Hawaii is an archipelago consisting of 8 islands, 7 of which are populated and only 4 of which have more than 10,000 inhabitants. It’s why you’ll see references to “4”, “5”, and “7” main Hawaiian islands, even though there are actually 8.
In fact, if you include smaller islands and islets, the number exceeds 100!
Typically, however, when people refer to the Hawaiian Islands, they are referring to the 7 or 8 main islands, and it’s those that we will look at here.
Oahu (The Gathering Place)
- Population (Approximately): 950,000
- Area: 596.7 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Mount Ka’ala
Oahu is the third-largest Hawaiian island by area but the largest by population, housing over two-thirds of the state’s residents.
Oahu is the 20th largest island in the United States of America (with the exception of Puerto Rico and Long Island, all islands ahead of Oahu on that list are in Alaska and Hawaii).
Oahu is where you will find the city of Honolulu, the largest in the state, and it’s also home to Waikiki, North Shore, Diamond Head, Kailua Bay, and Pearl Harbor, making it the number 1 destination for tourists and surfers.
Some notable people to come from Oahu include legendary surfers like Duke Kahanamoku, Carissa Moore, and Makua Rothman, as well as Jason Momoa, Bette Midler, Bruno Mars, and Barack Obama.
Key Facts About Oahu:
- Inhabited for at least 1700 years
- Thought to be the first island sighted by James Cook’s crew
- The third-largest island of Hawaii
- Most of the TV show Lost was filmed on the island.
Hawaii (The Big Island)
- Population (Approximately): 185,000
- Area: 4,028 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Mauna Kea
Confusingly, Hawaii is an island in Hawaii and it also encompasses Hawaii County. That means Hawaii County is part of Hawaii, Hawaii.
Hawaii is the largest island in Hawaii and the third-largest in Polynesia, spanning over 60% of the state’s total landmass.
The island once relied on its sugarcane crops but has since focused more on tourism and sustainable tourism in particular, with the authorities constantly looking at ways to reduce the sector’s environmental and economic impact across the entire island.
Biotech companies and green energy companies also thrive on the island and its low light pollution has made it a hotspot for astronomy.
Nut and fruit crops are grown on the island, including Kona coffee, a specific type of coffee that is only grown in the north and south districts of Kona, Hawaii.
Places to Visit on the Big Island
- Akaka Falls
- Laurāhoehoe Train Museum
- Nani Mau Gardens
- Mauna Kea Observatories
- Manuka State Wayside Park
- Umauma Falls
- Rainbow Falls State Park
Maui (The Valley Isle)
- Population (Approximately): 150,000
- Area: 727.2 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Haleakalā
Maui is the second-largest island in the Hawaiian island chain, with the third-highest population.
The island’s history dates back many hundreds of years when Polynesians from Tahiti first inhabited Maui. James Cook became the first European to see Maui on November 26, 1778, but he couldn’t find a suitable landing spot and so he never set foot on Maui soil.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the island of Maui was one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States. Many of the new residents were retirees taking advantage of the peaceful lifestyle, low population, and affordable housing, but after a few years, the influx created congestion problems and sent the house prices skyrocketing.
As is the case with all major islands in Hawaii, Maui, relies on tourism to sustain its GDP, but it also generates money through agriculture (corn, coffee, papaya, pineapple) and a growing IT industry. It has a booming watersports sector and many visitors flock to surf spots like the famous Pe’ahi (known as “Jaws”), Ho’okipa Beach Park, and Honolua Bay.
Popular Water Sports in Maui
- Paddle Boarding
Kauai (The Garden Isle)
- Population (Approximately): 65,000
- Area: 552.3 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Kawaikini
Kauai is the fourth-largest of the Hawaiian islands and also has the fourth greatest population
Kauai is best known as the island of chickens. Generally, feral chickens are quite a common sight in Hawaii, as hurricanes destroyed chicken coops and allowed generations of domesticated fowl to run rampant and breed without any natural predators to hunt them.
Many tourists visit just to see the chickens and the locals have capitalized on this, selling branded merchandise featuring these feral birds.
Shaved ice is also very popular on this Hawaiian island. Shaved ice is similar to snow cones but is made with literal “shaved” ice as opposed to crushed ice. It is then flavored using syrup, which is absorbed by the shaved ice as opposed to just sinking to the bottom of the cup.
Of all the eight islands, Kauai seems to be the most popular with film crews and has served as the backdrop for countless classic films over the years, including Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Tropic Thunder.
Where to Go In Kauai:
- Bell Stone
- Fern Grotto
- Hanalei Bay
- Moir Gardens
- Moloaa Bay
- Queen’s Bath
- Spouting Horn
- Waimea Canyon State Park
- Wailua River
Molokai (The Friendly Isle)
- Population (Approximately): 7,500
- Area: 260 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Kamakou
Molokai is the fifth largest and most populous of the Hawaiian islands, and unlike the aforementioned major islands, it’s not reliant on tourism.
The economy of Molokai is driven by cattle, sugar, and pineapple. Attempts have been made to increase tourism in the past, but landowners and locals have done their best to resist the industry and have—for the most part—succeeded.
Facts About Molokai
- Around 60,000 tourists visit the island every year, a fraction of the 9+ million that visit the main islands.
- Molokai was once home to a major leper colony, a disease that was introduced to the major islands by European and Asian traders.
- It is home to the longest fringing reef in the United States.
Lanai (The Pineapple Isle)
- Population (Approximately): 3,000
- Area: 140.5 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Lãna’ihale
Lanai is known as “the Pineapple Island” as a pineapple plantation once operated across all of the island. There is only one small settlement here (Lanai City), and the vast majority of the island is actually owned by Larry Ellison, best known as the founder of Oracle.
So, how did a tech billionaire come to own around 98% of a Hawaiian island?
The story dates back to William G. Irwin, who bought the island for just $1 back in 1909. Prior to the purchase, the island had been used as the main base of a sugar company that failed in 1901, leaving many laborers out of work.
The first pineapples were planted on the island about 12 years later, after which it was sold to James Dole, who founded the Dole Food Company.
Dole was the man who gave the Hawaiian island its current name by turning it into a massive pineapple plantation.
In 1985, the island passed into the hands of billionaire David Murdock following the purchase of Castle & Cooke, under which Dole operated at the time.
Larry Ellison entered proceedings in 2012 when he bought Castle & Cooke’s share for $300 million. His goal was to invest $500+ million into sustainable agriculture, and his efforts continue to this day.
Niihau (The Forbidden Isle)
- Population (Approximately): 150
- Area: 69.5 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Mount Pānī’au
Niihau is a small island that was first purchased by Elizabeth Sinclair back in the middle of the 19th century from the Kingdom of Hawaii. The island passed down to her descendants, including her grandson Aubrey Robinson, and it remains in their possession to this day.
The island is known as the Forbidden Isle or the Forbidden Island, as it is off-limits to everyone except for the Robinson family and certain government personnel. The family has also been running occasional tours to the island since the late-1980s.
Kaloolawe (The Target Isle)
- Population (Approximately): 0
- Area: 44.6 Square Miles
- Highest Point: Pu’u Moaulanui
Kahoolawe is the smallest island of Hawaii and it’s also the only one of the eight main islands that is uninhabited.
Kahoolawe was used as a bombing range during the Second World War and for several decades its use has been limited to cultural and spiritual purposes.
Which Hawaiian Islands Are You Not Allowed to Visit?
Kahoolawe is uninhabited and Niihau is off-limits most of the time. These are the only two of the eight main islands that you can’t visit as an outsider.
Which Hawaiian Islands Are Uninhabited?
Kahoolawe is currently the only main island that is uninhabited. Not only was it used as target practice for many years, but it also has a severe lack of fresh water and is not as bountiful or as welcoming as the other islands in the Hawaiian chain.
What’s the Biggest Island in Hawaii Called?
The biggest island in Hawaii and is actually named “The Big Island”. It is also referred to as the Island of Hawaii to avoid confusing it with the name of the state.
What is Hawaii?
Hawaii became the 50th US state in 1959. It is a group of islands that forms something known as an “archipelago”.
The word “archipelago” comes to us from Latin through ancient Greek. The ancient Greeks never actually used the word, though, and it was probably first used in Medieval Latin. It was used to mean a sea with lots of little islands and was borrowed from the Greek word for the Aegean Sea, which fits the same description.
Today, the definition remains the same, referring to a group or chain of islands in an ocean, as well as in rivers and lakes.
Other examples of archipelagos include Indonesia, New Zealand, and even the British Isles, as the latter actually has more islands than Hawaii.
Summary: The Hawaiian Islands
For most travelers, Hawaii means a summer break in Honolulu or a surf trip to one of the many great surf spots. But as the above guide shows, there is much more to see and do in Hawaii.
It is a sizeable state that spans 4 major islands, 7 inhabited islands, and 8 main islands in total. There is a lot of history to discover and culture to immerse yourself in.
So, the next time you think about booking a vacation in the Hawaiian archipelago, remember that there’s more to Hawaii than Honolulu.