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5 incredible ways to experience the island of Hawaii NOW

By: Chantae Reden

Photo: Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau/Paul Zizka

There’s never been a better time to visit the island of Hawaii.

One of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth, its landscape can change in a matter of minutes, from white to black sand beaches, to acres of rolling hills and pastureland, to rainforest serenaded by the sounds of native birds. Manicured organic farms back up against the untamed wilderness, the island refusing to be defined by any single term.

And just like the island’s terrain, no two journeys here are quite alike. Whether you travel with a swimsuit or a flashlight and hiking pole, the island of Hawaii is here to surprise you.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with The Hawaiian Islands.

The Culture

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson
The island of Hawaii has a history as rich as its landscapes. Preserved through dance, museums, and cultural sites, its complex story is still being crafted today.

Seeking refuge at Puuhonua o Honaunau

This was once a place of refuge for those who broke society’s rules...

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Seeking refuge at Puuhonua o Honaunau

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park was once a place of refuge for those who broke kapu, historical Hawaii’s rules and laws, a crime often punishable by death. That is, unless you could escape to a refuge that offered protection, where your wrongdoings would be forgiven. This park—a sanctuary, really—is just that.

At Puuhonua o Honaunau, tread lightly around the grounds that symbolize peace and forgiveness. For the most solitude, visit the historic agricultural sites only accessible via backcountry trek. 

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Interpreting the art of hula

Hula dancers use their movements to tell a story...

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Interpreting the art of hula

Hula dancers use their movements to tell a story or honor a deity. In modern hula, hand motions might show love, trees swaying, or waves rolling, while the hips and feet move rhythmically to the beat. Traditional hula, meanwhile, is a physical manifestation of oli, the chant that accompanies the dance.

Next time you’re at a performance or festival that includes the art of the hula, pay attention. What can you ascertain from the dance?

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

Navigating Puukohola Heiau

This was once an important temple for King Kamehameha I...

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Navigating Puukohola Heiau

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site was once an important temple for King Kamehameha I, who followed a prophecy that building a heiau, or temple, and sacrificing his rival at the heiau would lead to military success and the unification of the Hawaiian Islands. (Spoiler: It worked.)

The site also hosts the homestead of John Young, a British sailor who was stranded in Hawaii and became a trusted adviser to King Kamehameha I. An audio tour guides you through the ruins, and the connecting Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail leads you to the sea.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

Wandering Historic Kailua Village

If you explore Historic Kailua Village, you’ll get a glimpse into what the island was like under Hawaiian royalty...

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Wandering Historic Kailua Village

If you explore Historic Kailua Village, you’ll come across multiple sites that provide a glimpse into what the island was like under the alii, or Hawaiian royalty. Hulihee Palace was home to royals, and the modern-day museum now exhibits Victorian artwork and koa wood furniture from the days of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.

Nearby Ahuena Heiau, another royal seaside residence, is also worth admiring from the shoreline. This entire area—just 15 minutes from the Kona airport—makes for an ideal post volcano or waterfall hike.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

Going back in time at Lyman Mission House

The Lyman Mission House is the oldest wooden building on the island...

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Going back in time at Lyman Mission House

The Lyman Mission House, part of the Lyman Museum, was constructed in 1839 by two missionaries, David and Sarah Lyman. Their home, the longest-standing wooden building on the island, once hosted alii (Hawaiian royalty) as well as influential figures like Mark Twain.

Its attached museum, the Smithsonian-affiliated Lyman Museum, has cultural and geological exhibits that provide in-depth lessons on the island’s unique topography and volcanic history.  

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

The Outdoors

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Anna Pacheco
The island of Hawaii is the youngest in the archipelago, a sprightly 500,000 or so years old. In this time, the island has managed to sprout into desert shrubland, lava fields, lush forests, and multicolored beaches. Grab your hat and water bottle — it’s time for an adventure.

Hiking among lava flows

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is where you can witness the island’s ever-changing topography...

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Hiking among lava flows

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is where you go to witness the island’s ever-changing topography. Deep craters, lava tubes, steam vents, and dramatic ridgelines reveal the raw power of Earth’s fiery interior.

Following the eruptions of 2018, most of the park has reopened. Consider an easy hike along the Sulphur Banks Trail, where clouds of steam rise from the warm earth, or trek the Kilauea Iki Trail at dawn, finding yourself on a Martian-esque lava field as the sun rises and the fog lifts.

Even if you’ve been to the park before, you’ll want to go again and see the dramatic changes of Halemaumau Crater.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

Gazing over Pololu Valley

A dramatic landscape of steep drops and bright foliage, Pololu Valley...

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Gazing over Pololu Valley

A dramatic landscape of steep drops and bright foliage, Pololu Valley is one of the best views on the island. The drive up Highway 270 leads to the lookout point, where the panorama spans to the valleys carving into the seaside slope of the old Kohala Volcano.

You can hike down to the sparkling black sand beach below—it takes about half an hour to complete the steep, rocky trek. Bring good shoes (swimming not recommended)!

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

Taking in the island by bike

Venture around the island on two wheels with Big Island Bike Tours...

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Taking in the island by bike

Four wheels can be restrictive—two has fewer limits. But you have to know where to go, and for that (and the wheels), look to Big Island Bike Tours. You can take day trips, multi-day tours, or just customize your own ride past waterfalls, along black sand beaches, and to historic sites.

Recommended: Experience Anna Ranch in Waimea on an exclusive mountain bike tour of nearly 100 acres behind the historic home of the late Anna Lindsey Perry-Fiske, the "First Lady of Ranching."

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

Getting misted by Akaka Falls

A 442-foot waterfall highlights Akaka Falls State Park, a verdant forest...

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Getting misted by Akaka Falls

A 442-foot waterfall highlights Akaka Falls State Park, surrounded by verdant forest full of bamboo and orchids less than 30 minutes from downtown Hilo. If there’s one waterfall to see on the island, this is it.

An easy .4-mile boardwalk loop reveals Akaka Falls from a few different vantage points, as well as offering a peek at its neighboring cascade, 100-foot Kahuna Falls. 

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Ziplining past waterfalls

You’ll overcome your fear of heights (or maybe accrue one)...

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Ziplining past waterfalls

You’ll overcome your fear of heights (or maybe accrue one) while flying over waterfalls on a zipline tour with Umauma Experience. Check it: The 9-line zipline passes 14 waterfalls across nearly two miles. Fourteen!

But since flying above isn’t nearly close enough, you’ll then rappel down a waterfall that splashes into the Umauma Stream, a small river spilling into the Pacific Ocean. 

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

The Ocean

Photo: Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau/Tyler Schmitt
Surf, swim, paddle, or just admire. With a coastline that’s ever expanding thanks to volcanic activity, the island of Hawaii is a constantly evolving playground of ocean adventures. That is, if playgrounds had lava flows, manta rays, and sea turtles.

Scuba diving with manta rays

Elegant and ethereal, manta rays are the embodiment of majestic...

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Scuba diving with manta rays

Elegant and ethereal, manta rays are the embodiment of majestic. At night, they glide through the water, often found hovering just over the reef to be cleaned by the aptly named Hawaiian cleaner wrasse.

You’ll see them—and loads of other creatures—for yourself on a scuba diving or snorkeling tour with Jack’s Diving Locker. And to be clear: They have no tail stingers and no sharp teeth! 

Photo: Shutterstock/Rich Carey

 

Learning to surf at Kahaluu Beach

Friendly waves roll through Kahaluu Beach, a spot where trusted surf instructors...

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Learning to surf at Kahaluu Beach

Friendly waves roll through Kahaluu Beach, a spot where the trusted surf instructors at Kahaluu Bay Surf and Sea will teach you how to paddle into and stand on your first waves.

If you want to give it a go on your own, stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling gear, body boards, and surfboards are also available for rent. 

Photo: Island of Hawaii Visitoris Bureau/Kirk Lee Aeder

Stand-up paddleboarding at Kailua Bay

The calm waters of Kailua Bay make for a prime spot to SUP...

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Stand-up paddleboarding at Kailua Bay

The calm waters of Kailua Bay make for a prime spot to SUP. From your board, you might spot sea turtles taking a breather or schools of fish swimming underneath you. Yep, the water’s pretty clear—and the views above water aren’t so bad either. 

Board rentals—along with kayaks and canoes—are available from Kona Boys.  They offer tours and lessons, too.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Paddling an outrigger canoe at Keauhou Bay

Polynesians traditionally traveled from island to island in an outrigger canoe...

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Paddling an outrigger canoe at Keauhou Bay

Polynesians traditionally traveled from island to island in outrigger canoes, the type where a small attached beam floats alongside the main craft to prevent tipping in the ocean waves.

With Anelakai Adventures, you can learn proper form, technique, and the importance of teamwork on an outrigger canoe tour of Keauhou Bay. 

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Snorkeling at Richardsons Ocean Park

For a black-sand beach and a good snorkel spot close to Hilo...

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Snorkeling at Richardsons Ocean Park

For a black-sand beach and a good snorkel spot close to Hilo, head to Richardson’s. It’s great for an off-beach but still calm-current snorkel.

Strap on your goggles and fins, wade into the shallow water, and admire the marine life as it swims around you. The spring water can be a bit chilly—the ocean water is much warmer.

Photo: Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau/Tyler Schmitt

The Art & Museums

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Daeja Fallas
You’ve seen some of the island’s stunning natural landscapes for yourself. Now it’s time to learn a bit more about them and how the land, sky, and sea have served as muses for many creative people of Hawaii.

Hunting stars right from the beach

With little light pollution to taint the skies, the island of Hawaii...

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Hunting stars right from the beach

With little light pollution to taint the skies, the island of Hawaii—specifically the Kohala Coast—provides stunningly clear views for stargazers. With Star Gaze Hawaii, you’ll admire the twinkling lights of the night skies through a powerful telescope right on the beach.

To stay starry-eyed during the day, visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii and catch one of their excellent planetarium shows.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Dana Edmunds

Learning about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

The Mokupapapa Discovery Center shares information about Hawaii’s remote isles...

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Learning about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

The Mokupapapa Discovery Center, in Hilo, shares information about Hawaii’s remote isles—the tiny, much older Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—and coral reefs through interactive exhibits, life-size models of animals, and saltwater aquariums, one of which holds 3,500 gallons of water and marine life like you’ve never seen.

These islands have very different natural environments than those we typically think of as comprising Hawaii, many protected for the wildlife they harbor. And slowly but surely, they’re all eroding into the sea.

Photo: Mokupapapa Discovery Center

Getting inspired at the Volcano Art Center

With the island as inspiration...

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Getting inspired at the Volcano Art Center

With the island as inspiration, there’s no shortage of incredible artwork here. Visit the Volcano Art Center to admire the work of over 200 local artists—and participate in an art workshop yourself.

Much more than an art gallery, the center runs programs that will deeply immerse you in local culture, including hula performances, guided walks through the Niaulani Rainforest, and cultural and language-learning workshop. These will definitely graduate you from standard tourist level!

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Dana Edmunds

Exploring the Pacific Tsunami Museum

The Hawaiian Islands unfortunately are no strangers to tsunamis...

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Exploring the Pacific Tsunami Museum

The Hawaiian Islands—and Hilo in particular—are no strangers to tsunamis. These natural disasters, with waves sometimes hitting speeds of 500mph, have caused widespread damage and claimed hundreds of lives in the past.

At the Pacific Tsunami Museum, you can pay your respects to Mother Nature. Learn all about how tsunamis are formed and how they’re connected to other events across the planet, and visit several tsunami sites on the 90-minute walking tour. 

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

The Food

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman
The island of Hawaii’s abundance of farms and skilled chefs makes it easy to explore with your taste buds as guide. Coffee, beer, and fresh seafood: three effortless and highly rewarding ways to experience Hawaii.

Catching sunset dinner and drinks at Magics Beach Grill

Sit back and enjoy the view from this beachside restaurant...

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Catching sunset dinner and drinks at Magics Beach Grill

Sit back and enjoy the view of the Kona Coast from Magics Beach Grill, a new beachside restaurant that serves up delicious island bites in a historic oceanfront building that dates back to 1965.

Word of advice: Come hungry. You’ll need room for fried ulu wedges, fish served with pineapple slaw, pork chops accompanied by root vegetables, and sweet potato pie baked with macadamia butter. Not to mention the drinks!

Photo: Magics Beach Grill

Sipping on locally brewed beer

The island of Hawaii doesn’t shy away from the brewery scene...

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Sipping on locally brewed beer

The island of Hawaii doesn’t shy away from the brewery scene, and nowhere is that more apparent than at Kona Brewing Company. They're the largest on the island, and they're expanding. You might've had one of their brews on the mainland—or even as far away as Japan—but there’s nothing like tasting it fresh from the source. 

Ola Brew is another top operation, where you’re bound to have a good time knocking back a classic IPA or their full-bodied porter made with kiawe and vanilla.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Touring a coffee farm

Drink a cup here and it might ruin all other coffee for you forever...

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Touring a coffee farm

The danger of drinking 100% Kona or Kau coffee on the island of Hawaii is that your java back home might taste pretty lackluster in comparison. In the States, Hawaii is one of two places with soil fit for producing coffee beans, meaning it’s hard to get fresher coffee than right here.

Coffee plantations and makers like UCC Hawaii, Greenwell Farms, and Kau Coffee Mill all offer farm tours and tastings. You drink it every day—time to learn how it’s made. Or if tea is more your thing, be sure to visit one of several tea farms on the island, too!

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Lunching at Da Poke Shack

Poke is a Hawaiian dish made from diced and marinated fresh fish...

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Lunching at Da Poke Shack

Poke is a Hawaiian dish made from diced and marinated fresh fish. You’ve probably had it at your local seafood shack, and that’s great—because once here, you’ll taste the difference.

At Da Poke Shack, the fish is just-caught and can be served with a side of salad, kimchi, edamame, or rice. Sauces range from sweet to savory to tangy to spicy. The combinations are virtually endless, each one consistently super fresh.

Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Goodman

Dining in style at Merriman’s

Merriman’s takes pride in using local ingredients...

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Dining in style at Merriman’s

Merriman’s takes pride in working with local farmers and fisherman to provide the freshest ingredients. About 90% of their menu is grown, raised, or caught regionally. All this has made Chef Peter Merriman kind of a big deal.

Reservations are essential if you want to enjoy their menu. You’ll sit down to fresh ginger poke, heaped salads, macadamia-nut-crusted kampachi, and steak served with garlic, rosemary, and cauliflower. 

Photo courtesy of Merriman's Hawaii


This post is proudly produced in partnership with The Hawaiian Islands.
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