It's easy to see why Hawaii has become synonymous with paradise. Just look at these sugary beaches, Technicolor coral reefs and volcanoes beckoning adventurous spirits.
How to choose the best Hawaiian island for your trip
5 min read — Published Apr 22, 2021
Planning a trip to Hawaii but not sure where to start? Here are our tips on how to choose an island in Hawaii.
Discover some of the most unique and fulfilling experiences your next destination has to offer.
Tips & Travel trends to help you pick the perfect time to visit this destination.
Golden rules to keep in mind when traveling to this destination.
Put these must-see destinations on your next travel wish list.
Deals and tips on ways to save without sacrificing the fun on your next trip.
Browse the various transportation options to make your trip that much easier when you arrive.
Ways to maximize the fun without spending a dime on your next great adventure.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Hawaii.
Hanalei Bay is Kauaʻi's postcard-perfect beach, embracing surfers, paddlers, bodyboarders and beach bums alike. It's a perfect crescent of golden sand lining the two-mile stretch of the beautiful bay, running west from the mouth of the Hanalei River. It’s divided into four named sections, though as you enjoy a beachfront walk you can’t tell where one ends and the next begins. Each offers different conditions for swimming and surfing, so don’t assume it’s safe to enter the ocean anywhere along the continuous strip. Black Pot Beach The short easternmost stretch of Hanalei Bay, alongside the rivermouth, usually offers the calmest surf among the wild North Shore swells, and is popular with novice surfers. It's also known as Hanalei Pier for its unmistakable landmark jetty, perfect for a sunset stroll. In summer, swimming, snorkeling and SUP are decent – though the river itself can carry bacteria. Kayakers launch from a boat ramp on the river. Hanalei Pavilion Beach Park Once you’ve admired the view from the pier, slip off your shoes and walk a half-mile to Hanalei Pavilion Beach Park, absorbing the beauty of Hanalei Bay. If the waves are large, you'll see surfers charging the point break way offshore; if seas are calm, have a swim before heading south on Weke Rd. Waikoko Beach Protected by a reef on the western bend of Hanalei Bay, sandy-bottomed roadside Waikoko beach – literally "blood water" – offers shallower and calmer waters than the middle of the bay. It’s thus the safest for family swimming, but sadly it has no facilities. Local surfers call the break here Waikokos; watch them at work to spot where it is. Waiʻoli (Pine Trees) Beach Park Winter brings big swells, and locals dominate the surf spot that’s known as Pine Trees in honor of the waterfront ironwoods. There’s a more challenging shore break here than anywhere else on Hanalei Bay, and swimming is dangerous, except during summer calms. Parking and facilities in Hanalei Bay There's a small parking lot at Hanalei Pavilion Beach Park, and street-parking spaces are often available. Facilities here include restrooms and outdoor showers. Waiʻoli Beach Park offers respite from the sun, with with restrooms, outdoor showers, beach volleyball courts and picnic tables.
Kilauea volcano lies at the center of activity in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The unassuming bump on Mauna Loa's southeast flank would be easily overlooked if not for its massive steaming crater and crater-within-a-crater, Halemaʻumaʻu, which has spewed lava nearly continuously over the last 25 years. Researchers initially thought Kilauea was just a vent of Mauna Loa, but later discovered a separate lava system – a particularly active system that first broke the earth's surface as early as 600,000 years ago. How active Kilauea Volcano will be when you visit is subject to the whims of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes who makes her home here, so set expectations low, and hope to be pleasantly surprised. Is Kilauea currently erupting? The most active of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, Kilauea's calendar is usually hot stuff. Chances are good that visitors to Halemaʻumaʻu will get a sight (and smell) of some of the action. In 2018, a months-long eruption went out with a bang when the volcano's caldera collapsed/exploded, shooting a plume of ash 30,000ft high. Recent activity restarted in December 20, 2020, but it's decidedly less pyrotechnic. The USGS posts daily reports on Kilauea's activity. Is Kilauea safe to visit? Even though Kilauea is one of the world's most active volcanoes, it's very safe to visit. The eruption in 2018 caused property damage and just over two dozen injuries, but no fatalities were reported. If Halemaʻumaʻu and Puʻu ʻOʻo are erupting, they belch thousands of tons of the gas daily. When lava meets the sea it creates a "steam plume," as sulfuric and hydrochloric acid mixes with airborne silica (or glass particles). All this combines to create vog, which, depending on the winds, can settle over the park. People with respiratory and heart conditions, pregnant women, infants and young children should take care when visiting if an eruption is taking place. Follow hawaiiso2network.com for air quality reports. History On March 19, 2008, Halemaʻumaʻu Crater shattered a quarter-century of silence with a huge steam-driven explosion that scattered rocks and Pele's hair (strands of volcanic glass) over 75 acres. A series of explosions followed, widening a 300ft vent in the crater floor which has continued to spew a column of gas and ash across the Kaʻu desert. At time of research, the vent had filled with a lake of bubbling molten lava that occasionally overflows into Kilauea Caldera before receding again – like a slow heart-beat of Kilauea. If you are lucky, Pele may be in a rare mood, sending spatter and rocks shooting up to the now-closed section of Crater Rim Drive. In 1823, missionary William Ellis first described the boiling goblet of Halemaʻumaʻu to a wide audience, and his fantastic account attracted travelers from all over the world. Looking in, some saw the fires of hell, others primeval creation, but none left the crater unmoved. Mark Twain wrote in 1866 that he witnessed: "[C]ircles and serpents and streaks of lightning all twined and wreathed and tied together…I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child's volcano, a soup kettle, compared to this." Then, in 1924, the crater floor subsided rapidly, touching off a series of explosive eruptions. Boulders and mud rained for days. When it was over, the crater had doubled in size – to about 300ft deep and 3000ft wide. Lava activity ceased and the crust cooled. But not for long. Since then, Halemaʻumaʻu has erupted 18 times, making it the most active area on Kilauea's summit. All of Hawaiʻi is the territory of Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes, but Halemaʻumaʻu is her home, making it a sacred site for Hawaiians. How to see Kilauea The best spots to see the latest eruption are from, Kilauea Overlook, Steam Vents & Steaming Bluff and overlooks along Crater Rim Trail. Viewpoints can get crowded, so arrive early. All fall within the boundaries of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, which charges a $30 fee per car for a 7-day pass.
In the shadow of Diamond Head, the former mansion of billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke is a sight to behold for art-lovers and celebrity hounds. Shangri La is a treasure house of antique Islamic art, including ceramic-tile mosaics, carved wooden screens, silk tapestries and glazed paintings, all embraced by meditative gardens filled with fountains and offering stunning ocean vistas. Who was Doris Duke? Doris Duke (1912–1993) inherited an immense fortune after her father died in 1925, when she was just 12 years old. She was once nicknamed "the richest little girl in the world", and this money granted her freedom to do as she pleased. Among other things, that meant two very public divorces and a scandalous marriage to an international playboy. While living in Hawaii, she became the first white woman to surf competitively and, naturally, she learned from the best: Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku and his brothers. Doris had a lifelong passion for Islamic art and architecture, inspired by a visit to the Taj Mahal during her honeymoon at the age of 23. During that same honeymoon in 1935, she stopped at Oʻahu, fell in love with the island and decided to build Shangri La, her seasonal residence, on Black Point in the shadow of Diamond Head. For over 60 years Duke traveled the globe from Indonesia to Istanbul, collecting priceless Islamic art objects. Duke appreciated the spirit more than the grand scale of the world wonders she had seen, and she made Shangri La into an intimate sanctuary rather than an ostentatious mansion. Curious to know more? Watch the HBO movie Bernard and Doris (2006), starring Susan Sarandon as Doris Duke and Ralph Fiennes as her butler Bernard Lafferty. Upon her death, Doris appointed her butler as the sole executor of her fortune. She directed that it to be used to further her philanthropic projects, including supporting the arts and against cruelty to children and animals. The Shangri La estate One of the true beauties of the place is the way it harmonizes with the natural environment. Finely crafted interiors open to embrace gardens and the ocean, and one glass wall of the living room looks out at Diamond Head. Throughout the estate, courtyard fountains spritz. Duke’s extensive collection of Islamic art includes vivid gemstone-studded enamels, glazed ceramic paintings and silk suzanis (intricate needlework tapestries). Art often blends with architecture to represent a theme or region, as in the Damascus Room, the restored interior of an 18th-century Syrian merchant’s house. Visiting Shangri La Tours of Shangri La are on hold in 2021, but are expected to resume later in the year. The museum can only be visited on a guided tour departing from downtown’s Honolulu Museum of Art where you’ll travel as a group by minibus to the estate, watching a brief documentary on Doris Duke en route. Tours last 90 minutes. Tickets must be reserved online in advance, and tours often sell out weeks ahead of time. Children under eight are not allowed.
Near the police substation at Waikiki Beach Center, four ordinary-looking volcanic basalt boulders are actually sacred and legendary Hawaiian symbols. They are said to contain the mana (spiritual essence) of four māhū (individuals who were both male and female in mind, body and spirit) healers who came to Oʻahu from Tahiti around AD 400. According to ancient legend, the healers helped the island residents by relieving their maladies. Soon the māhū healers became very famous. As a tribute when the healers left, the islanders placed the four boulders where they had lived. The two heaviest stones weight eight and 10 tons respectively, how the ancients moved them the two miles from a quarry east of Diamond Head is a mystery. Like the Hawaiian people, the stones suffered many indignities in the 20th century. Archibold Scott Cleghorn, the Scottish husband of Princess Likelike and father of Princess Kaʻiulani, discovered them on his Waikiki waterfront property. He had them excavated and stone idols were found with them. The princesses regularly placed seaweed offerings on them. When Cleghorn died in 1910, his will stipulated the stones be protected, which didn't happen. In 1941 a bowling alley was built on the site and the stones were used in the foundation, despite protests from the local community. After the structure was demolished in 1958, the stone were given some prominence in the newly created Kuhio Beach park. However, more indignities were to come. They were dug up yet again in 1980, so a sewer line and toilet could be built on the spot. Tourists began using them as a towel-drying rack, sparking many Hawaiian community protests. In 1997, the stones were moved yet again to their present spot and fenced off. Look for the sacred ahu (altar) that was added.
This impressive, little-known viewpoint is at the end of Lumahai St in Portlock, makai (toward the sea) from the traffic lights at the Koko Marina Center. It's a tad hard to find but well worth the effort for the spectacular views, the pounding surf on layered volcanic rock and an enthralling cave that spits waves back out at the ocean. Take care getting down to the best viewing spots, where whale-watchers often set up to take whale-count surveys in winter – the rocks are uneven and it can be very slippery. Cliff jumping Cliff jumping is not advised – there have been deaths at this beauty spot – but thrill-seeking locals and experts can sometimes be seen making the 70ft leap from here into the sea.
This legendary beach on Mahana Bay isn't really that green, but it is a rare and beautiful sight. Its color comes from crystals of olivine, the mineral found in the semiprecious gemstone known as peridot. Olivine is created in high-heat environments – like during the formation of stars or volcanic eruptions. This batch comes from the latter, and is what's left behind as waves erode the littoral cone looming above the cove. Swimming is only advisable on the very few exceptionally calm days. How to get to Green Sand Beach To get here take the left (east) fork of South Point Rd some 10 miles from Hwy 11 to the old barracks. Park here (don't leave any valuables in your car) and hike the dusty, windy, hot 2.5 miles to Mahana Bay. Start by heading south to the Kaulana boat ramp then veer left (east) following the coastline. The unceasing winds will sandblast your face the entire way making the trip feel twice as far as it is. Bring lots of water. Walking is free and has less impact on the local environment, but you can also get there by bouncing along in the back of one of the dilapidated 4WD pickups that usually cluster at the barracks offering rides for cash. Whether you arrive on foot or off-road vehicle, you'll have to scramble down the cliff to the beach, which is becoming a major tourist attraction despite the difficult access. Go early, late or when it's overcast to beat the crowds.
This somber memorial is one of the USA's most significant WWII sites, commemorating the Pearl Harbor attack and its fallen service members with an iconic offshore monument reachable by boat. The memorial was built over the midsection of the sunken USS Arizona, with deliberate geometry to represent initial defeat, ultimate victory and eternal serenity. In the furthest of three chambers inside the shrine, the names of crewmen killed in the attack are engraved onto a marble wall. In the central section are cutaways that allow visitors to see the skeletal remains of the ship, which even now oozes about a quart of oil each day into the ocean. In its rush to recover from the attack and prepare for war, the US Navy exercised its option to leave over 900 servicemen inside the sunken ship; they remain entombed in its hull. Free boat tours to the shrine depart every 15 minutes from 7:30am until 3pm (weather permitting) from the NPS Visitor Center & Museum. The 75-minute tour program includes a 23-minute documentary film about the attack. You can make reservations for the tour online at www.recreation.gov up to 60 days before your visit. You can also try to secure tickets on the website the day before your visit, beginning at 7am Hawaii time – but these are very limited. Some 1300 tickets are available in person on the day of your visit at the visitor center's Aloha Court. However, during peak seasons (summer and Christmas), when more than 4000 people take the tour daily, the entire day's allotment of tickets is often gone by 10am and waits of a few hours are not uncommon, so arrive early, or better yet: reserve in advance. Note that private tours of the memorial only pass by on boats and don't dock.
If what you're after is an almost deserted, postcard-perfect scoop of soft, white-sand beach cupping brilliant blue-green waters, head to 'Maks.' Although popular, this string of idyllic coves absorbs crowds so well you'll still feel like you've found paradise. The northernmost cove is sandier and gentler, while the southernmost cove is (illegally) a naked sunbathing spot. Swimming is splendid, but beware of rough surf and rocks in the water. Bodyboarding and snorkeling are other possibilities. Practice aloha during your visit by packing out all trash and respecting the privacy of others. For locals, this is an unofficial camping and fishing getaway, and the growing popularity of these beaches among outsiders is contentious for some. Always give sea turtles a wide berth – it's illegal to approach them closer than 20ft on land or 50yd in the water. Getting to Makalawena requires extra effort. Take the Kekaha Kai (Kona Coast) State Park access road (4WD recommended, although many locals drive it in a standard passenger car), off Hwy 19 between Miles 90 and 91. Less than 1.5 miles later, at the road junction before the parking lot for Mahaiʻula Beach, turn right. Park on the road shoulder near the cables restricting vehicle access to a service road, then walk north for 30 minutes across the lava flow and sand dunes to the beach, either following the service road or a much rougher footpath over crunchy ʻaʻa lava.
Long renowned as one of the North Shore’s most glorious beaches, lovely Ke‘e Beach, beside the Kalalau trailhead at the end of Kuhio Hwy, has been given a new lease of life by recent parking restrictions. There’s usually safe swimming in the reef-enclosed area at its western end, hard against the Na Pali cliffs. Always follow lifeguards’ advice, however; Ke‘e’s looks can be deceptive, and vicious currents can suck swimmers through the reef and out to sea. Walk eastwards along the sands, fringed by trees that seem to perch on spiders’ legs since erosion exposed their roots, and you’ll soon start getting sensational views back along the Na Pali cliffs. Ke‘e is no longer notorious for overcrowding now that the only access is via a scenic quarter-mile boardwalk from the road’s-end parking lot, for which permits have to be booked well in advance. The North Shore Shuttle stops there, and waits to pick up passengers until 5pm daily. Ancient lava-rock platforms on the slopes immediately west of Ke‘e are said to be where the art of hula was first developed. They’re not currently accessible to visitors, so these days Ke‘e serves instead as a place for a refreshing dip to hikers fresh from the Kalalau Trail.
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