My Decision to Journey to Paradise
“Hawaii is so expensive!” I was in Mexico when I booked my ticket to Hawaii on a whim and my fellow travellers couldn’t believe I was about to trade in the wonderful affordability of the Mexican peso to spend the US dollar in one of the most expensive locations in the world. But the problem was, I wanted to go. You know that feeling where barely anything else matters. You know you have to find a way, because Hawaii was seriously high on my “to visit” list, had been for so long and, besides, I doubted it was going to get cheaper any time soon.
So, against the good advice of my budget conscious travel friends, I booked my impressively cheap ticket (£92 from Cancun to San Francisco and £94 onward to Honolulu – more on that coming soon) and in less than 5 days of booking my flight, I landed…in paradise.
As usual, I didn’t have a particular plan in mind. It was September. I knew I had to be back in England for a friend’s wedding at the beginning of December. And I knew the humpback whales migrated to the region round about the same time (Hawaii, that is, not England!). With my fingers crossed and firmly stifling my impulse to spend, I wondered if I could ride out the rest of the year in Hawaii, making my money last for three months as I jumped between the main islands: Oahu, Big Island, Kauai and Maui.
It was a huge challenge, but also a chance to fulfil a dream and despite serious reservations (and a dent in my savings, I must confess) I did it.
What will follow is a series posts – guides – to the islands of Hawaii: what to see, what to do, what to eat, where to go, where to stay and, perhaps most importantly, how to do it as cheaply as possible. I may have blown my Mexico budget, but I spent far less than most people who take a trip to paradise – it’s a case of having to when you stay as long as I did.
When people ask me to commit to the favourite place I’ve visited, I used to struggle to answer…until I visited Hawaii.
Islands in the stream…or the Pacific Ocean
Prone to disorganisation, I didn’t have a damn clue about the detail of Hawaii when I boarded my flight. I picked up a guidebook in San Francisco during a 4-day layover and left it neatly unopened in my bag until I climbed onboard my United Airlines flight headed to Oahu. But my research didn’t stop there. For some reason I couldn’t get a grasp on Hawaii in the same way I usually do with new destinations. Perhaps it was the number of islands and the differences (and similarities) between them or maybe I was having a mental block, but it took me more a bit more research online (and then 3 months in the islands) to truly figure things out.
Here’s the overview I wish I’d had before I arrived.
Overview of the Hawaiian Islands
There are eight Hawaiian Islands in total but from a tourism perspective they can be categorised as follows.
The Main Hawaiian Islands: Oahu, Hawaii Island (Big Island), Kauai and Maui – these are the ones you’re most likely to explore.
The Smaller Hawaiian Islands: Molokai and Lanai – you’re most likely to visit these islands if you’re looking for adventure away from the tourist hordes or are splashing some serious cash at one of the remote Four Seasons resorts.
The Islands Off-Limits to Tourists: Ni’iHau and Kaho’olawe are the remaining two islands and, for the reasons explained below, you’re highly unlikely to step foot on them.
Highlights of Hawaii’s Islands
Depending on which categorisation you refer to, the Hawaiian islands has 11 out of 13 of the world’s climates. That’s a staggering amount of diversity packed into a relatively small area. With that in mind it’s difficult to condense the variety of Hawaii into a small number of highlights…and necessarily, everyone will have a different list. With as much objectivity as possible, and a small sprinkling of my personal favourites, here’s a summary of each island’s highlights.
The Main Hawaiian Islands
O’ahu may not be the biggest island (Big Island takes that title, obviously) but it serves as the landing point for most visitors to Hawaii who touch down in Honolulu International Airport.
Waikiki Beach – if not THE most famous beach in the world, Waikiki is definitely in the running for the prize. I’ll be honest, I’ve seen better looking beaches both within Hawaii and worldwide but that didn’t stop me galloping like a small child to dig my toes into an (overcrowded) patch of this iconic beach’s sand.
Pearl Harbor Memorial – if you’re in Hawaii on romantic business then a trip to Pearl Harbor may not be top of your list, but the historical significance and poignancy of this memorial makes it worth dragging your sun-drenched butt from the beach for half a day.
Related post on Indiana Jo: How to visiting Pearl Harbor for only $5.
Diamond Head – dominating the right side of Waikiki beach (with your back to the waves), the volcanic tuff cone (technical term!) of Diamond Head is perfect for walking off too much loco moco (a local dish comprising a hamburger, rice, gravy and egg – sounds vile but completely works) and offers views that are unparalleled absent the expense of a helicopter tour or adrenaline of a sky dive. My guide to hiking Diamond Head is here.
Related post on Indiana Jo: Oahu: Hiking Diamond Head on Steroids
North Shore – wave sliding, as surfing was once known, was born in Hawaii and its popularity just never seems to grow old in the islands. North Shore with its big waves (especially during winter) is the place to be if you want to watch the experts at play. The waves here were bikini-stealing-aggressive so definitely not for amateurs like me, but I could sit and watch this wonderful sporty art-form all day long. Splash! It’s also one of the best places to skydive.
Related post on Indiana Jo: Skydiving in Hawaii with a Dysfunctional What…?
Hawaii Big Island
If I had to pick a favourite islands, it would be this one. Why? Hawaii’s Big Islands really does offer everything – nature operates at its most dramatic on Big Island (where else can you witness new land being spewed forth from the earth’s core?), the beaches are not just pretty but also rare (Big Island has one of only two green sand beaches in the world). And that’s not to get me started on the coffee plantations and local brewery.
Volcanoes National Park – Despite its beaches, jungle and agriculture, Hawaii is most simply a chain of volcanoes and that fact resonates nowhere more so than on Big Islands which is home to the world’s biggest and newest volcanoes (yes the island boasts two of the beasts). Walk through lava tubes, feel the heat underfoot when you descend into an inactive crater, try not to breathe in the steam vents (trust me on this) and toast marshmallows on fresh-flowing lava. I could play for days in this national park.
Related post on Indiana Jo: Staring into the Earth’s Stomach: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Mauna Kea – holding another world record, Mauna Kea is the world’s largest mountain (measured from the base, which sits under the Ocean), but that’s not the only reason to wind to the top. So perfectly positioned for clarity that NASA has its telescopes up there, this is one of the world’s best spots for star-gazing. Don’t worry if you don’t know Saturn from Uranus, there are patient guides who will stand with you until you can make out the cheese craters on the moon.
Green Sands Beach – just when you thought Big Island couldn’t be any more impressive, you hit the south coast and discover Green Sands Beach. (Olive) green in colour, there are only two places on earth where this unique sand is found (the other place is the Galapagos). There’s a fun hike and down slope scramble to get there, making it a more rewarding visit all round.
Kona – nature works its magic in Kona. Not only are there some pretty impressive beaches (and maybe the chance to swim with mantas), the earth’s soil delivers up the raw ingredients responsible for two of the island’s greatest tastes – Kona coffee and the range of beers from the Kona Brewery. Music to my taste buds – both the coffee plantations and the brewery can be toured and tasted.
What’s in a name? This island’s official name is “Hawaii” – confusing, given that it is just part of the larger state of Hawaii. With that in mind, the island has been answering to the nickname “Big Island for years (for obvious reasons if you look at a map). But some locals are not happy with this nicknaming process and are returning to an amended version of the traditional name – “Hawaii Island”. Got it? I kind of think I have!
Why Kauai? In short, adrenaline…and peace in equal proportions. The island may be a 5 million year old dormant volcano (what?) but its unique and diverse topography will find you scrabbling for your hiking boots, snorkelling mask or kayak paddle all in the same breath. If you’re less keen on activity, you can still take a boat, ‘copter or car to explore things more leisurely.
Napali Coast – I conquered my cliff-edge fears to take in the sight of the Napali coast and I don’t regret it. This 17-mile stretch of green-cloaked cliffs and inversely dramatic valleys is one of the most photographed sights in the whole of Hawaii. Only the toughest trekkers tackle the entire trail but sea-level sailings at sunset are a popular alternative.
Waimea Canyon – it’s been equated to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and although this Pacific-side gorge is not as vast, it’s definitely more colourful, photogenic and , perhaps most importantly, thinner tourist crowds make it way more peaceful.
Wailua River – for all of the Ocean that surrounds Hawaii, there is very little by way of navigable inland water, which is part of what makes the Wailua River feel so special. That and the fact there is so much to explore – waterfalls, fern grottos and swimming holes to jump into. I was so keen to see them all that my arms ached for days after kayaking this patch of water.
Kauai’s Hindu Monastery – while this Monastery isn’t likely to feature on many lists of Kauai’s highlights, a morning of meditation at this retreat up in the hills near Wailua was one my most memorable on the islands. If sitting and “ohmmm”-ing isn’t enough for you, the Monastery also happens to be home to the world’s largest six-pointed quartz crystal, which is over 50 million years old! Kinda impressive!?
Psychedelic rainbow eucalyptus trees, fresh-baked banana bread, moonscape volcanic craters and the opportunity to listen to the eerie sound of humpback whales singing, Maui definitely felt the most surreal of all the islands. Which is why it seems strange to me that so many people visit Maui for resort relaxation, missing much of what makes it so special. Do yourself a favour – if you do book a beach break, make an escape from the manicured boundary of your resort, even if only for a while.
Road to Hana – the most beautiful drive in the world? It’s quite the claim and I’m confident it could be true. Waterfalls to swim in, Pacific panoramas at the end of tumbling coastal cliffs, those trippy eucalyptus trees and a distinct 60’s vibe lingering around the organic banana bread and coconut shrimp shacks, its only travel sickness from the unrelenting hairpin bends that will stop you doing this drive again and again.
Haleakala National Park – made most famous when Arnie (Schwarzenegger) rolled down the slope that represented Mars in the movie Total Recall, the day-long walk into the crater and back up the switchbacks of the volcano face of Haleakala is an experience you won’t forget quickly…especially not after photographing the silver plants you’ll see along the way. Being able to watch the sun set above the clouds after the hike is the kind of finale you come to expect on Maui.
Lahaina Whaling Town – one of my biggest reasons for visiting Hawaii was the chance to see whales in their natural habitat as they migrate to the warm winter waters of paradise and I wasn’t disappointed. Watching the mass of a whale under the water to a flick of a tail and water spouting into the air from a blow-hole, my trip was complete.
Windsurf Hookipa Beach – it’s not an activity I’ve tried (yet) but the perfect combination of wind, waves and expert sportsmen (and women) make Hookipa more enthralling than your average beach spot.
The Smaller Hawaiian islands
If you have time, an adventurous spirit and/or the money, there are two more islands you may meet in Hawaii….Although I didn’t make it to either of them during my stay in Hawaii, I definitely have plans to do so when I go back.
Regularly described as “Real Hawaii”, Molokai is a place where Hawaiian time has stood still. Traffic and traffic lights have not yet infiltrated the island, no property is higher than a palm tree and the beaches are best explored with snorkel gear, illustrating that Molokai has not yet made it onto the tourist circuit – and the sights are (apparently) all the better for it.
The main budget-block on Molokai is accommodation where beach houses, condos and villas are the main places to stay with hotels few and far between (last count – one!).
Lanai is another of Hawaii’s less tourist-touched islands and, for me, the opportunity to hike the rugged Munro Trail, lined by Cook pines and offering views out to the Pacific, is what most appealed (though golf, untouched bays and plantation history are all prevalent). Yet, once again, the cost implications of a visit to Lanai meant I didn’t visit. Four Seasons luxury resorts dominate the accommodation scene (though there were a couple of local options on Airbnb) and the best form of transport is 4-wheel drive, adding extra daily cost…maybe next time!
The Islands Off-Limits to Tourists
And then (for the sake of completeness) there are those islands you’re simply not going to step foot on – unless you’re local or the recipient of an invitation.
Ni’ihau is a private island accessible only by native Hawaiians, the owners (of course), the US Navy and guests – please, please, please can someone invite me? This is the place where the sacred Hawaiian culture apparently exists untouched. It’s no surprise it’s known locally as the “Forbidden Island”. Sigh.
Uninhabited (for spiritual reasons) and also presenting a risk of unexploded ordnance, Kaho’olawe is most definitely off-bounds.
Have you been to Hawaii? Any recommendations to share?
Want to read more travel planning tips for Hawaii? Click below.
Or if you want something to immediately drool over, have a look at an article I wrote about for TravelMag.com about Hawaiian food.