Once your swimsuits are ready for a dose of vitamin sea… your shades are in that sunny state of mind, and you jet off above the clouds, Hawaii awaits!!
“Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace”… indeed!
For those who are just starting their homework, The Hawaiian Island chain consists of hundreds of minor islands extending northwest into the Pacific. However, there are only eight major islands, as they are the biggest and oldest islands. From youngest to oldest the islands are: Hawai’i Island (a.k.a. The Big Island), Maui, Kaho’olawe, Moloka’i, Lana’i, O’ahu, Kaua’i, and Ni’ihau. With limited days in hand, it’s certainly not possible to visit these tiny pieces of heaven all at the same time, we selected The Big Island and Maui to start with.
Before you visit:
- Remember – There are many islands to choose from. So do your homework and pick islands based on what interests you most. E.g.
For Authenticity & Vibe + Lava viewing: Big Island
Most commercialized/ touristy island + shopping: Oahu
Serene road trips/ scenic drives, waterfalls and Luau shows: Maui
Remote beaches, going “off the grid”: Molokai
- 10 days is the minimum I’d recommend for first time visitors if you are planning on covering more than one island.
- Best time to visit is from June-September (“summer” or drier months), although micro climates exist on every island and during the peak periods (***Read- U.S. school holiday seasons***) traffic can be particularly bad, accommodation prices ridiculously high, and beaches and hiking trails feeling overcrowded. If you must visit during this time, consider heading to Molokai or to the Big Island.
- High winds, downpours, scorching sun, and dipping temperatures can hit you all in the course of a day, pack accordingly.
Few items that are of particular use for a trip to Hawaii: snorkeling gear (fins will come in handy), reef shoes, car charger, light rain gear, sweat-repelling clothing, evening wear, beach sarong, sun protection, picnic gear, mosquito repellent, dry sacks and waterproof pouches (for hiking and boat tours), heavy winter gear if planning to visit Mauna Kea/Mauna Loa (Big Island) or Haleakala (Maui).
- Hawaii has some of the world’s most dangerous beaches and swimming spots. Please DO NOT IGNORE the sign boards and beware of High surf conditions.
- Hitchhiking is pretty common for short distances and Renting a car is highly recommended for all islands.
- Relax and Respect People, culture and the pristine nature. “Island time is a real thing in Hawaii.”
The trip begins:
We flew from San Francisco to KOA (Kona) in January and first five days in our itinerary were reserved for the Big Island. They don’t call it the Big Island for nothing, it’s a diverse paradise larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together. 11 of the 13 micro-climates that exist on our planet can be found on this island and we decided to explore this piece land in it’s entirety. I have to admit that it was not very cheap and we had to shell out thousands of bucks for flights and accommodation; that too when we had booked everything way in advance!!
Drive across the island from Kona to Hilo city
Coconut Island (Mokuola)
Kehena Black Sand Beach, Pahoa
STOP 1: Hilo city
Like majority of the tourists, first ritual for us after landing was to pick up the rental car from Kona airport (our bold and beautiful “Jeep Wrangler”). Thereafter, we decided to drive towards east for 2.5 hrs. towards our airbnb via Coconut island, Hilo city and the famous Hilo rainforests.
Hilo is a beautiful coastal town with plenty of restaurants, shops, galleries, boutiques and the famous Tsunami Museum. Definitely worth a stroll! We found an amazing Mexican restaurant here for lunch – Lucy’s Taqueria – busy, laid back, lively – perfect for a delicious lunch!!
STOP 2: Coconut Island (Mokuola)
“Mokuola” most commonly known as Coconut Island in Hilo, literally it means ‘healing island.’ Moku meaning island and ola meaning life. Historically, people came to Mokuola for spring water believed to have healing qualities. This island is accessible by a walkway from the parking lot just behind the Hilo Hawaiian hotel (great hotel) and great for all day lounging in the sun under a palm tree with amenities nearby. You can picnic there, swim or just sit and take it all in.
STOP 3: Kehena Black Sand Beach, Pahoa
Kehena beach was one of the most amazing spots for us in Big island and luckily walkable from the our airbnb amidst rain forests and our go-to spot for next couple of days. The beach is accessible by hiking down a relatively short cliff. It’s a clothing optional, off-the-beaten-track beach with Bohemian vibes and deep, big waves. Besides the characters, expect some nudity, pot smoking, magic mushrooms and music (drum circle) on Sundays.
- Listen to locals and do not swim if they advise you not to!
Kilauea Visitor’s Center
Chain of Craters Road
Crater Rim Drive
Holei Sea Arch
Perhaps the biggest reason why we planned to add Big Island to our itinerary was my excitement to see the glow of red hot molten Lava. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located on the big island of Hawaii, is a rain-forest area that also happens to include two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. The park consists of over 330,000 acres that include rain-forest, lava trails, mountain cliffs, and even desert. We started early morning, had our lunch packed and it wasn’t a long drive to the park from where we stayed.
- In May 2018, Kīlauea exploded. This violent activity shook Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, causing the park to close due to earthquakes, toxic ash, and unpredictable lava flows. Damage to the park and its structures has left the Thurston Lava Tube closed, as well as most trails and roads that go past the operating areas.
- Currently (as of 30th Jan 2020) no active lava is visible in the park or anywhere in the island of Hawai’i.
- Although the park is open 24-hours a day, before visiting the park, make sure to check the latest updates/ Alerts in-effect on your points of interest in the NPS site.
- You’ll need a rental car to explore the park as there is no public transportation within the park. The two main roads visitors will travel are Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. All roads in the park are two-wheel drive roadways and do not require four-wheel drive vehicles.
- The lava viewing is best at night and stargazing can be spectacular in this area as well. Make sure you have plenty of food packed for a full day of adventuring in the park.
STOP 1: Kaimū Beach Park, Kilauea Visitor’s Center and Volcano art center
The Kilauea Visitor’s Center is open from 9am-5pm daily. I strongly recommend you stop here on your way in. They have excellent informational boards that list attractions, ranger talks, current conditions, and suggested itineraries for spending an hour, a full day, or multiple days in the park. Just to the left of the Visitor Center is the original Volcano House Lodge which serves now as the Volcano Art Center. The center is a great place to pick up unique, handmade Hawaiian gifts.
STOP 2: Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks
After leaving Kilauea Visitor Center, drive .8 miles to the Steam Vents. You can’t miss them along the left side. Ground water seeps down to the hot volcanic rocks in this area. The water returns to the surface as steam, creating these vents. There is a short walk that you can take around the Steam Vents, but this stop won’t take more than 10 minutes.
The Sulphur Banks are located across the street from the Steam Vents. This paved path is wheelchair accessible. At the Sulphur Banks, volcanic gases seep out of the ground along with groundwater steam. These gases contain carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide (which makes it smell like rotten eggs).
- Visitors with heart or respiratory problems (such as asthma), pregnant women, infants, or young children should skip the Sulphur Banks. The smell can be pretty hard to take, so if you start to feel sick, just leave.
STOP 3: Kilauea Iki Overlook and Puʻu Puaʻi Overlook
Next, drive to the Kilauea Iki Overlook. There is so much history in this park, and many of the hardened lava flows that you see took place not that long ago. In 1959, Kilauea Iki was a lava lake. During that time, lava fountains could be seen as high as 1,900 feet!
By now, Kilauea Iki has hardened and you can walk on it if you decide to do the 4-mile moderate Kilauea Iki Trail. If you only have one day in the park, though, it would be best to skip this trail and continue on your journey.
The Pu’u Pua’i (meaning gushing hill) overlook area is the upper trailhead for Devastation Trail, which provides a full view of the spatter cone.
STOP 4: Devastation Trail
This short paved trail travels for about a half mile over cinders from the violent 1959 eruption of Kīlauea Iki. This hike is interesting because it shows how the flora is rapidly reclaiming the lava destruction.
STOP 5: Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku)
The Thurston Lava Tube is one of the most popular attractions in the park. It’s about 1/3 mile walk and takes about 20-30 minutes. The area around the lava tube is unlike many other areas of the park because you will walk through a lush forest to get to it.
- Currently closed, but it may re-open soon according to sources.
STOP 6: Holei Sea Arch
Next, take the drive down to Holei Sea Arch. You will be taking Chain of Craters road to get here, so stop at any lookout points along the way that look interesting to you. You will pass many miles of lava rock. There will be information about all of the different lava flows at each stop.
To get to the Holei Sea Arch, park your car and take a short walk down to the ocean. Holei Sea Arch is about 90 feet tall and was created within the last 100 years. This natural arch was formed by lava and water and will one day crumble into the ocean. Holei Sea Arch is a spectacular sight to see, and so are the views as you look out into the ocean.
STOP 7: Dinner at Volcano House
Located on the edge of the volcano in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this hotel offers rooms with views of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater or the lush rainforest. A full service restaurant is onsite –
Located on the edge of the volcano in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this hotel offers rooms with views of the Halema‘uma‘u Crater or the lush rainforest. A full service restaurant is onsite – Featuring island cuisine and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pepe’ekeo (Onomea) scenic drive
Akaka falls state park
STOP 1: Rainbow Falls
A not-so-hidden gem, very easy to get to waterfall…just outside downtown Hilo. But don’t let the name mislead you! Conditions have to be just right for the rainbows to appear. Mostly on sunny mornings, rainbows appear in the mist of this 80-foot fall, making for some pretty magical views.
STOP 2: Pepe’ekeo (Onomea) scenic drive
Aka “Four Mile Scenic Drive”, this old road is covered in tall rainforest trees, plants abloom, and crosses deep narrow water-worn gulches on one-lane bridges. A must-stop is the iconic now-fallen sea arch at Onomea Bay. Park before or after the bridges *IF* you find space to be fully off the road, for a refreshing view of streams, small falls, and even an old man-made underground irrigation tunnel from the plantation days.
STOP 3: Akaka falls state park
This park features two beautiful waterfalls – Akaka and Kahuna falls in a lush rain forest near Hilo. The falls are visible from the parking lot but a short walk requiring stair climbing winds you through a beautiful tropical jungle with stunning flowers, flowering shrubs, beautiful birds, and wonderful specimens of Banyan trees. Kahuna Falls is bit far away so you can’t see it very well but it’s a smaller waterfall. Akaka falls is 492 feet tall, pretty tall waterfall.
STOP 4: Waipi’o valley – HĀMĀKUA coast
Waipi’o is the “Valley of the Kings” meaning curved water in the Hawaiian language. The valley is deeply cut into the mass of Kohala mountain, with three thousand-foot cliffs and some waterfalls up to fifteen-hundred feet.
- The valley boasts the steepest road by length in the United States – an 800-foot rise in just 0.6 miles. If you choose to venture down the road into the valley and bland sand beach, you’ll need a sturdy pair of hiking boots or a tough four wheel drive vehicle to get in and out on this incredibly steep road or you may also consider hitch-hiking for 20$ or so…We only did the 3 mile round trip hike to the beach and back and it took about 30 minutes to go down and 45 to get back up. Definitely a once in a lifetime experience!
While a trip into the valley is magical, the view from the lookout is truly stunning as well, and gives you a glimpse of the wild beauty of Hawaii. It was now the time for us to head towards our airbnb in Kona retire for the day!
Pololu Valley Lookout
Hawi and Flumin’ Kohala
Hāpuna Beach State Park
Today we kept our itinerary pretty relaxed and decided to further soak in the beauty off the northeastern coast.
STOP 1: Pololu Valley Lookout
As you drive north on Highway 270 where the black lava landscapes of the Kohala Coast give way to the flourishing, green pastures of North Kohala, you’ll be rewarded at the end of your journey with an unforgettable view from the Pololu Valley Overlook. Take a seat on the lookout’s rock wall. Close your eyes. Inhale the salt-kissed air and then open your eyes and take in the visual splendor before you.
There are no oceanfront resorts. No surf schools. No ziplines cutting across the valley. No manmade anything. Pololu Valley remains as unspoiled to modern-day visitors as it was to its first Hawaiian residents.
STOP 2: Hawi and Flumin’ Kohala
The town of Hawi is a must-see location for visitors looking for adventure on the Big Island, best known as the bicycle turnaround for the annual IRONMAN™ World Championship held every October. Hawi is home to a handful of charming art galleries, boutiques and restaurants set in colorful and lively plantation buildings. From Hawi, we decided to take this one-of-a-kind tour – Flumin’ Kohala. Flumin’ Kohala offers you a rare opportunity to explore the remarkable hand-wrought wonder ditch and the pristine Hawaiian landscapes it crosses.
STOP 3: Hāpuna Beach State Park
Definitely visit this beach, especially if you favor white sand over black sand because this is one of the few beaches that has it on the Big Island! The clear turquoise water is usually calm with just enough waves to have fun in. It can be a great beach for beginner boogie borders. The gradually sloping beach provides excellent swimming conditions for all ages. If the waves are above three feet it is best to stay out of the water.
- I found this beach too busy and too crowded with no shade. Not For snorkeling…
Papakolea Beach/ Mahana Beach
Papakolea Beach has the rare distinction of being one of only four green sand beaches in the entire world, the others are located in Norway, the Galapagos Islands, and Guam.
As off-the-beaten-path as you can get in Hawaii, Papakolea Green Sand Beach requires a major physical commitment to reach as it’s about two-and-a-half miles on foot to get there. Though the area is a trek to get to, there is a high chance you’ll have the beach to yourself. It’s wise to make the trip in the morning as the sun is stronger and winds pick up in the afternoon. The water on this beach is dangerous and unpredictable and should be approached with caution. The undertow is known to be strong, though people still swim when the water is calmer.
With this beach, we concluded our exploration on the big island and spent rest of the day eating and shopping around the city of Kona.
Day 6: (Maui)
Iao Valley State Park
Ka’anapali Beach & Black Rock
An early morning flight from Kona to Maui took us around 45 mins. on a small propeller plane. As soon as we landed and rented our car, we drove towards Iao valley which is around 25 mins. from the airport.
STOP 1: Iao Valley State Park
Few places on Earth are as magical as the Iao Valley. With 4000 acres of rain forests, waterfalls, and looming mountain peaks, Iao Valley State Park is a sight to behold. Rising 1,200 feet from the valley floor, the Iao Needle is one of Maui’s most iconic landmarks. This lava remnant is taller than the Eiffel Tower and was once used as a lookout for Maui warriors during periods of warfare.
Take a short hike on the Iao Needle Lookout Trail and climb 133 steps to the top for a stunning panorama of the Iao Valley and Wailuku.
- Because the needle is sometimes covered in clouds, we suggest heading out early in the day for the best views.
STOP 2: Lahaina
To get a vibe of Maui, we began with a leisurely walk in the pretty town of Lahaina. Lahaina Front Street – named as one of the ‘Top Ten Greatest Streets” and Banyan Tree Park – largest banyan tree in Hawaii, are must see in this area.
STOP 3: Ka’anapali Beach & Black Rock
Ka’anapali Beach in Lahaina has been named as one of the Maui’s best beaches. It is a long golden beach with calm and clear water, perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Enjoy practically every beach/water-related sport under the sun here: windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, surfing- you name it. This beach is also along a path where you can find the Whalers Village shopping center with bars and restaurants. The best snorkeling is found around “Black Rock”, the area right in front of the Sheraton.
- Plan to witness Ka’anapali Cliff Diving Ceremony for sure! Since the opening of the Sheraton Maui in 1963, this nightly ritual has taken place everyday at sunset on the World famous Kaanapali Beach, Maui. Free to the public, this time honored tradition begins with a native Hawaiian Chant, the blowing of the conch announces the young diver’s arrival. He will slowly make his way to the top of the cliff lighting torches along the way. Watch the diver offer his torch and a flower lei to the ocean, before taking his plunge into the waters below.
Road to Hana drive
With around 620 turns and 59 narrow bridges, the Road to Hana makes for a legendary drive and is one of the topmost things to do in Maui, also famous for being a dangerous road to drive due to blind corners, narrow bridges, and hairpin turns.
- Do go early in the morning so that you can beat pretty much all of the traffic and other tourists.
- Do go into it with at least 3/4 tank of gas.
- Don’t expect to get cell service.
Must do stops on the road to Hana:
- Twin Falls (Mile marker# 2): A lovely small waterfall early on in the drive.
- Huelo Lookout (Mile Marker# 4.5 ): for panoramic views and fresh smoothies!
- Waikamoi Nature Trail (Mile Marker# 9.5): a walk through the trees
- Garden of Eden (Mile Marker# 10.6): 15$ admission, touristy arboretums, also this is where the opening scene of Jurassic Park was famously shot.
- Halfway to Hana (Mile Marker# 17 1/3): popular due to its name and it will probably not be the best banana bread along the way, but worth the stop just to say you’ve been.
- Wailua Valley State Wayside (Mile Marker# 18.8): stop to witness killer views of Ke‘anae Valley, Ko‘olau Gap and the village of Wailua.
- Upper Waikani Falls (Mile Marker# 19.5): also known as Three Bear Falls and is one of the most popular waterfalls of all the Road to Hana stops. right on the road!
- Nahiku Marketplace (Mile Marker# 28.8): Hana shopping center, which consists of a tiny handful of Hawaiian product shops.
- Nutcharee’s Thai food (Mile Marker# 32): delicious Thai food!
- Waianapanapa Black Sand Beach (Mile Marker# 32.2): stop to see trails that run along either side of the black sand beach with panoramic views of the sea arches and cliffs over the water. Its beautiful!
Additional stops past the town of Hana:
- Ohe’o Gulch – Seven Sacred Pools (42): pretty short and easy trail to the seven pools which are open for swimming (depending on water level), additionally there is a hike to the bamboo forest and usually the Waimoku Falls.
- Wailua Falls (Mile Marker# 44): a several hundred-foot waterfall.
- Hamoa Beach (Mile Marker# 51: a beautiful, crescent public beach.
Sunrise at Haleakalā
Snorkeling in Molokini
Luau – Te Au Moana, Wailea Beach Resort – Marriot
Turns out Hawaii is indeed much more than just beaches and Day 8 left us spell bound with an entirely difference set of experiences.
STOP 1: Haleakalā National Park
Witness the dawn of a new day standing at the top of majestic Mt. Haleakala, renowned for its stunning sunrises and beauty! The world’s largest dormant volcano, Mount Haleakala comes in at a majestic 10,023 feet.
- Advanced reservations are now required in order to visit Mt. Haleakala between the hours of 3 am and 7 am. You can reserve online at Recreation.gov.
- Be ready to get up at 3 or 4 am in the morning, depending on where your are staying and sunrise hours.
- You Will Be Freezing – pack multiple layers
- Between the winding road up to the top of the Haleakala crater to the extreme change in altitude, it’s not unusual to feel a bit off once you finally arrive.
STOP 2: Molokini Snorkel
Molokini Crater is a partially submerged volcanic crater that features some of the clearest water for snorkeling anywhere in the world. and there are literally zillions of tour packages available to choose from; depending on your budget, duration ad interests. We booked the Five Hour Maui Molokini Snorkel Adventure snorkeling tour with Pride of Maui.
STOP 3: Wailea Beach Resort – Marriot
Sway to the Hawaiian Music and dance along with the beats of drums! Luau is a traditional Hawaiian party with eating and dancing.
Te Au Moana translated is the “Ocean Tide” which is aptly titled as the ceremony takes place right on the ocean of the Marriott Wailea. You are greeted with fresh flower lei or a carved wooden fish hook necklace as you enter, followed by traditional Imu ceremony and hours of feast, dance, and stories.
The enchanting Te Au Moana Hawaiian Luau was the perfect way to end our trip after spectacular sunrise and snorkel tour.