Top 10: things to see & do in Hawaii

Monday newsletters always feature top 10 travel lists to inspire.

Today (November 13, 2017): Top 10 things to do Hawaii.

Home to some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, the only royal palace in the U.S. and the welcoming aloha spirit, Hawaii is like no place on earth. The glimmering ocean, lava-spewing volcanoes, emerald valleys, towering coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, and sublime luxury hotels & resorts lure thousands of tourists each year, who get lost in the spiritual beauty of the hula and find out how the warmth of Hawaii’s people wonderfully complement the islands’ perfect temperatures. Although Hawaii is comprised of a chain of 132 islands, we usually refer to only a few islands when we think of Hawaii: Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai and the Island of Hawaii (more commonly known as the Big Island).  I hereby share with you my 10 preferred things to see & do on the stunning Hawaiian archipelago.

There is more info (with reviews) below the slide show.  Think I missed one? Leave a comment or take my poll below!

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*** Read: top 10 best luxury hotels & resorts on Hawaii ***


Known the world over as a ‘date which will live in infamy‘, the devastating events of December 7, 1941 changed the course of history. It was right here that a surprise air attack by the Japanese plunged the United States into World War II, claiming thousands of lives. Today, five historic sites honor the events occurring at this National Historic Landmark, about 30 minutes from Waikiki Beach. Hear first-hand stories from survivors describing the chaotic scene on Battleship Row. Walk through an airplane hangar that still bears the scars from that fateful morning. And peer into the shallow harbor where the sunken hull of the USS Arizona rests, still leaking oil that pools on the water’s surface like black tears, as they’ve been described. Visiting Pearl Harbor is an experience that will be etched into your soul forever and will offer you a new perspective on World War II.


If the perfect wave exists, you’ll find it on Oahu’s North Shore. The towering, glassy winter waves of this legendary surf mecca draw the best surfers in the world, while smaller and gentler summer waves are better for beginners. Stretching for more than 7 miles (11 km), the beaches of the North Shore host the world’s premier surfing competitions during the peak winter months, including the biggest of them all, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. The months between November and February are the best times to see big wave surfing.  The massive waves can sometimes swell up to thirty feet or more—dangerous even for experienced surfers—so always heed warning signs. From May to September, the waves subside, creating a more tranquil atmosphere for surfing and swimming.


When your mind imagines Maui, it probably looks a lot like the island’s epic east side: cascading waterfall pools hidden in lush rainforests, roadside pineapple stands, hairpin turns around plunging sea cliffs. It’s all here, along the legendary Road to Hana – one big reason why East Maui is a must-see on any traveler’s list. The Hana Highway snakes along the island’s northern coast for 52 miles (83 km)  and the drive to Hana can take as few as 3 hours or last an entire day, depending on how many pictures you stop to take and food stands you sample.  After you’ve navigated the more than 600 white-knuckle turns and 50 bridges, you’ll enter Hana—a charming small town where time seems an abstract concept and aloha is a way of life. Just beyond Hana is the stunning Kipahulu section of Haleakala National Park (cf below), where a hike to a stunning water fall and a refreshing swim is the perfect reward after a long drive.


Vast, rural and remote, the Big Island’ southernmost region, Kau, is a quiet area free of large hotels, resorts and golf courses. It’s here that you find Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, which is home to two volcanoes including Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on earth, sometimes called ‘the world’s only drive-in volcano’. It’s a sacred place of natural wonders where you can witness the growth of the island –  a primal process of creation and destruction – right before your eyes. Scientists are unsure how long the current eruption may last—it could go for another 100 years or stop tomorrow. Many locals say that Pele, the volcano goddess who lives here, is very unpredictable. The chance to watch Kilauea’s blistering lava flows meet the sea is a sight not to be missed during your visit. The extraordinary natural diversity of the park was recognized in 1987 when the park was honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Besides jaw-dropping natural scenery, Hawaii boasts also some of the best beaches in the world, some built around the intense drama of powerful waves crashing against towering cliffs, some so remote that they are only accessible by helicopter or boat, and some so hidden and gorgeous that they need to remain a secret. On Hawaii’s world-famous shores you’ll find white, black and red sand beaches, renowned surfing and windsurfing spots as well as excellent beaches for simply swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing. The best beaches are found on Maui, with Makena Beach – a 1.5 mi (2,4 km) stretch of golden sand that is also known as Big Beach – considered the island’s best. IMHO, Kauai’s Polihale is hands-down the Hawaiian archipelago’s most breathtakingly beautiful beach though.  This seemingly deserted 7 mi (11 km) stretch is several miles from the nearest town and holds a vibe of enchantment and mystique, still alive on Hawaii today.


Hawaii’s fifth largest island, Molokai is only 38 mi (60 km) long and 10 mi (16 km) across at its widest point and is home to the tallest sea cliffs in the world and the longest continuous fringing reef. Along the north coast of Central Molokai is the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula, home to historic Kalaupapa National Historical Park, where victims of Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy) were exiled in the 1800s. In 1873, Father Damien came to the remote colony in 1873 to care for the residents, and eventually succumbed to the disease himself after 16 years and was laid to rest at historic St. Philomena Roman Catholic Church. In October of 2009, Father Damien was canonized as a saint for his selfless dedication. Today, you can learn about the pain and resilience of Kalaupapa’s residents on a tour of the site, which is only accessible by hike or mule ride along the 1,700-foot sheer cliffs.


Waimea Canyon, on Kauai’s west side, is described as the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. Although not as big or as old as its Arizona cousin, you won’t encounter anything like this geological wonder in the Pacific Ocean bassin. Stretching 14 mi (22 km) long, 1 mi (1,6 km) wide and more than 3,600 ft (1 km) deep, the Waimea Canyon Lookout provides panoramic views of crested buttes, rugged crags and deep valley gorges. The main road, Waimea Canyon Drive, leads you to a lower lookout point and the main Waimea Canyon Overlook, offering grand views of Kauai’s dramatic interior. The road continues into the mountains and ends at Kokee State Park. Spread on a plateau high above the Pacific Ocean, Kokee State Park is covered in forest and wild flowers and offers roughly 45 miles of the Hawaii’s finest hiking trails. Some trails lead to views of Waimea Canyon, others wind through wet forests with sweeping views of valleys opening up to the ocean.


Just as Hawaii’s idyllic weather welcomes tourists from around the world, the warm and shallow waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands are a favorite destination for kohola, or humpback whales. Scientists estimate that two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population return to Hawaii to breed, calve and nurse their young. They race more than 3,000 (5000 km) miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii, then stay for a lengthy vacation, frolicking just off Hawaii’s shores and delighting spectators from December through May. Whales have great cultural significance for Native Hawaiians as they play a large role in Hawaiian legend and appear in ancient petroglyphs on several islands. Although humpback whales can be seen from all of the Hawaiian Islands, the shallow Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai and Lanai is one of the best whale-watching destinations in the world.


Towering over the island of Maui and visible from just about any point, Haleakala Crater is a force of nature in every sense. At 10,023 ft (3 km) above sea level, this dormant volcano is the stage for a breathtaking range of landscapes—and skyscapes. Haleakala means ‘house of the sun’ in Hawaiian, and legend goes that the demigod Maui lassoed the sun from its journey across the sky as he stood on the volcano’s summit, slowing its descent to make the day last longer. Many visitors wake up early to drive to the Haleakala Visitor Center, the best spot to watch what may be the most spectacular sunrise on earth. As the sun peeks over the horizon, an ever-changing swirl of color and light dance across the vast sea of clouds—a sight described by Mark Twain as “the most sublime spectacle I have ever witnessed.” Perhaps just as impressive are Haleakala’s sunsets and the bright, starry skies revealed at night.


Spanning 17 mi (27 km) along Kauai’s North Shore, the Napali Coast is a sacred place defined by extraordinary coastal scenery. Spectacular emerald-hued cliffs with razor-sharp ridges tower above the Pacific Ocean, revealing magnificent beaches and wild waterfalls that plummet to the lush valley floor. The rugged terrain appears much as it did centuries ago when Hawaiian settlements flourished in these deep, narrow valleys, existing only on the food they could grow and the fish they could catch. There are many ways to explore the Napali Coast. Helicopter tours are perhaps the best way to grasp the magnitude of the Napali Coast. You’ll also get a front-row seat to scenic areas that are largely inaccessible by land or water, like majestic Manawaiopuna Falls, a backdrop in the film ‘Jurassic Park’. The Napali Coast can also be explored on foot by hiking incredibly scenic Kalalau trail, which provides the only land access to the legendary Kalalau Valley. Expert hikers can complete the roundtrip trek in a day, but the average hiker prefers to camp along the trail and complete it in 2 days.

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