This section presents an overview of special-interest trips, tours, and outdoor excursions in Hawaii. See individual island sections for detailed information on the best local outfitters and tour-guide operators—as well as tips for exploring on your own. Each separate section discusses the best spots to set out on your own, from the top offshore snorkel and dive spots to great daylong hikes, as well as the federal, state, and county agencies that can help you with hikes on public property. We also list references for spotting birds, plants, and sea life. Always use the resources available to inquire about weather, trail, or surf conditions; water availability; and other conditions before you take off on your adventure.
Nothing beats getting a bird’s-eye view of Hawaii. Some of the islands’ most stunning scenery can’t be seen any other way. You’ll have your choice of aircraft here: helicopter, small fixed-wing plane, or, on Oahu, seaplane. For wide-open spaces such as the lava fields of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a fixed-wing plane is the safest and most affordable option. But for exploring tight canyons and valleys, helicopters have an advantage: They can hover. Only a helicopter can bring you face to face with waterfalls in remote places like Mount Waialeale on Kauai and Maui’s little-known Wall of Tears, up near the summit of Puu Kukui.
Today’s pilots are part historian, part DJ, part amusement-ride operator, and part tour guide, sharing anecdotes about Hawaii’s flora, fauna, history, and culture. Top trips include:
* Napali Coast, Kauai, where you soar over the painted landscape of Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and visit the cascading falls of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on Earth.
* Haleakala National Park and West Maui, where you skirt the edges of Haleakala’s otherworldly crater before plunging into the deep, pristine valleys of the West Maui Mountains.
* Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, where you stare into the molten core of a live volcano and watch lava spill into the sea.
Overalls and garden spades might not fit your image of a Hawaii vacation, but a tour of a lush and bountiful island farm should be on your itinerary. Agritourism has become an important new income stream for Hawaii farmers, who often struggle with the rising costs of doing business in paradise. Farm tours benefit everyone: The farmer gets extra cash, visitors gain an intimate understanding of where and how their food is produced, and fertile farmlands stay in production—preserving Hawaii’s rural heritage. There are so many diverse and inspiring farms to choose from: 100-year-old Kona coffee farms, bean-to-bar chocolate plantations, orchid nurseries, an award-winning goat dairy, and even a vodka farm!
With its massive cattle ranches, tropical flower nurseries, and coffee-covered hillsides, the Big Island is the agricultural heart of Hawaii. But each of the islands has farms worth visiting. Many agri-tours include sumptuous tasting sessions, fascinating historical accounts, and tips for growing your own food at home. See each island’s “Exploring” section for details on visiting local farms.
On the Big Island, Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com; 808/331-8505) visits tropical fruit and coffee farms as part of their whole-day tours. Individual coffee growers open their orchards up as well.
Maui Country Farm Tours (www.mauicountryfarmtours.com; 808/283-9131) offers a gorgeous overview of agriculture on the Valley Isle, traveling through working coffee and pineapple plantations and stopping at a lavender farm, a goat dairy, and a vodka distillery.
Hawaii boasts some of the oldest national parks in the system—and the only one with an erupting volcano. The National Park Service manages eight sites on four islands: the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument on Oahu, Haleakala National Park on Maui, Kalaupapa National Historic Park on Molokai, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, Puu o Honaunau Historic Park, and the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail on the island of Hawaii. Plans to open the Honouliuli National Monument commemorating the losses of Japanese citizens interned during WWII are underway.
Volunteer Vacations & Ecotourism
If you’re looking to swap sunbathing for something more memorable on your next trip to Hawaii, consider volunteering while on vacation. Rewards include new friends and access to spectacular wilderness areas that are otherwise off-limits.
If you’re looking for eco-friendly tour operators, the Hawaii Ecotourism Association website (www.hawaiiecotourism.org; 808/235-5431) is a good place to start. The owners of Hale Hookipa Inn on Maui maintain a great list of places to volunteer on the Valley Isle. Check it out at http://volunteer-on-vacation-hawaii.com.
The Surfrider Foundation organizes beach and reef cleanups and has several active chapters throughout the islands: Oahu (https://oahu.surfrider.org); Maui (https://maui.surfrider.org); Kauai (https://kauai.surfrider.org); and, on the Big Island, Kona (https://kona.surfrider.org) and Hilo (https://hilo.surfrider.org). And what could be more exciting than keeping watch over nesting sea turtles? Contact the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program (808/956-7031) and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund (www.wildhawaii.org; 808/280-8124) to see if they need help monitoring marine life.
For a truly novel experience, sign up on the waitlist to volunteer with Kahoolawe Island Restoration Commission (www.kahoolawe.hawaii.gov/volunteer.shtml; 808/243-5020). You’ll travel by boat from Maui to Kahoolawe, an uninhabited island that the U.S. military used as target practice for decades. Plant by plant, volunteers bring life back to the barren island, once a significant site for Hawaiian navigators. A week here is a cultural immersion unlike any other.
A great alternative to hiring a private guide is taking a trip with the Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club. Both organizations offer guided hikes in preserves and special areas during the year, as well as day- to week-long volunteer work trips to restore habitats and trails, and root out invasive plants. It’s a chance to see the “real” Hawaii—including wilderness areas that are ordinarily off-limits.
The Sierra Club offers half- or all-day hikes to beautiful, remote spots on Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island, and Maui. Knowledgeable volunteers lead the trips and share a wealth of cultural and botanical information. Hikes are classified as easy, moderate, or strenuous; some (but not all) incorporate a few hours of volunteer work. Donations of $3 for Sierra Club members and $5 for nonmembers (bring exact change) are recommended. Contact the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club (www.sierraclubhawaii.com; 808/538-6616 on Oahu).
All Nature Conservancy hikes and work trips are free (donations appreciated). However, you must reserve a spot. Hikes are offered once a month on Maui and Molokai, and occasionally on Oahu. Contact the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii (www.nature.org/hawaii; 808/537-4508 on Oahu; 808/572-7849 on Maui; 808/553-5236 on Molokai; and 808/587-6257 on Kauai).
The same Pacific Ocean surrounds all of the Hawaiian Islands, but the varying topography of each shoreline makes certain spots superior for watersports. If surfing is your passion, head to Oahu. You’ll find gentle waves at Waikiki and adrenaline-laced action on the famed North Shore. Maui has plenty of surf breaks, too; plus, it’s the birthplace of windsurfing and a top kitesurfing destination. Beginners and pros alike will find perfect conditions for catching air off of Maui’s swells.
Kayaking is excellent statewide, particularly on Kauai, where you can take the adventurous Napali Coast challenge, and on Molokai, where you can lazily paddle downwind past ancient fishponds.
Sport fishing fans should head to the Big Island’s Kona Coast where billfish tournaments have reeled in monster Pacific blue marlins.
The deep blue Kona waters are also home to giant manta rays, and scuba diving among these gentle creatures is a magical experience. Scuba diving is also spectacular off Lanai, where ethereal caverns have formed in the reefs, and on Maui, on the back wall of Molokini Crater.
All of the islands have great snorkeling spots, but Maui’s two small boat harbors offer the widest range of snorkel and dive tours. Book a half-day cruise out to Molokini or an all-day adventure over to Lanai.
During the winter months, from November to April, whale-watching tours launch from every island, but the marine mammals seem to favor Maui’s Maalaea Bay. Dolphin-spotting is most reliable on Lanai at Manele Bay and on Hawaii at Kealakekua Bay, where the charismatic spinner dolphins come to rest.
Go to each island’s “Watersports” sections for detailed information on watersports outfitters and tour providers.