How do I figure out Hawaii?
January 2, 2020 7:45 PM   Subscribe

We’re beginning to plan a trip to Hawaii for my birthday next year. The dilemma: I have no idea where to start.

I visited Barnes & Noble over the weekend to buy a Lonely Planet Hawaii and realized I couldn’t even do that - there were half a dozen different LP books, each representing a different area. Help!

We love snorkeling, the beach, local food, mild adventure, and learning about the history of indigenous people. This will probably be a two week trip. Where should we go? What books/websites should I read? Thank you for your guidance!
posted by WaspEnterprises to Travel & Transportation around Hawaii (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The first step is to pick an island or two you want to visit, and then to pick a guidebook for the island(s). It’s not worth trying to see more than two islands in two weeks.

You can pick the island or two that sound best for you by spending an hour flipping through the guidebooks or poking around online.

Very broadly speaking, Kauai is most jungle-y and has great hiking; the Big Island (technically and confusingly also named Hawaii) is your best shot to see lava flowing into the sea, has Volcanos National Park, and has an important observatory if you’re into astronomy; Maui is resort-y and family friendly; and Oahu has the legitimately big city of Honolulu plus Pearl Harbor. You’ll be able to find snorkeling, the beach, local food, mild adventure, and information about the history of indigenous peoples on any of these islands, and possibly more as well.

If you want this internet stranger’s advice, go for a week to Kauai’s North Shore (anywhere from Anini to up past Hanalei) and a week to the Big Island’s west shore (the Kohala Coast). That way you’ll get a nice mix of waterfalls, lush greenery, and taro fields on Kauai, and then dry, hot, sunny beaches on the Big Island.

Make sure to rent a car no matter where you go - public transportation is not great and much of what you’ll want to see and do is off the beaten path. Good luck and have fun! Hawaii is amazing! (And feel free to MeMail me if you want specific food/snorkeling/etc. recs for Kauai and/or the Big Island.)
posted by bananacabana at 8:06 PM on January 2, 2020 [10 favorites]

One really great thing about Hawaii is there isn’t that much research to do: it’s full of resorts and set up for people who arrive ready for someone to hand them a mai tai as they collapse onto the sand, and most of your time will just be spent relaxing. The north shore of Kauai is an excellent suggestion, it is a beautiful, chilled out place. You can take boat tours, rent kayaks, etc. Don’t go to Hawaii for the food: in fact if you can get a place with a kitchen and eat like you do at home you’ll probably be happier.

I’d avoid Oahu and Waikiki, it’s just very busy and crowded. There is a lot to do, but it’s like going to vacation Disneyland. Kauai is the most relaxing/beautiful island in my opinion but more rugged. Maui is the best (but probably most expensive) “vacation” spot with lots of well run full-service resorts. I haven’t been to the big island as I’ve never found an affordable flight to it! But I desperately want to go.

I’d personally do a week on Maui and then a week on the north shore of Kauai, in that order. If you do go to Maui, there are two must-dos: sunrise at Haleakala and the Hana highway.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:55 AM on January 3, 2020

Best answer: Hawaii (the island itself, also called "The Big Island") would probably tick many of your boxes. It is a big and beautiful place with a variety of climates, territory, and stuff to enjoy.

For reading material about things to see and do with a local flavor, I would recommend Hawaii - The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook. It delivers what the title seems to overpromise. The publisher of that book has authored excellent works on the other Hawaiian islands, as well.

For some background reading about pre-colonial history, Mark Twain wrote a great and funny book called Letters from Hawaii.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:57 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I am here to second the recommendation for "The Ultimate Guidebook". We stayed at a house on Oahu that had that island's guide and it was so useful we actually purchased the Kauai guide for our day trip there.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:50 AM on January 3, 2020

Best answer: Bananacabana's brief overview of the different islands is a good thumbnail sketch of each. Having been to the islands more than a dozen times, I have a couple different thoughts -

- I want to put in a shout out for Oahu. It has a lot to offer that is unique. Pearl Harbor is a must for any American interested in history. It also has Hanauma Bay, THE premier snorkeling spot in the islands. (Also take the time to snorkel at Shark's Cove, esp. if you are traveling with kids.) And if you want to delve into local history, the Iolani Palace is a good place to start.

- If I had two weeks, I would probably do two islands - Oahu plus the Big Island (for volcanoes, petroglyphs) or Oahu plus Kauai (to slow down and smell the flowers) or Oahu plus Maui (for the long walks on the beach and snorkeling just outside your door if you stay at Ka'anapali.) Keep in mind, though, that almost a full day will be spent traveling from one island to another. If I was opting for just Oahu, I would spend a week in Waikiki (but the big-city feel is jarring for some people) and a week in an airbnb on the north shore.

- My preferred method of travel in Hawaii is to spend the morning doing something - hike to a waterfall! snorkel! visit a historic site! and the afternoon sitting on the beach soaking up the sun. A good website to start your research is It is the official tourism website for the State, but it has lots of information once you start delving into it.
posted by eleslie at 5:43 AM on January 3, 2020

We did the Hana Highway, but afterwards, I understood why my Maui-based brother declined our invitation to go. Even in the off-season, it was very crowded, which made the seemingly endless series of tight turns (620 of them) and one-lane bridges (46) very stressful. There's nice stuff at the Hana end, but you know you'll have to endure the drive again after. The Piilani road along the southern coast is supposed to have less traffic, and I may try that next time.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:56 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Kauai. We spent our honeymoon there and it was lovely - beautiful, laid back, and perfect for relaxing in nature. We stayed in a VRBO on the beach on the NE corner and drove most of the perimeter of the island, hiking to Hanakapi'ai Falls in the NW corner of the island and at Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific!) in the SW corner. We also kayaked.

There's not much swimming on Kauai because of the currents - we just waded by our rental every day -- but we spent many happy hours walking along the beaches (sea turtles! a monk seal! tidepools!) and just exploring. Kauai lacks nightlife, but that was perfect for us. We ate at a lot of foodtrucks (fish tacos) and hit farmers' markets and cooked for ourselves a lot.
posted by writermcwriterson at 6:01 AM on January 3, 2020

I'm just back from several days on Maui; and many years ago I visited all four of the main islands. Given two weeks I'd visit all four again, spending several days on each.

Maui - this time we flew directly to/from Maui. It has everything I need for a Hawaiian vacation. Especially liked the three Kamaole beaches this time. Recommend your reserving your Luau experience there NOW, don't wait or it'll be sold out. (Next time, I'd choose The Feast at Lele.)

Oahu - like eleslie I also strongly recommend Honolulu. If you're into the swimming, Waikiki is one of the best beaches I've ever experienced. And I was also very interested in Pearl and Honolulu for the history.

Kauai - everybody loves it except me, apparently. Too much jungle and no real swimming in the ocean there.

On the Big Island, good luck with your volcano viewing. Hope a surge in activity syncs up with your visiting time. I also wanted very much to visit a Macadamia nut plantation while there; look into this if you're at all a fan of the King of Nuts (but don't get excited about the prospect of free samples, they're quite small IME).

And yeah, you're going to have to arrange car rentals for whichever islands you end up on.

posted by Rash at 7:42 AM on January 3, 2020

> learning about the history of indigenous people

An interesting book about Native (not indigenous) Hawaiians is Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement & Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust. I admit I skimmed large parts of it -- I didn't need the details -- but for big picture stuff about the history of the royal family, it's fascinating.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:09 AM on January 3, 2020

I was only able to spend 1 day on Hawaii. Would love to go back to Volcanoes NP. Lots of camping options if you like that. Go yo your library, start getting guide books. Think about what you enjoy and how that will work in Hawaii.
It's paradise and pretty easy to have a fantastic time.
Respect Hawaiian culture, there are many options to learn about the US grabbing the islands. Aloha culture is real and lovely.
posted by theora55 at 9:19 AM on January 3, 2020

Best answer: Thirding the Ultimate guidebook. We have been to Kauai twice and Maui once and loved both of the islands! The ocean is a little wilder in Kauai but there are fewer jellies and tiger sharks, so that might be a bonus. If you visit in the winter, north shore is beautiful but definitely more rainy with more dangerous ocean compared to the south shore. This didn't stop us snorkeling and swimming, but does limit the spots that are safe to do so. There are SO MANY wonderful beaches on Maui and great spots to snorkel even right off the highway. Hiking is great on both islands, I would definitely recommend Kauai's Na Pali coast (many trails of different lengths), it was the most beautiful hike I have ever done. In Maui there is a lava field hike in the south that was also one of my faves because it was so different, kind of like hiking on Mars.

Regarding jellies, when you're planning your dates make sure to google jellyfish calendar whichever island you pick; this will tell you when beaches are more likely to have an influx of them. We have never encountered any.

Another point no one has mentioned yet: there are many friendly people who live on each of these beautiful islands and are happy to show them off. We have gotten great info about where to go (e.g., snorkel spots, places to eat) from locals. So as you meet people when you are out and about, make sure to ask if they have any particular recommendations!

If you end up choosing Maui or Kauai for your trip, feel free to memail and I can share our thoughts about what we enjoyed most.
posted by DTMFA at 9:48 AM on January 3, 2020

Best answer: As as follow-up to the insightful comments mentioned above, I'll add the perspective of a native Hawaiian who now lives on the "Mainland" but who takes groups of people to Hawaii from time to time:

1. I agree with the sentiments that counsel against overdo the island hopping. For a two-week span, three islands is do-able but really pushing it. Two islands is more sane and rewarding, especially for a first visit.

2. Each island has its own characteristics:

a. Kauai is sparsely populated and it has many small delight scattered about (Koloa, Waimea Canyon, Hanalei, Wailua Falls, etc). It is best for those who prefer something beautiful and only lightly populated. (There are no tall buildings.)

b. Oahu has two regions: Honolulu and everyplace else. Waikiki is very touristy and has some amazing places to eat (Alan Wong is a top choice). Honolulu has the history: Iolani Palace, the Bishop Museum, and Pearl Harbor.The North Shore is the country, with quiet beaches (Shark's Cove definitely for the kids), Waimea Bay, historic Haleiwa, and Sunset Beach. Therefore, Oahu is a balance between the overly kitschy and the expansively beautiful.

c. Maui is also touristy with some beautiful terrain. The Hana drive is loooooong and can feel harrowing (either the popular north route or the more ragged south route). Haleakala is an essential visit, either walking or hiking (to see the sunrise you have to make a reservation).

d. Hawaii (the Big Island), as has been suggested, is the largest and has the most varied landscapes: active volcanos, a desert (in Ka'u), some lush valleys, and the delights of Kona.

(Side note: Moloka'i is beautiful but not easily accessible, and Ni'ihau and Kaho'olawe are off limits.)

You might pick the two islands that best suit you and your family's interests then construct an itinerary. There are four main points of entry to Hawaii: Honolulu (Oahu), Kahalui (Maui), Lihue (Kauai), and Kona (Hawaii/the Big Island). It would be easy enough to arrive at one island, take an inter-island flight to another, then return home from the second destination.

3. If at all possible, I'd steer you away from the all-inclusive resorts. They tend to be very isolating, expensive, and superfluous. (I've seen people swimming in an infinity pool with the beach just steps away from them.)

4. Contemporary Hawaii is a mix of native Hawaiian, Asian, Polynesian, and European cultures. As you plan the itinerary, you can maximize your experience by tapping into those various aspects, either through food, religious and sacred sites, the popular and lesser-visited places.
posted by Quaversalis at 1:37 PM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I just returned from my first trip to Hawaii. About two months ago I was in the same boat as you, OP!

I would highly recommend the "Revealed" series of books for whatever island you end up visiting. It is written in a fun, conversational way, and absolutely packed with info on restaurants, local history and culture, and activities. They do a pretty good comparison of all the different snorkeling tours. Some of the big differences in snorkeling tours seem to be: the number of guests; the type of vessel (I am prone to seasickness and do better on a catamaran); the quality and quantity of breakfast and lunch; and the time of day of departure. Costs range. Most of these are matters of personal preference, but make sure you go early in the morning before sediment gets kicked up by other snorkelers; this will dramatically improve visibility.

We visited Maui, and were happy that we did. Like you, we were interested in snorkeling, food, and mild adventure. Maui provided lots of options for same. I am typically an adventurous eater and enjoy fine dining. In Maui some of the higher end chain restaurants (Kimo's, Duke's, Leilani's on the Beach) ended up being nicer than some of the fine dining places we visited (Mill House, Banyan Tree, Humuhumu). Roadside food on the Road to Hana was more available and better than the guide books suggested it would be. We regretted stocking up on road snacks at the Whole Foods in Kahului. We also regretted not started earlier in the day, as the Road to Hana got pretty crowded. At no point did we regret renting a car.

Indigenous people in Hawaii are currently demonstrating against the federal and state governments. I think it would be difficult to balance being a tourist and being in solidarity with them in any significant way, but there is a well-organized group called Mauna Kea on the big Island who are protecting the land from corporate and political interests that seek to monetize sacred lands and ecosystems.

We are excited to go back. Next time we will spend two nights in Hana instead of one, and possible take a tour around Molokai.

The beaches are amazing everywhere. We stayed in the Ka'anapali strip, and were pleased with the beach access and the easy walk to many excellent restaurants. There is a grocery/tourist store chain called ABC that sells nice and reasonably priced (for Maui) prepared foods like cut up fruit, sushi, shrimp cocktail, etc. etc. Wailea has more of a resort town feel and many high end hotels. To each their own. We'd probably return to Ka'anapali. It is also in close proximity to the town of Lahaina, which has some interesting historical stuff to explore, and neat architecture.
posted by unstrungharp at 11:05 PM on January 3, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to answer. I have so much more direction! It would have been easy to ‘best answer’ every single response since each one highlighted a different area of importance. I ended up marking the ones that most closely aligned with areas I’m going to follow-up on right away.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 5:38 AM on January 6, 2020

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