Hawaiian Islands: An Introduction to Six Islands of Paradise

Ultimate Guide to the Hawaiian Islands

Six Islands of Paradise: An Introduction to Hawaii

If you are like many who have never been, the Hawaiian Islands can blend into a mass of unpronounceable vowels and indistinct images of a tropical paradise. The geography of the islands is not difficult, however, and all it takes is one trip to make visitors long to become experts. If you have never been, or if you have only been to one island, this introduction should whet your appetite and familiarize you with the islands and their most important characteristics.

The name Hawaii is derived from the name of the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii Island. The word Hawaii is from the Proto-Polynesian hawaiki language. It means ‘place of the gods’ or ‘homeland’.

Perhaps the most amazing fact you’ll find is how close and reasonably priced Hawaii really is. Long thought of as a distant playground for the wealthy, Hawaii is less than 6 hours from the west coast and terrifically, wonderfully affordable.

Most do not realize that the Hawaiian islands span more than 1,500 miles, creating the longest chain of islands in the world. In total, Hawaii is actually 130 separate islands if you include the atolls and coral reefs above sea level. However, the eight of these islands that cover 99% of the land area receive all of the attention, and of those, only six offer tourism opportunities (Niihau is privately owned and Kahoolawe was once a test range for the US Navy).

The six major islands are Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and Hawaii’s Big Island.

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Each of the Hawaiian islands has its own identity, ambiance, climate and geological features that make it unique. The Hawaiian Islands are volcanic, the products of millions of years of undersea eruptions; today, however, the only active volcano is on Hawaii’s Big Island. Hawaii’s climate is an amazing phenomenon, as well. Climatologists will tell you that the earth has 13 types of climatic conditions, and of those, 11 are represented on Hawaii – the only missing conditions are Arctic and Saharan. At sea level, summer temperatures average 80 degrees Fahrenheit and in winter, a balmy 75 degrees. Year round, the average water temperature is 74 degrees.


Getting around on the Hawaiian islands is a cinch. A ferry runs between Maui and Lanai and Maui and Molokai, and inter-island flights offer multi-island passes at a discount. Another small commercial carrier, Island Air, flies between the smaller airports on the islands. Most visitors relish self-drive adventures, touring the winding roads along the beaches or into the interior of the islands at their own pace. Rental options range from scooters to Ferraris, but for a classic experience, try renting a Jeep.

Hawaii is Unique

What’s truly unique about Hawaii, though, is the sheer number of activities available in such an amazingly beautiful setting – the scenery is unmatched and unlike anything in the world. Mountains and beaches, tropical rainforests and snow.

Pineapple plantations and volcanoes. Sit and do nothing, or try just a few of the built-in diversions that nature has given a home here: water sports like surfing, windsurfing, boating, sailing, snorkeling, diving, fishing and kayaking; or try golf, tennis, world-class bicycling, hiking and camping.

The islands are also home to an entire health industry, with internationally recognized spas, yoga and holistic centers throughout the state. And Hawaii takes the precious gifts that nature has bestowed very seriously, so ecotourism is practiced with a particular zeal here, and many tour and local guide companies offer programs designed around the islands’ flora and fauna.

Hawaii: The Aloha State

Hawaii state’s nickname is “Aloha State’, because the word ‘Aloha’ is one of the most commonly used words in Hawaiian Language. Aloha is the Hawaiian word for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy. It is commonly used as a simple greeting. Based on the context, Aloha can mean ‘hello’, ‘welcome’, ‘love’, ‘best wishes’ or even ‘goodbye’

Six Islands of Aloha

Hawaii: ‘The Big Island’

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As you might have already guessed, The Big Island is the largest of all the Hawaiian Islands. At about 4,038 square miles (and growing) it could easily fit all of the other islands x 2. The Big Island is the home to the Kilauea volcano: the still active, currently erupting volcano is the most active volcano in the world. It has had a continual lava flow pouring into the ocean since 1983, creating approximately 40 new acres of island every year. The Big Island boasts more than 260 miles of coast.

During the winter, it can actually snow on the island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea. You can snow ski on its 13,796 foot altitudes, weather permitting.

The Kona-Kohala Coast on the Big Island hosts several luxury resorts and golf facilities along with its white-sand beaches. Here, too, is the town of Hilo, displaying its tropical, quintessential Hawaiian culture.

Again, this overview is just a start at describing the amazing Hawaiian islands. Its cultural and environmental significance can only be fully understood through a visit in person – to see is to believe. Once you are there, consider leaving the beaten path to explore the lush outdoors of America’s 50th state.

Maui: ‘The Valley Isle’

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The second largest Hawaiian Island, Maui (727.2 square miles) has something for everyone. Visitors to Maui are surprised by how undeveloped most of the island feels, and yet how much it offers in terms of dining, resorts and nightlife.

Maui is called ‘The Valley Isle’ because there is an incredible isthmus between the northwestern and southwestern volcanoes and many large valleys carved into both volcanoes. The dormant Haleakala volcano (though officially classified as “active”) and Kahalawai volcano watch over Hawaii’s second largest island and shape the island’s mountains, valleys and waterfalls.

Maui is also the whale watching center for the islands (the humpback whale is the state animal). Driving to the top of Haleakala Crater to watch the sunrise is a Maui visitor ritual (many opt to bike back down from the top). Also on your must-do list is a drive around the island’s perimeter on the 50 mile Hana Highway on the Road to Hana. Another attraction is the small village of Lahaina, full of great shops and restaurants.

Oahu: ‘The Gathering Place’

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Third largest, (596.7 square miles) Oahu is the most commercial of the islands, and home to Waikiki and Honolulu. But do not let that fool you: Oahu mesmerizes visitors with rainforests, mountains, valleys, and spectacular ocean waves. It is home to more than 125 beaches. It is a nice balance of urban and tropical paradise. Oahu has many activities for all interests and attracts more to its shores as a gathering place.

A great suggestion is to rent a car (an open top is ideal) and drive the perimeter of the island – you may well be awed by how undeveloped and quaint much of the island remains.

Honolulu, on the southern tip of Oahu and bordered by both mountains and ocean, is actually one of the largest cities in the United States and home to near 80% of the Hawaiian population. Because of this is is often thought of as THE main island.

Waikiki is famous the world over, where urban culture and the distinct Polynesian flavor of Hawaii co-exist in perfect harmony. Diamond Head, a mountainous volcanic crater, is a famous and easily recognizable landmark.

Kauai: ‘The Garden Isle’

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The oldest geological island, Kauai (fourth largest – 562.3 square miles). Kauai is called ‘The Garden Isle’ because about 97% consists of undeveloped mountain ranges and rainforests. The rugged coast boasts more miles of beach and hiking trails than all the other islands. It is lush and green. Also known as the second ‘wettest spot on Earth’, Kauai gets an amazing 460 inches of rain annually.

This is the island serving as a backdrop to many films, including Jurassic Park. Its primitive, tropical beauty evokes the Garden of Eden – it is an island of mountains and valleys, waterfalls and beautiful beaches.

On the Northwest side of the island, 3,000 foot cliffs line the Na Pali Coast, much of it inaccessible except by boat or hikes on foot.

The island is circular in shape, offering five areas developed for tourism. This well-rounded destination appeals to commercial shoppers, fine diners, and eco-tourists alike.

Molokai: ‘The Friendly Isle’

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Molokai takes you back in time, to old Hawaii. It is the least touristy of all the islands. It is the fifth largest (260 square miles) Words most often associated with the island of Molokai are peace and tranquility. This is known as ‘The Friendly Isle’ because the super laid-back lifestyle makes the people the friendliest. Molokai is home to many of the ecological and adventure-oriented activities found in Hawaii.

Each side of the island is very different. The eastern side of the island is very green and tropical, and the western side, in contrast, offers dry grasslands and beaches. To the north, tall sea cliffs rising more than 3,500 feet above sea level look out over the ocean and create Hawaii’s tallest waterfall.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula is considered one of the state’s most beautiful areas and is ironically the former home of the island’s famous leper colony, bordered by high, sheltering cliffs on one side.

The main “urban” area is Kaunakakai, a town with no traffic lights. There is not a building over two stories and definitely no fast food.

There are only 32 miles of pavement on the island. Much of Molokai is given over to luxury resorts, golfing, and activities for adventurous personalities. It is often considered to have some of Hawaii’s best snorkeling and scuba diving spots.

Lanai: ‘The Pineapple Isle’

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Pineapples can be found on any of the islands, but Lanai was at one time a giant pineapple plantation. Lanai produced about 75% of the world’s pineapple, being a major exporter. It is home to some of Hawaii’s most famous beaches, such as Hulopoe Bay.

The only town on the island is Lanai City, a quaint town filled with small shops and artist studios. Lanai entertains many visitors with large luxury resorts and their attendant championship golf properties.

The Four Seasons Lanai is the only hotel on the island currently. Tech-mogul Larry Loon purchased 98% of the island from LA millionaire David Murdock making it privately owned.

What about the other islands?

Niihau: ‘The Forbidden Isle’

Niihau is the seventh largest island (69.5 square miles). It is know as the ‘Forbidden Isle’ because it is generally off limits to visitors. You must receive a personal invitation from the Islands owner and be of Hawaiian blood. There were a few supervised activity tours and hunting safaris for tourists that operated in the late 80’s but now the island is reserved for Hawaiian cultural activities.

Kahaoolawe: ‘The Target Isle’

Kahoolawe is the smallest island (44.6 square miles). It became known as ‘The Target Isle” after use as a US Army training ground during WWII. Today the State of Hawaii prohibits visitors to the island because of the risk of unexploded bombs.


Planning Your Visit to the Hawaiian Islands

Before you start planning your getaway, it is important to determine what kind of Hawaiian experience you want to enjoy. There are an overwhelming number of possibilities for the first time traveler. GoGo Travel can help you make thoughtful choices in your vacation planning taking into account your personal preferences, interests, time, and budget.Time is a critical factor in planning your vacation.

Second, is choosing which of the Hawaiian Islands is best for your adventure. If you are going to be in Hawaii a short time (less than a week) it would be a mistake to book hurried tours on different islands. Experienced travelers may bypass Oahu and opt for visiting the neighbor islands. Visit Maui for its beaches and whale watching, Kauai for some hiking, or Lanai for rest and relaxation.

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