- Surfing on Oahu: Whether you’re learning to surf or a pro, Oahu has waves for everyone. Few experiences are more exhilarating than standing on your first wave, and Waikiki offers lessons, board rentals, and gentle surf. During the winter, the North Shore gets big and rough, so stay out of the water if you’re not an experienced surfer. But even the view from the beach, watching the daredevils take off on waves twice their height, is thrilling.
- Witness the Whales: From December to April, humpback whales cruise Hawaiian waters. You can see these gentle giants from almost any shore; simply scan the horizon for a spout. Hear them, too, by ducking your head below the surface and listening for their otherworldly music. Boats on every island offer whale-watching cruises, but Maui is your best bet for seeing the massive marine mammals up close. Try Trilogy for a first-class catamaran ride or, if you’re adventurous, climb into an outrigger canoe with Hawaiian Paddle Sports.
- Visit Volcanoes: The entire island chain is made of volcanoes; don’t miss the opportunity to explore them. On Oahu, the whole family can hike to the top of ancient, world-famous Diamond Head Crater. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, where Kilauea has been erupting since 1983, acres of new black rock and billowing sulfurous steam give hints of Pele’s presence even when red-hot lava isn’t visible. On Maui, Haleakala National Park provides a bird’s-eye view into a long-dormant volcanic crater.
- Get Misted by Waterfalls: Waterfalls thundering down into sparkling pools are some of Hawaii’s most beautiful natural wonders. If you’re on the Big Island, head to the spectacular 442-foot Akaka Falls, north of Hilo. On Maui, the Road to Hana offers numerous viewing opportunities. At the end of the drive you’ll find Oheo Gulch, with some of the most dramatic and accessible waterfalls on the islands. Kauai is laced with waterfalls, especially along the North Shore and in the Wailua area, where you can drive right up to the 151-foot Opaekaa Falls and the 80-foot Wailua Falls. On Molokai, the 250-foot Mooula Falls can be visited only via a guided hike through breathtaking Halawa Valley, but that, too, is a very special experience.
- Gardens: The islands are redolent with the sweet scent of flowers. For a glimpse of the full breadth and beauty of Hawaii's spectacular range of tropical flora, we suggest spending an afternoon at a lush garden. On Oahu, amid the high-rises of downtown Honolulu, the leafy oasis of Foster Botanical Garden showcases 26 native Hawaiian trees and the last stand of several rare trees, including an East African, whose white flowers bloom only at night. On the Big Island, Liliuokalani Gardens, the largest formal Japanese garden this side of Tokyo, resembles a postcard from Asia, with bonsai, carp ponds, pagodas, and even a moon-gate bridge. At Maui's Kula Botanical Garden, you can take a leisurely self-guided stroll through more than 700 native and exotic plants, including orchids, proteas, and bromeliads. On lush Kauai, Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, on some 240 acres, is sprinkled with around 70 life-size (some larger-than-life-size) whimsical bronze statues, hidden off the beaten path of the North Shore.
- Marine Life Conservation Areas: Nine underwater parks are spread across Hawaii, most notably Waikiki Beach and Hanauma Bay, on Oahu; Kealakekua Bay, on the Big Island; Molokini, just off the coast of Maui; and Lanai's Manele and Hulopoe bays. Be sure to bring snorkel gear to at least one of these wonderful places during your vacation.
- Garden of the Gods (Lanai): Out on Lanai's north shore lies the ultimate rock garden: a rugged, barren, beautiful place full of rocks strewn by volcanic forces and molded by the elements into a variety of shapes and colors -- brilliant reds, oranges, ochers, and yellows. Scientists use phrases such as "ongoing posterosional event" or "plain and simple badlands" to describe the desolate, windswept place. The ancient Hawaiians, however, considered the Garden of the Gods to be an entirely supernatural phenomenon. Natural badlands or mystical garden? Take a four-wheel-drive trip out here and decide for yourself.
- Peer into Waimea Canyon (Kauai): It may not share the vast dimensions of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, but Kauai’s colorful gorge—a mile wide, 3,600 feet deep, and 14 miles long—has a grandeur all its own, easily viewed from several overlooks just off Kokee Road. Hike to Waipoo Falls to experience its red parapets up close, or take one of the helicopter rides that swoop between its walls like the white-tailed tropicbird.
- Explore the Napali Coast (Kauai): With the exception of the Kalalau Valley Overlook, the fluted ridges and deep, primeval valleys of the island’s northwest portion can’t be viewed by car. You must hike the 11-mile Kalalau Trail (p. ###), kayak take a snorkel cruise, or book a helicopter ride to experience its wild, stunning beauty.
- Four-Wheel It on Lanai (Lanai): Off-roading is a way of life on barely paved Lanai. Rugged trails lead to deserted beaches, abandoned villages, sacred sites, and valleys filled with wild game.
The welcoming Lei
A lei is aloha turned tangible, communicating “hello,” “goodbye,” “congratulations,” and “I love you” in a single strand of fragrant flowers. Leis are the perfect symbol for the islands: Their fragrance and beauty are enjoyed in the moment, but the aloha they embody lasts long after they’ve faded.
Traditionally, Hawaiians made leis out of flowers, shells, ferns, leaves, nuts, and even seaweed. Some were twisted, some braided, and some strung. Then, as now, they were worn to commemorate special occasions, honor a loved one, or complement a hula dancer’s costume. Leis are available at most of the islands’ airports, from florists, and even at supermarkets. You can find wonderful, inexpensive leis at the half-dozen lei shops on Maunakea Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown and at Castillo Orchids (808/329-6070), 73-4310 Laui St., off Kaiminani Drive in the Kona Palisades subdivision, across from the Kona Airport on the Big Island. You can also arrange in advance to have a lei-greeter meet you as you deplane. Greeters of Hawaii (www.greetersofhawaii.com; 800/366-8559) serves the major airports on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. On Molokai, you can sew your own at Molokai Plumerias.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.