If all you want is a fabulous beach and a perfectly mixed mai tai, then Hawaii has what you're looking for. But the islands' wealth of natural wonders is equally hard to resist; the year-round tropical climate and spectacular scenery tend to inspire almost everyone to get outside and explore.
If you don't have your own snorkel gear or other watersports equipment, or if you just don't feel like packing it, don't fret: Everything you'll need is available for rent in the islands.
Travel Tip -- When planning sunset activities, be aware that Hawaii, like other places close to the equator, has a very short (5-10 min.) twilight period after the sun sets. After that, it's dark. If you hike out to watch the sunset, be sure you can make it back quickly, or else take a flashlight.
Here's a brief rundown of the many outdoor activities available in Hawaii:
BikingO‘ahu did not used to be particularly bike-friendly (and drivers still need to learn to share the road). But recently new bike lanes were created throughout the city; and a city bikeshare program of 2,000 bikes scattered over 200 docking stations throughout metro Honolulu, was launched. Modeled after other systems in cities such as Paris and New York, it should make short trips, such as from your hotel to the beach, or Waikīkī to Chinatown, a breeze.
For a longer bike-and-hike adventure, contact Bike Hawai‘i (www.bikehawaii.com; tel. 877/682-7433 or 808/734-4214), which has a variety of group tours, such as mountain biking in Kualoa. This guided mountain-bike tour follows dirt roads and a single track meandering through the 1,000-acre Kaʻaʻawa Valley on O‘ahu’s northeast shore, with stops at a reconstructed Hawaiian hale (house) and kalo loʻi (taro terrace) for some cultural narrative, plus an old military bunker that has been converted into a movie museum for films shot here (Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Mighty Joe Young, Windtalkers, and more). The 6-mile trip, which takes 2 to 3 hours of riding, includes van transportation from your hotel, a bike, helmet, snacks, picnic lunch, water bottle, and guide; it’s $120 for adults and $77 for children 13 and under.
Many of Hawaii's tropical birds are found nowhere else on earth. There are curved-bill honeycreepers, black-winged red birds, and the rare o'o, whose yellow feathers Hawaiians once plucked to make royal capes. When you go birding, take along A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific, by H. Douglas Pratt, Phillip L. Bruner, and Delwyn G. Berett.
Almost every type of nautical experience is available in the islands, from old-fashioned Polynesian outrigger canoes to America's Cup racing sloops to submarines.
No matter which type of vessel you choose, be sure to see the Hawaiian Islands from offshore if you can afford it. It's easy to combine multiple activities into one cruise: Lots of snorkel boats double as sightseeing cruises and, in winter, whale-watching cruises. The main harbor for visitor activities is Kewalo Basin, in Honolulu.
Bodyboarding (Boogie Boarding) & Bodysurfing
Bodysurfing -- riding the waves without a board, becoming one with the rolling water -- is a way of life in Hawaii. Some bodysurfers just rely on hands to ride the waves; others use hand boards (flat, paddlelike gloves). For additional maneuverability, try a boogie board or bodyboard (also known as belly boards or paipo boards). These 3-foot-long boards support the upper part of your body and are very maneuverable in the water. Both bodysurfing and bodyboarding require a pair of open-heeled swim fins to help propel you through the water. The equipment is inexpensive and easy to carry, and both sports can be practiced in the small, gentle waves..
Imagine soaring through silence on gossamer-like wings, a panoramic view of Oahu below you. A glider ride is an unforgettable experience, and it's available at Dillingham Air Field, in Mokuleia, on Oahu's North Shore. The glider is towed behind a plane; at the proper altitude, the tow is dropped and you (and the glider pilot) are left to soar in the thermals. Three costs are involved in a glider ride: plane rental fee, instructor fee, and towing fee. We recommend Mr. Bill at Honolulu Soaring (tel. 808/637-0207; www.honolulusoaring.com); he's been offering piloted glider rides since 1970. Rates start at $85 for 10 minutes for just one passenger (and go up to $250 for 60 minutes, more for hybrid gliders).
Nowhere else on earth can you tee off to whale spouts, putt under rainbows, and play around a live volcano. Hawaii has some of the world's top-rated golf courses. But be forewarned: Each course features hellish natural hazards, such as razor-sharp lava, gusty trade winds, an occasional wild pig, and the tropical heat. And greens fees tend to be very expensive. Still, golfers flock here from around the world and love every minute of it.
A few tips on golfing in Hawaii: There's generally wind -- 10 to 30 mph is not unusual between 10am and 2pm -- so you may have to play two to three clubs up or down to compensate. Bring extra balls: The rough is thick, water hazards are everywhere, and the wind wreaks havoc with your game. On the greens, your putt will always break toward the ocean. Hit deeper and more aggressively in the sand because the type of sand used on most Hawaii courses is firmer and more compact than on mainland courses (lighter sand would blow away in the constant wind). And bring a camera -- you'll kick yourself if you don't capture those spectacular views.
See things from a bird's-eye view (literally) as you and your instructor float high above Oahu on a tandem hang-glider. Paradise Air Hawaii, at the Dillingham Air Field (tel. 808/497-6033; www.paradiseairhawaii.com), offers the opportunity to try out this daredevil sport. A tandem lesson of ground school plus 30 minutes in the air costs $175.
Hiking in Hawaii is a breathtaking experience. The islands have hundreds of miles of trails, many of which reward you with a hidden beach, a private waterfall, an Eden-like valley, or simply an unforgettable view. However, rock climbers are out of luck: Most of Hawaii's volcanic cliffs are too steep and brittle to scale.
You can gallop on the beach at the Turtle Bay Resort, 57-091 Kamehameha Hwy., Kahuku (www.turtlebayresort.com; tel. 808/293-6024; bus: 52 or 55), where 45-minute rides along sandy beaches with spectacular ocean views and through a forest of ironwood trees cost $80 for age 7 and up (riders must be at least 4 ft., 4 in. tall). Romantic sunset rides are $110 per person. Private rides for up to four people are $130 per person.
Hawaii is one of the world's most popular destinations for ocean kayaking. Beginners can paddle across a tropical lagoon to two uninhabited islets off Lanikai Beach on Oahu, while more experienced kayakers can take on open ocean.
Everything you need to leap from a plane and float to earth can be obtained from SkyDive Hawaii, 68-760 Farrington Hwy., Wahiawa (tel. 808/637-9700; www.skydivehawaii.com). A tandem jump (where you're strapped to an expert who wears a chute big enough for the both of you) costs $250 (check the website as it sometimes has discount coupons). No doubt about it -- this is the thrill of a lifetime. (Although, as SkyDive's website warns, "Skydiving is extremely dangerous.")
Some people come to the islands solely to take the plunge into the tropical Pacific and explore the underwater world. Hawaii is one of the world's top ten dive destinations, according to Scuba Diving magazine. Here you can see the great variety of tropical marine life (more than 100 endemic species found nowhere else on the planet), explore sea caves, and swim with sea turtles and monk seals in clear, tropical water. If you're not certified, try to take classes before you come to Hawaii so you don't waste time learning and can dive right in.
If you dive, go early in the morning. Trade winds often rough up the seas in the afternoon, so most operators schedule early-morning dives that end at noon. We have more info in the scuba diving section of this site.
Tip: It's usually worth the extra bucks to go with a good dive operator. We've listed the operators that'll give you the most for your money.
Stand-up paddling consists of, well, standing on an oversized surfboard and using a long handed paddle to propel yourself over the water. There are numerous places to both practice this sport as well as take lessons, especially in Waikiki, on the North Shore, and on the windward side at Kailua.
Snorkeling is one of Hawaii's main attractions, and almost anyone can do it. All you need is a mask, a snorkel, fins, and some basic swimming skills. In many places, all you have to do is wade into the water and look down at the magical underwater world.
If you've never snorkeled before, most resorts and excursion boats offer snorkeling equipment and lessons. You don't really need lessons, however; it's plenty easy to figure out for yourself, especially once you're at the beach, where everybody around you will be doing it. If you don't have your own gear, you can rent it from one of dozens of dive shops and activities booths.
While everyone heads for Oahu's Hanauma Bay -- the perfect spot for first-timers -- other favorite snorkel spots abound all over the island.
Some snorkeling tips: Always snorkel with a buddy. Look up every once in a while to see where you are and if there's any boat traffic. Don't touch anything; not only can you damage coral, but camouflaged fish and shells with poisonous spines may also surprise you. Always check with a dive shop, lifeguards, or others on the beach about the area in which you plan to snorkel and ask if there are any dangerous conditions you should know about.
You can also try for spearfish, swordfish, various tuna, mahimahi (dorado), rainbow runners, wahoo, barracuda, trevallies, bonefish, and such bottom fish as snappers and groupers -- and the biggest catch of them all, marlin. Visiting anglers currently need no license.
Charter fishing boats range widely both in size (from small 24-foot open skiffs to luxurious 50-foot-plus yachts) and in price (from about $100 per person to "share" a boat with other anglers for a half-day, to $900 a day to book an entire luxury sportfishing yacht on an exclusive basis). Shop around. Prices vary according to the boat, the crowd, and the captain. Also, many boat captains tag and release marlin or keep the fish for themselves (sorry, that's Hawaii style). If you want to eat your mahimahi for dinner or have your marlin mounted, tell the captain before you go.
Money-saving tip: Try such sites as GetMyBoat.com and BoatSetter.com which offer marketplaces for boat rentals, both bareboats, those with captains and fishing trips. The competition on these sites tends to depress prices.
The ancient Hawaiian practice of hee nalu (wave sliding) is probably the sport most people picture when they think of Hawaii. Believe it or not, you, too, can do some wave sliding -- just sign up at any one of the numerous surfing schools. On world-famous Waikiki Beach, just head over to one of the surf stands that line the sand; these guys say they can get anybody up and standing on a board.
Tennis is a popular sport in the islands. The etiquette at the free county courts is to play only 45 minutes if someone is waiting.
Free city and county tennis courts on the mauka side of Paki Avenue are also open for play during daylight hours 7 days a week.
If you're on the North Shore, head to the Turtle Bay Resort , which has 10 courts, four of which are lit for night play. You must reserve the night courts in advance; they're very popular. Court time is $10 per person per hour (complimentary for guests); equipment rental and lessons are also available.
Every winter, pods of Pacific humpback whales make the 3,000-mile swim from the chilly waters of Alaska to bask in Hawaii's summery shallows, fluking, spy hopping, spouting, breaching, and having an all-around swell time. About 1,500 to 3,000 humpback whales appear in Hawaiian waters each year.
Humpbacks are one of the world's oldest, most impressive inhabitants. Adults grow to be about 45 feet long and weigh a hefty 40 tons. Humpbacks are officially an endangered species; in 1992, the waters around Maui, Molokai, and Lanai were designated a Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Despite the world's newfound ecological awareness, humpbacks and their habitats and food resources are still under threat from whalers and pollution.
The season's first whale is usually spotted in November, but the best time to see humpback whales in Hawaii is between January and April. Just look out to sea. You'll also find a variety of whale-watching cruises, which will bring you up close and personal with the mammoth mammals.
Money-saving tip: Book a snorkeling cruise during the winter whale-watching months. The captain of the boat will often take you through the best local whale-watching areas on the way, and you'll get two activities for the price of one. It's well worth the money.
Hawaii is a top windsurfing destination. World-class windsurfers head to the wind and the waves offshore. Others, especially beginners, set their sails for Oahu's Kailua Bay, where gentle onshore breezes make learning this sport a snap.
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.