Visiting Hawaii: The Definitive Guide
Sitting at your desk, you might be dreaming of escaping the next winter storm with a trip to the warm temperate climate of Hawaii. Why wouldn’t you? Hawaii has everything a world traveller could want: amazing beaches, world-class surf, hiking, dining, nightlife … we could go on with this list, but instead, let’s go on a journey together to dream help you decide on the best places you can stay in Hawaii with the most amazing activities to fit your hawaiian island dream vacation.
Whether this is your first trip to the islands or you simply want to make the most of your next vacation there, we’ll give you an insider’s guide to a dream Hawaiian vacation. There isn’t a secret here that locals don’t live like tourists. At the same time, locals don’t live in huts on the beach either – well, most locals. Simply put, your experience as a tourist is often just that, a commercialized version of what you are supposed to think Hawaii is like. The local version, often described as “lucky we live Hawaii,” gets to the roots of why people who live in the islands love it.
With your local Hawaii hacks in pocket along with a good idea of which hawaiian island and activities best suit your dreams, you will have a more vibrant experience here. Where does a vacation planning start?
What is the best hawaiian island to visit?
When is the best time of year to go?
Where are the best beaches in Hawaii?
Which restaurants do I have to try?
Ah, the questions!
First thing first: which island would best suit the activities value?
The State of Hawaii isn’t one island, and while the island chain has hundreds of small atolls combined to make the Sandwich Isles, there are five main destinations for vacationers: Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Kauai and Hawaii (also known as The Big Island because it is bigger than the other islands and people get confused when an island shares the name of the state). People often mistake the “main island” for The Big Island because of that very reason, but the reality is the main island is the populated island with the most notable tourist destinations: Oahu.
Oahu is home to Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head in the perfect postcard panoramic background. It is also the most densely populated island, with the state capital of Honolulu centered on the southern shore. But how you choose an island shouldn’t be because it’s the most popular or because it’s the biggest. Pick the island that gives you the best opportunity to do the things you love or really want to try.
Most islands have a wide diversity of the activities most people come to the islands to do, but some just offer the activities while others offer the best of it. With a closer look at each island, you’ll target where you want to go and why. You might decide to stay in one spot or island hop to get the best of the best. Either way, all tourists feel there are certain things they must do on top of getting a tan (or burn as is usually the case).
While many plan their days to the minute while in Hawaii, we suggest giving yourself the opportunity for spontaneity. You will lounge on the beaches and maybe go on hikes, enjoy lots of food and seek out adventure. As you peruse our islands, you will find fund landmark areas such as the Natatorium in Waikiki, an Olympic sized ocean pool near the Aquarium which is also a WWI memorial. This was the playground for Duke Kahanamoku. On the Big Island in Hilo, you might play in the banyan trees surrounding the area adjacent to Coconut Island where kids will love the water playground. Perhaps you will get wind of a an outdoor concert at Kapiolani Park’s outdoor venue, at the Shell Concert Hall.
For some water adventure you might not have planned, you can go parasailing or rent a wave runner in various spots of the islands. Most of the islands have these options and you will certainly be able to cross them off your bucket list if you want. There are more zip lines and ropes courses popping up on the major islands as well. You can zip or you can zip through a rain forest. These aren’t difficult to find and enjoy.
Popular places to peruse include the Bishop Museum, the main, yet small museum on Hawaiian history. Iolani Palace is a historic site in Honolulu where the monarchy did actually reside through the late 1880s. On Maui, the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum is a historic landmark providing insights to the rise and fall of the biggest industry Hawaii has known next to tourism. Some of these indoor activities are great options if you do have a rainy day. Which brings us to weather and timing your visit.
When is the best time of year to visit Hawaii?
Locals are always asked when the best time to visit Hawaii is.That answer, quite frankly, depends. Hawaii has a temperate climate all year long with average summer temperatures in the mid to upper 80s with moderate humidity. Certainly, the wet season from November through March will give you more rain, along a strange mixture of cooler temperatures and muggy humidity depending on nearby storm systems. Generally, more rain doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in the hotel; you will still be able to enjoy the vast beauty and beaches. Realize that hurricane season is from June through November and may increase the mugginess if a storm is closing in on the islands – know that there are always storms brewing but seldom do they actually make landfall on the tiny island chain in the middle of the Pacific.
Beyond just the weather, you may make your choice to travel based on price, big surf or whale watching. If lower airfare and hotel costs are your goal, travel during the off-season, which means eliminating the summer months from your travel schedule and trying to avoid college vacation times such as Thanksgiving and Spring breaks. Additionally, long weekends and holidays tend to be busier. When booking your vacation, you will get the best Hawaii vacation deals when the demand hasn’t sucked the supply dry. Sure there are tourists all year long, sometimes people flocking in just to get out of that North Dakota snow, but summer is prime time. Best time for smallest beach crowds is right after the summer peak, taking advantage of back to school: September after Labor Day through November before Thanksgiving break.
And if you don’t mind a bit of extra rain, you can be rewarded by visiting the island during the wet season. The winter is when Hawaii’s big surf hits the northern shores of the islands. See the 20-plus-foot swells, watch pro surfers defy physics, but do stay safe with your camera on the shore. Trust us, its better for you that way.
November is also the start of the humpback whale migration around the islands. Whale watching is great off most islands, even on shore and extends through May as the whales feed in the nutrient rich waters on their way to warmer waters near Australia in the southern hemisphere. January through March is the peak whale season, again giving you the opportunity to find some time where travel costs and crowds are down with waves and whale going up.
Don’t Touch: Fair warning so you don’t get in a fight on the beach, in the water or worse, get a ticket or fine with a lot of news publicity. Green sea turtles, humpback whales and monk seals are on the endangered list and should not be touched or interacted with other than observation from a safe distance. Humans can get them sick, these animals can hurt you, and ultimately, we just want them to thrive in our hawaiian island waters. Locals take this very seriously and will approach you if you are being aggressive to our wildlife treasures. One exception is if you see an animal in distress, such as being caught in a net; please try to get professional wildlife help, but we get it, sometimes in the middle of the ocean, its just you and the turtle wrapped in the net. In that case, please kokua (“help”).
The same warning applies to local hiking spots, messing with sacred areas and otherwise showing disrespect for the Hawaiian ways. Locals don’t mind sharing, but they do get aggravated when people think the island is a great big theme park. Hawaii is rich in culture and history and locals are very protective of that.
So help me help you. Some hikes and beaches are accessed from the middle of residential communities, where parking is limited to the streets. Be considerate and kind so these right-of-ways and access points remain open for both locals and tourists alike. No one likes trash left in their driveway or the curb in front of their house. If residents complain, awesome places get closed off for good.
As you head out for a day’s adventure, grab some “must try snacks” for the car or beach. Here are a few of our favorite snacks you might not find anywhere else in the world. Hawaiian “grinds” are so much more than just a luau. Locals love their food in all its diversity and fusion.
Leonard’s Malasadas: A malasada is a Portuguese donut and quite a legend in the islands. While others make a good Malasada, Leonard’s has become the haven for those seeking the sugary delectable. The original bakery opened in 1952 on Kapahulu Blvd a stone’s throw from Waikiki. Today, there are Leonard’s Malasada wagons making pit stops at various locations around the islands, including The Waikele Premium Outlet Shops. Originally, the donut was a bakery special for Shrove Tuesday, but became such a hit that the day is now locally known as Malasadas Day.
This puffball of deliciousness has evolved from its original version which was simply the donut rolled in sugar. Then the cinnamon sugar became an option. Today, you can get a malasada filled with custard, haupia or chocolate pudding. Suite your sweet tooth and don’t hesitate to eat them in the parking lot – there are best when hot and fresh with sugar all over your face by the time you are done.
Spam Musubi: Most people don’t think of convenience store food as a must have, but even your local 7-11 in Hawaii has this local treat even non-Spam eaters love. Spam musubi is a rice rectangle with a slice of grilled spam on the top held together with seaweed (nori). This is the perfect grab and go snack for your beach day or your hike. It has carbs and protein. There are many derivatives of the musubi today, including teriyaki, chicken and even tofu for the vegetarians. Some have a layer of egg as well, giving it just a bit more texture, flavor and nutrition. This is what local kids take to school for lunch – have you seen the football players Hawaii has produced in the past 30 years. Just saying, maybe there is more to Spam than meets the tastebuds.
Li Hing Mui: This is not a kung fu movie. Locals love this Chinese dried plum, giving dried fruit new meaning with the salt added. That being said, there is little to sooth a sore throat like a li hing mui soaked in lemon (or whisky for those of age). The Crack Seed Center has offered dozens of types of li hing mui and “cracked seeds” such as plum and apricot for more than 50 years. As an original candy in the islands, many families recount getting a bag for a nickel back in the day.
Even li hing mui has evolved in the candy revolution, with li hing powder used to flavor everything from gummy bears to tequila shot rims and even used in cucumber salads at high-end restaurants. We recommend to “choose wisely grasshopper” meaning, try something items that don’t look too dry and are darker in color. This means it is sweeter with some salty. You can get smaller bags to try at local convenience stores and super markets with Jade being a popular brand. If you hate it, keep it on the dashboard of the car, just to make you look more local at some of the local beaches. Who knew dried plums could help prevent your car from being broken in to.
Oahu is the hub of the Hawaiian Islands where the majority of locals live and work and the majority of tourists flock into annually. If you have always wanted to visit Hawaii because of postcards and television shows with views of sand and surf with Diamond Head in the background, Oahu is that place. It bustles with activity because of the sheer population there, so you will find fun both day and night throughout the island. It has surf schools along with some of the biggest and best waves in the world where you might want to park the car and watch rather than jump in. Historically, Oahu boasts everything from Pearl Harbor, historic Dole Cannery along with the only royal palace located on US soil, Iolani Palace. Oahu certainly packs a punch; honing in on the best of Oahu activities is next.
Best Oahu Surfing: Let’s break this section up into, those who already know how not to die in a big wave and those who don’t (the majority of us). If you haven’t surfed anything bigger than a slip’n’slide in your front yard, please don’t think you’re going to hit Makaha or the North Shore when its huge. First of all, locals don’t like seeing stories about dumb dead tourists on the news. So if you don’t know how to surf or surf really well don’t try to be like World Champion John John Florence. Dead doesn’t help you get the girl.
Big surf happens in winter on the North and West shores – these are the monster waves you see in magazines. Drive down Kamehameha Highway to Waimea or Pipeline and park the car and pull out the camera. Facebook will love your posts. If you are a pro surfer, you don’t need to read anything about surfing here because you already know this is the most awesome, most knarly, most intimidating swells you can find with few exceptions. While you are on that side of the island, check out one of our favorite quaint “Old Hawaiian Towns.”
Haleiwa, Oahu: Oahu is a bustling island, where nearly a million people live and millions pass through each year. But there are remnants of the old Hawaii, small towns that still look and feel like the Hawaii you dream about. This is Haleiwa, where the wild chickens roam amongst the old town architecture. The small Catholic Church the functional community place of worship. What makes this very special is the backdrop of the North Shore vibe, with the ocean calling for you. Small artisan shop and galleries work their way among surf shops and food joints. While there, grab a tasty treat.
Shave Ice: hose from snowy areas will try to discount Hawaii’s shave ice as merely another snow cone. Don’t insult the locals. Yes its called shave ice, not shaved ice. Most snow cones across America’s great state fairs are crunchy chips of ice that don’t absorb all the sugary syrup until the end where its more slop than snow. Shave ice is smooth and every bit of ice captures the flavor blend of the syrups. For a local twist, add azuki beans to the bottom for a subtle sweetness. These are not your local burrito beans; azuki beans are a sweeter Japanese red bean. When on the North Shore, the line into Matusmotos is there for a reason. The world has sought out Matsumotos Shave Ice in Haleiwa since 1951. To avoid the lines, grab some on your way to the beach, not on the way home. And if Matsumotos is just too long of a wait, like 35 minutes or more, try Aoki’s just a couple blocks away; not quite as historical but just as good, promise!
Some people want to physically surf in the water; there is less intimidating surfing all year long around Oahu. Waikiki is a great place to rent a long board and have fun learning. What makes most of the Waikiki spots great to learn is the waves are not too big, the reef is not too thick for the most part and the rides, once you catch it, are long and stable. This gives you lots of time on the board. If a bulldog can do it for a You Tube video, I have faith your skills will improve too.
For those who want to bodysurf, Sandy’s is the preference of President Obama. Bodysurfing means you catch and stay buoyant on the wave without a board, or with a small hand board. It’s usually closer to the shore and Sandy’s is an awesome place for skilled bodysurfers. It’s all fun and games until someone’s spine is broken – I think that is what someone’s mom used to say. To learn to body surfer, get to some waves that aren’t right on the shoreline but are shallow enough for you to stand. When the wave starts to crest, you can throw yourself forward, getting the momentum to ride it. The learning curve when miscalculating is much more forgiving in 4 feet of water rather than on the shoreline where the wave pounds you into the sand.
Turtle Beach: The green sea turtle, called “honu” and considered lucky, is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. An interaction with them in the ocean is often curious and quick on their part but you can get a much longer view by visiting them as they sun on the beach. Turtle beach on the North Shore is the spot to see them where there is a lot of food along the jagged shoreline reefs. Low tide in the summer afternoon is the best time to catch the turtles when they can bask without much bother from crashing waves after a morning feeding.
Volunteers are at the beach to make sure people leave them alone. You will be able to get pictures and observe them within a couple of feet, which is very cool. Many of these turtles are named and have been coming to this spot for years, if not decades with adults being up to 40 inches in diameter and getting up to 500 pounds.
Finding the turtles is often easier than finding the beach, located approximately 1.5 miles out of Haleiwa’s Seaside Village on Kamehameha Highway. Look for the cars and tour buses parked along the highway. Remember, they won’t really be around during the winter swells so don’t waste your time.
And if the North Shore has made you hungry for something other than shave ice, look for one of the many food trucks along the highway or in Haleiwa Town. You won’t be disappointed with the fish, shrimp or prawn options you find. They are a fresh, no hassle lunch option for a reasonable price.
Oahu has some amazing hikes and not the ones where you are filing up a mountain like a bunch of ants looking for top of the hill. Diamond Head is great because it is historic and amazing to think that the military on lookout had to traverse those hills at all hours of day and night. The pill-box at the top gives a true panoramic of the southern and eastern shorelines. But it is crowded; so if its something on your bucket list, by all means, go for it. Locals do it and sometimes do it often because it’s a great workout. But if you are looking for a serenity hike, something to show you Hawaii and help you rejuvenate at the same time, look outside the box of “tourist hikes” like Diamond Head, Makapu’u Lighthouse and Manoa Falls.
Maunawili Falls: This is a waterfall without 10,000 tourists fighting on the path. This is amazing for many reasons. First, the drive there will take you across the island to the Windward side and if you happen to take either the Pali Highway or the H3 Freeway, you will be in for a special treat of truly breathtaking views as you emerge from the tunnels onto the other side of the hawaiian island.
Suddenly you will be captivated by the fact that you are driving some 2000 feet in air. It is very likely that your passengers will be making you crazy as they point out water fall after water fall on the cliffs of the windward side of the hawaiian island as you need to white knuckle it to stay on the highway along the cliff edges. Yeah, it’s spectacular every single time!
With this 3-mile hike, you will get a spectacular rain forest and a waterfall and pool to play in at the end. Expect to get muddy and be prepared for mosquitos. While it is a local favorite, it won’t have the droves of people that Diamond Head or Manoa Falls will have. It is in the town of Kailua and accessible via a residential community with parking on the street.
Haunamau Bay and Turtle Bay are probably two of the most famous snorkel and dive spots in all of Hawaii with good reason. The bays are naturally protected by lava walls and have deep drops just outside of these protections. This is ideal for reef and reef edge marine life. The problem is you will be snorkeling next to 700 other eager tourists. For something a bit out of the way, meaning not so many GoPros, drive out to Kuilima Cove at the northern tip of Oahu. It is next to Turtle Bay, so it is accessible but not something most tourists are venturing out to. It’s a nice sandy beach with calm water and lots of tropical fish, making it suitable for beginners and enjoyable for others.
To really be the lonely snorkelers (Mom said always buddy up), go the Kaena Point, where the west shore meets the north shore. The water gradually slopes from shallow to deeper and in the summer, you will enjoy very calm water here. The water is about 15 feet where snorkeling is best, so you better swimmers can enjoy moderate free diving down to the flat coral. Many of the snorkel tours bring people to this side of the island, just a bit further out where dolphins frolic, for a deeper water snorkeling adventure. On your own in a car, take Farrington Highway as far west as it will take you on the paved road, then park along the side of the road.
You can’t visit Hawaii without experiencing a luau at least once in your life. Most resorts offer luaus, but think of a luau as more than just your dinner plans; it is a cultural experience. These are parties; these are feasts. Locals host a luau for weddings, baby’s first birthday or graduations. They aren’t just a tourist attraction. And yes, locals will perform a hula or two or three with their uncles on the ukulele or slack key guitar and ipus, the traditional Hawaiian gourd instrument.
Your enjoyment of a luau will depend on your willingness to try new foods such as poi, kalua pig and lomi lomi salmon. You don’t need to love it, but try it and understand that a Hawaiian’s life revolved around honoring their food sources and the gifts provided to them from the land and sea. There will also be a ton, yes a ton, of food you are certain to love if you like seafood, vegetables and tropical fruit such as mango, pineapple, and coconut with all the delicate drinks will refresh your palette to boot. Watch and understand that the song and dance you will see isn’t just Hawaiian; it is Polynesian including Tahitian, Samoan and Tongan displays. Hula, in its essence, isn’t a mere dance, it is the storytelling tradition of the Polynesian cultures that used it to honor the gods, the monarchy and teach the history of their people.
Thus the best luau’s incorporate all these items and hopefully have you leave with a full belly, a smile from being entertained and a new appreciation for the history and culture of the islands. The Polynesian Cultural Center and Waimea Falls Park on Oahu both offer amazing experiences that can be an entire day where you experience everything from games, hunting traditions and coconut gathering all capped with a fantastic feast at the end of the evening.
Pearl Harbor is the historical spot marking the first time the US was attacked on its own soil; when the Japanese ambushed our Naval Fleet bring the United States into World War II. People go to Pearl Harbor to learn, to remember, to honor our fallen heroes, both military and civilian. Three ways to see Pearl Harbor include visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, touring the USS Missouri or simply taking in the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center.
Visit the USS Arizona Memorial: The first thing people notice about the Arizona Memorial is the unique arching shape of the stark white memorial set amidst a working naval shipyard. The arch was specifically designed to represent America’s strength as a world power before the war, it’s low point in the center when Pearl Harbor was bombed and a rise again to power at the end and after the war. Beyond tourists, including a health flow of Japanese tourists, you will find locals paying their respects there as well as many have heard the stories of the Sunday morning as the planes flew over, interrupting church or Sunday morning chores.
Purchase Arizona Memorial tickets at least a day or two in advance: only 4500 tickets get sold out daily. There are 1300 free tickets, reserved for day-of visitors on a first-come-first serve basis but that quota is often filled within the first couple of hours of operation, starting at 7 am. Tickets can be reserved online up to 60 days in advance for a mere $1.50 convenience fee through the National Parks and Services website.
Below the arching memorial sits the actual USS Arizona, the battleship put into service in 1910 and fought its final, fateful battle that December day. More than 2000 sailors are still entombed in the sunken ship. In 1982, USS Arizona survivors were given the choice to be interred with their brothers after death, with their urns being placed under one of the gun turrets. Some 9 quarts of oil still ooze out of the ship daily, serving as a deeply symbolic reminder of the pain the United States felt that day. These drops are referred to as “tears of the Arizona.”
Tour the USS Missouri: Just as the Arizona commemorates the painful entrance into the war, the Missouri represents strength, victory and pride. The Battleship Missouri set to sea near the end of the war in 1944. It served not only in World War II, but for decades through Operation Desert Storm, before being retired in 1992. Today, it sits docked across Pearl Harbor from the USS Arizona Memorial as a floating museum. A bronze plaque is set into the deck, commemorating the end of the war where General MacArthur accepted the formal surrender of the Japanese, witnessed by the sailors of the ship on September 2, 1945. Though aging, a few docents remain from the days of the Great War and will not just give you the facts of history, but their unique accounts of struggle and success.
While the Arizona doesn’t have a cost for admission, the Battleship Missouri does with funds used to upkeep the aging treasure. Prices range from $27 to $52 for an adult depending on the tour you choose. Purchase tickets online or when you get there. Don’t pay a premium fee to some ticket broker; the Missouri is accessible and doesn’t “sell out” though you might wait a bit if crowded.
Be prepared to go up and down deck stairs and through low-sitting compartment hatches as you navigate through the chambers. For those who didn’t quite keep up with their New Years Resolutions of dropping those 15 pounds, you’ll probably feel it on this tour, especially if you go quickly.
Maui is often referred to as the Top Honeymooners spot in the world. With miles and miles of sandy beaches, amazing hotel resorts and idyllic snorkeling waters, Maui certainly sets the tone for romantic escapades. But you don’t need to be a newlywed to fall in love with all Maui has to offer. In addition to beaches and snorkeling, Maui offers one of the most unique drives in the United States, the Road to Hana. Maui prides itself on its historical role in sugar cane and pineapple production.
Best Beaches on Maui: Probably the most popular beach resort on Maui is at Kapalua Bay. The resort offers all amenities you can imagine and is a couple hours from Lahaina, making it feel more isolated and relaxing. As crazy as it sounds, if you need a break from the beach, they have world renowned golfing and tennis facilities. But for a lot of travelers today, its places off the beaten path they seek.
Hamoa Beach, situated in Hana some “short” 3 hours on the eastern shore. Of course, the drive is amazing through Highway 31 – the Hamoa Beach is about a half-mile from marker 31. This is a popular surf, boogie board and body surfing area and has been going back to ancient Hawaii days. Snorkeling can be nice, but is a bit dangerous as the reef ends abruptly and the currents are strong that could sweep someone out to open ocean – never really fun.
A bit less crowded back on the southwestern shore in Wailea – also a great golf and tennis community – is Palauea (also called White Rock) has some great snorkeling around the edge rocks just in the protected cove where wind is prevented from clouding your snorkeling vision. Charlie Young Beach, located in Kihei near Wailea is also a nice morning location to swim, snorkel or try stand up paddle boarding. As the day progresses, trade winds increase and make the conditions less favorable. This beach is mainly locals since access is via right of way through a residential area. Those seeking to make a day in Kihei, if you aren’t already staying in the area, will enjoy the nightlife activities a short distance away.
Best Snorkeling on Maui: Yes, you can’t snorkel “on” an island because the reef is still part of the hawaiian island, just submerged. (Plus that is how most people say it, so we’ll justify the grammar rather because locals aren’t exactly grammar-perfect when speaking Pigin anyway.) If Maui is known for some of the best beaches in the world, it also, arguably, has some of the best snorkeling, free diving and scuba diving you will ever find.
It’s almost impossible to not find a good snorkeling spot on Maui. But there are a few places away from your resort that might offer something special for your Instagram page. South of Wailea is Turtle Town, a stretch of beach with a huge population of turtles. In the morning, you can snorkel among them and sun with them as you both enjoy an afternoon nap on the shore as the frequently sun in the afternoon. Their large population in the area means there is lots of fish thriving, so you will be rewarded with interactions with a variety of Hawaii’s favorite tropical fish. The beach is accessible at the end of Makena Road with limited public parking, so get there early and pack a cooler with lunch and goodies.
Five Caves is another great spot close by but should be reserved for those who are strong free divers or scuba divers. This isn’t the place to take the kids for a first snorkeling experience. Experienced divers will love the larger ocean life seen here. Still a lot of turtles plus white tip sharks frolicking with manta and eagle rays in and around the edges of the caves in search of food. Dive charters that can take you there via water to the location with a guided tour. Shore access is close to the graveyard in the residential area which also takes you past archeological rocks, the ruins of an ancient Hawaiian canoe house.
Ahihi Kinau Natural Reserve: For beginners, Ahihi Kinau is a wonderful spot, protected from major surf and currents in most of the shallow areas. These areas boast lots of marine life and as you cruise the shoreline near first house, you will have your best chance for turtles feeding in the morning hours. It’s on the south shore of Maui and is a protected marine reserve so fishing of any sort is strictly prohibited – the fish seem to know this and feel comfortable with people in the water. As with the other Maui spots, there is only street parking with no amenities; so either be really good at making friends with locals with a bathroom and bbq you can use or plan ahead for a day of fun.
Molokini: Technically not part of the Island of Maui, Molokini is an atoll most easily accessed via boat charter 2.5 miles south of Maui. This is a sea life sanctuary for fish, sea mammals and birds. The atoll has something for beginner snorkelers to expert divers depending on what part of the atoll the charter drops you in at. Protected inside the atoll cove, there are many spots for less experienced snorkelers and divers but still offers the pop of beauty and color with a ton of fish and reef life. As charter boats go closer to the outer atoll edges deeper drop offs increase difficulty but provide greater payoffs with larger fish, mammals and sharks perusing the edge of the reef.
Big Wave Surfing in Maui: While many people don’t think about Maui as the big wave surfing spot, Jaws boasts some of the biggest breaks surfers could ever see. Jaws rears up during the winter swells and is accessible through a crazy dirt road so check your rental car agreement before venturing out. If Jaws, officially known as Pe’ahi, is breaking, you will see pro big wave surfers from around the world being dropped in to waves via jet skis. Waves can exceed 50 feet and this spot has recorded more “biggest waves” caught every year than any other spot in the world.
For the rest of us who don’t have a death wish, you can learn to surf in one of the many safer spots on Maui near the resorts.
Keep in mind, good spots are crowded and Maui is plagued by wind, much more so than other islands making surf conditions choppy and inconsistent. Because of this, Maui is better suited for amazing windsurfing. If you’ve ever wanted to try windsurfing, Maui is your choice.
Whale Watching and Whale Migration: Lahaina was once the whaling capital of the world. The nutrient rich depths surrounding the islands make channels safe feeding grounds for pods of humpback whales. While many people will take a charter several miles out into the ocean to see the pods migrating, feeding and playing, it isn’t uncommon to catch a whale breech from the shorelines. Our favorite whale watching cruise is the Pride of Maui, where not only will you be guaranteed to see humpback whales over the course of two hours, you will then be taken to an amazing snorkel spot for another hour to end the cruise with a complimentary lunch and full service bar.
When you get your land legs back, go to Whalers Village Museum in Lahaina Town to learn the history of this small town that went from being the center of slaughter to the center of conservation for these amazing mammals. Hawaiian waters are now a sanctuary for these animals to feed, breed and calve their young. Enjoy lunch at the Fish Market where you can dine in or grab an awesome seared ahi sandwich to eat along the waterfront.
Road to Hana: The Road to Hana is famous for its beauty along the rainforest cliffs of northern Maui. The switchbacks along Routes 36 and 360 are breathtaking with deep blue ocean drops off the coast cliffs. While most people will just drive the coast and randomly stop for pictures, you can experience the Road to Hana with a few strategic stops such as Twin Falls, a hike that starts at Mile Marker 2. The Halfway to Hana Stand at Mile Marker 17 offers an amazing variety of fresh banana bread with other grinds for you to stock up on for the remainder of the day. There is also a lava tube off of the highway: turn onto ‘Ula’ino Road near Mile Marker 31for a quick and unique hike through this rainforest special. Stop in the quant town of Hana but don’t make this the final stop. There are still many other amazing stops to see on this journey, including Wailua Falls off the bridge at Mile Marker 45. The Seven Sacred Pools at Mile Marker 47 in Haleakala National Park is a perfect place to connect with your spiritual side in a dive in and play. While many will do the Road to Hana in a few hours or half a day, may a full day or two out of it to really understand why its more than just another beautiful drive ending at the base visitor’s center for Haleakala, Kipahulu Visitors Center. If you want to catch the sunrise at 10,000 feet, it might be nice to stay the night in Hana and head to Haleakala before the sun wakes up.
Heleakala: To Hawaiians, Halaekala is home to the god, Maui who sat atop the volcano where he lassoed the sun to pull it toward the summit to make the day last longer. At over 10,000 feet high, the park offers many scenic drives and hikes among varying ecosystems at differing altitudes. There are campgrounds as well as guided hiking tours. Check with your rental car company, as many still do not insure against breakdown up the steep mountain. You will also see a steady stream of cyclists challenging themselves up to enjoy the thrill of going down. Unlike the alpine desert of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, Haleakala offers horseback riding, hikes and views of rainforest and streams. You may even catch a glimpse of the state bird, the elusive nene goose.
On the way down, spend the afternoon in Maui’s quant old town:
Makawao. The historic plantation town and it’s main street remain a historic district on Maui and look more like a movie set than a functional city. If you like a good rodeo, Makawao is home to Hawaii’s largest “paniolo” (cowboy) competition. Though the plantations are gone, the uplands still function as working cattle ranches; Hawaii is very proud of its paniolo traditions.
Going to the Big Island gives you an opportunity to experience multiple climates all in the same day. From the snow at Mauna Kea to the erupting Kilauea volcano, it is the youngest of the islands and growing by the minute, with lava flows pouring into the southern shore’s depth. With deep-sea fishing, night diving with manta rays and horseback riding across the largest paniolo ranch in the state, satisfying the adventurer in you is almost guaranteed.
Active Volcano Kilauea: Volacanoes National Park is simply overwhelming. Sure, you can drive up from Hilo, look down into the crater and see lava within a few hours and still make a tour at the macadamia nut farms on the way home. But there is so much more to see, so stop at the Kilauea Visitors Center to set your plan. Lava has been actively erupting since 1983, building more land mass on the largest and youngest hawaiian island, destroying ancient Hawaiian heiaus and threatening homes and villages in its path. To look at the lava fields, you would think you are on Mars, with the black cools lava going for miles and miles to the ocean, in some areas without any signs of life on the rock. In other areas, you will find various ferns, grasses and local flowers and berries. Looking down into the crater itself is awe-inspiring with its depth and width – don’t get dizzy and fall in!
A once in a lifetime “must see” is the sulfa beds, where the ground smokes and your lungs will say, “that’s good enough for me” especially if you are asthmatic or have other respiratory issues. Thurston lava tub is a cave created as lava rolled over itself creating a pocket down into the island sublayer. It’s a bit eerie with the dripping water in the dark cavernous walk, but still very very cool. Then there are the hikes to the active flows and miles of area to drive, bike or hike in exploration. Honestly, there is so much to do in the middle of Mars here that you might want to break this up into two days with a stay in Hilo town. For a different look, there are helicopter tours that give you a unique aerial perspective. Please be safe: the lava fields may look safe, but rangers have marked paths for a reason. There are areas below what looks cooled off that have active lava running just inches below the surface. Being on fire from lava is not really fun.
Mauna Kea Telescope and Observatory: Before you trek up the mountain, stop at the base in Waimea to have breakfast at the Hawaiian Style Café where ordering for one is enough to order for a family of five. Seriously good eats and huge portions for breakfast and lunch. Once stuffed, drive on.
If you didn’t think you would encounter snow in Hawaii, think again. Mauna Kea home to a world-class observatory, Hawaiian spiritual lands and an amazing sunrise, during the winter, you can grab a snow board and play a bit in the Hawaiian snow. Mauna Kea is the tallest summit in the world when measured from sea floor to summit; from sea level it still an impressive 14,000 feet. It’s a mere 2 hours to drive to the summit, so please be cautious in your visit: don’t plan on scuba diving within 24 hours capturing amazing panoramic views. Altitude sickness and the bends are real things and hyperbaric chambers are not exactly tourist destinations.
For hikers, this isn’t a technical hike other than the 8-hour ascent in high altitude starting at the Visitors Center which sits around 9000 feet high, so you do need to be in shape. Sign in at the Visitors Center and head out early. But don’t expect cliff ledges or switchback cuts through a rainforest. It is an “alpine desert environment” – yes I used the word alpine when speaking about Hawaii, so dress for appropriate alpine weather because it gets cold up there. Stay on the trail and be prepared with water and emergency supplies in the event you get stranded.
Deep Sea Fishing: Kona is a mecca for sport fishing beginners and expert fisherman alike. The deep waters off the southern coast of the island where a 6000 foot ocean drop is mere three miles off shore is rich in foods for marlin, tuna, mahi mahi, sharks and more. The coastal mountains protect the waters from high winds, so fishing conditions often remain very calm. For something a bit more special, book a charter to fish near the lava flowing into the ocean; if you’re lucky, you’ll have a sashimi dinner you caught prepared next to a spectacular view of the sea on fire.
Big Island Scuba and Snorkeling: As with all the hawaiian islands, there are some phenomenal spots for enjoying the underwater scenery. For the best scuba diving, stick to the Kona or Kohala Coasts. Just minutes from the Kailua-Kona Airport is Honokohau Harbor. Further up the coast is Kawaihae Harbor, which is a nice drive and quaint little strip with shops and restaurants and not much else around. Among the best spots to go are Pentagon, Golden Arches or KPC.
Because of the way the lava has flowed into the ocean, there are a lot of caves and protrusions for the vast marine life including turtles, eels, white tip sharks, spiny lobsters, octopus and the variety of Hawaiian tropical fish. Those who are lucky may spot (even hear) whales during winter months, along with monk seals or manta rays. Many experienced divers enjoy the night charters where the manta rays will dance amidst the spotlights of the dive, a truly majestic sight.
Not everyone needs to go diving to experience the manta rays; the Mauna Lani golf course’s 14th hole actually has a lighted spot to look down on the rays as they appear almost nightly for cleaning by the reef fish. Divers and snorkelers will frequent this spot as well, often from the shore near the 6th Hole.
Seventeen miles south of Kailua-Kona is one of the most popular snorkeling spots on the island, Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay. This underwater sanctuary has become more and more popular, thus crowded. If you don’t want to hike two miles to the monument, rent a kayak. Do ask kayak vendors for their permit since the state now requires all kayaks be permitted in the area to ensure the popular spot’s traffic can be monitored and the sanctuary properly maintained.
Just five miles further down Highway 11 is Honaunau Bay, also known as “Two Step” because there are essentially two steps of depth giving snorkelers a diverse change of marine life. To the left of the lava finger protrusion at Two Step is a fifteen to twenty foot consistent depth where the right side offers a gradual grade to 100 feet where you might encounter a spinner dolphin pod chilling with you.
Best Big Island Waterfalls and Hikes: Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls are the two most popular waterfalls on the Big Island. Most of the great falls are accessible on the “wet side” of the island, surrounding Hilo. Rainbow Falls, named for the rainbows frequently seen through the spray across the falls, is right in Hilo and while not the tallest, it is surrounded by the lush green cliffs overlooking the pool where the Wailuku River continues on to the beach.
Akaka Falls is located north of Hilo in Akaka State Park. After a 30 minute leisurely hike through the rainforest trail, you will be rewarded with a view of the 422 foot tall falls. Looking down from the observation area feels like you’ll be engulfed by the rainforest.
For those seeking a bit more adventure, Umauma Falls is located on private land 16 miles north of Hilo. There is a $10 access charge to get in. Enjoy the Garden & River Walk or bump the excitement with a zip line or kayak experience along the falls. While on waterfall adventures, check out this quant town in the area.
Pahoa, Big Island: Pahoa on the Hilo side of the Big Island is home to the largest concentration of old, historic buildings per square mile in the state. This is an old Victorian settled town with less than 1000 people populating it still today. It is surrounds by various farmland and forest reserves. Today, Pahoa is considered the hippie district and is often referred to as Hawaii’s “wild west” connecting the various artist galleries, restaurants and other storefronts with a raised wooden sidewalk. Get some cowboy boots from the local paniolo walking on those planks and you might this Butch Cassidy is looking for the Sundance Kid.
Black Sands Beaches: The Big Island is known to have some amazing beaches, including the rich-looking black sand beaches created from waves crushing the volcanic cinder along shorelines. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is one of the most famous and accessible black sand beaches. It is located on the southeastern shore between mile markers 56 and 57 on Highway 11. Look for Analui Road and head away from the mountains. Plan a picnic and spend the day seeking out the turtles sunning on the beach but understand the water is best suited for more experienced swimmers with strong currents throughout.
While black sand beaches are truly mesmerizing, for something even further off the beaten bath, seek the green sand of Papakolea Beach. No, the sand isn’t green because of algae or mold; it’s green because of high levels of silicate (olivine) found in the lava cinder in that particular area. It’s a 5.3 mile in and out hike with no facilities at the beach, strong surf and currents in the area, so it isn’t a great swimming beach. The trailhead starts at South Point Road off of Highway 11 between mile markers 69 and 70. You will walk past ancient Hawaiian ruins on this hike, so please be respectful: do not move or take any rocks or do any rock piling.
From the youngest hawaiian island (Hawaii) to the oldest, Kauai is rich in rainforests, botanical wonders and boasts the mini-Grand Canyon in Waimea. Take a backpackers dream hike through the Napali Coast, kayak rivers into oceans or take an inner tube through a rainforest running down old plantation irrigation flumes and tunnels. Oh, and yes, there are more white sandy beaches than you can count with dolphins, turtles and about every type of tropical fish Hawaii has to offer.
Best Kauai Beaches: If you want miles of white sands beaches, look no further than Kauai. Some are very accessible from your favorite resort while others take a bit of effort to find, but are worth it.
Hanalei Bay sits on the northern shore of the island. The crescent bay gives access to both surfing and snorkeling. For kayaking fun, start inland on the Hanalei River, second only to the Wailua River in size on the island. It empties into the bay, so you’ll wander about the rainforest all the way to beautiful beach in one afternoon.
On the southern shore, Poipu Beach is popular with locals and tourists alike because of the crystal clear water, the occasional monk seal sighting and natural pools perfect for wading and cooling off. The series of smaller crescent bays offer something for everyone from sunbathing to surfing and snorkeling. Farther down Highway 50 is Salt Pond Beach, another very long and beautiful beach with great summer waters. This is a popular spot during summers where local Hawaiian families gather natural Hawaiian sea salt. Its located at the end of Hanapepe Town, an amazing small town on Kauai that should be on your list of places to stop and visit.
Best Kauai Hikes: Sought by hikers and backpackers around the world, the Kalalau Trail along the north shore’s Na Pali Coast is one of the most exhilarating hikes you will find anywhere in Hawaii. The trail really is more than one hike, with the first two miles ending at Kanakapi’a Valley. Going further will require a permit and it is highly recommended to camp at the second marker in Hanakoa before descending down into Kalalau. Aside from the beauty of the waterfalls, seaside cliffs and ancient lava terraces, you will be walking in the footsteps of the ancient Hawaiians who cultivated this trail to access other villages on the island. Camping permits are good for 5 days total with no more than two days in any of the rest spots allowed. This is a rigorous trail and requires experience and physical stamina to be done safely.
The Kauai rainforest offers a vast variety of floral and fauna not found anywhere else in the world. The Kuilau Trail is a 4.5 mile in and back hike taking you to the ridge with valley views worthy of the ancient gods. Along the hike you will encounter a wooden footbridge to cross a stream, getting up close to the Ohia forest. This isn’t a difficult hike, but offers big rewards with views and diversity. It is located at the end of a residential neighborhood, so please be considerate as you look for the parking up Highway 580. The drive itself is a fun adventure through rural Wailua.
Best Kauai Snorkeling/Best Kauai Scuba: Lawai Beach on the southern shore is adjacent to Poipu Beach. This popular snorkeling spot is a favorite among the endangered monk seals as well, who will bask in the sun after a morning swim. The Salt Ponds are another good spot for snorkeling. While you are there, be sure to stop in Hanapepe to spend an afternoon in old “Hawaiian style.”
Hanapepe, Kauai: Visiting Hanapepe is going back in time to a town that was the fist landing for Captain Cook. This is a fertile valley where farming for ancient Hawaiian’s was rich in taro cultivation, poi production and salt development in the salt ponds. The Hanapepe River is one of the largest in Kauai and provides the small town with it’s water. In the height of the sugar and pineapple industry, Hanapepe was a hub for Kauai entrepreneurs. Today, you can enjoy Friday Art Nights in the town, walk the wooden suspension bridge over the river or enjoy the freshest fruit of your life at the Thursday afternoon Farmer’s Market. While there are tons of great places to eat, you won’t find anything better than the fresh fruit here.
More adventurous snorkeling is on the northern part of Kauai. Charter boats will take you to the Na Pali Coast outer reef. While the charters and catamarans are here, few others will be out, helping preserve the wildlife. Not only will you be able to see the amazing sea life, you will enjoy the beauty of the coast with its cliffs and green ridges.
Amazing Waimea Canyon Activities: Waimea Canyon is a mere 10 miles long but a mighty 3000 feet deep, giving it the dubious distinction of being “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” There are so many ways to experience Waimea Canyon with a drive up Route 580, stopping for pictures something like every 2 feet. Okay, if you want that many selfies, maybe a hike is a better way to experience the Canyon. Down below, you can kayak or paddle board up the Wailua River – keep in mind that Kauai ranks as the wettest spot on earth, so don’t be surprised if you get soaked without ever jumping in the water. For those who want to be a bit more up close and personal without exerting too much effort, there are cruises that take you up the canyon, taking in the sites where you can feel the mist on your face from Opaeka’a Falls.
Kauai Surfing: Like all the islands, locals and pros find the best spots for surfing. Kauai is no different with Cannons on the north shore boasting huge winter swells. For the beginner, novice or sane, stick to the south shore from May through October where swells are big enough to catch something but generally not going to engulf you in panic. Poipu Beach, popular for most all beach fun, has the perfect beginner’s spot called Lemon Drops where the wave is solid but slow. Get experience here and work your way up to bigger surf.
Best Molokai Activities in a Nutshell:
Most people overlook visiting Molokai, where there are a handful of accommodations, nothing like the resorts of the other islands. Don’t let the lack of tourists stop you from experiencing the “friendly isle” of Hawaii. And for those who want to mix historical adventure with chillaxing, Molokai is a great option. There are only small towns on Molokai with crystal clear water for snorkeling. Ride a mule down sea cliffs to visit Kalaupapa and visit an ancient Hawaiian heiau. And for those who enjoy hunting, the game isn’t the most exotic (feral pigs, goats and game birds) but the landscape is.
Molokai’s Quaint Artist Town: Molokai in general is considered small and sparsely populated. Maunaloa is tucked away from the coast and still has less than 400 people residing in the old plantation village. Old Hawaii was more than just surfing and coconuts. This town is an example of the tiny villages that worked the surrounding cane fields. Today, Maunaloa has galleries and quaint shops, including a wicked fun kite shop with anything you can imagine to fly through the air. Don’t confuse Maunaloa, Molokai with Maunaloa on the Big Island.
Kalaupapa Mule Ride: If you have ever seen or experienced a mule ride down the Grand Canyon, you will understand the mixture of exhilaration, fear and fulfillment of riding a mule down a very steep cliff. The mule ride in Kalaupapa will not disappoint. Picture yourself on the steepest sea cliffs in the world with panoramic views of Molokai’s northern shoreline. The mules guide you down to historic Kalaupapa, where lepers were cast away to colonized and were eventually cared for by Saint Damien. The magnitude and history of this tour will surely capture you in all the feels. Hiking in does require a permit and kids under age of 16 are non permitted.
Hunting Molokai: To hunt on any of the islands, a hunting license is required and available via the Division of Forestry and Wildlife. The types of game you can hunt include feral pigs, goats, black buck, axis deer, sheep and a plethora of game birds. While there are many free areas to hunt on the island, it does cost tourists more than residents for a license (non-resident fee: $105). Make sure to understand the locations and time frames when you can hunt. Molokai Ranch offers a bigger game experience with guides, but will cost you anywhere from $150-$650 per day depending on the hunt.
Enjoy some awesome barbecue along with local live music at Kualapuu Cookhouse in the center of the island. It’s not really near anything, but is a fun middle of nowhere joint that you will meet some nice people and get some great food. You’re on vacation, drive and enjoy the sites. Plus, the island is only 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, so how far out of the way is it, really?
Molokai Snorkeling: The great thing about a less trafficked island is there is less harm to local reefs. There are some great snorkeling locations on the island, the best of which is considered One Ali’I Park on the southern shore of the small island. You will find some surfers to the northern side of the beach as well. Halawa Beach Park on the northeast tip of the island is also another great snorkeling location. Do be warned that the island is surrounded by some of the strongest currents in the world: be smart, have a buddy and stay safe.
Paddleboarding: Molokai is actually the starting point for the Paddleboard World Championship that challenge the best watermen in the world to cross the Molokai Channel to Oahu. Molokai hosts other smaller competitions in paddling and kayaking with a lot of shoreline, nice pocket coves to learn and open ocean for views. Daily rentals cost as little as $5 per day. There are several tours taking you down the south shore for several miles, guiding beginners in the otherwise intimidating deep waters, but giving people great views of the island as well as a shot at close and personal encounters with green sea turtles, dolphins and maybe even whales. Note: on a clear day, you will see the other islands – they are farther than you think, thus some good advice is to never get lost at sea.
Hopefully this guide has, well, given you guidance in your quest to have your ultimate Hawaiian vacation. It’s really only a start of places to go, things to do and yummies to eat. We’ve focused on the accessible hawaiian islands; those that have airports with commercial flights. Other hawaiian islands require special permission and transportation. The bucket list doesn’t stop here. We hope you will find a love and connection to the islands and will return for many more adventures.
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