Hawaii -- America's  Paradise

An informational page by Warren Montgomery

Hawaii, the 50th state, seems more like a foreign land than some foreign countries, with it's own language (though everyone speaks English), history, and culture, and climate and geography like nothing on the "mainland".  (Local's cringe when you talk about the rest of the US as if it were another country).  It's also my favorite vacation destination, and a place I've been 14 times over the past 40 years, visiting all the islands accessible to visitors and all the major tourist sites.  These notes represent a compilation of information from those visits.

My Soapbox statement:

Hawaii has experienced considerable change over the past 40 years.  It is unfortunately suffering from the same serious disease afflicting much of the Western US:  Overdevelopment and real-estate speculation fueled by cheap money.  The result is both raising costs for visitors and changes to the character of the place, so see it now while it's still special.  There are some places that people just shouldn't live.  It's not that more people in the islands by themselves is necessarily a bad thing, but people in today's society draw the "camp followers" of modern society:  Strip malls, superstores, fast food, gas stations, traffic lights, and lots of ugly and noisy construction and service businesses.  My vision of paradise doesn't include these things.  Does yours?

General information for your visit

Getting there and getting between islands.

Hawaii is a long way from anywhere else and getting there will almost certainly involve a flight of 4 hours or more.  If you are not comfortable with planes, you just have to keep telling yourself it's worth it, because it is.  There are cruises, but it's a long way for boats too.

There are 6 islands you can visit, each with it's own unique sights and activities, and it's not a bad idea to try to see more than one in a visit.  

These days you can fly directly to or from any of the 4 largest islands (Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Kauai) and it is very nice to be able to do this.  Making connections with mainland flights in Honolulu isn't fun because they come and go out of a different terminal from the inter-island flights and it's a long walk or bus ride and another stop and wait. (In fact I would strongly not recommend connecting to a mainland flight from an inter-island flight in Honolulu.  Hawaiian airlines, the only major inter-island carrier, has it's own sense of time and is often late and/or slow to deliver baggage, and people in the inter-island terminal don't give you any consisten information about getting to your mainland flight.  Funny, many airports seem to manage distant terminals well with good transit systems, Honolulu doesn't, especially for passengers traveling on different reservations for mainland and inter-island flights who can't easily check the baggage through.  Unfortunately, it has gotten harder to find direct flights to anywhere in Hawaii from cities that aren't on the west coast.  It is very nice to make at least the return trip directly, because unless you are flying to/from the west coast your trip will involve an overnight flight, and it's MUCH better to take an 8 hour overnight flight to, say, Chicago), than a 4 hour flight to LA connecting with another 4 hour flight, one of which will be a red eye.  8 hours is enough time to get SOME sleep.  

Airline frequent flier programs have made  it cheaper to get there if you can use your miles.  Keep in mind though that Hawaii is a VERY popular choice for using them and that you will have to make the reservations a year in advance to have any chance.  A better option for some is to buy the cheapest tickets possible and use the miles to upgrade to First Class, which gives you separate check in, bigger seats, MUCH better meals (indeed on our last flight coach got no meals at all), free Mai Tai's, and other amenities.  Still, the tickets won't be cheap.

Many people will be surprised that most trips between islands require plane flights as well.  That's because you don't appreciate the scale when you look at a map.  Those trips are 50-100 miles of rough ocean in most cases and even at 20MPH -- fast for a small boat, it would be a tough trip.  The only island hops you can make by Boat are Maui to Lanai or Molokai, both from Lahina, which have scheduled ferry service.  (Note, in 2007 a company proposed the superferry, a hydrofoil ferry service to connect the islands.  If it happens it will make it easier to go by boat and you can even take a car, but many local groups are fighting it because they feel it will make it easier for invasive non-native plants and animals to get between islands)  Otherwise, you will likely be flying on  Hawaiian airlines, or one of the smaller "commuter" airlines that serve Molokai and Lanai.    (Note that Aloha, which used to operate pretty much the same service, went broke in the recession of 2008 leaving fewer options). If you fly to Molokai or Lanai expect to fly on small prop planes and with Island Air or other small operators.  Note that the commuter flights (Island and others) often go out of a different terminal from the Hawaiian inter-island flights, which go from a different terminal from everywhere else. You can get between the commuter terminal and the inter island terminal in Honolulu without having to go out and re-enter security if you are willing to walk, but part of the journey involves a walk on the tarmac and you have to alert the airline to the fact that you are connecting.  Seating on Hawaiian is reserved, but on the others is likely to be open, meaning if you want two seats together on the left side of the plane so you can take pictures of Pearl Harbor, you have to line up early to get them.   

Get direct inter-island flights if you can.  Unfortunately many require connections in Honolulu.  This isn't too bad since each carrier has a small gate area, but even with an hour our bags managed to miss one of these connections.  As a consequence, always pack your bathing suit and anything else you want immediately on the next island in your carry on bag.  

Hawaiian has a limit on checked bags which they enforce.  They also have a weight limit on carryon which they weren't really enforcing.  As of 2013, Hawaiian also charges for checked bags (though not as much as most mainland carriers).  (Note -- it's cheaper if you sign up for their frequent flier program so go ahead and do that.)  People carry a lot of random stuff onto planes in Hawaii.  If you have a camera and like to use it, check the route and pick your seat.  Sometimes you can get exceptional views, but realize that often the planes climb fast and the view disappears behind puffy clouds.  Modern security has made carry on a little tougher.  Note that sunscreen is a liquid or gel and will get confiscated if not in a baggie.  Carry on used to be a pleasant surprise in Hawaii, because most people travelling are tourists and check bags rather than trying to cram everything in carry ons.  Unfortunately the relentless pursuit of cheap and crappy travel has ruined this as Hawaiian now charges for checked bags, so even the tourists take their rolling steamer trunks onto planes and fill the bins (and like I said in spite of constant warnings about size and weight limits nobody seems to care.)   I was concerned about carry on on Island Airs "Dash 8" prop planes but it's not a problem (I carried a medium sized backpack and large laptop bag everywhere). 

Another consideration for anyone with a medical implant is that most of the terminals have only metal detectors, so you will be subjected to a full pat down by TSA most times -- allow yourself time for that.  In our experience Hawaiian also changes the departure times from time to time and does not tell you, at least not unless it's a major change.  Best to check before you go to the airport, and be sure to allow lots of time for connections, especially to other airlines.

An alternative to all this of course is to take an inter-island cruise.  Different companies have operated these (one went bankrupt in 2001, in 2007 Norwegian Cruise lines operates an inter-island cruise) and they visit cities on all the major islands.   Cruising takes care of your lodging and inter-island transportation and has advantages and dis-advantages over staying ashore and flying:

Rental Cars and other ground transportation

Most people will want to rent a car on most islands (the exception is people staying in Waikiki or going to and staying in a self-contained resort).  A normal car will reach most things you want to go to, and all the major US car rental chains rent them.  Main roads are good but secondary roads can be narrow, so consider this before renting something large.  You won't need a 4WD unless you plan to reach remote beaches or parks with no facilities, but there are roads you can't drive without one.
The price of gas used to be notably high in Hawaii, but with the rise in price here it's now unremarkable (not much more than California and comparable to Chicago in our last 3 trips).  

Most islands also have bus systems, simple systems that travel major roads.  You can get by without a car this way if you stay in an area where you can walk to beaches and other things you want to do and use the bus to reach other destinations.  Many activities will pick you up at your hotel, and some towns have local free transit to get your from resort hotels to shops or adjoining towns and golf courses.

Weather and Seasons

Hawaii doesn't really have much variation in climate.  Daytime temperatures at the coast on all islands usually run around 80-85 degrees year round with nights falling into the 60's.  There is some variation in the likelyhood of rain -- more common in winter than summer.  The major seasonal effects though are on winds, waves, and wildlife.  In the winter, you can get high (sometimes very high) and dangerous surf on north facing beaches, great for extreme surfing but lousy for anything else, while the south shores are calm.  In summer, North facing shores are generally calmer and you can get surf on the South coasts, but not nearly as high as North coast surf in the winter and usually a factor only with a passing storm.  Some activities are definitely seasonal:
Rates for lodging and most other things are highest in winter, not because it's better but because the weather on the mainland is at it's worst.  Rates are lowest in May and September, as is visitation, with a secondary peak season in mid summer (though lower rates than in Winter, things get crowded).

Keep in mind also that day length varies, though not as much as it probably does back home, but this means that while it's easy to play 36 holes of golf in June.  In December it requires an early start on your first round and getting on promptly for your second and probably won't leave you time to do anything else.

Lodging options

Many people automatically think "hotel" for lodging, and Hawaii has plenty of them everywhere you might want to stay.  Make sure you really understand the terminology:
Some hotels have room layouts on line which can help you pick.  

For many people, Condominiums are a better option than a hotel room.  Condos give you more space, a kitchen, and the ability to stick multiple bedrooms in one unit, which is nice for a family.  Even if all you use the kitchen for is cold drinks and fresh fruit for breakfast you will enjoy it.  There's nothing better than fresh Pineapple for breakfast and sipping drinks and watching the sunset on your own lanai (porch), and it's a lot cheaper than the hotel restaurant.  What you trade off is fewer hotel amenities like restaurants, daily maid service, etc.  Most condo complexes will have a pool and many have a tour desk that can help you pick tours.  Condo complexes vary a lot.  Some are basically hotels, owned by the management company with every unit identical.  Others are individually owned and furnished by the owner and rented out.  In some complexes multiple rental agents rent units so the prices aren't standard.  You may get a better rate renting from the owner, but keep in mind  amenities like maid service and consumable supplies (soap, spices, etc.) may also vary.  

There are B&B lodgings in many places, often not in beach resorts but in "upcountry" areas where local people actually live and the climate is cooler.  There are also some hostels for the true budget minded.  Camping is another option for some.  There are many parks you can tent camp in and the state and national parks all have cabins which can be reserved and provide cots and kitchens.  (In popular spots these have to be reserved well in advance).

Food and Drink

Hawaii has restaurants to suit every taste, from Burgers to elegant Continental.  The local "upscale" food is know as "Hawaiian Regional", and usually features mostly things caught or grown locally.  Seafood is abundant here, but note that if you order lobster or salmon, it came on an airplane from somewhere else.  Restaurant food is pricy -- it's resort prices and a lot of stuff had to be flown in.

Hawaii also has an abundance of tropical alcoholic drinks.  Anyone who drinks should sample a Mai Tai, and realize there's no standard recipe -- everyone who makes it from scratch makes them differently.  Some places will give you non-alcoholic versions as well.  For beer lovers, Hawaii has microbreweries and brew pubs on all the major islands.  Kona Brewing is probably best known, as they have national distribution for some of their beers, but the brew pubs (Kona and Oahu near Hanauma bay) have lots of stuff you can't buy in the store.  Same with Maui Brewing (whose pub is actually in Kahana, not Lahina like some of the ads  and the phone book says).  Every island has local coffee.  Conoiseurs can tell you where any brew came from.  They are all good.  At least taste them black to get the character.  When you shop read the label carefully.  Lots of brands say "Kona Blend", which may mean 90% of the coffee comes from somewhere else.

Shave Ice deserves mention as a local food -- it sounds like a slurpee, but good shave ice is much better.  The ice is finely shaved and the best places use fruit purees and syrups.  A great treat on a hot day.  Like everything else, shave ice varies.  Many places that offer it have a limited selection of flavors and use courser ice, while the best use fine shaved ice that holds the syrup better and syrups made from fruit puree.  You pay more for the good stuff.

If you have a condo, consider cooking your own.  Pineapples are abundant and go great for breakfast.  Local fish has become appallingly expensive, but it's still cheaper that a restaurant deal, and if you or someone else in your party cooks nothing beats coming home from the beach or the golf course burned out and sitting on your lanai sipping something local and eating a meal of local fish and vegies.

The Beach

Most people coming to Hawaii do so at least in part to spend time on a beach.  If your notion of beaches is based on Florida or Cape Cod, be aware that Hawaii can be a bit different.  For one thing beaches are all public property, and many have beach parks with parking, showers, bathrooms, and other facilities accessible to anyone.  Thus you usually don't have to stay in a beachfront hotel to enjoy the same beach.  Hawaiian beaches are also more varied.  Some have a broad expanse of sand and a sandy bottom, but others have sand on shore but rock or coral on the bottom or no sand at all.  Beach is simply the term for anywhere land meets ocean.  Beaches with rocks or coral are often great places to snorkel (see below), so don't reject them without knowing.

People who have been to Florida or the Carribean may be surprised that the ocean in Hawaii is cooler.  It's warm enough (mid-upper 70's) to be comfortable for swimming and snorkeling, but not the bathwater warm water you get in the Carribean.  The sun, however, is as strong or stronger than the Carribean, and sunscreen is a must.  Be especially careful when swimming or snorkeling.

Snorkeling and Diving

Everyone going to Hawaii should try snorkeling.  It's difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't done it, but the simple description is like swimming in an aquarium full of brightly coloured fish.  This is one thing that's better than any of the tourist brochures depict it as, and Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to do it.  It requires no athletic or swimming ability, just the ability to breath and watch.

First time snorkelers can take a boat cruise where they will provide equipment and teach you how in some placid bay.  Most people will float well with no assistance, but you can get all manor of things to prop you up if you are afraid of sinking.  Some locations require a tour boat to reach, but you can swim off the beach in many places and see fish, turtles, coral, etc with little effort.  You will probably want to rent or buy a mask and a snorkel once you try it.  (Every beach has places that rent the stuff, but it's cheaper to rent from one of the big multi-island operators like Snorkel Bob or Boss Frog, if you have a car.)  Strong swimmers probably won't need fins in most places and they are cumbersome to transport on an airplane, so owning a snorkel and mask and renting fins or just taking the ones provided on boat trips in places you want them is a good option.

Many tours offer the opportunity to sample scuba diving or "Snuba" (where you dive but your air tank foats on the surface connected to you with a tube).  Something worth trying at least once, though it is more dangerous, expensive, and complicated, and so far I haven't found the need to take up the sport as the view from the surface is something I don't get tired of. If you try either scuba or snuba, expect to fill out a health risks questionaire and sign a disclaimer.  Also some operators warn you not to fly or go to high altitude immediately after these activities, so don't plan it for the last day of your trip.  (Snorkeling, on the other hand, is fine to do right up to boarding time.)

Many people are afraid of the wildlife.  This really isn't a problem.  Leave it alone and it will leave you alone.  Don't touch anything and nothing will bite you.  Yes, there have been shark attacks in Hawaii, but you are more likely to be killed in traffic.  If you see a shark while snorkeling odds are it will be a small reef shark swimming below and away from you and more worried about you than you are about it.  Sea Urchins and corals can give you nasty stings, but they don't bite if you don't touch.  The two things that are a concern are surf and the sun.  You can get unexpected waves in some places, and the main hazard is being thrown against the reef or rocks, so stay away from places where you get too close.  The sun in Hawaii is incredibly strong and will burn you in no time.  Wear lots of sunscreen, especially on your back and the back of your legs, and consider snorkeling in a T-shirt.  Also be careful when you come out of the water and sit out on deck on a tour boat.  If you take a morning tour, this will be at mid day when the sun is strong and your sunscreen has been washed away.  "Snorkeler's back", toasted feet, and red faces are all too common.

Once you discover Snorkeling or diving you will probably want to take some pictures.  There are many alternatives for this:
When you take pictures underwater, some things to keep in mind are that the fish are often further away to the camera than they look to you, so get as close as you can.  Most cameras will use flash for better exposure, but underwater pictures are really much clearer in natural light because any impurities in the water will reflect the flash and give the picture a "hazy" look. 


Hawaii has many scenic golf courses with ocean views, ocean front holes, tropical gardens, and lots of black lava.  Resort course prices range from outrageous to unbelievable (up to $300 a round).  There are several ways to beat the high prices:
Hauling your own clubs around is the best and cheapest way to have what you want, but toting clubs on planes might not be your idea of fun.  You can rent at all the courses.  It is expensive (up to $60) at the resorts and cheaper at the munis and publics, but you don't get the same quality.  You can also rent from various local businesses (golf stores, activity agents, etc.)  This will be cheaper if you play more than once, but again you have to haul and store them.  For more information on courses in hawaii, see my golf travel section.

Arranging tours and activities

Everyone in Hawaii wants to help you spend money, so there are lots of agents who will book activities, like golf, snorkeling trips, helicopter tours, etc.  One thing to be aware of is some of these agents are really selling real estate and the deal is you get a break on activitiy fees if you agree to listen to their sales pitch.  If you have the time (and meet the income requirements) and use common sense about whether or not to buy, it's a way to get a break, but if your time is valuable to you,  you may not want to spend a couple of hours of it listening to a sales pitch.  

Some agents lure you in with really low prices and no timeshare pitches, but note that anything too good to be true usually is:  The tours are probably to less desirable locations, or at bad times -- afternoon golf is often windier and more likely to be rainy.  Afternoon snorkeling tours mean rougher and cloudier water.  Some boats include the food and booze, others sell it.;  Know what you are getting for the price.

At every airport, and many other places, you will find racks of brochures for both individual activies, and a few standard guides.  The guides (101 things to do on Maui, Maui beach press, Maui gold, Maui drive guide, etc.) generally have maps and coupons and suggestions for things you might not have thought of.  All these things now are on line too so a simple web search will probably turn up more planning information than you need.  During the off season activities rarely book up so you can make arrangements the day before or even the day of an activity, but I expect some of these things do fill up during peak season and will require advance booking.  (Note, in 2007 we found an exception to this in Kona where we had a hard time booking snorkeling cruises.  We believe this is because of the cruise ship business in town)


Hawaii is a great place to take a hike.  It's also a place you can suffer.  Take and use sunscreen.  Bring your best footgear.  Most trails traverse rough lava, which tears footgear to shreds.  Know your limits as you actually can get away from it all in Hawaii and have trouble getting back  There are plenty of guides to trails available both locally there and from major bookstores and on-line sellers. The trails in the national and state parks tend to be well maintained and marked.  Guides will also point you to less formally marked and maintained trails where you may need to ask about conditions before starting.


Some sights, such as remote coastline and waterfalls, can be seen only from the air and there are companies on all the islands who will sell you air tours, usually in helicopters.  This is one of the more expensive activities (especially in $/hour) so warrants some scrutiny.  First, make sure you will get a window seat if you want one.  Not all seats have windows and on some helicopters some even face backwards facing other passengers.  In many locations, prices vary depending on where you take off from.  This is both because of the distance flown and the supply and demand -- more people in the posh resorts want to do this and fewer in those resorts are willing to drive to somewhere where the tour is cheaper.  If you want the most sightseeing time for the least cost, you usually want to take off from somewhere near the place you want to see (e.g. Hilo for the Volcano, not Waikoloa, where you have a long flight over desert to reach it and are paying for all those miles of featureless lava flows).  Note also that Helicopters won't let you see all the things you see on the ground.  Clouds obscure views, Helicopters can't fly in to Haleakela crater, and don't fly at dawn or sunset -- the best times for viewing red lava at the Volcano.

Which Island?

People who haven't been there may think all the islands are the same.  In fact they all have unique characteristics, so you may well want to see multiple islands on the same trip.  Look through the following to see what's on each of the islands.

Notes about Oahu

Ohau is the most populated island, not the largest land area.  It's the place to go if you want activities that require lots of people -- nightlife, restaurants, cultural activities, spectator sports, etc.  It has the only real city (Honolulu) in Hawaii and the only freeway driving.


Waikiki beach used to be the premier destination.  It's still where most of the hotel rooms are.  The beach is wide and sandy and good for just about anything, and probably the best place for hanging out with other people on the beach.  There are lots of hotels and good bargains to be had.  It is, however, essentially a city environment, busy streets and traffic run behind the beachfront hotels, so your off the beach bargain will mean a walk on city sidewalks crossing busy streets to get to the beach.  This is where the most variety in restaurants and nighttime entertainment will be found so if you want that,  it's the place to be.  If you want to be in this area and away from the crowds, consider the small cluster of hotels and condos at the Diamond Head side of the beach (also known as Sans Souci Beach).  The New Otani hotel is one we have stayed in and like and has a great beachfront restaurant that serves a wonderful breakfast -- perfect for a late breakfast after a snorkel on the beach here or in Hanauma Bay.  

Other areas

The other major area for tourists to stay is the north shore.  The Turtle Bay resort is very nice and very isolated, a completely different experience.  The North shore communities seem more like cape cod than Miami Beach, and the beaches are nice and swimable in the summer (though dangerous with high surf in winter).  The Makaha valley is another area for people who want to get away, with golf, condos, a hotel, and access to lesser used beaches.  It's a long way out though and some will be bothered by all those bars on the windows in the towns you pass through on the way out there.

Must see Sights on Oahu

Most folks will want to see the Arizona memorial, the Missouri, and visit other places connected with the military history of Hawaii.  It's worth seeing the punchbowl, a national cemetary (like Arlington), with murals depicting the key pacific naval battles of WWII.  There are also museums in Honolulu devoted to Hawaii's history and the Hawaiian monarchy including the royal palace.

Diamond Head is not just something to look at from the beach, it's an old crater that you can drive inside of (from the side away from Waikiki, and climb to the top of (about 600 feet). Bring a flashlight as some of the trail is climbing stairs inside dark tunnels built by the military.  You get a great view of Waikiki and Honolulu from the top.  It's worth also driving up the Pali highway for views, and well worth the drive to the top of Roundtop which has sweeping views of the island.

Hanauma Bay is a great place for the beach and for Snorkeling.  It's about 10 miles from Waikiki and has limited parking, go early or late in the day for best odds in the parking lot.   It's a long beach in an old crater fronted by shallow reef with tame fish.  A great place for Snorkeling. It does get VERY crowded though, so again, go early or late.  Note that you can swim out past the inner reef here, but be very aware of the conditions as it might be difficult to get back.  Note that Hanauma is a nature preserve, with limited parking, a fee for use, and a mandatory 20 minute video viewing before you get in the water, and a closing time that's earlier than you might expect.  (Basically early enough to get everyone out of the water and up the long ramp back to the parking lot before sunset).  It's also closed one day a week, so check out the latest on their web site before going.

The Polynesian Culture Center on the north side of the island is also worth a visit.  It's run by the Mormon Church (Not open on Sunday), and has displays and demonstrations of native cultures from all over the pacific.  It's a fund raiser for their educational efforts in the Pacific and some of the people operating it are students from various islands.  They have several visitor packages, some of which include a luau and a show.  The shows are more authentic than the hotel shows, but remember this is run by the Mormons so don't expect any alcoholic drinks!

Kauai -- The garden Island

Kauai is the northern most and geoligically the oldest of the islands.  It's less visited than Oahu or Maui, but has established resorts, golf courses, restaurants, and everything else you need.  It has some of the most exotic tropical scenery and is the location where many movies with tropical scenes were shot (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark,  South Pacific, and others).  It has several resort areas.  Because of the northern location and constant tradewinds, many resorts claim "you don't need Air Conditioning".  That may be true in winter, but summers can be hot, especially on the south shore where breeze may be minimal.

Kauai has only one real road which almost completes a circle of the island (Nothing traverses the Na Pali coast on the northwest side of the island).  This means it's busy with traffic and traffic lights.  During rush hour some lanes are reversed around Lihue to give more lanes to the dominant traffic flow, which can be confusing to tourists.  Avoid rush hour if you can, and make sure you plan enough time to get to distant locations, like Waimea Canyon or Princeville.

Lihue to Kapaa

This is the eastern side of the island.  LIhue is the largest city and has the oldest resort (now redone as the Kauai Lagoons), with resort properties scattered (mostly sparsely except at Wailua) for 10  miles up the coast.  Nothing is crowded here, though Wailua is the biggest resort center with shopping and restaurants, while some of the resorts in between are fairly isolated.  The beaches in this area vary, with most not being good for swimming or snorkeling due to  rough coral and lava and surf.  The best ones include the beach in front of the lagoons resort (a sheltered bay), Lydgate park (a pool protected by a breakwater which encloses an area with tropical fish -- a great place for children and novice snorkelers, but interesting for everyone, though it can be a bit mucky if plant debris gets trapped in the pool as it did in 2013, and Wailua (which has a wide sandy beach.)  We have stayed at several condos in this area, none exceptionally good or bad.  The lagoons resort has 2 nice golf courses.  We also played a new public course (Puakea) in this area that was quite nice, though not oceanside.  The Wailua municipal course has been called the best muni course in America, with oceanfront holes.  It's crowded, though not as much as the Munis on Ohahu.


This is a resort area on the south shore, about 10 miles from the airport. There are several nice beaches for swimming or Snorkeling in this area which is relatively calm in winter and still swimable in the summer.  Poipu beach has a very sheltered side that is good for novice swimmers.  There are 2 golf courses in Poipu, one ocean side that hosts a PGA event and one inland with lots of archeological features.  The beaches in this area are still recovering from Huricane Iniki (1992 I think) and have less sand than they once did, but getting better every year.  Poipu has somewhat limited stores and other amentities as it is a small resort.  We have stayed at the Poipu Shores, a nice oceanfront place (fronts on a rocky beach with sea turtles and crashing surf very near Poipu beach).  This area also has Spouting Horn (surf makes water spray out of a hole in the rock), and several gardens (most can only be seen on a tour and charge a fee)


This resort is on the north side of the island and is the most "upscale".  It's also fairly isolated, an hour or more from the airport depending on road conditions.  This area is where most of the movie scenes are and has great sunsets.  The golf courses here are first rate.  Hanalei is an older town and was during the 60's a hippie mecca (remember where "puff the magic dragon" lived?)  It still attracts people who want to get away from it all.  The road further North from Hanalei deteriorates (one lane bridges and some fords) until it ends at Kee beach.  It's well worth driving, but beware that the fords can flood during rain and even become dangerous.  There are some spectacular beaches along it, dangerous in winter but nice in the summer.  Kee Beach at the end of the road has a nice lagoon for snorkeling (but not in the winter, when waves over the reef cause a strong current to flush swimmers out the opening in the reef), and has public facilities.  "Tunnels" beach is the best snorkeling spot on the island.  There are no public facilities at the beach and guides will tell you to park along the road.  Ignore that -- there's no legal parking there anyway.  Instead park at Haena beach (still can be difficult if you don't come early in the morning), and hike along the beach to the right until you are past the rocks/reef at the shore (usually you will see lots of snorkelers at the spot.  It's less than 1/2 mile, and well worth it.  It's a protected spot that usually has no waves and a large deep water lagoon and fringing reef with lots of coral and fish. Parking anywhere near the end of the road is quite limited, so go early, and avoid weekends, when a lot of locals visit this area and it gets hard to park.   (They don't go real early though, so you can find places if you are there before 8:30 or 9AM, which is the best time for calm water anyway).

Sights to see.

Waimea Canyon is one of Kauai's premier sights.  This is a deep gorge with multiple colors and waterfalls carved in the western part of the island.  You can drive all the way from the top and peer at it from several pullouts.  (Watch for some of the less popular spots where the waterfalls are more visible).  At the end of the road, in Kokee park, if the weather is clear (almost never) you can stare out at the cliffs of one of the large valleys on the Na Pali coast.  This is where most of the hiking trails on the island are.  There are some short and level hikes, but many hike down into the canyon or out onto the ridges along the coast.  Also there are campsights, a lodge, and cabins here.  There are some 4WD side roads that access more trails here.  Sometimes you can drive these in a car, but don't count on it.  They are basically mud.

The Na Pali coast on the northwest side of the island is another must see.  You can see it by Helicopter, raft, large boat, or Kayak.  Kayaks are the most intimate, and the most work.  This is open ocean and can have large waves.  Most people go for the small boats (rafts or small cabin cruisers), because they can go into sea caves on the coast.  Note that you will get wet in a raft which makes it hard to manage a non-waterproof camera.  The catamaran trips are less rough and dryer but don't go in the caves.  Most boat trips also include Snorkeling time, which is nice.  The trips go from either Hanalei or Waimea.  Waimea is a longer trip and some of the boats from there also access the island of Nihau, which is privately owned and home to the last population that exclusively speaks Hawaiian and not  in general open to visitors (The Nihau trips either don't land at all or land on an isolated beach where you don't interact with the locals).  The trip to Nihau is 20 miles of rough open ocean, so check on water conditions before committing to it.  The Na Pali coast itself is beautiful, with high cliffs and waterfalls right down to the ocean.  Most recently we went with Blue Dophin tours from Waimea (actually from a harbor in that area) and had a great tour.  You may as we did see spinner dophins, which jump out of the water and spin around.  The Blue Dophin serves great Mai Tais after the snorkeling.  Keep in mind that whether you go from North or South you will traverse lots of open ocean and it can be rough.  (They claim they make these trips all year, but in the winter they say the ocean can be so rough that they either limit the distance they go on the coast or cruise the south coast instead, so this is really a better summer trip.)

Kilauea Lighthouse is a wildlife sanctuary on the north coast near Princeville that's great for birds.  The lighthouse can be toured, but the main reason to come here is to watch and photograph seabirds which nest on the cliffs in the area, including Boobies, Frigate birds, Albatross, and many others.   It's always interesting.  Bring your telephoto lens.  Note that the lighthouse has rather restricted hours and a small access fee.  It's also closed on federal holidays.

One of the former top attractions, now less promoted, is the Wailua river tour to the fern grotto.  This is a bit tacky/touristy, but everyone should do it once.  There are also two waterfalls you can drive to on the eastern side of the island.  Wailua falls will be recognizable to anyone who saw "Fantasy Island" as it appeared in the lead in to the show and is a unique double fall.  

Helicopter tours and 4WD tours access some remote falls and sites for movie settings.  There are plenty of isolated beaches to explore all around this island, many with good snorkeling.  Get a guide if you do.


Maui promotes itself as the best.  I don't know that I'd name a single best island, but Maui has a good mix of natural beauty, activities, and first class accomodations.  It's a good place for people who want a luxury vacation experience (lots of options), but also great for hiking, and has some of the best Snorkeling and diving spots.  You can also make day trips to Lanai and Molokai from Maui making it a good base for a longer stay without having to relocate.  Maui has several resort areas:


This is the best known resort area.  Kaanapali beach may be the nicest in Hawaii, a big stretch of white sand split by  one area of rocks which has good snorkeling.  Kaanapali is a self contained resort with half a dozen hotels and two golf courses.  Unfortunately there isn't much public access in this area (there are two beach parks at either end, but it's a long walk from either to the best parts of the beach).  Kaanapali has a very upscale shopping center.  Lahina is an old whaling town and for years was the quaint tacky tourist place.  It's now gone "upscale", meaning it's full of artwork you need a second mortgage to buy.  Interesting to look at, but I definitely don't feel like I'm the intended customer.  Parking and traffic are a hassle here.  There are lots of restaurants.  Lahina is the departure point for ferries to Lanai and Molokai as well as tour and snorkeling trips (those also depart from other areas).  


This area is north of Kaanapali and home to what's probably the most upscale resort area.  The 3 golf courses are among the best (certainly the most expensive) and host  PGA tour events.  There are several coves with beaches in this area.  There is public access to most, sometimes with showers and other facilities.  There are beaches north of Kapalua that are accessible and great for snorkeling.  These include Honolua bay, good for snorkeling in summer but sometimes a surf sight in winter.  This is a spot with no facilities -- you park along the road and hike a short dirt road to a rocky beach, then swim out to the coral in a protected bay.  It's a bit of a wilderness experience without being too remote.  The snorkeling is best if it hasn't rained recently as a stream dumps into the bay, but don't be alarmed if the water is cloudy at the beach since that's the stream outflow and usually doesn't extend as far as the reef.  There is another gorgeous white sand beach just before Honoloua that is also a good snorklening spot.  You have to hike down stairs to get to it.  This spot used to be very remote but they built permanent steps and a real parking lot here now so more people get down the cliff to it.  Note that this beach is open to the surf, and you can get unexpected waves here even if the ocean has been calm a long time.  Stay alert and don't panic.

There are lots of condos in communities between Kanapali and Napili, some available as vacation rentals for bargain rates.  The beaches in this area aren't very good though so you probably have to drive to find a good spot.


Kihei is on a west facing shore on the east lobe of the island and a large community with lots of permanent residents.  It has several beach parks good for swimming and sunning and watersports, but not very good for snorkeling (cloudy water).  The accomodations are a bargain here and there are lots of restaurants and shops, not especially upscale.  This is a good spot for a relative bargain.  It is a "laid back" community with a lot of local people.


These are two resort communities south of Kihei.  This is our favorite area in Maui, with 5 resort golf courses(Well, at the moment the fate of the 2 Makena courses is a bit uncertain)  and another public course in Kihei, and great beaches.  The beaches in this area all have good public access with facilities and parking, and there's a long paved walk along the ocean.  There are half a dozen resort hotels but also nice condos and even individual houses available to rent.  The Wailea condos (most operated by Destination Resorts) are among the nicest we have stayed in, great interiors and fantastic landscaping.  Snorkeling is good at almost all of the beaches here, just swim off the beach and explore the rocky areas that divide the beaches.  The offshore reef here is referred to as "turtle town" by tour operators because of the number of sea turtles that come here (and many come very close to shore)  (Note that if the water seems too rough in one beach you may find calmer conditions just by walking around a point of rocks to the next beach.)  The Wailea courses are very nice and a bit cheaper than Kapalua, though one (Gold) hosts the senior skins game every year.  Makena is a bit more rugged and primitive (little housing around the golf course), and beyond the Makena resort the area is mostly wild and undeveloped, with the biggest beach on the island just beyond the resort with no hotels or development at it.  Beyond that the road starts to get narrower and nastier, and most rental car companies don't want you driving.  If you do go to the end it ends in a gravel lot on a lava flow where a 4WD road continues to La Peruse bay, a natural preserve that is a great snorkeling spot (though it's hard to get into the water here because there is no sand)

Other areas

There are some accomodations on the North shore near Kahului/Wailalua.  The beaches aren't as good here and are rough in the winter, but there are beaches that are good in the winter.  Mama's Fish House restaurant is famous, though overpriced in my view, it has a good view.  On windy days, the beach just east of Mama's is a top windsurfing sight (bring your camera and telephoto lens to catch the action).  

Hana has a few places to stay if you want to get away from it all.  It's a long drive (see below) from anywhere and not much else there though so this is really a place to get away.  You can't really stay in Hana and do activities in other areas of the island.

There are lodges and B&B accomodations in "upcountry Maui" on the slopes of Halekela.  The gardens plant growers are very nice here, though it is a very long drive to the beach.

Must see sights

Haleakala is the must see sight on Maui.  It's a dormant volcano with an eroded summit that formed a large crater full of cinders, lava flows, and cones that looks like another planet.  It's a national park (park admission fee), and you can drive to the top.  Seeing the sun rise here is a big deal, but you have to get up VERY early (2AM) to be sure of getting up there for it, and in my view over rated (photography is better later in the day).  It is cold up there even at mid day, and freezing (literally) at dawn.  If you are going to Maui, bring at least one set of clothing good for freezing temperatures and high winds.  If you drive up here be aware that it will take you a couple of hours from most places to reach the top, as the last 20 miles are narrow and winding and most times of day you dodge bicycles making the descent.  Note that during rush hour you may encounter detours or lane restrictions on the lower part of the road because they give priority to traffic leaving "upcountry" and driving to jobs in the rest of the island.

To really appreciate Haleakala you have to hike it.  You can hike into the crater on two trails from the top, the Sliding Sands trail from the summit and another from a lookout on the road.  Do this with caution as it's a lot longer than it looks, and the air is thin and the sun very strong here.  Before going in, wear sturdy shoes (lava cinders eat shoes), and take sunscreen, and lots of water.  (I don't understand the modern fashion of walking around holding bottled water for even a 2 minute walk, but Haleakala can be hot and very dry and  the only way out is up, and is one place where carrying water is essential).  Hiking down sliding sands is easy, turning around and looking at how far up you now have to go back can be a shock.  It's about 1500 feet down to the first cinder cone with a side trail to it -- a decent hike that will take most folks 3 hours or so.  Going all the way to the crater floor on sliding sands is about 3,000 feet down and will take most of a day down and up.  The other trail descends from a lower point on the rim and is only 1200 feet to the bottom, though it descends a very steep cliff and may be scary for anyone with a fear of heights (it's a wide trail and not dangerous, but there are spots where the drop off the edge is a LONG way down.)  Hiking this trail down and then up on the crater floor as far as the silversword loop trail will take most of a day.  (SliverSwords are plants unique to Haleakala.  You see lots of them in the crater.  They are unusual and beautiful).  The best hike is probably to hike down sliding sands, across the crater, and up the other trail.  This is over 11 miles, but only about 1500 feet of climbing since the other trial comes out lower.  You park in the lower parking lot and hitch a ride to the top (not too difficult).  This will be a challenging but rewarding hike for most people.  There are also cabins on the floor of Haleakala that provide a way to have a multi-day trip, but have to be reserved long in advance (usually by a lottery, so not really feasible for mainland visitors).

Bicycling down Haleakala has become a major tourist industry.  Going up or down the mountain you will encounter lots of groups of bikers, usually riding as a group with a van behind them.  I've never taken one of these tours because it never looked like these folks were having that much fun.  You coast down at high speed in a group, dressed in protective clothing (it can be very cold and misty), without a lot of opportunity to stop and enjoy the scenery.  There are some companies that offer just the ride up and you set your own pace, but I don't think they are allowed to do this inside the park so you don't get to ride through the best landscape.  If you want the sunrise tour, they pick you up between 2AM and 3AM.  Day tours with more reasonable pickup times are available.

Molokini crater is another must see sight if you snorkel.  Dozens of boats go there and thousands of people are in the water, but it doesn't matter.  It's a volcanic crater 6 miles off shore, with exceptionally clear water and lots of fish and corals.  Most boat trips go in the AM (calmer clearer water) and provide lunch and drinks afterwards.  Many now visit another site (turtle town, coral gardens, La Peruse Bay, etc.) on the same trip.  These destinations are subject to change according to weather (Molokini is well protected and almost always nice, but La Peruse isn't when the waves run from the south).  The trips leave from several places so pick one that goes from a spot near where you are staying.  Some operate from Lahina, convenient for Kaanapali and Kapalua, others from a boat harbor in the center of the island (20 minute drive for everyone).  One operator, the Kai Kanani goes from Makena, which is very close to Molokini, by beaching their boat in front of the hotel on Makena beach -- very convenient for people staying in Wailea and Makena.  The tours vary a bit in amenities so find out what you want.  Many serve lunch and drinks (including alcoholic ones) as part of the basic package.  I can strongly recommend the Makena departure (Kai Kanini) to anyone staying in the Wailea/Makena area.  Not only is it closer to your lodging, but because you start much closer to Molokini than the other tours you get maximum snorkeling time, and they time it so they avoid the most crowded times at Molokini  (On our 2013 trip we had two sites at Molokini, both with no other boats nearby because of the timing, plus Turtle Town plus a 4th stop for swimming if anyone wanted, great food and drinks included).  Another advantage of this boat is that it is one of very few large boats that can reach La Peruse bay.  On rare occasions the wind is wrong for Molokini, creating surge in the crater, but usually good for La Peruse.  In 2014 we got to do this and had great conditions snorkeling a coral pinacle in the middle of the bay.

Hana Highway.  Driving to Hana is another promoted activity.  It's 35 miles of windy, twisty road with waterfalls and gardens.  Most of the trip is spent inland without many views of the coast, but there are a lot of waterfalls.  The road is very narrow and there isn't much parking in the waterfall areas so use caution.  There are several hikes off this road, including a couple of walks through the jungle to lookouts near one of the waysides, the Kenae arboretum which has a lot of tropical plants in a natural and informal setting, and some interesting coastal trails in a park just short of Hana.  Going past Hana you get to the 7 pools (part of Haleakala park), which is interesting. If the water conditions are reasonable you can swim in the pools, so think about bringing your suit).  There are also two waterfalls above the pools that you can hike to, but this is a signfiicant hike (a mile and about 600 feet of elevation to the first fall and a little longer than that again to the second). The road continues and eventually connects with the Haleakala road (at the winery), but there are stretches of this road that can't be driven in a car (rental car agreements prohibit it, but more important it's a rough dirt road in a remote area, sometimes not passable and definitely not somewhere you want to get stuck.)   One thing you might consider as an alternative is to drive the road around the north end of the island from Wailuku to Kapalua.  A stretch of this is one lane dirt on the side of a cliff, and your rental car company may prohibit it, but it's usually navigable and has more impressive views than the Hanna road because most of it is through open country.

Along the slopes of Haleakala, accessible from the road to the park, is an area knows as "Up country".  You will find many growers of exotic flowers (Proteas, anthuriums, Bird of Paradise, etc.), some of which open their gardens to the public.  Way down the road you will find a winery and vineyards.  The wine is okay, not spectacular, but the trip out there and the location are very interesting.  (You can go past the winery for a few more miles before the road becomes dirt, but it is often very windy here.)  Down the "local" road from this area is the Surfing Goat Dairy -- nice cheese, lunch items, and chocolates, and lots of goats (very pricey though).

Another popular tourist stop is Iao Needle.  This is a small park with rock spire west of Wailuku.  It's okay, but the better reason to go there is hiking the short trails through the gardens below the lookout as well as examining the garden park a couple of miles back on the road which has ceremonial gardens from several pacific cultures.  Note that as of 2013, the state is now charging $5/car to park at Iao Needle.  It's still worth doing once, but maybe not every time you go.  The garden park is still free.

The Big Island (Hawaii)

The island of Hawaii is bigger than all the others together and bigger than some states.  It's the most varied in terms of landscape and activities, and not crowded (well not yet at least, but they keep trying).  It's also the only island with 2 airports with regular jet service, Hilo and Kona.   This can be convenient as you can arrange to fly in one place and out the other.  There is a lot of distance to be covered on this island so plan enough time for your trips.

The Kohala coast.

This is where the newest and fanciest resorts are -- Mauna Kea, Mana Lani, Waikaloa, etc.  It's basically a lava desert that has been turned into lush gardens at the coast through lots of money and effort.  Each resort has great golf courses with oceanside holes and lots of lava, hotels, and condos, and a beach.  There are no bargains in here (All the condos cost more per night than my monthly mortgage payment :-), but the resorts are beautiful.  The beaches are nice for sunning and swimming, though the snorkeling in this area is only fair.  It's near the Kona airport and a long way from the Volcano and Hilo.

North of the Kohala resorts are the Kohala mountains with some older towns and deserted coastline.  This is a nice area to explore by car and has some interesting sights including a park depecting an old hawaiian villiage.  The ranching town of Waimea is also in this area and has operators offering trail rides and  other "western" activities.  Tour operators also operate kayaking tours in an irrigation ditch in these mountains, and interesting change of pace.

The Kona coast.

The Kona resort area is really the town of Kailua and area immediately south of it.  This is an older resort with older hotels and condos.  It has the best shopping on Hawaii, and to us the best in the islands for souvenirs (i.e. not yet overrun by overpriced art galeries).  If you like beer, visit Kona Brewing in town -- my favorite brew pub.  There are two golf courses at the Kona Country Club that are discounted to people staying in the resorts in the adjoining area, Keahou bay (They also offer a senior rate to anyone over 55. Check current status -- in 2014 both courses were closed for renovation).  There aren't many beaches in this area and they tend to be crowded, but there is a beach park that has what is probably the best off-the-beach snorkeling in the islands.  It's a good sized park with a small grey sand beach and a large bay protected by a breakwater.  The bay is shallow and full of tame fish and at last count at least half a dozen turtles (more every time we come).  The sand is sharp and coarse, so the thing to do is put on your mask and snorkel and get in the water and swim as soon as you can do it without scraping bottom and swim out.  There are large areas of coral at the far end of the bay from the parking lot (towards the small chappel), but the bay is open on that end and you can get surf and currents so be wary.  (Note that in all our trips, this beach was closed only once, in November 2014.  Sometimes they close the parking lot to discourage people if conditions are a bit rough, but inquire of anyone official -- our best snorkel came on one of those days the lot was closed and while it was a little rough getting in and out, the bay was full of fish and turtles and crystal clear.

We have stayed at several of the condos in this area, neither remarkably good nor bad.  In some, the units vary considerably in quality and view, so make sure you specify what you want and get it.  (Note that in 2013 our request via the web was apparently not picked up locally, so even in this on-line age it apparently pays to call the resort directly with any specific requests.)  One resort tried to stick us in a basement appartment half below ground level with a "view" of an alley, but gave us a good top floor unit after we complained.

There are some good accessable beaches in the lava north of Kailua, some requiring long hikes or 4WD.  Get a local guide to know where to go because the best beach is often not the one near the parking lot.  South of Kailua is one of the best spots in the world, Kealeakua bay.  You can reach this from a boat tour to the Captain Cook Monument (marks the place where he was killed in a misunderstanding with the natives).  The water here is very clear and the coral spectacular.  The Fair Winds boat (the only large one that goes there) is basically a bus though -- you pay extra for anything but water and snacks, but it's well equiped with snorkel and snuba and the staff is helpful.  You can also reach this bay by car, driving to Napoopoo.  There is a beach park there but the beach disappeared in a hurricane and hasn't reappeared so the best place to get in the water is a boat pier at the end of the road.  You can either snorkel there or kayak to the monument.  In one of the stupider moves, though, you can't rent Kayaks there but have to do that in the towns along the main road and carry them down.  I'm sure rental car companies just love having sandy kayaks tied to the roof of your rental car, but lots of folks do it.

Further south at Honaunau is a national historic park (used to be called "place of refuge", I never have been able to remember the Hawaiian name it now has.)  The park is worth a tour, with relics and sometimes demonstrations of native crafts, but it also has great snorkeling from the adjacent beach.  The snorkeling spot is to the right of the monument parking down a one way road and the parking lot asks for a donation to a local church.  to get in the ocean you walk over black lava and descend natural steps into deep clear water with lots of coral and turtles.  (That lava can get very hot in the sun!).  You can probably also rent a Kayak here and explore a bit.

Volcano and Hilo area.

Hilo is the biggest city on the island and has a few tourist hotels along the beachfront.  It's cheaper than Kona or Kohala, but the weather tends to be rainer especially in the winter and there are fewer tourist facilities here.  Volcano is a town on the Kilauea Volcano that has lodges and B&B accomodations oriented to people exploring Vocanos park.  The best view is from Volcano house, which sits on the rim of  Kilauea.  Don't expect to see flowing lava here very often (well, at least not during this eruption which comes from other areas, they have had lava on the crater floor in front of Volcano house at various times over the past 100 years), but its still a great view.    The rooms are well furnished and not too expensive given where you are, and the restaurant is good.  Note that the main lodge gets a lot of traffic from visitors travelling through, especially tour busses at mid day, so the rooms in the newer wing (attached to the main lodge and all crater view rooms).  Volcano house just re-opened in 2013 under new management.  The Oheo wing is not being used, while the other rooms have been modernised.  It is much more expensive now than in the past, but if there is lava in the summit crater the view is worth it.There are also restaurants in the town of Volcano (we really liked the Kiawe Cafe, unfortunately now closed I hear).  Some of he B&B accomodations in town are very nice, but don't expect a Volcano view.

Other places to stay.

There are some condos along the south coast at Punaluu and discovery cove.  Both are resorts that never quite made it and as a result have limited facilities.  Waimea has some places to stay as well.

Must see sights

The one must see sight is the Volcano, especially during an eruption.  What you see will vary according to what is going on.  In 12 visits, I've seen surface lava flows twice, lava going into the ocean 7 times (3 times reasonably close and twice only from a distance), A lava lake at the summit twice, and no activity twice.  Even with no activity the park is interesting to explore and anyone visiting should at least once explore the sights.  When the volcano is erupting, you get at it either from Chain of Craters road (in the park) or sometimes from the local roads in Kalapana (or what's left of Kalapana after the volcano trashed it).  In the park the routine is usually the same if the road is open -- you drive down to the end of the road, turn around, and park as close as you can on the return off of the road, then get out and hike.  How far you have to hike to the lava varies according to where it's coming down but hiking a mile or two is typical.  To go in you should have sturdy shoes (the hiking is over rough lava), water, and a flashlight.  If lava is going into the ocean, there will be a plume of acid steam flowing overhead and the fumes can be hazardous  especially to anyone with breathing problems so be careful and protect your camera gear!  Note that in 2013 there were companies running hiking trips to the lava from Kalapana, but we were told mixed stories about this.  Not all the Kalapana natives approve and some cars were damaged while their owners were hiking.  The ownership of the hiking route and permission to access it are apparently not well settled.  Another local we talked to (the bartender at Volcano house) said he went lava viewing from the Kalapana end fairly often and had never had trouble.  He generally went on his own, starting at 3AM and hiking past the gate at the end of the road guided by the glow of the lava.  He said the lava on the Kalapana end was smoother than what you had to navigate from the park end, but again, keep in mind that land ownership doesn't stop when it gets covered in lava, and some people aren't accomodating to hikers crossing their land, even if the land isn't immediately useful to them.  In November 2014, the only active lava flow was actually threatening the town of Pahoa, near Kalapana.  The lava is eventually expected to breach the only road into the area, and as a result they have partially restored Chain-of-craters road through the lava to Kalapana, but it will only be open to the locals to access their homes and only in the even the other roads get cut off.  In any case there is currently no opportunity for lava viewing there.)

If you plan to hike to the lava, consider it carefully.  Hiking over lava is unlike anything else -- no footstep is level, and you spend a lot of extra effort and time picking routes over areas where steep slopes or cracks block your way, so 1 or 1-1/2 miles/hour is probably top speed.  In 2013, we spent over 7 hours hiking, and figured we probably went maybe 11 miles total (and didn't reach the ocean entry).  The park service puts out a string of beacon posts starting at the Chain of Craters road end that are supposed to help guide hikers on the return trip.  The posts are spaced far enough it's hard to spot the next on, and much of the time hiking between posts is spent in low areas where you won't be able to see your target.  The posts also probably dont go more than 2-3 miles, far from where the current ocean entries are.

If there is a surface flow, the park service will usually let you walk right up to it.  This is an amazing experience and you are lucky to be able to do this.  Be careful and respectful and don't poke the lava (yes, it will light a stick on fire instantly) or throw junk in it (plastic bottles really stink when they burn).  The lava advances slowly and is incredibly hot so it's not hard to stay away (in fact it is hard to get close).  The viewing gets better at dusk and after dark, but that will leave you hiking out in the dark so make sure your flashlight has good batteries.  The lava hardens quickly and cools fairly quickly so you can be walking on lava that was flowing yesterday.  In an area with active flows, the heat, and crackling noises are pretty good clues about which ones are too hot to walk on, but test the surface of anything you suspect with your boot to make sure it doesn't melt.

When there is an ocean entry, expect to see a lot of steam and a little red glow.  This is much better after dark, which makes it easier to see the lava.  They used to let people go right to the sea cliffs and get good views of this but now keep you well away from the coast after it was learned, the hard way, that the ocean side cliffs are unstable and can collapse into the sea taking tourists with them, so you probably won't be able to get close to it.  There are companies now that operate tour boats out of Hilo that access the ocean entries when the lava is flowing.  This can be spectacular, but it's also popular, and it's a boat cruise in a rough ocean area.  The Helicopter and tour booking companies will try to push you into a helicopter as the only way to see it, but the helicopters can't fly before or after sunset, when the best visibility is.  (We talked to people who had taken a helicopter tour and said they saw nothing).  As of June 2013, there was one air tour company that flew sunset tours in a fixed wing plane out of Kona.  I don't know how much they see, but it is a very expensive trip ($450/each), and of course planes can't hover over something interesting, making photography more difficult.

Chain of Craters road is a monument to the futility of fighting nature.  The road originally connected the summit area of the park to the town of Kalapana.  In the 1970's, lava flows from Mauna Ulu wiped out a lot of it and naturally the park service decided to rebuild it in a "Volcano proof" design. The design was to descend to the coast in 3 broad switchbacks so that a lava flow would at worst flow over the road in 3 places, rather than down a narrow valley where the lava could cover the entire road as it did in the 1970's.  The design worked for a few years, but the actiivy moved down the coast to Puu Oo, which has been erupting for 24 years and covered a huge area including about 8 miles of road along the coast and the whole town of Kalapana, plus a newly built visitor center.  The county of Hawaii (each island is a county) has built an access road from the Kalapana end that may get you closer to flows when the lava is coming out near that end, for a fee.  I'm told they are fussier about letting people near the lava than the park service.  In the remains of the town of Kalapana, there's also a trail down to the ocean to a new black sand beach. (*** Again -- there's not much to see from either road in November 2014)

Also in the volcano area are black sand beaches (really created by lava flowing into the ocean) at Punaluu and east of the park.  The best ones in Kalapana and the park were destoryed by lava, but these are still fun to go to.  The Punaluu beach has a nice park, faicilities, and sea turtles.  

It's hard to see Puu Oo, the active vent.  The park service will tell you to hike the Mauna Ulu trail to the top of a cinder cone and while this does work, you are likely to encounter fog and rain here.  There is a viewpoint from the road to Hilo as well as a trail through the rainforest from the road that gets you close (but it's apparently a very difficult, muddy hike that takes a full day).   Consult a local guide on this.  Another viewpoint is by driving the one-lane paved Mauna Loa road, which gets you up above the park and has panoramic views.  The road is very difficult though, 8 miles of one lane with little room to pass and a very small parking lot at the top.

Helicopters tour the volcano, and will show you Puu Oo as well as active flows and skylights (holes in the lava tubes carrying lava to the seacoast where you can peek at the active flow.  Again, they don't fly at dawn and dusk when it's most dramatic.  Tours from Hilo will give you the most time for the least money.

From 2008 to at least late 2014, though, a vent has formed in the Halemaumau crater at the summit.  The result closed much of crater rim drive, but the lava has formed a lava lake in a small crater within halemaumau that gives off a nice glow at night.  The best public viewing is from the viewpoint in front of Jaggar museum, at what is now the end of the driveable part of crater rim.  Note viewing is best at night near dawn or sunrise.  Sunrise viewing is much less cowded than Sunset, if you can manage it.  (stay at Volcano House or one of the B&Bs in Volcano and set an alarm, you won't regret it).  We have seen this display at least 3 times, and 2014 was the most impressive -- you can hear the lava churn in the lake and see the difference in glow as cracks open and close in the crust on the lava lake.

If you hike any signficant distance, bear in mind that you will be hiking on rough black lava and usually in bright sunshine.  Don't expect to cover distance very quickly as a lot of time is spent negotiating obstacles, like cracks, heaves, and just awkward slopes in the lava surface.  Do take LOTS of water as there is none anywhere there (there is a snack shop that sells water at the end of Chain of Craters road, but they close before sunset when most people are hiking out desperately thirsty).  Don't expect marked trails.  Note that this is one the few areas in a national park where you can wander off and get lost, run out of water, and not be found until it's too late. 

There are a couple of big waterfalls on the coast north of Hilo.  Akaka falls park is a must visit at least once, with two falls and a lot of tropical gardens.  We used to love to visit the Kaamiana Woods shop in Honokaa, which soldKoa and other native wood products carved in the shop behind the store, but as of 2011 the owners retired and nobody had taken it over.  There are other craftsmen in this area selling Koa, blown glass, and other crafts.  The Waipo valley and adjoining valleys in the roadless north coast beyond are beautiful, but difficult to access (you really need a ride from a tour operator to get down the cliff and need to do some walking down there to see the sights.

Another unusual activity is a tour of the Mauna Kea observatory.  Various operators take you up there to see it and then go star gazing (not at the mountain top).  This is a long rough trip but a unique experience.  As with Haleakela, expect it to be cold and windy at the top.


The Island of Lanai was until fairly recently basically a pineapple plantation.  When Dole moved out, two upscale resorts moved in.  There are two resorts each with a golf course and a couple of hotels and a 9 hole golf course in Lanai city.  Lanai may be the most expensive place to go (well to the resorts) anywhere.  You can do it as a day trip from Maui and play one of the golf courses, use the beach, or visit the back country of the island.  Lanai has great beaches and snorkeling in many areas. We liked the Manele bay area and the golf course, but the folks there didn't really seem anxious to serve us in spite of the high costs.  Maybe you've got to stay there awhile to get there attention.  It's nice, but a small island with limited options.  Great for someone who wants to get away in luxury and doesn't mind limited choice.


Molokai is the least developed of the major island.  It has only one real resort, Kaluakoi, with a hotel (currently closed), a couple of condo complexes, and a golf course (also now closed).  There are a couple of small hotels along the coastal road east of the airport as well, but these are small.  Kaluakoi has beautiful beaches to look at but the surf is a bit rough here for swimming and snorkeling.  The golf course was great with lots of ocean front holes, and a real bargain (half the price of just about anything else for the first round and after that a dollar a hole, and you can probably play 3-4 rounds in a day if you want) If it is open.  It has been closed at poor economic times..  The resort, however, has always been financially troubled.  When the hotel closed in the late 1990s the area went downhill a bit.  The golf course re-opened before 2007, but closed again during the 2008-2009 recession and for now at least seems gone for good.  The latest recession also closed the Molokai ranch, an "adventure" accomodation that put people up in tent cabins or an up-country lodge and featured trail rides and other western activities.  Check carefully on local conditions before you plan a visit here.  (An alternative is taking a day trip from Lahina on Maui, which might give you enough time to see some remaining sights.)  I think the Hotel Molokai, a small resort on the south coast that will take you back to the Hawaii you saw on TV in the 1950s, is still functioning.

The road to the east end of the island is spectacular and takes you to a large valley with beaches and waterfalls.  There are more like this on the north side of the island which has the highest sea cliffs in the world.  It's hard to get much of a view of this area except through air tours.  At about the 20 mile point on this road is an informal beach park (no facilities, with a nice sandy beach and shallow reef decent for snorkeling.

The other activity on Molokai is visiting Kalaupapa, a peninsula off the north coast that was host to a facility for victims of Hansen's disease (aka Leprocy).  You can tour the facility and learn the history, if you can get there, which you do only by air or by hiking or riding down a steep trail.  A tour operator takes groups down on mules.  The trail is narrow and a bit scary, probably not something for anyone with a problem with heights.  There is a park you can drive to at the top of the cliff where the mules depart from with great views and some short trails.

There are also coffee plantations and a macademia nut farm that offers a very low key and personal tour.  To get an idea of how different Molokai really is, consider the fact that there are only 7,000 people there and no stoplights.  There are some challenges in this isolation.  There's only one real grocery store, and it isn't open on Sundays.  There are only a couple of "fine dining" restaurants and the only evening entertainment is an occasional local group playing the Hotel Molokai, which looks like something out of a 1960's Hollywood vision of Hawaii, though the food is good.  The biggest rental car companies don't operate on Molokai (Dollar and Budget do), and the only place to fill your rental car with gas is the main town of Kaunakakai, 6 miles from the airport and over 20 miles from Kaluakoi.  Still, though, there aren't many other places you can have a whole beach or a whole golf course to yourself. 

Lanai and Molokai might be a good illustration of what has been happening since 2,000.  With long recessions that have hurt the middle class and evolving demographics there seem to be fewer budget and moderate class travelers to the island, so the resorts that catered to them (e.g. Kaluakoi) struggled.  The richest travellers though have done well, so there's no lack of no expenses spared facilities, and if anything more of those people are buying their own condos and not even renting them.

Warren Montgomery (wamontgomery@ieee.org)