The tropical wonders of Hawaii

In Hawaii, you can visit six spectacular islands without ever leaving the state


Hawaii is the world’s most isolated archipelago, and its islands emit the scent of frangipani, day and night. Each of the lush, volcanic landmasses is surrounded by tropical waters that range in color from navy blue to aquamarine to bottle green. In winter, humpback whales – the leviathans of the sea – come here to birth their calves. Trees give fruit all year long. Coconut, papaya, banana, guava and lychee grow abundantly in Hawaii, in addition to pineapple, macadamia nuts, coffee beans and even avocado. The average coastal temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit and even when it’s raining, it’s often still sunny. If that isn’t proof enough that the Hawaiian Islands are paradise on earth, consider this: there are no snakes in Hawaii. Not a one.


This is a boon to anyone who loves climbing mountain rocks and traipsing through jungles twisted with plants and vines. In most tropical regions of the world, hiking in nature means very possible encounters with venomous serpents. Not in Hawaii. (Although the waters surrounding the islands are the chosen home of many species of shark. No worries, though – if you are eaten by a hammerhead or a tiger shark while visiting, consider it your contribution to the local culture, as Native Hawaiians believe that sharks are reincarnations of their ancestors.)


Kidding aside, if all of this talk of wild nature scares you, rest assured: you can visit Hawaii without risking anything more dangerous than sunburn. Plenty of visitors spend their days doing nothing more daunting than thumbing through fashion magazines as they laze around the swimming pools of five-star resorts. Those who are slightly more adventurous read novels under swaying palms at unspoiled beaches where the average number of daily visitors totals three, or they tee off – leisurely – at one of the islands’ world-class golf courses (as Hawaii’s most famous son, American President Barack Obama, likes to do when he visits).


There are eight major isles in the Hawaiian chain, but only six can be visited: the Big Island of Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai. (Niihau, the “Forbidden Island,” is off-limits to anyone who doesn’t have family there, and Kahooalwe has sadly been poisoned by the US military, which used the small island for bombing practice for over 30 years.) The question most first-time visitors to Hawaii ask is: which island or islands should I visit? The answer is simple: it all depends on how you wish to spend your vacation.



Hawaii, or “the Big Island”, is the largest and youngest island in the chain. As you read these words, its most active volcano, Kilauea, is creating new land out of molten lava. Amazingly, Kilauea is open to visitors, who can hike over her flanks to see red-hot flows. (The lava flows can also be viewed by helicopter or boat; this is highly recommended as some of the flows ooze directly into the ocean, creating a dramatic fire-and-water effect that can only be seen from the sea.)


All of this lava surrounding the Big Island means that its ocean waters are quite clear – there is little sand to cloud it up. Snorkeling and diving are therefore very rewarding, and adventurous types are likely to see small, colorful fish as well as dolphins, sea turtles and even gigantic manta rays.


Of course, not everyone is sporty – and that’s why the island has its share of luxurious resorts. Most of them are clustered on the east side of Hawaii, along the “gold” Kohala Coast. This side of the island is sunny and arid, with calm, turquoise-blue waters. Checking into a place as gorgeous as the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, with its two championship golf courses, lap pool and beach cabanas, spa featuring traditional lomi lomi massages and purifying volcanic mud wraps and restaurants specializing in Asian, American and local cuisine, means setting yourself up for major disappointment. Because, one day, you’ll have to leave.



Northeast of the Big Island is the island of Maui, a great choice for families and for those who seek variety in their holidays. The island boasts over 30 miles of beaches, some with white sand, and some with black or red sand – compliments of the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele, and the volcanoes that legend says she commands. The waters off Maui are also varied; there are lava-encircled beaches that make perfect natural swimming pools for children, deep bays with reliable breaks for surfing and bodysurfing and windy coastlines that draw windsurfers from all over the globe. Inland – mauka in Hawaiian – is the incredible Haleakala, “the House of Sun,” an extinct volcano that rises 10,023 feet above sea level. Visitors can horseback ride along its many trails, cycle down its steep slopes and watch the sunrise from its highest peaks.


Another popular Maui adventure is the drive along the famous “road to Hana.” Hana is a tiny village populated mostly by dairy farmers and hippies, and there’s not much to do once you arrive, but remember: it’s the journey, not the destination. For along the sinuous, 52-mile route through dense tropical forest are breathtaking vistas and numerous waterfalls. Oheo is one such waterfall that has a series of pristine, tiered pools that are wonderful for swimming.


Maui’s resorts are as varied as the island’s terrain – there is something for every taste and budget.



Just nine miles across the Auau channel from Maui is the island of Lanai, an ideal destination for those who truly want to get away from it all. There are only three hotels on the entire island: the Four Seasons at Manele Bay, a classic beach resort; the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, located “upcountry” and resembling a hunting lodge; and the charming Hotel Lanai in the old plantation town of Lanai City. Most visitors spend their time combing gorgeous, empty beaches; golfing at one of the renowned courses; horseback riding; or doing nothing whatsoever. There are no traffic lights and no crowds – just mountains, sea, sun and stars. You can imagine why the island is so beloved by honeymooners!



Also close to Maui is Molokai, a 38-mile-long isle that is said to be the birthplace of the hula dance, and also the original landing spot of the ancient Polynesians who founded the islands. Molokai retains more of its native culture than the other islands, as a high percentage of its citizens are of Native Hawaiian descent (a rarity in modern Hawaii). Vacationers can learn about Hawaiian culture by visiting the fishponds that were built hundreds of years ago, or by exploring the lush Halawa Valley, where the first Polynesian voyagers disembarked from their canoes. Like Lanai, Molokai has no traffic lights and no traffic jams – this is a place for total relaxation, for immersion in the local culture and for such outdoor sports as cycling, horseback riding, hiking, sport fishing and kayaking.



If total quiet is not your thing, if you love to shop and you adore the nightlife, then Oahu is the Hawaiian island for you. The city of Honolulu is the cosmopolitan hub of the Pacific. Multi-cultural, lively and urbane, this is where serious business is conducted in the isles. Open-air shopping malls are busy day and night with locals and Japanese and American tourists on the hunt for Burberry, Chanel and Prada. Restaurants cater to those for whom cuisine is a passion – expect to dine very well on Oahu at such lauded restaurants as Chef Mavro, 3660 on the Rise and Alan Wong’s, where the emphasis is on Asian-influenced international dishes made with fresh, local ingredients.


For those who want a more down-home experience, there are plenty of authentic, mom ‘n’ pop-run Hawaiian, American, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese restaurants as well as funky takeout trucks serving everything from Thai curry to Korean tacos to spicy garlic shrimp. To work off such meals, athletically inclined locals and visitors swim, kayak, hike, surf (the North Shore of Oahu is renowned for big-wave surfing and the famous Banzai Pipeline) and run (Oahu hosts a yearly marathon and the super-challenging Iron Man competition). Of course, there are many locals who spend their time doing nothing more strenuous than sun tanning and beachcombing at crowded, trendy Waikiki beach or at one of the island’s many isolated coves.


In terms of accommodations, Oahu caters to all types of travelers. There are plenty of condominiums for rent, and hotels range from budget to ultra expensive. In short, Oahu is diverse enough to offer something for everyone.



The island of Kauai is a true outdoor lover’s paradise; its 555 square miles undulate from dry gorge to plunging waterfall to verdant mountain like an organic roller coaster. It encompasses Waimea Canyon, a 3,600-foot-deep, earth-toned gorge; Mount Waialeale, the wettest place on the planet, featuring a magnificent wall of waterfalls; and the Na Pali coast, a 16-mile coastline of sheer, emerald cliffs that reach 2,000 feet into the sky.


Kauai is a fantastic destination for hikers. There are myriad waterfalls to explore as well as the many trails of Waimea canyon and the challenging, 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which cuts a narrow swatch through the Na Pali cliffs. Beachgoers won’t be bored, either, for Kauai’s beaches range from rugged and breathtakingly gorgeous to placid and breathtakingly gorgeous. In summer, snorkeling can be very rewarding around the island and, year-round, there are calm beaches for children.


Dining and accommodation options tend to be low-key, but that doesn’t mean visitors don’t get a five-star experience. The St. Regis Princeville Resort is the favored place for golfers and poolside princesses, and Koa Kea Hotel in Poipu is preferred by those who prefer a low-key luxury experience. It’s also a great place for kids.


Paradise on earth

Black-, white- and red-sand beaches. Indigo and turquoise waters teeming with sea life. Five-star resorts and down-home cooking. Towering mountains and clear waterfall pools. Steamy jungles and arid canyons. What else could a vacationer want?  Oh, an active volcano or three? A snowy peak in the middle of the ocean? A culture unlike any other on earth?  The islands of Hawaii have it all.


By Julie Ann Getzlaff