What do you know about Hawaii? How many islands? Can you name some of the top attractions? Surfing, ukulele, luaus, flower leis, volcanic beaches, poke, Jurassic Park, Moana. That’s about as much as I knew. It’s an American state. Practically summer all year round. All true, but only a fraction of what Hawaii is really about. These things, the flowers and the beaches, the volcanoes and the surfing, they are just words. It’s only through experiencing them that they come to life and take shape, exploding into full ultra-HD technicolour before your very eyes.
Travel is immersive. It’s all five senses. It’s the people you meet, their language, their way of life. The flowers you touch and smell and pin into your hair. The jagged cliffs and lush valleys that make you gasp as you fly over them in a helicopter or plummet towards after leaping out of a plane. The cool waterfall that awaits a hot and sweaty hike, first patting down your neck and then, screw it, as you jump in and bathe in your underwear.
I began to discover the island when I started researching for my honeymoon, flipping through guidebook pages and opening tab after tab on my browser. I wanted to do everything, go everywhere, but came to accept that I was going to have to make some choices. So before I dive into individual blog posts about Hawaii, I want to start with a more introductory piece to help explain how I planned for my trip.
It took hours of research to figure out things like, which islands should we visit, do we need to rent a car, what activities do we want to do, and where can we find the best beaches? I could just show you my itinerary, but you’d still be wondering, why did we go to Waikiki and not North Shore? Why did we not see Big Island? The short answer is that we simply couldn’t do everything. The long answer is what we did do, and why.
I’ve marked keywords in bold, some of which I’ll be writing about in upcoming blog posts. If this sounds like something you don’t want to miss, subscribe to my blog in the sidebar to receive new posts by email.
There are 8 islands that make up the state of Hawaii, although two are not open for tourists. That leaves us with 6: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii (Big Island), Molokai and Lanai. To help me choose, I read through two guidebooks, Eyewitness and Rough Guides, asked several friends, read forums and googled all the answers to questions like, Kauai vs Maui, and: best Hawaiian islands for honeymoons.
Most flights to Hawaii will take you to the capital city Honolulu on Oahu. You need at least a week to travel around the island. Whereas a weekend is enough to see some of the capital’s highlights. To stay at the famous Waikiki hotel strip, visit the huge outdoor Ala Moana shopping mall, do a morning hike to Moana Falls and spend a few afternoon hours at Hanauma Bay before catching the sunset over Waikiki.
Kauai and Maui are two of the most popular islands to visit. People tend to prefer one to the other, with no clear winner. You’ll read that Kauai is the wet and rainy garden isle, with incredible landscapes but just two main hotel resorts at opposite ends of the island, Grand Hyatt and Princeville St. Regis. That Maui is dryer and has better luxury resorts in Wailea as well as the unmissable road to Hana.
In our experience, it actually rained more in Maui than Kauai, but only at night. Proving once again that you can never predict the weather. Both are unique and amazing for different reasons. As usual, I can never pick a side. While Big Island also sounded incredible, with its volcanoes and diverse nature, we wouldn’t have time to visit. You need at least a week there since it’s so big! Maui and Kauai can be more easily combined. Molokai and Lanai are typically visited as day-trips from Maui.
So that’s what we decided. Fly to Oahu, spend 2 nights, fly to Kauai for 4 nights, Maui for 6 nights, Oahu for 1 night, Tokyo 2 nights, and back to London. We picked 6 nights for Maui as we split it up with 3 nights in Hana and another 3 in Wailea.
Pick a ride
You absolutely 100% need to rent a car in Hawaii.
If you want the kind of holiday where you don’t ever leave the resort, please go somewhere else. I’m cringing just at the thought of people laying idly by the pool (the pool! not even the beach!) for a week completely ignorant of the beauty and adventure that Hawaii has to offer. Returning to their ordinary everyday lives telling people how amazing Hawaii was when they didn’t even see or do a thing.
Shaking that ugly thought aside, when I say need a car, I mean it more in the way how you tell your mom you neeeed a sparkly new dress. Ok, that’s not really true. You do need a car, but maybe you don’t need a mustang, do you?
To make it easy, you only get two choices. Are you ready? Wrangler or Mustang. Boom. These are definitely the two most popular cars on the islands and equally suitable for driving around Hawaii. The Wrangler is obviously better suited for any off-road driving, although we didn’t encounter any. Both have a roofless option. If you have 2 weeks in Hawaii, why not go with both. That’s what we did.
Where to stay
Given our busy itinerary, we stayed in five hotels during our trip. These were: Halekulani and Moana Surfrider Hotel in Honolulu, Grand Hyatt Kauai in Poipu, Travaasa Hana and Four Seasons in Maui.
We wanted the 5-star hotel experience for our honeymoon, but a great way to save money is to rent a condo instead. Especially because everything in the hotels is expensive, from the additional parking and resort fees to the constant tipping, to the $50 breakfast, etc.
My favourite hotels were the Travaasa Hana and the Grand Hyatt. The Travaasa has a no tipping policy, which was a relief, and had the most incredible pool I think I’ll ever see. The pool isn’t that big but it’s located right where the sea meets heaven. Rates here were the most reasonable of these hotels, too. A lot of travellers stay just a night or two as part of the Road to Hana. We were extremely glad that we stayed for 3, and wished we could have stayed for more.
The Grand Hyatt is your classic, big American hotel, a curiosity for us Europeans. It’s huge, I mean huge! So big a T-rex could pass under the giant entrance and roam those halls easily, too easily. I found the room and food very average, but the network of outdoor swimming pools with waterfalls and a water slide was super fun. Just apply lotion beforehand and you’ll be going 0 to 100, real quick.
When people think Hawaii or honeymoon they probably don’t immediately think hiking. But what is hiking really but walking around in beautiful nature breathing fresh air while admiring incredible views? At least that’s what hiking is like with my dear husband who refuses to step foot onto any kind of trail that isn’t A) marked as easy and B) no more than 2 hours long.
We did three of Hawaii’s easiest and most popular hikes, (yup, you can take your kids along) and I have to admit, George was kind of right. It was incredibly hot, and the hikes can also become dangerous. Hawaii is home to some of the most dangerous hikes in the world. Narrow paths and the risk of landslides or flash floods can turn a pleasant hike into a life-threatening situation in the blink of an eye.
Unless you’re an experienced hiker, it’s probably best to stick to the easier trails like we did. There is tons of information online about Hawaii’s many hiking paths and how to prepare for your hike. Hiking is one of the best ways to see the island’s abundant natural treasures and majestic waterfalls. Some go up, revealing epic views, some go through Jurassic Park jungles or endless bamboo forests, others go over canyons and craters.
The hikes we chose were Manoa Falls trail in Oahu, Mahaulepu coastal trail in Kauai, and the Pipiwaii trail in Hana, Maui. Most of the hikes ended at a stunning waterfall, except Mahaulepu where there is a creepy spider cave you can visit. Both waterfalls are marked with a warning sign, telling hikers not to pass a certain point, but everyone hops over anyway.
Hawaii has many activities for an unforgettable holiday, from submarine tours, boat tours, skydiving, helicopter rides, tubing, surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, paddling, etc. For anything that needs a ticket, I recommend booking in advance. We met several couples that missed out because the tours were fully booked when they arrived (and this was in “low” season!)
We tried and failed at snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, a story for another time, did an epic doors-off helicopter tour of Kauai over the breathtaking Na’Pali Coast, and had a blast tubing in Kauai’s old sugar cane irrigation canals. I’ll be going into more details on these experiences in upcoming blog posts.
One of the main tourist attractions is to go to a Luau. You’ll have seen one of these in the movies. A luau is that big hotel party they go to that starts with a buffet, followed by entertainment, singing, hula and fire dancers, and then turns into an open-bar, all-night party. And then there’s lots of dancing and very drunk people wandering off into 24-hour pools.
So it’s like that – up until the show part. Once the show ends, that’s it. The bar closes, lights go off and everyone gets up to leave and go back to their hotel. You can imagine George and me, after 4 or 5 Mai Tai’s, mid-buzz ready for the music to start pumping – and then confronted with sobering silence and the meek retreat of people. Good thing we still had that bottle of champagne back at our room. While it’s always disappointing when real life doesn’t live up to Hollywood, the show was still well worth seeing.
Hawaii has some of the best beaches in the world. It’s impossible to enjoy them all, we really did try! Because they are volcanic islands, there are white, black and red sand beaches like nothing you may have seen before. Our favourite beaches were in Hana, where you have all of these as well as Hamoa beach, considered the most beautiful in the world.
A note on beach safety. While I was aware of the risk of sharks and did my research about what to look out for and precautions one can take, nobody else seemed bothered at all. It was only once when I got caught in some strong currents and the water turned super murky that I had a minor panic attack and decided to abort! Abort! Bottom line, don’t go in the water if you’re bleeding and you should be fine.
And finally, there are some things that you don’t have to choose at all. Sunsets are spectacular from every angle on every island. Don’t miss a single sunset, even if it means pulling over on the side of the road to watch the sun go down. Mai Tai’s are the specialty of the island and go for the fish on the menu, you’re on an island after all. Say aloha instead of hello, and mahalo means thank you.
Look out for more Hawaii blog posts coming up!