Best Island In Hawaii For Families

Hawaii is an archipelago of more than 100 volcanic islands but only a few are inhabited. Of them, only four are generally the primary contenders for people who are thinking about moving to Hawaii. These include the Big Island, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. Wondering which is the best Hawaiian island for families among these? That largely depends on the unique lifestyle needs of your family. Each is a strong contender in its own right. You need to weigh their qualities against your family's needs to find the perfect match.

Best Island In Hawaii For Families

If time wasn't an issue, the best way to answer this question would be island hopping. That is - spending a few weeks on each island to get a feel for how it feels after tourist mode fades. You could settle down in each place for a while to get a real sense of the place, discover what it has to offer, whether it has the facilities and conveniences you require for a comfortable and fulfilling life. But for many families, multiple two or three-week-long trips isn't an option. To help narrow it down before the visiting stage, it helps to look at your family with a critical eye.

Consider the schooling requirements for the children, whether someone in the family has specialized medical needs, the connectivity infrastructure if you work remotely, and international airline connectivity if your work requires considerable overseas travel. Also look into whether the islands have great things to do with kids as a family or enough entertainment options for teens. Remember, you're making a major change in your family's life. Settling into your new life on Hawaii should feel seamless, not disruptive.

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What To Consider When Choosing An Island

Approach the process of choosing the Hawaiian island to call home for the rest of your life with due regard to the family's lifestyle. Yes, the unparalleled beauty and incredible access to nature is unlike any other place in the country, but a life of fulfillment for your family will require more than that.

Best Island In Hawaii For Families

We’ll go in depth here to help narrow it down. As a general note, Oahu has roughly five times the population of the next most populated island. There's a simple reason for this. Oahu provides the perfect blend of island and metropolitan living. It has some of the best educational, medical, and recreational facilities in Hawaii. It has the state's busiest international airport with direct links to major destinations across the globe. 

Related: Check Out Communities Across Oahu!

Job Opportunities Island to Island

Oahu's job market has the most depth and diversity of all the Hawaiian islands. You'll find opportunities in a wide range of sectors, from retail and hospitality to construction, transportation, education, and healthcare. Oahu also has seven military bases that fund a big chunk of the economy, making the government a major employer on the island. Agriculture plays a much more significant role in the economy of the other islands, more so than it does on Oahu. 

Maui's popularity as a tourist hotspot remains high and as such, much of its economy is tourism-based. There exist some opportunities in the construction and renewable energy sectors as well. Some niche job opportunities can also be found on Maui and the Big Island. For example, specialized research jobs at the Haleakala Observatory on Maui and the Mauna Kea Observatory as well as the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island do exist, but they are few and far between, and don't play a major role in their economies. 

Schools Across Hawaii

Whether they attend public or private school, which island you choose will impact your child’s education. For public schooling, Oahu comes out on top with some of the best schools in the state in terms of math and reading proficiency. There's higher education options as well, so even children transitioning into adulthood have options close to home. There's the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the flagship campus of the University of Hawaii, offering more than 200 degree programs.

Punahao School from Outside

If you’re looking into private schools, there are a large number throughout the state serving around 40,000 students. They’re located in four counties - Honolulu County (Oahu), Maui County, Hawaii County (Big Island), and Kauai County. The largest concentration of private schools is on Oahu, where the private schools are world renowned. One example of such is Punahao, where Barack Obama received his education. The Mid-Pacific Institute is another highly regarded private school with a focus on cultivating artistic and individual expression in students.

Related: Oahu Private School Guide Heading Into 2024

Best Island In Hawaii For Families

If you choose to homeschool, you can find all the information you’ll need on Hawaii’s school website.

Medical Facilities

Since Hawaii is so far away from the mainland, it’s important to take note of the current and future medical needs of your family when deciding which island to call home.

If your child has any kind of special medical needs, Oahu is most likely the best fit - that's where the specialists are most likely to be. Additionally, the trauma centers reside on Oahu, so if you get into a serious accidents you will end up airlifted to Oahu anyways. There are seven hospitals within Honolulu itself, while outside of Honolulu there are six more hospitals on Oahu. 

This is in addition to other top-notch medical facilities, such as the Tripler Army Medical Center, which is the VA hospital of the pacific. Given its largest collection of modern medical facilities, Honolulu undoubtedly offers the best medical care across Hawaii. 

Big Island is second best as it has five hospitals, with the 276-bed Hilo Medical Center being the largest. It still pales in comparison to the 650-bed Queen's Medical Center on Oahu that's also Hawaii's only Level 1 Trauma Center - meaning they have 24-hour in-house coverage for general surgeons ready to help with almost any major accident. There are around 400 beds for care in total on the Big Island compared to over 1,700 on Oahu. 

Maui has three hospitals with less than 400 beds while Kauai's three hospitals have fewer than 200 beds combined. It's important to note that these hospitals may not be equipped to deal with every medical scenario and it's not uncommon for patients to be flown to Oahu for better medical care.

Access To Nature

Any one of the islands will grant great access to nature for kids and adults. Hawaii is the paradise state and large portions of it are never going to be developed. There are accessible beaches, greenery, hiking trails, and more open access to nature wherever you go. There are a few differences between them though.

Related: Best Scenic Views on Oahu

Big Island, AKA Hawaii County, is the largest island in the state. It's also the most geographically diverse island in Hawaii and home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kīlauea. You'll experience a variety of landscapes there, including tropical rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and mountains as high as 14,000 feet. With eleven of the world’s thirteen sub-climates, the Big Island's weather is also considerably more diverse than anywhere else in the state. Even though it's the largest island in Hawaii, the Big Island's population is only around 200,000.

Kilauea Lighthouse with Oceanviews

You could easily spend months exploring the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and still find something new on your next visit. From incredible stargazing, sunsets, and sunrises at Mauna Kea to turtle viewing at Punalu'u black sand beach, exploring secrets of the universe at 'Imiloa Astronomy Center to hiking the Waipio Valley, the Big Island can easily give Hawaii's other islands a run for their money on access to nature.

Oahu is chock full of gorgeous and easily accessible nature scenery. This includes the Diamond Head volcanic tuff cone, a National Natural Landmark that was used as a strategic military lookout in the 1900s. There are a lot of developed options for green outdoors time on Oahu, such as the 300-acre Kapiolani Park in Diamond Head, Victoria Ward Park in Ward Village, and the Ala Moana Beach Park in Waikiki. 

Diamond Head crater from above

Beyond that, you have some of the world's best surf spots on Oahu with plenty of surf competitions throughout the year to take part in. Adventurous hikers will love the many challenging trails including the pillbox and Diamond Head hikes. There's an endless array of water activities to take part in. Surf, snorkel, paddle board and swim to your heart's desire in pristine waters.

The beach towns of North Shore have a more laid back and rural vibe with breathtaking surroundings. Surfers across the globe dream about catching waves at Sunset Beach, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay, people living in the North Shore have these world-famous surf breaks in their backyard. There are great snorkeling spots for those who prefer less intense water activities. Head from the ocean to the Waimea Valley for tranquil walks through the botanical gardens that bring you to a waterfall where you can also swim. You could even go for a tour of the Dole Plantation to check out one of the biggest pineapple fields in the state.

The charming beach town of Kailua should be on every beach lover's radar. Its beautiful sandy beaches are truly some of the best in the world. Ko Olina has upscale and more exclusive options, with stunning oceanfront estates set amongst sprawling golf courses. The pristine lagoons here are great for swimming and snorkeling. For the nautically inclined, Ko Olina also has a top-notch marina. Experienced surfers flock to Makaha on Oahu's Leeward Coast. It's highly regarded for powerful and challenging waves, providing a surfing experience unlike any other. Makaha is also less touristy so you'll get to enjoy these famous surf breaks with more privacy.

Maui is Hawaii’s second-most visited island, with large sections of the economy powered by tourism. It lies somewhere between Big Island and Oahu in most factors, and is often called the “Playground of the Wealthy.” The outdoors activities available tend to be more on the extreme side, and less oriented towards accessibility for children.

Sunrise at Haleakala

For example, going up to Haleakala for the sunrise is a bucket list experience, but one that's not necessarily suited to kids. The scenic drive called Road to Hana can be a bit unnerving for the little ones as well despite the incredible scenery and countless hikes and waterfalls along the way.

Kauai is known as the “Garden Island,” and is the least populated of all the main islands. It has some of the greatest views and exploration opportunities, with some areas only accessible by sea or air. The entire island is less oriented towards tourists and more towards a slower pace of life than the other island. There are an abundance of outdoors activities such as hiking in Kokee State Park or ziplining above Kauai’s valleys.

Waimea Canyon Views

Few experiences in life come close to viewing the Waimea Canyon, taking a kayak down the Wailua river, exploring one of the many beautiful trails in Kokee State Park, or zip lining above the lush green valleys of Kauai. Nature is largely untouched in Kauai given that it has the lowest population of any county on Hawaii, making it a great option for those who love unadulterated nature in a secluded setting.

You can't talk about nature in Kauai without mentioning the Napali Coast. It's truly one of the great outdoor areas on Kauai. The sacred site stretches 17 miles along the north shore, dotted by emerald-tipped cliffs that tower above the ocean, wrapped around pristine beaches and roaring waterfalls. An aerial tour is truly the best way to soak up the absolute majesty of this place as much of the rugged terrain has remained untouched for centuries.

Related: 5 Reasons People Love Living in Hawaii

Social Activities For Kids And Teens

Oahu is going to offer the most opportunities for kids and teens to socialize in Hawaii, hands down. The other islands may have opportunities but in general they start to shut down around 8 PM. While that might sound great at first, it limits the opportunities for children to meet children of their own age to socialize with.

Open air Ala Moana Center

Oahu has the largest selection of Malls, Movie Theaters, and other congregation points. Of course, going out to Kahala Beach or other fabulous outdoors areas can be a fabulous social experience unto itself. The world's largest open air shopping center is on Oahu, making trips to the mall an exciting prospect, where they'll also find some of the best retail experiences in Hawaii. There are entertainment venues, art galleries, museums, and more scattered throughout the island, providing your kids with plenty of opportunities to learn, socialize, and expand their horizons.

Even though Oahu offers the most social activities for kids and teens, in addition to the most competitive schooling and sports programs, the other islands could be more appealing for your family based on your lifestyle. If there's a clear preference to prioritize family time and enjoy life at a slower pace, the other islands can work just as well. Think of living on those islands as if you're living out in the country. It's not bad at all, far from it actually, as long as you know what the lifestyle is going to be like there and whether your family will settle in seamlessly. 

There are plenty of kid-friendly activities on the other islands. On the Big Island, for example, there's night snorkeling to see manta rays, Beach 69 is a popular hangout and swimming spot, the historic parks along the Kona Coast make for great picnic spots, and ranches where your kids can visit plantations and even partake in horseback riding. Maui has great surf spots, coastal walks, and ziplining. Your kids can take part in surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and paddle-boarding lessons to learn new skills and make friends along the way. The Whaler's Village Shopping Center in the Kaanapali area of Maui is also a preferred hangout spot. Each island offers unique social activities for kids and teens, it's just that Oahu takes it to a much higher level.

So Which Hawaiian Island Is Right For My Family?

Again - it depends entirely on your family. If you’re planning to homeschool your kids and don’t anticipate special medical needs, you can easily make your home on any of the islands. But if you DO have special needs, or are seeking world-renowned private schools - Oahu is probably your best choice.

Related: Best Hawaiian Island To Live On?

Oahu is the most well-rounded option in the paradise state. Its high population means that it has developed some of the best opportunities for schools and medical facilities. This hasn’t detracted from its natural beauty - it’s full of gorgeous natural views and great outdoor activities. Ultimately, though, you should take your time and research in depth what your family needs and make sure the island you choose fits those needs.

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