One of the most common misconceptions about the Hawaiian Islands is that they are all the same. I’ve traveled extensively on the four main islands most tourists visit and can assure you each has its own personality and highlights.
Of course any island you visit will offer a slice of paradise, but before you book your trip consider some of these “must see” sights on Maui (pictured above), Kauai, Oahu and “The Big Island,” Hawaii. They’ll help you decide what island is right for your visit.
Maui: Kaanapali Beach
Maui is full of beaches, of course, but the three-mile long Kaanapali Beach on the northwest coast is one of the all-time favorites. Many visitors love the sunbathing and surfing there. Snorkeling there in the shallow water brought me up-close and personal with an array of spectacular sea life. The beach is close to resorts, restaurants and shops, so it’s easy to grab a bite or browse for souvenirs when you need a bit of shade.
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Maui: Snorkeling tours
As mentioned above, the shallow waters of Kaanapali Beach offer some of the most stunning underwater views in the world. For true snorkeling enthusiasts, there is an array of other great spots. Experts with the Hawaii Snorkeling Guide recommend Honolua Bay, Kapalua Bay and Molokini. There are dozens of tour variations. To get an idea of your choices and prices, here’s a place to start looking.
Maui: Haleakalā National Park
When people think of Maui they naturally imagine its lush beaches and clear waters, but there’s more to it, as the many tourists who visit Haleakalā National Park can tell you. The park, located in the southeast region of the island, includes the highest peak in Maui (10,023 feet) and five diverse climate zones. I’ve joined groups that gather to watch sunrises and sunsets there and can vouch for the incredible vantage point. But don’t stop there. Enjoy hiking, horseback riding, photography and other outdoor activities when you visit the park. Learn more and start planning your visit on the National Park Service site or at GoHawaii.com.
Maui: Old Lahaina Luau
You might think luaus are corny — the stuff of old Elvis Presley movies — but you’d be wrong. Hawaiian luaus are an art form, and the ones in Hawaii are completely different from those on the mainland and elsewhere. The music, dancing and feast connect you with Hawaiian history and traditions. One of the highest rated Maui luaus is Old Lahaina Luau as reported by TripAdvisor and Yelp.
Maui: Garden of Eden
The island’s Garden of Eden Arboretum & Botanical Garden is one of the best places to slip away from the island’s contemporary vibe. Visitors enjoy pathways that wind through the 26-acre Garden of Eden, which was created by an arborist who sought to restore the area’s natural ecosystem with Hawaii’s native and indigenous species. You’ll take in ocean views as you enjoy close looks at an array of native flora and fauna, but the 700 botanically labeled plants also include plants and trees from the South Pacific and the world’s rain forests. It’s a lovely way to experience true Hawaiian paradise.
Kauai: Wailua Falls
There is no shortage of waterfalls in the Hawaiian Islands. The downside is that many gorgeous waterfalls can only be seen after long kayak trips or rigorous hikes. The beauty of Wailua Falls on the island of Kauai — which you may remember as the idyllic falls featured in the opening shot of the classic television show “Fantasy Island” — is that the site is easily accessible to tourists without any hiking required. It can be tricky to locate the falls, though, so make sure to read the directions on the Hawaii.com website.
Kauai: Waimea Canyon
As a frequent hiker in Kauai, I can tell you that some trails are downright terrifying unless you’re in good physical condition. I’ve heard stories that U.S. military elite forces train in some of the more jungle-like areas. I haven’t confirmed that but can tell you that many trails are not for the weak or faint of heart. However, Waimea Canyon is a destination with trails for all skill levels. All of the trails offer gorgeous views of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” 10 miles long and up to 3,600 feet deep. As the name suggests, the canyon is magnificent — not just rocks but covered in lush greenery and waterfalls — and enjoyable by all.
Kauai: Na Pali
The North Shore of Kauai is known as the Na Pali (or Napali) Coast and offers some of the more ruggedly beautiful views on the island. One fantastic way to see it is by helicopter. There are also boat tours — though generally only during the summer months. Huge ocean swells can make sea travel dangerous in the winter. Finally, there’s hiking in Na Pali, but you need to exercise caution, notes Ordinary Traveler:
This side of Kauai is extremely wet, which results in muddy and slippery conditions along the edges of the towering cliffs. If you do hike the Na Pali Coast, please come prepared with walking sticks and plenty of food and water and check the weather beforehand!
Kauai: Spouting Horn
If you take an organized tour on the south of the island, you’ll likely stop at Spouting Horn blowhole. If not, take a drive over. The surf forces its way through a natural tube in the lava shelf then up and out — as high as 50 feet — with such force that it sounds as if the land is moaning.
Kauai: Tunnel of Trees
There’s really no way to accurately describe the beauty of the Tunnel of Trees, on the south side of “The Garden Isle.” The 500 eucalyptus tree were a gift to the community, planted by a pineapple baron in 1911, reports Kauai.com. Drive through, and you’ll marvel at how the trees create a stretch of paradise.
Oahu: Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach is one of the best known — and perhaps least understood — beaches on Oahu. Yes, it’s as beautiful and vibrant as you imagine, but it also has eight distinct sections, according to Best of Oahu.com. Check them out in advance, because a spot where you can relax quietly is different from the busier stretch near resorts and the sections that are most popular for boating. Waikiki has anything you could want in a beach, as long as you understand where to look.
Oahu: USS Arizona Memorial
You needn’t be a World War II buff to be moved by the USS Arizona Memorial in Oahu’s Pearl Harbor. Almost 2 million visitors each year make their way to the memorial to those killed during what Pearl Harbor Historic Sites calls “the worst naval disaster in American history.” The memorial was built on top of the remains of the battleship USS Arizona, the final resting place for many of the 1,177 crewmen who died Dec. 7, 1941, when the war began for the U.S. as the Japanese bombed a U.S. naval base. Reservations are a must.
Oahu: Byodo-In Temple
This nondenominational Byodo-In Temple opened in 1968 to honor the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigrants to the islands, according to the temple’s website. Although action-packed TV shows such as “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum, P.I.” have filmed at the temple, it is generally a delightfully peaceful destination. The grounds at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, are a perfect spot for meditation and reflection.
Oahu: USS Battleship Missouri Memorial
When you’re at Pearl Harbor, another of several historic sites and memorials to visit is the USS Battleship Missouri Memorial. Visitors can stand at the site on the deck where the Japanese and Allied powers signed the Instrument of Surrender aboard the ship in Tokyo Bay, bringing a close to World War II. The Missouri was the last American battleship ever built and the last to be decommissioned. The exhibits, guides and collections at the memorial offer a rich history of World War II, the Korean War, Operation Desert Storm and more.
Oahu: King Kamehameha Statue
If you’re a fan of the “Hawaii Five-0” reboot, you’ve likely seen this building in the show’s opening scene. But even if you’re not a fan you’ll want to stop and take photos of the magnificent King Kamehameha Statue (if you take an organized tour, you’ll likely stop there). Kamehameha I — known as a warrior, diplomat and leader — is still revered today for uniting the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, ending years of conflict.
Hawaii Island: Volcanoes National Park
There is so much to see at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that you’ll likely want to take a guided tour. This is all the more important since the most recent volcanic activity in 2018 — which was unprecedented in modern times, according to National Geographic. There are day hikes, backcountry hikes, scenic drives, gardens, museums and more to explore on this rich, volatile island. Given the recent activity, be sure to check for any alerts or closures before making plans.
Hawaii Island: Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Want to discover more about the history of Hawaii? Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is the place to go. The park holds the grounds of the original seat of the chiefdom of Kona and the ancestral home of the Kamehameha dynasty. You can take a self-guided tour of the Royal Grounds, see cultural demonstrations of weaving, fishing and carving, and view the remains of an earlier civilization including ancient statues called Ki’i, which stand as guardians of the bay.
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Hawaii Island: Manta ray night scuba dives
Scuba diver alert! One of the best dives in the world is arguably off the big island of Hawaii. You can take part in a night dive and get up close and personal with manta rays. A host of companies offer the dive, where underwater lights attract the plankton on which manta rays like to feed. Discover what other travelers liked and disliked about specific dives and companies on Trip Advisor.
Hawaii Island: Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is home to more than 2,000 species of flora and fauna. The preservation and education site located 8.5 miles north of Hilo is a “Garden in a Valley on the Ocean,” according to its website:
The 40-acre valley is a natural greenhouse, protected from buffeting trade winds and blessed with fertile volcanic soil. Throughout this garden valley, nature trails meander through a true tropical rainforest, crossing bubbling streams, passing several beautiful waterfalls and the exciting ocean vistas along the rugged Pacific coast.
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