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Oahu is central in the chain and has been a gathering place since the days when Polynesian chiefs made it their home. Most airplanes land here now, with visitors shuttling on smaller planes to the outer islands. Those who take the time to go in to Honolulu and Waikiki are rewarded with one of the nicest beaches in the islands. Waikiki is also where you'll find the action when it comes to nightlife and world-class shopping.
Maui is the most popular outer island to visit. It is famous for the 10,023-foot-high volcano in Haleakala National Park, its outstanding resorts, and its calm waters for swimming and windsurfing.
Kauai is the oldest of the islands and is best known for its dense forests, jagged mountains, and steep valleys. It also boasts uncrowded beaches, plenty of waterfalls and rainbows, and rainforests populated with rare native species. This island has also been the setting for many Hollywood movies, including Spielberg's Jurassic Park and Elvis's Blue Hawaii.
The Big Island, also referred to as "Hawaii," is the largest of the islands. It is home to Kilauea, the world's largest and most active volcano. The terrain varies from the moonscape volcanic rock of Kona, to the lush green rainforest of Akaka Falls State Park, to the vast grassy expanses of the famous Parker cattle ranch. This island is also home to a large number of luxury resorts.
Lanai was, until recently, the largest pineapple plantation in the world. Now it no longer exports pineapples, having traded agriculture for tourism by opening two luxury resorts. Lanai is remote enough that it remains one of the quietest islands.
Molokai is the smallest of the islands and the least developed for tourists. It retains an old Hawaii feeling, has the largest population of native Hawaiians in the Islands, and is where the famous hula dance originated. Existing in a bit of a time warp, the island has no traffic lights (or traffic), no tour buses (or public buses), no shopping centers, no fast-food chains, no high-rises, and virtually no crime. It is home to the world's highest sea cliffs at a dramatic 3,300-feet-tall. Another curiousity on the island is the isolated community of Kalaupapa, where victims of leprosy were exiled in the 1800s, is reachable only by a small airplane or via a strenuous hike or mule ride over a narrow trail down the steep coastal cliffs.
When visiting these intriguing islands, it makes most sense to plan a stopover on Oahu and visit Waikiki for a few days and then visit one, or at most two, outer islands, depending on how much time you have. If you feel compelled to see all the islands, then a Hawaii cruise may be the best way to explore them.