The U.S. state of Hawaii is made up of more than 19 islands in a volcanic archipelago smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The eight largest islands are the “main islands” most tourists know about, and most visitors only spend their time on a few of those eight. The islands are listed here in order from largest to smallest, though two of these are not really open to tourism.
Not to be confused with the name of the entire collection of islands, this largest island is usually referred to as “The Big Island” – and it is big, especially compared to the other islands in the chain. What’s more, it is actually still growing because of the many active volcanoes in the southeast of the island. The Big Island is where you will find Kona, the big resort, as well as the world’s most active volcano and two of the world’s largest mountains. Despite its size, however, it’s not where you’ll find most of the tourists.
This is the most developed island in the chain as well as the one with the highest population. Honolulu is located on Oahu, so it is where the vast majority of Hawaiian residents live. It is also the island where the Hawaiian government is housed. Oahu is where you’ll find the famous Waikiki Beach and the USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor, as well as some of the best surfing in the world off the North Shore.
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Maui is the second-largest island in the state and is home to the resort areas of Lahaina, Kaanapali, Kihei and Wailea. This is also the island on which you will find the volcanic crater of the mountain called Haleakala, which rises to over 10,000 feet.
Kauai is nicknamed the “Garden Island,” which should give you an indication of how lush it is – even compared to its gorgeous sister islands. It should also tell you that this island gets quite a bit of rain – Mount Waialeale gets more rain than almost any other place on earth. Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, and on Kauai you will find the Wailua River, Waimea Caonyon, the Na Pali Coast and lots of sandy beaches.
The island of Molokai is pretty undeveloped, especially as compared to its neighbors. The island is made up of two volcanoes, and is known as the “Friendly Island.” If you make it out to Molokai you’ll find a small resort on the west side of the island and some Hawaiian fish ponds along the southern side. You may also hear about the leper colony on the north shore.
Once, the entire island of Lanai was owned by the Dole company and it was the biggest pineapple plantation on earth. Now, all you are likely to find are high-end resorts. There is only one town on the whole island, which is only 18 miles across at its widest point. Many of Lanai’s sights are way off the beaten path, requiring four-wheel drives to reach them.
This is the smallest inhabited island in Hawaii, and its population is entirely Native Hawaiian. In fact, until recently it was strictly prohibited for anyone except the family and invited guests of the residents. Niihau remains a privately-owned island, and today, in order to get in you’ve got to sign onto a helicopter or ATV tour from Kauai.
A one-time U.S. Navy bombing range, Kahoolawe is the smallest of the “main islands” of Hawaii, but is uninhabited. Since 1990, when Navy training on the island stopped, officials have been working to clean up Kahoolawe. Hawaii created the Kahoolawe Island Reserve in 1993, which prohibits commercial uses of the island and clears the way for Native Hawaiians to reclaim the island for cultural and spiritual purposes.