Hawaii, the 50th U.S. State, is made up of a collection of 8 main islands: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe, and Hawaii (“The Big Island”) – from west to east, although Kahoolawe is largely uninhabited and Niihau is restricted to individuals of Hawaiian ancestry. Each island has distinct topography, history and attractions so I definitely recommend visiting more than one on a trip to Hawaii. On this trip, I traveled to: Kauai, Maui, The Big Island and Oahu (in that order). Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit Lanai, owned by Larry Ellison and known for its beautiful golf resorts, or Molokai, previously home to Hawaii’s leper colony (as described in one of my favorite historical fiction novels, Molokai).
Of the islands I visited, Kauai was the most remote and lush island. I stayed on the Northern shore, at the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort & Villas, near Hanalei Bay (home of Puff the Magic Dragon) and the famous Na Pali coast. The two must-do activities for the north shore of Kauai are: a helicopter tour (the majority of the island is only viewable by air), and a hike along the Na Pali coast. For the helicopter tour I recommend Sunshine Helicopters. A typical tour lasts about 45 minutes and offers you the chance to view Waimea Canyon, Manawaiopuna Falls (seen in the film Jurassic Park), and the Na Pali coast, among other notable canyons, waterfalls, and lush green valleys. The scenery is truly stunning.
Hiking along the Na Pali coast also offers jaw dropping landscapes. While the full Na Pali coast Kalalau Trail hike is 11 miles (one way) intermediate hikers can hike 2 miles from the trail head at the “End of the Road” to the remote Hanakapiai Beach. The trail is quite rigorous so this portion of the hike still requires several hours and offers stunning views of the famed Na Pali coastline. Returning back to the trailhead, I was covered head to toe in mud and so I took a dip in the pristine waters at Ke’e beach in Ha’ena State Park. This was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to – a true paradise!
I have to admit, I think that Maui was my favorite of the islands I visited. Partially that was due to the fabulous hotel we stayed at – The Hotel Wailea. In years of traveling, I’ve found you can never go wrong with a Relais & Chateaux property, and the Hotel Wailea did not disappoint – from fresh leis and chilled champagne upon arrival to beautifully decorated 2-room suites all with balconies, to the complimentary Mercedes Benz shuttles and tea-lit garden dining at the famous Capische? restaurant, the Hotel Wailea is relaxation perfection.
One of the top rated activities in Maui is to drive “The Road to Hana” – a several hour drive that twists and turns along the east coast of the island to the town of Hana. However, the journey is the highlight rather than the destination – with lots of little stops to make and explore along the way. The route has become so popular that many destinations can become touristy, especially during peak season. I recommend booking a small private guide to drive you for the day. Not only can you sit back and enjoy the scenery, but your guide will also know all the little off the beaten path spots to stop. I spent the day with Nick from Maui’s Private Guide and had a blast. We went swimming in remote watering holes, exploring in centuries hold lava tubes, and swimming/rock climbing through an underwater cave labyrinth with an underwater flashlight. We also stopped along the way for mouthwatering banana bread (a staple on the route), Coconut Glen’s vegan ice cream (made with coconut milk) and fresh caught fish tacos. The highlight at the end of the tour is to swim at Black Sand beach, so named due to the volcanic origins of the sand. Unfortunately the day I was there, there was high surf so we couldn’t take a dip, but we still got a great view.
The other activity I did on Maui, was a snorkeling trip to Molokini Island (a crescent shaped island off the shore of Maui) on the Kai Kanani II. I did the deluxe tour which left at 9 am and included breakfast, lunch, an open bar with unlimited beer and cocktails (including delicious Mai Tais – the signature drink of Hawaii) and several hours of snorkeling, including equipment rental. It was a delightful morning out on the boat, swimming around with the fish at the reef, and even seeing some wild sea turtles swimming around the reefs at “Turtle Town.”
For dining on Maui, I strongly recommend Morimoto Maui at the Andaz Hotel as well as the Capische? restaurant at Hotel Wailea. It’s also worth checking out the breakfast at Hotel Wailea – including their signature waffles which change daily.
THE BIG ISLAND
On the Big Island, a trip to Volcanoes National Park is a must. Hawaii is an archipelago of volcanic islands and The Big Island is one of the only places to see live volcanic activity on display, especially at Kilauea. Walking through Volcanoes National Park, you can traverse lava flows from previous eruptions and view the smoke emitting from the massive volcanic crater. If you stay past sunset, you can even see the magma glowing bright orange from out of the crater – a truly magnificent contrast against the pitch black sky emblazoned with stars.
If coming from the Kona side, as I was, definitely allow a full day for the trip, as you will need to drive to the other side of the island. While many choose to rent a car, I chose again to hire a private guide. Akamai Adventures Tours is a small, family-run business and Tyler, the primary mountain guide is extremely knowledgeable about the ecology, history, geography and culture of the region. I learned a tremendous amount from being on that tour. Plus we got to make a few stops along the way, notably at the beautiful Akaka Falls and to pick up some delicious Malasadas – a Portuguese-style donut covered in granular sugar and stuffed with the filling of your choice, a Hawaiian favorite.
On the Big Island, I stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village – a very large hotel excellent for families. It had so many activities on offer, I spent a whole day enjoying the hotel – from tennis, to swimming with dolphins, to water slides, to paddle boarding in the manmade lagoon. I even rented a sea-facing cabana and in the evening attended the Legends of Hawaii Luau – a traditional Hawaiian luau complete with “pupus” (appetizers), Mai Tais and “Blue Hawaii” cocktails, a huge buffet including a fire-roasted pig, and an amazing show of hula dancers and fire batons. Though a little more on the touristy side, this hotel was just plain FUN and I would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling to the Big Island.
My last stop was Honolulu on the island of Oahu, home to Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor. I stayed at the historic Halekulani Hotel which still retains its old world luxury, complete with dress code. Highlights of the hotel include the beautiful mosaic swimming pool overlooking Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, 5-star dining at French restaurant, La Mer, and afternoon tea at Orchid’s (although I love afternoon tea everywhere).
Waikiki Beach and Honolulu are definitely more crowded and touristy than any of the other destinations I visited. Waikiki almost feels like Miami or a version of Rodeo Drive transplanted in Hawaii. Still, its worth a visit for a day or two since most flights to the mainland depart from Honolulu. Not to be missed is Pearl Harbor. Once again you can visit on your own, however I learned so much more from my guide Jessica of Keawe Adventures. There are several options when planning your visit to Pearl Harbor. I definitely recommend a visit to the USS Arizona, which is the primary memorial for the Pearl Harbor attacks (over the sunk USS Arizona ship), and includes a 30 minute informational video. I also chose to visit the USS Missouri (run by a separate non-profit so it requires a separate fee), which while not present at Pearl Harbor during the attacks, was an active battleship in WWII (along with other wars) and is representative of many of the ships that were hit on that December 7th.
Also worth a visit is Diamond Head State Monument, where visitors can hike 3/4 of the mile to the top of a volcanic crater wall to view the surrounding Waikiki Beach. The trail gets crowded and hot so its recommended to go early.