One of the most difficult parts of planning a trip to Hawaii is deciding which island to visit. In an ideal world, you’d have enough time to see three to four of them. But, when reality strikes and time becomes an issue, sometimes you are forced to narrow it down to two, or one.
In this series, we hope to give you a better idea of how the islands compare to each other, to help you decide which is the best fit for your interests. We kick things off with a breakdown of Oahu versus Big Island. Which island you choose will depend on what you’re looking for.
This article is broken down into the following chapters:
Oahu and the Big Island in a nutshell:
While it is unfair to summarize any of our paradise-like islands in a few paragraphs we are giving it a shot because it will help you focus your trip planning.
We promise not to play favorites and want to start by saying that both islands are perfect for exploring and kicking back with a cocktail after a day on the beach. Each of our islands resembles the other islands a lot more than any other US state, and each is more similar to a tropical island such as Bali than to any US state.
Having said that, here are the main things to know about Oahu and the Big Island when you need to make a choice between visiting one of them:
(1 paragraph characterization)
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for Oahu:
Don’t miss these 3 things:
With 8 / 13 climate zones you can find an immense diversity on the Big Island. From the snowy peak of Mauna Kea to the pretty white, black, and green sand beaches along the coast. This is your island if you like volcanoes, outdoor adventures and lots of nature. Tl;dr: the Big Island is perfect if you want an adventurous vacation and you’re willing to get out and explore.
Recommended minimum stay: 7 days
Good to know for the Big Island: It is called the BIG island for a reason: renting a car is essential if you want to see most of the island. Try spending your time at at least two different locations: On the western coast (e.g. in Kona or on the Kohala coast) and the south/eastern side (in Hilo or Volcano Village).
Don’t miss these 3 things: The Manta Ray night swim/snorkel/dive, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and seeing the sunset on the MaunaKea summit.
What island should you choose if you like…
We have found that the best way to make a difficult choice is to base your decision only on the one or two factors that are most important to you. These are our suggestions of what you should base your choice on for Oahu and the Big Island:
Outdoor Adventure: Big Island
The type of outdoor adventure you’ll find on the Big Island is unmatched throughout the state. Comprised of five volcanoes and about the size of Connecticut (all the other islands could fit inside the Big Island), it has a population of less than 200,000, meaning there’s more open space and opportunities for adventure than any other island. [Link to future article on Big Island adventure here?].
Beaches: Oahu (but the Big Island is a good runner-up)
The downside of the Big Island being a young, jagged, rocky island is that it lacks a large number of white sandy beaches (*), and Oahu is arguably, along with Maui, the best island to find one. There are not many memorable white sand beaches on the Big Island (Hapuna Beach being a rare exception). Oahu has dozens of picture-perfect beaches, by comparison, so if you’re looking for that idyllic version of Hawaii, with long days on the beach, choose Oahu.
(*) However, the upside of the Big Island being so young is that we have some amazing black sand beaches and an unique green sand beach! These beaches are not your typical “lounge all day and swim” kind of beaches but they are very special in their own right.
Volcanology: Big Island
While Oahu is a beautiful, eroded island with much to learn and observe about volcanic history, the Big Island has two things over it: 1) It’s made up of five volcanoes instead of just two for Oahu and 2) the Big Island has active volcanoes, whereas Oahu does not.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the gateway to the surface of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. Here you can peer into a volcanic summit crater, explore its underground lava tubes, and learn more about shield volcanoes and how they form islands. Volcano lovers and those interested in geology should head to the Big Island.
Food, Beverage, and Nightlife: Oahu
No question here. Oahu is the seat of food, drink, and nightlife in Hawaii, and no where else in the islands can compare. Honolulu is the only place where restaurants and bars will even consider being open past midnight, with lots of late-night events and happenings taking place in Waikiki, Kakaako, and Chinatown. Even in the sleepier towns on the island, like Kailua, you can find places open past ten.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to do on the Big Island – it’s just that options are limited, and things will close earlier. Kona is your best bet for nighttime entertainment, although you won’t find nearly the range of options or local authenticity you see on Oahu. Those looking for a bite to eat in Hilo will do just fine, but any plans for a “night on the town” should be quickly erased. For nightlife, choose Oahu.
Variety: Big Island
Oahu might have the most extreme demonstration of variety with Waikiki on one end and Waianae on the other, but overall, the Big Island is where you’ll find the largest variety of terrain, towns, and experiences. From the blue waters and hot, lifeless lava fields of the Kona Coast, to the upcountry coffee fields, to the ranch lands of Kohala, to the big banyan trees of Hilo, to the hippie town of Pahoa, to the 13,803-foot summit of Mauna Kea, to the green and black sand beaches, to the dramatic valleys of the north, to the towering waterfalls… you get the idea. The Big Island contains almost all of the world’s ecosystems and offers a wide variety of environments to explore.
Sample itineraries for the Big Island and Oahu:
Link here to the sample itineraries I have for Oahu and the Big Island to give people a head-start in planning.