What's the Best Hawaiian Island to Live On?
Beautiful beaches. Lush landscapes. Fresh air. Vibrant sunsets. Towering mountains. Majestic waterfalls. These can be found on every one of the four major inhabited Hawaiian Islands, but each of these islands also has unique features – and even its own nickname.
How many Hawaiian Islands are there? Total there are 137 islands in the Hawaii chain. Hawaii is typically recognized by its eight main islands, seven of eight which are inhabited: Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe.
When moving to Hawaii, you may be wondering which island to live on. Not only do each of the islands have different geographical features, but they also have different amenities, local governing bodies, histories, cultures, and costs of living. Discover the five most inhabited Hawaiian Islands – Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Oahu, and Kauai – before deciding which island fits your lifestyle.
Why move to the Big Island (island of Hawai‘i)?
Hawai‘i Island, known most commonly among locals as the Big Island, is the largest geographical island in Hawaii – and in the United States. It is the southeastern-most island and also the newest island with an active volcano that continues to add more land mass to make the Big Island even bigger. Prospective buyers will find that the Big Island has lower home prices with much more land available. However, the varying weather and lack of infrastructure in some areas could be a challenge for the non-adventurous home buyer.
Nickname: The Big Island
Population (2010): 185,079
Area: 4028 square miles
Density: 45 people per square mile
Highest Point: Mauna Kea (13,796 feet)
Median Sales Price for Single-Family Homes (April 2020): $365,000
Median Sales Price for Condos (April 2020): $349,900
- Lake Waiau, just below of the summit of Mauna Kea, is the only alpine lake in the state of Hawaii.
- There is a green sand beach on the Big Island. It is called Papkolea, Mahana Beach.
- Pele’s hair can be found around the Big Island. Pele, the goddess of fire, spews lava, which in turn makes thin strands of volcanic glass. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to this most active volcano in the world, Kilauea.
Stories say legendary Polynesian navigator, Hawai‘iloa, first discovered Hawai‘i Island, and this is where the island’s name originates. Other stories say the island is named after the realm of gods and goddesses, Hawaiki.
Near the end of the eighteenth century, Captain James Cook, an English explorer sailed to Hawai‘i Island and called them the “Sandwich Islands.” After sharing of his “discovery” of the Hawaiian Islands with compatriots, he was later killed on the Big Island at Kealakekua Bay.
The Big Island was the home of Kamehameha the Great, who united most of the Hawaiian Islands in 1795 after several years of war. He renamed the island chain after his native island, Hawai‘i.
The Big Island has eleven of the world’s thirteen sub-climates, meaning if you want wet, dry, hot, or cold – even snow – you can find it.
The Kailua-Kona side is hot, as vog (volcanic emissions of sulfur dioxide and other volcanic gases) from the active volcano, Kilauea, absorbs the sun’s rays. Also, Kilauea continues to erupt, causing some housing, which often is priced right, to be at risk of lava flows. The leeward side is hot and dry, sometimes with droughts and even wildfires. If you have respiratory problems, it is not recommended to live on the leeward side of the Big Island.
The highlands and eastern side, where Hilo is located, experience a lot of rain – and mold. This side also has a history of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Hawai‘i County is the governing body of the Big Island. There is an excellent bus system that runs across the entire island and the roads are maintained fairly well. The historic town of Hilo as well as the popular tourist town of Kona have parks, bike paths, and convenient downtown areas with many shops.
Traffic during rush hour is a problem on the 10-mile stretch between Kea‘au and Pahoa in the Puna District, often worsened with construction delays. Also, except in the main towns of Hilo and Kailua-Kona, the majority of the Big Island relies on private rainwater catchment systems for water, meaning if there is not rain, you may not have running water.
Some other infrastructure cons are there is no rubbish pickup or home mail delivery expect for in Hilo and Kona. Meaning you will have to take trips to the dump and the post office if you live in a rural area.
Safety and Security
The Big Island is fairly safe, with little room for criminals to hide. Few major violent crimes, like murder or armed robbery, occur. The aloha spirit is present on the Big Island, with neighbors watching out for each other through Neighborhood Watch programs. However, the Big Island does have a drug and petty theft problem. House robberies are fairly common in South Hilo, the Puna District, and the Hamakua Coast as well as auto theft.
Why move to Maui?
The second largest and third most-populated island, Maui was once home to sugar cane and pineapple plantations but has now evolved into an ever-developing tourist-attracting island with a lot to do and beautiful beaches and scenery. The housing market on Maui is hot – with prices that compare to Oahu and few average days on the market.
Nickname: The Valley Isle
Population (2010): 144,444
Area: 727 square miles
Density: 198 people per square mile
Highest Point: Haleakala (10,023 feet)
Median Sales Price for Single-Family Homes (April 2020): $754,523
Median Sales Price for Condos (April 2020): $602,494
Also, close to Maui is the island of Lanaʻi.
Nickname: The Pineapple Isle
Largest Settlement: Lanai City
Population (2010): 3,135
Area: 140 square miles
Density: 22 people per square mile
Highest Point: Lana‘ihale (3,366 feet)
Average Sales Price for Single-Family Homes: $440,000
- The road to Hana is 45 miles long with 59 bridges and more than 600 hairpin turns as well as lush jungles and countless cascading waterfalls.
- Lahaina was the original capital of Hawaii until it changed to Honolulu in 1850.
- Haleakala is the world’s largest dormant volcano, at 10,023 feet above sea level.
Polynesians from Tahiti and the Marquesas islands first arrived on Maui perhaps around 400 A.D., although there is no definitive date. The Polynesian settlers followed a kupu system, like that on most of the islands, and became farmers and fishermen.
In the early years, there were three kingdoms on Maui: Lahaina, Hana, and Waikulu. Many wars and conquests occurred over the years, with one of the final battles being Kamehameha the Great conquering Maui in 1795 to unite the islands.
After English explorers mapped the Hawaiian Islands, sharing the news of the rich lands of Hawaii with the world, Maui became home to whalers and Christian missionaries. Later sugar plantations consumed life on Maui for nearly a century, with the last Alexander & Baldwin 36,000-acre sugar plantation closing in 2016.
The weather on Maui varies across the island due to its proximity to coastline, varying elevations, and differing trade winds through the valleys and slopes.
Central Maui, with the towns of Kahului and Wailuku, tend to have warm, steady temperatures throughout the year with dry breezes; sometimes Central Maui is also muggy with rainfall. The leeward side, which includes Kihei, Wailea, Makena, Lahaina, Kaanapali, and Kapalua, is typically dryer with a higher daytime temperature – up to 92 degrees – and the least amount of rainfall. The windward side with Paia, Haiku, Keanae, Hana, and Kipahulu, has heavier rainfall and northeast trade winds. Upcountry Maui includes Makawao, Pukalani, Kula, and the main mountain, Haleakala. With elevations from 1700 to 4500 feet, the temperatures are milder (70s to low 80s) during the day and chillier at night.
Governed by Maui County, which also governs the less-populated islands of Lanai and Molokai, Maui’s infrastructure was originally funded by the sugar and pineapple plantations. The federal government helped to build the county’s infrastructure from 1959 to the mid-1970s, and since the state and county has been in control, Maui residents have continued to desire infrastructure improvements.
While Maui has wastewater, water, roadways, public transit, parks, solid waste, and police and fire infrastructure, much of it was put in place many years ago. The water infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and many of the roadways need repair. The Maui Bus system is operated by a private company, Roberts Hawaii, and has limited commuter service. Maui is in the process of constructing and expanding the Central Maui Landfill and developing new park facilities.
Safety and Security
You may be wondering, is Maui safe? The island welcomes nearly 3 million visitors each year, and it is generally safe for both tourists and residents. Not surprisingly, the ocean environment poses a risk – especially on Maui which has one of the largest waves in the world, Pe‘ahi or Jaws. People on Maui should be aware of rogue waves as well as strong currents. The trails, waterfalls, and vast landscapes of Maui are breathtaking, but also pose a risk, as people have been known to become lost. Violent crimes are not common on Maui, but like the other islands, petty theft does occur at times.
Why move to Molokai?
Among the Hawaiian Islands, Molokai is known as the Friendly Isle, and those who live there would consider it the best island to live on by far. With many longtime families and few visitors living on remote Molokai, it is one of the most secluded Hawaiian Islands. Long flat fields to jaw dropping sea cliffs on the “back side” to winding roads and small shops make Molokai a beautiful place to call home. Most residents live off of the land, growing produce in the rich soils, fishing, and hunting for deer.
Nickname: The Friendly Isle
Largest Settlement: Kaunakakai
Population (2010): 7,345
Area: 260 square miles
Density: 28 people per square mile
Highest Point: Kamakou (4,961 feet)
Average Sales Price for Single-Family Homes (April 2020): $250,000
- Kaunakakai Pier in Kaunakakai Town is the longest pier in Hawaii. Drive to the end to view the reef and fish.
- Molokai has 4,000-foot sea cliffs – that are the tallest in the world with secret coves and waterfalls.
- There are no traffic lights on Molokai.
It is said that Polynesian settlers from Marquesas, Tahiti, and other Pacific islands inhabited Molokai around 650 AD, which new migrations taking place in 700 AD. The neighboring islands of Maui and Oahu did not interact much with the residents of Molokai in these early years, causing decades of peace.
In the 18th century, internal conflicts over fertile fishing groups occurred, causing chiefs from Oahu to take control of Molokai. When the king of Maui conquered Oahu, Maui also came under rule of the Maui. Shortly thereafter, King Kamehameha the Great united the Hawaiian Islands, including Molokai. King Kamehameha V had a vacation home on Kaunakakai beach and a country estate with cattle, coconut groves, and deer breeding grounds.
The first Europeans to step onto Molokai in 1786 were led by Captain George Dixon. Christian missionaries visited Molokai in the 1800s, with the first permanent missionary established in Kalua‘aha in 1832. Kalaupapa was a famous small town isolated by tall cliffs on Molokai for people suffering from Hansen’s disease or leprosy. In 1873, Father Damien deVeuster arrived at Kalaupapa, leaving a lasting legacy of caring for leprosy victims in Kalaupapa.
Molokai had the Meyer Sugar Mill for almost 30 years, run by Rudolph Meye from Germany who also produced wheat, potatoes, coffee, and corn for export and partnered with King Kamehameha V to supervise Molokai ranch lands and the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement.
Molokai has desirable weather year-round. Temperature average about 75 degrees and rarely go above 85. During the winter season, which is usually December to March, evening temperatures drop to the 60s and there are often a few rainy days. Spring, summer, and fall have warm days with cool trade winds in the evenings. Without the trade winds, the heat and humidity can intense.
Molokai has a small Molokai General Hospital which operates 24/7 as well as a Community Health Center and Family Health Center. Molokai has four public elementary schools as well as a public middle and high school. There is a charter school and one private school on the island.
Governed by the County of Maui, Molokai has county and state parks and protected areas, including Palaau State Park, Molokai Forest Reserve, Halawa Beach Park, and the Kalaupapa National Historical Park with restricted access.
The island has one two-lane highway going from east to west and a small bus system. There is also a small outdoor airport with mainly 8-seater planes arriving daily from the neighboring Hawaiian Islands.
Safety and Security
Molokai is small, and everyone knows everyone. If you are visiting Molokai, people will notice. While the unemployment rate historically has been high on Molokai with most people living off the land or working part-time jobs, there is relatively low crime or theft. People who live on Molokai or visit Molokai can sleep soundly at night knowing their neighbors are friendly and crime is low.
Why move to Oahu?
Home to nearly one million people, Oahu has many neighborhoods, majestic landscapes, and nearly all the amenities of a city on the Mainland U.S.A. Oahu has the world-famous North Shore with its legendary surfing sports as well as Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, military installations, and the main campus of the University of Hawaii.
Single-family home prices on Oahu are the highest of all the islands, and the housing market is incredibly competitive. With thousands of condominiums available, there are lower-cost housing options for those entering the housing market. If you want to experience paradise with the expected amenities, Oahu might be the island for you.
Nickname: The Gathering Place
Population (2010): 953,207
Area: 596 square miles
Density: 1,597 people per square mile
Highest Point: Mount Ka‘ala (4003 feet)
Median Sales Price for Single-Family Homes (April 2020): $809,000
Median Sales Price for Condos (April 2020): $450,000
- Waikiki is the tourist mecca of Hawaii with more than 100 hotels.
- Kualoa Ranch was the site of many Hollywood films, including Jurassic Park, and prime time television shows, like Hawaii 5-0.
- The NFL Pro Bowl was played in Aloha Stadium from 1980 to 2009 and again from 2011 to 2015.
Like the other islands, Oahu is believed to have been first settled by Tahitians around 300 CE, although the exact dates are unknown. In 1795, Kamehameha I conquered Oahu after the bloody battle of Nuuanu, uniting the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1845, the royal capital moved from Lahaina, on Maui, to Honolulu, which remains the state capital. ‘Iolani Palace was built, which is still the only palace in the United States. With Captain Cook’s arrival in the Hawaiian Islands and an increase in sugar and pineapple plantations, the monarchy was increasingly dominated by foreign interests. Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in 1893, and the island chain was annexed in 1898 by the United States.
Another pivotal historical event that occurred on Oahu was the invasion on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces during World War II.
If you define excellent weather as sunny and warm, then Oahu has your ideal weather conditions. Honolulu and Waikiki average around 80 degrees year-round with only 20 to 40 inches of rainfall. Along the Waianae coast, there is less rain, and temperatures can be a little higher. On the windward side or East coast, it tends to rain more; however, one minute it may be raining and the next minute there may be an astounding rainbow.
The County of Honolulu governs the island of Oahu. While traffic on Oahu is considered one of the worst in the United States, the island boasts a robust infrastructure. The Bus offers service around the island, and the Honolulu Rail promises to offer convenient transportation from the West side of the island to “town” or Honolulu. Water, sewage, and trash pick up are offered in every area of Oahu, with only some of the most remote locations having cesspools. Parks are plentiful on Oahu, including dog parks, bike paths, and botanical gardens.
Safety and Security
Like the other islands, Oahu is also considered a safe place in comparison to other cities on the Mainland. However, theft is becoming more and more common, including car theft and house raids. From January 2020 to the previous year, robberies were up 52 percent with 79 robberies reported to the Honolulu Police Department in a four-week period. Murder is rare, however, in the same January 2020 report, a 20 percent increase in crimes involving firearms was reported. Overall, residents of Oahu can feel safe walking most streets at night, but they should be vigilant in certain areas and neighborhoods and always take precautions to secure belongings.
Why move to Kauai?
The oldest island in the Hawaiian chain, Kauai is known for its lush landscapes, sharp mountains on Na Pali Coast and cascading waterfalls. Quaint, country towns add to the laid-back vide of this less-populated smaller island. Real estate on Kauai is competitive with single-family home prices comparable to Maui or Oahu and not much supply. If you want to live the old Hawaii lifestyle, full of aloha and tranquility, Kauai might be the island for you.
Nickname: The Garden Isle
Population (2010): 66,921
Area: 552 square miles
Density: 121 people per square mile
Highest Point: Kawaikini (5,243 feet)
Median Sales Price for Single-Family Homes (April 2020): $725,000
Median Sales Price for Condos (April 2020): $499,500
- Kauai is the legendary home of the Menehune, or the mythical Hawaiian race of small people who perform construction and engineering.
- By law, no building is allowed to be constructed higher than a palm tree, contributing to the eco-friendliness of the island.
- Kauai Coffee is the largest coffee plantation in the United States.
As the oldest island, Kauai has a unique history. The first settlers of the island are believed to be Marquesans and other Polynesians who arrived around 500 A.D., traversing the vast Pacific Ocean with the stars and trade winds. The early settlers lived off the land, growing taro, yams, and bananas, and enjoying the plentiful fresh water.
With the arrival of Westerns in the late 1700s, Kauai became a common stop for sea voyagers and missionaries. Kamehameha the Great had difficulty conquering Kauai, and its neighboring island, Niihau, due to rebellion and disease outbreaks. But in 1810, Kamehameha and the King of Kauai, Kaumualii, came to a peaceful agreement, with Kauai joining the Hawaiian Kingdom with Kaumaulii as its governor.
Sugar plantations were plentiful on Kauai starting in the late 1800s due to Kauai’s rich, flat lands. In the early 1900s, pineapple found its way to Kapa‘a, along with people from all over the world – Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Spain, Germany, China, and the Philippines – coming to work on the plantations. Sugar and pineapple dominated the island for nearly 100 years.
Kauai’s climate is generally humid and stable year-round, with temperatures averaging 78 degrees in Lihue in February and 85 degrees in August. In Kauai’s mountain ranges, like the Kokee State Park, which has Hawaii’s “Grand Canyon,” temperatures are chilly – with a record low of 29 degrees. Kauai tends to get more rain and has had historical flooding and hurricanes which have wreaked havoc on homes and hotels. Annual rain fall varies from about 50 inches annually on the windward shore to less than 20 inches on the leeward side of the island.
Kauai County governs the island of Kauai as well as “The Forbidden Isle” off its shore, Niihau. Infrastructure has remained the same on Kauai for the past decades, despite an increase in tourism. Two-way roads, one-way bridges, small parking lots, and a small public transportation system – the Kauai Bus – make getting around Kauai a challenge. But Kauai is a small island, so there is not far to travel.
The island’s drainage system leaves much to be desired, as there is no Drainage Master Plan for Kauai, which has resulted in some flooding and lose of homes in the past decade. The water systems were initially constructed by sugar plantations and later expanded by the County. Wastewater systems are available in Waimea, Hanapepe, Lihue, Wailua, and Kapaa, but public wastewater systems are not available in many rural areas like Princeville, Kekaha, or Kokee.
Safety and Security
With its small population and geographic area, Kauai is one of the safest islands. Minimal crime exists on Kauai besides petty theft. However, the surf and one-way bridges create a hazard, so always be vigilant when swimming or driving on Kauai’s narrow roads. Remote waterfalls and hiking trails should not be accessed if you are not prepared or know the area, as explorers have been lost in the lush landscapes of Kauai in the past.
So what's the best Hawaiian Island to live on?
Each of the Hawaiian Islands is unique – offering a range of weather, amenities, and differing culture. If you want lush landscapes and a laid-back old Hawaii lifestyle, Kauai may be right for you. If amenities, urban life, and spectacular surf are your preferences, you may like Oahu. If you like rural living but also might enjoy some amenities and tourists along with beautiful landscapes, Maui may be your place. And if you want wide-open spaces and have an adventurous spirit, you may prefer the Big Island.
Whichever island you choose to live on, the beauty of Hawaii and aloha spirit will dwell.