Writer Paul Theroux famously said that Hawaii is not a state of mind but a state of grace. I’m inclined to agree. From its natural wonders immense in size to its sheer breadth of things to do, there’s a reason that the Aloha State is often the trip of a lifetime, a destination that tops bucket lists and inspires exhaustive research. I’ve done some of the heavy lifting. Here is my list of the 10 best things to do in Hawaii.
Sail the Napali Coast, Kauai
Native islanders say the Napali Coast nourishes the soul. This 17-mile stretch of rain-carved cliffs and emerald valleys is punctuated by thin, ribbonlike waterfalls, secret beaches, and sea caves teeming with aquatic life. With the spectacular Kalalau Trail currently closed to travelers due to flooding, the only way to access the cliffs is by sea. Imagine standing on the deck of a catamaran beneath 4,000-foot cliffs to soak in mana, or spiritual power, before sliding into the water for snorkeling among green sea turtles and schools of eel and angelfish. When the trade winds are smooth, expect your catamaran to cruise around or even through the sea caves, its sails flapping the mast and spinner dolphins leaping at its stern.
Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
The mutable Big Island is still molding itself: Its coastlines continually expand and erode, its mountains come alive, and its topography undergoes perpetual sculpture in a medium of fire and lava. Witness firsthand the birth of a new landscape at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where volcanoes Kilauea (one of the world’s most active) and Mauna Loa (one of the world’s most massive) alter the world in which we live. Eruptions and earthquakes closed the park for several months in 2018, but select hiking trails and scenic are now open again for visitors to learn about this fascinating ecosystem.
How to Do It: Before your arrival, visit the park’s website to find the latest information on safety, educational programs, closures, and trail options.
Visit Pearl Harbor, Oahu
Each year, nearly 2 million people visit this memorial, officially part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. This solemn, gently sloping structure, accessible only by boat, straddles the sunken USS Arizona and memorializes those who were killed in the Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941. According to Alfred Preis, the memorial’s architect, “The structure sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, express[ing] initial defeat and ultimate victory.” Each rising end is a testament to the optimism during times of peace. Eerily—but beautifully—the sunken ship’s oil can still be seen bubbling up from the wreckage and pooling in concentric rainbows on the water’s surface.
How to Do It: Visiting the memorial is free, though a timed entry ticket is required. Many travelers choose to visit Pearl Harbor as part of a half-day tour from Honolulu.
Land a Helicopter at Jurassic Falls, Kauai
Imagine sitting in a helicopter that is swooping and darting through the green-velvet valleys of Kauai. Just below you, a flock of plump jewel-toned birds descends to the trees. The seemingly impenetrable jungle parts suddenly like stage curtains to reveal the falls from Jurassic Park, 400 feet high and spraying the windshield of the helicopter like rain. Now imagine the epic John Williams score playing in your headset. You land in the thick of the jungle, and your pilot guides you along a misty path to the remarkable and completely remote falls, the rushing water making the only sound in a humanless world.
How to Do It: Only one tour provider is cleared to land a copter here: Island Helicopters. During its 75- to 80-minute aerial tour, you’ll land at Manawaiopuna (the falls’ official name) before lifting off on a full circuit of Kauai, including Waimea Canyon and the center of Mt. Waialeale. Dinosaur sightings not guaranteed.
Drive the Road to Hana, Maui
There’s road tripping, and then there’s road tripping on this 50-mile highway that unfurls like ribbon through the taro patches and coastlines of Maui. A two-hour journey (or three or four, depending on how many times you pull over to admire the view) brings you to the peaceful, tiny town of Hana, which offers a taste of a historical Hawaiian settlement—complete with its original general store and courthouse—alongside the natural wonders for which Maui is famous. Step into the water at gray-sand, half-moon-shaped Hamoa Beach, and then stay the night in one of the 1940s cottages at luxe Travaasa Hana.
How to Do It: If you want to travel independently, buy an audio guide and navigate the Road to Hana at your own pace. (Pro tip: Gas is expensive in starting-point Paia, so fill up elsewhere before beginning the journey.) If you’d rather have someone else behind the wheel, consider a full-day tour that hits all the gorgeous highlights.
Try New Flavors, Oahu
Oahu is the very belly of the on-the-rise food-and-wine culture in Hawaii, a place where outsiders’ experiences of “local eats” were once limited to Spam and imported pineapple. These days, Honolulu plays host to the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival—where local chefs highlight the state’s bounty of produce, beef, and seafood—as well as a slate of Zagat-approved eateries.
Of course, visitors can’t step foot on this island without sinking their teeth into one of Oahu’s sweetest imports, a fluffy malasada. The yeasty Portuguese donuts rolled in sugar were traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday but are now available year-round (somewhat misleadingly masquerading as breakfast food). Leonard’s Bakery has been churning out malasadas under its hot-pink awnings since 1952, stuffing the deep-fried confections with haupia, Hawaiian coconut custard. Grab a few to go and follow up with a brisk calorie-killing walk along the beach. Other homegrown favorites include poke, lau lau pork, and, to cool off, shave ice with azuki beans and sweetened condensed milk.
How to Do It: Discover our 10 favorite places to try Hawaiian food in Honolulu, or take a Honolulu food tour on foot or by bike.
Attend an Old Lahaina Luau, Maui
A Hawaiian vacation is hardly complete without a luau, and the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui is oft considered the most authentic of the bunch. Since 1986, the Old Lahaina, with its backdrop of flickering torches, coconut palms, and crashing waves, has presented its luau to an adoring public of visitors and kama’aina (Hawaiian residents) alike. An aloha greeting with a cocktail and a colorful lei kicks off the evening, followed by craft-making workshops and the unearthing of the kalua pig from its imu, or underground oven. At sunset, the evening’s entertainment begins: a lineup of traditional Hawaiian music and expressive hula dancing that outlines the islands’ history, from the earliest Polynesian settlers through the arrival of the missionaries.
How to Do It: Make reservations on the Old Lahaina Luau website or through SmarterTravel’s sister site, Viator. You can choose either table-and-chair seating or a spot on a cushion around a low table.
Have an Adventure at Kualoa Ranch, Oahu
Away from the heavily trafficked resorts and shopping malls of Waikiki, the 4,000-some acres of Kualoa Ranch spread from mountain to valley to ocean, with Mokoli’i Island (Chinaman’s Hat) resting on a shelf of distant horizon. The working cattle ranch is a sort of all-inclusive Hawaiian experience, but with few touristy trappings. Knowledgeable guides lead a series of tours—by boat, on horseback, and in various vehicles—focusing on different aspects of this former sugar plantation’s history. Explore the lush Hakipu’u and Ka’a’awa valleys and the latter’s famous filming sites (Jurassic Park, Lost, and Hawaii Five-O all were shot here) and set sail on an ancient Hawaiian fishpond. Then trek to a secret beach with wide-angle views of sacred Mokoli’i to see how Hawaii’s landscape has evolved through innumerable eras, ancient and modern.
How to Do It: Book tours on Kualoa Ranch’s website or try a package of adventures with transport from Honolulu.
Stargaze on Mauna Kea, Big Island
Amateur astronomers, rejoice. Fourteen thousand feet up the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea, beneath a bowl-shaped ceiling of sky, sits one of the best places on Earth for inspecting the heavens: the massive Mauna Kea Observatory. Here, high altitude, low humidity, and dark skies create perfect stargazing conditions. Acclimatize at the informative Mauna Kea visitors’ center at 9,200 feet before taking a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the summit, where freezing temperatures and high winds cool sunburnt skin. Then scan the night sky: Guides will help you identify clusters of major constellations and other celestial bodies. While you likely won’t be able to peer inside the Observatory itself, tour providers can furnish you with equipment of your own.
Hike to Kaihalulu (Red Sand Beach), Maui
Kaihalulu means “roaring sea” in Hawaiian, but the wild, rolling waves are just one feature of this magical crescent-shaped beach. Almost Martian in appearance, the sand is rich in iron, while the sheer cliffs that abut the beach are uniquely striated with red and russet strokes (the result of an eroding cinder-cone volcano). The red sand leads to relatively choppy waters, so visitors are cautioned against swimming or diving. However, a thrilling hike and the otherworldly setting more than make up for the lack of aquatic activities, and the peace and quiet of a people-free spot can be stunning. (If you should stumble upon another soul, don’t be surprised to find your fellow suntanner in the buff; clothing is decidedly optional at this secret beach.)
How to Do It: A short trek is required to reach Kaihalulu. Find directions and tips on MauiGuidebook.com. The hike can be slippery and slow-going, but sights along the way (the trail passes an ancient Japanese cemetery) are worth it.
So that’s my list, readers. But tell me—what are your favorite things to do in Hawaii?
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 9 Best Cheap Hotels in Hawaii
- What’s the Best Island in Hawaii for You?
- The Essential Hawaii Packing List
Don't Miss: Top Tours in HawaiiSee more Hawaii tours & attractions >
Editor’s Note: This story was first written in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.