The Ultimate Travel Guide to Hawaii

May 7, 2016

Best places to visit in Hawaii

Do you need a break? Or perhaps you’re looking for an adventure? Something to stir the soul and rejuvenate the senses. Hawaii is the place for you.

Growing up in Alaska, our prime vacation destination was Hawaii. This gives me quite a bit of experience (5 trips and 4 islands) to offer those who are looking to escape to this tropical paradise. Since I went to Oahu when I was younger, I don’t remember much except for the one day we went to the Dole Pineapple Garden Maze. In short, it was a-MAZE-ing 😛

This guide to the Hawaiian Islands covers:

  • Fun facts about the Hawaiian Islands
  • Top 7 things to do in Hawaii (regardless of the island you are visiting)
  • What to do on the Big Island Hawaii
  • Things to do on Maui
  • Best places to go on Kauai
  • What to bring on your trip (and what to take back home)

Things to do in Hawaii

Fun Facts About the Hawaiian Islands

The bluest, clearest water and the sweetest of tropical smells–That’s Hawaii in a snapshot.

Hawaii is made up of eight islands and it’s actually the second widest state, next to Alaska
Hawaii map

All beaches, with the exception of some government-owned beaches, are public so don’t feel like you need to skip out on a nice beach just because it is hidden behind a resort. It’s my family’s tradition to resort crash the fanciest hotels on the island and walk around, take pictures, and then go to the beach. (Usually, you only have to pay a small fee for parking.)

Have you heard of Kona Coffee? Hawaii is the only U.S. state to grow and produce coffee. You definitely need to try a cup (or two or three) when visiting. Nothing quite starts off your day like vanilla macadamia nut Kona coffee.

Hawaii has done a superb job at preserving their culture through luaus, traditional food and even the Hawaiian language (you will definitely need to know Aloha and Mahalo!).

One island isn’t open to non-Hawaiians: Niihau, which was purchased and now preserved by the Robinson family. Molokai has only recently been opened to non-Hawaiians. The island acted as a Lepard colony for years.

More #FunFacts can be found here.

Top 7 Things to do in Hawaii

Regardless which island you end up visiting, whether you go for the busy tourist destination Maui or the epic picturesque Kauai, there are just some things you should always do.

  1. Eat papaya with lime
  2. Visit farmers markets (and, of course, try a bunch of unique local fruits)
  3. Try new foods (Poi, the purple stuff, and poke, deconstructed sushi. Lomi salmon, shaved ice and taro boba drinks are amazing as well!)
  4. Go to a luau (Don’t forget to get the girls in your life real leis! You can put them in plastic bags in the fridge to keep them fresh longer.)
  5. Drink Kona coffee
  6. Go snorkeling, boogie boarding and any other water activity you like!
  7. Drive around the island in a convertible

Fun Things to do on the Big Island Hawaii

Top things to do on the Big Island Hawaii

On the Big Island, we rented the Pu’uhonua House on the west side of the island. The owner was very nice! He would leave fresh fruit from the fruit trees surrounding the property (bananas, lemons and passion fruit) and even some coffee! The house was huge with 4 rooms and a loft, which could also be used as a room. The third floor was almost completely surrounded my sliding glass doors which gave such a spectacular view of the island! Besides being fully furnished and beautifully decorated, the house also had a hammock, grill, boogie boards, snorkel gear and water shoes that anyone could use.

houses to rent on big island hawaii Pu'uhonua House

We actually were there during the Dengue Fever scare but the host provided bug spray for us and none in our family got sick. Since the glass doors could slide, tiny green geckos would crawl under and they entertained my 2-year-old nephew for hours!!

The only thing I didn’t like about the house was the location, it was a good 15 minute drive (which seems longer with a toddler in the car) to the beach, the shops at Kailua-Kona and most other entertainment. However, there was an amazing gelato place right down the street from the house called Gypsea Gelato.

Along the main strip in Kailua-Kona, you can go shopping at the farmers markets like Ali’i Garden Marketplace (where you can find amazing homemade soap which I mention in the below section of what to buy in Hawaii) or the Kona Farmer’s Market and then you can cross the street and go boogie boarding at Magic Sands beach!

Black Sand Beach - Turtle Beach Big Island Hawaii

Since we had my two-year-old nephew with us, we didn’t do much hiking.  We did hike to the black sand beach at Kiholo Bay, which was totally worth the 2 mile trek across sandy coast and a lava field! We saw dozens of giant turtles on the beach! There’s not a lot of room to just lay out and relax on the black sand (it’s also rougher sand) but the views were gorgeous and it was a really fun place to explore! I even got to swim alongside the turtles in their natural habitat (but it’s against the law to touch the turtles FYI). The water at Kiholo Bay is cold and has a weird salty look since it’s where salt water meets fresh water, this means you can’t see very far in it…kinda creepy!

turtle in hawaii in Kiholo Bay

My sister and her husband also went hiking by themselves at Arch City (which is pictured at the beginning of this section). Arch City, famous for its naturally forming lava rock bridge, is located next to Honaunau Bay in Kona. It made for a pretty epic picture! Lastly, we visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Since it was the day time we couldn’t see any lava flowing.

Hawaii Volcano

Lastly, we visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Since it was the day time we couldn’t see any lava flowing (usually you have to go at night and actually take a boat over to where the lava is flowing into the ocean but I’ve heard it’s super bouncy and since you can’t really see land people often get really sea sick!). It was still cool to walk around and see the craters puffing out smoke and we also went into the lava tube there. The Volcanoes National Park is located closer to Hilo (the other big city on Hawaii) but since we visited that area on previous trips we didn’t really do much in that area this trip. I think I like the Kona side more than Hilo anyways.

lava tube on the Big Island Hawaii

The last tourist attraction that people often hike around is Mauna Kea, which is the highest point in Hawaii. People often have to bring coats up with them since it can get very cold up there! On previous trips, we’ve tried driving up the mountain but you feel like you’re killing your car since it is so steep and so high! However, I’ve heard the view from the top is pretty spectacular!

Snorkeling at two step beach hawaii

In regards to snorkeling, my favorite was probably Two Step beach, which is located right next to the City of Refuge. There isn’t much of a beach there, so if you do go, go for the snorkeling. The City of Refuge talked a lot about the history of the Hawaiian people especially in regards to their spiritual culture. Very interesting and took only about an hour to walk through.

City of Refuge in Hawaii

We also went snorkeling at the Captain Cook Monument, which you can only get to by boat or by a really dangerous hike.

kayaking at Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island Hawaii

We kayaked out to the bay with a local who provided the kayaks (it was part of a package from the Pu’uhonua House) and then went into the water to snorkel for several hours! The guide explained the history of the holes in the cliff wall (how they buried the Hawaiian chiefs) and even came into the water to help us find starfish. The guide also brought along Naupaka plant leaves which he then crushed and rubbed the green slime over the inside of our goggles so they wouldn’t get foggy.

snorkeling at Captain Cook Monument in Hawaii

Out of all the beaches we went to, Hapuna Beach was the biggest and had the best waves (they were huge!!). However, a few years ago my family hiked out to the green sand beach. It’s quite the hike (sometimes you can pay some guys in a pickup truck to drive you over there) but the green sand is unbelievably gorgeous! The waves had a strong undertow so not really a safe place to go swimming but somehow it’s still worth the trek.

Top beaches on the Big Island Hawaii

Hapuna Beach

On a previous trip, one of my favorite activities was horseback riding at Waimea. It’s an absolutely beautiful place, especially if you can make it to the Waipi’o Valley.

The luau we went to was called Island Breeze Luau in Kona. They had great food and entertainment although I thought the laua I went to in Maui was better.

This may sound weird but my family always goes to the most expensive resorts in the area to explore and take photos. On the Big Island we went to Hilton Waikoloa Village, which was absolutely gorgeous and so fun to explore! They even have a boat transportation system which carries you from one part of the resort to the next!! Definitely the prettiest resort on the island!

I mentioned drinking Kona coffee in the “must do in Hawaii” section. On the Big Island of Hawaii our rental house was right next to a pretty cool coffee farm but there are hundreds of coffee farms in the area and some of the better known farms are Greenwell farms, Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation and Hula Daddy Kona Coffee. Most of the coffee farms offer free tours and, of course, free coffee samples!

Things to do in Maui Hawaii

Things to do in Maui Hawaii

In Maui the majority of our days were spent at the beach snorkeling and boogie boarding (usually the resort will have equipment). For snorkeling we went to Honolua Bay and Kapalua Bay. My family has Worldmark time share so when we went to Maui we stayed at Worldmark Kihei, which was nice and only a 5 minute walk to the beach. For me, being close to the beach (5-10 min walk max) is a must since I love walking on the beach early in the morning with my tea and watching the sunrise. Most big resorts (Hyatt, Hilton, Ali’i etc) are very close to beaches.

If this is your first trip to Hawaii and are looking for a taste of everything, Maui is a great place to start!

We drove across the island one day on the Hana highway- it really is a gorgeous drive but somewhat terrifying at parts if I remember correctly. Definitely rent a convertible if you drive the island a lot! Even if it’s just for 24 hours it is so worth it and a completely different experience. You could also get a moped but I think those are somewhat dangerous if you have bad balance or aren’t used to riding one.

You could spend a few hours hiking around the volcano Haleakala… though it tends to be boring if no lava is flowing (which I don’t think it still is). Still cool to say you’ve seen a volcano!

One of the reasons we vacationed in Hawaii so much growing up was because my dad use to have to go there for his sales job (tough life… lol). My dad said that in those days lava would just be flowing right next to the highway (and sometimes on it!)

We did a lot of hiking when we went to Maui- my favorite was the Pools at Ohe’o, which are also called the 7 Sacred Pools. (pictured above)

While we didn’t go on any boat trips in Maui, we did in Kauai (read below) and I would definitely recommend it! Since Hawaii has such clear water, seeing dolphins and whales is just spectacular there! Talking about sea life, the Maui Ocean Center is also a great place to explore, especially if you have kids!

And of course you have to go to a luau– we had ours at the Hyatt Hotel in Maui (pictured below). They have live penguins in the hotel!! Even if you don’t stay at the Hyatt or go to the luau there, I would highly recommend taking a few hours to just walk around the hotel and visit the beach there (yes, you can do that even if you’re not a guest).

Best luau in Maui Hawaii - Hyatt

At the luau, be sure to try poi (the purple stuff) and poke (deconstructed sushi).  You should also try their lomi salmon– it’s so good!!

If you’re looking for a good restaurant in Maui, try Duke’s (they are also on Kauai)! They are well-known for their Hula Pie and the atmosphere is awesome!

Lastly, Hawaii has such a unique culture so I would suggest learning more about it while you’re there. While a luau definitely teaches you a lot about it, we also went to The Maui Theatre to see Ulalena: The Story of Hawaii’s People and we were really impressed with how good it was!

Things to do in Kauai Hawaii

What to do in Kauai Hawaii

In terms of beauty, Kauai is my favorite island! My husband and I felt like we were in some mystical dream the entire time we were there! There’s less lava rock in Kauai than the Big Island. Instead, there are lush, tall, jagged mountains. Kauai is also unique in that wild chickens and roosters are everywhere…I mean EVERYWHERE! It’s insane. I asked a local there if they ever buy chicken from a store or if they go out and just hunt down one of the wild ones. She said the wild ones were too tough and gamey to eat. :/

chicken in Kauai Hawaii

If you love adventure, hiking and exploring  then Kauai is the Hawaiian island for you.

In Kauai, we stayed at the Villas of Poipu Kai. The condo is a 7 minute walk from Poipu beach, which had a great little bay for kids away from the waves, too. The condo had a great kitchen and three bedrooms with three bathrooms. The Villas also had a nice pool area and a jacuzzi with a waterfall coming down into it.

Besides Duke’s restaurant, I would highly suggest eating at Tortilla Republic. Their quesadilla is the best I’ve ever had!! Tortilla Republic was located in a little shopping area only a few minutes away from the Villas. Once a week the shopping center also has a farmers market with tons of vendors!

Wailua Falls in Kauai Hawaii

Kauai has gorgeous waterfalls like Kapaa falls and Wailua falls (those were the two we went to see). I also heard that Kipu Falls has a zip line and the Makaleha mountains were a beautiful hiking place with a waterfall as well. We stopped by the waterfalls on our way up to Hanalei beach. Hanalei beach was great for boogie boarding. One side of the super long beach had smaller waves and then on the other side of the beach was bigger waves. It also had a pier that people were jumping off of.

best beach in Kauai Hawaii Hanalei beach

On our way back from the beach we stopped at the Lihue Lighthouse. It was closed by the time we got there (so you should definitely check out their open hours to make sure you don’t miss it if you go) but we could still see the lighthouse and got some pretty pictures of it.

Lighthouse in Kauai Hawaii

One of the best days in Hawaii was spent on the HoloHolo Catamaran in Kuaui. The trip took about 6 hours. We started the morning off with breakfast on the boat and snorkeling off of the coast. The snorkeling wasn’t fantastic but some of the people saw a seal. The boat did provide snorkeling gear.

dolphins we saw from the HoloHolo Catamaran trip in Kauai

We rode the boat around the coast of Kauai while tours pointed out significant parts of the landscape, such as where the beginning scene of Jurassic Park was filmed (pictured in the first picture of the blog post). Waterfalls are all over the coast and the captain even got the boat close enough to one to have everyone at the front of the boat to get wet! It was crazy! They also provided a delicious sandwich lunch. We got to chase dozens of spinning dolphins (pictured in the first image on this page) and even saw hump back whales (yes plural!) It was a crazy awesome adventure! Unfortunately, I’ve heard not everyone has such an amazing experience, it depends on the weather.

Best things to do in Kauai Hawaii

Lastly, you should definitely explore the NePali Mountains! Whether you go for one of the extreme hikes along the coast or just through the Waimea Canyon, hike-explore-discover!

One area that we only got to briefly explore was Hanapepe, which was were our catamaran went out from. We were planning to stop by the famous Glass Beach afterwards but one of the guides said there was no glass left (all the tourist took it home!)

If you’re an extreme hiker and dare devil, you should definitely make it to the Queen’s Bath. The pictures are gorgeous from what I’ve seen but it’s supposedly a very dangerous hikes and tourists are killed every year trying to attempt it. :/

Next time we go we also plan on taking a helicopter tour around the NePali Coast.

While on the catamaran we saw some sea caves. I heard you can take Jetskis to go in and out of  the Waiahuakua sea caves.

Things to Bring to Hawaii (besides the obvious)

Be sure to leave at least 5 pounds in your checked bag so that you can bring stuff back with you or just make sure there is room in your carryons to bring stuff back…cus you’re gonna wanna bring stuff back.

Swimming suit cover ups. Not to state the obvious but beaches are everywhere. It’s easier for guys to just wear their swim trunks everywhere but girls have to put a lot more thought into it. My sisters and I actually bought fast drying running shorts (with the underwear built in) and sports bras so that we could just wear a tank top over it and then be beach ready in an instant! You’ll notice I also had a cute grey coverup dress on for many of my pictures. Having a cute and somewhat modest cover up for your swim suit comes in handy when you want to take great pictures but don’t want to be in your swim suit for all of them.

Goggles and snorkling mask. (Usually you can rent or buy masks there too but I don’t like using other people’s snorkling masks- though def just rent or borrow flippers there).

Reef shoes (water shoes) comes in handy especially in places that have lots of lava rocks that hurt your feet (these are a must if you are going to the Big Island).

Sweater or light jackets. So keep in mind, we always went in ‘winter’ so I’m not sure if this applies to you but it gets cold at night so it’s always nice to have a sweater for backup.

Go Pro. Taking under water pictures is such a blast so I highly suggest you invest in a Go Pro or underwater camera. (All underwater photos you see here were taken with a Go Pro.)

Besides sunscreen, bring mosquito repellant. Not sure how bad mosquitoes will be when you go but they were bad for us!

Beach bag. It’s a good idea to make sure one of your carry-ons can act as a beach bag that’s easy to carry (ie it’s ok if sand and water get in it and it’s easy to clean).

Also in hawaii there are macadamia everything. BUT if you are going to buy chocolate covered macadamias for gifts for people back home (which are very popular) be sure to check Ross out if you have one in your area before you leave. They have similar brands (ie Hawaiian hostess) that are in Hawaii (usually) and for a cheaper price… but they don’t have all the flavors that most Hawaii shops have. btw talking about shops, the ABC store is their common tourist store and usually fair prices. Warning: food is more expensive in Hawaii than what you’re probably use to!

A few other tips, taking lava rock home is considered a curse (seriously look it up – it’s kinda hilarious). Locals will yell at you if they catch you standing on a reef. To make your lei last longer, keep it in a gallon zipblock bag in the fridge.

What Souveniers to Take Back With You From Hawaii

This is the question that plagued my nights in Hawaii. What can you ever buy to really commemorate such an experience. Well here’s a few things I never regretted buying in Hawaii:

  • Kona Natural Soap, mentioned above in the Big Island section, is handcrafted in Hawaii. They use only natural ingredients, many of which they grow on their farm. Their logo is pretty ingenius too with the shape of the Big Island on the shell of a turle. I bought their wooden soap holder, which I love, and so far my favorite soap from them is the Mauna Ua, which is a blend of grapefruit, cinnamon cassia, and ground papaya seeds. (For those who don’t know, I collect handmade soaps is this one is by far my favorite!) Even if you don’t plan on going to Hawaii, you can order this soap online, click here. The owners have given me a special code for you guys to get 10% off soaps and kukui nut oil. Just type in HOKU and mention in the comment DIY Home Health sent you. (Also, if you are in the Harrisburg, PA region, you can email me (alicia.whitecavage [at] gmail [dot] com) and I’ll place a group order so we can share on shipping which is a flat $11 no matter how much we buy. )
  • For men, Hawaiian shirt, which you can wear for the luau and then every other “hawaiian party” afterwards.
  • Mauna Lau chocolate covered macadamias. This is a great gift for coworkers and friends back home but here’s a secret why carry that weight when you can buy the same chocolate covered macadamias from Ross back on the mainland.
  • Sand and Shells. I’ll admit, I’m one of THOSE tourist who collects sand and shells from the places she’s visited. It’s such a great way to remember your trip! My mom now has sand from four of the islands in a tall glass vase (including black sand and green sand).
  • Coffee- Hawaii is the only state that produces coffee and taking a bag back with you to share with your friends while talking about your trip is fun to do 😀
  • For kids, I always loved getting Hawaiian necklaces and plastic plumeria flowers for my hair.

Whatever you buy, it should be something that you look at that will make you remember of the good times you spent in Hawaii. Remember whatever you get you have to take home with you so don’t get it unless you know you have the weight in your suitcase to spare (or if you’re just willing to pay the fee to be overweight).

Mahalo friends for reading my guide. I would love for you to share your experiences in Hawaii and any suggestions you may have for my many trips I plan to take back there!


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