With nearly every climactic zone on Earth, months of amenable weather and landscapes of rugged beauty, the Hawaiian Islands have long caught Hollywood directors’ eyes. Indeed, the islands’ cascading tropical waterfalls, powdery beaches and jagged volcanic mountains seem straight out of a fantasy movie set. Hawaii’s unbelievably diverse landscapes have stood in for anywhere on Earth – and sometimes alien worlds, too.

No matter which island you pick, the vacation footage you’ll shoot here will look Academy Award-worthy.

The Kalalau Valley appeared in King Kong (1976). Image by Michele Falzone / Getty

Romance and comedy on the Garden Isle

More than any other Hawaiian Island, Kauaʻi (also known as the Garden Isle) has riveted the attention of Hollywood location scouts. The famous film version of the musical South Pacific (1959) was released the same year Hawaii finally became a state. Starry-eyed honeymooners soon followed, wanting to see ‘Bali Hai’ – the fictional island paradise from the musical – for themselves.

To find the mountain that ancient Hawaiians called Makana (meaning ‘gift’), drive toward the end of the road past Hanalei on Kauaʻi’s North Shore. Pull over for the beautiful beaches of Haʻena State Park or at Lumahaʻi Beach, where Mitzi Gaynor sang that she’d wash that man right out of her hair.

Lumahaʻi Beach, where scenes from South Pacific were filmed. Image by Vaughn Greg / Getty

Doubling down on Kauaʻi’s romantic appeal was Blue Hawaii (1961), a romantic romp starring Elvis Presley and the Coco Palms Resort. Although that resort is long abandoned, you can still view vintage memorabilia from it while sipping mai tais at Princeville’s Tiki Iniki Bar & Restaurant.

For as-seen-on-TV shenanigans, skip over to Moloaʻa Beach, where the pilot of campy Gilligan’s Island was set. Wailua Falls, the double waterfall that beckons in the opening credits of Fantasy Island, is an irresistible roadside photo op outside Lihuʻe, but make sure to heed the warning signs – the rocks above the waterfall are slippery.

Kauaʻi's dramatic landscapes

The Na Pali Coast was featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Image by  M.M. Sweet / Getty

Perhaps most of all, Kauaʻi is famous for the action movies filmed here, including Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1983) and Jurassic Park (1993). Island Helicopters will fly you to a landing point near towering ‘Jurassic Falls’ – although swimming isn’t allowed, it’s still a photo-worthy sight. Four-wheel-drive Aloha Kauaʻi Tours will take you overland through the Jurassic Park gate, then on a backcountry hike to a mesmerizing waterfall you can take a dip in.

More recently, The Descendants (2011), based on a novel by Hawaii-born writer Kaui Hart Hemmings, was shot on location on Kauaʻi, including in Princeville and Hanalei Bay. George Clooney’s character stayed in an oceanview suite at the posh St Regis Princeville resort, then knocked back tropical drinks while being serenaded by Hawaiian music at Tahiti Nui, a tiki dive bar in Hanalei. Ever wonder where that untouched piece of land was that the family was fighting over in the movie? It’s outside Lihuʻe at Kipu Ranch, where movie-site ATV tours also visit Indiana Jones’ jungle rope swing from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Police shootouts on Oʻahu

The Aliʻiolani Hale courthouse is frequently used as police headquarters in the modern remake of Hawaii Five-0. Image by Dennis Macdonald / Getty

In the late 1960s, the cop drama Hawaii Five-O beamed paradisiacal images of the Hawaiian Islands back to the US mainland. Rebooted in 2010, the new Hawaii Five-0 series is filmed entirely on Oʻahu. If you visit Honolulu, you might stumble across a scene being filmed – maybe a shootout at a Chinatown bank, or the undercover Five-0 team meeting up outside police headquarters (in real life, Honolulu’s Aliʻiolani Hale courthouse) or for sunset drinks at Waikiki’s Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Remember the 1980s TV drama Magnum, P.I. and mustachioed Tom Selleck cruising around in a Ferrari convertible? Some of the most seductive scenery in that show featured Diamond Head volcano, wave-tossed Sandy Beach and the landmark Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse. Also instantly recognizable in several episodes was Byōdō-In, a faithful reconstruction of an ancient Japanese temple on a hillside in Kaneʻohe on the Windward Coast.

Getting Lost on the North Shore

Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P.I. aren't the only TV shows to make Oʻahu a star. Survivors of a plane crash washed up on a North Shore beach in the hit series Lost during the early 2000s. Oʻahu stood in for the mysterious island on which the survivors were stranded. Local gossips say that when the plane crash scene was filmed at Mokuleʻia Beach, it looked so realistic that some people called 911 for emergency services. None of the Lost sets were left standing, but you can visit where the survivors’ camp was located: Papaʻiloa Beach, northeast of the surf town of Haleʻiwa on Oʻahu’s North Shore. Wanna see where Hurley’s golf course was? Take a tour of sprawling Kualoa Ranch on the Windward Coast, where dozens of TV shows and movies have been filmed in the dramatic Kaʻaʻawa Valley, including Godzilla and Jurassic Park.

Oʻahu's love and war

Walk in Elvis’ footsteps at Hanauma Bay. Image by Ann Cecil / Getty

When it comes to movies, Oʻahu see-saws between two extremes: gritty WWII dramas and lighthearted comedies. In silly Paradise Hawaiian Style (1966), Elvis frolicked at Hanauma Bay and the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laʻie. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore also hung out on the Windward Coast in the romantic comedy 50 First Dates (2004).

Among the wartime movies filmed on Oʻahu, Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity (1953) made Halona Cove infamous for the scandalous kissing-in-the-surf scene between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster. Other memorable moments were filmed at Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel, nicknamed the ‘Pink Palace,’ and at Pearl Harbor, which was also the setting for Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), about the Japanese attack that launched the USA into WWII. Pearl Harbor (2001) was partially shot on Ford Island, where a heroic collection of WWII historical sites includes the Battleship Missouri and the floating USS Arizona Memorial, which you can set foot on during a free guided boat tour.

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