If you want to follow hot lava to the sea, hang out with dolphins, rappel down waterfalls and swim like a mermaid, you’re going to need more than one island.
When it comes to Hawaii, you might assume that with all the beautiful beaches and water to enjoy, one island is much the same as any other. But of the eight official islands here, six are easily accessible to visitors, and each offers something unique; so choosing which ones you are going to visit will certainly determine whether your experience is one of relaxation or exhilaration.
The best bet for visitors who want to dive into the variety Hawaii has to offer is to plan a trip that includes stops on multiple islands. That way, you’ll be sure to head home having experienced the unique charms of several — not to mention your Instagram photos sure to make friends wish they could have come along for the ride. Selecting which islands to visit and in what order is all part of the fun in the planning stages, so let’s take a look at some that you might want to mix and match for your own ideal island-hop.
The Two-sided Island
You’ve likely heard it referred to as “the Big Island,” but more recently, locals have been trying to shy away from that moniker and embrace its traditional name: Hawaii. Hawaii Island is essentially separated into two sides with utterly distinct personalities. As such, each also has its own airport; so for a wilder welcome, begin your journey by arriving at Hilo International Airport. Hilo is where lava lovers come to explore volcanoes. With Hawaii Volcanoes National Park right in its backyard, getting to the hot stuff is pretty convenient. While the park’s welcome center and park rangers can be helpful resources for visitors, take your trip to the next level by booking a trip with Hawaii Outdoor Guides.
Their full-day hiking tour will escort you to an active lava flow en route to the ocean. Being within mere feet of the slow moving red-hot lava and witnessing it descend into the ocean — creating a massive steam cloud — is unforgettable. But also consider your fitness level when making plans: the active hike can take 2-4 hours each way, depending on the speed of the group and it traverses some uneven terrain.
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After spending quality time with the volcanoes, drive across the island to the more resort-oriented side of Kona. Starting off with a hike will make this part feel all that much more like a relaxing reward. Feel like taking a swim with dolphins for company? Kona is the place to do it, and Sunlight on Water ensures the experience feels special. The company, which has been operating for almost two decades, is committed to providing a natural bonding experience with the dolphins and prides itself on being eco-aware. Their morning swim launches with a ceremonial greeting of the day before heading out on the boat “Uhane Nui O Nai’a” — which means “Great Spirit of the Dolphin” — to swim with completely free Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. Communing with these intelligent gentle creatures is an experience that can best be described as spiritual.
A Secret Escape
Your next island is known for being privately owned by billionaires and has long been a secret escape for those in the know. Thanks to massive renovation efforts — ensuring daily flights in and out — Lanai is experiencing a rebirth. What makes the place unique is its variety of different micro-climates and terrain — from tropical beaches to lush forests. Once there, you’ll want to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle, since there are only about 30 miles of paved road here, compared to more than 400 miles of dirt roads. Drive north along the rocky road that leads to Kaiolohia — also known as “Shipwreck Beach” — where you can hike an eight-mile stretch of shoreline to see the husk of a huge tanker ship claimed by its reef. Head back to Lanai City to check out its quaint little town square; then hike the Munro Trail to Koloiki Ridge to enjoy the vistas of neighboring islands. Jump in the saddle to ride horseback through ironwood forests or explore heritage sites on guided UTV tours. Afterwards, head south on Manele Road to the incredible Hulopoe Bay for some of the best snorkeling the islands have to offer, and make sure to take the short jaunt to Puu Pehe (“Sweetheart Rock”).
Lanai also offers you a chance to test your aim (regardless of skill level), in the form of archery or a clay target shooting. Expert instructors will stand at your side as you encounter a mix of 3-D and traditional targets. The local courses have recently been revamped and enhanced to provide some incredible experiences. While you’re sporting, Lanai is also home to the award-winning Signature Jack Nicklaus Manele Golf Course, with its cliffside holes and seaside landscapes.
From here, hop aboard Expeditions Maui for a 40-minute ferry ride to your next destination, where you’ll disembark at Lahaina, directly across from the famous sprawling Banyan Tree which was planted here nearly a century and a half ago.
For Epic Adventures
Maui may be an island known for romance and relaxation, but it’s also home to some big time thrills. Start off with a leisurely visit to Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery for a tour and tasting. Then it’s time to take to the sky with Proflyght Paragliding, where you’ll dash down a hill, then soar into the air — with the help of a certified instructor, of course.
To keep your adrenaline levels high, head over to Rappel Maui — one of the coolest waterfall tours of all the islands. Rappelling (descending a rockface by rope) is gravity-defying fun under any circumstances. But picture doing it down the side of a waterfall — feeling the cool fresh water around you as you descend. No previous experience is necessary, as the guides will provide necessary lessons and help build your confidence before eventually hanging back and letting you make your way down the ancient cliffs.
Another great way to get wet and experience nature is with Ka’anapali Surf Club’s Kayak and Eco Tour. You and your guide will kayak over to the Pu’u Keka’a (“Black Rock”), which was created by a lava flow that entered the sea hundreds of years ago. This area provides some of the best opportunities to see green sea turtles and tropical fish; it also offers amazing offshore views of the West Maui Mountains and the neighbor islands Lanai and Molokai. These tours are particularly interesting as the guides provide a good balance of info about island’s rich history, its local folklore and facts about its marine wildlife.
After seeing some beautiful creatures in the sea, it’s time to become one. With Hawaii Mermaid Adventures, visitors can “transform” into mermaids or mermen (pictured). Experienced instructors will help you shimmy into your “tail” and teach you the skills you need to swim like Ariel and company. You can make your way casually around the bay or test your skills by navigating a gauntlet of underwater obstacles. Don’t forget to have your instructors snap a few photos to commemorate the fishy fun.
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Two for the Road
This time around, we didn’t try to fit in Molokai, one of the lesser known islands, which welcomes less in the way of tourism traffic for a very specific reason: It’s one of the last places where travelers can truly be immersed in traditional Hawaiian culture. However, it takes a special type of visitor to appreciate the authentic but rustic experience. Also absent is Kauai, which does offer unconventional activities for the extreme sports lover. That island could be a thrill-seeking trip all its own. But hey, it’s always good to have a reason to return to paradise.
Hawaii’s most popular island is Oahu. Home to Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, this is usually where first-time Hawaii travelers tend to flock — and with good reason. But beyond its shops, sand and sunsets, the island has some incredible opportunities to have fun.
The North Shore is a great place to start: North Shore Eco Tours conducts tours on private property, ensuring that the scenery is unspoiled and that you have exclusive access to secluded areas. Let their guides fill you in on local nature and culture as you enjoy a private hike or an off-road adventure. While you’re in the neighborhood, the North Shore is also a great spot to sample the local street food and hit the waves, though it’s worth noting that during the winter surf season (November through March), swells can hit a towering 30 feet. So if you’re inexperienced, you might prefer to sit back and watch the pros — or visit at a different time of year.
Oahu offers thrills beyond riding the waves, of course. Head to Coral Crater Adventure Park for zip-lining, rock-climbing and ATV courses. In between the activities designed to get your heart pumping, there is also a picnic area offering less strenuous activities to enjoy while you catch your breath.
While many visitors to Hawaii are content to catch a Luau or find that stand-up paddle boarding provides more than enough excitement, those with a thirst for adventure will find plenty to get their pulses racing — whether you’re looking to swim with a dolphin or like a mermaid, hike alongside a lava flow or rappel down a waterfall, or simply enjoy the thrills of some of the world’s most intense waves. Even if you generally prefer a quieter vacation itinerary, you may find that stepping outside your comfort zone to soar in a paraglider can make the rest of your relaxation all the more savory an experience.
And, as for you adrenaline junkies: Don’t forget to set some time aside to stretch out and enjoy the sun on a beautiful Hawaiian beach. Even the most adventurous travelers need some down time. Aloha.
Read more about Hawaii in Mo’orea Means More of What You Love about Hawaii
Or A Hawaiian Feast of Must See Destinations
Check out our Resources section if you’re planning a trip
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Last modified: December 18, 2019