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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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More Things to Do in Hawaii

Kailua Pier

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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Honokohau Harbor

Honokohau Harbor

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Steep drop-offs beckon just off Kona’s coast, the dominion of pelagic beasts—marlin and billfish some topping 1,000 lbs. Most journeys to catch one begin the 262-slip marina at Honokohau Harbor, just before the entrance to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Nearly all of Kailua-Kona’s fishermen, independent sportfish tour operators as well as charter boats departing for scuba sites and popular manta and dolphin snorkeling adventures dock and depart from Honokohau Harbor.

The full-service marina also sports two noteworthy restaurants: Harbor House, a burger and beer joint with views of vessels from their open-air dining room, and Bite Me Fish Market Bar & Grill serving seafood delivered direct from the ocean to their door. ATMs, two full service restroom blocks with hot showers and a convenience store for snacks and sundries round out the facilities here.

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Hanalei Bay

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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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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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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Mt. Waialeale

Mt. Waialeale

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Be prepared for more colors of green than you’ve ever seen before in the area surrounding Kauai’s central Mt. Waialeale—it’s one of the wettest places on planet Earth, receiving more than 450 inches of rainfall each year. It’s dominating sheer green 5,066 cliff wall has also been called the Wall of Tears, for the many waterfalls that fill its crevices and stream down its face during frequent rains. And, if the setting looks familiar, that could be because it starred as the backdrop for opening scenes of the original 1992 Jurassic Park movie. To get to the base of Waialeale, and to the the Wailua River, you’ll have to take a 4x4 down the bumpy Wailua Forestry Management Road and then trek in. Alternatively, several helicopter tours take you much closer to its cliff face—and its waterfalls—than you could easily get to on a hike.

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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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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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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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Manoa Falls

Manoa Falls

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Located at the back of Honolulu’s lush Manoa Valley, Manoa Falls is a 150 ft. waterfall which is accessible by a one-hour hike. It’s the perfect distance for those wanting an easy workout, and it’s close enough to the city that you can squeeze in a visit if you only have a couple of hours.

Parking for the falls is $5 and is in the parking lot by the Rainbow’s End snack shop, and this moderate trail weaves its way between swaying stands of creaking bamboo and the sweet scent of eucalyptus. After .8 miles the trail emerges at majestic Manoa Falls, and the flow is highly dependent upon the amount of recent rainfall. On some days this can be a thundering torrent of jungle whitewater, whereas on other days (particularly in summer) the falls can be reduced to little more than a trickle.

Regardless of season, however, the shaded trail is often wet, and mud can line the narrow trail during pretty much every day of the year.

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Maunalua Bay

Maunalua Bay

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Maunalua Bay is a popular bay for water sports activities on Oahu’s south shore. Home to many stand up paddlers and kayakers, snorkelers and divers also come to explore the nearby reef. Hawaiian for “two mountains,” Maunalua Bay is framed by the Ko’olau range and sits by the peaks of Koko Crater and Koko Head.

Famous for its sunsets, the adventure beach is especially popular among Honolulu’s boaters and jet skiers who come to make the most of Maunalua Bay’s launch site. Look out for parasailers while you’re here too, and if you’re coming to Maunalua Bay to snorkel or scuba dive the reef is a mile out to shore, its crystal-clear waters full of colorful reef fish and bright green sea turtles. If you’d rather relax, there are also park benches available on the shore where it’s popular to enjoy a picnic under the setting sun.

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USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park

USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park

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There are only 15 American submarines that remain from World War II, and the most-heralded of them—the USS Bowfin—now sits in Pearl Harbor, where the war American’s war first started. Known as the “Avenger of Pearl Harbor,” the USS Bowfin was built in Maine and sailed the South Pacific. It set off on its mission exactly one year after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and 44 different enemy ships would eventually succumb to her guns.

Today, visitors to Pearl Harbor can walk inside the submarine to see the cramped metal quarters, and get an authentic feel for the daily hardships of the boys in the “Silent Service.” In nine tours of duty only one crewmember died from injuries in battle, and when visiting today, you can stand in the chambers where these brave sailors celebrated a successful strike.

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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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Pipiwai Trail

Pipiwai Trail

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Even in the middle of a sunny day, hikers here will often find they are strolling along in near darkness. The towering bamboo is so thick in places that it nearly blocks out the sun, and it creaks and whistles high in the branches as it blows in the East Maui wind. The dense jungle of bamboo aside, what makes this hike such a Maui favorite is the multiple waterfalls and swimming holes. Reaching the waterfalls can be treacherous, however, as the trail leading down from the highway to the falls is steep, slippery, and dirt. Even the entrance requires skirting a fence that has been cleared for easier entry, and it’s a “proceed at your own risk” type of trail that isn’t officially marked.

For those who choose to visit, however, four different waterfalls splash their way through a forest is laden with bamboo and guava. Each waterfall has a small swimming hole where you can escape the midday heat, and the bottom two falls are the most accessible for hikers.

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