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Hawaii - Attractions

Exploring the entrance to a lava cave, Maui

Hawaii - The Big Island

The island of Hawaii, commonly called the Big Island, is nearly twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined. Geographically it's the most diverse island of the archipelago, with deserts, rainforests, volcanoes and, surprisingly, snow-capped mountains. The mountains create a huge barrier that blocks the north-easterly trade winds and makes the leeward, western side of the island the driest region in the archipelago. This coast has the best beaches and water conditions. The windward, eastern coast is predominantly rugged, with pounding surf, plenty of rain, tropical rainforests, deep ravines and majestic waterfalls. Kona, Waikoloa and Hilo are the main centres for accommodation and restaurants.

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is hands down the most unique park in the US National Parks system. It covers a huge area and encompasses two active volcanoes, a still-steaming sunken crater and geologically awesome landscapes of cinder cones, pumice pillars and hardened rivers of lava. Its terrain ranges from tropical beaches to the subarctic summit of Mauna Loa, and includes lovely rainforests and fern groves. This is one of the best areas in Hawaii for camping and hiking.

The lush, coastal Waipio Valley is the largest and most spectacular of the series of amphitheatrer valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. It is enclosed by near-vertical high cliffs and is accessible only by a narrow, excessively-steep 4WD track, making hiking in the best option. The valley is a fecund tangle of jungle, flowering plants, taro patches and waterfalls, and a magical place to experience the spirit of the 'old' Hawaii. The valley has one rustic hotel, some 50 residents, a number of wild horses and a few aggressively territorial farm dogs.


Sure, it's got wide beaches, waving palms and balmy weather, but Honolulu ('Sheltered Bay') isn't just a stage-set for beachcombing. It boasts a 150-year history as the state capital and a beguiling multi-ethnicity that emerges most toothsomely in a feast of different cuisines.

Honolulu's downtown is hostile to cars, friendly to pedestrians - so consider walking rather than driving your way around its attractions, which include the grandeur of Hawaii's royal past and a clutch of worthwhile musuems with a maritime emphasis.


If you're looking for lush scenery, Kauai is a great choice. Kauai's central volcanic peak, Mt Waialeale, is allegedly the wettest place on earth, and the island is so richly green that it's nicknamed 'The Garden Island'. Movie makers looking for lush scenery bordering on the fantastic came to Kauai to film parts of South Pacific, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. The small island is shaped like a slightly compressed ball. Most of the island's interior is mountainous forest reserve, which offers great hiking; the southern and western coasts are dry, sunny and fringed with beautiful beaches. Accommodation and eateries can be found in the small towns of Lihue, Kapaa, Princeville and Poipu.

Places of interest include the stretch of sharply fluted coastal cliffs along Na Pali Coast. This is the locale of Hawaii's most spectacular hiking trail, with sheer, green cliffs dropping into brilliant turquoise waters. Waimea Canyon - predictably dubbed the 'Grand Canyon of the Pacific' - is smaller and a mere 200 million years younger than its Arizona cousin, but otherwise not at all dissimilar. The canyon's colourful river-cut gorge is 835m (2785ft) deep and it seems incredible that such an immense canyon could be tucked away in such a small island.

Lumahai Beach

There's a beautiful, endless sandy beach at Polihale on the western coast, not far from the brilliantly named US naval base, Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range. The area is almost a desert, so when it's raining everywhere else, beachgoers head this way. Lumahai Beach, in the north, is the gorgeous stretch of beach where Mitzi Gaynor promised to wash that man right out of her hair in the 1958 musical South Pacific. It's a broad beach sandwiched between lush jungle on one side and tempestuous ocean on the other. A trip up the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto in a tourist cattle barge is a must for anthropologists, absurdists and those who love to holiday to the sounds of Elvis' Hawaiian Wedding Song.


Maui's scenery is superb and its landscapes diverse. The island's sunny western coast is lined with gorgeous white-sand beaches, and the warm ocean waters are teeming with humpback whales. You can explore jungle and waterfalls, windsurf with the pros or enjoy a drink at Lahaina's historic taverns.

Maui is known as 'The Valley Island' because of its two large extinct volcanoes divided by a central valley. It's the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands and the most developed of the Neighbor Islands. It's renowned for its fine beaches and some of the world's best windsurfing and surf spots.


Oahu is home to Honolulu, the biggest city in Hawaii; Waikiki, the Pacific's leisure-and-pleasure capital; some of the world's biggest surf; evocative WWII memorials at Pearl Harbor, and a relaxed multicultural mix that gives a memorable flavour to its streetscapes and restaurants.

Away from the main urban areas, there's little to distract you on the island's makai (ocean side) except for long tracts of white sand, exhilarating surf, the sweet smell of the ubiquitous hibiscus and the endless greetings from islanders shaking their shakas.

Other Oahu Attractions

Hanauma Bay, in southeastern Oahu, is a wide, sheltered bay of sapphire-and-turquoise waters set in a rugged volcanic ring. It has fantastic coral and marine life and wonderful snorkelling, but it's under environmental pressure from the sheer number of visitors coming to feed and view the fish. The Nuuanu Pali Lookout, in the southern Koolau Range, has brilliant views of the windward coast. This is where Kamehameha the Great routed Oahu's warriors during his invasion of the island in 1795. Hawaii's most visited attraction is the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, north-west of Honolulu, where 1.5 million visitors come each year to learn about the surprise Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, and to pay their respects to the 2335 dead US servicemen.

Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park encompasses ancient temples, royal grounds, burial sites and a place of refuge (or puuhonua). It's worth spending some time exploring to check out the carved-wood representations of ancient gods; the stone board for playing konane, an ancient form of checkers played with black lava and white coral; and the wonderful snorkelling found off the natural lava steps just north of the place of refuge. The beautiful stretch of white sand at Hapuna Beach is the island's most popular beach. It has good snorkelling, swimming, diving and bodysurfing. Avoid the winter surf which can pound the shoreline and get unsuspecting swimmers in trouble.


The largest tourist destination in Hawaii, Waikiki is a long stretch of picture-perfect white-sand beach just southeast of downtown Honolulu. Its shores are lined with swanky high-rise hotels set against the scenic backdrop of Diamond Head. On any given day, the tiny area is thronged with package tourists from Japan and North America: 65,000 of them on average, in addition to some 25,000 residents. It boasts more than 30,000 hotel rooms; close to 1000 restaurants, bars and clubs; and more shops, shams and shysters than anyone cares to count.

If you've come to Hawaii for the luaus, hula lessons and lazy days on the beach, you'll hit the motherlode in Waikiki. But independent travellers needn't be discouraged - if you're one of those with less packagable predilections, you'll be happy to find activities such as outrigger canoe clubs and Japanese tea ceremonies to distract you from the masses. And there's always the natural beauty of the area, with its spectacular orange sunsets, bath-warm waters and night skies overrun with stars.

The stretch of white sand that runs from the Hilton Hawaiian Village to Kapiolani Beach Park is commonly called Waikiki Beach. Although it teems midday with beach boys and betties, sunrise strolls here are downright meditative. By midmorning, the surfers, sailors and swimmers begin to amass, and by noon it's a challenge to get to the water without stepping on somebody. Fronting the Hilton, Kahanamoku Beach is one of the calmer swimming areas, ironically named after one of Hawaii's wildest native sons, Duke Kahanamoku, a local swimmer and surfer who won the 1912 Olympic 100m freestyle. At the southern end of Waikiki Beach, boogie boarders cluster at Kapahulu Groin, delighting onlookers with their daredevil wave riding.

Away from the waves, Kapiolani Park contains the Waikiki Aquarium, an onshore enclave of marine life at Kapiolani Beach Park inhabited by flash-back cuttlefish, sling-jawed wrasse, bearded armourheads and reef sharks; the Honolulu Zoo, which has a large section devoted to native birds like the Hawaiian goose (nene) and the forest-dwelling apapane; a bandstand, and hula show grounds. It's at the Diamond Head end of Waikiki and was a gift to the Hawaiian people from their last king, David Kalakaua.

Waikiki's Hawaiian-style entertainment ranges from Polynesian extravaganzas, with beating drums and hula dancers, to mellow duos jamming on ukuleles or slack-key guitars. Duke's Canoe Club is the most popular venue for contemporary Hawaiian music, while any of the big resorts can provide you with the other stuff. The area around the hotels is the best place to look for nightclubs and bars. Honolulu's gay scene is focused on the venues along Kuhio Ave between Kalaimoku and Kaiolu Sts.

Waikiki has a rhythm and pace that will attract nightowls and singles who like to recover from their hangovers on a decent city beach. The Moorish, pink-turreted Royal Hawaiian Hotel is a survivor from the days when Rudolph Valentino was a romantic idol and people came to Hawaii by luxury liner. South-east of the city is Diamond Head, a tuff cone and crater formed by a violent steam explosion. Its high summit forms the backdrop to Waikiki, and is one of the best-known landmarks in the Pacific. It has a good hiking trail and there are fantastic panoramic views from the top.

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