This Hawaii Island travel guide is filled with tips to help you plan your Hawaii trip! There are so many places to gather information it can be a bit overwhelming at times. Use this intro guide to take out the overwhelm. This guide covers 3 of the most visited islands; Kaui, Maui, and the Big Island.
Made up of hundreds of volcanic islands over 1,500 square miles the the central Pacific, Hawaii is the most isolated island group in the world. Peppered with golden, red, black and even green beaches, the landscape is tropical defined with a beautiful ruggedness to get any adventure traveler excited.
What to Expect
Language: English and Hawaiian are the official languages. A 3rd, non-official, language of Pidgin is also widely spoken.
Currency: The US Dollar is the official currency.
Credit Cards: All major international credit cards are widely accepted in eluding MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. Bring some cash along just in case you find a road side fruit stand or banana bread stand that is cash-only.
ATMs: There are plenty of ATMS throughout the islands at banks, hotels and convenience stores.
Island Time: Like many other tropical islands, Hawaii adheres to island time. For example, it might take a little longer for your order to be taken or a check to come out. It depends on where you are, in the more touristy and developed areas service is responsive and full of aloha spirit. However, if you find yourself waiting to speak with someone for longer than you feel is necessary, don’t worry. They’ll get to you right on time, when they get to you.
Climate: Hawaii is classified as tropical, known for their warm trade-winds, sunny skies and mild temperatures. However, this is greatly dependent on where you are located on any given island. For example, it can be sunny and dry in Koloa, Kauai, dripping wet in Hanalei Bay, Kauai. Elevation plays a factor as well. You can lay on the beaches of Kaanapali in your bathing suit and be freezing cold as you catch sunset on Haleakala.
Summer (Kau): starts in May and lasts through mid October. You can expect it to be warmer and drier. The ocean warms up and the seas are calmer.
Winter (Hoolio): starts in October and lasts through May. Slightly cooler with an increased chance of rain. The ocean cools and the seas are rolling.
Getting to the Islands
International: For people coming from the United States, multiple major airlines provide flights to the islands. The flight from the West Coast is around 5 hours (yes, it’s still that far), Chicago has direct flights, and you’ll have to connect from the East Coast. Be sure to pay attention to the length of the wait before your connecting flight to make sure it isn’t too short or unbearably long. A quick search from Europe revealed that many major US and European airlines service the islands, flight and connections will take around 22 hours. Upon arrival you are immediately whisked into the spirit of the islands as many terminals are open air with the magnificent trade-winds blowing through.
Inter-Island: Hawaiian Airlines provides inter island flights.
Quick Tip: When you arrive, there will be a hundreds of other people arriving at the same time as you. Which means that rental car lines could potentially be long. If you can, use the self-service kiosks to save a lot of time.
You will need a vehicle of some sort to get around, unless you plan on never leaving your accommodation. But, why go to Hawaii if you don’t plan to ever leave your accommodation?
Cars: All major US car rental companies are represented. Car rental can get pricey in Hawaii, especially if you book during a popular time or close to your trip. It’s a fact of coming to the islands. I recommend that you splurge and get a convertible or a Jeep. They really make a difference in experiencing the islands, especially on some of the longer drives.
Taxis: You can grab taxis in the bigger towns such as Lahaina, but don’t count on being able to flag one down anywhere. Plan ahead to make arrangements. The cost is generally more expensive than that of other major cities, depending on where you are from of course. More expensive than NYC, less expensive than Tokyo.
Hotel Transfer: If you don’t get a car your accommodation will likely offer discounted or free transfer from the airport. Best to check with them.
Public transportation: All islands covered in this guide offer some sort of public transportation. I don’t have any experience in taking them, but you can find more information at the island’s respective website: Kauai http://www.kauai.gov/Bus, Maui http://www.co.maui.hi.us/609/Maui-Bus-Public-Transit-System, Big Island http://heleonbus.org/
Quick Tip: If you have a Costco membership see if they have any good flight, hotel and car rental deals. You could save hundreds of dollars going through them.
Where to Stay
Each island has a drier side and a wetter side. If you have longer than 5 days I recommend splitting the time since it will reduce the amount of overall driving you’ll do and give you more time to explore. Kauai, Maui and the Big Island have a multitude of options from high-end luxury resorts to vacation rentals. Be sure to book in advance if you have your heart set on a certain place, especially during high-season. Camping is available as well, but do your research as some campsites are less savory than others.
Hawaii’s oldest island looks like, at first glance, you would think that you would be able to drive around the entire island of Kauai, but the verdant green valleys and cliffs of the Na’apli coast make that an impossible feat. For those wanting to maximize their sun time, stay near Poipu on the southern part of the island. You’ll be conveniently located to explore the island. The impeccably maintained grounds and variety of pools at the Grand Hyatt offer a romantic getaway for couples. The resort boasts a salt water lagoon, albeit a man made lagoon, but impressive none-the-less to enjoy the briny waters and listen to the surf pound at Shipwreck beach. Other accommodations in the area include several hotels and plenty of condo vacation rentals. Kapaa also offers up a dryer and sunnier experience. It’s located near the airport so if you don’t plan on self-exploring then a car rental may not be necessary. Several hotel operators are in the area as well as vacation rentals. For those looking to escape into the lush tropical greenery that Hawaii is associated with, stay on the North Shore. Be prepared for daily heavy rains that feed the greenery. Staying on the North shore will give you access to picture perfect Hanalei Bay and entry to the Na’apali coast.
Unlike the other two islands, Maui looks like two islands melting into each other with a narrow bit of land connecting the two from above. If you’re looking for a tropical road trip destination, Maui has you covered. Much of the road hugs the curves of the coastline, in some spots so closely it feels like you might fall off the edge. The drier area of the island is on the leeward side, which encompasses most of the southern areas. There are three main areas that you can stay in this region. Wauliea is home to high-end luxury resorts such as The Four Seasons. Kihei is mainly vacation rentals. Lahaina/Ka’anapali is a mix of hotels and vacation rentals. The Hyatt Regency Maui has bragging rights for the variety of pools they offer and bird life on property. Kaanapali Beach Hotel is a more affordable option on a beautiful stretch of Kaanapali Beach. It is also considered the most Hawaiian hotel in the area. If you are looking to get away from the crowds, Hana is a good option. It rains a lot in Hana so be prepared for at least a short rainfall every day.
Hawaii’s youngest island is big. The name doesn’t even do t justice. It can fit every other Hawaiian Island on the Big Island and still have room for more. If you have less than a week to explore stay put and thoroughly enjoy your surroundings. Otherwise you will be driving more than enjoying your time on the island. Kaialua-Kona is located on the dry side of the island and where many major hotels are located. You’ll have easy access to cross island roads, convenient location to explore the Western side of the island, and easy access to grocery stores & tour operators. Further North up the western coast is Kalaoa. You’ll find luxury resorts, such as the idyllic Mauna Lani, and vacation rentals in the area along with some beautiful beaches and ancient petroglyphs. You’ll have easy access to the Northern part of the island and Mauna Kea. The Kona side is DRY (it can still rain), and the terrain is desolate in some parts. The drive from Kona to Kalaoa is through barren lava fields whose only inhabitants, resident goats, will creepily stare at you as you drive down the two-lane highway. The Hilo side of the island is a stark contrast to the Kona side. As you make your way across the island the scenery starts to gain color as if a painter so slowly unfolding a new setting for you. Hilo is an interesting city, it’s gritty and rough around the edges, and beautiful all at the same time. Stop here on your way to Volcanoes to load up on supplies. There are hotels, hostels and vacation rentals in Hilo, but if you plan to visit Volcanoes, keep in mind it’s still about 45 minutes away. Best to stay closer to the park if a visit to Kilauea is a goal for you. Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day. You can easily find some Aribnbs close to the park entrance, like the one we stayed at, or if you book far enough in advance you can stay within the park, making it even more convenient. US military families – an FYI there is a lodge on the park designated for you. Take advantage of it! Tip: If you plan on splitting time, fly in to the side that you will stay in first and out of the side that you stay in last to maximize island time!
Quick tip: Save money by renting a condo with Airbnb. First time users get $35 off their stay if you use this link!
What to Do
Laying around the pool or beach and soaking up the sun is definitely possible in Hawaii, but why do that when there are so many things to do and so much natural beauty to see? Hawaii is a perfect destination for travelers that love a great adventure.
Each island offers the opportunity to get outside and be one with nature through hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, cruises, etc. Depending on how adventurous you are, you could even get away with not seeing another person while explore the outdoors. Below I’ve outlined unique things you can do on each island. It’s not an exhaustive list, but a good starting point to help you generate ideas.
Hiking along the Na’Pali Coast will leave your mouth agape for most of the time due to the insurmountable beauty surrounding you. The reward of all the natural beauty doesn’t come without its sweat equity, many hikes are not meant for those out of shape or with an uncontrollable fear of heights. We’ve been in a couple hairy situations that still make our palms sweat when we think about them.
Sunset Cruising in the deep blue ocean along the Na’Pali Coast at sunset gives you a unique vantage point to see the scale of the the cliffs and valleys.
Learning to surf on Hanalei Bay is an unforgettable experience. You’ll be challenged both physically and mentally, all while sitting in a picturesque bay surrounding by steep mountains.
Driving the Road to Hana may be a popular activity for tourists, but it’s for good reason. As you snake your way along the coast, you’ll be treated to breath-taking views. Make a whole day out of it so you have time to pull over and go on mini hikes to waterfalls (as long as they aren’t on private property). Be sure to leave early in the morning to avoid the traffic.
Snorkeling in Honalua Bay is an excellent way to see some diverse sea life. The bay is designated a Marine Life Conservation District so no fishing can take place here.
Watching the sunset on Haleakala is a less-crowded alternative to watching sunrise. Bonus, you’re in for a treat if you like to star gaze. Bundle up because it’s chilly above 10,000 feet.
Don’t miss Volcanoes National Park for your chance to see some of the youngest land you will ever see in your life. Be sure to check if the lava is still flowing into the ocean. At night watch the caldera glow near the visitor’s center. The weather can change in an instant here as can VOG conditions.Be prepared for cold rain and read up on the risks of VOG before your visit.
Mauna Kea is also a top destination on the Big Island. Standing at over 13,000, drive up to stargaze in some of the least turbulent air in the world. You can go on your own or take a tour group up. Some prefer the tour since the vast change in altitude can leave you feeling woozy with a headache, which wouldn’t be fun for driving back down.
Hike down to Captain Cook’s Monument and snorkel from the base, it’s not an easy in and out of the water so this is only recommended for more seasoned snorkelers. You can go on a guided kayak tour that kayaks to the monument and they provide a ladder to get in and out. If you are lucky, you might spot a dolphin pod or a massive school of puffer fish.
Snorkel or dive with the Manta Rays at night. Watch as the Mantas perform an underwater ballet as they come into the bays to feed. If you are prone to getting motion sick either take heavy meds or skip this one. If you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s still worth it to take some Dramamine. The water can be rolling and looking down in the dark while snorkeling can do a number on you.
Quick Tip: Map out the things you’d like to do in case you need to stay in two or more spots to cut down on driving time.
Where to Eat & Drink
From food trucks, road side stands, to high-end dining food on the islands can be as cheap or expensive as you like it. Bonus – dressing up generally means a polo and khakis for the guys and a sun dress for the ladies. Flip flops, or Slippers, welcome.
Garden Isle Grill: Open air dining with plenty of variety to make anyone happy.
Tidepools: Splurge on a nice night out and enjoy contemporary Hawaiian cuisine.
Chicken in a Barrel: BBQ and Chicken cooked in a drum barrel with two locations.
Mala: Get the Wok Fried Whole Fish of the Day, it’s absolutely worth it. When they say who fish they mean whole fish, so be prepared for your dinner to stare back at you. Enough food for two.
Mama’s Fish House:Fish so fresh they list the name of the captain who caught it that day Reserve well in advance as it’s a slice of Maui history and highly popular.
Napua: Splurge on a nice dinner and enjoy the taste of the island in a open air setting.
Da Poke Shack: Get thee to this place if you like ahi tuna and poke. The variety of poke and the the amazing flavor of everything will leave you regretting not eating here.
Tuk-Tuk Thai Food Truck: Grab some dinner here and bring it in to the park to enjoy while you wait for the sun to set and the glow to start at Kilauea Caldera.
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