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Things to Do in Hawaii

Anyone can see why the Pacific archipelago of Hawaii is a favorite travel destination: cobalt waters, powder-white beaches, volcanic peaks, a plethora of indigenous wildlife, and rich traditional culture. Hawaii’s vibe is casual and laid-back, but you’d be forgiven for trying to pack your trip with activities and tours. After all, life here is mostly lived outside—chowing down on traditional island food at a luau, surfing or bodyboarding the waves, snorkeling or diving the coral reefs, or hiking over ancient lava flows—and each main island offers both expected and unique experiences. Sail and snorkel off the coast of Maui, the island known for being the picture-perfect tropical idyll. Head to the Big Island to summit Mauna Kea at sunrise, hike along volcanic crater rims, and kayak with dolphins in Kealakekua Bay. Rugged Kauai is home to verdant rain forests and valleys that beg to be hiked and photographed. Oahu is a hotbed of multicultural activities in Honolulu and beyond: Immerse yourself in world history at Pearl Harbor, take a guided hike up Diamond Head, or learn to surf at Waikiki Beach. Molokai and Lanai, the two least populated of the main islands, beckon travelers who want seclusion, empty beaches, and authentic Hawaiian culture. Whatever your vision of a dream Hawaiian vacation, the recipe is simple: Choose your islands, choose your activities, choose your pace, book your trip, and enjoy.
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Molokini Crater
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Creating a perfect crescent shape in the sea, the sunken Molokini Crater is a snorkeling wonderland just offshore from Maui. Dubbed among the world’s top 10 diving locations, Molokini is prized by underwater enthusiasts for its protected reef, crystal-clear visibility and schools of tropical fish. The crater is also a favorite with birdwatchers, who come here to spot seabirds like petrels and shearwaters. Come here by organized tour for a day of swimming and diving, and terrific views across the water back to Maui.

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Na Pali Coast
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Kauai’s Na Pali Coast is famous for its seaside beauty, marine life and water sports.

The 15-mile (24 km) length of coast is lined by cliffs, white-sand beaches and turquoise sea.

Come here to whale watch or spot dolphins and monk seals on an eco-cruise or sailing adventure. Follow the Kalalau Trail to go hiking across the cliff tops to Hanakapiai beach and waterfalls.

Say hello to the local marine life on a snorkeling excursion, with the opportunity to see tropical fish and green sea turtles.

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Mauna Kea Summit & Observatory
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Whether you’re a budding astrophysicist or just a fan of Big Bang Theory, take the opportunity while you’re on the Big Island to visit the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory.

At a lofty height of 13,796 ft (4,138 m) Mauna Kea is Hawaii's tallest mountain, and the summit is topped with astronomical observatories from around the world.

The Visitor Information Station is at a lowly 9,300 ft (2,790 m) elevation, and from here a rugged hiking trail winds to the summit. It takes around five hours and you need to be fit and prepared for all kinds of weather conditions.

The visitor center has interactive displays and videos, with interactive telescopes, talks and tours. It also runs escorted tours to the summit.

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Pearl Harbor National Memorial
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A hallowed name in US history, Pearl Harbor was the site of the December 7, 1941, bombing by the Japanese that wrenched the United States into World War II. In total, nine U.S. ships were sunk and a further 21 damaged, and the eventual death toll was 2,350.

Pearl Harbor is still a Navy base today, and a National Historic Landmark. For visitors, the focus is the USS Arizona memorial, protecting the remains of the American battleship destroyed in seconds during the attack. The USS Utah was also sunk, and there is a memorial on nearby Ford Island. The highlight of the harbor's Bowfin Park is the submarine USS Bowfin and the adjacent memorial museum, packed with memorabilia and exhibits.

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Road to Hana (Hana Highway)
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Hawaii is made for road trips, and one of the best is the Road to Hana, a relatively short drive that should take all day (if you're doing it right).

Technically called the Hana Highway, the Road to Hana is 52 miles of winding two-lane road connecting Kahului with the tiny town of Hana. You could certainly make the trip in a few hours (it's slow going with all the twists and turns, and most of the little bridges narrow to a single lane), but why would you? The scenery along the way is some of Maui's most beautiful, with waterfalls to see, beaches to visit, and short hikes to do en route.

Some of the sights you can visit along the way include the Twin Falls waterfalls, the Ho'okipa Lookout, Honomanu Bay, the two arboretums, the Hana Lava Tube, and Wai'anapanapa State Park. The town of Hana itself is tiny, but lovely and has many nice beaches.

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Diamond Head
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The pointy peak of Diamond Head forms a dramatic backdrop to Waikiki on Oahu’s south coast. Diamond Head is a State Monument, and a popular lookout point on Oahu.

Formed from volcanic tuff, the crater is part of a geological outcrop of cones, vents and old lava flows, formed from eruptions around 150,000 years ago.

If you’re feeling fit, work out with an exhilarating climb to the top of Diamond Head and take in the city views. The steep round-trip hike takes a couple of hours, with challenging stages of steps and tunnels.

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Waikiki Beach
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Waikiki Beach is one of the most famous stretches of sand on the planet, up there with Ipanema and Bondi. Its curving stretch of sand is bordered by palms and high-rise hotels.

Come here to soak up the sun, swim, pilot an outrigger canoe, sail a boat, or snorkel. Lifeguards are on hand to keep a watchful eye.

The surfing isn’t bad either, with long rolling breaks. Look out for the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the sands, the local who popularized surfing and brought it into the modern era.

Pack a picnic to enjoy in nearby Kapiolani Park, hire a beach chair and umbrella, or sit back at sunset and watch the free movies screened on the beach.

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Kealakekua Bay
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For some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island, visit the protected waters of Kealakekua Bay. This remote area is also popular with hikers, who might come across the ruins of ancient temples and villages on their travels. Dolphins frolic in the bay, and the shore is dotted with the white obelisk commemorating the death of Captain James Cook here in 1779.

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Honokohau Harbor
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Steep drop-offs beckon just off Kona’s coast, the dominion of pelagic beasts—marlin and billfish some topping 1,000 lbs. Most journeys to catch one begin the 262-slip marina at Honokohau Harbor, just before the entrance to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Nearly all of Kailua-Kona’s fishermen, independent sportfish tour operators as well as charter boats departing for scuba sites and popular manta and dolphin snorkeling adventures dock and depart from Honokohau Harbor.

The full-service marina also sports two noteworthy restaurants: Harbor House, a burger and beer joint with views of vessels from their open-air dining room, and Bite Me Fish Market Bar & Grill serving seafood delivered direct from the ocean to their door. ATMs, two full service restroom blocks with hot showers and a convenience store for snacks and sundries round out the facilities here.

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USS Arizona Memorial
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The main Pearl Harbor memorial marks the final resting place of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships destroyed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked and the USA joined the war effort on behalf of the Allies. The site also commemorates the 1,177 crew members killed aboard the ship that day.

Start your visit at the visitor center, with a free introductory talk, audio tour and a documentary on the attack. Then board a US Navy boat to reach the memorial for a self-guided tour.

Visitor numbers are restricted, and tickets can often run out early in the day at this extremely popular sight, so it’s a good idea to book a tour in advance.

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More Things to Do in Hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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The mega attraction on the Big Island is Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii’s sole World Heritage Site. The volatile park’s centerpiece is Kilauea Volcano, which continues to blow its top and spout molten lava, ash and steam.

Crater Rim Drive is a spectacular driving route, skirting the rim of the caldera, stopping at lookouts and taking you from rainforest to desert. The eerie and easily accessible Thurston Lava Tube is a long hollow cave-like formation, created by flowing lava.

Another driving route to follow is the winding Chain of Craters Road along the slopes of the volcano to the coast, where lava has pooled from recent eruptions.

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Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

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Hanauma Bay State Park is a protected marine-life-preservation area with clear water ideal for snorkeling and a vast array of tropical fish and coral reefs surrounded by volcanic rock. Once used by the Hawaiian royal family for fishing, it is now one of Oahu’s top tourist destinations with about 1 million visitors each year.
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Kualoa Ranch

Kualoa Ranch

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Family-owned Kualoa Ranch is a one-stop adventure playground in Oahu. Dating back to 1850, the cattle ranch is a popular location for horse-riding tours and all-terrain trails.

Scenically, the ranch embraces a variety of Hawaiian landscapes, from fertile countryside to rugged mountains and tropical white-sand beaches.

You may recognize some of the locations you’ll see from horseback or off-road ATV, as the ranch has hosted many TV and film crews, including Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Five-O and Lost.

Narrated bus tours point out famous locations, along with other historic and cultural sites.

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Waipio Valley

Waipio Valley

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Forming a deep natural amphitheater, washed by the sea and waterfalls, the Big Island’s Waipi'o Valley is a natural wonderland of flowering rainforest and hiking trails.

Cliffs thousands of feet high line the famously steep valley, and waterfalls course their way down to the valley floor.

The curved black-sand beach here is reached by a steep route entering the valley, and lookouts give stupendous views from above.

It’s a magical place, where battles were fought by Kamehameha the Great, and the site of temples and royal burial caves.

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Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Bay

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One of Kauai’s most beautiful stretches of water, Hanalei Bay is a hub for watersports on the island’s north shore.

Flanked by idyllic stretches of beach and backed by mountains, the bayside town of Hanalei is filled with shops renting kayaks, sailing boats, surfboards. Come here to soak up the rays on the beach, dip your toe in the water, take a stroll on the pier or bring a picnic to enjoy on the sand.

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Haleakala Crater

Haleakala Crater

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The lunar landscape of Haleakala Crater covers an enormous expanse – so big that Manhattan could squeeze inside. The world’s largest dormant volcano, the crater is protected by the Haleakala National Park.

This is the place for stunning views of cinder cones, wild hiking trails, Hawaiian legends and rare endangered species.

Gazing into the huge crater is an awe-inspiring sight, and several hikes lead across the crater floor.

Haleakala last erupted in 1790, and the odds are good that it could blow its top again one day.

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Puaʻa Kaʻa State Wayside Park

Puaʻa Kaʻa State Wayside Park

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A pleasant stop on the road to Hana, the Pua’a Ka’a Park offers the chance to take a scenic break from the long drive. Stretch your legs on its dirt path to nearby waterfalls and natural pools. The farther you’re willing to walk, the taller the waterfalls become and many people bring a picnic to enjoy as a part of this diversion.

Totaling five acres the area here is lush with tropical plants which, with the sound of the waterfalls, create a distinct rainforest feel. Picnic tables are set against scenic backdrops, and fish and tadpoles are visible in the shallower pools. Watch for wild birds and mongoose. The walking paths here are not rigorous, but a refreshing dip in one of the pools is a highlight for many on a hot day.

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Kailua Pier

Kailua Pier

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Kailua Pier is the northern bookend to most of Kailua-Kona’s restaurants, shops and bars, a stretch of concrete wide enough to host four-lanes of traffic (if it wasn’t closed off to cars). The historic pier was first built as a downtown fishing dock in 1900 and utilized rocks from deconstructed Hawaiian palace and fort walls, but today few boats moor here. Instead, the pier is mostly used for large events and festivals including the annual Kona Ironman World Championships, which starts and finishes at the pier, and the Kona International Billfish Tournament whose daily catches of sometimes-massive fish species including Pacific blue marlin are weighed from pier-side scales for all to see.

On the pier’s northern side, a small beach fronting the King Kamehameha Marriott Hotel has public showers, restroom blocks and hosts community events such as the Kona International Surf Film Festival and the Kona Brewers’ Festival.

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Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach

Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach

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Ever had black sand between your toes? Because of the constant volcanic activity, sand comes in a variety of colors in Hawaii. Along with white, you can also find green and black, the latter of which is found on the well-known Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

Located on the southeastern Kau coast, between Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the town of Naalehu, this beach should be on your list of places to visit when on the Big Island of Hawaii. The coastline is framed by coconut palms, but what is often found at the edge of the sand tends to steal all of the attention. Large honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles, basking in the sun are a common sight here. Take as many pictures as you’d like, but be sure to stay a safe distance away. Swimming isn’t ideal here due to waves and currents. There is an area for picnics, so plan ahead and come prepared to enjoy lunch with a view. Don’t take any black sand from the beach—legend says that a curse will also go home with you.

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Wailua River

Wailua River

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Kauai’s Wailua River runs from the volcanic Wailua crater to the coast, flowing through the Wailua River State Park.

It’s Hawaii’s only navigable river, so make the most of the experience with a boat tour or cruise into the island’s rugged interior. Along the way, you’ll pass waterfalls, nature reserves and walking trails as the river slowly meanders its way inland. The river’s highlights are Fern Grotto, Wailua Falls and Secret Falls, reached by a secluded walking trail.

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Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls

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Rainbow Falls create a rare instance where a Hawaiian name and an English name actually mean the same thing. Known to Hawaiians as waianuenue, the name is a reference to the arcing rainbows that can be seen in the waterfall’s mist. The image, it seems, is a natural occurrence of such beauty and wonder that it transcends linguistic lines, and today the waterfall is one of the most popular attractions when visiting the town of Hilo.

Only 50 yards from a paved parking lot in Wailuku River State Park, a large viewing area provides the best platform for gazing out at the falls. To see the waterfall’s namesake rainbow, visit the falls around 10 a.m. when the angle of light is just right. Behind the falls, a large cave forms the home of Hina—the mythological Hawaiian god who gave birth to the demigod Maui—and the turquoise pool and surrounding rain forest are the trademark photo of paradise.

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King Kamehameha Statue

King Kamehameha Statue

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Planted firmly on the lawn of Aliiolani Hale, the State Supreme Court building, is the most visited of all the statues honoring King Kamehameha I in Hawaii. The 18-foot bronze icon with golden-colored detailing was erected in 1883 and depicts a spear-wielding and cloak-draped Kamehameha the Great, the first Hawaiian monarch and the ruler credited with uniting the Islands under single rule in 1810.

Each year on a date near the June 11 state holiday commemorating King Kamehameha, community groups build massive flower lei garlands and drape them over the Honolulu statue using the ladder from a fire truck. The popular lei draping ceremony commemorates the King’s significance and kicks off week-long celebrations of colorful parades and festivals throughout the Islands.

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Makapuu Lighthouse

Makapuu Lighthouse

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When the Makapu‘u Lighthouse was built in 1909 for ships traveling between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, it was meant to serve as a luminary deterrent to keep ships away from the rocks. Today, however, the historic lighthouse with its bright red roof draws visitors to the rocks in droves, and the trail to the lighthouse has become one of the most popular hikes for visitors and families on O‘ahu.

Two miles long and entirely paved, the trail climbs at a moderate pace until the dramatic lighthouse terminus. During the winter months, humpback whales can often be spotted splashing in the waters offshore, and large surf can break along the shoreline during the long, hot days of summer. As part of the Kaiwi Scenic Shoreline, the trail offers views of offshore islets such as Manana (Rabbit Island) and Kaohikaipu, which are protected from development as sea bird sanctuaries and provide a rustic nature to the coastline.

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Dole Plantation

Dole Plantation

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For a fun day out in the Hawaiian countryside, discover Oahu’s pineapple heritage at the Dole Plantation. What started out as a fruit stand in the middle of the pineapple fields in 1950 is now an extremely popular Hawaiian attraction.

The Dole pineapple empire was founded more than a century ago by the Pineapple King, James Dole. Visit his original pineapple plantation to tour the living museum housed in a traditional plantation home. Exhibits trace the history of Dole and his pineapple industry, but there’s far more than history to be found here.

Get lost amongst Hawaiian plants in the world’s largest maze, ride the Pineapple Express train through the fruit fields, take a garden tour of the hibiscus, bromeliads and other tropical flowers, and dine on island cuisine at the Plantation Grille.

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