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What to do in Hawaii: our highlights guide

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By Audley specialist Gillian

Hawaii is often perceived as a tropical island paradise, where white sands merge with clear water and days are given up to relaxing beneath palm trees. While this is true to some extent, it’s by no means the whole story. Forested hiking trails lead to hidden waterfalls, while scenic drives and helicopter rides take in coastlines that have turned the heads of Hollywood filmmakers.

Formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, the islands continue to be shaped by the ever-apparent forces of nature. You can observe molten lava bubbling and glowing in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and snorkel among tropical fish in the submerged Molokini volcanic crater.

How many islands can you cover in a trip?

Molten lava flowing into the sea, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Molten lava flowing into the sea, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Part of the joy of visiting Hawaii is that you can pick and choose from its six main islands: Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Big Island and the two smaller islands of Molokai and Lanai. Each offers something different, from adventurous outdoor activities and the trademark sandy beaches, to volcanic formations, winding coastal drives, and traditional Hawaiian culture.

Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Big Island have direct flights to and from mainland USA: around a six-hour journey from the USA’s west coast.

It’s easy to visit multiple islands in one trip; I’d say two weeks gives enough time to cover three or four. Connecting flights typically last around half an hour, without the need for long airport waits.

As there’s limited public transport on the islands, self-driving is the most practical means of getting around. Roads are well maintained and easy to navigate.

Things to see and do in Hawaii

Oahu

More American in feel than the other islands and home to Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu, Oahu is by far the most populated island.

I recommend staying for a couple of nights, making time to visit Hawaii’s best-known beach, Waikiki, with its golden sand and surfer atmosphere, as well as Pearl Harbor.

Visiting Pearl Harbor

USS Bowfin, Pearl Harbor

USS Bowfin, Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

I couldn’t pass through Oahu without visiting the place where the USA’s involvement in World War II first began. It was a moving experience visiting the site and seeing the names of more than 2,400 people who lost their lives engraved on the memorial plaque.

While three of the sunken battleships were raised and returned to service, the USS Arizona still resides in its watery grave. Its memorial is built over the wreckage, so you can look down and see the submerged ship.

Throughout the site are exhibits, displays and memorials related to the events leading up to the fateful day, what happened during the attack, and the people affected on both sides.

Where to stay on Oahu

The Halekulani Hotel is set on Waikiki Beach, and every room and suite has a private lanai (balcony). As a guest, you gain free access to some of Oahu’s art and cultural venues.

Big Island (Hawaii)

Hapuna Beach, Big Island

Hapuna Beach, Big Island

An island of two halves, Big Island’s eastern side is dominated by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes — including Kilauea. The west, meanwhile, has a coastline made up of long stretches of pale-gold sand lapped by clear turquoise waters.

I personally liked Hapuna Beach best, whose wide, soft sands are a designated state recreation area. Farther south is Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook was killed by islanders in 1779 — a large white monument marks the spot.

Inland, dense jungle hides misty waterfalls, and Hawaii’s highest peak, Mauna Kea, dominates the skyline.

There are airports at eastern Hilo and Kona in the west, so you can spend time on both sides of the island.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Tube lava, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Tube lava, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Big Island is the largest island in the archipelago, as well as the most recently formed, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the best place in Hawaii to see the forces at work beneath the Earth’s crust. Here you can take in dark, sprawling lava fields strewn with boulders, steaming craters and cinder cones, and occasionally aglow with bubbling molten lava.

While a helicopter ride gives you a wide-angle perspective over the park and Kilauea, it’s easy to explore the landscape independently by car and on foot. The Kilauea Visitor Center has information on suggested hiking trails and drives that take in the drama of this dynamic landscape.

Exploring on foot, I passed huge chunks of charred debris and cracks in the ground filled with red molten lava. I walked across the charcoal-hued swirls of once-oozing lava, seeing where it had suddenly cooled, mid-flow, forming thick layers of stone. Sunken road signs are an eerie reminder of the lava’s destructive force.

The park also contains the Pu ‘u Loa archaeological site, where more than 23,000 petroglyphs were etched into the rock hundreds of years ago by native Hawaiians. You can follow a boardwalk to view some of the carvings, which include geometric patterns and images of people, canoes and animals.

Stargazing from Mauna Kea

Observatories on Mauna Kea, Big Island

Observatories on Mauna Kea, Big Island

The occasionally snow-covered dome of Mauna Kea sits between Big Island’s two contrasting sides. Its height at 4,207 m (13,802 ft) and remoteness make it one of the best places on Earth for studying the night sky. Nightly tours will take you to the dormant volcano’s summit to view the heavens at the site where astronomers discovered several of Jupiter’s moons.

After an alfresco dinner, you’re driven for 45 minutes up the winding road to Mauna Kea’s peak. The air is much thinner here, so only those aged 16 and over are permitted. On my visit, the sea of clouds below us was tinged pink and violet as the sun sank. Above, orange, red and yellow streaks burst across the sky before it darkened and the first stars began to show.

We were then taken down to the Visitor Information Station, where public telescopes are set up each night. Our guide pointed out constellations and planets — I even made out the rings of Saturn.

Night-time snorkel with manta rays

Night-time snorkel with a manta ray

Night-time snorkel with a manta ray

Just off Kona’s coast, as evening falls, plankton rises toward the ocean’s surface, which in turn attracts manta rays. Departing at dusk by boat with a guide, as part of a small group, you have the chance to see these elegant creatures (which can reach between 5 and 7 m [18 and 23 ft] in diameter) up close in their natural habitat.

After donning your snorkel gear, you enter the water and hold onto a raft fitted with specially designed diving lights that attract the plankton. As soon as my face was submerged I was astounded by how many manta rays were swimming just below me. It felt like I was watching a ballet as I observed their gentle, graceful movements as they fed, oblivious to my proximity.

Where to stay on Big Island

Chalet Kilauea is just a few minutes outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. While simple in terms of facilities, it’s one of the few smaller, more characterful properties on the island. It also offers better value than staying inside the park.

In the west, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai has an oceanfront setting on a stretch of golden sand.

Chalet Kilauea gardens

Chalet Kilauea gardens

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

Maui

Dubbed the ‘Valley Isle’, Maui was the closest match to the Hawaii of my imagination: soft sands (both classic white and volcanic black), rainforests running with streams and waterfalls, and elevated points gazing down on sweeping views over the Pacific. It’s a honeymooner’s haunt, but in truth it would suit anyone who likes to combine beaches, wildlife and tropical island scenery.

The Road to Hana

Road to Hana, Maui

Road to Hana, Maui

My last trip to Hawaii didn’t get better than winding along Maui’s northern coastline on the Road to Hana. Stretching for 103 km (64 miles) between Kahului and Hana, this scenic drive is more about the journey than the destination.

What would take a couple of hours without any breaks turns into a full day’s outing as the ocean views urge you to stop at every opportunity to take photographs, and mile markers pinpoint places of interest that tug at your adventurous side.

Trails lead to waterfalls and lagoons where you can take a dip, while Pa'iloa Beach’s black sand makes a novel change to the usual white or gold stretches. Shacks dotted along the road sell banana bread, coconuts and pineapples.

The drive climaxed when I stopped at Ho’okipa Beach, just outside Hana, at sunset. At this time throughout the year, groups of green sea turtles often come ashore for the night. I watched as around ten of them appeared from the waves and settled into the sand just a few steps away. A volunteer was on hand to answer questions and keep a buffer around these protected creatures.

Snorkeling in the Molokini Crater

Molokini crater

Molokini Crater

A vivid-green crescent rising from the sea just off Maui’s southwest coast, the Molokini Crater was formed some 200,000 years ago by a volcanic eruption. The coral reef inside the crater now supports an array of marine life and is a designated Marine Life Conservation District.

You can join a sailing trip out to Molokini to snorkel among the coral reef. Beneath the waves you might glimpse fish such as Picasso and reef triggerfish, the white-spotted puffer, yellow trumpet fish and parrotfish, as well as manta rays, moray eels, ornate (or white-striped) octopuses and reef sharks.

If you’re visiting between December and February, you can also look out for humpback whales, when they migrate to Hawaii from the Pacific Northwest to breed. You might also spot spinner dolphins and can listen to their calls using hydrophones.

Where to stay on Maui

Mama’s Fish House Restaurant & Inn is one of Hawaii’s only boutique properties, with just 13 beachfront and garden cottages. I particularly recommend it if you’re driving the Road to Hana, as it’s near the start of the drive (or the end, if you do the return journey). Its restaurant — I’d say one of the best on the island — serves freshly caught seafood.

Mama's Fish House Restaurant and Inn, Maui

Mama's Fish House Restaurant & Inn

Mama's Fish House Restaurant and Inn, Maui

Beach at Mama's Fish House Restaurant & Inn

Kauai

Sharp, folded peaks rise vertically from the ocean, the grey rock almost entirely covered in vegetation. With much of Kauai’s steep-sided coastline only accessible by boat, helicopter or on foot, it feels wilder and remoter than the other islands. But the landscape hasn’t been overlooked by Hollywood: films such as Jurassic Park, South Pacific and Raiders of the Lost Ark used the island as a backdrop.

Downhill mountain biking at Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon, Kauai

Waimea Canyon, Kauai

The ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’, Waimea is 16 km (10 miles) long and 900 m (3,000 ft) deep. One of the best ways to take in the canyon is by joining a mountain bike ride that safely winds down from an elevation of 1,100 m (3,609 ft) to sea level.

After being driven up to the top of the canyon (with breakfast en route), you have time to contemplate the wide, far-reaching views of the canyon’s forest-edged, rust-orange lava rock. Waterfalls spill down the valley sides, and you can see the different layers of ancient rock.

You then don a helmet and mount your bicycle ready for the 19 km (12 mile) descent. As you navigate the well-maintained trail, your guide tells you about the geology of the area, as well as Kauai’s culture, history and folklore. There’s also time to stop at various points to take photographs.

Once at the bottom, the ride continues through the flatter terrain of Koke’e State Park, where you can learn about the island’s flora and fauna.

Helicopter trip over the island

Na Pali coast, Kauai

Na Pali coast, Kauai

I found that to really get to know Kauai, which has just one main road, you need to think about other methods of transport. A helicopter ride reveals the island’s volcanically shaped landscape of velvety green serrated peaks and tangled forest in its entirety.

In just an hour you drift over the heavily forested Hanapepe Valley, the splaying white waters of Manawaiopuna Falls (known as Jurassic Falls due to its appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster), and the Waimea Canyon. You also fly over the Na Pali Coast, a stretch of steep, notched sea cliffs, deep-cut valleys and hidden sandy coves that’s so beautiful it’s sacred to Hawaiians.

Depending on the weather, you might also get the chance to fly into the heart of Mount Waialeale, an extinct volcano reputed to be the wettest spot on Earth. As you descend into its crater, you’re surrounded by huge sheer-sided walls covered in vegetation and streaming with thin, wispy waterfalls.

Hiking around Kauai

Kalalau Trail, Kauai

Kalalau Trail, Kauai

I’d argue that Kauai is the best island for getting out and exploring on foot. Its dense forests feel undiscovered and are punctuated with waterfalls, caves and natural pools. Coastal trails give you access to dizzying cliffs and undisturbed beaches.

One of the more strenuous routes is the Kalalau Trail, an 18 km (11 mile) walk that winds along the Na Pali Coast and into the Kalalau Valley, whose sides rise upward of 600 m (2,000 ft). The trail ends at the secluded Kalalau Beach at the base of the valley, where you can rest on the golden sand.

A gentler option is to stroll in Koke’e State Park or follow the 2.4 km (1.5 mile) trail from the Kuilau trailhead. This takes you into the forest and eventually to views over the mountains and valleys below.

Where to stay on Kauai

Koa Kea Hotel and Resort is one of the island’s smaller properties, and its low-rise buildings are more sympathetic to the surroundings. It’s set a few paces from a sandy beach, and you can rent equipment for snorkeling and surfing.

Pool, Koa Kea Hotel & Resort, Kauai

Koa Kea Hotel and Resort

Koa Kea Hotel & Resort, Kauai

Koa Kea Hotel and Resort

Cultural experiences in Hawaii

Whichever Hawaiian island you’re on, even the increasingly Westernised larger islands, you’ll get the sense that people here are still fiercely proud of their ‘ohana’ (family heritage). Cultural practices continue to be passed down the generations.

Most large hotels hold regular luaus in the evening — traditional feasts accompanied by dance and song. They aren’t the most authentic experience, but they do open your eyes to the archipelago’s Polynesian influences. You’re given a lei (garland), and a whole pig is brought out and spit roasted. As you eat, performers tell stories through their indigenous songs and traditional dancing, creating a light-hearted atmosphere.

Molokai and Lanai

Molokai Island

Molokai Island

Seeing far fewer visitors, the smaller islands of Molokai and Lanai have unspoiled natural beauty and villages where a traditional rural lifestyle prevails. On Molokai, the larger of the two, cultural events are held throughout the year, such as a celebration of hula dancing, which originated here, and outrigger canoe races. I also suggest visiting Kalaupapa National Historical Park, whose green hills sloping to wide and untouched sandy beaches belie its dark history as a former leprosy settlement.

On Lanai, you can explore Kaunolu Fishing Village, the largest surviving ruins of a prehistoric Hawaiian village. You can also see Puu Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) just offshore between Manele and Hulopoe Bay. Legend says that this sea stack was where a young warrior, Makakehau, buried his Hawaiian maiden before jumping into the waves.

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