America’s favourite outdoor playground has a lot going for it. Between history and culture, sports and nature, it’s impossible to get bored.
While some of the top things to do in Hawaii cost nothing, we’ve still included them in our list of the best. So, whether you’re relaxing in Maui or traversing Kauai, one thing’s for certain – you will never be stuck for things to do in Hawaii.
1. Swim with Sea Turtles – All Islands
Oahu’s Waikiki Beach is the busiest spot in all of Hawaii and what would seem like the least likely place in the entire state to witness one of the shyest creatures on earth. Yet, Hawaii’s sea turtles can even be found here.
While they’re far from plentiful on this beach, keep an eye out in the shallow surf and you may be in for a gentle, giant treat. Green, Hawksbill and Leatherback sea turtles can be found throughout the Hawaiian Islands but return to nest on the quiet beaches of Kauai, May through September.
Wade out and watch the graceful swimmers play effortlessly next to swimmers and surfers and be amazed by it all, but remember, no touching! All sea turtles are protected in Hawaii.
2. Watch Pro Surfing – Oahu
A great year-round destination and the ultimate surf town, the beaches east of laid-back Haleiwa on Oahu’s famous North Shore swell with surfers and spectators each December as it hosts the prestigious VANS Triple Crown of Surfing events.
World-renowned beaches like Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay and the aptly named Banzai Pipeline are the mecca of surfing, where 20-foot waves are commonplace, providing the ultimate backdrop to an exciting afternoon of watching the best in the business.
On your drive from Honolulu, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the side of the road is an absolute must-stop.
3. Take a Helicopter Tour – Oahu, Kauai & Big Island
As most of the Hawaiian Islands are blanketed in thick, lush rainforest, dramatic mountain ranges and deep canyons inaccessible by car or foot, there is no better way to see them in all their glory than from a height.
Helicopter tours offer more than just a bird’s eye view of the stunning terrain, they are a fun history lesson and the ultimate thrill ride, too! Your in-flight headset connects you to a knowledgeable local tour guide, doubling as your pilot, who explains the geology, ecology and history, and answers any questions you may have along the way.
On Oahu, check out Dole’s pineapple-shaped plantation, the immense Waimea Canyon in Kauai or the still-spewing Kilauea volcano on Big Island. Eat after the tour.
4. Get a Traditional Polynesian Tap Tattoo – All Islands
Today, nearly everyone and their grandmother sports body art. What many don’t know is that the art of tattooing (‘tatau’) originated with the Polynesians, and the traditional method of ‘tapping’ has been around for thousands of years.
Putting the electric machine away, the artist dips a self-fashioned needle in homemade ink and delicately taps out the always traditional, passed-down design over many painful, sweaty hours. As tapping is slowly becoming a dying art, tattoo enthusiasts make appointments, sometimes months in advance, to fly across the ocean for their chance to get worked on by Hawaii’s legendary artists.
5. Try the Local Food – All Islands
You don’t have to visit the Polynesian Cultural Centre for a lavish luau (but you should) to sample some of the islands’ fantastic local dishes. Besides the obvious native Polynesian influence, Japanese, Chinese and Korean settlers have created a delicious mash-up of flavours resulting in some amazing culinary experiences.
From ceviche-like Poke and Pipikaula short ribs (smoked and dried, jerky style) to the whimsical and refreshing dessert called shave ice, the local food here is a pleasant, albeit adventurous surprise.
Hawaiians are also in love with eating Spam. That’s right, Spam. To do as the locals, try the Spam musubi – slices of Spam wrapped in rice and seaweed then deep fried.
6. Visit Volcanoes – Big Island & Maui
Although the island of Oahu receives the most tourists, the most visited attraction in the state of Hawaii is found on the Big Island. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes (continuously flowing since 1983), as well as the world’s largest, Mauna Loa.
Spectacular Crater Rim Drive is an 11-mile road surrounding the summit and lookouts stops along the way offer jaw-dropping vistas of the plunging Rainbow Falls, and lava tubes you can even walk through!
Stop at the Volcano House Restaurant for a bite, or for a truly unique experience, spend a night in one of the 10 refurbished cabins of the Volcano House Hotel.
7. Tour Pearl Harbor – Oahu
Hawaii’s largest natural harbour was the sight of the Japanese attack that signalled the beginning of America’s involvement in WWII, known as ‘The Day of Infamy’.
Complete tours take you to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre, USS Arizona Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine, USS Missouri Battleship, Pacific Aviation Museum, Punchbowl National Cemetery, as well as a Historic Honolulu City Tour.
Pearl Harbor is the only naval base in the USA to be designated a National Historical Landmark, but if you’re planning a visit on Pearl Harbor Day on December 7, all monuments are closed, along with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
8. Hike the Diamond Head State Monument – Oahu
Reminiscent of Rio’s iconic Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf), Diamond Head is Hawaii’s most famous landmark. Locals named it Le’ahi for its resemblance to the forehead of a yellowfin tuna, but thinking the crater contained diamond deposits, settlers called it Diamond Head instead.
The mile or so hike up snakes past military bunkers offering spectacular panoramic views of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, ending at the 170-metre (560-foot) high summit. As temperatures climb quickly, start your climb early in the day and don’t forget to bring good shoes and lots of water!
9. Go Whale Watching – Maui
It turns out that Maui isn’t just a romantic spot for humans! Our winter months bring 10,000 Humpback whales west from Alaska to the warm waters off Maui’s western shore to mingle, mate, and to birth and nurse their young.
Between December and March each year, Maui’s whale watching tours provide a magical, intimate look at the lives of these gentle giants as they breach and interact just metres away. It’s true that you can spot whales from shore here, but one look through a set of binoculars and you’ll wish you were a lot closer.
To get out to prime whale watching territory faster and to maximize your viewing time, book a tour aboard The Explorer, a fast, large Zodiac vessel.
10. Explore Waimea Canyon – Kauai
Mark Twain called it ‘The Grand Canyon of the Pacific’ for good reason. At 2100 metres (6890 feet) long, 2400 metres (7920 feet) wide and almost 1219 metres (4,000 feet) deep, Waimea Canyon may not be as big as Arizona’s legend, but the monster crater still takes up almost the entire western half of Kauai.
Hike down the gorge to the canyon floor and be moved by its grandeur, as the sun changes the rock’s colours with every passing cloud. Relax on the banks of the Waimea River and watch the double waterfalls of Wailua drop a dramatic 610 metres (2,000 feet) before you.
If driving, make sure to fill up before heading out on Waimea Canyon Road, as there are no gas stations in the area beyond this stop.
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