Not surprisingly, because Oahu has 80 per cent of the population, you will find the largest cities on that island as well. The following is a taste of what life is like in these famous Hawaii cities.
Oahu Hawaii Cities
Honolulu is overrepresented when it comes to attractions to visit. It’s got so many, in fact, that we have dedicated Adventures & Attractions sections you should check out. Look at places like ‘Iolani Palace, Punchbowl Cemetery, Chinatown, Bishop Museum, Doris Duke’s Shangri La and Garden Tours.
As a rule of thumb, we try to avoid driving into Honolulu from 7–8:30 a.m. and 3–7 p.m. Most traffic goes into Honolulu in the morning and out of Honolulu in the evening, but traffic can go from calm to disastrous over something as simple as a fender bender no matter where you’re going. On weekends, try to avoid driving into Honolulu after 7 p.m.—the traffic usually won’t calm down until 10 p.m. or later.
Imagine an area of less than one square mile that has over 30,000 hotel rooms. Imagine that this area is blessed with one of the most user-friendly beaches in the world. Where just about anyone can take a surfing lesson and ride their first wave. A place with more restaurants than most decent-sized towns. A place with limitless shopping. Well, this place actually exists. Waikiki is the essence of carefree. Visitors here tend to feel safe, warm and happy.
Waikiki is about walking and gawking, eating and shopping, surfing and soaking up the sun. You don’t come to Waikiki to get away from the action; you come here to get a piece of the action. This is the place where you and 4 million of your closest friends each year embrace the tropics and each other. If you’re looking for a quiet, out-of-the-way destination, look to Hawaii cities elsewhere. Waikiki is a humming, happening visitor mecca.
The most important landmark in Kane‘ohe is the Kane‘ohe Marine Corps Base. Forget your visions of row upon row of barracks with privates running around as sergeants bark out orders. This is one of those charming, self-contained Hawaii cities with all the comforts of home—sort of an island within an island. It has restaurants, a movie theater, gas stations, neighborhoods of beautiful houses, schools and school buses, car rental companies, stellar beaches and a very nice golf course called Klipper. Everything a growing marine and his/her family could want. The only thing you won’t find here is… you. It’s an active marine base and access is restricted.
The prominent Ulupau Head at Kane‘ohe Base is the result of steam explosions offshore that formed a separate island. The world was warmer then and the sea level higher. As the world cooled, the sea level dropped, connecting the land via a peninsula.
Big Island Hawaii Cities
Kailua-Kona, Big Island
Kailua was a tiny fishing village in days gone by. Fishermen would haul in giants from the deep, bountiful waters, while farmers tended their fields up the slopes of Hualalai. Many of the great chiefs of old chose this part of the island as their home. Kona weather and Kona waters were known throughout the islands as the very best, and that hasn’t changed. Though no longer the sleepy little village of yesteryear, this is a charming seaside town where the strolling is pleasant, the sunsets are mesmerizing, the food is diverse, and the activities are plentiful.
Kailua-Kona is nestled in the lee of Hualalai Volcano, meaning that it is sheltered from the trade winds coming from the other side of the island. The winds it does get are usually from wraparound sea breezes. The rains from them have already been wrung out.
The heart of Kailua-Kona is the mile-long oceanfront stretch of Alii Drive starting at the Kailua Pier. As with any seaside tourist town, traffic can be heavy. Alii Drive is a particularly good area to take a walk after a meal. This part of town has lots of shops and restaurants overlooking the water.
Hilo, Big Island
Hilo is a charming mix of old and new Hawai‘i. Once a thriving town bolstered by limitless sugar revenues, the demise of the sugar industry has kept Hilo in a time warp. And that’s the charm. Though a full-fledged city, things move slower here, and the community is tight. They’ve been through a lot. Slammed by tsunamis, threatened by lava flows, racked by a changing economy, Hilo has withstood it all. Hilo is also a strikingly beautiful town. Abundant rains give the flora a healthy sheen that soothes the soul. Though the exodus of business has left many of its buildings looking worn and neglected, Hilo’s charms lie deeper.
Hilo’s Achilles’ heel is weather. Only in Hilo would water officials quake in fear and declare a drought, even encouraging water conservation, when they receive only 70 inches of rain in a year. (All you Arizona residents can stop laughing now.) This rain translates to an unacceptable gamble for many visitors. People are hesitant to spend precious Big Island days in a soggy place. But they forget that even if it’s rain-city here, elsewhere along the eastern side things might be sunnier. Hilo is the logical gateway for exploring Puna, the easternmost part of the island, where you’ll find lush rain forests, a black sand beach, thermally heated pools and volcano-ravaged towns. Puna is also famous for its outlaws from the 20th century, guerrilla gardeners and bizarre characters.
Maui Hawaii Cities
Lahaina is the only town in all of leeward Maui with a real downtown. If someone told you to meet them in downtown Kihei, you wouldn’t have any idea where they meant. Same goes for Wailea, Kapalua, Ka‘anapali or Napili. Though it’s only 1.5 miles long, downtown Lahaina is one of the most well-defined Hawaii cities and bursting with things to see and do.
The biggest problem with Lahaina is that it’s crowded. And even when it’s not crowded… it’s crowded. A secluded stroll along Front Street is about as likely as a snowy day in Miami. But Front Street has an electricity that defies explanation. No matter how much you curse its popularity, you can’t deny Lahaina’s charm. It’s busy, tacky, weird and wonderful. It’s full of old world character and new world annoyances. It manages to energize and relax at the same time. If you visit West Maui without strolling along Front Street (abiding by that old Yogi Berra axiom, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”), then you missed out on more than you think. Because for all its faults, Lahaina works.
Hana doesn’t hit you, it seeps into you. Living on Maui, we had driven through Hana many times and thought we knew it well. But it wasn’t until the first time we spent a week in Hana that we truly connected with it. The peace that Hana exudes can only penetrate when you’re here at leisure, not on a mission. Today, Hana is one of our favorite places to go to get away from the hellacious rigors of guidebook writing. (You have no idea how hard it was to write that last sentence with a straight face.) If you’re on Maui for a week or more, we strongly suggest you consider spending the last couple of days in Hana.
Hana has the reputation of being a rainy place. In fact, they get just over 80 inches of rain per year at the Hana Airport, though it varies quite a bit. That may sound like a lot (actually it is a lot), but hidden in that number are two things you need to know. First, it’s way less rain than what falls farther up the mountain (which is what feeds the waterfalls), and it’s less than what they get to the northwest, around Nahiku. This is because Hana is relatively flat and the orographic rain engine that waters most of Hawai‘i misses Hana more than most people think.
Kauai Hawaii Cities
Continuing on Highway 56, the resort area of Princeville beckons. It was named after Prince Albert, the visiting 2-year-old son of King Kamehameha IV. Although the young lad died two years later, the name stuck. The resort is renowned for its ocean bluff condominiums.
Princeville’s cliffs lead many to think that it has no beaches to offer. Au contraire. Beaches don’t get much better than Hideaways, a very pleasant little pocket of coarse sand. The catch is that you need to hike down about 5–10 minutes to it.
The Princeville Resort is a good place to dine, shop or just gawk. If you are staying in Princeville, you may choke over the prices at Foodland or Big Save in Hanalei. Consider stocking up on food in Kapa‘a where it’s somewhat cheaper.
As you drive along the main highway leaving Kalaheo, you will come to the Hanapepe Valley Look-Out , described in the South Shore Sights section. After you go through ‘Ele‘ele (where many of the boat tours leave from), you come to Hanapepe. Called Kaua‘i’s “Biggest Little Town,” Hanapepe is but a shadow of its former self. It was founded by Chinese rice farmers in the mid to late 1800s. They were opium-smoking bachelors, and underground opium shops could be found there as recently as the 1930s. Hanapepe was the only non-plantation town on the island, and it gained a reputation as Kaua‘i’s wildest spot. In 1924 they had a riot that killed 16 Filipino workers and four police officers. This was a violent and flamboyant town that had as many bars as churches. It began to decline in the late ’70s. The 1982 opening of Kukui Grove Shopping Center in Lihu‘e marked the end of an era for Hanapepe’s business community.
Depending on your outlook, you will either find downtown Hanapepe charming or a quasi-ghost town. Although Hanapepe is rising out of the ashes with some nice rehabilitation work, during most of the week we probably agree with the ghost town description. If you have a couple minutes to spare, you might want to blow through downtown just to decide for yourself. There are several shops and galleries that might be worth exploring. Friday night is art night, and it’s when the town really wakes up with live music, good food options, craft vendors and a changing roster of other activities. There’s a swinging bridge over the Hanapepe River. It replaced the old bridge that swung off during the 1992 hurricane.
Hawaii Revealed App
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- Reviews on Hawaii Resorts with their locations
- Reviews on every single beach on the islands
- Interactive maps of Kauai, Maui, Oahu and the Big Island
- Details to help plan your visit to Hawaii’s best sights, tours, activities and more
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