A Hawaiian getaway is as enchanting as it gets, with the stunning landscapes, a laidback pace, and a multi-cultural mix.
But, with eight major islands to choose from, which island to visit in Hawaii is a big choice.
Lucky for food lovers like us, Hawaii – specifically the main islands of Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, and Kauai – boasts food cultures that are just as unique as each island’s character. With everything from farm-fresh eats to elevated fusion, omnivore and vegetarian lovers can find a Hawaiian island to match their food preferences.
The question then becomes not whether you should book a flight to Hawaii but the best Hawaiian island to visit. Our advice is to let your tastebuds lead the way, and here is our guide to the best Hawaiian island for your food personality.
Before we dive in, we should say that if you’re wondering what food Hawaii is known for, you should check out this article. Then, once you’ve got that covered, read on for which island to visit in Hawaii when you next travel to the Aloha State.
For Modern Fusion Food: Oahu Island
Salt & Wind Travel founder Aida Mollenkamp has described Oahu as the Hawaiian island with the most mature food and drink scene, and that is very much the case. Honolulu, the state’s largest city, is home to upscale food courts, chef-driven dinner destinations, and chic – but never pretentious– brunch cafes serving up the classics with a regional twist.
In the Instagram-worthy Surfjack Hotel in Waikiki, Chef Ed Kenney’s Mahina & Suns restaurant is the hip place to be for brunch (and lunch and dinner, to be honest). Every first Sunday of the month – you can eat avo toast and chocolate mochi waffles in the presence of a live DJ set.
Speaking of Waikiki, upscale food halls like The Street Food Hall by Chef Michael Mina host a carousel of flavors. You can find everything from ramen, and burgers on Hawaiian sweet potato rolls to Mediterranean-inspired wraps filled with roasted salmon and fennel or harissa-grilled chicken and pickled vegetables.
For a culinary splurge, snag a reservation for Senia’s tasting menu. This spot is helmed by Anthony Rush, who hails from the celebrated NYC restaurant Per Se. The constantly evolving menu means dishes starring scratch pasta or oysters may or may not be in the rotation on a given season.
And let’s not forget about cocktails at go-to spots, including sleek Bar Leather Apron (nominated for a James Beard Award) for crafted libations and the patio at Tchin Tchin wine bar in Chinatown for an atmospheric evening.
For Meat Lovers: The Island of Hawaii
As the youngest yet geographically largest Hawaiian island, dramatic black sand beaches or the natural wonders of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are apparent reasons to jetset to the Island of Hawaii.
Though as travelers keen on tasting the world, scouting the best spots to sample prized local grass-fed beef tops our list of must-dos, which is a food find many don’t know much about. Wondering what’s the deal with the beef? Well, the explanation requires a look back at Hawaii Island’s history.
On Hawaii Island, paniolo (a word of Spanish origin used to refer to cowboys in Hawaii) culture runs deep. In the late 18th century, cattle arrived as gifts for King Kamehameha I, who placed a kapu – aka a law, meaning forbidden – on killing the animals. As a result, the cattle population grew until Mexican vaqueros arrived to teach Hawaiians how to wrangle and manage them. Thus, they were born into a vibrant (and very much alive today) cowboy culture.
Today, Big Island beef features prominently on restaurant menus across the state of Hawaii, including on the island at Four Seasons Hualalai, Village Burger in Waimea, and Foster’s in Kailua-Kona. That means Hawaii Island produces most of the beef in Hawaii, with most of it from large ranches like Parker Ranch, which, fun fact, is one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the United States.
With all that history, it’s no surprise that Hawaii Island – specifically, Cafe 100 in Hilo – is the de facto birthplace of the local dish known as the Loco Moco. The classic preparation of a loco moco is a cooked beef patty on a scoop of rice, drenched in gravy and topped with an egg.
Another good bet for Loco Moco is Ken’sKen’se of Pancakes. They offer a Keiki Moco, meaning a smaller portion – as you know from our local Hawaii food terms glossary, Keiki means child in Hawaiian – as many plates at local diners and cafes are large enough to feed two people.
For Farm Fresh Eats: Island Of Maui
Food lovers craving authentic farm-to-table eats should detour from the famous road to Hana and venture into Maui’Maui’srior, to the area known as Maui’Maui’suntry. The Upcountry region includes Paia, Kula, Makawao, and the area encompassing Haleakala Crater.
Thanks to higher elevations along the slopes of Haleakala, the Upcountry vibe is more chill – think low-key rustic charm, just like the region.
To taste Upcountry’sh eats, visit Kula’Kula’suntry Farmers Market, opening every Saturday morning. Family-run Oko’aOko’as sells organically grown produce from bunches of radishes to giant avocados, ginger to citrus fruits, and colorful string beans. Stroll through the rest of the market to find ono prepared foods, too, from vegan miso ramen and mushroom omelets over a bed of sprouts and a side of sweet potato hash.
To feed our cheese cravings, Surfing Goat Dairy is the perfect pit stop to pick up local chevre. They’They’veflavor options for days, including chevre, made with sun-dried tomatoes or Maui lavender – and is quite possibly from their neighbor, Ali’i Lavender.
For Plant-Based Eaters: Kauai Island
Also known as the garden isle, Kauai island is the greenest (and the oldest) of the islands. From the woodsy mountains of Koke’Koke’e to the working taro fields in Hanalei, there’s a lot of nature packed into one of the minor islands in the chain.
That said, it’s no wonder plant-forward finds are easy to come by on Kauai. You’ll see them at newer restaurants like Our Place Kauai in Kapaa, a snug little town full of indie vibes. The vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurant serve a constantly rotating menu of dishes driven by locally grown produce, such as jackfruit lettuce wraps with mango ginger bbq sauce and carrot and purple daikon pickles. Or, try Mermaids Cafe, next to Java Kai – a great spot to caffeinate.
On the south side of the island, established eatery Kalaheo Cafe just off Kaumuali’i way makes an array of salads with Kalaheo greens and dressings like roasted garlic and basil and fresh papaya seed.
In Lihue, family-run The Greenery Cafe whips up organic soups, salads, and plates, including a coconut-ginger mung bean soup and an avocado wrap with mint, basil, and lemon aioli.
Have Us Plan Your Hawaii Trip
Many people dream of visiting Hawaii, but not everyone gets the chance to go. Now that you know which islands to visit in Hawaii, you want to make the most of it. Our travel planning services are here to help you achieve the ideal vacation.
After discussing your preferences during a short consultation, we’ll plan your perfect itinerary. Whether you’re looking for custom travel planning or a small group trip, the Salt & Wind team is here to help. Contact us today to learn more.
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Photo Credit: Opening photo by Emmanuel Hidalgo