Hike the Legendary Na Pali Coast, Kauai
Photograph by Steve Ogle, Getty Images
Considered the state’s best backpacking route, the 22-mile round-trip Kalalau Trail cuts through the famed Na Pali Coast, an unspoiled wonderland where fluted cliffs and lush valleys crash abruptly into the blue Pacific. Originally built in the mid-1800s, the trail has narrow switchbacks, sheer drop-offs, and alarming, cliff-grabbing turns. Needless to say, only the brave and experienced need apply. After traversing five valleys, the path ends—as if the bounty for your trouble—at the golden sands of Kalalau Beach. Here, pitch a tent under the jungle canopy, then shower under the valley’s legendary beachside waterfall. Isolated and inspired, don’t be surprised if bidding "aloha" to the modern world comes to mind. Though state permits allow only five nights total (including time spent at Hanakoa, a campsite six miles from the trailhead) that doesn’t stop some wanderlust souls, including those who prefer the fashion sense of Adam and Eve, from making it their mission to avoid regular sweeps by officials.
—By Sheila Sarhangi
Witness Humpback Whales, Maui
Photograph by Monica & Michael Sweet, Corbis
Humpback whales are the acrobats of the whale world. They breach (picture a leap, then a backflop), smack their long pectoral fins on the water’s surface, and even spin like underwater ice-skaters. “We don’t exactly know why they do these maneuvers,” says Ed Lyman, resource protection manager for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “But we suspect that they’re playing, grooming, or even communicating with other whales.” Every year, more than 10,000 of these massive mammals call Hawaii their wintering ground, typically traveling 2,500 nautical miles from Alaska to mate, give birth, and nurse their young. Hawaii is the only state in the nation where all three activities take place. The whale’s main hangout is the waters of Maui Nui—the area between Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Kahoolawe islands. Guessing yet again, researchers assume that they prefer the shallow 600-foot-deep water, crystal-clear visibility, and protection from strong trade winds (thanks to the towering West Maui Mountains and Haleakala Volcano), all of which make for a safe haven to have, and watch after, newborns. Catch one of many boats leaving from Maui’s western shore, and time your trip between January and March, the whales' peak season.
Explore Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Island
Photograph by Ken McCurdy, National Geographic Your Shot
From desolate swaths of black lava to dazzling, cloud-kissed rain forests, the glory of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park lies in its impossibly diverse landscapes. With 333,086 acres and seven ecosystems to cover, the challenge is in the planning—but two roads can steer you to the most essential sights. The 11-mile Crater Rim Drive circles the summit caldera of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Worthwhile stops include Steam Vents, where you can watch steam rise from the Earth’s interior, and 500-year-old Thurston Lava Tube, a natural—and walkable—tunnel that once housed a violent river of molten lava. (To hear songs of native apapane, a crimson Hawaiian honeycreeper, keep quiet on your walk to the tube.) For those with four to five hours to spare, explore the East Rift Zone by traveling Chain of Craters Road, a 20-mile drive that descends 3,700 feet to the pounding coast. Along the way, pull over for a two-mile round-trip hike to Puu Loa Petroglyphs—an unforgettable site where ancient Hawaiians carved some 23,000 images into stone.
Travel Tip: Depending on conditions, the end of the road may offer a chance to see active lava flows.
Wander the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Kauai
Photograph by Mahkel Martin, National Geographic Your Shot
Waimea Canyon has the kind of raw beauty that’s so picture-perfect, it can lure you into abandoning any other plans you had for the day. Situated on Kauai’s west side, the geological marvel—roughly 13 miles long, 1.5 miles wide, and 2,750 feet deep—boasts rugged cliffs in brilliant hues of red, green, brown, and orange. To see the wonder for yourself, take Waimea Canyon Drive (Highway 550) to Waimea Canyon and Puu Hinahina Lookouts. Or go deep into the gorge by hiking the challenging 2.5-mile Kukui Trail. Located between mile markers 8 and 9, the steep path drops 2,200-feet in elevation to the canyon floor and delivers you to Wiliwili Campground, ideally situated next to the Waimea River and punctuated by java plum, monkeypod, and native wiliwili trees.
Travel Tip: Check the weather before you go, since a cloudy day can drastically limit your views.
Watch Surfers Take on Monstrous Waves, Oahu
Photograph by ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
The North Shore of Oahu is what you’d expect in a laid-back surf community: Kids ride skateboards down back roads, neighbors share mangoes over fence posts, and watching the sunset is a daily, must-do ritual. In winter months, surfers from across the globe travel to this picturesque coastline to test their chops on heavy, building-size waves. To witness the best among them, visit during the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, a professional competition held November 12 through December 20 at Haleiwa’s Alii Beach Park, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline—a dangerous and euphoria-inducing wave that barrels over shallow reefs. Unlike in most pro sports, Mother Nature calls the shots here. To comply, each event has a holding period, in which contests are held on the three to four biggest and best days of surf at each location. Check the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing website on the morning of for updates. If the surf gods keep you waiting, fill your belly at the many roadside shrimp trucks or cruise into Haleiwa town to try shave ice.
Activity Tip: For a water adventure of your own, head to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu’s southeast coast. Here, you can snorkel with green sea turtles and technicolor reef fish in what was once a volcanic crater.
Take a Mule Ride to a Historic Coast, Molokai
Photograph by Greg Vaughn, Alamy
Gorgeous, unique, and even a little terrifying—few activities compare to traveling down Molokai’s steep north shore sea cliffs on the back of a mule. The 2.9-mile dirt trail is made up of 26 sharp switchbacks (each identified with a plaque) and descends 1,700 feet to the sandy beach shoreline. If your nerves start to rattle, rest assured that Buzzy Sproat, a legendary paniolo (cowboy) in his 70s and co-owner of Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour, trained each beast of burden himself, a trade he’s mastered for more than 40 years. The trail ends at ocean-lined Kalaupapa National Historic Park, a beautiful peninsula with a complex history. From 1866 to 1969, more than 8,000 sufferers of Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) were forced to leave their families and live in exile in the remote expanse. It’s here that Damien Tours, which is owned and operated by a Kalaupapa resident, takes over for the mules and escorts visitors in an old yellow school bus to notable sites, including St. Philomena Church, where the original grave of Father Damien, who served Hansen’s disease sufferers before he became a victim himself, is located in the adjacent cemetery. The only way to visit the park is by guided tour, or by invitation from one of the former patients still living in Kalaupapa.
Fun Fact: Thanks to the invention of sulfone drugs in the 1940s, entertainers were allowed to perform at the settlement, including Shirley Temple, John Wayne, and the Trapp Family Singers.
Go Face-to-Face With Manta Rays, Hawaii Island
Photograph by Carlos Eyles, Getty Images
Manta rays lack stingers—a fact that’s worth remembering if you encounter them off the Big Island's Kona Coast. At night, they gulp down plankton by executing multiple backflips using their broad 6- to 12-foot wingspans. For a front-row seat, strap on a tank with Jack’s Diving Locker. When the sun drops into the sea, divers follow, kneeling on the ocean floor—on sand and rubble, away from coral—and pointing lights toward the surface, which attract the manta’s dinner. Though they get close enough to touch, don’t forget what you learned in preschool: Keep your hands to yourself. So how many will stop by? “All it takes is one for a good show, but four to eight is typical,” says Keller Laros, a scuba instructor and dive guide with Jack’s and co-founder of the nonprofit Manta Pacific Research Foundation. “The most ever identified in one night is 42.” Over 200 of the local creatures have been named, including Big Bertha, Stephen Colbert, and Lefty, a female who’s been coming around since the late 1970s.
Eat Authentic Hawaiian Food, Oahu
Photograph by Photo Resource Hawaii, Alamy
It’s 10 a.m. at Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Kalihi, a neighborhood west of downtown Honolulu, and there’s already a line outside the door. A secret this place is not: For real-deal Hawaiian “grinds” (tasty food), locals don’t go to commercial luau, they come here—an 11-table, no-frills restaurant off a crumbly asphalt road. Staples like kalua pig, fried butterfish collars, and luau squid (cooked taro leaves, octopus, and coconut milk) are top picks, but the dish that most crave is the pipi kaula short ribs, which are marinated overnight, then smoked and dried over the stove for half a day before being cooked. The result is a tasty cross between beef jerky and steak. (Look past the cash register and you’ll see about 300 slabs dangling over the cook’s head.) Helen Chock opened the restaurant in 1946 and went on to receive the James Beard Foundation’s Regional Classic award in 2000. After 61 years in the kitchen, she passed away at age 89 in 2007. Her grandson, Craig Katsuyoshi, now runs the place, which is fitting since he worked by her side for 20 years. “She started a business when women didn’t really start businesses,” he says, while filling three bowls of poi (pounded taro root). “She was this nice little Chinese lady, but inside, she was like a tiger with a fire inside of her. She had to be to stay in business this long.”
Drive the “Road to Hana,” Maui
Photograph by Monica & Michael Sweet, Getty Images
Pack the car, put the top down, and turn up the music (consider the sounds of Bruddah Iz or John Cruz), and you’re ready for the Hana Highway (Highway 36 and Highway 360). An adventurous drive with 59 bridges—most of which are one lane—and 620 curves, the white-knuckle road brings you to Hana, a small town on the eastern shore where everyone is on a first name basis and Hawaiian culture is very much alive. From the Kahului Airport, the jaunt is about two to three hours without stops. But you’re going to want to stop—and often. Eat breakfast in the old sugar mill town of Paia, swim in the waterfall pools at Puaa Kaa State Wayside Park (between mile markers 22 and 23), or stock up on coconuts, papayas, or fresh-made banana bread at one of the many roadside fruit stands. Near Hana, pull over at Kahanu Garden to witness Piilanihale, one of the largest Hawaiian temples, or heiau, in the state, or walk the sparkling black-sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park. In town, hang out at Hasegawa General Store, the local hub with a tin-roof that sells everything from milk to fishing gear. Drive another 12 miles to the Kipahulu side of Haleakala National Park and cool off at the freshwater pools of Oheo Gulch (but check on conditions at the Kipahulu Visitor Center first) before heading back.
Activity Tip: Take a detour and drive the serpentine road on Route 378 to Haleakala National Park. Watch the sun rise or set from the volcano’s 10,023-foot summit, or hike over miles of crushed lava—in red, brown, black, and even purple—via Halemau‘u Trail.
Walk the Halls of Iolani Palace, Oahu
Photograph by Photo Resource Hawaii, Alamy
King Kalakaua had no interest in an ordinary residence. He envisioned Iolani Palace as a modern home that would signal Hawaii’s status as a modern nation. Completed in 1882 in an American Florentine style, the palace boasts four expansive floors with a total of 102 rooms. A technology fanatic, the king didn’t penny-pinch on luxuries like indoor plumbing (complete with hot and cold water), or telephones, which he had installed only five years after its invention by Alexander Graham Bell. Electric lights came next (thanks in part to an in-person meeting with Thomas Edison, creator of the incandescent lamp), lighting the palace halls in 1887, trouncing the White House by four years. “The palace is so modern and cosmopolitan, it surprises most people,” says Zita Cup Choy, docent educator of Friends of Iolani Palace. To visit, sign up for an audio or docent-led tour, both of which take you inside the palace rooms and offer detailed insight into the rise and fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Take your time in the throne room, where Kalakaua entertained everyone from diplomats to writers. Head upstairs to the southeast corner and see where the king's younger sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani, was imprisoned for nearly eight months in the years following the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Don’t miss the basement galleries, which showcase historic photographs and intricate royal jewelry.
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