Thinking of taking a trip to Hawaii? Having spent most of my childhood living on the island of Oahu, I’ve been able to assemble some great tips for visiting the Hawaiian Islands over the years. This comes in handy especially when my friends and family ask about the best places to visit and how to find the best airfares—always check for flight specials on Hawaiian Airlines, which has been offering great sales ever since they started offering non-stop service from New York’s JFK airport back in June, and if you don’t see anything you like there, browse Budget Travel’s Hawaii travel deals to find air and hotel packages to the islands. From the historical sites of Oahu to the out-of-this-world volcanic landscape of the Big Island, here are 20 tips to keep in mind the next time you head to Hawaii. (Special note: you will need a car to reach most of the places mentioned).
If you want to see Pearl Harbor, reserve your tickets ahead of time online
Nothing ruins a trip more than not planning ahead and getting locked out of a major attraction you came all the way to see. Anyone interested in World War II history will want to visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, a moving reminder of the attack that launched the United States into World War II in the Pacific. Reserve your tickets ahead of time (you’ll have to pay a $1.50 convenience fee per ticket but other than that, it’s free.) Each historic tour is about an hour and 15 minutes long, and includes a boat ride to the site of the USS Arizona Memorial, where you can see the remains of the battleship just below the water’s surface.
Make time to venture out of Waikiki and Honolulu
Some of the island’s best attractions are located out of the main tourist zone of Waikiki Beach and Honolulu, but are still worth checking out. The Bus, Hawaii’s main form of public transportation, offers a variety of options for as low as $2.50 a ride with free transfers, or you could even hop on one of the Circle Island Tours, which last anywhere from 2.5 to 4.5 hours depending on where you board. Of course, the other option is to rent a car and travel around the island at your own pace.
Spend a day snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, a protected nature preserve on Oahu’s southeast coast that rents out snorkel gear and a supply of fish food guaranteed to work the wildlife into a tizzy you’ll never forget. Tickets start at $7.50 per person, free for children under 3 and Hawaii residents and it costs $1 to park. Open daily except Tuesday.
Go for a drive up the windward coast on Kalanianaole (pronounced “ka-la-nee-ah-nah-oh-lee”) Highway, where you’ll have Koko Head, a dormant yet impressive-looking volcano on one side, and sharp cliffs leading into the bluest ocean you’ve ever seen on the other. Further down the road in Kailua, take in the beauty of Lanikai Beach, constantly voted as Hawaii’s number one beach by the Travel Channel, and still off the beaten path enough to not be bogged down with tourists.
Visit Oahu’s North Shore and spend a day exploring the Polynesian Cultural Center, kind of like Disney’s EPCOT, in the sense that every culture from Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Hawaii, and several other islands showcases their cultural dances, food, music, and other traditions (tickets start at $49.95 for adults, $39.95 for kids).
Explore Hawaiian food specialties
Every time someone asks me what to see and do on Oahu, food automatically ends up in our conversation. If you’re staying in the Waikiki Beach area, don’t miss the chance to have dinner at Duke’s Waikiki, a restaurant named after surf legend Duke Kahanamoku, with a buffet full of Hawaiian favorites like fresh poke, kalua pork, and huli huli chicken among other options. If you’re venturing up to see the sights of Oahu’s North Shore, make sure you stop by Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck just outside the town of Laie—their shrimp scampi is still something I think about, even though it’s been eleven years since we moved. The North Shore is also home to Oahu’s legendary shaved ice spot, Matsumoto Shave Ice, in the historic town of Haleiwa. They’re known all over the island for having a unique variety of flavors like tangerine, green tea, and creamsicle among others, so choose wisely.
MAUI , Pick a beach, any beach
Beaches are probably the first thing that come to mind whenever people mention the Hawaiian Islands, and Maui has its fare share of picturesque options. We stayed primarily on the western side of the island, where the big attraction is Ka’anapali Beach, located just outside the historic whaling village of Lahaina. If you actually hit the point where you need a break from sun and sand, try a day of shopping at nearby Whalers VIllage or take some time to check out the art galleries and historic trails in the area. In the mood to snorkel or dive the coral reef? Try a day-trip to Molokini, a submerged crater and marine preserve only accessible by boat.
Take a whale watching cruise from Lahaina Harbor
December thru April is prime whale-watching season in Maui, when humpback whales migrate from the cold waters of Alaska to Hawaii’s warm waters to breed and raise their young. The Pacific Whale Foundation says whale sightings can start as early as late September and last as long as mid-May. We were lucky enough to visit in early May both times, and took a whale-watching cruise from Lahaina for a better look. There’s nothing quite like having a mother whale and her baby swim up alongside your boat for a look at you!
Visit Mt. Haleakala with all the other tourists
Maui’s most popular attraction is definitely Haleakala, the 10,023-foot-tall dormant volcano that rises above the island-the only other point taller in all of Hawaii is Mauna Kea on the Big Island, which you can see from the top of Haleakala. You will need a car to visit this popular tourist spot (unless you’re part of a tour group) and be warned that it takes at least two hours to drive the long and winding road up to the summit. We learned the hard way that it’s pretty cold at the top of the mountain—as in 35 degrees cold, because of the altitude—so pack a jacket! There are several lookout points on the way up, but nothing beats the view from the top. Some people recommend driving up in the very early morning to be there in time to watch the sun rise from the summit for the most stunning view, but we have yet to do that (our family prefers to do things a little later in the day.) Haleakala National Park offers horseback riding and a number of hiking trails through the crater. There’s also the opportunity to bike down the volcano, something I’m definitely doing the next trip.
Experience Hawaiian Culture at a Luau
If you get a chance, don’t miss a night of traditional Hawaiian food—kalua pork cooked in an underground imu oven, anyone?—music, and of course, hula performances that will make for one of the best memories of your trip. We went to the Old Lahaina Luau, but there are others throughout the island as well. Don’t be shy, since most luaus have a tradition of welcoming visitors up on stage to learn the hula—shed your inhibitions and shake your hips to the rhythm of the islands, enjoy the music, and make sure someone is snapping photographic evidence of your new dancing skills.
Brave the Hana Highway
The scariest, most scenic road in the islands is the Hana Highway. Located on the easternmost side of Maui, it is a long, winding, one-lane road that stretches the length of the coastline from north to south, giving you gorgeous views of the Pacific, and all the mountains, cliffs, and valleys Maui has to offer. A number of lookout points, waterfalls, and natural pools are available road-side, and you’ll take on 620 curves and 59 bridges, making the drive about two to four hours long one-way for those brave enough to try it. The views and bragging rights alone make this trip worth it.
KAUAI , Visit Waimea Canyon, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”
The western side of Kauai is home to Waimea Canyon, about an hour’s drive on scenic curvy roads that offer views of the nearby island of Ni’ihau (only accessible to native Hawaiians) and gorgeous views of the mountains, valleys, and the bluest ocean you’ve ever seen. “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” features many of the same geological traits as its namesake—think crested buttes, deep gorges, and colorful rock formations—and is more than 3,600 feet deep, measuring 14 miles long by one mile wide. Stay on Waimea Canyon Drive and keep driving until you reach the Waimea Canyon Overlook.
Honeymooners—Elvis fans—shouldn’t miss a trip to the Fern Grotto
If thoughts of Kauai have you picturing scenes of The King in Blue Hawaii, the Fern Grotto is a spot you shouldn’t miss. Entry to the grotto used to be forbidden to all except Hawaiian royalty, but nowaways anyone can catch a 40-minute cruise down the Wailua River to the site for about $20 per person ($10 for children ages 3-12) and take in views of one of Kauai’s greatest natural wonders. Folks have been known to get married or renew their vows here, and if you’re engaged, newlyweds, or celebrating a wedding anniversary, be prepared to come forward for a slow dance to Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian Wedding Song—the Hawaiian lyrics in it were sung here long before the film.
Hike, kayak, camp, and explore Kauai’s secluded Na Pali Coast
If you’re an outdoorsy person, nature lover, or just want to see some of the best views on the island without dealing with the tourist crowds, make sure you visit Kauai’s beautiful Na Pali Coast. There are no roads on the westernmost side of the island, making it one of the last isolated, untouched, natural places in the Hawaiian Islands. Determined travelers can view the rocky terrain from the air with any number of helicopter tours, or view the coastline from a boat tour or guided kayak trip, while more adventurous types can try hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail from Kee Beach to Kalalau Beach—the full hike is best broken up into a two-day trip, and camping permits are available for $20 per person per night (with a five night maximim stay) thorugh the Hawaii State Parks Department. Kokee State Park offers more challenging hiking trails, like Awaawapuhi Trail, that lead to scenic overlooks while other hikes like Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail are better suited for family hiking trips.
Drive up to a beautiful waterfall
Kauai is home to a number of impressive waterfalls, two of which are accessible by car alone. Wailua Falls is located just a few miles from downtown Lihue and can be viewed from the road, so there’s no need to hike for a great view. Just drive north from Lihue to Ma’alo Road in Halamaulu, and follow the road uphill for another three miles. Another beautiful waterfall, Opaeka’a Falls, is viewable from Kuamo’o Road, but those wanting a closer look can brave the tough half-hour hike from the two-mile marker past the lookout point on Highway 580.
Get a slice of Hawaiian history
Hanapepe Town on Kauai’s southwest coast is home to a bustling Hawaiian art scene, with an art celebration every Friday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. when the town’s painters, sculptors, and other artists open their gallery and studio doors to showcase their work. Those seeking an authentic trip into Hawaii’s past should visit the museums and historic sites along the Koloa Heritage Trail—visit the Kihaha’ouna Heiau (an ancient Hawaiian temple), Poipu Beach Park (home to the island’s endangered Hawaiian monk seals), and other sites dating back to Kauai’s former days as a sugar plantation hotspot. The Kilohana Plantation in Lihue is a 16,000 square-foot restored plantation estate that offers a chance to see what life was like in Kauai during the 1930s—also on-site is the Koloa Rum Company, where you can sample the island’s best rum every half hour on the half hour beginning at 10 a.m. daily. Located on Kauai’s North Shore about a 45 minute drive north of Lihue is the historic Kilauea Lighthouse, great for stunning views of the Pacific and access to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a safehaven for a number of native bird species found on the island including the endangered state bird, the nene goose.
THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII , Get up close to an active volcano
Remember all those earth science classes you took about volcanoes and lava rocks? Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see the real thing in action. Not only will you get the chance to drive right up to the caldera—don’t miss the Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road that passes through the various volcano landscapes from tropical rainforest to the desert-like crater itself, with scenic overlooks all along the way—there’s also the opportunity to walk inside the Thurston Lava Tube, no longer an active part of the volcano, that allows you to walk 1/3 mile inside Kilauea where lava once flowed a few hundred years ago. Expect to pay $10 per vehicle that enters the park, or $5 per individual if you enter by foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. Don’t forget to get a park map from staff on your way into the park, and stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center and Jaggar Museum to learn more about what you’re viewing. Free camping and hiking opportunities are also available, as are park ranger-led walking tours, but be sure to check the website for updates on volcanic activity in the park before you head out. Always stick to the marked paths and never try to get closer to the lava, no matter how great you think your photo might turn out. You’re still on an active volcano, after all.
Walk on dried lava at Kalapana
Just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is Kalapana, or more accurately, the remains of Kalapana, a town overrun with Kilauea’s lava flow back in 1990. Miraculously, everyone survived the eruption that destroyed 182 homes, as locals had already evacuated the town, taking the Star of the Sea Church with them. Now, Kalapana serves as a reminder of how powerful nature can be. Free hikes are offered daily from 2 P.M. to 10 P.M. with the last cars allowed to park at 8 P.M. Just keep driving down Highway 130 in Puna until the road in front of you is stopped by a wall of hardened, black lava. Wear sturdy shoes and tread carefully as the hardened lava rocks can be sharp if you fall. As you walk, you’ll see street signs and other parts of the former town break the surface of the rock, and you’ll be rewarded with views of a beautiful black sand beach at the end of the hike, although it is considered unsafe for swimming due to the proximity of the volcanic activity. Kalapana is also an excellent spot to view the active, molten lava that flows from Kilauea’s Pu’u O’o vent into the sea in the distance, causing clouds of smoke to rise out over the ocean as the hot lava meets the cool Pacific. As always, stay on the marked path, and check for updates before you go.
Don’t take lava rocks as a souvenir, it’s bad luck
There are any number of souvenirs you could buy and take home from the Hawaiian Islands, but taking lava rocks from their natural place is considered a major no-no. Tourists from all over the world have been known to send back lava rocks to the Hawaii Visitor’s Bureau with letters saying they’ve had an unusual streak of bad luck lately, which locals claim is just a little dose of revenge from Pele, the goddess of the volcano. Some Hawaiians say not to buy souvenirs containing fragments of lava rocks, and even go as far as shaking out their shoes after a hike so as not to accidentally take any lava dust home with them. Even if you’re not the superstitous type, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Live like a Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy)
For a uniquely “only in Hawaii” experience, visit Parker Ranch, near the center of the island, for a taste of Paniolo life. Back in 1809 when Captain James Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands, one of his men, John Parker, abandoned his duties and hid among the Hawaiians, eventually being charged with important jobs by King Kamehameha I, and starting Parker Ranch in 1815. The ranch later served as a U.S. Marines training ground from 1942 to 1945 as they prepared for Pacific battles against the Japanese in World War II. Nowadays, tourists can visit the working ranch for a chance to see what it’s like to live as a Hawaiian cowboy, and take in great views of the island since it’s located between two impressive, though dormant, volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Try a two-hour long horseback riding tour of Parker Ranch for $79 per person for a more authentic feel. Rides start at the Blacksmith Shop on Pukalani Road, and are available Monday thru Saturday at 8:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. for anyone over the age of seven.
Visit the Hilo Farmers Market and nearby Akaka Falls
You can’t visit the Big Island without stopping in Hilo, home to the Hilo Farmers Market, named by the Huffington Post as one of the top ten farmers markets every food lover should visit. Every Wednesday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., over 200 local farmers and crafters share their goods with locals and tourists alike, offering the best deals on local produce, arts, and crafts around—coupons are also available on their website for more discounts. A wide selection of Hawaiian food vendors, clothing, coffee and tea, honey, and fresh flowers are also available, and keep an eye out for free live musical performances offered twice a week. Just a 25-minute drive north of downtown Hilo is ‘Akaka Falls State Park, home to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the islands. Admission is a mere $5 per vehicle and the photo-ops are endless.
Go stargazing at Mauna Kea
At 14,000 feet, Mauna Kea is Hawaii’s highest point and home to the world’s biggest telescopes at the Mauna Kea Observatories. Drive 90 minutes from Hilo on Route 200 up the twisting, winding, Saddle Road, and stop at the Visitor Information Station of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy to learn more about the dormant volcano, see the giant telescopes, and buy souvenirs. Brace yourself for cold temperatures and the occasional snow drift at such high altitudes (yes, it does sometimes snow in Hawaii), and if weather and road conditions permit, drive to the 14,000-foot summit for a view of the main observatory. For $200 a person, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures will pick you up from certain locations in Kailua-Kona, and loan you cold-weather parkas and gloves for an educational trip to Mauna Kea’s summit, and the stargazing opportunity of a lifetime using their large portable telescopes. The tour can last anywhere from seven to eight hours, and includes dinner at the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.
Last but not least…
Toss a flower lei into the ocean before you leave—it means you’ll be back someday.
At some point during your trip, treat yourself to a beautiful and fragrant flower lei. Wear it around as much as you want, then toss it into the ocean on your last day, and start counting the days until your next Hawaiian vacation. Or just listen to the Na Leo Pilimehana channel on Pandora for enough Hawaiian music to hold you over til then. Aloha!