Home to pristine beaches and spectacular surfing, Hawai’i has no shortage of sights. Yet each of the state’s six islands has something unique worth seeing. With a bit of island hopping (which can be done by air or by boat), the best of Hawai’i can be seen in one adventuresome trip.
On top of the world in O’ahu
Many direct flights to Hawai’i land at Honolulu International Airport on O’ahu, the most populated of the islands, which makes it an easy place to start any vacation. Waikiki, the southern neighborhood of Honolulu, houses most of the resorts on O’ahu. Visitors can find both modern resorts, like the Hyatt Regency, Sheraton Waikiki, and the Hilton Hawaiian Village, as well as historic hotels like the Moana Surfrider Hotel, built in 1901, and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, built in 1927.
Thanks to its long rolling breaks, Waikiki provides beginner-friendly waves for beginning surfers. Take surf lessons from Gone Surfing Hawaii, specializing in getting beginners up on the board in their first lesson.
While in Waikiki, try one of the restaurants inspired by Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a farm-to-table food movement started by 12 Hawaiian chefs long before farm-to-table fit into the vernacular. Restaurants like The Pineapple Room, Chef Mavro, and Roy’s Waikiki serve dishes like nori wrapped tempura ahi, katsu curry tilapia, and macadamia nut-crusted lamb chops, highlighting local Hawaiian ingredients in innovative ways.
In central O’ahu, 30 minutes from Waikiki, Pearl Harbor commemorates the 2,390 men who lost their lives in the World War II attack by the Japanese through a number of historic sites. The USS Arizona memorial takes visitors in a boat shuttle over the hull of the sunken battleship, and a visitor center honors the people who lost their lives through historic film and a marble wall with their names. The USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park explores the war under water through a 10,000-square-foot space, including an authentic submarine and torpedo room.
Hanging out on the Big Island
Known as the “Big Island,” Hawaii Island is bigger than all the other islands combined, and it shows in the diverse climate regions and varied landscape. Take a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and see Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The eruptions have created over 490 acres of new land, making the already-big island even bigger. The Kilauea Visitor Center offers maps, ranger talks, and eruption updates Monday through Sunday from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The volcanic landscape also creates some spectacular black sand beaches, like Punaluu Black Sand Beach, just 30 miles south of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The beach is also a favorite of green sea turtles that can sometimes be seen lounging on the sand.
On the west side of the island, Kona coffee reigns. About 600 coffee farms take advantage of the volcanic soil and high elevation to produce coffee that tastes lighter and smoother than coffee grown elsewhere. Join the free tour at Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, which takes visitors through the process from crop to cup, and offers a 6-ounce coffee tasting at the tour’s conclusion.
Keeping history in Kauai
The furthest island west, Kaua’i, is Hawai’i’s oldest island, and a long history of traditions—and changes—have accompanied that title. Get to know the island’s history as a sugar plantation on the Koloa Heritage Trail, and see artifacts and art capturing the culture of the people of Kaua’i at the Kaua’i Museum in Lihue.
For a bit of natural history, the jutting cliffs of the Na Pali Coast show-off the island’s volcanic past as they stretch 4,000 feet above the Pacific. Inaccessible by cars, the park can only be seen by foot, kayak, or helicopter, all of which can be reserved from Kaua’i’s north shore towns.
Mule rides in Moloka’i
Ranked by National Geographic as having some of the highest ratings for environmental stewardship, Moloka’i maintains much of its original landscape as well as its culture. See the tallest sea cliffs in the world, at 3,600 to 3,900 feet, on a mule ride to the Kalaupapa National Historic Park, a 34-acre area inaccessible by cars.
Once an island-wide pineapple plantation, the small island of Lana’i has only recently been opened to tourists. The island has no street lights, but The Four Seasons Resort Lana’i and the Lodge at Ko’ele each operate a golf course, and outfitters supply visitors with bicycle rentals and off-road vehicles to access the island’s tide pools and mountain roads.
Making tracks in Maui
The second largest island, Maui is covered with untouched Hawaiian land on its east side, and modern resort amenities on its west side. Up for golf? Choose one of 14 courses on the island. Or set out to sea from the former whaling village of Lahaina for a chance to see humpback whales between December and May as they migrate through the calm, clear waters of the Pacific (less than 600 feet deep in some places).
The 68-mile Hana Highway on the eastern side of the island twists and turns to take drivers through a rainforest landscape rich in waterfalls, greenery, and expansive ocean views. The road, which can take two to four hours to traverse, ends at the small town of Hana itself, home to only 1,200 residents and open beaches. The best way to end your Hawaiian island-hopping adventure? Grab a Hana Mai Tai or pineapple mojito at Hana’s Travaasa Hana, the only resort in town, and toast your tan.