseback riding and biking here are also great fun. And while “The Great Outdoors” is usually reserved for day-time exploits, a different form of nightlife explodes when the sun sets on the Big Island: Both stargazing and Manta Ray diving are positively epic.
Bottom line: Oahu may hold some absolute knockouts, but the vastness—and range—of the Big Island’s outdoors is unrivaled offering up incredible photo opportunities in Hawaii.
Hawaii as a whole is paradise indeed—and Oahu is a shopper’s Eden. To wit: The state’s shopping titan, Ala Moana Center, is the largest open-air shopping plaza in the world and the seventh largest mall in the U.S.; within it you’ll find everything from Armani Exchange to Nordstrom to Zara. Luxury Row, meanwhile, boasts the ultimate in high-end stores, including Chanel, Tiffany & Co., and Bottega Veneta. Those interested more in bargain than haute can hit up a range of venues across the island, from The Royal Hawaiian Center (which features standbys like Forever 21) to the Waikele Premium Outlets (where one will find Banana Republic, Barney’s, Kate Spade, and more) to the island’s famous swap meet. Oahu’s quieter coasts—Windward and North Shore—also have adorable boutiques bursting with bikinis, island-made jewelry, and perfect-for-that-luau aloha wear.
While few travel to the Big Island specifically to peruse both luxury and economy stores, it’s still possible to shop till you drop in between visits to the beaches, parks, and forests. Prince Kuhio Plaza houses department stores (Sears, Macy’s) as well as mall standards such as American Eagle and Claire’s. At the Waikoloa Beach Resort, visitors can browse the racks—or, rather, shelves—at Tommy Bahama’s and Baron & Leeds (and all within an incredibly pretty location). Farmers’ Markets are especially fantastic on the Big Island; the Alii Garden Marketplace in Kailua-Kona, for one, melds a flea market and craft fair in a low-key setting. Surf wear can also be found in heaps at numerous spots around the island; Making Waves makes this style accessible to many. Looking to splurge on something distinctly Hawaiian? The Gallery of Great Things in lovely Waimea features Hawaiian gems ranging from much-desired Ni’ihau shell leis to handmade bedspreads.
Bottom line: There’s no doubt about it: Oahu takes the cake here—it’s a veritable shopping mecca.
History & Culture
One of the boons of visiting Hawaii is that you needn’t be gaga about the beach; history and culture buffs will be smitten—and endlessly entertained—with its ancient sites, festivals, exhibitions, and museums. Oahu hammers this home. In Honolulu proper, one can tour the only royal residence in the United States—the beautifully-restored ‘Iolani Palace—before exploring Old Hawaii (and the natural world) at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. On the verdant North Shore, the main islands of Polynesia—from Samoa and New Zealand to Hawaii and Tonga—can be grasped on a stronger level at the interactive (and extremely interesting) Polynesian Cultural Center. More than 4,500 works of art can be viewed at the Honolulu Museum of Art, while opera—even in Hawaii—can be relished at the Hawaii Opera Theater. The island is also home to festivals both elegant and quirky (check out the Waikiki Spam Jam) and Pearl Harbor, the somber site that marked the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War.
Merely driving around the island of Hawaii is a lesson in its history and culture. The birthplace of the first King of Hawaii, the island abounds with cultural interests from north to south. In Kailua-Kona, visitors can stop at Mokuaikaua Church to see the first Christian church in Hawaii (a beauty, comprised of crushed coral and lava rock, that was originally built in 1820); just across the street and you can view the koa-wood chair constructed for the 6’-tall, 400-pound Princess Ruth at the Hulihee Palace. Those determined to get a feel for what life was once like on Hawaii’s plantations will have a ball at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, which sits in the center of “coffee country.” The Parker Ranch Museum in Waimea, meanwhile, offers the chance to learn about one of the oldest ranches in the United States—one that even predates Texas and Southwestern establishments. More history lessons can be had at Pu’ukohola Heiau, a sacred spot on the windswept Kohala Coast, while those visiting the island at Easter will be treated to the grandeur that is Hawaii’s annual hula extravaganza, the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
Bottom line: Oahu wins again: Ever since it was named the capital of Hawaii, it’s assumed some of the most significant historical spots in the state. The real winner, however, is Hawaii itself, whose staggering beauty and wonderful energy is profoundly felt on every island. Whether you want that expressed in shopping, dining, and nightlife (Oahu) or in enormous natural wonders (the Big Island) is, of course, up to you. No doubt you’ll have the time of your life with whatever you choose. Make sure to follow Oahu tips for attractions, things to do and great places to stay on Oahu.