Ultimate Guide to Hawaii
Is Hawaii a state or an island? The answer is both. This island, more than any other in this state, is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to names. This is the biggest island in the state, so it is commonly referred to as (brace yourself) the Big Island. Its Hawaiian name is Hawaii. So far, so good. But the whole state is called Hawaii. So you figure the capital must be here, right? Nope, Honolulu is on O‘ahu. This must be where most of the people live, right? Uh-uh. O‘ahu has 80 percent of the population. Well, this must be where Pearl Harbor is, correct? Wrong answer—it’s on O‘ahu, too.
So why is the state named after this island? Because it’s the biggest island, and this is where King Kamehameha the Great was from. It was he who brought all the islands under one rule for the first time. His first capital was here at Kailua (another naming headache). When you do all that, you have some historical influence. In our book and app we will refer to this island as the Big Island. When we say Hawaii, we mean the whole state. In short, in Hawaii could be anywhere—on Hawaii is on the Big Island.
What we call the Hawaiian Islands are simply the latest creations from an island-making machine. Someday they will disappear, existing as nothing more than footnotes in the Earth’s turbulent geologic history.
Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau are the oldest of the eight major islands. Lush and deeply eroded, the last of Kaua‘i’s fires died with its volcano a million years ago. O‘ahu, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, Kaho‘olawe—their growing days are over as well. Maui is in its twilight days as a growing island. After growing vigorously, Hawaiian volcanoes usually go to sleep for a million years or so before sputtering back to life for one last fling. Maui’s volcano Haleakala has entered its final stage and last erupted around 1790.
The latest and newest star in this island chain is Hawaii. Born less than a million years ago, this youngster is still vigorously growing. Though none of its five volcano mountains is considered truly dead, these days Mauna Loa and Kilauea are doing most of the work of making the Big Island bigger.
Maui is the undisputed playground of Hawai‘i. No other island has the range of activities and scenery available to you here. There’s almost nothing you can’t do on Maui: hike in pristine rain forests, snorkel in an extinct crater, coast a bicycle 10,000 feet down a volcano, walk along miles of beaches, frolic under a waterfall, dive into a natural freshwater pool, lie on a black or even red sand beach, or sip a drink as the sun sets over nearby islands. Whatever fantasy about Hawaii you have, Maui is bound to deliver.
O‘ahu: land of myths. We’re not talking about ancient Hawaiian myths. We’re talking about the myths that exist about this island, both for visitors and for those who live on the neighbor islands (including me before I moved here to do this guide.) The biggest myth is that O‘ahu is Waikiki and Waikiki is O‘ahu. Nothing could be further from the truth. O‘ahu has all the wonder, adventure and discovery that a person could ever ask for—and far more.
Kaua‘i is a unique place. People who visit here recognize this immediately. There are plenty of places in the world featuring sun and sea, but no other place offers the incomparable beauty, lushness and serenity of Kaua‘i. Living here, we get to see first-time visitors driving around with their jaws open, shaking their heads in disbelief at what they see. Without a doubt, you will never see more smiles than during your visit to Kaua‘i.
Hawaii Big Island
The Big Island has it all. Nowhere else in the world will you find the diversity available here. Pristine rain forests, lava deserts, world-class beaches, snow-covered mountains, an active volcano, dazzling sunsets and just about every activity you can think of. The island is huge—about the size of Connecticut. Navigating your way through this maze of opportunity can be daunting.
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.
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.
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 well-defined 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.
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 elsewhere. Waikiki is a humming, happening visitor mecca.
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.
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 a charming, self-contained city 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.
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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