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After 3 weeks of traveling through the Hawaiian archipelago from Kauai to Big Island, passing through Maui and O' ahu, here is our TOP of activities that we feel are essential during a stay in Hawaii.
But before we start, let's make it clear that this article was written on the basis of our experience and tastes. Hawaii is an exceptional archipelago in terms of diversity and the multitude of activities to do, and of course we haven't been able to test everything... but it will give you a taste of what not to miss!
1 - Discover the island of Kauai
This may seem obvious to connoisseurs, but Kauai is in our view the island that we absolutely must discover and which does not necessarily come to mind when we think of Hawaii. It is indeed the smallest of the 4 main islands and the least populated, but it is a true wild paradise!
Kauai is clearly the most beautiful island in the archipelago! Why? Because it is the wildest (the vast majority of its territory is not accessible by road), and its relief has been beautifully carved by time. The beauty of the Nā Pali Coast can only be marvelled at, and can be seen from above, in Koke' e State Park, or by helicopter, or from below, from the Kalalau Trail. This is one of the most beautiful panoramas we have ever discovered in Hawaii!
Kauai is also a magnificent Canyon, the Waimea Canyon, a kind of miniature Grand Canyon, but also the only canyon on the island. You can also sail on the Wailua River one of the few navigable rivers in the archipelago, or you can discover beautiful sandy beaches with few visitors, because in Kauai there are no crowds, and that's really nice!
To top it all off, Kauai is also a huge garden! Besides, it is not for nothing that Kauai is nicknamed "the garden island". Here, the green spaces are mostly impeccably maintained, as if you were in an entire park. The vegetation is luxuriant and flowery all over the island, it is a real feast for the eyes.
In short, you will have understood it, if you plan a trip to Hawaii, think absolutely to stop 5 to 6 days minimum on the island of Kauai, you can only be under the charm of this island!
Some tips to enjoy Kauai:
- Lihue is a good central location to establish a base camp for the duration of your stay..
- Spend at least 1 full day exploring the Waiema Canyon and Koke' e State Park, plus a day on the Kalalau Trail, combined with Ke' e Beach and Tunnels Beach.
- Sail on the Wailua River for a half-day cruise by renting your canoe kayak at Kamokila Hawaiian Village, which is located closest to the sites to see.
- Take time to discover the small hidden beaches of the north and west of the island.
2 - See the liquid lava of the Kilauea
Since 1971, the Kilauea has been in permanent eruption! It's crazy just thinking about it. So it would be inconceivable to go to Hawaii and not stop to see the lava flows of the Kilauea that sometimes flow to the sea. Moreover, it is one of the few volcanoes where it is allowed to approach the lava so close, and when you say "close", it is a few centimetres away!
Indeed, the Kilauea is an effusive volcano, i. e. it produces a lot of liquid lava. This lava usually flows into underground channels, i. e. lava tunnels. However, some lava flows may be visible on the surface of these tunnels.
The activity of the Kilauea varies according to the days, it can be more or less intense. At some times, it can be difficult to see and approach lava, while at others it is profusion.
When we came here, the activity was calm on the surface, that is to say, we had to walk a lot to see the liquid flows. We tried the adventure, but without result after 2 hours of walking in the dark on the active and sometimes still hot flow.
Nevertheless, we were able to observe the flow of water flowing into the ocean. The show is fascinating even if the point of view is still far enough away from the flow because of the smoke which can be toxic. Finally, we also saw magnificent lava fountains in the Halema' uma' uma' u Crater lake, visible from the Jaggar Museum in Volcanoes National Park.
A few tips for approaching the lava:
- Only the view of the Halema'uma'uma'u Crater lava lake at the Jaggar Museum is located in Volcanoes National Park. The park is open 24 hours a day. It is interesting to come by day and night to observe the colours and changes in the lake.
- Access to the lava's point of contact with the ocean is from the small town of Kalapana, which was devastated by a lava flow in 1990. The zone is located outside the park, but parking is only open from 3pm and the number of parking spaces is limited.
- Find out how far the lava flow is from the car park as trajectories change. In April 2017, it was necessary to travel 6.5 km one-way. For this reason, it is highly recommended to hire a bike.
- To get close to the lava on foot, we strongly recommend a guided tour. This will save you from having to walk for long hours without knowing the right direction because the lava field is huge. The guides know him well and know where they saw lava the day before.
- You will find more information by reading our full article: Volcanoes National Park: discover the active volcanoes of Hawaii
3 - Snorkeling in Big Island and Maui
Hawaii is a paradise for tropical fish and sea turtles. On all the islands it is possible to observe the marine fauna, but two of them stand out because they have a more attractive reef.
Big Island is where we had our best encounters! We were able to swim among myriads of colourful little tropical fish, passing by beautiful multicoloured corals. The snorkeling spots of Two Steps Beach, or the Kapoho Tides Pools were the most striking of our stay.
The small Molokini crater, located near Maui in the open sea, is also one of the most popular places to observe marine life. You can reach it by boat, or ideally a catamaran by booking a day or half-day excursion. Unfortunately, however, this site is becoming more and more popular, which makes it a bit less attractive.
Finally, the Ahihi Kinau reserve in Maui allows swimming with fish in an ecosystem that is also protected. Here, it is forbidden to use sunscreen containing chemicals 20 minutes before entering the water. This protection favours the growth of marine fauna and flora for our greatest happiness!
To learn more about the different snorkeling spots we have been able to test, follow this link: Where to Snorkel in Hawaii: Our Favorite Spots
4 - Admire the sunset at the summit of Mauna Kea at 4207 meters above sea level
The islands of the Hawaiian archipelago are all made up of huge volcanoes that have sprung out of the water. This is what makes these islands so charming and impressive. The highest volcano in Hawaii is the Mauna Kea, located not far from its neighbour, the Mauna Kea, which has the title of the most massive volcano in the world!
It would be a shame to miss the opportunity to climb the Mauna Kea, the highest summit in the Pacific, perched almost all year round above the clouds at 4207 metres above sea level.
It is possible to get there on foot, after a long hike, or by 4x4, following the track that goes up to the summit. There above, a special sensation emerges. We overlook an immense sea of clouds that seem to extend to infinity, because apart from the summits of Mauna Loa and Haleakalā which can emerge from the clouds, the next visible summits are located thousands of kilometers away!
Our tips for a successful day at Mauna Kea:
- When going down after sunset, don't forget to stop and observe the stars on the way or at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. Animations take place several evenings a week and you can observe the sky thanks to the telescopes brought to this occasion. More info at this link.
- You will also find all our advices on how to climb the Mauna Kea in our dedicated article: Climbing the Mauna Kea, Hawaii's highest peak
5 - See the sunrise at the summit of the Haleakalā
In the same vein as Mauna Kea, we find the Haleakal? which is the highest volcano on Maui Island, at an altitude of 3055 meters. This dormant volcano only since 1790 offers an incredible panorama at its summit.
To enjoy it well, it is advisable to come there at sunrise. Unfortunately, we didn't have this chance because the clouds were accumulated on the summit on the 3 mornings where we were close by, but from the mouth of those who could attend it, this is the most beautiful sunrise of Hawaii.
Unlike the Mauna Kea, it is possible to reach the summit with any type of vehicle, the road is paved to the end. However, only a few privileged people will be able to enjoy the sunrise at the summit, because to attend, you must first have acquired an access pass, available on the Internet in limited number.
Our tips for attending the sunrise:
- Book ideally 60 days before your arrival to make sure you have room. Tickets are to be taken at this link. If all tickets have already been sold, 40 tickets are on sale 2 days before 4 p. m. on the same site.
- Find out how long it takes to get to the parking lot and take some extra time, as the line of cars can be long.
6 - Discover the excitement of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach
O' ahu is the most populated island in the archipelago, and it is also the most dynamic. It is also a way to get back in touch with the city's lights and the hustle and bustle, especially after a stay mainly oriented towards nature.
We enjoyed returning to town at the end of our stay. The seaside along Waikiki beach is very pleasant, especially at the end of the evening. Even if the crowds are high and the business is in full swing, the atmosphere remains very pleasant. At nightfall, the torches light up, which adds an even more cosy ambience to the walk.
Along Waikiki there are also large department stores that welcome us, but the most impressive are the developments of the malls, these large shopping malls in American style. Everything is large, clean and excessive, like the memory of this immense and incredible tree on which a footbridge has been built among the branches, all in the middle of the shopping centre.
It's not uncommon to attend traditional ceremonies or free outdoor concerts, as we experienced on our last evening in Honolulu.
Our advice for enjoying Honolulu:
- Book at least one evening to discover the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and stroll by the seaside at nightfall.
- Gardez en tête qu'Honolulu est une grosse ville et que les embouteillages sont conséquents le matin dès 6h30 ainsi qu'en fin de journée, dès 15h30.
- Keep in mind that Honolulu is a big city and that traffic jams are heavy in the morning from 6:30 am and at the end of the day, from 3:30 pm.
7 - Try surfing for the first time in Hawaii
You can't think of Hawaii without thinking about surfing! In Hawaii, surfing is a real institution! With a reef so well designed for the practice of this sport, and almost daily waves, it is easy to understand that this is the number one leisure activity in the archipelago. And for good reason, companies sometimes offer off-peak afternoons if the weather conditions are good for surfing the wave!
So it would be a shame not to learn to surf during a trip to Hawaii. I mean, we learned to surf in Hawaii, doesn't it look good? :)
And for that, it is not difficult to find a surf school to take some lessons. Sometimes, a few hours are enough to have good sensations on the board. But above all, it's especially for the fun side of surfing in Hawaii that you should try it!
The largest waves form during the winter, generally from November to April, and it is in the middle of winter that they are the largest, in January. In summer, the waves disappear to offer good swimming conditions, but this does not prevent the discovery of surfing, because it is better to have a calm sea to begin with. Hawaiians also surf all year round, even though the competitions are held in winter.
8 - Relive the attack of December 7,1941 at Pearl Harbor
Pear Harbor's surprise attack is a milestone in the history of the Second World War. That day, the American Pacific fleet was destroyed in a matter of minutes. From this attack of a rare violence, there are still many testimonies of survivors today that allow us to dive back into this tragic day.
The Pearl Harbor Memorial is located right where the attack took place in Pearl Harbor Bay, O' ahu. We enjoyed returning to the heart of history and paying tribute to the thousands of men who lost their lives that day. Many bodies are still trapped in the wreck of the USS Arizona, whose turret base still emerges from the water. It's a poignant moment.
Our tips for visiting Pearl Harbor:
- If you would like to visit the Pearl Harbor complex as a whole, count on one day on site (half a day is enough if you only visit the memorial).
- Don't forget to book your boat tickets on the Internet 2 months before the day of your visit, or by connecting the old one at 7am to get the remaining places, otherwise we advise you to come in the morning at 7am to be sure to get a place for the memorial boat.
- You will find detailed information on all the sites to visit and admission formalities in our dedicated article: Organize your visit to Pearl Harbor: between history and emotion
9 - Swim with Manta rays in Kona
This is one of the most amazing experiences of our stay! There are few places in the world where it is easy to approach Manta rays. Coming to Kona, on Big Island, is a unique opportunity to be able to approach Manta rays as close as possible.
They live in groups off the coast of town. Excursions are organized every evening to meet them at nightfall. It is possible to dive with tanks or simply to observe them while floating next to a board. This is the second option we chose.
We didn't expect to be able to observe 10 huge Manta rays at the same time, let alone be able to see them a few centimetres away! Manta rays are fascinating animals. Kona's are 3 to 4.5 metres wide. They are not the largest in the world, but their size is already very impressive! An opportunity not to be missed under any circumstances!
We tell you more about our experience in this article: Snorkeling with Manta rays in Hawaii: an unforgettable experience!
10 - Participate in a Luau
The Luau is a kind of Hawaiian traditional feast. With the arrival of tourism, it has become the popular tourist attraction on the island. More and more small traditional evenings are organized in the archipelago. You can taste local dishes, take part in small workshops, all accompanied by Hawaiian traditional music and dances.
Participating in a Luau is an opportunity to immerse yourself in Hawaiian culture, but be careful not to end up in a tourist trap. The ideal is to participate in a traditional Luau, organized by a city for a particular event. Tourist "Luau" will cost you a lot more and are often too clichés.
11 - Enjoy a Shave Ice
We didn't know this concept at all before coming to Hawaii! Shave Ice is a loosened scoop of ice cream flavoured with varied and colourful aromas, all laid on a scoop of Macadamia ice and sometimes covered with cream. A treat! Enjoy it all with a spoon or straw.
Shave Ice stands can be found everywhere in the archipelago. And after tasting a few of them, we get used to them very quickly!
Our advice for a good tasting:
- Not all Shave Ices are equal! Some are a little too "soft" or tasteless. Choose the good ones (it is easy to find opinions on the Internet).
- As far as our experience is concerned, we preferred Jojo's Shaved Ice, located in Waimea on the island of Kauai. These are the best we have tasted from the archipelago (but we haven't tested everything either ;)
12 - Eat local food in a Farmers market
Farmers markets are small local markets where farmers come to sell their produce. The atmosphere of these markets will immerse you in the Hawaii of yesteryear. Here, prices are broken and the fruits and vegetables are generally delicious and ripe.
Taste absolutely delicious avocados with tender flesh, succulent pineapple, mangoes and papayas flavoured and sweetened, or strange varieties of bananas. There are also flowers, pastries and sometimes handicrafts. Hilo's Farmers market on Big Island is the most famous in the archipelago. If you pass in the area, do not hesitate to go there!
Going to a Farmers market also means eating cheap and local food. Find out about the times and days of the different markets, it's a good way to save money because life is not given in Hawaii.
13 - Relaxing on the paradisiacal Lanikai beach
It is on the island of O'ahu that we found the prettiest beach of the island! Lanikai beach is worthy of the atolls, and has made us dream with its fine sand, crystal clear waters and enchanting surroundings. A real postcard beach!
What better way to end your stay in O'ahu than by relaxing at Lanikai Beach. The beach is located to the south of Kailua, on the edge of a residential area. It is one of our most beautiful memories of Hawaii because it is the very last of our trip. We didn't want to leave this beach any more because we felt so good there. So don't hesitate any more!