The Hawaiian Islands archipelago consists of over 150 named islands, atolls, and reefs; but most are tiny. There are eight “main” islands in Hawaii, only seven of which are populated, and of those only the top four have extensive tourism facilities. In order of size the eight main islands are:
Hawaii – 4000 sq. mi., population 185K
Generally called “The Big Island”; home of the highest point in Hawaii – Mauna Kea, at nearly 14,000 feet; famous for the “most active volcano in the world” – Kilauea; huge mixture of climates due to the size of the island and the mountains. Unique tourist opportunity – viewing the lava flow into the sea. Other popular tourist activities: Volcanoes National Park, snorkeling and scuba diving, visiting coffee farms, golfing, zip-lining, waterfalls.
Maui – 725 sq. mi., population 145K
Nicknamed “The Valley Isle”; highest point – the long dormant volcano Haleakala at over 10K feet; famous as the winter breeding ground for humpback whales. Unique tourist opportunity – driving the Road to Hana and visiting the “Seven Sacred Pools”. Other popular tourist activities: watching the sunrise on Haleakala, whale-watching, snorkeling and scuba diving, wind surfing and surfing, Iao Valley State Park.
Oahu – 595 sq. mi., population 950K
Nicknamed “The Gathering Place”; site of Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii; most populous of the Hawaiian islands and therefore has the most nightlife. Unique tourist opportunity – visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. Other popular tourist activities: Waikiki Beach, snorkeling and scuba diving, surfing, Diamond Head, shopping.
Kauai - 550 sq. mi., population 67K
Nicknamed “The Garden Isle”; site of filming for over 100 motion pictures and TV shows; known as the most lush and most romantic getaway of the Hawaiian isles. Unique tourist opportunity – movie tour. Other popular tourist activities: Waimea Canyon State Park, snorkeling and scuba diving, helicopter tours, waterfalls, Limahuli Garden and Preserve, drive the Na Pali coast.
Molokai – 260 sq. mi., population 7K
Nicknamed “The Friendly Isle”; famous for resisting the mass tourism facilities on other islands; best known for its “sustainable tourism” and visitor-friendly culture; also well-known as the historical site of a “leper” colony for sufferers of Hansen’s Disease. Unique tourist opportunity – mule ride to Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Other popular tourist activities: snorkeling and scuba diving, whale watching, kayaking, hiking, macadamia nut farms.
Lanai – 104 sq. mi., population 3K
Nicknamed “The Pineapple Isle”; historically an island-wide pineapple plantation; very limited tourism facilities; no signal lights on the island and mostly dirt roads outside of the one small city. Unique tourist opportunity – pet the cats at the Lanai Animal Rescue Center. Other popular tourist activities: exploring the island in off-road vehicles, Shipwreck Beach, Garden of the Gods, snorkeling and scuba diving, golfing.
Niihau – 70 sq. mi., population less than 200
Nicknamed “The Forbidden Isle”; privately owned and therefore mostly off-limits to all but relatives of the owners, Navy personnel and government officials, or invited guests. Unique tourist opportunity – half-day helicopter and beach tours from other islands.
Kahoolawe – 45 sq. mi., uninhabited
Nicknamed “The Target Isle”; an extremely arid island with very little fresh water that was used by the U.S. military for training and target practice up until 1990; now an Island Reserve that can be used only for native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes.
The rest of the 150+ Hawaiian “islands” are much smaller and essentially uninhabited. Most of the northwestern islands of the Hawaiian Archipelago, including Midway Atoll, are protected as part of the Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument, and therefore require special use permits, primarily for research purposes, from anyone wishing to go there.
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