Steeped in rich cultural heritage and dramatic landscape, the Hawaiian Islands offer adventures appealing to families and honeymooners alike. The Hawaiian archipelago includes hundreds of islands spread across the Pacific Ocean with eight “main” islands; six of these are well-known travel destinations. From botanical museums and scenic byways, tours of the USS Arizona, or a hike through serene landscapes, our experts have selected special places and experiences focused on the unique beauty and heritage of these islands.
Oahu is called “the heart of Hawaii” and Honolulu is the first stop for most visitors. Oahu combines beautiful scenery—from the beaches of Waikiki to the legendary surf on the North shore to Diamond Head and the sheer Ko’olau cliffs—with a unique blend of cultures, art, cuisine and history.
Waikiki is almost synonymous with Oahu and offers a little bit of everything “Hawai’i.” A variety of accommodations, great food and visitor attractions including: the Waikiki Aquarium, the Honolulu Zoo, the U.S. Army Museum and the famous golden stretch of Waikiki beach.
The U.S. Army Museum at Fort DeRussy Beach Park is housed in historic Battery Randolph, one of 16 coastal fortifications built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1906 to 1917. After touring the museum, head to the second floor gun deck to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pacific Regional Visitor Center to check out the large mural of Ho'omaluhia and learn more about the Army Corps’ role in the Pacific (or watch the video Partners in the Pacific).
Iolani Palace was the official residence of King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Lili'uokalani and "the only true and royal palace under the American flag." Washington Place, a few blocks away, was also home to Queen Lili'uokalani. Kawaiaha’o Church (still an active church) and Mission Houses are also in the neighborhood. All three are National Historic Landmarks.
A botanical garden in the midst of downtown Honolulu? Yes! Foster Botanical Garden is the oldest of the five Honolulu Botanical Gardens and displays a mature and impressive collection of tropical plants and exceptional trees. The garden offers a quiet respite from busy downtown Honolulu.
This museum is the premier place to experience the history, arts and culture of the Hawaiian people. The museum originally housed Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s (a descendant of the royal House of Kamehameha) extensive collection of Hawaiian artifacts and heirlooms but expanded to include artifacts, documents and photographs about Hawaii and other Pacific Island cultures.
Pearl Harbor glitters with scenic, historic and strategic importance that predates the infamous December 7, 1941 attack. Against Pearl Harbor’s dramatic beauty the events of that day offer visitors a stark and moving contrast. Book advance reservations for the USS Arizona Memorial, which reminds us of all who died at Pearl Harbor that day. Purchase the Passport to Pearl Harbor and visit all four Pearl Harbor Historic Sites: the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
From many places on Waikiki, you can see iconic Diamond Head or Le'ahi while relaxing on the beach. Consider a hike to this National Natural Landmark, and if you decide to give it a try, know that the 0.8 mile hike from trailhead to the summit is steep and strenuous but will reward you with stunning views.
Haunauma Bay Nature Preserve was once a volcanic crater and is now the island's most popular snorkeling destination. You can rent masks, fins, snorkels and lockers at the Preserve.
The Ko'olau Range is the rugged, dramatic backbone of Oahu. Drive the Pali Highway — one of three roads that funnel through the Ko'olau Range — for a fantastic view from the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, just five miles northeast of downtown Honolulu. Portions of the Old Pali Highway are visible along the route and are closed to vehicular traffic and now used by hikers. Check the Na Ala Hele (“Trails to Go On”) Oahu section for other trails in the area or try Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation Area's 4.8 mile Aiea Loop Trail, offering views of the Ko'olau Range as well as Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head.
This island is known for the soaring cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, vast chasms of Waimea Canyon and for charming small towns and beautiful beaches.
The nine Hawaii State Parks on Kauai offer everything from hiking, camping, swimming and snorkeling to horseback riding and of course, breathtaking scenery. Three of Kaua’i’s most popular destinations are:
Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park adventures begin on the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, the only land access to the coast. Originally built in the late 1800s, the trail traverses towering sea cliffs and five lush valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach. Here the trail is blocked by pali or sheer, fluted cliffs. The trail is for fit, experienced hikers only and requires a permit.
Waimea Canyon State Park offers picnicking and scenic overlooks into the deep and colorful canyon and your choice of easy (Iliau Nature Loop) or difficult (Kukui Trail) hikes. On your way to Waimea Canyon, visit the historic town of Waimea and see Cook’s Landing Site and Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park, both National Historic Landmarks.
Koke’e State Park, high in the tropical rainforest, is an excellent area for observing native plants, colorful forest birds and insects along miles of boardwalks and trails. Try the easy (.3 mile) Poomau Canyon Lookout trail for a grand view of Waimea Canyon, or the 3.5 mile Alakai Swamp trail, where a different kind of adventure (and superb birding and botanizing) awaits you.
The Koloa Plain on the southern coast of Kaua’i is known for its array of archaeological and historical sites. The Holo Holo Koloa Scenic Byway strings many of these pearls along the nineteen plus mile route, including the Sugar Mill of Koloa, a National Historic Landmark.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge’s dramatic backdrop of steep cliffs plunging to the ocean is one of the best places on the island to view wildlife. The refuge is also home to the historic Kilauea Point Lighthouse. Its spectacular views allows visitors to see a piece of history as well as the many birds and marine mammals congregating around the cliffs. The Visitor Center features interpretive dioramas highlighting native Hawaiian habitats and wildlife.
This fifth largest of the islands is known for its adventure possibilities and its unspoiled nature—where “no building is higher than a coconut tree.” Molokai is the home of the North Shore Cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in the world (and a National Natural Landmark) as well as home to one of Hawaii’s biggest white sand beaches at Kalaupapa National Historical Park.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park tells the story of an isolated community whose purpose was to prevent the spread of Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). Today, you must have permission to visit this remote park (children under the age of 16 are not allowed to visit) but it is well worth the effort. The best way to visit is through a prearranged, guided tour (reservations required). Join a guided mule ride and you’ll travel a 3 mile trail with 26 switchbacks along the highest sea cliffs in the world before arriving at the settlement. You'll see the grave site of Father Damien, who loved and served this colony of outcasts.
You do not need permission to view the Kalaupapa settlement from the scenic overlook at Pala'au State Park. Catch the awe-inspiring view, have a picnic, admire the petroglyphs or follow the short trail that leads to a phallic stone (said to enhance fertility).
Outside Pala’au State Park, travel south along the highway and consider stops at the R.W. Meyer Sugar Mill, a restored 1878 sugar mill with a mule-driven cane crusher and operational steam engine, and the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center. On the south central coast, visit Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove near Kaunakakai, planted during the reign of King Kamehameha V, or visit one of the ancient fish ponds that date to the 1300’s such as Hokukano-Ualapue Complex near Ualapue.
Spend some time on Maui and you may feel like migrating to the island's warm waters like thousands of humpback whales do year after year. Maui is the gateway to some of the best whale watching in the world as well as a luau of other outdoor activities to discover!
Many visitors to Maui start exploring in historic Lahaina. Pick up a Lahaina Historic Trail guide at the Lahaina Visitor Center in the Old Courthouse. Take a walk through the Lahaina Historic District for a glimpse of the town's history as a former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom; later it was a whaling port and center of missionary activity. You’ll pass numerous National Historic Landmarks on this walk including the home of the missionary Baldwins, an 1850’s jail for rowdy sailors, the Wo Hing Temple and one of the largest banyan trees in the United States.
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary lies within the shallow warm waters surrounding the main Hawaiian Islands. As many as 10,000 humpback whales migrate to Hawaiian waters each winter from November to March. The sanctuary is one of the world's most important humpback whale habitats and touches all of the main Hawaiian Islands (view a map of the sanctuary). You can enjoy whale watching, fishing and diving in sanctuary waters around the state. The Sanctuary Visitor Center is at a scenic beachfront location at the foot of Haleakala. It's a great spot to watch for whales from shore and learn more about whales and marine life.
Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge hosts more than 30 species of birds on one of the largest lowland wetlands left in Hawaii. The refuge is home to the endangered ae'o (Hawaiian stilt), 'alae ke'oke'o (Hawaiian coot), and koloa (Hawaiian duck) and—probably due to its unique size and diversity of habitats—is used by a greater diversity of migratory birds than most Hawaiian wetlands. Other wildlife-friendly activities include photography and environmental education.
After you visit Keālia Pond, consider a drive down the coast (about 12 miles) to Makena State Park for a beautiful white sand beach. Swim here only during calm seas — the shore break can be fast, steep and dangerous.
Plan at least a full day or more to experience Haleakalā National Park. Haleakalā is Maui's highest peak, an extinct volcano rising 10,023 feet above sea level. Many visitors come to Haleakalā to catch the sunrise at the summit, where it can be chilly, even frosty before daylight. Once the sun is up, you can choose from among a variety of outdoor activities from wildlife and plant viewing, to easy day hikes to overnight wilderness backpacking. You can also join one of many authorized commercial outfitters for a guided hike, bicycle or horseback ride. Haleakalā is also one of the best places in the world for skywatching. The park is relatively remote—it’s a minimum of 30 minutes to any amenities and there is no lodging here, but there are first-come, first-served campsites and three wilderness cabins.
The Hana Highway (HI-360) has 620 curves and 59 bridges and winds above a rugged coastline, through rainforests and past waterfalls to the remote, laid-back town of Hana. Visit the Kahanu Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, to see many native and Polynesian plants (brought over in canoes) and the magnificent Pi'ilanihale Heiau, a lava-rock structure believed to be the largest heiau (ancient place of worship) in Polynesia. Visit Haleakalā's Kipahulu District on the eastern coastal side, and the freshwater pools at Ohe'o Gulch, about 15 miles south of Hana. A hike to the pools is a popular activity.
Even the Hawaiian Islands travel website admits that, “Lanai isn’t for everybody, and that’s exactly why so many fall in love with it.” If you’re curious about this sixth largest island, one way to visit is by taking a day or overnight trip from Maui. The Maui-Lanai ferry service from Lahaina to Manele Harbor on Lanai’s southern coast takes about an hour and also offers package tours. Try to spot humpback whales along the way!
Historic Lanai City was founded in the early 1900’s. Get a feel for this historic town by strolling around Dole Park—the name is a clue to its origins as a plantation town. At its peak, Lanai’s once-booming pineapple industry produced 75% of the world’s pineapples. Locals meet and gather at Dole Park and it is the site of the annual Pineapple Festival. All the shops, restaurants and businesses are near this pleasant park including the historic Hotel Lanai.
Lanai has a great island-wide transportation system, so you don’t need a car, but 4WD driving is a popular activity. You can rent a 4WD vehicle in Lanai City (or book a tour package). Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach) and one-lane dirt Munro Trail (which can also be hiked or biked) are other popular 4WD destinations. At the end of one of the many unpaved, steep and rugged roads is Kaunolu Village Site. This was a favorite fishing spot of King Kamehameha I, offers a spectacular view of Shark Fin Cove and Lanai’s southern sea cliffs, and includes the remains of Halulu heiau (sacred temple) and petroglyphs. This is a sacred place, so please be respectful.
Not only is Hawai’i Island known as the “Big Island,” it’s still growing! Hawai’i Island is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. It is also home to Mauna Kea, the tallest peak in the world. Mauna Kea is more than double Everest’s height from its ocean base. The island also offers a sampling of the world’s climate zones (all but two) from lush rain forests to snow-capped mountaintops.
Many visitors to Hawai’i Island start in Kailua-Kona on the west side of the island. Spend at least a day here to explore this historic village, once a sleepy fishing town and retreat for King Kamehameha I.
Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park preserves ancient fish ponds and fish traps engineered and constructed by native Hawaiians. Popular activities at the park include hiking or snorkeling among corals reefs and tropical fishes. From Kaloko-Honokōhau, continue north 31 miles to Puukoholā Heiau National Historic Site.
Puukoholā Heiau National Historic Site tells the story of the unification of Hawaii and preserves the ruins of the last major ancient Hawaiian temple. Visitors enjoy walking the park's ½ mile loop trail, or sections of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail (¾ miles from the park to Mau'umae Beach or 3 miles to Hapuna Beach). From shore, shark, whale and dolphin watching are popular activities. Nearby Spencer County Beach Park offers picnicking, swimming, camping and snorkeling.
Ten miles north along the beach is Lapakahi State Historical Park where you can walk through the partially restored remains of an ancient Hawaiian coastal settlement and see the Mookini Heiau, a temple platform with an open, stone-paved court. It is one of the most important traditional sites in Hawaii and a National Historic Landmark.
Follow the Royal Footsteps along the Kona Coast for seven miles and more than 20 cultural and historical sites. Start near the middle of Kailua Seawall and historic Kailua village at the Kamakahonu site, on the grounds of a hotel. The site includes a reconstructed Ahuena Heiau. In 1820, Hawaii’s first Christian missionaries came ashore here where the Kailua Pier now stands. The byway includes stops at Hulihee Palace, once a vacation home for Hawaiian royalty but now a museum, and the Keauhou Holua Slide. Holua slides were the equivalent of toboggan courses where royal contestants reached treacherous speeds on narrow sleds.
From Kailua-Kona, follow the Mamalahoa Kona Heritage Corridor (Mamaloa Highway 180) for historic, cultural and quirky stops en route to the Kona Historical Society and Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park.
Spend several hours at the Kona Historical Society, a Smithsonian affiliate. Experience the 1880’s in the H.N. Greenwell Store Museum where the shopkeeper will help you “gather your supplies” among the mingled aromas of coffee beans and oranges, as they did over 100 years ago in the heyday of Kona ranching. Stroll through the award-winning Kona Coffee Living History Farm that tells the story of Kona’s coffee pioneers, and learn how the Portuguese settlers baked bread in stone ovens.
Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park tells of the Hawaiian concept of sanctuary or pu'uhonua. In the centuries before 1819, Hawaiian people caught in extraordinary circumstances, such as being on the losing side in war or breaking kapu (sacred law) could escape the death sentence if they could physically get to the pu'uhonua and receive absolution from the kahuna pule (priest). Feel the spirit of peace and forgiveness that continues to surround this place.
Follow the Ka'u Scenic Byway en route to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The route starts at Manuka State Park, which houses an arboretum with 48 species of native trees and over 130 species of plants in 13.4 acres of forest. The byway includes 16 additional points-of-interest.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park showcases Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world's most active volcanoes. Easily visit Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park by car in just a few hours or explore the park in depth over several days. View a volcanic eruption at Halema'uma'u Crater, travel the Crater Rim Drive or Chain of Craters Road (easy to combine into one travel route), or drive narrow (one lane) Mauna Loa Road to an observation point at about 6,000 feet. Beyond the observation point is a two-day hiking trail leading to the summit of Mauna Loa, and requiring top physical condition, winter gear and skills and a permit. This hike is not for everyone but there are many outdoor activities from which to choose, including easier walks like Kipukapuaulu (Bird Park) or Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube).
If you are continuing on the Hawaii Belt Road around the island, spend some time in lovely Hilo. With its dramatic waterfalls, fertile rainforests and blooming gardens, it is “the geographic flipside” of the volcanic regions of the island. Stop at the Mokupapapa: Discovery Center, where you are very far from, yet closer to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument than most people get. Experience the center’s large-scale wall map, interactive displays and saltwater aquarium, plus a giant coral reef mural and engaging life-size models of a giant manta ray, several sharks and other fish created by Hilo artist, Layne Luna.
Also in Hilo, visit the Smithsonian affiliated Lyman Museum and Mission House, originally built in 1839 for New England missionaries David and Sarah Lyman. The Lyman Museum houses a superb collection of artifacts, fine art and natural history exhibits.
Experienced hikers can reach the summit of Mauna Kea in about 10 hours, or from Hilo, you can “bag” the tallest peak on earth in less than two hours from the comfort of your (4WD) vehicle. A regular passenger car can reach the 9,300-foot level and Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station (maintained by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy). The station offers exhibits, nightly stargazing programs and public escorted tours to the summit (be sure to check with your rental car company and see if they allow you to drive upslope) and remember that snow is common in winter.
The Hawaiian Islands are more than just the eight major islands; there are atolls and numerous smaller islets extending almost 1,500 miles in the Pacific Ocean. At the northwestern end lies Midway Atoll and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Only a few lucky adventurers will experience Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Papahānaumokuākea protects an exceptional array of natural and cultural resources and is a World Heritage Site. The name Papahānaumokuākea may be hard for some to pronounce, but has great significance and meaning in the ancient Hawaiian tradition. The Monument overlays two National Wildlife Refuges: the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Midway Atoll, one of the most remote coral atolls on earth, is the only site within the Monument open to the public and visits are strictly limited. You need to get a Monument Permit for all activities at Midway. A limited number of travel companies offer guided trips from Honolulu. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is also designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial with numerous World War II facilities.
The Mokupapapa: Discovery Center in Hilo on Hawai’i Island (described above) is the best way to learn about Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Teachers and parents: be sure and check the Teaching with Historic Places “The Battle of Midway: Turning the Tide in the Pacific” lesson plan, or find coloring pages and puzzles on Papahānaumokuākea’s “For Keiki (Kids)” page.