Hawaiian Islands & Names


When people think of the state of Hawaii, they usually think of the tourist hot spots on a handful of the largest islands. Hawaii is a state that contains dozens of islands—most of them unnamed—spread out over 1,200 miles. There are eight main islands, whose names originate with the early Polynesian settlers. Of those eight, six are populated, one is unpopulated and one is privately owned.

The tropical paradise of Hawaii attracts countless tourists.
The tropical paradise of Hawaii attracts countless tourists. (Image: Jay Spooner/iStock/Getty Images)

Hawaii's Big Island

The big island’s official name is Hawaii, but to keep it from being confused with the state, it’s known locally as 'the big island." It is the largest single island in the chain, nearly twice as big as all the other islands combined. Because Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, regularly spills lava into the sea, the island is still growing. The island was populated about 1,500 years ago by Polynesians sailing from the Marquesas Islands. Today it’s a popular tourist destination and home to the Parker Ranch, one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States.

Rainbow falls on the big island.
Rainbow falls on the big island. (Image: Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images)


Oahu, home of famous Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, is the island most tourists to Hawaii visit first. The island was home to Hawaiian royalty for generations after King Kamehameha I unified the Hawaiians. In more recent history, Oahu is home to the majority of Hawaii's citizens. Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy base which was attacked by the Japanese 1941, and a memorial to the USS Arizona, sunk that day, are must-see sights for Oahu visitors.

Waikiki Beach in Oahu.
Waikiki Beach in Oahu. (Image: SergiyN/iStock/Getty Images)


Maui is well-known for Haleakala Crater and the legendary road that leads to Hana—52 miles of hairpin turns and narrow bridges leading to an undeveloped, picturesque town. In the 19th century, the city of Lahaina served as the first capital of unified Hawaii. It was a popular port for whaling ships and regularly hosted hundreds of ships.

Haleakala Crater in Maui.
Haleakala Crater in Maui. (Image: joannysalvas/iStock/Getty Images)


Kauai is known as the "Garden Isle" because of its lush greenery and tropical rain forests. It is the oldest island in the chain. Home to the cliffs of the Napali Coast, Waimea Canyon and Hanalei Bay, it was the first island that Capt. James Cook reached in 1778 when he rediscovered the island chain and its native people.

Napali Coast on Kauai.
Napali Coast on Kauai. (Image: SergiyN/iStock/Getty Images)


Molokai is only 38 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest point. The island’s northeast coast contains the highest sea-cliffs in the world. The island has no buildings that are taller than a coconut tree and no traffic lights. It is famous as the island where Hawaii’s lepers were quarantined and cared for by Father Damien, now St. Damien.

Aerial view of Molokai landscape.
Aerial view of Molokai landscape. (Image: unclegene/iStock/Getty Images)


Lanai, the smallest of the inhabited islands in Hawaii, has no traffic lights and only 30 miles of paved roads. At one time the island was one big cattle ranch. Now it is known for the export of pineapples and its tourists resorts, including two championship golf courses.

Lanai's rugged coastline.
Lanai's rugged coastline. (Image: Bobbushphoto/iStock/Getty Images)

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