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One of the biggest choices a traveler to Hawai'i will make is which island(s) to visit. There is no pat or easy answer as every island has its unique charms and attractions.
Oahu is the most popular Hawaiian island. The fame of Waikiki, large selection of budget hotels and many direct flights to Honolulu make it an easy choice for many. In and around Honolulu are numerous educational and enjoyable activities like the USS Arizona Memorial, the Bishop Museum, Hanauma Bay, etc. Honolulu is a major city and has things all American cities have including first-class restaurants, hotels and shopping. But Oahu offers much more than just Honolulu. The scenic windward (east) coast has many attractive beaches and is a favorite for those who prefer vacation homes to hotels. Oahu's north shore, famous for epic winter surfing also has miles of sandy beaches that are calm during the summer. This part of the island is much quieter than the bustling Honolulu area 1 hour away.
At the other end of the spectrum are the least populated islands like Molokai and Lanai. Molokai was recently rated highly by National Geographic Traveler as an ecologically sound destination, but you won't find many typical tourist attractions here. The former leper colony of Father Damien is a frequently visited site. On Lana' i you won't find a single stoplight, and with a population of only 3000 you also will not find many people. That doesn't mean you can't be pampered, because there are two Four Seasons resorts there, Manele Bay at the beach, and Lodge at Koele in the upcountry hills. There is also the small Hotel Lanai and a few B&B's in Lanai City. It is a place to relax, but there are still many things to do including hiking, exploring the island's remote spots with a 4x4 Jeep, snorkeling/diving, sport clay shooting, horseback riding and golfing the two world class courses designed by Jack Nicklaus (Challenge at Manele) and Greg Norman (Experience at Koele). Lanai City is quaint town with some shops, art galleries and a few restaurants (but not a chain store around).
Maui is the second most popular island, probably due to its wide variety of wonderful beaches and great micro-climates. Maui caters to the tourist trade with a multitude of activities like snorkeling tours, diving expeditions, helicopter flights, cultural, farm and garden tours, lu'au dinner shows, etc. Maui also has a large complement of golf courses and resort amenities like tennis and spas. It is also home to historic Lahaina, once capital of the Kingdom of Hawai' i and keeper of centuries of history, and the heritage Road to Hana, a scenic drive across East Maui filled with one-lane bridges, waterfalls, and plantations that hark back to the days of old Hawai' i. A drive up to Haleakala National Park and the 10,000-foot summit of Haleakala Crater is always a treat. The resorts are concentrated in two coastal areas, Ka'anapali/Kapalua in the west and Wailea/Kihei in the south.
Kauai has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it is one of the smaller, quieter islands. It still offers many tourist amenities like helicopter flights, ocean snorkeling trips, scenic hikes and river rides. Natural wonder Waimea Canyon is the wettest place on Earth; Na Pali coastline has some of the world's highest cliffs. Kauai is the most lush and green island as it is the oldest in the Hawaiian chain. It does tend to get more rainfall than the other islands, but that's what helps make it so beautiful. Poipu Beach on the south coast is a sunny resort area, while Princeville in the north is a verdant tropical paradise of condos and resorts.
The Big Island (the Island of Hawaii) has a character of its own. It does not have long stretches of sandy beach and its sheer size makes traveling to various destinations more of a day trip. Perhaps its greatest attraction is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located upcountry with Kilauea Crater at the southern tip. HVNP is a special park, with long hikes and trips through rain forests and lava flow fields. When one is fortunate enough to see the lava flowing and erupting (as it has been pretty continually since 1984), it is truly remarkable. The lava tends to seep underground into tubes and cannot be easily viewed unless it spews into the ocean. The Big Island has many beautiful beaches on the Kohala coast ( Hapuna, for example) as well as golf courses ( Mauna Kea's classic par three over the ocean is an oft-copied beauty) and also offers helicopter flights over the crater, snorkeling boats, hiking, horseback riding, etc.
Whichever island you visit, you will not be disappointed and will be hungry to go back to Hawaii to see more. A general rule of thumb is to spend at least 1 week on any island, and only visit a second island if you have more time than that. Each island has much to explore.
There are also guidebooks which contain self-tests that help you determine which island is best for you according to outdoor activity and sightseeing style. Categories include snorkeling, hiking, surfing, paddling, beaches, picnicing and safe places for the kids. Maui scores high for beaches, Hawaii Island for snorkeling, Kauai for hiking and Oahu for surfing.