The dreamy pull of Waikiki’s waves and Day-Glo sunsets over Diamond Head are strong. Throw in world-class resorts, some of Hawaii’s best shopping, dining, art and nightlife and it’s no wonder bustling Honolulu is often travelers’ first and only Hawaii stop.
But the rolling green Ko’olau Mountains just beyond the capital’s skyscrapers allude to adventurous alternatives a short drive from downtown. And thanks to the archipelago’s geography (as well as short, frequent and reliable commuter flights), even neighboring islands are just a day trip away.
Napali Coast, Kaua’i
Best for epic views
The flight to Kaua’i takes just 35 minutes, but memories of the waterfall-lined Napali Coast cliffs will last a lifetime. Sailboats and catamarans depart from several southerly harbors for day and sunset cruises.
If opting for a later tour, spend the morning exploring the striated red rocks of Waimea Canyon – at 36,000ft, it’s nearly as deep as the cliffs are high. Or if you’re feeling flush, helicopter tours showcase it all and then some, occasionally coupling aerial highlights with land-based excursions.
Getting there: Hourly flights depart Honolulu for Lihue each day. From there, rent a car or arrange a tour that meets in Lihue.
Kilauea Volcano, Island of Hawai'i
Best for otherworldly landscapes
Larger than all the other islands combined (more than six Oʻahus could fit inside), it’d be impossible to experience Hawaii Island in a single day. Instead, focus on its undisputed highlight: the world’s most active volcano – Kilauea.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, with its still-steaming sulfur banks; hikeable, hardened lava lake in Kilauea Iki Crater; and otherworldly formations and flows along the Chain of Craters Road; is the best place to start. If you have time, explore Kilauea’s impacts outside park boundaries, including the new Pahoa Lava Zone Museum show – a volunteer-run outfit detailing the destructive four-month-long 2018 eruption. The best place to see a small part of the 2018 eruption is Pohoiki, the world’s newest black sand beach.
Getting there: It’s a 50-minute flight from Honolulu to Hilo. Tours depart from Hilo for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, or for the most flexibility rent a car. It’s a 45-minute drive south to the National Park and another 45 minutes from the park to Pahoa.
Pearl Harbor, Oʻahu
Best for history lessons
Perhaps the most popular day trip from Honolulu is a visit to Pearl Harbor and the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. The area has four main attractions that honor and commemorate the infamous site of Japanese attacks during WWII: the USS Arizona Memorial, which floats atop the sunken warship; the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park; the USS Missouri Memorial; and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Ford Island.
Getting there: At just over 10 miles from Waikiki, it’s more affordable to make your way there by public transit, but tour companies streamline the process by arranging hard-to-get timed tickets and navigating the red tape associated with visits to an active military base.
Kualoa Ranch, Oʻahu
Best for cinematic landscapes
Make your way over to the island’s east side to visit Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve. Known as “Hollywood’s backlot,” these 4000 acres of land might be recognizable from Jurassic Park, Jumanji and Godzilla.
This privately owned preserve is also culturally significant. It was a safe place for Hawaiian natives to seek forgiveness and also where they would train for annual warrior games. Fast forward to today, and the area’s vast open valleys and rainforest still scream adventure.
It’s easy to spend the entire day here exploring remote areas of the park via electric mountain bikes, or on experienceslike the Jurassic Adventure Tour, which takes visitors to famous sites from the movie. Or take to the open ocean on a catamaran for a dreamy view of Kaneohe Bay.
You’ll also get to see Mokoli‘i Island and Hokule‘a Beach. You should probably also pose with a dinosaur figurine at some point to reenact your favorite Jurassic Park scene. Pro tip: Because this is a popular place, it’s best to book activities well ahead of time.
Getting there: Kualoa Ranch is about 45 minutes from Waikiki Beach by car. Bus routes #8, #19, #20, #23, #42, #60 or #88A also stop at Kualoa Ranch.
Central Oʻahu and The North Shore
Best for surf beaches
Just north of Pearl Harbor, Highway 2 snakes toward the island’s legendary North Shore, which pounds with epic surf in winter. Along the way, stop at the sacred Hawaiian birthing stones before navigating Dole Plantation's pineapple fields.
From the surfer town of Hale’iwa, head left along the only coastal road to check out Waimea Falls, taste locally-grown coffee in an old sugar mill and hike amid nesting albatross in Ka’ena Point State Park. Loop back for surf beaches and shrimp trucks, ending the day with a spectacle and luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Getting there: It’s about 30 miles from Honolulu to Haleiwa, but plan for an hour-and-a-half drive (without stops). Though TheBus services to the North Shore, you’ll spend most of the day waiting for its infrequent service; it’s best to hire a car.
Hanauma Bay and Windward Oʻahu
Best for snorkelling and kayaking
On the other side of Diamond Head, Hanauma, a sunken volcanic cone forming a natural, protected bay, teems with life. Its lagoons and fringing reef host Oʻahu’s best snorkeling – home to sea turtles, eels, colorful parrotfish and humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the state fish.
Head to trendy Kailua on the Windward Side to shop its surfer-chic boutiques or rent a kayak for a picnic on Mokolua Islands off of Lanikai Beach. Before returning, visit the Valley of the Temples to explore peaceful Bayodo-In – a recreation of a Unesco-designated Buddhist temple in Uji, Japan, at the base of jungle-clad mountains.
Getting there: TheBus public transit services this route; it’s also possible to Uber or Lyft.
Road to Hana, Maui
Best for road tripping
There’s so much to see along the 50-mile iconic Hana Highway, around East Maui from Pa’ia, to the road’s end in Hana. There are a whopping 620 curves and 59 bridges in all. The verdant thoroughfare has swimmable waterfalls, gorgeous coastal views, roadside fruit stalls, lava tubes and botanical gardens.
The best way to experience the Road to Hana is on a guided tour or by flying to Hana on Mokulele Airlines if you plan to stay in Hana town. Locals encourage visitors not to drive the road on their own because of the high traffic volume.
Getting there: Dozens of daily 43-minute flights connect Honolulu and Kahului. Rent a car at the airport or employ one of several tour companies to navigate the winding route so you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road.
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