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:
For a bike-and-hike adventure, contact Bike Hawaii ★ (www.bikehawaii.com; 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 Kaaawa Valley on Oahu’s northeast shore, with stops at a reconstructed Hawaiian hale (house) and kalo loi (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 $130 for adults and $77 for children 14 and under. Want to see views from mauka (mountain) to makai (sea)? Then sign up for the Rainforest to Reef tour (8 1/2 hours; $170 adults, $110 kids 14 and under) in which you hike in a tropical rainforest to a waterfall, drive up Mount Tantalus and cruise down on bikes, and, finally, set sail on a catamaran in Waikiki to snorkel and soak up the sun.
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.
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).
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.
You can gallop on the beach at the Turtle Bay Resort ★★, 57-091 Kamehameha Hwy., Kahuku (www.turtlebayresort.com; 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 $85 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. Kualoa Ranch ★★, 49-560 Kamehameha Hwy., Kaʻaʻawa (www.kualoa.com; 800/231-7321 or 808/237-7321) also offers 1- and 2-hour horseback tours ($85 and $130, respectively) into the lush Kaaawa Valley, against the backdrop of the Kualoa mountains.
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.")
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.