Story by Derek Paiva
Waterfall alongside Maui’s Hana Highway. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.
A few months back, a friend who lives in Chicago asked me for a short list of places I considered “must-sees” and things I considered “must-dos” on Kauai.
Sarah was a couple weeks away from visiting the island for the first time. It was a work trip and she didn’t know how much downtime she’d have for, you know, fun. I offered a handful of suggestions, tossed in a few favorite places to eat, and wished her fun.
On the second of Sarah’s four days on Kauai, I received a text from her: “I have one day free tomorrow. ONE DAY! What on your list do I HAVE TO see?!” At the end of the message was a face emoji, its eyes wide-open, its mouth agape. (Translation, I think: Yikes!)
After texting Sarah my answer – Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks – I began to jot down advice I’d give if a Hawaii first-timer asked me the same question about each of the other Hawaiian Islands. (Such is the geekiness of being a travel writer.)
And so, with many thanks to Sarah for being the spark, I present a very subjective collection of locations answering the question: “If you could choose only one place on each of the six visitable Hawaiian Islands that every first-time Hawaii traveler should absolutely see, what would those places be?
Let the arguments begin!
*** And because chances are good you’ll have a lot more downtime for fun than the ONE DAY Sarah had on her first Hawaii trip, I’ve included an accompanying list of “must-see/must-do” runners-up for each island.
Halemaumau crater at the summit of Kilauea Volcano. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.
Hawaii Island: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There are few places on Earth like this 333,000-plus acre showcase of six global climate zones, contrasting environments and landscapes, the geological forces that continue to shape our planet and grow our Hawaiian Islands, and the natural environment and the Hawaiian culture’s deep connection to it. Set aside at least a full day to take in as much of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s rugged lava fields and ash-covered deserts, rainforest flora and fauna, Hawaiian cultural sites, coastline meetings of lava and ocean, and evening glow of below-surface lava at the Kilauea volcano summit as possible. If you can spare two days, do it. Just don’t leave a day here out of your first Hawaii Island visit.
Waimea Canyon Overlook. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.
Kauai: Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks
A scenic 19-mile drive on Route 550 from sea level Waimea town to the Kalalau and Puu o Kila Lookouts 4,000 feet above the Napali Coast winds through these two unique Kauai parks and their stunning, contrasting natural environments. More than 14 miles long and a mile wide, Waimea Canyon, with its rugged red earth and emerald foliage cliff faces, and 3,600-foot-deep gorge, offers a buffet of panoramic visuals resembling a smaller, more tropical version of a somewhat grander canyon in Arizona. Further north on Route 550, the dry, windswept bluffs of the canyon overlooks give way to the cool, verdant upland forests of Kokee State Park and stunning end-of road views of Napali from the crest lookouts of Kalalau Valley. (NOTE: My friend Sarah loved both parks!)
Dole Park in Lanai City. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Dana Edmunds.
Lanai: Lanai City
There are several remote spots on quiet, relaxed and authentically downhome Lanai that are among my favorite in Hawaii for getting lost in nature. But should your fortunes lead you to 141-square-mile Lanai, be sure to spend a morning (or afternoon, or both) in this century-old “city”– actually, one of Hawaii’s last intact plantation towns, witness to the rise and demise of pineapple as a local industry, and still the island’s bustling, if smallish, residential center. A stroll around Lanai City‘s town square, framed by the massive pines of Dole Park and a collection of small retail shops, grocery stores and eateries occupying historic single-story buildings, is akin to a trip back to simpler times and small town Hawaii life. Talk story with residents for stories of the town’s past and present.
A Hana Highway bridge. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.
Maui: Hana Highway
With 59 bridges – 46 of them only a single-lane wide — and 620 curves spread out over its serpentine 35 miles running alongside Maui‘s remote northeast coast, the highway officially designated Route 360 is enough “must-see” destination simply for being the 90-year-old asphalt wonder that it is. The reason for Hana Highway being on this list, though, is its exemplary display of so much of our Islands’ signature natural beauty on a single road trip. From breathtaking thousand-foot elevation and sea-level ocean views to multiple roadside waterfalls, rainforest-blanketed gorges and coastal towns – including ever-charming Hana itself – the highway is a scenic slice of heaven. A note of advice: Start your road trip just after sunrise to beat late morning visitor traffic and get a head start on a full day of sightseeing.
View of Okala islet from Kalaupapa Peninsula. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Dana Edmunds
Molokai: Kalaupapa Peninsula
There are basically three ways to get to Molokai‘s remote Kalaupapa Peninsula: by plane touching down on the settlement’s tiny airstrip, atop a mule descending the peninsula’s precipitous sea cliffs via a 3.5-mile switchback trail, or hiking that same switchback after obtaining an access permit to do so. These efforts, however, are worth it once you set foot on the stunningly beautiful peninsula, created by a late-stage eruption long after the slow erosion of the sea cliffs to their majestic appearance today. Take in Kalaupapa National Historical Park – which preserves the structures marking the peninsula’s darker history as a colony where Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients were exiled from society (ca. 1866-1969) – and enjoy the quiet splendor of nature’s wonder.
Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Tor Johnson.
Oahu: North Shore
Residents and visitors head to the North Shore during winter months to ogle its renowned big waves and the pros that ride them. Summers are all about wading in the calmer waters of the world-famous 13-mile coast’s appealing stretches of white sand beach. All of it offers some of the best proof around that there are still lots of places on populous Oahu where one can get away for a true taste of country life or escapes into deep nature. Stop for breakfast or lunch in surf town Haleiwa before heading to area beaches like Waimea Bay, Ehukai and Alii for water activities or stretching out on the sand. End the day back in Haleiwa for shave ice before heading back to Honolulu and Waikiki. Or stay for the daily amazing sunset. A must-see on your first Oahu visit? Definitely!
About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.