Photo by Jennifer Brotchie
Awash in music, lined with surf and sand and steeped in a deep and meaningful history, Hawaii’s four major islands encourage visitors to live the traditional spirit of aloha—of compassion, respect and love toward one another. And yet, each island has its own distinct feel and flavour. Here, we match island to vacation style, providing loose itineraries with the hopes of guiding you to your own perfect Pacific getaway.
Maui: For Ultimate Relaxation
Maui. Just saying the word out loud can serve to relieve a bit of stress. An island known the world over for its beautiful beaches and relaxed pace, it’s the ultimate place to wind down and enjoy some time in the sun. Start slowly by taking a whole day at the Grand Wailea’s Spa Grande, the largest spa in Hawaii (a whopping 50,000 square feet). Whether you’re a guest at the hotel or not, you can enjoy the spa’s 40 treatment rooms or the Terme Hydrotherapy Circuit, where you can spend hours luxuriating in the Roman tub, Japanese showers and cascading waterfalls.
For some low-key entertainment, head north to Napili Kai Beach Resort and check out the Masters of Hawaiian Music Slack Key Show, a big-tent show led by Grammy-winner George Kahumoku, Jr. Featuring dreamy island melodies, hula dancing and the telling of time-honoured stories, the show runs every Wednesday night and starts at 7:30 p.m. (You can also buy a package that includes dinner at the nearby Sea House Restaurant.)
To do some laid-back grazing, head up the broad, green side of the Haleakala volcano. Just an hour’s drive from some of Maui’s main beaches, the area around Kula—known locally as “upcountry”—features a small-town atmosphere and a series of farms where fresh ingredients are grown for restaurants across the island. Browse at fruit stands and visit places like O’o Farm, which provides farm tours finished off with a lunch cooked up and served on-site by an accomplished chef.
For the ultimate in “unplugged escape,” steer your way along the Road to Hana, a twisting route that takes you through bamboo groves and forests of eucalyptus trees to the quiet side of the island, where WiFi is sparse. On your way, soak in the healing waters of the Seven Sacred Pools (officially called Oheo Gulch), then proceed to the Travaasa Hana experiential resort in Hana. Park the car for a few days and get grounded with some guided meditation or yoga, or simply sit by the pool, which is built on the crest of a hill, with views out to the blue Pacific.
Don’t Miss A day trip to nearby Lanai, where the pace is two steps slower. Stroll around tiny Lanai City, tour through former pineapple fields, then relax on remote Shipwreck Beach.
Kauai: For an Eco Adventure
Photo by Jennifer Brotchie
The oldest of the Hawaiian Islands is also the state’s greenest and lushest, a perfect place to get outside and explore. Pull on your hiking boots and get your blood (and adrenaline) pumping on the legendary Kalalau Trail. Part of Kauai’s stunning Napali Coast—a remote stretch on the north side of the island—this trail will challenge even the most dedicated hiker. Running a total of 18 kilometres, the Kalalau skirts vertiginous sea cliffs and plunges through a total of five valleys before arriving at a secluded beach, passing wild, native vegetation along the way, as well as packs of wild goats (if you’re lucky).
But you don’t have to be a trailblazer to experience the Napali—you can see the coast and sheer, green cliffs from below on a boat cruise from Port Allen or a guided kayak trip from Napali Kayak in the town of Hanalei, which offers full-day adventures (be warned: the paddling can be challenging).
For a different kind of water experience, Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers the ultimate lazy river. Bump down rocky roads in a four-wheel-drive vehicle into the lush heart of the 17,000-acre Lihue Plantation, then strip down and ride a tube through its former irrigation system, hand-dug more than a century ago to water the plantation’s vast fields of sugar cane. It’s a refreshing ride, passing through tunnels and over gentle slopes, finishing near a picnic spot where you’ll have lunch.
If you’re after saltier pursuits, head to South Aliomanu Beach, a spot known mostly to locals who go there to swim and sunbathe at the lagoon, as well as fish for octopus and harvest seaweed.
Stay At the small andpersonal Koa Kea Hotel & Resort, which offers luxury accommodations right on Poipu Beach.
Don’t Miss Seeing the island’s splendour, including the broad, multi-hued Waimea Canyon, from above on a Blue Hawaiian Helicopter tour.
Oahu: For an “Urban” Island Stay
Photo by Jennifer Brotchie
Home to Hawaii’s biggest city (Honolulu), largest airport and most of the state’s population, the bright lights of Oahu have long beckoned travellers seeking cosmopolitan charms—like exciting cuisine, great shopping and perfect people-watching—with a tropical twist.
With almost a million people in the metro area, Honolulu hustles, from its tall downtown towers to the bustling and beloved sweep of beach at Waikiki, just to the south.
Honolulu’s Chinatown offers authentic pan-Pacific cuisine and some very cool cocktail bars where you can order a drink that goes well beyond the expected. An Old Fashioned at Manifest, for example, offers a choice of six different whiskies and aloha as an official ingredient. Beer-lovers, meanwhile, shouldn’t miss the nearby Honolulu BeerWorks, which has quickly become one of the city’s favourite craft breweries—it infuses its drafts with local citrus and honey.
For fine dining, try Alan Wong’s Honolulu, which won this year’s Hale Aina Award for best tasting menu and best restaurant on the island. Here, you’ll find cuisine that brings together all the cultural traditions of Hawaii, with a contemporary (and often experimental) take.
To get a real feel for the island, soak up the energy along Waikiki Beach, where there’s always something going on. Enjoy some contemporary Mexican food at Búho
Cocina y Cantina, one of the area’s only rooftop restaurants. Then stroll the high-end shops at the Royal Hawaiian Center—or, even better, hop on a trolley and take it to the mall at Ala Moana Center. The largest shopping centre in the state, Ala Moana was built for serious shoppers—it even provides adjacent accommodations, the Ala Moana Hotel, so you can literally shop until you drop.
Don’t Miss Walking in the footsteps of President Barack Obama, Honolulu’s most famous native son. Take a self-guided tour to see his old haunts, including the Baskin-Robbins where he worked as a teenager.
Big Island: For Sky and Lava Lovers
Hawaii Island is 1.7 times larger than all the other islands put together (which is why it is almost invariably known as the Big Island). It’s a place that invites visitors to both touch distant galaxies and see the earth being made.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park includes lush tropical rainforest and arid desert, but the lava here is the star of the show. Check out Mauna Loa, the world’s second largest volcano, and Kilauea, the traditional home of the goddess Pele and one of the most active volcanoes on earth. Drive Chain of Craters Road or hike the Napau and Naulu trails to see the dramatic black rock and soil from recent eruptions. Or get a good look at the hot, molten lava by flying over it on a Big Island Air tour, where you can actually see waves of liquid-hot magma rolling in a lava lake (the glow from a crater is also visible at dusk from a viewpoint at the park’s Jaggar Museum).
The Big Island’s allure extends past the terrestrial. When measured from its base on the sea floor to its summit, Mauna Kea is the world’s highest peak, significantly taller than Mount Everest at more than 10,000 metres. It is also one of the best places in the world for stargazing. The peak sits above the inversion layer of clouds, and the site enjoys both dark skies and low air turbulence. A company called Hawaii Forest and Trail provides tours to the summit, where you can don a warm coat and lean into the wind while taking in the sunset. Then you’ll make your way to a lower elevation where guides will show you the night sky through a high-powered telescope before serving you hot chocolate—one of the few times you’ll need to warm up during your Hawaiian vacation.
Stay At the Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, a luxurious hotel that stretches along a prime part of the beautiful Kohala Coast overlooking an aquamarine lagoon.
Don’t Miss The opportunity to swim and sunbathe on black sand. Sink your bare feet into the volcanic soil at Punalu’u Beach.