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Each of Hawaii’s six major islands – Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii Island, Molokai and Lanai – has beautiful beaches. But each island also has its own unique personality and keiki-friendly features, from the urban bustle of Oahu to the lush interior of Kauai to the deserted beaches of Molokai. Here, we share the highlights of each island to help you decide which is the best Hawaiian Island for your family vacation. And, yes, we know it can be tough to choose. No worries. You can always return to visit the other islands, too.
Any Hawaiian island you choose for your family vacation will be magical. How could it not? The islands woo visitors with stunning white and black sand beaches, majestic waterfalls, fragrant flowers and an ‘Ohana (family) friendly culture that welcomes keiki (kids) everywhere.
Plus, there are numerous land and water activities to explore the lush and varied terrain. I always say that if I ever leave my home state of California I would move to Hawaii. And that’s something coming from this California beach girl.
So, how to choose the best Hawaiian island for your family? That depends on your interests, time and budget. Are you looking for a remote island experience, or lots of dining and shopping options?
Each island has pretty beaches, wonderful cultural sites and invigorating outdoor activities. However, each island has its unique features too. Whichever island you choose, you’ll experience the aloha spirit, shave ice and a luau (touristy but fun).
TravelingMom Tip: Wherever you choose to visit, plan to rent a car so you can explore the island! Not matter how fabulous your hotel, there’s so much to see and experience in Hawaii that you’ll want to venture beyond the resort.
Oahu: The Best of Both Worlds
For first-time visitors to Hawaii, I usually recommend Oahu. It’s typically the easiest Hawaiian island to reach, and the most affordable for family travel. Plus it offers everything from urban adventures to laid-back island vibes.
Oahu has some of Hawaii’s best beaches for families and Honolulu is a bustling city chock full of urban amenities. Plus, the island is home to Disney’s Aulani, the luxury resort that is the place to meet Moana and home to a kid-friendly luau at a bedtime-friendly hour.
There are plenty of fun things to do on Oahu with kids. To enjoy them all, we stay in Waikiki, Ko Olina, and the North Shore.
In Waikiki, fun things to visit include the Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, Iolani Palace and Pearl Harbor. The world famous Waikiki Beach is calm, which makes it ideal for surfing and stand up paddling.
Take young kids under water on the Atlantis Submarine. It’s a popular and unforgettable attraction. A boat takes you out to the submarine that dives 100 feet underwater to explore artificial reefs. The tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and, more importantly, make the commentary so much fun that the kids don’t even know they’re learning something!
A hike up Diamond Head affords expansive city and ocean views. Afterward, pick up a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch at the casual Rainbow Drive-In.
The North Shore
The North Shore is rustic and laid-back. Here, you’ll find legendary surf beaches. Not only that, you can see sea turtles sunbathing at Laniakea Beach.
Grab a bite to eat in Haleiwa, a surf town with little galleries. Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, composed of six Polynesian villages. The North Shore is also known for food trucks serving fresh fish tacos, shrimp and more.
Book the kids a surfing lesson at Hans Hedemann Surf School.
Ko Olina’s four lagoons are ideal for swimming, snorkeling and other water sports. In fact, many locals say Ko Olina has the best beaches for families.
It’s no surprise then that Ko Olina is home to several beachfront resorts. This is where you’ll find Disney’s Aulani resort. Read all of our tips for first timers visiting Aulani Resort.
The Big Island: Volcanoes, Waterfalls and Cultural Sites
Which is the best Hawaiian island for diverse outdoor adventures? Hawaii Island, also called the Big Island of Hawaii. It has 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones and many fun family activities to explore the varied terrain.
Active volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls, cultural sites and coffee farms are on my family’s list of favorite things to do on the Big Island.
There are two active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa — in Hilo. For information and lava viewing, visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Stop by the visitor center for park news and activities. This unique park has hiking trails, steam vents, a rainforest and guided tours. Plan to spend a full day exploring this natural wonder.
The sunny Kona side is great for beach activities such as snorkeling and stand-up paddling. The nighttime manta ray snorkel tour is unique to this island. It’s a magical experience floating on top of the water in a calm bay, with bright lights drawing the rays who swirl below.
TravelingMom Tip: The nighttime tour in the dark ocean waters can be a little overwhelming for younger kids, as TravelingMom Editor Cindy Richards learned when she took her pool-raised 10-year-old daughter. Fortunately, the skipper on the boat was happy to keep the tween occupied while her mom enjoyed watching the rays dance in the waters below.
Explore Hawaiian Culture on the Big Island
The island’s cultural sites include the sacred Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. The grounds were once the place of refuge for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers.
Many of the large Hawaii Island resorts, such as the Fairmont Orchid, include lessons on Hawaiian culture for their guests. You can take ukulele lessons, paddle a traditional Hawaiian canoe and learn about taro, the root vegetable that is an important part of Hawaiian cuisine.
More island attractions include Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain in the world) and Akaka State Falls. Splurge on a Hawaii helicopter tour with the kids. Yes, it’s expensive. But it just might be the Hawaii memory your family carries forever.
TravelingMom Tip: The Big Island has two airports: Hilo International Airport and Kona International Airport. Consider flying into one and out of the other so you can drive across and explore the entire island.
Maui: Beaches, Mountains and Farms
Maui is a good choice for families, whether it’s your first or 10th visit to Hawaii. It’s a fun island to explore, especially if you enjoy driving.
The Road to Hana is a must-do on Maui. Get everyone up before dawn so you can get an early start. The drive is just 52 miles long. But with 620 curves and 59 narrow bridges, it can take a few hours. Along the way, you’ll see waterfalls, black sand beaches and the charming town of Hana.
Also worth the drive is Haleakala, a dormant volcano. At 10,023 feet above sea level, the summit is an ideal place to catch a sunrise or sunset. But daytime views are also stunning. It can be chilly at the top, so bring sweaters for everyone.
Situated on Haleakala’s lower slopes in Kula are two unique farms worth visiting. At the Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm, you can walk through lavender fields. A peaceful place, the farm offers tours and lavender products.
Nearby, the Surfing Goat Dairy Farm produces award-winning cheeses. On the kid-friendly tours, you’ll feed goats and sample cheese.
This family-friendly resort area on the western shore of Maui is home to a variety of beachfront hotels, terrific family-friendly restaurants, lots of free things to do with kids and some truly amazing sunsets.
TravelingMom Tip: The Royal Lahaina Luau: Myths of Maui is one of the kid-friendliest we have tried. The longest-running Polynesian show in the island has everything you want in a luau: the aloha shell greeting, imu ceremony (unearthing the roasted pig from the ground), entertaining show and a Samoan fire dance. Best of all for families with picky eaters, the buffet is very keiki-friendly.
Maui’s Ocean Life
The best snorkeling is at Molokini crater, home to thousands of fish and marine life.
If snorkeling isn’t your thing, head to The Maui Ocean Center. Not your typical aquarium, it features a 750,000-gallon Open Ocean exhibit (complete with a 240-degree view acrylic tunnel that’s perfect for kids to meander through), daily presentations, outdoor tide pools and a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle sanctuary.
A former whaling port, Lahaina is a charming waterfront village. Take a self-guided tour along the Historic Lahaina Trail. It leads to 62 historic sites. Treat your family to shave ice and sit under the massive Banyan Tree, planted in 1873.
Kauai: Rivers, Waterfalls and Jurassic Park
Kauai is aptly dubbed the garden isle. The island’s mountains and valleys are lush and green, flowing with waterfalls and rivers.
Adventure outfitters provide a fun and safe way to explore the island top to bottom. For example, we got an aerial view of the island via Island Helicopters Kauai. That’s the way to see Jurassic Falls, the majestic setting where the 1993 Jurassic Park movie was filmed. The Manawaiopuna Falls (its official name) was the backdrop for the the scene when the visitors first arrive on the island.
One of my favorite activities is sailing and snorkeling along the Napali Coast, dimpled with sea caves. On our last visit, we booked the BBQ Picnic Snorkel Sail tour with Capt. Andy’s Eco Adventures. We had an amazing time sailing and swimming.
That is the way to see Hawaii’s cute spinner dolphins. These amazing creatures jump out of the water vertically and spin like a top before diving back into the ocean.
TravelingMom Tip: There is also some incredible hiking along the coast. Plan to start early. There is very limited parking at the trail head and the spots fill up by 9am.
Princeville Ranch Adventures offers several tours to explore the working ranch’s property. On the Kalihiwai Falls Hike, we rappelled a rock wall and walked through a rainforest. The highlight was swimming in a secluded waterfall followed by a picnic. We were the only people there!
Places to visit on your own include Waimea Canyon, Poipu Beach and Hanalei Bay.
TravelingMom Tip: Be sure to visit the little town of Hanapepe for yummy fresh taro chips made from taro root with its tiny purple veins.
Molokai: Empty Beaches and Barrier Reef
The most undeveloped accessible Hawaiian island, Molokai is a true getaway. Here, you’ll find empty beaches and 30 miles of reef with abundant marine life.
There’s only one two-lane highway stretching across the small island, and Molokai doesn’t have a major resort, shopping centers or traffic lights. There’s a small, rustic town – Kaunakakai – for supplies. The island is mostly populated by native Hawaiians. While they’re protective of their land, they welcome visitors.
Molokai might be the best Hawaiian island for couples seeking an intimate island experience. But it’s also good for families who enjoy authentic excursions led by locals.
We snorkeled with a young Hawaiian who speared fish for his dinner. We also went on a cultural hike in Halawa Valley and swam in the pond beneath Mo`oula Falls.
Where to Stay on the Hawaiian Islands
There’s a good assortment of lodging options for all budgets on the islands.
Where to Stay in Oahu
Here, you’ll find condos and a range of boutique, luxury and resort hotels. My family enjoys beachfront resorts and hotels. Some of our favorites include Outrigger Waikiki, Turtle Bay Resort, Hawaiian Hilton Village, Disney Aulani and Ko’Olina Resort.
Where to Stay on Maui
Maui’s popular Kaanapali coast has many oceanfront hotels with easy beach access. These include the Sheraton, Westin, Hyatt Regency and Kaanapali Beach Resort. For luxury digs, check into the Four Seasons in Wailea.
Where to Stay on the Big Island Hawaii
On the Big Island, we like to stay at the family-friendly Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast. It’s a beautiful beachfront property with a bay for swimming, snorkeling and stand up paddling. In addition, the Sheraton and King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel have scenic locations in Kona. On the island’s Hilo side, we stay at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.
Where to Stay on Kauai
In Kauai, we like the Outrigger Kiahuna and the Marriott Resort & Beach Club. The Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa is another favorite.
Molokai’s Lodging Options
No fancy resorts here. Instead, expect a charming assortment of hotels, vacation rentals and cottages in the central town of Kaunakakai and the village of Mauna Loa in the West End.