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The beautiful state of Hawaii offers numerous experiences throughout its most-visited islands, including Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, Maui, Kauai and Molokai. Each has its own distinct character and vibe along with a wealth of wonderful places to visit and rare opportunities to experience, including these.
The Na Pali coastline is one of the top destinations to explore on Kauai, as the breathtaking coastal range can only be accessed by hiking, boat or helicopter tour and is renowned as one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Located along the north shore of Kauai, it boasts lush, emerald-hued pinnacles that tower along the shoreline for 17 miles, with velvety green cliffs and magnificent waterfalls that plunge into deep, narrow valleys. Today, it appears much like it did centuries before, when Hawaiian settlements flourished in the valleys, existing on the fish they could catch and the food they could grow.
The adventurous, fit and experienced may want to explore it via the state’s best backpacking route, the 22-mile round-trip Kalalau Trail with its sheer drop-offs, narrow switchbacks and cliff-hugging turns. If you’re not up for the task, fly overhead by taking a helicopter tour or join a boat tour to see it up close from the water.
Seeing Wailua Falls is a popular activity on Kauai because it is one of the most easily accessible. If it looks familiar, that’s because it was made famous by appearing in the opening credits of the ‘70s television series, “Fantasy Island.” The double-barreled falls plunge for about 85 feet into a 30-foot deep pool below. They’re best viewed from the overlook above, though in ancient times, legend has it that ancestral Hawaiian warriors tested their bravery by leaping from the top – of course, it was often fatal so that’s not something you should even think about trying. If you’re lucky and the sun is at the right angle, you’ll also see a rainbow extending from the base of the falls through the mist.
Waimea Canyon is so picture-perfect you’ll have a difficult time leaving once you’re there, no matter what your plans were for the rest of the day. Located on the west side of Kauai, this incredible marvel is about 13 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and 2,750 feet deep, featuring rugged cliffs in brightly colored red, green, brown and orange hues. You can experience its grandeur by taking Waimea Canyon Drive to the Waimea Canyon and Puu Hinahina Lookouts or go deep into the gorge by hiking the challenging 2.5-mile Kukui Trail. This steep path drops 2,200-feet in elevation to the canyon floor and will bring you to the Wiliwili Campground, set along the Waimea River, punctuated by java plum, monkeypod, and native wiliwili trees.
The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor is a popular attraction in Honolulu. More than two million visitors visit this site every year to see where World War II began for America on December 7, 1941. While visiting is a rather sobering experience, as you’ll be literally standing over a gravesite where 1,177 men lost their lives, it offers a glimpse of one of the most significant moments in U.S. history. Visitors board a 150 passenger US Navy operated boat to take a ride out to the memorial, which is built over the remains of the sunken battleship. The loss of life represents more than half of the Americans killed during the country’s worst naval disaster.
Iolani Palace is a national historic landmark, and the only official state residence of royalty in the U.S. It was the official residence of the Hawaiian kingdom’s last two monarchs which ruled between 1882 and 1893, King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani. Influenced by European architectural styles, it included the state’s first electric light system, flush toilets and intra-house telephones. Walking through the corridors, you can easily imagine the royal balls that included dancing and music in the throne room. You’ll also see the royal family’s private chambers, a stunning koa staircase, dramatic family portraits, ornate furniture and more. One of the highlights is the “Imprisonment Room,” a room where the queen was held under house arrest for five months, as well as the quilt that she sewed during that time.
Secret Falls is no longer a secret and hasn’t been for the past two decades or so after becoming a major kayak tour destination, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Also known as Sacred Falls and Uluwehi Falls, it cascades 110 feet into a pool below where you can enjoy a refreshing dip.
To get there you’ll need to take a Secret Falls tour with one of the many companies on the island that offer it. If you’re an experienced paddler, you can rent your own kayak and paddle upstream on Wailua River until reaching the fork where you’ll branch to the right, continuing to the kayak-filled landing spot. From there, you’ll take a roughly one-mile trail to the falls. The trail is typically quite muddy and involves a number of stream crossings, one of which has a guide rope that runs across the water as an aid. While it’s not exactly easy getting there, it’s definitely well worth the effort.
Visiting Haleakala National Park and the Haleakala Crater while on Maui is a must. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, this is where you can experience some of the most dramatic sunrises and sunsets throughout the islands. On the two-hour drive to the summit, you’ll pass through as many ecological zones as you would on a journey from Mexico to Canada. Due to the high elevation, it’s usually quite cold at the top, so you’ll need to bring something warm to wear, preparing for unpredictable weather. This is also one of the best places for stargazing after dark. Rangers lead guided walks from May through October, or you can pick up a star map at the park headquarters.
The Road to Hana is known as one of the most scenic drives in the world. It’s more about the journey than the destination itself, beginning at Kahului and culminating at the tiny town of Hana. Along the 55-mile winding drive, scents of ginger and guava fill the air while the lush, tropical landscape is dotted with magnificent waterfalls, basalt-lined, emerald pools and picture-perfect beaches. You’ll want to be sure and stop at the Hana Lava Tube, one of the longest underground lava tubes on the planet. Visitors travel into the dark realms of the earth, enjoying a cool break from the warm temperatures above the surface while getting a close up look at how lava flows down to the ocean.
Molokini Crater is a small volcanic cone set a few miles off the shores of Maui, as Hawaii’s only Island Marine Sanctuary. It offers the opportunity for an amazing snorkeling adventure with unsurpassed underwater visibility. There are literally thousands of tropical fish and marine animals found here, along with a flourishing coral reef. The isolation also adds to the extraordinary experience. If you don’t want to get into the water, you can join a glass-bottom boat tour to see the brilliance of the underwater world.
Iao Valley State Park exemplifies Mother Nature at its best, with soaring emerald peaks guarding the lush valley floor in central Maui, just west of Wailuku. The tranquil 10-mile-long park was the site of important battles and a sacred place with royalty buried here. It’s also home to the iconic Iao Needle, a vegetation-covered lava remnant that rises 1,200 feet from the valley floor – 2,250 feet from sea level. The needle is the result of water pressure eroding volcanic rock over thousands of years and makes for a beautiful photographic opportunity. By climbing the 133 steps to the top of The Lookout, you’ll also enjoy 360-degree views of the valley and Wailuku.
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can watch the landscape change before your very eyes, witnessing ecological dominance firsthand. Located 30 miles south of Hilo, the park is home to Kilauea volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The chance to watch the primal process of creation and destruction as well as to learn more about how the Hawaiian Islands were formed, making it one of the most popular visitor attractions in Hawaii. It encompasses some 330,000 acres, from the summit of Maunaloa to the sea, with 150 miles of hiking trails that wind through rainforests, desert terrain and volcanic craters. It also boasts a walk-in lava tube, a museum and petroglyphs. The volcano produces 250,000 to 650,000 cubic yards of lava a day, enough to resurface a 20-mile-long, two-lane road daily.
This spectacularly beautiful valley on the northeast coast of the Big Island is often described as a kind of “Shangri La,” almost cut off from the outside world. The one-mile-wide valley dissects the Kohala Mountains and is challenging to reach due to the steep cliffs that are on three landward sides and strong waves on the other that make it just as unapproachable from the sea. While there is a steep, twisting road into the valley, most car rental companies don’t allow their vehicles to be taken here, so many visitors choose to walk instead. You’ll find a long, black sand beach where the valley meets the ocean, colorful ginger trees, hibiscus and orchids decorating the landscape and papayas, bananas, mangoes, grapefruit and avocados grown on the fertile valley floor. You can view the “Valley of the Kings” from the coastal Waipio Valley Overlook at the end of the Hamakua Heritage Corridor drive.
If you’re looking for the ultimate place to watch a sunset, there are few better than on the silky soft golden sands of Makena Beach. The sunsets at the edge of the crystal-clear waters here are renowned as some of the most glorious on earth. Separated into two distinct areas, “Big Beach” and “Little Beach,” Big Beach is nearly two-thirds of a mile long and boasts cerulean-hued waters that are ideal for body surfing and bodyboarding. As there is a little reef in the area, the sandy bottom shines up through the water, making for an especially breathtaking scene. On Little Beach, you’re likely to encounter nude sunbathers, drum circles and even professional fire dancers.
You’ll find the opportunity to attend a luau in many places throughout the islands, but Old Lahaina Luau in Maui is one of the best, as an especially authentic traditional luau. It includes an evening of Hawaiian food, music, dance and crafts in an intimate atmosphere representing the tastes and traditions of the rich culture and history of the islands – all with a stunning ocean view.
If you’ve been dreaming of swimming with dolphins but can’t afford the cost, you might want to consider visiting Puna on your own. While you’ll need to be a very good swimmer, on the east side of the Big Island, at a mostly nude beach known as Kehena, you can stand on the cliffs above and watch for the wild pod of dolphins that frequently swims by the rocks. Take the steep trek down to the hidden, black sand beach and jump in. There’s a good chance of meeting up with the dolphins here on your own, again, provided that you’re in excellent shape, as the waves here can be pretty rough.
Pure Kona coffee is fairly rare as it’s exclusively grown in north and south Kona on the Big Island. The high elevation, constant cloud cover and rich volcanic soil found in its upland slopes create an ideal environment for harvesting this unique Hawaiian coffee bean. While there are hundreds of coffee farms in the area, Kona Coffee Living History Farm offers an excellent visitor experience. Located just before the village of Captain Cook, here you can learn about locally grown coffee as well as sample lush Hawaiian fruits like guavas, passion fruit and Kona oranges. Caretakers still grow, harvest, roast and sell the coffee just as they did a century ago. The farm also includes a 1913 farmhouse that’s surrounded by coffee trees, as well as a Japanese bathhouse.
One of the best open markets in Hawaii, the Hilo Farmers Market features over 200 vendors that congregate on a weekly basis to hawk seafood, produce, clothing, crafts and more. Both locals and visitors attend to find everything from typical Hawaiian products like bananas, pineapples and papayas to more unique items like bongo drums and jaboticaba. There is an especially colorful selection of locally grown exotic fruits and vegetables as well as macadamia nuts, island jams and jellies, delectable baked goods, large buckets of orchids and anthuriums. Be sure to arrive early for the best choices, and don’t be afraid to bargain.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park was home to more than 8,000 sufferers of Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy, from 1866 to 1969. Residents were forced to leave their families and live here in exile in this remote expanse. The best way to visit is to travel down the steep north shore sea cliffs on the back of a mule, clip-clopping the 2.9-mile dirt trail with 26 sharp switchbacks, all identified with a plaque, descending 1,700 feet to the sandy shoreline. From here, Damien Tours, owned and operated by a local resident, will take over, bringing visitors in an old yellow school bus to notable sites like St. Philomena Church, home to the grave of Father Damien, who aided Hansen’s disease sufferers before he became a victim himself, is located in the adjacent cemetery.