Replete with natural beauty from waterfalls to volcanoes, Hawaii is on many a traveler’s must-visit lists. It’s comprised of a number of islands but known for its famous six: Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, and Maui. The state is known as a place where a person can get away from it all, disconnect as much as they’d like, and rest without interruption. And while that’s certainly something you should do while in Hawaii, there’s so much more to it than just sitting on a beach and tanning in the sun.
Hawaii’s varied landscape lends itself to a myriad of experiences, all of which can be achieved no matter which island you decide to make your base. So don’t stress too much over googling the pros and cons of one island versus the other. No matter where you decide to go, here are eight experiences you can easily have — and need to have — on your first visit to Hawaii.
1. Start off the day by testing the limits of your flexibility.
As much as sleeping in may feel good, starting your morning with yoga on the beach will set the day’s tone and help you feel even better in the long run. Yoga has been proven to have health benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety, lessening chronic pains, bettering mood and energy, and improving respiration and circulatory health.
Due to the added obstacle of keeping steady while on sand, yoga on the beach will force you to truly forget about anything on your mind and bring you into the present moment, where the only worry you’ll have is whether or not you can reach your toes. You may not come out of it feeling like you’re ready to kickstart your new life as a traveling yogi, but hearing the ocean waves crash onto the beach and watching the sunrise as you give your body a much-needed stretch can’t even compare to the standard, indoor yoga of back home. The best part is that it can be done on any beach, and all you need is a mat. If you would like an instructor, however, or don’t have your own mat with you, this can be easily arranged through your accommodation or through a tour company. Some places, like the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, combine the exercise with a cultural activity, such as e’ala’e, which is the Hawaiian practice of clearing the mind and body and greeting the sun at first light.
2. Hike to beautiful vistas.
For those not into waking up in the morning just to exercise, or for those that do and want to continue doing so, a hike is a great way to get the blood pumping and immerse yourself in nature. The opportunities for hiking in Hawaii are vast and, depending on the route you take, will have you traversing through valleys, forests, and meadows or past volcanoes, rivers, and waterfalls. Regardless, every single one is sure to provide you with gorgeous views of your surroundings. In particular, hikers love the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon on Kauai; Ka’au Crater and Waimea Falls on Oahu; Kalaupapa and the Moomomi sand dunes on Molokai; Puu Pehe and Koloiki Ridge on Lanai; Volcanoes National Park and Papakolea Beach on the Big Island; and Iao Valley and Haleakala on Maui, where you can also hike at night to see the sunrise over otherworldly terrain that’s reminiscent of Mars.
3. Chase waterfalls all day long.
Waterfalls are a perfect place to, if space allows, just sit and relax, read, have a picnic, or even cool off by getting into the water. Hawaii has a seemingly endless number of waterfalls on all of its islands, ranging in size and accessibility. The most popular ones are easier to get to, including Wailua Falls on Kauai, Pāpalaua on Molokai, Manoa on Oahu, Wailua on Maui, and Akaka on the Big Island. While those are all worthy of a visit in their own right, there are many others just as beautiful that take just a little more effort on your part to get to. If you’re not taking the self-driving route around Hawaii, tour companies like Hawaii Forest and Trail will do the work for you, with both specialized tours (like a waterfall-only tour that takes you to several of them) or well-rounded tours that include different pieces of what the island you’re has to offer, including a waterfall or two.
4. Learn all about rum, from harvest to the final product.
Rum is made from sugarcane, which until the 1980s was one of Hawaii’s main exports. As of 2016, Hawaii’s last sugar plantation shut down, signaling the end of an industry. The remaining fields have been repurposed, but some companies have bought land to continue farming the product for other uses than just exporting sugar itself — such as rum production. There are several distilleries that offer tours detailing the process of making rum, with tastings included, though only a few take you through the fields themselves. Kuleana Rum Works, the first distillery on the Big Island, does all that and more, even offering a larger tour that takes participants to Pololu Valley Lookout, with scenic views, and includes an authentic Hawaiian meal and cocktails at its restaurant. Beyond the Big Island, there’s Koala Rum on Kauai; Kō Hana Distillers and Island Distillers on Oahu; and Hali’imaile Distilling Company on Maui, which produces vodka, whiskey, and gin in addition to rum.
5. Sail along calm waters and possibly spot a whale or two.
For a different kind of boating experience, take a catamaran, a spacious ship with two hulls basically built for relaxation, out onto the water. Entire catamarans can be rented out for you and your group for a truly unique outing, whether it’s for a day party on the water, a cruise to see the Hawaiian landscape from a different perspective, to spot some wildlife (whale season in Hawaii is from mid-December to mid-May), or all of the above, you’re likely to experience all of these regardless. If you’re riding solo or an entire catamaran is too much, there are group catamaran tours available for booking which can be arranged through wherever you’re staying or on your own.
6. Embrace your sporty side on the water.
Hawaii wouldn’t be Hawaii without water sports, and the list of things you can do runs long: surfing, paddle boarding, tubing, canoeing, kayaking, and parasailing, among tons of others. It would almost be easier to list what you can’t do. If you’ve never done one of those particular water sports, fear not because experienced guides will be with you nearly every step of the way to ensure you have an exhilarating, yet safe, time. Booking one of these activities is as easy as walking down any beach, where you’ll see various outfitters next to gear just waiting to be rented out for the day.
7. Encounter wildlife ethically in a new way.
With such a big world filled with so many different forms of life on it, it makes sense that people would want to interact with all that our planet has to offer. Unfortunately, the reality is that many of the various wildlife experiences offered around the world are unethical, treating the animals inhumanely for the sake of a profit. However, the silver lining is that not every experience is like that, and there are ways to interact with animals without negatively impacting their well-being.
On Hawaii’s Big Island, in particular, several outfitters provide unique opportunities to observe manta rays in their natural habitat at night, without disturbance. Manta Ray Advocates, a company dedicated to educating the public about manta rays, can assist with finding a reputable company to work with on the island of your choosing. You’ll either swim out to a point where the manta rays are known to feed, or take a small boat out first and then get out to either snorkel or dive and just observe. Manta rays are harmless, feeding on tiny organisms like plankton, so there’s nothing to fear — though they can swim up close to a person out of curiosity, they typically move away just as quickly as they came. No matter which island you choose, you can be certain there is an ethical wildlife experience you can book that isn’t riding dolphins.
8. Give back to the community.
Giving back to the local community is something we should practice no matter where we are, because too often do we take for granted the places in the world we visit. We should leave these places better than we found them, and similar to a drop in the ocean creating a ripple effect of waves, every bit counts, no matter how small your part seems.
Giving back has many forms, from patronizing local businesses to assisting research centers, and everything in between. Besides being wellness-centric, the Westin hotel brand is one of the few that gives you opportunities to do so with a unique twist. The hotel chain recently debuted its Westin Waterman (and Woman) program at its Westin Maui Resort and Spa outpost, first led by Maui-born Zane Kekoa Schweitzer and now run by other locals as well, where participants will do their part by cleaning up Hawaii’s beaches after they’ve spent time on the water. In keeping with the Hawaiian culture of respecting the ocean, all water activities, such as canoeing, kayaking, and paddle boarding, are conducted with that in mind.