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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Hawaii

Anyone can see why the Pacific archipelago of Hawaii is a favorite travel destination: cobalt waters, powder-white beaches, volcanic peaks, a plethora of indigenous wildlife, and rich traditional culture. Hawaii’s vibe is casual and laid-back, but you’d be forgiven for trying to pack your trip with activities and tours. After all, life here is mostly lived outside—chowing down on traditional island food at a luau, surfing or bodyboarding the waves, snorkeling or diving the coral reefs, or hiking over ancient lava flows—and each main island offers both expected and unique experiences. Sail and snorkel off the coast of Maui, the island known for being the picture-perfect tropical idyll. Head to the Big Island to summit Mauna Kea at sunrise, hike along volcanic crater rims, and kayak with dolphins in Kealakekua Bay. Rugged Kauai is home to verdant rain forests and valleys that beg to be hiked and photographed. Oahu is a hotbed of multicultural activities in Honolulu and beyond: Immerse yourself in world history at Pearl Harbor, take a guided hike up Diamond Head, or learn to surf at Waikiki Beach. Molokai and Lanai, the two least populated of the main islands, beckon travelers who want seclusion, empty beaches, and authentic Hawaiian culture. Whatever your vision of a dream Hawaiian vacation, the recipe is simple: Choose your islands, choose your activities, choose your pace, book your trip, and enjoy.
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Molokini Crater
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Creating a perfect crescent shape in the sea, the sunken Molokini Crater is a snorkeling wonderland just offshore from Maui. Dubbed among the world’s top 10 diving locations, Molokini is prized by underwater enthusiasts for its protected reef, crystal-clear visibility and schools of tropical fish. The crater is also a favorite with birdwatchers, who come here to spot seabirds like petrels and shearwaters. Come here by organized tour for a day of swimming and diving, and terrific views across the water back to Maui.

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Pearl Harbor National Memorial
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A hallowed name in US history, Pearl Harbor was the site of the December 7, 1941, bombing by the Japanese that wrenched the United States into World War II. In total, nine U.S. ships were sunk and a further 21 damaged, and the eventual death toll was 2,350.

Pearl Harbor is still a Navy base today, and a National Historic Landmark. For visitors, the focus is the USS Arizona memorial, protecting the remains of the American battleship destroyed in seconds during the attack. The USS Utah was also sunk, and there is a memorial on nearby Ford Island. The highlight of the harbor's Bowfin Park is the submarine USS Bowfin and the adjacent memorial museum, packed with memorabilia and exhibits.

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Na Pali Coast
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Kauai’s Na Pali Coast is famous for its seaside beauty, marine life and water sports.

The 15-mile (24 km) length of coast is lined by cliffs, white-sand beaches and turquoise sea.

Come here to whale watch or spot dolphins and monk seals on an eco-cruise or sailing adventure. Follow the Kalalau Trail to go hiking across the cliff tops to Hanakapiai beach and waterfalls.

Say hello to the local marine life on a snorkeling excursion, with the opportunity to see tropical fish and green sea turtles.

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Diamond Head
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The pointy peak of Diamond Head forms a dramatic backdrop to Waikiki on Oahu’s south coast. Diamond Head is a State Monument, and a popular lookout point on Oahu.

Formed from volcanic tuff, the crater is part of a geological outcrop of cones, vents and old lava flows, formed from eruptions around 150,000 years ago.

If you’re feeling fit, work out with an exhilarating climb to the top of Diamond Head and take in the city views. The steep round-trip hike takes a couple of hours, with challenging stages of steps and tunnels.

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Haleakala Crater
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The lunar landscape of Haleakala Crater covers an enormous expanse – so big that Manhattan could squeeze inside. The world’s largest dormant volcano, the crater is protected by the Haleakala National Park.

This is the place for stunning views of cinder cones, wild hiking trails, Hawaiian legends and rare endangered species.

Gazing into the huge crater is an awe-inspiring sight, and several hikes lead across the crater floor.

Haleakala last erupted in 1790, and the odds are good that it could blow its top again one day.

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Kailua Pier
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Kailua Pier is the northern bookend to most of Kailua-Kona’s restaurants, shops and bars, a stretch of concrete wide enough to host four-lanes of traffic (if it wasn’t closed off to cars). The historic pier was first built as a downtown fishing dock in 1900 and utilized rocks from deconstructed Hawaiian palace and fort walls, but today few boats moor here. Instead, the pier is mostly used for large events and festivals including the annual Kona Ironman World Championships, which starts and finishes at the pier, and the Kona International Billfish Tournament whose daily catches of sometimes-massive fish species including Pacific blue marlin are weighed from pier-side scales for all to see.

On the pier’s northern side, a small beach fronting the King Kamehameha Marriott Hotel has public showers, restroom blocks and hosts community events such as the Kona International Surf Film Festival and the Kona Brewers’ Festival.

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Mauna Kea Summit & Observatory
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Whether you’re a budding astrophysicist or just a fan of Big Bang Theory, take the opportunity while you’re on the Big Island to visit the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory.

At a lofty height of 13,796 ft (4,138 m) Mauna Kea is Hawaii's tallest mountain, and the summit is topped with astronomical observatories from around the world.

The Visitor Information Station is at a lowly 9,300 ft (2,790 m) elevation, and from here a rugged hiking trail winds to the summit. It takes around five hours and you need to be fit and prepared for all kinds of weather conditions.

The visitor center has interactive displays and videos, with interactive telescopes, talks and tours. It also runs escorted tours to the summit.

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Hanauma Bay
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Circular Hanauma Bay is a particularly attractive, sheltered inlet of turquoise water, carved from a submerged volcanic crater east of Diamond Head.

The sandy beach park is popular with families, with its calm waters, lifeguards, and gentle diving and snorkeling. Picnic tables overlook the bay, and you can rent diving equipment.

The area is a Nature Preserve and Marine Life Conservation District, and when you visit there’s a short film to watch about the marine life before you head down to the beach.

While diving you should spot green turtles, parrotfish and coral.

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Road to Hana (Hana Highway)
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Hawaii is made for road trips, and one of the best is the Road to Hana, a relatively short drive that should take all day (if you're doing it right).

Technically called the Hana Highway, the Road to Hana is 52 miles of winding two-lane road connecting Kahului with the tiny town of Hana. You could certainly make the trip in a few hours (it's slow going with all the twists and turns, and most of the little bridges narrow to a single lane), but why would you? The scenery along the way is some of Maui's most beautiful, with waterfalls to see, beaches to visit, and short hikes to do en route.

Some of the sights you can visit along the way include the Twin Falls waterfalls, the Ho'okipa Lookout, Honomanu Bay, the two arboretums, the Hana Lava Tube, and Wai'anapanapa State Park. The town of Hana itself is tiny, but lovely and has many nice beaches.

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Hanalei Bay
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One of Kauai’s most beautiful stretches of water, Hanalei Bay is a hub for watersports on the island’s north shore.

Flanked by idyllic stretches of beach and backed by mountains, the bayside town of Hanalei is filled with shops renting kayaks, sailing boats, surfboards. Come here to soak up the rays on the beach, dip your toe in the water, take a stroll on the pier or bring a picnic to enjoy on the sand.

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More Things to Do in Hawaii

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial

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The main Pearl Harbor memorial marks the final resting place of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships destroyed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked and the USA joined the war effort on behalf of the Allies. The site also commemorates the 1,177 crew members killed aboard the ship that day.

Start your visit at the visitor center, with a free introductory talk, audio tour and a documentary on the attack. Then board a US Navy boat to reach the memorial for a self-guided tour.

Visitor numbers are restricted, and tickets can often run out early in the day at this extremely popular sight, so it’s a good idea to book a tour in advance.

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Makapuu Lighthouse

Makapuu Lighthouse

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When the Makapu‘u Lighthouse was built in 1909 for ships traveling between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, it was meant to serve as a luminary deterrent to keep ships away from the rocks. Today, however, the historic lighthouse with its bright red roof draws visitors to the rocks in droves, and the trail to the lighthouse has become one of the most popular hikes for visitors and families on O‘ahu.

Two miles long and entirely paved, the trail climbs at a moderate pace until the dramatic lighthouse terminus. During the winter months, humpback whales can often be spotted splashing in the waters offshore, and large surf can break along the shoreline during the long, hot days of summer. As part of the Kaiwi Scenic Shoreline, the trail offers views of offshore islets such as Manana (Rabbit Island) and Kaohikaipu, which are protected from development as sea bird sanctuaries and provide a rustic nature to the coastline.

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Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach

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Waikiki Beach is one of the most famous stretches of sand on the planet, up there with Ipanema and Bondi. Its curving stretch of sand is bordered by palms and high-rise hotels.

Come here to soak up the sun, swim, pilot an outrigger canoe, sail a boat, or snorkel. Lifeguards are on hand to keep a watchful eye.

The surfing isn’t bad either, with long rolling breaks. Look out for the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the sands, the local who popularized surfing and brought it into the modern era.

Pack a picnic to enjoy in nearby Kapiolani Park, hire a beach chair and umbrella, or sit back at sunset and watch the free movies screened on the beach.

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Maalaea Harbor

Maalaea Harbor

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Most Maui visitors will spend some time at Ma’alaea Harbor, the launching point for many of the Island’s best sunset and dinner cruises, fishing charters, snorkeling adventures to the Molokini Crater—a submerged volcanic crater atoll—and more. The 89-slip harbor is the focal point of a quiet bay in the southern nook between the West Maui Mountains and towering Haleakala. Between late November and early April, head to the scenic lookout between mile markers 8 and 9 to the west of the harbor for sweeping vistas of leaping humpback whales, or any time of the year to spot the dolphins that sometimes ride waves alongside harbor-departing cruises. The Pacific Whale Foundation, organizers of the annual World Whale Day celebrations around Valentines Day (Feb. 14) have their headquarters in Ma’alaea Harbor for a reason. Have some time to kill while waiting for your boating adventure? Set back from the sea is the popular Maui Ocean Center, an aquarium highlighting Hawaiian sea life.

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Hulihee Palace

Hulihee Palace

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Puaʻa Kaʻa State Wayside Park

Puaʻa Kaʻa State Wayside Park

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A pleasant stop on the road to Hana, the Pua’a Ka’a Park offers the chance to take a scenic break from the long drive. Stretch your legs on its dirt path to nearby waterfalls and natural pools. The farther you’re willing to walk, the taller the waterfalls become and many people bring a picnic to enjoy as a part of this diversion.

Totaling five acres the area here is lush with tropical plants which, with the sound of the waterfalls, create a distinct rainforest feel. Picnic tables are set against scenic backdrops, and fish and tadpoles are visible in the shallower pools. Watch for wild birds and mongoose. The walking paths here are not rigorous, but a refreshing dip in one of the pools is a highlight for many on a hot day.

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Honolulu Zoo

Honolulu Zoo

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The shriek of the Honolulu Zoo’s population of endangered white-handed gibbons is a familiar morning sound to Waikiki’s regular surfing contingent; the zoo is just across the street from some of the most popular beginner surf breaks toward the far end of Waikiki near Diamond Head crater. In addition to the monkeys, the sprawling 42-acre open-air zoo is home to more than 900 tropical animals including elephants, black rhino, giraffe, Sumatran tiger, aardvark, meerkat, orangutan, birds, reptiles and more. The zoo also houses animals only found in Hawaii, including the state bird, the nēnē, as well as a number of endemic plants in and around the enclosures.

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Aloha Tower Marketplace

Aloha Tower Marketplace

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Looming large over Honolulu Harbor, the Aloha Tower complex features several buildings including a 10 story clock tower, the (now closed) Hawaii Maritime Center and several dining establishments overlooking the large wooden and permanently-stationed Falls of Clyde sailing ship. The tower, built in 1926, housed a lighthouse and its clock was one of the largest in the United States at the time. It was first structure most immigrants and visitors to Hawaii saw when their boats docked here prior to the popularization of air travel. Today, cruise ships still pull into the nook alongside the building, and, regardless of whether you arrived on one, you can take a free elevator ride to the top of the tower and lookout over downtown, Waikiki and out across the ocean.

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Opaekaa Falls

Opaekaa Falls

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Kaua‘i, is green, and Kaua‘i is wet—but that’s also why it’s so beautiful. Parts of the island receive over 400 inches of rainfall every year, and all that rain means the “Garden Isle” is dripping in dozens of waterfalls. While some of these waterfalls require trekking through mud just to gain a glimpse of their splendor, others ones such as Opaeka‘a Falls only require stepping out of the car. Tumbling just over 150’, Opaeka‘a Falls is a year-round waterfall that is guaranteed to be flowing. The falls usually feature two separate streams that splash their way down the cliff face, but after periods of especially heavy rain, the two falls can merge into a single, explosive cascade. Whatever the size, the best time to visit is usually in the late morning when the falls are bathed in sunlight—and if it happens to be cloudy day, the falls are so close and easily accessible it’s easy to pay another visit.

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Fern Grotto

Fern Grotto

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Perfect acoustics and gorgeous scenery come together at Fern Grotto, the highlight of a cruise on the Wailua River.

A natural amphitheater, the fern-filled grotto provides a unique venue for visitors to hear traditional Hawaiian music in one of the islands’ most beautiful outdoor settings. The beautiful grotto was created by volcanic activity, and is draped in tropical ferns.

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Honolua Bay

Honolua Bay

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Honolua Bay sits peacefully with its vibrant turquoise and deep blue, warm waters off the northwestern coast of Maui. Preserved as a Marine Life Conservation District, fishing is strictly prohibited here, making the diversity and amount of marine life particularly strong. With its rocky volcanic cliffs sheltering from winds, the bay remains calm and the water clear and excellent for snorkeling. Colorful tropical fish such as parrotfish, damselfish, Moorish Idols, snapper, and wrasse, as well as tuna, sea turtles, and eels are commonly sighted. The rock formations and abundant corals make this a scenic place to explore underwater. It is also a popular surfing spot, particularly in the winter months, due to the long waves that crash at its coast. There is a small black sand beach, but most of the coastline is jagged rock. Visibility in the water tends to improve the farther you swim from the coast.

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Battleship Missouri Memorial

Battleship Missouri Memorial

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Known as Mighty Mo, or Big Mo, the battleship USS Missouri played an important role in history. Her deck hosted the signing of the Japanese surrender, ending World War II.

Moored in a guarding position a little away from the USS Arizona Memorial, the battleship was moved to Pearl Harbor in 1999. It is now a museum ship, allowing visitors to experience a taste of life at sea.

Take a 35-minute guided tour to walk in the footsteps of General MacArthur, or listen to an audio guide. Follow the self-guided walking routes, or take the controls on a Battle Stations tour.

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King Kamehameha Statue

King Kamehameha Statue

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Planted firmly on the lawn of Aliiolani Hale, the State Supreme Court building, is the most visited of all the statues honoring King Kamehameha I in Hawaii. The 18-foot bronze icon with golden-colored detailing was erected in 1883 and depicts a spear-wielding and cloak-draped Kamehameha the Great, the first Hawaiian monarch and the ruler credited with uniting the Islands under single rule in 1810.

Each year on a date near the June 11 state holiday commemorating King Kamehameha, community groups build massive flower lei garlands and drape them over the Honolulu statue using the ladder from a fire truck. The popular lei draping ceremony commemorates the King’s significance and kicks off week-long celebrations of colorful parades and festivals throughout the Islands.

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