updated October 5, 2016
The 25 Best Things To Do in Hawaii
1. Snorkel with Sharks • Oahu
One Ocean Diving offers a shark tour unlike all others, the only one in which guests snorkel without a cage, and the only one that goes to where the sharks live rather than attracting them with food, so they can be observed in a calm, natural state. This is an exhilarating experience, perhaps even life-changing, a chance to get up close with the oceans’ apex predators and gain new insight and understanding of these magnificent creatures. Owned and run by marine biologists and experts in shark behavior patterns, One Ocean is part of a conservation and scientific study group. There are no age requirements, but guests must be at least 4 feet tall and strong swimmers: children must be accompanied by two adults. Tours are two hours long, with about 30-45 minutes in the water. Operating out of Hale’iwa, close to the river for an amazing SUP experience, surfing spots Banzai Pipeling and Waimea Bay, and famous Matsumoto’s shave ice (though Anahulu’s down the street is more flavorful, shorter line, and less expensive).
2. Doors-Off Helicopter Tour • Kauai
Jack Harter Helicopters is a must! About seventy percent of gorgeous Kauai is inaccessible by foot; the only way to see it all is by helicopter, and flying with the doors off means the stunning views are completely unobstructed. Breathtaking landscape surrounds guests, including the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon, Mount Waialeale, and Jurassic Falls. For doors-off tours, passengers must be at least ten years old. They do offer tours with the doors on (and air conditioning) that are suitable for younger guests; however, this can wind up being an expensive nap for little ones! Tours last 60 or 90 minutes in total air time; plan for additional time for safety instructions and transportation to and from the helicopters (provided by the company). Flying out of Lihue, Jack Harter Helicopters is close to Kalapaki Beach and Backcountry Adventures tubing tours.
3. Manta Ray Night Dive and Snorkel Ecoadventure • Big Island
Neptune Charlie’s Ocean Safari helps guests get up close to these gentle giants, averaging a twelve foot wingspan. Around sunset, boats leave the Kona coast for the offshore gathering spot of hundreds of rays. Manta rays are attracted to the area using lights, held onto by guests, and they put on a show of waving and rolling in search of plankton within inches of the snorkelers. There are no age restrictions, but six years and up is recommended. The three hour tour leaves from Honokohau Marina, close to Pine Trees Surfing Beach and Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, making it a perfect ending for a day of sun, sand, and nature.
4. Sunrise Lava Tour • Big Island
Epic Lava Tours hosts a spectacular guided hike to visit active lava flows. Beginning within Volcanoes National Park, guests get within a few feet of fresh lava, take in the sunrise, and visit lesser known areas within the rainforest park. Snack, water, and rain ponchos provided. The hike is long, about four to five miles in each direction, depending on current volcanic activity. There are no age restrictions, but it may be too strenuous a hike for very young children. Additionally, volcanic fumes are strong; pregnant women, infants, and the elderly are advised not to get this close. Tours begin at 4 a.m. and end between 9 and 10, depending on how near the lava is flowing that day.
5. Na Pali Sunset Dinner Sail • Kauai
Captain Andy’s catamaran sails feature dramatic views of the rugged Na Pali Coast. Sheer and jagged cliffs, encounters with spinner dolphins plus more sea life, and sunset colors make this an excellent choice for a romantic evening for two. Great dinner with cocktails included. Boats leave from Ele’ele and last four hours. Stop by Kauai Island Brewing Company on the way for a flight of local beers, as food and cocktails on the boat aren’t served until a couple hours after departure.
6. Molokini Express, Adventure Snorkeling • Maui
Blue Water Rafting offers one of the shorter and more affordable snorkeling trips out of Maui to the crystal waters off Molokini, a volcanic crater and seabird sanctuary. The inflatable rafts are small and maneuverable, able to get very close to plunging cliffs. This is amazing snorkeling in areas where bigger boats are unable to fit, with tropical fish everywhere and over an hour spent in the water. The highlight of the trip, though, is the ride itself, as the tiny boat catches air, leaping over the waves. Children aged four and up are welcome; younger children are allowed on private charters. The tour lasts two hours total and leaves from the Kihei Boat Ramp, near Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, home to endangered wetland birds, and Maui Brewing Company, with a tasting room and brewery tours.
7. Mountain Tubing through Canals and Tunnels • Kauai
Kauai Backcountry Adventures is the only group offering tubing tours on the island. Guests are driven through the rainforest to the old Lihue Plantation, where they are given a headlamp and tube and set to float through the old irrigation system built in the late nineteenth century. Fun and knowledgeable guides keep the banter going as everyone drifts past lush landscapes and through pitch dark tunnels. Finish with a light lunch. Children five years and up allowed. Tour departs from Lihue, near the helicopter tours, Fern Grotto, and Lydgate Beach Park.
8. North Shore Beach Tour • Oahu
Aloha Beach Bus’ deluxe tour breaks travelers out of Waikiki and up to Hale’iwa in the North Shore for an all-day sun and surf adventure. Learn about the history of surfing among Hawaiian royalty, and visit the most famous surf spots in the world, Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay, with water clear enough to see the bottom and a huge rock for cliff jumping. Guests are invited to swim, surf, snorkel, canoe, or scuba here. At Pua’ena Point, snorkel with sea turtles, before moving on the Wailua River for standup paddleboarding and shave ice. Finish with a trip to the Dole Plantation for pineapple ice cream. Lunch at Tsue’s Farm is included. All ages welcome.
9. Tour a Kona Coffee Farm • Big Island
Kona Old Style at Kuaiwi Farm offers guided tours of their five-acre organic, sustainable, working coffee plantation. Alongside coffee berries, find macadamias, cacao, bananas, pineapples, and more. Learn the intricacies of the coffee-making process from start to finish. Tours include a delightful tasting of their own award-winning coffees, mac nuts, and jams. The basic tour lasts two hours and welcomes all ages. An optional chocolate-making class can be added for guests over ten years.
10. Spot a Sunken Ship from aboard a Submarine • Maui
Atlantis Submarines Maui explore ocean depths in search of reef sharks, dolphins, eels and tropical fish. Diving over 100 feet underwater, the submarines pass by a sunken ship and visit three reefs. This is a great escape from the midday heat, and it’s a perfect way for not-so-strong swimmers to experience marine wildlife. No age limits, but guests must be at least 36” tall. Tour leaves from Lahaina, right off Front Street, near Banyan Court Park and several restaurants, boutiques, and beaches.
11. Nighttime Paddle board under Fireworks • Oahu
Every Friday night, Nocturnal Adventures Hawaii offers guided tours of the reef off the coast of Waikiki Beach. Paddle boards are fixed with glowing lights underneath, illuminating the wildlife under the surface. Tours leave just before sunset in search of tropical fish and sea turtles. After dark, guests sit down on their boards while still floating on the waves, as the weekly fireworks show explodes directly overhead. All ages welcome, but children eight and under must share a paddle board with an adult. Tours depart from Waikiki Beach, near shops, dining, Honolulu Zoo, and Diamond Head.
12. Hilo Rainforest Hike and Volcano Overlook • Big Island
Marylou’s Big Island Guided Tours are fully customizable, taking guests to sites of their choosing. Opt for the Hawaii Volcano Night Glow Tour to see sights around Hilo before heading to the Kilauea Volcano overlook at dusk to see the fiery glow. Suggested sites include Richardson’s Black Sand Beach, Rainbow Falls, Liliuokalani Gardens, Thurston Lava Tube, Volcanoes National Park, and more. Choose your own adventure, or opt for a pre-set package. Tours depart from Hilo, near Coconut Island, Pacific Tsunami Museum, and the Lyman House Museum. All ages welcome.
13. Visit Hawaii’s Only Meadery • Kauai
Nani Moon Meadery is working hard to elevate mead, the world’s first alcoholic drink, and modernize its flavor profile for a contemporary palate. Each variety is made with local fruits, like lilikoi and guava, and sometimes spiced with ginger or chili. Far from the cloying sweetness of traditional mead, the drinks here are crisp and light. Guests are invited to taste their full range of flavors or observe the bottling process. Hive-to-Glass tours, where guests meet the bees, taste the honeys, and try the meads, are coming soon! Adults only. Located in Kapa’a town and close to Fern Grotto, plus the old town boutiques, restaurants, and beaches.
14. Meet the Goats at a Working Dairy Farm • Maui
Surfing Goat Dairy Farm is a family-friendly agrotourism spot open daily, a little different than the usual Hawaiian attraction. Casual walking tours take about 20 minutes and do not require reservations; feed the goats, check out the modern milking machines, watch the cheesemaking process, and taste several of their 30 varieties of cheeses and quark. Reservations are suggested for the Evening Chores Tour, where guests learn to hand milk a goat, in addition to everything offered in the casual tour. Located in Kula, partway down the side of the Haleakala Crater and near the Ocean Vodka Distillery. Check out their shop for all things goat milk, from soaps to truffles to popsicles. Bonus fact: the farm owners will trade cheese for worn out surfboards! All ages welcome.
15. Ride a Bike • Big Island and Maui
The two most bike friendly islands are Big Island and Maui; rentals are available in several locations there at affordable rates. Big Island has few designated bike lanes, but most roads and highways have wide shoulders that bikers are encouraged to use. For mountain biking, there are several trails for all skill levels within Volcanoes National Park. The tour company Velissimo has several options for day trips, as well as a week-long circle island tour. Maui has more bike infrastructure built into their roads, making it a cinch to cycle around Lahaina and Kihei using rentals from Haleakala Bike Co. The most popular bike tour by far is a downhill ride at sunrise from the Haleakala Crater.
16. Road to Hana • Maui
Beginning in Pa’ia, the Hana Highway runs east through tropical rainforest, a winding road of switchback turns dug into sheer cliffsides with blind curves leading into one-lane bridges. The landscape is as dramatic as the road, featuring waterfalls, bamboo forests, and the largest ancient lava rock temple in all of Polynesia. There are dozens of stops along the way, some of the best being Wai’anapanapa State Park, which is a great one-stop-shop with a lava tube, blowhole, black sand beach, and hiking trail; Wailua Falls, with a short hike to the waterfall and plunge pool; and Nahiku Marketplace, a few little roadside shacks midway through with food vendors and a couple of shops. Driving yourself allows the freedom to set your own pace, choosing only the stops that pique your interests. Less confident drivers may opt for taking a guided tour or helicopter ride. However it’s done, the Road to Hana is a must for every Maui trip!
17. Waimea Canyon • Kauai
Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon in western Kauai is roughly ten miles long, one mile wide, and 3300 feet deep. Breathtaking views from the rim show the steep sides in red and orange color bands, purple shadows, and sparse green scrub. The road up is smooth and not too curvy, so there is no need for a tour. Waimea Canyon Road leads directly to the viewpoint in the state park, but there are several other lookouts along the way offering different perspectives. Further up in Kokee State Park, several hiking trails run along the canyon’s rim or through rainforest. From Princeville or Kapa’a town, plan on a little more than an hour travel time each direction. This is a great activity for active families or couples.
18. Sunset with Sea Turtles • Maui
Every night at sunset no matter what time of the year, sea turtles swim ashore to rest at Ho’okipa Beach Park. On the east end of the beach at the bottom of the cliff near the water, twenty to forty at a time will gather together and sleep. These are endangered creatures, so be sure to respect the cordoned off area and give them their space on shore. As long as people are respectful and refrain from touching them, people are allowed to swim and snorkel with the turtles, though Ho’okipa Beach is not known for great swimming. Surfing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing are the most popular activities here. A park volunteer will be here to answer any questions guests may have about the turtles. Located just east of Pa’ia town and Mama’s Fish House, this is a perfect place to stop and relax after a day wandering Hana, or while waiting on their dinner reservations at Mama’s.
19. Hilo Farmers Market • Big Island
Recognized as one of the best in the U.S., Hilo Farmers Market has over 200 vendors selling local fruits, veggies, and flowers. This is a fantastic stop for a variety of cheap eats, with several specialty food vendors selling Thai food, sushi, Peruvian tamales, Ka’u and Kona coffees, and baked goods. Tarot card readings, local arts, and on first and third Saturdays, free kids’ art activities. The Farmers Market is located in downtown Hilo and is open year round every Wednesday and Saturday from 6am – 2pm. Walking distance to the aquarium, Pacific Tsunami Museum, Lyman Museum, and the beach at Bayfront Park.
20. Ahu’ena Heiau • Big Island
One of the most historically significant spots in Hawaii, this is the religious temple used by King Kamehameha the Great, who united all of the Hawaiian islands. This heiau became the center of political power during the height of his reign and later, the site of his death. The king’s son and heir Liholiho broke taboo here, and less than a year after the king’s death, this was the site where the first American Christian missionaries landed. Damaged in a hurricane, the site has been lovingly restored in recent years. Ahu’ena Heiau is free, open to the public, and suitable for all ages. Located in Kailua-Kona right on Kailua Bay, walking distance to Hulihe’e Palace, once the former vacation home of the Hawaiian royal family, now a museum; and Mokuaikaua Church, Hawaii’s oldest Christian church, founded in 1820.
21. Pay Respects to Duke • Oahu
The father of modern surfing and Hawaii’s Ambassador of Aloha, Duke Kahanamoku is memorialized by a 9 foot tall bronze statue right on the sands of Waikiki Beach. A gold medal Olympic swimmer, waterman, Hollywood actor, and sheriff of Honolulu, Duke’s charisma and popularity was instrumental in reviving the sport of surfing and spreading its popularity worldwide. The statue stands with open arms, draped in flower leis left by admirers. This is one of the most photographed sites in Waikiki, located on Kalakalua Avenue near the Waikiki Police Station. For more photos and memorabilia, check out Duke’s Canoe Club restaurant and the Moana Surfrider hotel’s historic tour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11:00. While at the Surfrider, be sure to grab some Dole Whip pineapple ice cream; the only other places in the world where you can get it are at the Dole Plantation or at Disney parks.
22. Bum Around in Pa’ia Town • Maui
Pa’ia is a little, boho, surfer town on Maui’s North Shore. The historic main street bustles with hundreds of local, independent boutiques, surf shops, cafés, art galleries, and more. Some of the island’s best restaurants are here, including Mama’s Fish House, Pa’ia Fish Market, and Hana Ranch Provisions, making it a foodie’s heaven. Make sure to head off the main drag and visit the Dharma Center, consecrated by the Dalai Lama; guests are permitted to spin the prayer wheel and photograph the murals inside the stupa. Pa’ia is officially the first stop on the Road to Hana, making it a great place to stay the night before or after the big drive. Or spend a day in the area, splitting time between downtown Pa’ia and the ocean at Baldwin Beach or Ho’okipa Beach Park.
23. Lahaina Town • Maui
Front Street is the main road on the waterfront in the historic whaling town of Lahaina, now a destination for great restaurants, art galleries, and shopping. Spend the day on the historic trail, a self-guided walking tour through the city with stops at the Baldwin House, Banyan Court Park, Old Lahaina Lighthouse, and the Old Prison. Come back at night for world class dining at Lahaina Grill or Star Noodle. Every Friday night is Art Night, featuring gallery openings, artist demonstrations, and entertainment. Maps for the Historic Trail and Art Night can be found online or at the Lahaina Visitor Center in the courthouse.
No matter where travelers are in Hawaii, they can always find “ono grinds,” or good food. The two most well-known local dishes, both absolute musts, are poke and shave ice. Poke, rhyming with “OK,” is usually made with tuna or octopus, chopped into cubes, seasoned, and served raw. Visitors will find this at nearly every restaurant, deli, or grocery store in Hawaii. Just as ubiquitous is shave ice, a dessert made by shaving down a block of ice into fine pieces and topping with colorful flavored syrups. Shave ice is often served on top of vanilla or coconut ice cream and topped with sweetened condensed milk; other popular additions are azuki beans or li hung mui (preserved plum) powder. Eat these at every opportunity; they are hard to come by outside of the islands.
25. Holualoa Town • Big Island
Holualoa is an arts colony in the Kona mountains. Just a twenty minute drive from Kailua-Kona, this small town is surprisingly full of visual arts galleries, showcasing painting, sculpture, ceramics, and jewelry. The best known is Studio 7, featuring the art of two generations of the Morinoue family. Donkey Mill Art Center is just a little further south, offering classes and exhibits that are often free. Two galleries are located in the Historic Kona Hotel, a hot pink two-story at the entrance to Holualoa. Thespian Thursdays feature all kinds of performance art every week at Holuakoa Café.
Bonus: Hand Tap Tattoo • Oahu
For the brave! Soul Signature Tattoo in Downtown Honolulu offers traditional, Polynesian style hand tap tattoos. Blades of varying widths are tapped with a stick, depositing ink into the skin in the form of tiny cuts. This is the oldest form of tattooing, and each Polynesian culture has its own distinct style. Shop owner and artist Aisea has been integral in the birth of modern Polynesian tattooing as one of the founders of Manalua Association, a group working in several Pacific Islands, including Tonga, Tahiti, and the Philippines to educate tattoo artists there on curbing the spread of bloodborne pathogens, while reviving traditional tattoo styles.