Hawaii is such a special place, as anyone who’s been would agree. From snowy mountains to dolphin-filled waters and intensely green volcanoes, there’s an almost endless array to choose from when visiting.
With a whole chain of islands, each of which is unique, a Hawaii itinerary could go on and on, but here is a roundup of the very best activities across the Hawaiian Islands if you’re itching to find out what to do in Hawaii as you plan your trip:
Swim with Dolphins on the Big Island
Hawaii is most special because of its island lifestyle, which means that you absolutely have to spend some time in the ocean while you’re there! There are dozens of amazing underwater opportunities throughout the islands, but some of the most noteworthy are snorkeling at Hanauma Bay on Oahu and swimming with dolphins or manta rays on the Big Island.
Drive Maui’s Road to Hana
Maui’s Road to Hana is one of the most breathtaking experiences that the Hawaiian Islands have to offer. The beautiful 64-mile drive has more than 600 turns which lead you to countless waterfalls, beaches, small towns, and lookouts. Many of Maui’s hidden treasures — like the Seven Sacred Pools — are nestled along the journey. If you don’t plan on renting your own vehicle, you can also book a small group tour here.
Visit Colorful Beaches
Not only is Hawaii home to more beautiful beaches than one could count, each one is unique! Some of the coolest ones around are those with unusual colors, like Kehena Black Sand Beach, Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, all on the Big Island. Explore all the different types and colors you can!
Hawaii isn’t all about the beaches and the ocean, though its topography consists just as much of mountains and volcanoes! (And to be fair, they’re nothing short of awe-inspiring.) Be sure to check out Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, especially the lava tubes. Or, watch a spectacular sunrise from Maui’s Haleakalā.
Nothing says “Hawaii” like surfing! I took a surf lesson while on a solo trip to Maui, and it was a fantastic experience. No matter which island you’re on, there are bound to be dozens of great spots to catch a wave, as well as plenty of reputable surf schools. The best part about surfing in Hawaii is how warm the waters are, so you don’t even need a wetsuit like you would in many other places around the world.
We all know that the song says, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls,” but a trip to Hawaii is the exception to the rule! These gorgeous features are scattered all over the islands, and no two are exactly alike. Some of the most noteworthy are Akaka Falls on the Big Island, the countless falls nestled in Oahu’s Ko’olau Mountain Range, and Kauai’s Wailua Falls.
Hiking is the perfect activity in Hawaii because it can be enjoyed on any island and topography. One of my favorite hikes is the Big Island’s Pololu Valley Trail, which takes you down the coastal cliffs to a secluded black sand beach! Other famous hikes include Oahu’s Diamond Head, Maui’s Waihee Ridge Trail, and Kauai’s intense but beautiful Kalalau Trail.
Explore Kauai’s Waimea Canyon
At 14 miles long, a mile wide and more than 3,600 feet deep, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” can’t be missed. Waimea Canyon — on the southwest side of Kauai — is home to tall waterfalls, breathtaking views, and the winding Waimea River below. Take advantage of the canyon’s free admission to enjoy the countless trails and lookout points as well as the stunning color scheme of the gorge.
Want to see it from above? Here’s an affordable air tour that will take you through the Waimea Canyon.
See Oahu’s Byodo-In Temple
The Byodo-In Temple on Oahu is a highly detailed replica of the original Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Japan, which was built nearly 1,000 years ago and is now a United Nations World Heritage Site. The Hawaiian version was constructed in 1968 in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the arrival of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants. Not only is the temple itself marvelous, but also the surrounding grounds are equally as tranquil and beautiful. While Byodo-In is a Buddhist temple, people of all faiths are welcome to visit.
4-Wheel Drive on Lanai
Lanai is one of the smallest Hawaiian islands at an area of about 140 square miles. (For reference, Kauai has an area of about 550 square miles, and Maui measures about 730 square miles.) Because the island is so small (and rugged, too), it sees few tourists and has even fewer paved roads. The island doesn’t even have a single traffic light! The coolest thing to do here, then, is rent a jeep and cruise around the rocky island with a four-wheel drive! Don’t let this intimidate you; anyone can have a great time adventuring around the island, even with little to no experience driving on roads like this.
Explore Botanical Gardens
Above all else, the Hawaiian Islands are lush, green, and abundant in flora and fauna. (Well, except for Lanai!) Take some time to enjoy the incredible natural scenery no matter which island you are on by visiting one of the countless botanical gardens scattered throughout the islands. Check out the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on the Big Island, the Allerton or McBryde Botanical Gardens on Kauai, the Lili’uokalani or Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens on Oahu, or the Kula Botanical Garden on Maui.
Watch for Whales
From December to May (and especially in January, February, and March), large numbers of humpback whales migrate from the Gulf of Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands where they enjoy the warm, shallow waters. A large majority of North Pacific whales return to the islands yearly, scientists believe, annually completing the 3,000-mile journey to breed, calve, and raise their young. The whales can be seen just offshore of any of the islands, but one of the best spots for whale watching is the Auau Channel between Lanai, Maui, and Molokai. If you’re lucky, you’ll even spot one breaching!
Tour a Kona Coffee Farm
One of the coolest things to do on the Big Island is learn about that world-famous Kona coffee! There’s a reason it’s so special: the coffee beans grow wonderfully, thanks to both the frequent cloud cover and the rich, volcanic soil of the island. The resulting flavor and aroma of Kona coffee is simply unbeatable! Embrace the coffee culture of the Big Island by touring a working coffee farm, where you’ll get to learn more about the growing process, production, and end result of Kona coffee!
Spend an afternoon hiking through the forest and zooming across the island high above the treetops by going on a zipline tour! Nearly every island has at least one company with which you can zipline, and it is an amazing experience. Through and through, ziplining is an exciting outdoor adventure which allows you to take in much of the island and experience its unique ecosystem in a thrilling way.
Visit Maui’s Molokini Crater
Molokini Crater, just about three miles off the southwest coast of Maui, is a partially submerged, crescent-shaped volcanic crater. Molokini is special not only because it is the remains of a 230,000-year-old volcano, but because it also has become an atoll, or a ring-shaped coral reef. Its crescent shape protects against strong waves and currents, which makes for great snorkeling and diving; in fact, the stillness of the water allows for visibility which can even reach 150 feet of depth! The reef is home to nearly 250 species of fish and almost 40 species of coral, and therefore, has been named a State Marine Life & Bird Conservation District. Molokini is even a great spot for whale watching! Because the crater is a hub for all kinds of different creatures, it a must-see when visiting Maui!
Tube Through Kauai’s Mountain Country
Hop on a tube and wind your way through the canal system that was once used to irrigate sugar crops on the Lihue Sugar Cane Plantation! The ride is part adventure, part outdoor excursion, and part laid-back float. Small waterfalls and choppy currents keep the ride exciting, dark tunnels lit up by your headlamps add a thrill, and a day out in Kauai’s backcountry can’t be beat! Try it for yourself with Kauai Backcountry Adventures.
While this list can’t possibly have everything the Hawaiian Islands has to offer, it’s a great start for nature-loving, adventurous types who want the perfect mix. There’s infinitely more cultural, culinary, and aquatic adventures to be had, and I, for one, look forward to exploring them for years to come.