By Carrie Bell
Hawaii was born of fire and of the sea, shaped and cultivated by wind and waves and a constantly moving earth, nurtured by a mineral-rich land, plentiful rain and, of course, endless sun. America’s archipelago — and the dramatic cliffs, lush valleys, flower-filled forests, tranquil coves, cerulean waters, gnarled lava fields and colorful beaches that are its trademark — are quite literally a product of their environment and at first glance, the six main islands seem fairly similar where tourists are concerned. All come stocked with sunshine, innumerable palm trees, poke proprietors, stunning swimming spots, hotels with ocean views and, perhaps most importantly, locals brimming with aloha spirit.
So when it comes time to pack bags and head for this no-passport-needed paradise, as 8.9 million people did last year according to the Hawai’I Tourism Authority, how does one pick between Oahu, Maui, Lanai, Hawaii (aka the Big Island), Kauai and Molokai?
It’s element-ary, my dear wanderers. Why not plan an itinerary that highlights the forces responsible for creating this delightful destination — fire, water, air and earth — and celebrates the primal connection between nature and the natives? (Malama ka ‘aina, which translates roughly to preserve and take care of the land, is one of the most important tenets of the Hawaiian culture.) Most flights from the mainland will deposit visitors on Oahu in the buzzing capital city of Honolulu, which offers many reasons to stay, not the least of which are the legendary strip of sand known as Waikiki and the utterly moving USS Arizona Memorial at the World War II Valor In The Pacific National Monument. But thanks to readily available, reasonably priced and ridiculously quick (an hour or less) Hawaiian Airlines’ nonstop flights between isles, Honolulu International is also an easy and convenient jumping off point to venture over to get a taste for what sets each of the hot tropics apart whether you’ve got a few days or a week to spare.
Given the chain’s volcanic heritage, fire-inspired activities are a logical place to start when deciding how to fill your vacation days.
Seeing lava flowing from the ground, crashing and exploding upon impact with the Pacific, smoke billowing in big fluffy clouds is an awe-inspiring, near spiritual, experience no matter how many PBS documentaries you have binge-watched. There are many ways to accomplish this bucket list item on the Big Island in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Reserve a room or window seat for dinner at Volcano House, a historic hotel perched on the rim of Kilauea’s caldera, and watch as the still active Halemaumau Crater turns incandescent as night falls and a farm-to-fork and pole-to-palate meal is served. Early risers willing to splurge should book a C Big Island sunrise boat tour out of Hilo to get front and center with magma. A cheaper, but much more labor-intensive option is to rent bicycles from Kalapana Cultural Tours where Highway 130 ends, peddle three and a half miles one way and then walk out to a coastal observation area. To see red, arrive at dusk and ride back in darkness. Luckily, the rentals come with helmets, first aid kits and headlamps.
Sure, luaus are cheesy but they’re also a tourist rite of passage. Found on almost every island, a few standouts include Hyatt Regency Maui’s Drums of the Pacific, Aha Aina at Oahu’s Royal Hawaiian and the Kauai Luau Kalamaku (the name literally means flaming torch) held at KIlohana Plantation. After stuffing your face with kalua pork, lomilomi salmon and purple poi, the highlight will inevitably be the show’s fire-dancing portion.
Every Memorial Day, the Lantern Floating Hawaii festival has been held to honor those who’ve been lost in Oahu. In 2016, 7,000 glowing offerings were sent out.
Campfires are as much a part of camping as tents. Make s’mores using the Oahu-made Manoa Chocolate bars in some of the U.S.’s most picturesque sites to rough it including Pala’au State Park on Molokai or Lanai’s Hulop’e Bay. Beginners will love the toilets and grills. If you call it quits, the newly renovated Four Seasons is just up the path.
Most residents try to spend time in the gorgeous water every day and as a visitor you should definitely follow suit in your swimsuit. Dive headfirst into fun in myriad ways. The easiest being swimming or snorkeling from shore at popular places like Poipu Beach (Kauai), Hanauma Bay (Oahu) or Two Steps (Hawaii). Boat trips can get you away from crowds and closer to cooler fish, turtles and dolphins. Nana Kai often runs scuba, snorkel and free diving excursions to a sunken ship off Oahu and the locally nicknamed Electric Beach (where the power plant’s warm water outflow pipes attract big schools of vibrant fish). From Maui, Four Winds II charters deposits you at Molokini, a sunken crater that is home to 250 marine species and 38 different corals.
Find your inner Moana on a sunset sail around the royal lands of Keauhou on Hawaii in an authentic (yet updated)way-finder’s vessel captained by Eka Canoe Adventures. The small capacity also makes them the boat to board when you want to get up close and personal with the resident manta rays. With a noodle and a custom longboard equipped with handles and a blue light, your family floats on the surface while the graceful and gentle giants gorge on plankton and glide past your masked face.
And speaking of gentle giants, humpback whales migrate en masse to the region’s warm waters between November and April and create what islanders affectionately call “whale soup” in the ocean corridor between Lanai, Molokai, and Maui. During this time, pay extra mind to the car in front of you, as breaches visible from land are responsible for Maui fender benders by the dozens every year.
Learn board basics and how to ride waves at a surf school like Surf Hawaii on Oahu or with private lessons by Maui’s Zack Howard or Hawaii’s Kona Boys. Or if you prefer the safety of the sand, instead motor around Oahu’s North Shore, aka the Seven-Mile Miracle, stopping to shovel shave ice and see the pros hang 10 on the bananas swells of Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay. Try your hand at paddling a traditional outrigger (canoe) at many resorts including the Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina or Maui’s Grand Wailea. The California craze of stand-up paddleboard yoga has made its way from the mainland. Bend and balance daily with Oahu’s Yoga Kai or Maui SUP.
A plethora of waterfalls, blowholes and inland plunge pools let you get your liquid fix without leaving solid ground. Puukaoku Falls on Molokai is the eight largest in the world. Waianuenue in Wailuku River State Park outside Hilo is known for the many rainbows that form in its mist. Hike across basalt to see Spouting Horn on Kauai or the multiple-plumed phenomenon near the Lanai golf course.
Most people would probably be surprised to know that it snows in Hawaii. Head into thin air on Hawaii for a snow day atop Mauna Kea and visit the observatories while there. Travel to the summit at 13,796 feet above sea level requires a 4×4 and a stop at the visitor’s center to acclimate to the attitude. As many rental car companies restrict access on that route, an all-day tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures is the way to go. Seeing one of the world’s most famous sunrises at 10,023 feet from Haleakala National Park on Maui provides a natural high. It now also requires a reservation, which can be booked up to 60 days in advance through the NPS, unless you go with a group. Maui Activities Store offers van service. But adrenaline junkies should opt to roll down on two wheels from above the clouds with one of their guides.
Another way to get a bird’s eye view is from a helicopter. To see Kauai’s Jurassic Park movie locations, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific (Waimea), the fairly inaccessible Alakai Swamp and the Na Pali Coast jump into a chopper with Safari or Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. BHH also flies many Maui and Molokai routes. This is also a great way to view the volcanic action on Hawaii.
Also feel the wind in your hair as you whip through an exhilarating zipline course, which like luaus can be found on almost every rock. Most offer combo packages that pair zips with kayaking, swimming or horseback riding like Umauma Falls (Hawaii) or Princeville Ranch (Kauai). Daredevils can also catch air parasailing (H20 Sports Hawaii in Honolulu), kiteboarding (Kite HI on Maui) or in one of Hang Gliding Hawaii’s (Oahu) motorized sky trikes.
Last, but certainly not least, the list of diversions offered on land is never-ending. It is a perfect place to hike, offering trails of all lengths and difficulty levels from the simple saunter to Lanai’s Puu Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) to the grueling (but visually rewarding) slog that is the rustic and slender 11-mile Kalalau Trail in Kauai. Many of Hawaii’s most famous geological landmarks like the Dragon’s Teeth rock formation (Maui) or Pele’s Chair (Oahu) are only reachable by foot.
There’s almost as much variety when it comes to beaches. They come in a rainbow of colors – red (Maui’s Kaihalulu is caused by an eroding cindercone rich in iron), green (olivine saturated Papakolea on Hawaii), black (Punaluu on Hawaii is a popular sunning spot for sea turtles as well), orange (Papohaku turns the color of Trump’s tan as the sun sets in Molokai) and run-of-the-mill white. Polihale Beach (Kauai) is commonly referred to as Barking Sands because individual grains there have microscopic porous holes that produce dog-like sounds when rubbed together.
Like to roll more than stroll? Take the ATVs of Oahu’s Kualoa Ranch, a popular film location (Lost, 50 First Dates, Kong Skull Island), out for a test-drive or trek through the 400 miles of unpaved roads on Lanai with a driver and a 4×4 that can be booked by the Four Seasons there or the Expeditions Ferry folks.
Or maybe, like most of the world’s travelers, you intend to eat your way through time off. Once you’ve eaten your weight in Maui Gold pineapples and fresh mangoes, do a deeper dive into Hawaii’s growing and diverse farm and food scene. You can visit the home of Hamakua Mushrooms, sample honey at Big Island Bees and see what makes Kona coffee so prized on Hawaii. Get tipsy at Maui’s Ocean Vodka organic distillery, Oahu’s Hawaiian Shochu Company and Ko Hana Rum or Volcano Winery and Kona Brewery (Big Island). Grab picnic supplies and edible souvenirs on any idle at Surfing Goat Dairy (Maui), Kauai Chocolate Factory or the Dole Plantation (Oahu), which also has a family-friendly maze.