Your Ultimate Oahu Itinerary: 7 Perfect Days in O‘ahu

Turquoise water crashing against white sand beaches fringed by palm trees, a vibrant metropolis with an incredibly diverse and vibrant food scene, stunning hikes with unbeatable views, and a landscape that will have you feeling like you’re in Jurassic Park…

This is exactly what you get from a trip to Oahu, and it’s a place like no other.

I’ve visited four Hawaiian islands now (Maui, Kauai, Oahu, and the Big Island) and I have to say, I think Oahu may be my favorite.

It has a little something for everyone, and I love how you can go from being in the heart of a city to being on a rainforest trail en route to a thundering waterfall in a mere 15 minutes.

Besides all that, there’s also endless history. Whether you want to learn about the events that created the unity of the Hawaiian islands, the events that led to the downfall of the Hawaiian kingdom, or the events that led to America entering World War II, there’s a place on Oahu where you can learn just that.

I’ve mapped out this itinerary for Oahu to be a good mix of self-guided road-trip style independent travel and tours where I felt the activity was not able to be done on its own (either practically, safely, or enjoyably).

Feel free to adjust according to your travel needs — these are suggestions for an Oahu itinerary rather than a hard-and-fast itinerary you must follow to the letter.

If you know you want more beach days — skip some activities and add those in.

If you know you want more hikes — toss out a beach day and throw in a hike (I recommend Koko Head Crater, which I didn’t include on this itinerary but looks epic!)

Mix and match until this Oahu itinerary is your ideal itinerary.

I wrote this post in March 2023 after my February visit to to Oahu -- a long-awaited return visit after several trips to the island in my younger years. It was last updated December 5, 2023 to ensure it's up-to-date for the current travel season!

Your 7 Day Oahu Itinerary

Day 1: Downtown Honolulu & Waikiki

Have coffee and breakfast at Arvo.

hand holding coffee with latte art in front of a green monstera deliciosa plant

Your first day in Oahu warrants an early start — and an early start warrants a delicious cup of coffee!

Arvo is a trendy and delicious Australian-style coffee shop (“arvo” is Aussie slang for afternoon!).

It’s located in the SALT at Our Kaka’ako boutique shopping area: one of my favorite neighborhoods in Honolulu.

I grabbed a flat white — the greatest Aussie coffee of all! — and it was simply delicious, with perfectly pulled espresso, creamy microfoam, and a little bit of a latte art for Instagrammability.

I had already had breakfast when I visited Arvo, but their food menu looks incredible.

They offer a gorgeous matcha chia pudding as well as a selection of toasts.

Both their Ricotta Toast (homemade ricotta, fresh fruit, and honey) and their Loaded Avocado Toast (avocado, arugula, feta, and local cherry tomatoes) sound exquisite!

For something more substantial, they also have a veggie halloumi burger with aioli and tomato jam on a brioche bun.

Hours: 8 AM to 2 PM


Address: 324 Coral Street at SALT, Honolulu, HI 96813

Explore the shops in the Kaka’ako District as you walk towards downtown.

trendy plant shop in the kaka'ako neighborhood of honolulu

As you walk towards downtown Honolulu, you’ll get to see all the wonderful boutiques and cafés that make the Kaka’ako District the hippest place in Honolulu and the city’s de facto Arts District.

Don’t miss exploring some of the shops in the SALT complex. Here are a few favorite boutiques:

  • Paiko: Offering a selection of gorgeous fresh-cut flowers and tropical houseplants, Paiko is a plant nerd’s dream. Even if you don’t plan to take anything home with you, just wandering around is inspirational — the way the best boutiques always are. As a bona fide plant nerd (literally, I run a plant blog), I was really impressed by their unique selection of plants and the beauty of the store’s design that allowed its plants to shine.
    • Address: 675 Auahi Street Ste. 127, Honolulu, HI 96813 | Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 AM – 5:30 PM, Sunday 10 AM – 4:30 PM
  • Hungry Ear Records: Love vinyl — or at least browsing the cover art if you don’t have a record machine at home? This funky vintage record shop is a great place to browse for a hidden find, or just admire the way music used to be consumed and sold. This record shop has a special affinity for sourcing and selling rare Hawaiian albums, so if you’re looking for something unique for your collection, you’ll find it here.
    • Address: 675 Auahi St suite e3-200, Honolulu, HI 96813 | Hours: Daily from 10 AM to 6 PM
  • Lonohana Estate Chocolate: Who doesn’t love chocolate? No, seriously, who, so I can do a mental wellness check on them. Lonohana is a family-run bean-to-bar chocolate company that sources its cacao from a local farm on the North Shore before being processed on Honolulu. The production cycle never leaves the island of O’ahu! The company believes in bringing back Hawaiian agriculture and investing in the future of a more diverse and equitable Hawaiian economy. Besides chocolate bars, they also sell truffles, chocolate drinks (chocolate chai? yes please), and other chocolate-infused products.
    • Address: 324 Coral Street, #104A, Honolulu, HI 96813 | Hours: Daily from 10 AM to 5 PM

Marvel at the Honolulu City Hall.

palms and other plant life in front of the white architecture of honolulu city hall

Honestly, I was really impressed by downtown Honolulu’s architecture! I don’t know what I was expecting, but it felt a lot grander than I had imagined it would be (or perhaps I was just shellshocked by being in such a large city after having spent 4 days on Kauai!)

One of the more beautiful buildings in the downtown Honolulu area is the City Hall. It was constructed in 1928 with the original name of Honolulu Hale, intended as a permanent base for the new city government.

The building was constructed in the Italianate Spanish Colonial Revival style, popular in Hawaii as well as California. The building took its inspiration from the Florentine Palazzo del Bargello, and the interior has a beautiful courtyard as well as stunning frescoes and highly-detailed stonework.

This may just be my personal bias as a Californian who spent a lot of time with my family from from Santa Barbara, but I love this style of architecture — it always makes me feel at home, and it was something that was a bit surprising to see on an island nearly 3,000 miles away from home.

Address: 30 S King St, Honolulu, HI 96813

Hours: Weekdays from 7:45 AM to 4:30 PM

Admire the beautiful ʻIolani Palace.

open gate leading to a pathway showing iolani palace, a royal residence turned house museum

From a historical and architectural perspective, Downtown Honolulu is an interesting place: a site where the histories of the Hawaiian dynasties and American colonization collide in a very visible way.

The ʻIolani Palace (Hale Aliʻi ʻIolani in Hawaiian) is one such place. This was the royal residence from 1845 to 1895, originally inhabited by King Kamehameha III and last inhabited by Queen Liliʻuokalani before her reign was overthrown by American settlers.

Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by American forces in 1893, and troops of the newly-formed government of the Republic of Hawaiʻi took control of the Palace.

The new government renamed it as the Executive Building, selling the dynasty’s furniture and personal belongings at auctions open to the public.

In early 1985, there was an attempted and oft-forgotten uprising, the Wilcox Rebellion, which attempted to reinstate the Hawaiian monarchy.

However, it failed, and Queen Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned for her role in the rebellion. She was forced to abdicate the throne, and she was jailed in a small room at the ʻIolani Palace for nine months.

While the history of the ʻIolani Palace is quite sad, showing the blatant disregard of Hawaiian sovereignty by the Americans who settled and later annexed Hawaii, the Palace has now been reclaimed by Hawaiians who wish to preserve their historical and cultural legacy.

The Palace was vacated in 1969, upon finalization of the construction of the Hawaii State Capitol building, and restoration work began quickly thereafter to return it to the way it looked under the Hawaiian monarchy.

A NGO called the Friends of ʻIolani Palace (founded by the grand-niece of Queen Kapiʻolani) oversaw the restorations, and managed to re-acquire many of the original objects belonging to the Palace that had been auctioned off.

It reopened to the public in 1978, restored to look the way it did in the time when Hawaiian monarchs still reigned and lived in this palace.

You can take an hourlong tour of the palace by booking online. You can book a tour with an audioguide device and do the tour independently or enjoy a tour led by a museum docent.

An audioguide-led tour costs $25, and a docent-led tour costs $30.

Book your tickets online here.

Address: 364 S King St, Honolulu, HI 96813


Hours: 9 AM to 4 PM Tuesday through Saturday (docent-led tours on Wednesdays and Thursdays only)

Check out the Aliʻiōlani Hale Building and King Kamehameha Statue.

black and gold statue of kamehameha the first and the palatial-looking ali'iolani hale, now the supreme court of hawaii

The next historic building worth visiting in downtown Honolulu is the Aliʻiōlani Hale, finished in 1874.

It was originally intended to be the royal Palace of King Kamehameha V — hence the royal design of the building. However, he realized that the growing government needed more space in order to govern properly, and instead commissioned it as a government building.

He passed away before construction was finalized, but it was finalized by his successor, King Kalākaua. It was used as an executive building up until the end of the Hawaiian monarchy.

In fact, it was from this building itself that the so-called “Committee of Safety” orchestrated the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani and put an end to Hawaiian sovereignty. The building is now used, somewhat ironically, as the Hawaii Supreme Court.

History of the building aside, one of the main reasons to visit is the beautiful and touching gold-leaf King Kamehameha Statue in front. This statue honors King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, ending years of inter-island conflict.

The statue was erected in 1883, though it took a bit of a detour to arrive. The original statue was carved in Europe and was lost at sea as it navigated Cape Horn in Chile, so this was the second iteration.

The statue is adorned with gold leaf and features the Sacred Sash of Liloa around King Kamehameha’s waist, in reference to the centuries-long lineage of the sash (kāʻei) passed down through the Hawaiian monarchy.

Address: 417 King Street, Honolulu, HI 96813

Hours: Weekdays from 8 AM to 4:30 PM

Visit the Hawaii State Art Museum.

trees in from of the hawaii state art museum with the triennial poster

This museum offers free admission and is a great way to show some appreciation for modern and contemporary Hawaiian art and culture.

Currently, the Hawaii Triennial exhibit is on display. The theme of the exhibit is Pacific Century (E Ho‘omau no Moananuiākea in Hawaiian), focusing on how the Hawaiian islands position between Asia-Pacific and Oceania has shaped the islands’ identity and history.

Address: 250 South Hotel Street, Honolulu, HI 96813


Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 4 PM

Check out the Aloha Tower.

the famous aloha tower, a former lighthouse turned landmark and mixed use building with restaurants and residences, amongst palm trees and blue sky

The very recognizable face of Honolulu Harbor, Aloha Tower is a can’t-miss landmark.

Built in 1926, first as a lighthouse and later decommissioned, it was the tallest building in all of the Hawaiian islands for 40 years.

Now, the Aloha Tower has been converted into the Aloha Tower Marketplace, a mixed-use building associated with the Hawaii Pacific University, housing students, community events, and a wide range of restaurants.

There’s also a 10th floor Observation Deck where you can get sweeping views of the city and harbor area. Visiting is free, and typically it is open between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM; however, it is closed temporarily due to Covid-19.

Address: 1 Aloha Tower Dr, Honolulu, HI, 96813


Hours: 8 AM to 10 PM for the building, though each business sets their own hours.

Have lunch back in Kaka’ako.

a taco restaurant in kaka'ako

Both of the recommended afternoon tours (snorkeling with sea turtles or taking a glass bottom boat) depart from Kewalo Basin Harbor, located in the heart of Kaka’ako where we started our day.

That’s a great thing, because there are so many great places to eat in the area! Here are a few recommendations:

  • Highway Inn Kaka’ako: This family-run restaurant has been operational for over 70 years. It was founded by Seiichi Toguchi, a Japanese-American who was displaced during the internment camp period of WWII (read their family history here). Upon his return to Hawai’i, he opened his own restaurant called Highway Inn, located on the Farrington Highway. It was so popular that it moved to a larger location — and later a poke restaurant as well as a second location in Kaka’ako. They serve up tasty traditional Hawaiian food such as chicken and pork lau lau (meat wrapped and cooked in taro leaves). I recommend a combo plate served with haupia, steamed sweet potato, poi, and lomi salmon.
    • Address:680 Ala Moana Blvd #105, Honolulu, HI 96813 | Hours: 10:30 AM to 8 PM daily
  • J’s BBQ: This long-running family business serves up some of the best Korean food on the island — and at great budget-friendly prices, too. J’s is famous for their spicy BBQ chicken and pork, and their BBQ galbi (beef short rib) is to die for! Everything comes on a plate with rice and either a mac salad or green salad, and everything is priced around $12. They also serve up bibimbap, kimchi fried rice, and fried mandoo (Korean dumplings).
    • Address: 691 Auahi St #2-114, Honolulu, HI 96813 | Hours: 6 AM to 8 PM daily
  • Redfish Poke Bar: I won’t say this is the best poke on the island (that honor belongs to Ry’s Poke Shack on the North Shore) but this is a contender for the best poke in Honolulu! Build your own poke bowl just the way you want it, choosing from delicious options like yuzu-miso ahi, hurricane salmon, and ginger-scallion hamachi (as well as vegan options like tofu and beet poke and kimchi cucumbers).
    • Address: 685 Auahi St, Honolulu, HI 96813 | Hours: 11 AM to 9 PM daily

Go on a sea turtle snorkeling tour or glass bottom boat tour.

snorkelers marveling at a hawaiian sea turtle in the water hovering near the surface

After your delicious meal, make your way over the Kewalo Basin Harbor a little before 3 o’clock. There are two great options for finishing out your first day in Honolulu: going snorkeling with sea turtles or going on a glass bottom boat tour!

Personally, I love getting in the water and snorkeling — it’s hands-down one of my favorite activities to do in the water, bested only by SCUBA diving (which is basically just snorkeling on steroids).

This two-hour snorkeling tour brings you along the coast to Turtle Canyons, a popular snorkeling spot where you’re all but guaranteed to see the endangered Hawaiian green sea turtle. You’ll also see a veritable kaleidoscope of tropical fish in all different colors!

Along the way, you may get to see spinner dolphins bobbing alongside the boat, or even humpback whales during their migration if you are visiting during the winter months.

This tour includes free snorkeling equipment rental, as well as complimentary non-alcoholic refreshments and snacks. You’ll have to bring your own towels, though — I love this cute microfiber travel towel that packs up teeny-tiny and is easily carried in my day bag.

Book this snorkeling tour!

If you’re not into the idea of snorkeling for whatever reason, a glass bottom boat tour is a great way to see the beauty of the underwater world without getting wet!

The glass bottom boat tours last one hour and take you towards beautiful Diamond Head. You won’t know where to look as both the Oahu coastal scenery in front of you and the underwater world below you will seem equally compelling!

Looking through the glass on the boat, keep an eye out for tropical coral reefs, sea turtles, reef sharks, tropical fish, and possibly even dolphins! You’ll also go over a shipwreck, where you can see how these wrecks become homes and havens for all sorts of marine life.

Not a fan of snorkeling? Try a glass boat tour.

Address: Both tours meet at the Kewalo Basin Harbor at 1125 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814

Admire your first Oahu sunset.

sunset looking over the water and palm trees at ala moana beach park in waikiki

After your snorkeling trip or boat tour, you’ll want to make your way either to Ala Moana Beach Park or Waikiki Beach for a stunning sunset you won’t soon forget!

Depending on the time of year, the sun sets around 6:00 PM in winter and 7:00 PM in the summer months, so check the sunset times before settling in!

Have a delicious meal in Waikiki.

soba noodle bowl at zigu before mixing together

There are several great options for an incredible dinner in Waikiki! Here are a few suggestions for your first night.

  • ZIGU: This contemporary restaurant and sake bar prepares typically Japanese recipes using only local Hawaiian ingredients, resulting in utterly delicious meals! Standout dishes include the miso-marinated macadamia-crusted salmon, the ahi tuna cutlet, and the chilled spicy soba noodle bowl with spiced pork, bonito flakes, and raw egg (the dish I ordered and loved!)
    • Address: 413 Seaside Ave #1F, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 4 PM to 10 PM daily
  • Izakaya Pau Hana Base: This izakaya is so true-to-form that I honestly felt like I was transported back to my time in Osaka! Prices are shockingly affordable and portions are enormous. I greatly enjoyed all the plates I tried — their fried calamari, okonomiyaki (Japanese cabbage pancake covered in goodies), and yakitori (chicken skewers) were all exquisitely done.
    • Address: 407 Seaside Avenue #107, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 5 PM to 11 PM daily, except Sunday

Day 2: Kailua Bay, Lanikai Beach, & the Windward Coast

Have a great breakfast in Waikiki.

delicious fancy pastries at kona coffee purveyors in black sesame and pineapple lychee flavors

There are several great places to grab breakfast in Waikiki, depending on if you want a larger meal or just a snack.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Kona Coffee Purveyors: This is truly some of the best coffee served on the island of Oahu, and definitely the best coffee in Waikiki! They have a delicious and intriguing selection of pastries such as the black sesame or pineapple lychee kouign amann (like a croissant on steroids). Their pastries and coffees are a little pricy, but they are unbeatable. Expect lines in the morning, but it moves quickly.
    • Address: 330 Kalakaua Ave #160, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 7 AM to 4 PM
  • Veranda at the Beachhouse: If you’re looking for a stunning place to have a fancy breakfast with a view of the water, it doesn’t get better than the restaurant at Moana Surfrider. Even if you’re not a guest of the hotel, you can dine here and enjoy hearty portions of classic breakfasts like banana pancakes, made with local ingredients.
    • Address: 2365 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 6:30 AM to 10:30 AM

Drive the Pali Highway and stop at the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout.

view of the nu'uanu pali lookout overlooking the mountains, windward coast, and islands off the coast of oahu

After powering up with a hearty breakfast, it’s time to hit the road. We’re heading to the windward side of Oahu today, and that means taking the beautiful Pali Highway.

This historic highway passes through the Koʻolau Range, a beautiful but largely impassible mountain range on Oahu. The highway passes through Nuʻuanu Pali tunnels to get to the other side of the mountains.

But before you pass through the tunnels, make sure you stop at the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout. The view from here is one of the best in Oahu!

Be sure to pay the parking fee of $7 — there usually someone here checking for payment, and you will likely get a ticket if you don’t pay, even if you stop for just a few minutes!

From here, you’ll get a gorgeous view of the Koolau Cliffs and the windward coastal cities of Kailua and Kaneohe, as well as the small islets like Mokoliʻi off the coast of Oahu.

While also being beautiful, the lookout is also incredibly historically important as well. This lookout is the location of the Battle of Nuʻuanu, in which King Kamehameha I finally won the battle that united Oahu (and would later unite the rest of the Hawaiian islands under his rule).

Many soldiers died in this fight, falling off the edge of the steep cliffs (that is what ‘pali’ means in Hawaiian, after all).

While building the highway, hundreds of human skulls were found, likely form this battle — perhaps this is why the Pali Highway is said to be haunted!

Address: Nuuanu Pali Dr, Kaneohe, HI 96744

Hours: 6 AM to 6 PM

Wander around the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden.

the visitor center at the botanic garden in oahu with rugged cliffs behind it

One of the most stunning places on the island of Oahu is the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, located in Kaneohe.

You can check out the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden Visitor Center, and they’ll give you instructions abotu a quick walk you can do down to the lake.

Frankly, the lake isn’t so picturesque, but the beautiful flora you’ll see along the way and the informational placards identifying the plants was — for me — even more appealing!

But honestly, the best part of visiting the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is just driving around on the beautiful Park Access Road.

The contrast of the sheer cliff faces against the lush scenery is exquisite… so exquisite, in fact, that the park now bans photography “on or near” the road, likely after far too many Instagrammers descended on it and blocked the traffic for their photos.

As a result, park rangers will quickly tell you to put away your camera if you’re anywhere near a road, even on the side of the road where you’re not blocking any traffic or putting yourself or anyone at risk.

It’s a bit frustrating as the place is so beautiful that it’s so tempting to take all the photos you can — but it’s just a reminder not to take anything for granted and to always behave respectfully while you travel, otherwise you run the risk of ruining it for future generations of travelers.

Address: 45-680 Luluku Rd, Kaneohe, HI 96744

Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 4 PM

Take a kayaking tour of the Mokulua Islands OR just relax on the beach.

kayaking in kailua bay heading towards two islands with other kayakers on the sea

Once you’ve explored and driven through Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, make your way to Kailua for a kayaking tour.

If you’re not into kayaking, I suggest just heading to Lanikai Beach and having a beach day — rent some snorkel gear if you didn’t bring your own.

If you are into kayaking, keep reading — I highly recommend going on a sea kayak tour of the Mokulua Islands, which also includes time on Lanikai Beach.

If you’re a confident sea kayaker, you can take a self-guided tour; if you’re not experienced with sea kayaking, I recommend going with a guide as there is a small learning curve kayaking in the open sea vs. in a calm body of water like a lake (I learned this the hard way in Maine).

This kayaking trip will involve paddling out to the beautiful Mokulua Islands, where you can enjoy amazing views of the Windward Coast from out on the ocean: the reverse of the view you enjoyed from the Nuʻuanu Pali Lookout earlier!

On Moku Nui (one of the two Mokulua islands), you can take a dip in the beautiful “Queen’s Bath”, a small natural pool is said to have healing powers and was used as a bathing spot by Hawaiian royalty.

the natural water bath on moke nui

The tour also includes the opportunity to visit Lanikai Beach and snorkel with the turtles who often visit this pristine part of the island, as well as enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach.

One of the most beautiful beaches in Oahu, Lanikai Beach boasts stunning white sand that juxtaposes gorgeously against turquoise Pacific waters.

If you’re lucky, you may get to see a Hawaiian monk seal somewhere on the tour! These seals are highly endangered and only 1,200 remain in the wild.

They sometimes hang out here and also sometimes on the North Shore of Oahu. It’s definitely not a guarantee, but you might be lucky!

Book your kayaking tour and lunch here!

Address: 130 Kailua Rd, Kailua, HI 96734

Tackle the the Lanikai Pillbox Hike.

view over kailua bay from the lanikai pillboxes overlooking the coast and islands off the coast oahu

If you’re not too tired after your sea kayaking adventure, it’s time for an epic hike up to the Lanikai Pillboxes, one of the top Instagram spots in Oahu.

And if you are tired — at least it’s a chance to even out your arm workout from kayaking with a leg workout getting yourself up that hill!

The Lanikai Pillbox Hike is a short but tough hike up the Kaiwa Ridge that offers one of the best views over the windward side of the island!

The hike is 1.8 miles round trip with 650 feet of elevation gain, so expect a steady incline on the way up and a rocky descent on the way down!

There are three “pillboxes” — WW2-era bunkers — on this hike. Most people stop at the second pillbox, as the trail gets a little overgrown after that, but there is a third pillbox that is often quiet and peaceful with few hikers!

Wherever you choose to end your hike, don’t forget to look out onto the incredible Kailua Bay in front of you — you’ll see the Mokulua islands that you just kayaked to in front of you!

Trailhead Address: 265 Kaelepulu Dr, Kailua, HI 96734

Return to Waikiki for a sunset cruise.

cotton candy looking clouds at the sunset at waikiki out on the water

After all that adventuring, it’s time to kick back and relax. Slowly make your way back to Waikiki by 6 PM in time to enjoy a scenic sunset cruise with some well-deserved cocktails, if you choose!

Take in the sunset as you set sail on a yacht. Enjoy the sea breeze on the al fresco top deck while admiring the changing colors of the sunset and the night lights coming to life all around Honolulu.

Seeing the Honolulu skyline from the water at sunset is simply unforgettable, and you’ll also get to see Honolulu Harbor and Diamond Head from out on the ocean — made even more beautiful in the golden hour and sunset light!

Your sunset cruise includes a welcome drink and additional cocktails as well as snacks are available for purchase.

Book your sunset cruise in Waikiki here!

Address: 301 Aloha Tower Dr, Honolulu, HI 96813

Have another delicious dinner in Waikiki.

calamari and potato cakes from the izakaya in honolulu

After your day out, you’re probably quite hungry! You could go to one of the other places I recommended for day one’s tour, but here are a few other options I enjoyed in Waikiki.

  • Sam’s Kitchen: This tasty no-frills restaurant specializes in garlic shrimp, katsu dishes, and various teriyaki plates. It’s really affordable and tasty, with a quick-serve ambiance. It’s also one of the most late-night spots in Waikiki so it’s a great option if you want to eat late. Get the garlic shrimp and swoon.
    • Address: 353 Royal Hawaiian Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 10 AM to 1 AM daily
  • Ramen Ezogiku: Want to try the typical Hawaiian version of ramen, saimin? This is the place to do so! This is one of the highest-rated restaurants in Waikiki and is a great budget option.
    • Address: 2239 Waikolu Way, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 11 AM to 8 PM daily
  • Marukame Udon: You’ll almost never not see a long line at this place! However, I can tell you from standing in it that it does move really, really fast. This quick-serve restaurant is an affordable late-night spot that serves up udon and tempura and does it well and fast. Their curry udon bowl with beef is spectacular.
    • Address: 2310 Kūhiō Ave. #124, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 11 AM to 10 PM daily
  • Sato Seafood: You could be forgiven for walking by this tiny little poke bar that’s often obscured by the lines from neighboring Marukame Udon, but you’d be missing out. This is where you’ll find the best poke in Waikiki! The spicy ahi and spicy salmon are legitimately really quite spicy, and adding macadamia nuts on top will send it over the top in terms of deliciousness.
    • Address: 2310 Kūhiō Ave. #215, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 10:30 AM to 8:30 PM daily
  • Topped Waikiki: For delicious Korean-style bibimbap bowls, you can’t miss Topped Waikiki. I had their galbi bowl and it was delicious! My friend enjoyed their spicy pork. They also have gorgeous looking shave ice options if you miraculously find yourself having room for more!
    • Address: 333 Royal Hawaiian Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 10:30 AM to 11 PM

Day 3: Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head & Sunset Views over Honolulu

Wake up bright and early for a tour of Pearl Harbor.

memorial sites at the pearl harbor memorial

There’s no getting around the need to wake up early to visit Pearl Harbor — it’s one of the most-visited sites in Oahu, and getting up early will help you beat the crowds and make the best of your limited time on this Oahu itinerary.

I’ll be honest and say we made a huge mistake trying to self-guide Pearl Harbor in the middle of the day.

Both my friend and I concurred that it was a colossal waste of both time and money not going with a tour, since we spent a lot of money getting to and from Pearl Harbor (the Ubers from Waikiki were about $70 return!) and then realizing that tickets to visit all the sites were a whopping $89.99!

We also arrived too late to be able to see the USS Arizona, which was the top reason for visiting Pearl Harbor. The park docents told us that if we wanted to see the USS Arizona and didn’t have a tour booked, it was best to arrive at 7 AM when the park opened — and there would still be a line!

We ended up just visiting the USS Bowfin and the accompanying museum, since it was the only place we could visit so late in the day due to needing transportation between the other Pearl Harbor sights, which you can only access by shuttle or boat.

Between the Uber we took to and from Pearl Harbor and our entry tickets, we ended up paying about what we have for a tour… with none of the benefits. If we had done a tour we would have actually gotten to see the sights we wanted in an organized and stress-free fashion.

That’s why travel bloggers exist: we mess everything up so that you don’t have to!

I highly recommend this specific Pearl Harbor tour.

Why this one? It’s one of the only tours available that includes both the USS Arizona Memorial as well as the USS Oklahoma Memorial and the Battleship Missouri, as well as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Most other tours only include the USS Arizona Memorial (which is technically free to visit) and instead waste your time on a trolley tour of downtown Honolulu… which is fine, if you haven’t already explored it on foot as I recommend instead.

Many of the other tours of Pearl Harbor are a little cheaper but skip over vital sights, so if you want the best experience, this is the tour I recommend.

Book this tour of Pearl Harbor

Head back to Waikiki for lunch.

bowl of bibimbap (korean beef and rice and egg)

Your tour will return you to Waikiki just in time for lunch! Here are a few recommendations for where to grab a casual lunch:

Any of the places mentioned in the dinner section above: Sato Seafood for poke, Marukame Udon for udon noodles, Sam’s for Hawaiian plates, Topped Waikiki for Korean, or Ramen Ezogiku for saimin.

They all have lunch hours and are not dinner-specific places.

You may also want to grab a few musubi to bring with you on your hike and sunset viewing adventure for a pre-dinner snack.

I recommend grabbing them from Musubi & Bento IYASUME on Seaside Avenue. The shrimp tempura spam musubi and the unagi-egg-spam musubi were both so good!

Take a hike up Diamond Head Crater Summit.

view from the summit of diamond head over the skyline of waikiki and the water of oahu

This stunning hike up Diamond Head offers some incredible views over Honolulu and Waikiki. It’s not too tough of a hike, either: the Diamond Head Summit Trail clocks in at 1.8 miles roundtrip and 450 feet of elevation gain.

Note: The trail is closed on Wednesdays and the final entrance to the trail is at 4 PM. All visitors must leave by 6 PM. Entrance costs $10 per car.

Diamond Head is actually a dormant volcano over 500,000 years old — and yes, it’s very dormant; it hasn’t erupted for more than 150,000 years. The hike starts in the middle of the crater and brings you up to the crater rim.

The hike starts on a paved path, then quickly changes to a few steep switchbacks and then some stairs. You’ll also climb through a tunnel, then more stairs before you reach the WW2 era bunkers (more pillboxes!) at the rim’s edge.

From the bunkers, enjoy one of the most marvelous views over Oahu that you can imagine! Just remember that you need to be out by 6 PM, so this is not a good sunset spot — but I’ve got that covered in my next suggestion.

Watch sunset from the China Walls.

Since Diamond Head is out for sunset, make your way to the little-known China Walls, part of the Koko Kai Beach Mini Park.

Located in a more residential part of Honolulu, this area doesn’t get very crowded, but it is popular with local cliff-jumpers and sunset-seekers, as well as extremely daring surfers.

Don’t be foolish here — think of it as a sunset spot only. Sadly, many people have died at the China Walls, either surfing or cliff jumping and not realizing the force of the waves that come through this part of the ocean.

Respect the ocean and stay far away from the edge of the walls. Waves breaking on the China Walls can catch you off guard and sweep you into the ocean.

That said, as long as you stay a comfortable distance away from the edge of the ocean, this is a spectacular place to take in one of the best sunsets in Oahu.

Go for dinner back in Waikiki.

Again, refer back to previous sections for all the dinner suggestions.

There are also some more luxury places you can eat with sweeping views of the skyline if you want a fancy dinner, but our budget didn’t allow any of these.

Day 4: Hanauma Bay, Makapu’u, and Whale Watching

Spend the morning in Hanauma Bay – if you can score a ticket!

the beautiful beach at hanauma bay with no one on it early in the morning with peaceful water

The beautiful Hanauma Bay is so stunning that it has become a nature preserve with limited entrance, so plan it accordingly.

You can book your tickets online here for a specific entry time. Tickets are sold in 10 minute intervals with only 30 people allowed for each 10-minute interval.

You can make bookings only two days in advance, at 7 AM Hawaii time. The slots will book up almost immediately, so set an alarm for 6:55 AM Hawaii time two days before you want to visit Hanauma Bay and get ready to fight for your spot at 7 AM!

If you get one of the coveted spots, you’re in luck: this is truly supposed to be one of the most spectacular places in all of Hawaii, and now that the entrance to the nature preserve are capped at a certain capacity, its tranquility and beauty will be preserved.

Unfortunately, as above in Pearl Harbor, we messed up here, not realizing we needed reservations until it was too late to try to snag them… whoops.

However, if you’re able to get tickets, it’s supposed to be one of the most marvelous beaches in Hawaii, with a stunning lookout at Hanauma Bay Lookout (only accessible if you have tickets to the nature preserve).

It’s a beloved place for snorkeling since the waters are really calm due to the crescent shape of the bay, so bring your snorkel gear and everything you need for a day at the beach.

Snorkel and fin rentals are available for a fee, and there’s a small shop that sells last-minute needs like reef-safe sunscreen. There’s a small food stand where you can get some food, but you may be better off packing a lunch.

Check out the Hālona Blowhole.

water from a natural 'blowhole' coming out of a lava tube and making a rainbow in the sun

This awesome place really blew my mind! Pardon the pun, I’m genetically incapable of not making them.

The Hālona Blowhole formed when molten lava was cooling after a volcanic event, forming a lava tube next to the ocean.

When the ocean hits this lava tube at the right angle, a giant geyser-like column of water will shoot up from the sea — often creating a rainbow effect.

From here, you can also visit the Hālona Beach Cove, which is a stunning little slip of beach tucked between the cliffs. It reminds me a lot of the famous Puglian beach of Polignano a Mare… but it’s far less crowded!

Admire the views from the Makapu’u Lookout.

the beautiful makapuu lookout with views over the beach and road and mountains on a sunny day with some clouds

Not far from the Hālona Blowhole is one of the best lookouts in Oahu, the Makapu’u Lookout.

This lookout rises 600 feet above the ocean and is the easternmost part of Oahu.

As a result, the views from here are simply gorgeous, looking over Makapu’u Beach Park and two small islands: a bird sanctuary islet as well as Mānana Island.

From this parking lot, you can also hike to the beautiful Makapu’u Lighthouse along the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail, a 2.5-mile paved trail with about 500 feet of elevation gain.

The lighthouse itself is temporarily closed, but you can admire the view of the lighthouse as well as the unobstructed views of the ocean behind it.

Have lunch in Kailua.

sandwich with ahi tuna cooked rare with avocado and sprouts and a salad

Continuing along the highway, drive past beautiful Waimanalo Beach on your way to Kailua, where you’ll find several delicious lunch options.

  • Nalu Health Bar & Cafe: This is my favorite spot for lunch in Kailua! I had a tasty ahi sandwich that blew my mind, and my friend got a delicious-looking salad. If you’ve had a lot of delicious-but-unhealthy food so far on your trip, it’s a great reset. They also have fresh-pressed juices, acai bowls, and other delicious options.
    • Address: 131 Hekili St #109, Kailua, HI 96734 | Hours: 9 AM to 6 PM daily
  • Kono’s Northshore – Kailua: This place also looked quite tasty and has great reviews, focusing on slow-cooked pork sandwiches and plates and other local Hawaiian dishes like loco moco.
    • Address: 131 Hekili St #102, Kailua, HI 96734 | Hours: 7 AM to 7 PM daily

Head out on a whale watching tour (December through April).

allison while whale watching in front of the waikiki skyline and diamond head

The next activity on this Oahu itinerary depends on whether or not you are visiting in the whale season (December through April) or not.

If you want to read more about whale watching, I wrote a full guide to whale watching in Oahu, including suggested tours and what to pack.

If your visit falls during humpback whale season, you can’t miss a whale watching tour. It was my highlight of my trip to Hawaii… I’m a Californian who grew up doing whale watching tours, and I’ve done whale watching tours in at least six different countries.

Humpback whales are something even more special than any of the other whales I’ve been lucky enough to get to see, and you really can’t miss the opportunity if you visit Oahu during the winter months.

Best of all, your tour guarantees a whale sighting or they’ll allow you to come again for free!

If you’re doing a whale watching tour, return back to the Waikiki area after your lunch in Kailua. Head back to the Kewalo Basin Harbor as this is the place where boat excursions depart from Waikiki.

Your whale watching tour departs at 3 PM, so don’t be late!

I did this whale watching tour in February and was lucky enough to get to see a mother and her baby who had just calved.

baby humpback whale making an adorable scene in the water

The guides estimated the baby was only 6 to 12 hours old.

Despite his young age, the little humpback whale baby was a real showstealer!

He was flopping around on its back and doing little mini “breaches” — perhaps already practicing its moves it would need to impress lady whales down the line!

Book your whale watching tour here!

Address: Meet at the Kewalo Basin Harbor at 1125 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814

Have a beer at the Maui Brewing Company.

beer at maui brewing company

Before your dinner, enjoy a drink at the lively Maui Brewing Company, a great spot for a drink in Waikiki.

Their rooftop area is really spacious and they have a ton of great beers on tap, including wheat beers, pale ales, and IPAs.

Address: 2300 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 | Hours: 11:30 AM to 10 PM daily (11 PM on Friday/Saturday)

Go for one final Waikiki dinner.

This is your last night in Waikiki, so time to live it up with yet another fantastic dinner!

Choose from any of the budget-friendly options above or choose tonight to splurge on a luxury meal out.

Day 5: Waterfalls, Luaus, & Optional Helicopter Tour

Start the day with a morning hike to Manoa Falls.

hiking trail to manoa falls hiking in the mist

Pack up your car since we’ll be relocating to the North Shore tonight for the rest of this Oahu itinerary.

On your way out of town, you’ll want to check out Manoa Falls, one of the best hikes in Oahu and a great way to start your last morning in Honolulu.

It’s about a 15-minute drive from Waikiki and there is ample paid parking ($7 fee)

The Manoa Falls Trail is an easy hike, about 1.7 miles long roundtrip with 630 feet of elevation gain. The trail is pretty straightforward, with no technical elements that really require precise attention beyond just your standard keeping an eye out for rocks.

The waterfall at the end is brilliant, but the hike itself is perhaps even more majestic, with so many beautiful sights along the way.

Also, you may see people at the base of the waterfall, but this is strictly not allowed and there are large signs stating so due to the danger of falling rocks…. and also a disease called leptospirosis, which causes flu-like symptoms for up to two weeks. Fun!

Don’t be a jerk and ignore the signage like the people we saw… it’s literally there for your own safety.

You can continue hiking after you reach Manoa Falls if you want even more of a hike, or you can turn around here.

Note that this is is one of the more lush areas of Honolulu and you may even get a bit of rain — the cloud cover likes this part of the city very much! You may get a little wet, but the landscape as you hike will be all the more lush for it.

After visiting Manoa Falls, you can also check out the neighboring Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden if you have time!

Address: The very end of Manoa Road

Take a helicopter tour (optional).

view of the waikiki skyline from above in a helicopter

This is quite a high-ticket item, so it may not be for everyone, but I loved my doors-off helicopter tour of Kauai so much that I felt compelled to suggest it here.

I didn’t get the chance to do a doors-off helicopter tour in Oahu (two helicopter tours in the span of a single a week were a little hard to justify to myself), but I have this saved in my mind as a must-do for my next trip to Oahu!

There are tours departing every hour from 9 AM to 5 PM, but I recommend something in the morning after you finish your Manoa Falls hike.

The Manoa Falls hike will take about an hour and a half to complete at a leisurely place, so plan that in when you are deciding when to book your tour if you choose to do a helicopter tour!

You will also need to give yourself time to transport between Manoa Falls and the Honolulu Airport (20 minutes on a good day and easily double with rush hour traffic) as well as an hour to check in before your flight so you can get a safety briefing and prepare for the flight.

If you’re curious about what the doors-off helicopter experience is like, read my guide to doors-off helicopters in Kauai — the scenery will be different, but the experience will be quite similar.

On a helicopter tour of Oahu, you’ll get the chance to see the Waikiki skyline, the crater of Diamond Head, Makapu’u Lighthouse, and the Ko’olau Mountains on your way to the Windward Coast.

Once you reach the coast, you’ll see stunning Lanikai Beach from above, as well as Kaneohe Bay and all the islands along the coast.

Next, you’ll sweep past the the Ka’a’awa Valley, the North Shore (including surfers shredding on the Banzai pipeline) and Waimea Bay.

On the way back, you’ll see the Dole Plantation from above (the only way I recommend seeing it, to be frank), as well as Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.

Book your doors on or doors off helicopter tour here!

Address: Castle & Cook Aviation at 155 Kapalulu Pl, Honolulu, HI 96819

Make your way towards the North Shore and have lunch in Haleiwa.

flowers in front of the farm to barn restaurant outdoor eating areas

From Honolulu to the start of the North Shore, it’s about a 1-hour drive, so you’ll want to make your way over towards Haleiwa once you’ve finished your morning activities.

Haleiwa is the largest town on the North Shore of Oahu and a great place to grab lunch! Here are a few ideas:

  • Crispy Grindz: If you’re as obsessed with Brazilian food as I am, or just curious, you’ll definitely want to stop by this food truck in Haleiwa. They serve up açaí (pronounced ah-sai [rhymes with guy]- ee) bowls and also my favorite salgados (the Portuguese word for fried salty snacks). I was in heaven and ordered a coxinha com frango (chicken coxinha — basically a delicious deep-fried chicken dumpling) and a pastel com palmito. I broke with Brazilian tradition and got a lilikoi juice instead of a guaraná, but hey — when in Hawaii, drink as much lilikoi juice as you possibly can.
    • Address: 66-236 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712 | Hours: 9 AM to 8 PM daily
  • Farm To Barn Cafe & Juicery: This is where my friend Megan ate when I had my heart set on my Brazilian salgados — she ordered a delicious looking açaí bowl and loved it. The setting here is also really beautiful, with lots of outdoor seating in what feels like paradise, and a cute barn you order your food in (there is also some indoor seating here). Dishes are varied and include things like ulu waffles, breakfast burritos, and bagel sandwiches if you want something on the more breakfast-y side, and grain bowls and burgers for a more lunch-y type of meal.
    • Address: 66-320 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712 | Hours: 9 AM to 3 PM daily

Check into your North Shore accommodations.

For the rest of this Oahu itinerary we’ll be based out the North Shore. If you’re ready to check in, go for it, or at least drop off your bags.

Our next stop is the beautiful Waimea Valley, so don’t linger too long at your accommodations.

You’ll want to arrive at Waimea Valley at 3:30 PM at the very latest. The last entrance is at 4 PM and swimming at the waterfall stops at 4:30 PM, by which point you have to start leaving the area.

Walk through the Waimea Valley to Waimea Falls.

the scenic waterfall in waimea valley at the end of the trail

The scenic Waimea Valley is one of my favorite spots in all of Oahu! This is a protected space that is sacred to the Native Hawaiians and it is preserved in a beautiful way.

The Waimea Valley is an important site in the Hawaiian religion due to the rich fertility of the soil, which made it one of the most dynamic farming areas across all of Polynesia.

Prior to American settlers taking over the islands, the Waimea Valley was home to fish ponds, livestock, and massive fields of taro, sweet potato, and bananas.

Because of this significance, it became a highly spiritual place. It was given to the “high priests” known in Hawaiian as the Kahuna Nui, who taught both the common Hawaiians and the Ali’i (the Hawaiian elite) everything from farming to fishing to healing and matters of spirituality.

As a result of its importance to Hawaiian religion, it received the name “The Valley of the Priests,” and one of the largest heiau(Hawaiian religious structures) was constructed here, overlooking the Waimea Valley.

Tip: If you want to visit this heiau, you can enter Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau State Historic Site into Google Maps and drive there — it’s not far.

Now, the Waimea Valley is a nature park and botanic gardens. There is a $20 admission fee which includes access to the gardens, educational areas and waterfall at the end.

The “hike” to Waimea Falls is really just a paved path with detours along the way to explore the valley’s flora as well as some educational sections which show traditional Hawaiian dwellings and crafts.

While the waterfalls and swimming hole (lifejacket rental required) are lovely, for me, the gardens were the star of the show.

anthuriums climbing up a tree

The gardens are truly incredible — it contains all sorts of Polynesian and rare Hawaiian plants, as well as plants from other tropical islands around the world.

The collection is particularly strong in aroids, my favorite genera of plants!

I geeked out so hard on the plants: a climbing Anthurium warocqueanum (!!!), more Monstera deliciosa than I could ever imagine, variegated alocasias, and more. If you know, you know.

Check out the Waimea Bay Beach views.

view of the waimea beach with a white lighthouse in the distance

This Oahu itinerary has you returning to the Waimea Valley Visitor Center for a luau at 5 PM, so if you finish your walk through the gardens and waterfall before that, take a little walk to Waimea Bay Beach.

I believe you can keep your car parked at the Waimea Valley area and then walk to the beach, but when I was there, I saw a sign saying that beach parking incurs a $10 fee.

I’m not sure if this is if you are only visiting the beach and not the gardens, so I would show them your ticket for the Waimea Valley Gardens and see if that suffices to not have to pay a parking fee for the beach.

Either way, this beach is stunning. It has some of the bluest waters in Oahu, and I love any place where a river (in this case, the Waimea River — what you walked alongside during your trip to Waimea Falls) empties out into the ocean. Waimea Bay Beach is one such magical place.

Spend a little time here, or drive up Kamehameha Highway a bit and look for a pullout spot where you can enjoy some views over the Bay, before you return for your luau.

Return to Waimea Valley for a Luau.

person dancing with fire at a luau

I’ll be honest: I did an insane amount of research when deciding which luau to recommend. All luaus that you pay for and attend as a tourist are, by nature, commercial.

However, some luaus support organizations or causes that I find harmful, and I wanted to do my best to find a luau that best supported the Hawaiian people in an authentic manner.

Given the good work that Waimea Valley does as an organization, and the fact that it is a sacred space for Native Hawaiians, I feel confident that this is probably the best option for a luau in Oahu.

The Waimea Valley is managed by the Hi’ipaka non-profit, which is part of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. It is not a perfect organization by any means, but I think they are doing better work for the Hawaiian people than the other options (I’ll explain at the end of the post why I leave a few common “must sees” off this Oahu itinerary).

The Toa Luau at Waimea Valley combines education, a delicious luau dinner, and a Polynesian show. The show features dances from all around Polynesia, including Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, and the Maori native people of New Zealand — including a fire knife show, a unique Hawaiian artform.

There is also a kava ceremony, an umu (rock oven) demonstration to show how the food for a luau is traditionally prepared, as well as a farewell ceremony.

The entire event lasts about 3 and a half hours and is a fantastic way to end your first evening in the North Shore.

Book your luau experience here!

Day 6: Explore the North Shore & Northeast Coast

Start your morning with a delicious coffee in Haleiwa.

hand holding a frozen coffee drink in a coffee shop

One of the best coffee shops on the North Shore is conveniently located right in the heart of Haleiwa: Island Vintage Coffee!

They use 100% Kona coffee in their drinks which makes such a difference — Kona coffee is really out of this world!

I had the frozen vintage Kona mocha and it was delicious! I normally don’t drink ‘Frappucino’-type blended coffee drinks, but this one had so much rich coconut, macadamia, coffee, and chocolate flavor. It was definitely on the sweet side, but it was so, so tasty!

They also have a selection of breakfast plates including an “island style plate” with Portuguese sausage and fried eggs with rice and furikake, as well as bagel sandwiches and acai bowls.

Address: 66-111 Kamehameha Hwy #503, Haleiwa, HI 96712 | Hours: 7 AM to 3 PM daily

Look for turtles on Laniakea Beach.

sea turtle resting on popular north shore beach

Sea turtles are often creatures of habit, and when they find a beach they like, they often return there to chill time and again!

One such beach on the North Shore that is famous for being a crash pad for turtles is Laniakea Beach. You’ll almost always see a turtle or two there — and some tourists snapping photos of the turtles, (hopefully) from a respectful distance away!

While you’ve probably already gotten the chance to snorkel with sea turtles at other points in this Oahu itinerary, if you haven’t yet, this is a great chance to see one.

And besides — is there really such a thing as seeing too many sea turtles?

Watch surfers ride the insane North Shore waves.

surfer at the north shore of oahu

There are several beaches where you can watch surfers enjoying the wild waves off the North Shore. When we were there, the waves were regularly reaching 12-16 feet!

We stopped to watch surfers at both Sunset Beach Park and Banzai Beach in Ehukai Beach Park (home of the infamous Banzai Pipeline).

It was pretty incredible to witness!

Admire the views in Lāʻie Point State Wayside.

natural arch in the middle of the sea at laie point

Lāʻie Point was one of my favorite places I saw on my trip to Oahu. It’s technically on the east side of Oahu but not a far drive from the North Shore.

This scenic point offers incredible views over several small islets off the coast of Oahu, many of which are bird sanctuaries.

One of the islets even has a beautiful rock arch which has to be seen to be believed! If you’ve never seen a sea arch, this is the place to see it.

Lāʻie Point is also a famous cliff jumping spot — so famous, in fact, that it’s the home of that memorable jump scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (most of the movie was filmed at nearby Turtle Bay Resort).

I’m not an experienced cliff jumper, so unless you are, I wouldn’t recommend cliff jumping here but rather just watch the locals do so. Better safe than sorry.

Have a tasty food truck lunch in Kahuku.

rys poke from the north shore

The town of Kahuku is a foodie’s dream!

The old sugar mill that used to be a mainstay of the town has been converted into a large open-air shopping and eating area, with all kinds of businesses thriving… especially food trucks!

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many options… so let me break down a few options.

  • Ry’s Poke Shack: If you like poke, hands-down, this is where you should eat. No question. Ry makes the best poke on the island of Oahu and his passion for poke is visible in everything he does. He hand mixes everything and prepares it fresh rather than having it pre-made like most other poke places do. This means you may wait a little longer, but the flavor is undeniably fresher and better. He is also incredibly kind and sociable and his love for poke is visible in every bowl. Do yourself a favor and eat here, unless you can’t (or don’t) eat raw fish.
    • Address: 56-565 Kamehameha Hwy, Kahuku, HI 96731 | Hours: 11:30 AM to 4 PM Sunday through Friday [closed Saturday]
  • Da Brazilian Braddahs: This place was closed when I visited, if I could have eaten there, I would have! Their 5-star reviews had me drooling when I realized I could get some of my Brazilian favorites like picanha (the best cut of steak you can ever imagine), strogonoff, yuca frita, farofa… I need to stop. If you’re more of a ‘land’ than a ‘sea’ eater, this is the place for you.
    • Address: 56-580 Kamehameha Hwy, Kahuku, HI 96731 | Hours: 11 AM – 9 PM daily [not sure why it was closed when I was there, but it was tragic]
  • Lobster Dogs: If you’ve ever had a corn dog and wished it was filled with lobster instead, this is your place. I didn’t eat here, and haven’t seen a ton of reviews, but it did look quite unique! If you’re curious, go for it.
    • Address: 56-565 Kamehameha Hwy, Kahuku, HI 96731 | Hours: Unclear

Relax on a beach or go for an afternoon zipline.

allison smiling on the beach

Depending on how you like to travel, now might be the time for a well-deserved beach day… or perhaps a more adrenaline-fueled adventure!

If you opt for a beach day, I suggest Shark’s Cove if you want to do some snorkeling or Ke Iki Beach if you just want to relax on the beach.

Remember, the North Shore is famous for its wild waves, so any beach you visit may have really strong currents. Ask a lifeguard about water conditions and swim with caution only after you’ve ascertained the safety.

Alternately, if you want to get your adrenaline pumping, a great idea is doing a zipline tour through the gorgeous Hawaiian forest canopy with Climb Works – Keana Farms.

If you’ve never ziplined before, it’s an amazing and indescribable adventure that is one of my favorite adrenaline activities while I travel, as it combines a little bit of adrenaline and heights with the relaxing experience of soaring through the trees like a bird.

Ziplining involves being strapped into a secure harness and going across a steel cable that connects two platforms along a pulley. You can actually end up going quite fast, hence the feeling of flying!

I didn’t go ziplining during my time in Hawaii, but I’ve ziplined in the cloud forest of Costa Rica and the pine forests of Flagstaff, AZ and loved it each time. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to zipline before and aren’t sure when you will again — take this opportunity!

This 3-hour adventure experience includes a 2-mile ATV ride to the top of the mountain, where you’ll then descend back down to where you started, using 8 zipline runs which range from 500 to a whopping 2,400 feet!

There also other adrenaline-pumping activities like rappels, boardwalks, sky bridges, and more to keep your adrenaline and interest high!

Book your ziplining tour here!

Address: 1 Enos Rd, Kahuku, HI 96731

Day 7: Shark diving, Haleiwa town, & Kaʻena Point

Swim with sharks — cage diving or free swimming!

free swimming with sharks in oahu

You might think I’m crazy, but swimming with sharks is one of the most popular activities to do in Oahu.

I’m a PADI-certified SCUBA diver who has dived in the Maldives, Bali, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and more.

I’ve swam with sharks more times than I can count, frankly, and I’ve never once felt afraid of them as a snorkeler or diver.

In general, sharks are peaceful, beautiful, and woefully misunderstood creatures who have a reptuation they don’t deserve.

The few times that a shark attacks, it is typically when they are caught in a break with crashing surf (such as when a human is surfing or wading in shallow water). In those instances, they mistake a human limb for an easier meal like a seal.

Let’s put things into perspective here. According to, horses kill four times as many people per year than sharks do — and cows slightly more so!

As someone who has ridden horses quite a bit (and had more than one or two uncomfortable staredowns with a cow), I am far more afraid of horses and cows than sharks!

Divemaster on the ground with a reef shark
My divemaster in Moorea just casually sitting on the ocean floor to observe a white-tipped reef shark!

Now that I’ve gone on my pro-shark propaganda tour, let me explain the different ways you can experience sharks in a safe and beautiful way on Oahu, and grow to have more appreciation for these wonderful animals.

Note: While afternoon tours are available, I strongly recommend going in the morning, when the waves on the North Shore are less intense — it’ll make for a far better experience, with less choppiness and far greater visibility underwater.

If you’re a little more apprehensive about sharks, going cage diving is a great introduction to conquering your fears around sharks. You will be able to snorkel in a safe metal cage and allow the sharks to swim around you in a way that feels safe.

Depending on the time of year, you may also see dolphins, turtles, or perhaps even humpback whales!

If part of your party wants to go cage diving and the other is not comfortable, there is also an option to simply take the boat tour for a lower fee, while others in your party do the cage-diving.

Book your shark cage diving here!

If you’re not afraid of sharks and would prefer a more up-close-and-personal experience, guided swimming and snorkeling tours with sharks are another option.

Each small group gets to spend about 30 to 40 minutes snorkeling with sharks, accompanied by a guide and a safety diver accompanying you the entire time — who will also serve as your dive photographer, if you want souvenir photos of your swim with sharks!

This tour involves a 3-mile boat ride off the coast of the North Shore to reach the “pelagic zone” (aka the open ocean) where the sharks thrive.

There are nearly 40 unique species of sharks that inhabit the waters around Hawaii, so you’re almost certain to see a few different types of sharks. You may also get to see dolphins or whales, too!

Book this cage-free shark swim here!

Have lunch in Haleiwa.

After your shark adventure, you’re probably feeling quite hungry, so it’s time for one last lunch in Haleiwa!

There are so many options: Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck for famous garlic shrimp, The Beet Box Cafe for vegetarian brunch fare, Kono’s Northshore for tasty pulled pork, Kua Aina Sandwich Shop for Hawaiian style sandwiches… the list goes on!

Have dessert at Matsumoto Shave Ice.

matsumoto shave ice window

No matter what you decide to eat for lunch, make sure you save room for the most famous shave ice on the North Shore… Matsumoto Shave Ice!

There’s a huge variety of flavors, from pina colada to lemon to lychee to green tea to yuzu to lilikoi to guava and at least two dozen more! You can pick up to three in your shave ice.

You can also add whatever you want to your shave ice, like condensed milk, mochi, azuki beans, or vanilla ice cream for your perfectly customized cold treat!

There are often lines here, especially in the afternoon, but it moves fast.

Address: 66-111 Kamehameha Hwy #605, Haleiwa, HI 96712 | Hours: 10 AM to 6 PM

Hike the Kaʻena Point Trail and look for monk seals.

monk seal in oahu

For your final activity in Oahu, take a hike to Kaʻena Point (or however far you want to go along the trail — it’s an out-and-back trail, so you can turn back at any time).

The sun was setting and we didn’t have headlamps, but this would have been a great place for the sunset if we had headlamps, since Kaʻena Point is the westernmost tip of the island and we would have enjoyed a fully unobstructed view of the ocean.

That said, we walked about 2 miles of the 5.6-mile hike (rated as moderate with a mere 440 feet of elevation gain).

We were planning to walk all the way to the Hawaiian Monk Seal Beach, but we were lucky and spotted one even before it!

Address: End of the road on Farrington Hwy, Waialua, HI 96791

What This Oahu Itinerary Skips (And Why)

When I wrote this Oahu itinerary, I was trying to be mindful of what can potentially constitute harmful tourism and there are three major places I am specifically not recommending.

Number one is the Polynesian Cultural Center and their popular “Breath of Ha” show. While the name seems educational, I actually find it quite pessimistic.

From what I can see, it is not run by Polynesian-descended people at all, but rather, it is run by the Mormon Church, who have a huge temple and presence in the town of Laie.

Daytime events at the “Polynesian” Cultural Center include a bus tour of Brigham Young University Hawaii and a visit to the Laie Hawaii Temple which is located next to the cultural center…. which doesn’t sound very Polynesian to me.

I’m all for people practicing their own faiths, but the problem I find with this is that missionary work is a core tenet of Mormonism, which involves attempting to convert people — including Native Hawaiians — away from their religion and into their own.

In the context of missionary work focused on converting Native Hawaiians, that actually contributes to the continued cultural erasure of Hawaiian life that began with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and continued through annexation and statehood.

Honestly, using the veneer of a “Polynesian Cultural Center” to create profit so that you can continue missionary work that causes more erasure of the Polynesian culture of Native Hawaiians whose land you are occupying is more than a little Orwellian to me…

That said — to each their own.

I also don’t recommend the luau that takes place at the Sea Life Park Hawaii (or visiting the park itself).

As someone who cares about responsible wildlife tourism, I don’t support giving money to organizations that promote hands-on animal tourism such as getting to touch and swim with captive dolphins or forcing animals to perform in shows for tourists.

The luau thehy put on is called the Ka Moana Luau and it’s another one I avoided for ethical reasons.

Another place I skipped on this Oahu itinerary is the Dole Plantation.

Yeah, you might want your Dole Whip, but honestly, the Dole family history is really quite dark and are the reason why the Hawaiian islands are currently an occupied nation.

Sanford B. Dole, the cousin of the founder of the Dole Plantation, was one of the key figures in the coup that ended the reign of the rightful monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani, and put an end to the Hawaiian Kingdom’s sovereignty.

However, this actually wasn’t taken to kindly by then-president Grover Cleveland, who actually refused annexation of Hawaii into the United States and attempted to restore Queen Liliʻuokalani to the throne.

But by this point, Dole had named himself president of the Republic of Hawaii. President Cleveland didn’t want to use military force in Hawaii, so he let Dole remain in power but continued to refuse his attempts at the annexation of Hawaii.

Unfortunately for Hawaiians who wanted their monarchy restored, once William McKinley took office, things went differently.

While McKinley knew that he could never get the 2/3 majority in the Senate that he needed for annexation, he used a joint resolution to urge Congress to annex the Hawaiian Islands under the pretense of it being a strategic military location during the Spanish-American War.

To me, it feels weird to give money to descendants of the family who are disproportionately responsible for the end of Hawaiian sovereignty, which is why I chose not to include it on this post.

Where to Stay in Oahu

the pool at the white sands hotel where we stayed in honolulu

If you have one week in Oahu, I recommend basing yourself in two different places during your stay.

For the first four nights, base yourself in Honolulu, preferably in Waikiki like I suggest on my Honolulu itinerary, like at Hale Koa or elsewhere. Here are a few suggestions.

BUDGET | White Sands Hotel: This is where I stayed for my time in Waikiki and I highly recommend it! It’s definitely one of the cheapest options in Waikiki but I didn’t feel like we were missing anything, except perhaps a complimentary breakfast… but that just gave us all the more reason to go out and eat our way through Honolulu!

The White Sands Hotel is the only remaining walk-up hotel in Waikiki, and it’s maintained a vintage edge that it’s lovingly cultivated through its careful retro detailings (art dispensers and record players downstairs, a tiki bar vibe around the pool, funky wallpaper int he rooms).

It’s like staying in another time, yet everything feels fresh, clean, and recently updated, and I quite liked that about the hotel. Zero complaints.

Book your stay at White Sands Hotel here!

Two beds against a vintage wallpaper headboard in a redesigned hotel called the White Sands located in Waikiki honolulu

BOUTIQUE LUXURY| Moana Surfrider: This elegant hotel is a fantastic beachfront option in the heart of Waikiki. I didn’t get to stay here, but I walked around here for breakfast and a coffee and fell in love with the property.

The architecture of the hotel is simply beautiful and the exterior is dreamy. It opens right up to a massive banyan tree, beachfront verandas perfect for meals or cocktails, a relaxing pool area, and of course: views of Waikiki Beach. The hotel also has spa amenities if you’re looking to unwind!

Check rates and availability at Moana Surfrider here!

The exterior of the fancy Moana Surfrider hotel which is located beachfront in Waikiki

RESORT LUXURY | Halekulani: For an extremely elegant upscale resort stay, this is the place to be. With views of Diamond Head yet a location right on Waikiki Beach, it doesn’t get any better location-wise.

There are three restaurants as well as a jazz lounge with live music and a luxurious spa center to relax at. The rooms are sumptuous and spacious, with a fresh fruit bowl and chocolates in each room upon arrival. Every room has its own private lanai for admiring your epic Waikiki view.

The rooms are luxurious enough — think marble bathrooms and soaking tubs and separate rain showers — but the spa takes it to the next level, with treatments and massages that incorporate Polynesian wellbeing elements such as the lomi lomi massage.

Book your stay at Halekulani here!

the beautiful north shore of oahu

For the final two nights of this one week Oahu itinerary, move to an accommodation along Oahu’s North Shore.

BUDGET / MID-RANGE | Oceanfront Airstream: Accommodations on the North Shore are few and far between, and thus, your options are a little pricy. One unique offering, though, is to stay in a gorgeous new Airstream with a sweeping view of the ocean!

Located on the Oceanfront Open Land Ranch, you can enjoy a cozy 22-foot Bambi Airstream that sleeps up to 4. On the ranch, you’ll find horses and other farm animals — all on 26 acres of private land and a half-mile of private beachfront. Sunset from your Airstream? Yes please!

Bonus: With each stay, a a one-mile beachfront horseback ride or ATV ride is offered in partnership with North Shore Stables!

Check rates and availability at Oceanfront Airstream here!

LUXURY | Turtle Bay Resort: It doesn’t get more luxurious than this on the North Shore! With more than five miles of beachfront access, two 18-hole golf courses (designed by Arnold Palmer, naturally), and every room with an ocean view, there’s hard to find anything wrong with Turtle Bay Resort. Except perhaps the high price tag.

The rooms are beautiful with a casual elegance taken from modern Hawaiian decor elements. There are several restaurants on site, including a casual Hawaiian restaurant, a seafood restaurant, two bar & grills — one poolside, one next the golf course, a lounge, and a cocktail bar.

There’s also a spa offering massages and body treatments, a fitness center with yoga classes, hot tubs, pools, and even a water slide for kids to enjoy.

Check rates and availability at Turtle Bay Resort here!

Renting a Car in Oahu

Bonus tip: Splurge on a convertible if possible — it’s way more fun!

This Oahu itinerary is written with the idea that you’ll be renting a car.

We rented a car for a portion of our Oahu itinerary and opted for ride share on other days. Frankly, with how expensive Uber is and how spread out Honolulu is (especially Waikiki from the airport), renting a car the entire trip would have been a better idea!

Driving in Oahu is relatively easy and straightforward. Honolulu is a larger city than you may first expect, and there are some large highways that can definitely get backed up with rush hour traffic.

Other roads are more calm and scenic, perfect for a top-down convertible ride! We rented a convertible on Kauai and a standard car on Oahu, and we definitely missed the convertible as we were cruising along the Windward Coast and the North Shore.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best, most extensive car rental search engine.

It searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental in Honolulu here.

4 Days in Kauai Itinerary: A Detailed Day by Day itinerary (2023 Update)

A few palm trees on the rugged coast of Kauai with a lighthouse in the distance as seen at sunset

Rugged emerald spire-like mountains cascading into the turquoise sea, deep multicolored canyons rivaling Southwestern landscapes, waterfalls only visible by helicopter… sound like a dream?

It is. And yet, it’s also a real place: the beautiful Hawaiian island of Kauai (written Kauaʻi in the Hawaiian language).

Located nearly 3,000 miles from the American mainland, Kauai is at once remote and remarkably accessible.

Affordable flights from the West Coast land frequently at the teeny little airport at Lihue, and the well-paved roads that encircle the island and delve into its core make it a road tripping dream.

As a West Coast kid, trips to Kauai were one of our staple family vacations. It was so fun to return to do research for this Kauai itinerary and rediscover this magical island as an adult!

red dirt waterfall in kauai

Kauai is the kind of island where you could spend the entire time never leaving your peaceful resort, and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But at the same time, Kauai has so much to offer that it’d be a massive missed opportunity if you didn’t get to explore so much of what makes the island special: the Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, and the North Shore beaches.

This Kauai itinerary packs as much as possible into four days in Kauai. I think that’s the bare minimum to appreciate all that Kauai has to offer.

But of course, if you have more days in Kauai, all the better: you can divide some of these days into half-days, with ample beach relaxation time added in.

This post was first written in March 2023 after I did a 10-day trip in February to Kauai and Oahu. It was last updated December 5, 2023 to ensure accuracy for the upcoming travel season.

How to Pick the Right Hawaiian Island

Grand Canyon? Nope, this is Kauai!

If you aren’t yet certain that Kauai is the right Hawaiian island to visit on your first trip to Hawaii, here are a few tips.

Kauai is the perfect island for you if:

  • you want a mix of landscapes, from lush rainforest to arid desert-like canyons to wild and rugged coastlines straight out of Jurassic Park (… literally — it was filmed here!). Natural beauty is the name of the game in Kauai.
  • you like quiet small towns and don’t mind a slow pace of life where many things shut down early in the afternoon.
  • you favor adventure, hiking trails, road trips, and beautiful scenery over lazy beach days!

If you’re looking for an island purely for beautiful beaches and endless relaxation, I would suggest Maui or Oahu, both of which offer up more sandy beaches than Kauai.

For surfing, you can’t miss the North Shore beaches of Oahu!

The North Shore of Oahu is beautiful for beaches!

Kauai is a little more rugged in nature with fewer sandy beaches (though there definitely are enough to satisfy, especially with just four days in Kauai!)

The Big Island of Hawaii also has a nice mix of beaches and some of the other features of Kauai in terms of diverse and rugged landscapes (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is here!).

The Big Island also has as vibrant towns like Kona and Hilo that are a little more vibrant than the towns in Kauai, which tend to shut down early.

And of course, Oahu has Honolulu, the largest population center in the Pacific Ocean, which is as close to a “city that never sleeps” as you’ll find in Hawaii.

Finally, remember: you don’t have to pick one island! Kauai pairs well with others for a Hawaiian island hopping adventure!

Kauai is rather small and easy to combine with another island if you have a week or so to travel and prefer to have new activities each day rather than spending a lot of time relaxing on beaches and at resort areas.

I did Kauai and Oahu on this last trip, but Kauai and Maui and Kaui and the Big Island would also be fantastic pairings!

How This Kauai Itinerary is Structured

This Kauai itinerary assumes that you’ll be renting a car for the 4 day trip in order to maximize your time in Kauai.

When we did our trip, we had no car for two days, and relied on Ubers and tours during those days, and then rented a convertible for the other two full days.

Frankly, we made a mistake: getting around Kauai using Uber/Lyft can be a pain, with long wait times and high prices, and we didn’t maximize our time the best way we could.

Honestly, we wished we had rented a car just a little longer during our stay to maximize our time a little better.

We also utilized a few tours during our time in Kauai where it made sense and added value to our time, but overall, we mostly opted for road tripping Kauai as much as possible.

Happiness is a convertible upgrade.

Frankly, four days in Kauai is just barely enough to see all the sights you want to see without missing anything huge, so this itinerary for Kauai is a little busy.

You can feel free to cut anything that doesn’t sound interesting to you if you want more time to relax on the beach or just enjoy!

I erred towards offering more information and suggestions rather than less, since it is easier to cut things out of an itinerary rather than add things in at the last minute!

Finally, this 4 day Kauai itinerary was created to maximize what you see with minimal backtracking or time-wasting, with as much independent travel as possible.

I made a point of only adding in guided tours when it is something you cannot do on your own — like kayak the Wailua River, go to a luau, or fly over the Na Pali Coast in a helicopter.

This way, you can make the most of your time and explore Kauai at your own pace, not someone else’s!

Your 4 Day Kauai Itinerary

Day One of Your Kauai Itinerary: South Shore Adventures

The first day of your Kauai itinerary is all about ticking off a few of your bucket list musts for any Hawaii trip: snorkeling with sea turtles, taking a helicopter ride over the Na Pali Coast, and ending the night with a lovely luau experience!

Note: The luau experience only takes place on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, so feel free to rearrange this Kauai itinerary in a way that fits if your first day is not one of the days mentioned.

Go snorkeling on Poipu Beach.

The beautiful and calm waters of Poipu Beach (written Poʻipū in Hawaiian) in Koloa make it a perfect place for snorkelers to enjoy the calm waters on the south side of the island!

I recommend bringing your own snorkel set for ease of use throughout this Kauai itinerary, but in case you just want to rent, you can grab a snorkel set of mask, snorkel and fins from Nukumoi Surf Shop.

You can snorkel right off the beach in the sheltered cove created by the little spit (tombolo) called Nukumoi Point that breaks Poipu Beach into two sections.

This area is really popular with green sea turtles (honu) and in fact, they’ll often rest right on the beach! Be sure to give them a respectful distance if you see them on the sand.

You might also be lucky enough to see the endangered Hawaiian monk seal here! There are only 1,200 left out in the wild, so this is a really rare occurrence if you do, but they have been known to frequent Poipu Beach.

If you prefer a guided snorkel experience, you could alternately start your day with this guided snorkel tour led by a divemaster. It departs from Koloa and brings you snorkeling to a secret South Shore destination!

This is great for nervous first-time snorkelers because you’ll have a divemaster with you on every step of the way, there’s no boat because it’s a shore snorkel excursion, and the group size is limited to six people so you’re guaranteed personalized attention.

Book your snorkel tour here!

Walk to Shipwreck Beach.

A short walk away from Poipu Beach is the beautiful Shipwreck Beach, a popular spot for surfing and the entry point to the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail.

This is also a favored sunset spot in Kauai if you want to save it in mind for later in your trip!

Along the way, you’ll pass Brennecke’s Beach, a popular place for boogie boarders to enjoy some wild waves!

(You may also want to drive your car from Poipu Beach to Shipwreck Beach to avoid more walking and backtracking later — it’s up to you)

Once you reach Shipwreck Beach, stop for a bit to watch the surfers before you take a short hike up to Waiopili Heiau.

Take a stroll on the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail up to Waiopili Heiau.

This beautiful hike goes alongside a golf course on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other!

The trail will lead you to Waiopili Heiau, which is thought to be a religious structure (heiau) created by the Native Hawaiians who have lived on this land for centuries before Hawaii was ever occupied.

Please do not touch or walk upon the marked area (there is a very obvious sign about it) as it is insensitive to the Native Hawaiian culture and religion and attempts to preserve its history.

Have a delicious poke lunch from the Fish Express.

Once you make your way back to your car, it’s time to make your way back to Lihue and grab a quick take-out lunch before your helicopter tour.

The best poke I had on the island of Kauai was from this charming little hole-in-the-wall poke restaurant and fish market called The Fish Express, located right on Kuhio Highway in Lihue.

Grab a poke bowl — I had mine with spicy salmon with sea asparagus, ahi spicy poke with crab, and hamachi, and topped it with edamame, spicy mayo, seaweed salad, and pickled ginger. Yum!

There’s no seating here, so take yours to you and find a nice place to eat before your upcoming helicopter tour!

Take a helicopter tour over the Na Pali Coast (Nāpali Coast).

This is simply the biggest bucket list activity on this whole Kauai itinerary — you really just can’t miss a helicopter tour over Kauai!

You can opt for a doors-off helicopter as we did on our tour (we booked an Air Kauai tour via Viatoryou can find the exact link to our tour here!) if you want to amp up the adrenaline factor and enjoy even better views!

If you want to read a full post on what to expect before your doors off helicopter tour — including 3 key mistakes to avoid! — read my guide here!

If you’re a little afraid of heights, prone to motion sickness, or simply don’t want the more adrenaline-rush type of experience, I recommend doing a doors-on helicopter tour.

I did the doors-off helicopter and it was an utterly magical experience… with a few caveats, which I’ll get into below.

Nothing will ever beat the feeling of flying over waterfalls that no one else can see because they are so deeply nestled in the heartland of the island, or cruising over the Waimea Canyon.

One of the waterfalls you’ll see is Manawaiopuna Falls (also known as Jurassic Park Falls), a massive 400-foot-tall waterfall you can only see from a helicopter tour.

But these sights, as gorgeous as they all are, all pale in comparison to what you see once you reach the water.

Nothing compares to seeing the deep turquoise waters off the coast of Kauai’s North Shore and the wild ocean views beside it.

There’s nothing more spectacular admiring the stunning rugged coastline of the otherwise inaccessible Na Pali Coast as you zoom in and out of its curves.

Finally, you’ll turn inland to see Mount Waialeale, the second-tallest mountain on Kauai at 5,000 feet and one of the wettest places on earth!

Seeing the Weeping Wall up close is simply breathtaking, and it was one of my other favorite parts of the helicopter tour since this is another thing you simply can’t see from any other vantage point.

A few things to note about the helicopter tour: you’ll want to wear pants (it gets cold up there!) and closed-toe shoes, and I definitely recommend wearing contacts if you’re normally a glasses wearer. Also, definitely take Dramamine if you are prone to motion sickness!

If any of the above puts you off, don’t skip doing the helicopter tour!! Just opt for a doors on helicopter tour like this highly-rated one from Safari Tours — I recommend booking through the link above for free cancellation within 24 hours!

If even that feels like too much, a scenic flight in a small plane will also be a phenomenal experience (it’s also a cheaper option by a good $150 or so, making it a good budget option).

No matter which way you see Kauai from the sky, it’s a bucket list must, as it’s really the only way to properly see the Na Pali Coast for which the island is so famous (unless a 22-mile hike with 6,000 feet of elevation gain sounds like your kind of adventure, in which case, props to you!).

Book the same doors off helicopter tour that we took here!

Enjoy a dinner and a show at a traditional luau.

One of the most popular Kauai activities is getting to enjoy a traditional Hawaiian luau, which is a celebration including all types of unique performances and of course, delicious food.

Taking place every Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, Luau Kalamakū is a wonderful cultural event that will bring you closer to understanding the culture and history of Native Hawaiians.

The main part of the luau centers around a 45-minute show that tells the Hawaiian story of Kalamakū, which means “child of the new land”.

This show tells the story of the seafarers who journeyed from Tahiti and other Polynesian islands to the Hawaiian islands. It ends with fire poi and fire knife dancing, two incredible performing arts unique to Hawaii!

Prior to the main meal event, there is also an imu ceremony, in which the Kalua pork (which is cooked in an underground oven) is presented.

During the meal, which includes poi, lomi lomi salmon, kalua pork, and fresh fish, you’ll also get to watch hula dancers and enjoy live music.

Book your luau experience here (available Tuesday, Thursday and Friday!)

Day Two of Your Kauai Itinerary: Kayaking, Waterfalls & Rainbow Trees

Go kayaking down the Wailua River and spot a secluded waterfall.

I hope you’re prepared for an early morning wake up — it’ll be worth it! Today’s the day for kayaking down the Wailua River, one of the most beautiful parts of the interior of Kauai.

What makes Kauai unique compared to other Hawaiian islands is just how diverse the landscape is.

From the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” to the Jurassic Park filming location of the Na Pali Coast, Kauai has a bit of everything and has earned its nickname of The Garden Island (or the Garden Isle).

You’ll see its lush side more clearly as you kayak through the stunning Wailua River, taking a stop along the way to go for a hike to a little-known waterfall you can only get to by hiking and taking this tour!

These secret falls are really beautiful especially when you get to enjoy them with precious few other company!

The best way to do this is by organized tour that includes kayak rental, kayaking guides, and a guide to the hiking trail to the waterfall.

Book this Waimea River Kayaking and Secret Falls half-day trip here!

Admire the marvelous views of Wailua Falls.

Seeing beautiful waterfalls is the theme of the day, and next up is the beautiful Wailua Falls, a stunning double waterfall which is a few miles down a scenic road, just off the town of Wailua.

It’s a worthwhile detour to reach this beautiful vantage point where you can enjoy one of the most impressive waterfalls in Kauai, without any need for a hike!

Check out the stunning view at ‘Opaeka’a Falls.

Make your way back to the main highway circling Kauai and make your way to ‘Opaeka’a Falls, the third and last waterfall of the day!

The views of this waterfall will depend greatly on how much rainfall there has been recently, so it can range from wildly impressive to more of a trickle.

When we visited, it had been a rather dry winter, but the waterfall still had two beautiful distinct forks that cascaded 150 feet off the cliff edge.

Admire the rainbow eucalyptus trees at Keahua Arboretum.

One of the most unique things you’ll find on Kauai are the rainbow eucalyptus trees.

There is one tree on the road to the Keahua Arboretum, which is marked on Google Maps, but I suggest going further all the way to the Arboretum where you’ll be able to admire several of them on a small walk through the forest.

Unfortunately, several people have defaced these beautiful trees, and it does detract from their beauty some. Please do not carve anything into the face of these beautiful and unique trees!

Take a walk (or bike) along the Ke Ala Hele Makalae Path.

Bike and walking path in Kauai along the Pacific

Starting at Kapa’a Beach Park, you can take a beautiful stroll up the Ke Ala Hele Makalae Path, which hugs the edge of the Kauai shoreline and offers some stunning views.

If you’re just looking for a short walk, a good turnaround point is Kaiakea Point, where you can look for whales off in the distance in the winter months when the humpback whales are migrating through Hawaiian waters.

You can also continue up to Keālia Beach, which is a beautiful half-mile white sand beach that’s a fun place to watch surfers work their magic!

Enjoy dinner at the food trucks in Kapa’a.

Kapa’a has a ton of great food trucks that offer a great place to eat on a budget — and all sorts of types of cuisines for all types of eaters!

Located along Kuhio Highway, there are a ton of different food trucks between Sam’s Ocean View Restaurant and Jimmy’s Grill — which are also two other popular eateries if you’re more in the mood for a sit-down meal.

Day Three of Your Kauai Itinerary: The Waimea Canyon & Beyond

Note: This day definitely requires a rental car for the road trip, but if you don’t want to drive, you can also do a guided tour of the Waimea Canyon and Koke’e Valley.

Do a road trip up Route 550 to the Kalalau Lookout.

The view at Kalalau Lookout… if you’re not fogged out!

Depending on where you start from, the drive to Kalalau Lookout might take quite a while — but trust me, it’s worth it (as long as the weather cooperates… but more on that in a second!).

From where we started our road trip in Lihue, it took about 1 hour 20 minutes to reach the lookout point at Kalalau, near mile marker 18 along Route 550.

Note that you have to pay for parking at the Kalalau Lookout because it is part of Koke’e State Park, but that will cover you in other parts of this Kauai itinerary as well, such as the next stop.

On a clear day, the viewing platform from the Kalalau Lookoutoffers exquisite views over the Na Pali Coast, including Kalalau Beach.

As you admire the view and how unbelievably rugged the landscape is, imagine the hikers trekking their way down below, along the Kalalau Trail!

This strenuous 22-mile trail is an out-and-back hike through Na Pali State Park that goes from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach — which you can see down below.

The beach you see below is actually the turnaround point for that tough-as-nails hike!

Note that this lookout point can often be quite cloudy, so I’ve recommended starting your day here so you have the best chance of seeing it unobscured!

Unfortunately, we tried two times during our time in Kauai and were not able to get a clear view of it either time (so the photo above is a stock photo so you can get an idea of what you can see!).

If the weather is clear and beautiful make your way up the road to the final lookout point, the Pu’u o Kila Lookout, where you can see a similar view from a slightly different vantage point.

Explore more of Koke’e State Park (Kōkeʻe State Park)

Once you’ve seen the beauty of the lookout points over the Na Pali Coast, it’s time to go for a little hike!

There are several trails in Koke’e State Park, so you can be sure to find one appropriate for your own level.

  • Very Easy: The Nature Trail at the Koke’e Visitor Center is a 0.2 mile hike with virtually no elevation gain that will show you a bit of the nature of the higher-altitude parts of Kauai with some informational placards. It’s an easy stop if you’re visiting Koke’e Museum or Koke’e Lodge.
  • Easy: The Kawaikoi Stream Trail is a relatively easy hike, a little over 2 miles long with just about 400 feet of elevation gain. It has you hiking along a beautiful stream in a rainforest environment and is a pretty peaceful and spectacular place in Koke’e State Park if you’re not looking for anything too challenging!
  • Moderate: The Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls hike is a popular choice for those looking for a short but tough hike in Koke’e State Park. It’s 3 miles out-and-back but has a challenging 1,066 feet of elevation gain, so expect to be climbing (or descending) nearly the whole trail!
  • Moderate/Difficult: The Awa’awapuhi Trail is a 6-mile out-and-back trail that is rated as moderate due to its 1,945 ft of elevation gain. It takes most people 3.5-4 hours to complete, so unless you got a very early start or are a very fast hiker, it may be a bit much to try to tackle on this fast-paced Kauai itinerary.

Marvel at Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”

On your way down descending Route 550, be sure not to miss a chance to explore the beautiful Waimea Canyon State Park!

Make sure you stop at the Waimea Canyon Lookout as well as the Waipo’o Falls Lookout, where you can spot a stunning waterfall across the canyon!

Another way to get a great view of Waimea Canyon is via the short Iliau Nature Loop.

This short interpretive trail loop shows you some of the native flora of Kauai while also giving you sweeping and unobstructed views of the Waimea Canyon!

More of a walk than a true hike, at just 0.4 miles long with about 50 feet of elevation change, this is a hike perfect for families or people just looking for a short walk to stretch their legs!

sign at the waimea canyon area for longer hikes

The Iliau Nature Loop connects to the much-harder Kukui Trail, which brings you down into the canyon and back up again in a 5-mile hike with a whopping 2,162 feet of elevation gain!

You won’t have time for that on our itinerary unless you’re a world-class hiker, though, so it’s time to just continue making our way down to the town of Waimea, where you can get a delicious lunch — you’re probably starving!

There’s just one final stop on the way, just off the roadside… and I promise it’s worth it!

Stop at the Red Dirt Waterfall.

This small little roadside waterfall in Kauai is easy to miss, but I highly recommend you don’t skip it — it’s quite unique!

This stunning little waterfall tumbles across a Martian-esque landscape, with dirt that looks like it comes from another planet.

The waterfall itself is rather small, but its surroundings are what make it so impressive.

Grab lunch in the charming town of Waimea.

Waimea is a great little spot on the West Side of Kauai. The climate here is quite different to other places in Kauai.

The West Side of Kauai is far more arid and desert-like, which is perhaps not surprising given its proximity to Waimea Canyon, which looks like it belongs in the Southwest and not in an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

If you’re hungry, I highly recommend stopping for lunch at an adorable little restaurant called Coconut Corner. They sell smoothies and fresh coconuts, but their marinated grilled pork plate is simply divine! It was one of my favorite meals I ate in all of Kauai.

A few other popular places to eat in Waimea include Ginas Anykine Grinds Cafe(this is a brunch spot, so it’s only open until 1 or 2 PM) and Porky’s, a sandwich and hot dog shop that serves up “aloha in a bun”.

Feeling like you want desert? Don’t miss JoJo’s Shave Ice, one of the favored places on the island for Hawaii’s favorite treat!

Wander around the charming historic town of Hanapepe (Hanapēpē).

The adorable town of Hanapepe wasn’t on my radar until I arrived in Kauai, but it ended up being one of my favorite stops on my Kauai itinerary!

It has a historic downtown area that has been used as a filming location in several movies (as well as being a model for the town in Lilo and Stitch!).

Once home to a large military population, Hanapepe is now one of the artistic centers of Kauai, and the streets of the town are chock-full of galleries and quaint little shops.

One of the coolest places in Hanapepe is the Talk Story Bookstore — the westernmost bookstore in the United States! It has an Old West vibe and inside it is full of books about Hawaii, including a large selection of books from Hawaiian writers.

Before you leave Hanapepe, don’t miss taking a stroll across the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge!

It’s a bit hair-raising, as the bridge really does swing as you walk across it, but it’s a fun adventure!

Take in the sunset at Salt Pond Beach Park.

For a beautiful sunset, don’t miss Salt Pond Beach Park, located a short distance away from Hanapepe on the west side of Kauai — perfect for sunsets!

If you arrive early, there are some nearby reefs where you can go for a snorkel or just enjoy some well-deserved beach time — this was quite the busy day!

Note that the salt ponds after which the beach park is named are strictly for use of the Native Hawaiians on the island, so please do not touch them!

Have a delicious saimin dinner in Lihue.

One of my favorite ways to explore the culture while traveling is to eat like the locals do — and in the case of Hawaii, that’s tasting saimin, a Hawaiian version of ramen!

You can find saimin at a few different spots around Kauai but the classic is in Lihue at Hamura Saimin. It’s a no-frills counter-service joint where you’ll find tourists mingling with locals as they slurp up delicious noodles!

As a bonus, it’s open until 9:30 PM nightly — which is tough to find on an early-to-rise, early-to-bed island like Kauai, where many businesses close before 3 PM!

I recommend their special saimin which includes ham, wontons, fish cake, scallions, and egg — it’s delicious.

If you somehow have room after your giant bowl of saimin, they are also well known for their lilikoi chiffon pie!

Day Four of Your Kauai Itinerary: North Shore Beaches & East Side Exploration

This final day of your Kauai itinerary is all about exploring the lesser-visited North Shore of Kauai, which is home to exquisite beaches.

This part of the island is more remote and you’ll find yourself feeling like you’ve stumbled across your own secret part of the island with few other travelers on the road once you pass Hanalei.

Drive towards Hanalei, stopping at the Hanalei Bay Lookout.

On the way to Hanalei, you’ll want to have the Hanalei Bay Lookout plugged into your GPS. The lookout point comes and goes quite quickly, and you won’t want to miss it!

It’s only possible to visit on the way north to Hanalei (on your way back, you won’t have the opportunity to stop) so do try to make it a priority to stop at this lookout. It’s stunning!

Grab coffee in the charming Hanalei town.

Once you reach Hanalei, it’s time refuel on some delicious coffee! Lucky for you, there are two great options in town.

The traditional choice is Hanalei Bread Company, which is a beloved bakery and coffee shop that always has lines out the door.

The new kid on the block is Outpost Coffee, which serves up delicious Kauai coffee made from beans grown in the nearby Kahiliholo Orchard, right on the island!

Either way you go, you’ll be caffeinated and ready to explore some gorgeous beaches!

Visit the stunning Hāʻena State Park (reservations required).

Ke’e Beach as seen from above on the Kalalau Trail

Note: Reservations are required to access Haena State Park. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that before we went, but if you want to go, you’ll want to book 30 days in advance on this website.

If you manage to snag a coveted reservation at Haena State Park, you’re in luck! I’ll give you a brief overview of what you can do here. If you aren’t able to, go ahead and skip to the next section.

  • Hike a portion of the Kalalau Trail. You won’t have time to tackle the whole 22-mile return Kalalau Trail, but you can do a short hike on it and turn around whenever you get tired, turning it into an out-and-back hike of whatever length you choose. NOTE: The furthest you can go without a specific permit for the Kalalau Trail is Hanakāpī’ai Beach and Waterfall.
  • Explore Ke’e Beach. Only accessible by the State Park, visitors to this beach are limited by the park’s reservation cap, keeping it pristine and beautiful for all who come to visit. There is great snorkeling off the reef and pristine white sand to feast your eyes on.

Wander through the Limahuli Gardens.

Open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30 AM to 3 PM, these gorgeous botanical gardens on Kauai’s North Shore are sure to impress.

Tickets to Limahuli Gardens are a little spendy at $20 per person but it’s absolutely worth it to enjoy this spectacular atmosphere.

Have lunch back in Hanalei.

As you make your way back, you’ll pass through Hanalei again: hopefully, by now you’ve worked up an appetite for lunch!

I recommend grabbing some local food at the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. food truck — the roast Kalua pork with poi, macaroni salad, and rice was delicious!

There are also dozens of other restaurants to choose from in Hanalei if Hawaiian food doesn’t quite hit the spot.

Walk the beach along the pristine Hanalei Bay.

Before leaving Hanalei, make sure you visit its namesake Hanalei Bay, a beautiful bay with a whopping two miles of beach in a beautiful crescent shape.

Depending on the weather, it can be a good place to wade or there may be large waves — check with a lifeguard first or see if there are flags out which indicate that it’s not safe to wade.

If it’s not a great day to swim, Hanalei Bay still makes a great place for a peaceful walk along the beach, and you can walk all the way up to the Hanalei Pier for beautiful views of the bay framed with mountains in the backdrop.

Admire the Queen’s Bath in Princeville.

The Queen’s Bath in Princeville is another place you can stop on your way back for a beautiful view of the ocean after a brief but scrambly hike… and if the conditions are right, you can go for a dip in the “bath!”

The “bath” is actually an open-air sea cave formed by a lava tube that formed millions of years ago. The ceiling of the cave collapsed, and now it’s a 65-foot-deep pool that you can float and relax in when the tides allow.

The hike to The Queen’s Bath less than a mile roundtrip, but it’s rather rocky and a bit technical, so be sure to wear proper footwear and take your time.

Read the AllTrails trip reports for additional information on the hike; winter wave conditions didn’t allow for me to do it, so I don’t have firsthand experience here.

However, others have gotten the chance to visit and have loved it, so I wanted to include it as an option on this Kauai itinerary, just in case.

Note that the gate may be closed at times. If it is, do not try to pass; it’s done for safety reasons! It is closed more often in the winter than in the summer months because the seas are generally calmer in the summer.

Check out Kilauea Lighthouse and the birds at Kilauea Point.

Continuing back, make sure you don’t miss detouring to the Kilauea Lighthouse, which in my opinion offers one of the best views in Kauai!

There is ample parking in the area and people come and go frequently, so it’s easy to get here and take some epic photos.

Bonus: If you’re a birder, bring a pair of binoculars because Kilauea Point is a massive hub for birdwatchers!

Grab a juice or kombucha from the Kauai Juice Co.

In Kapa’a, you can’t miss grabbing a home-brewed kombucha or freshly-squeezed juice at the Kauai Juice Co. on your way back towards your accommodation on the South Shore.

They have all sorts of delicious flavors of kombucha on tap like tangerine vanilla and pineapple ginger — don’t miss it!

Admire the Ninini Point Lighthouse.

As you make your way back to Lihue, be sure to stop at the Ninini Point Lighthouse, which is accessible via the Royal Sonesta hotel in Lihue.

You don’t need to be a guest at the hotel to access this beautiful lighthouse, so don’t be intimidated to drive in!

There’s a parking lot where you can park and walk to the lighthouse, or you can drive. We walked, but we saw a handful of normal sedan-type cars driving out to the lighthouse, so it’s definitely accessible by car.

Take in one final Kauai sunset — by land or by sea.

With your final night of this Kauai itinerary, make it memorable by taking in a beautiful sunset somewhere.

If you want to truly cap off your Kauai trip in the most memorable way, it’s time to return to the Na Pali coast, but this time by boat and at sunset.

The cascading green spires of the Na Pali coastline as the sun sets are even more beautiful to behold, illuminating the red dirt and the green foliage that makes its home in the mineral-rich soils.

This 4-hour Na Pali cruise brings you past beautiful vistas on a luxury catamaran, so you can see the stunning Na Pali coast that you saw from above from an eye-level perspective.

If you’re lucky, dolphins and even whales may join you on the trip!

The boat is designed to fit over 90 passengers but they limit it to under 50 so that no one is crowded and everyone can enjoy the cruise without feeling crammed in.

Book your sunset cruise of the Na Pali coast!

Alternately, you can continue a hike in the Lihue area for a beautiful and easy view of a sunset over the bay in Lihue.

Head to the Kuki’i Point Lighthouse, adjacent to the golf course. There’s a parking lot where you can park your car a short walk from the viewpoint.

This “lighthouse” isn’t nearly as photogenic as the above one — it’s more of a tiny beacon on a rock.

However, it’s a great place to watch the sun set over Lihue and Kalapaki Beach, with a view of the telltale Kauai mountains in the distance.

Renting a Car in Kauai

Bonus tip: Splurge on a convertible if possible — it’s way more fun!

No question, you will want to rent a car in Kauai.

As I wrote above, we deeply regretted our decision to only rent a car for 2 days of our 4 days in Kauai, and we would have had a much more relaxed and efficient trip if we had just bit the bullet and rented our car the whole trip!

It’s best to pick up your rental car at Lihue Airport so you can have it handy as soon as you arrive in Kauai!

Driving in Kauai is relatively easy and straightforward, and the roads are quite good quality. I only noticed one rough patch of road during my entire time driving in Kauai, past Waimea Canyon up towards the Kalalau Lookout point.

Other than that, it was smooth sailing, aside from some occasional traffic (the Kapaa Crawl is legendary!)

Whenever I rent a car in Hawaii, I book through Discover Cars, which searches through over 500 rental agencies to compare prices and get you the best deal. Find the best price for your rental here.

Quick Tips for When You Visit Kauai

Get an early start each day.

I am not a morning person… but Kauai (and my travel companion, Megan) made me be! Things open early in Kauai and shut down early to match.

The earlier you get going, the more your schedule will match with Kauai businesses.

Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself hankering for lunch at 3 PM with very few open options, or try to find dinner after 8 PM in most places!

Book things in advance.

Red helicopter on the helipads in Lihue Airport

Kauai is a small — and popular! — island.

As a result, many of the most popular accommodations and activities, such as helicopter tours and luau dinners, sell out in advance.

Rental cars too can be a hot commodity on the island, and waiting too long can lead to unpleasant sticker shock when it comes time to rent.

In fact, prior to this trip I took in 2022, I had to cancel a trip to Kauai I had planned for 2021 because I waited too long to rent a car and they were $400 per day!

In short, book things early, especially if they have a caveat of free cancellation.

I always book my tours through tour aggregator companies like Get Your Guide and Viator because they have flexible and clear cancellation policies that protect me in case my plans change!

When to Visit Kauai

Kauai is a year-round destination! There really isn’t a bad time to visit Kauai, but some times are slightly better than others for certain things.

The rainy season generally runs from November to March… which also happens to be one of the most popular times to go to Kauai, as mainland Americans seek out warmer weather and sunny weather!

I just finished an 8 day trip to Kauai and Oahu. Despite it technically being the rainy season, I had no days that were totally rained out. I only experienced two scattered showers which didn’t interrupt my trip whatsoever.

I always did winter trips to Hawaiian islands as a kid and never remember tons of rain, so in general, it’s pretty safe to book a winter trip to Kauai or other Hawaiian islands. Kauai is one of the rainier islands.

Temperature-wise, the weather varies very little throughout the year on Kauai. Winter lows are around 68 F and winter highs are still around 79 degrees, so it’s definitely not cold!

Meanwhile, in the summer months, expect lows more like 74-75 F and highs in the 83-85 F range. As you can see, it’s not drastically different!

There is a slight chance of hurricanes in summer in the Hawaiian islands, but they are very rare, especially compared to other places in the world, such as the Caribbean, where summer hurricanes are all but a guarantee!

There are other factors too, such as wildlife viewing.

I wanted a chance to see the humpback whales migrating, so I planned for a winter trip (peak humpback calving season is in January and February) — and the whales didn’t let me down when I went whale watching in Oahu!

In other words… there really is no bad time to visit Kauai, but note that prices will always be higher during school holiday times.

If you have a chance to visit outside the typical school calendar, you will benefit from cheaper flights, car rentals, and accommodations.

How to Pack for Kauai

I have a full packing list on the way, but here is the short version!

  • Reef-safe sunscreen: Not only is reef-safe sunscreen the right thing to do for the environment, it’s also the law in Hawaii! I use Sea to Stream sunscreen which is properly reef-safe as well as biodegradable — even their sunscreen tubes are made not from plastic but from sugarcane resin!
  • Bathing suits: You’ll want at least two bathing suits for your time in Kauai, so that you never have to put a grody, still-wet one on (is there any worse feeling?). Personally, I love high-waisted bikinis that will hold in all the Kalua pork and ube ice cream I’m eating. I love this adorable orange set and this vintage-styled tropical set if you’re looking for inspiration.
  • Snorkel set (mask, snorkel and fins): It’s a lot more fun to have your own snorkel set than to have to seek out a rental service every time — plus, if you happen upon a secluded beach with great snorkeling, you won’t be left out! This set is good if you’re low on space and just want a mask and snorkel — otherwise, grab this full set with fins.
  • Travel beach towel / sand-repelling mat: I hate traveling with a traditional beach towel. They get sopping wet and collect sand like a mofo and basically just drive me insane. They’re only a small fraction better than not having one at all. Enter your travel beach mat! Microfiber beach towels double as a sand mat and travel towel, and they’re sand-repelling and dry in a flash, even in the Kauai humidity. Plus they come in adorable prints!
  • Sunglasses: You’ll absolutely want sunglasses for your time in Kauai. I brought my prescription lenses from Warby Parker since I’m a blind nerd who is too lazy to put in contacts. If you’re cooler than me, I’m obsessed with these Persol sunglasses and wear them the few times I can ever be bothered to put in my contact lenses (read: almost never, but I still irrationally love these sunglasses).
  • Clothing with layers for cool nights and occasional rain: This is a very personal decision and one I won’t pretend I can make for you. For my four days in Kauai, I brought a bunch of crop tops and shorts, a few sundresses, a romper, a lightweight cardigan, and my trusty Marmot rain jacket which I never ended up needing but was glad I brought.
  • Hiking boots or sturdy sneakers and hiking socks: I didn’t have any heavy-duty hikes planned on my Kauai itinerary, so I went with my trusty Nike Flyknit sneakers. If I had more intense hikes planned, I’d go with my typical Teva hiking boots with their comfy Vibram soles. Looking for something a little more stylish? My friend had a pair of cute Danner boots that I now have my eye on! And of course, don’t forget comfortable merino wool hiking socks if you’re planning anything more than a short walk. Thin cotton socks will give you blisters and ruin your trip!
  • Walking shoes: For me, my Birkenstocks and Nikes worked well enough as walking-around shoes, but you may want to bring another pair for walking around or perhaps a nicer pair for dinners out.
  • Sunhat and scalp sunscreen: RIP my scalp on this trip, because I forgot both. Learn from my mistakes… literally, that’s why bloggers exist, to mess up our trips and admit it and you can learn from all the ways we f***ed up. A foldable sunhat like this one is still cute, but less high-maintenance than other sunhats that can’t be packed or folded. Also bring some scalp sunscreen like this one which is also reef-safe.
  • Camera or smartphone: Obviously you’ll want to bring an awesome camera for photographing Kauai as best you can! I use a combination of my smartphone (an iPhone 12) and my Sony A 7II when I travel. Bring a versatile zoom lens if you’re bringing a proper camera as that’s the one you’ll end up using most!
  • Protective case for your smartphone: Take it from me, an idiot who nearly fried my phone while sea kayaking in Maine — salt water will destroy even a “waterproof” phone. You’ll want a basic waterproof case like this one at the very least, if not something more sturdy like a LifeProof Free case which allows you to submerge it up to 6 feet of water, including salt water.

Where to Stay in Kauai



The Sheraton Kauai Resort: Serenity, relaxation, and luxury abound at this resort located on Kauai’s Poipu Beach. Its expansive waterfront offers stunning views of the ocean and lush landscape — and a great spot to watch the sunset.

You can choose between stunning oceanfront or peaceful garden views from their newly-renovated guest rooms and suites.  

Check availability and rates at the Sheraton Kauai Resort here!

Photo Credit: Starwood Hotels via Roderick Eime on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


The Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa: With its tropical gardens and river pools, this stunning Poipu resort offers a golf course, seven restaurants, and a world-class spa!

The guest rooms of the hotel are spacious with a private balcony that offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.

Depending on the room of your choice, you’ll enjoy stunning ocean views, pool views, or even mountain views of the gorgeous, rugged Kauai landscape.

Check availability and rates at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa here!



The Kauai Inn: This is where I stayed in Kauai, and it was a perfect base for road tripping around the island. If you are just looking for a place to crash at night (and a tasty breakfast the next day), and don’t plan to spend a ton of time using resort amenities, I highly recommend the Kauai Inn.

The owners are kind and fantastic, and it’s the oldest hotel on the island! The one downside is its location: it’s a bit out of central Lihue, and it’s next to the port, so it’s not exactly the most scenic location. But if you have a car, it couldn’t be a more convenient and affordable base for your time in Kauai.

Check availability and rates at the Kauai Inn here!


The Royal Sonesta Kaua’i Resort Lihue: This luxurious resort offers a central location with picturesque views, two outdoor swimming pools, spa services, as well as a fitness center.

The resort also features an on-site restaurant and bar, where guests can enjoy drinks, delicious food, and live music while taking in the breathtaking scenery. 

The rooms are equipped with modern amenities and offer an elegant, comfortable stay with all the conveniences of home. Ocean views and hotel gardens can be seen from some rooms. Select rooms come with balconies.

Check rates and availability at the Royal Sonesta here!

Hawaii vs. Tahiti: How to Pick the Right Tropical Paradise to Visit!

Overwater bungalows in Moorea with infinity pool in front of it

Two groups of paradisiacal islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, rich with Polynesian culture, beautiful beaches, and marine life: how’s a person to choose?

I’ve been to Hawaii more times than I can count, and I recently returned from a trip to French Polynesia, where I visited Tahiti and Moorea.

I loved my trip to the South Pacific so much that I’m already planning a trip back to French Polynesia (and also Fiji!) later this year to visit some islands I missed.

View of Bora bora from above

I’m particularly hankering after Bora Bora, Huahine, Rangiroa, and Fakarava… and maybe the Marquesas, if time allows!

This post aims to take an objective look at the differences between Tahiti and Hawaii, two of the most popular vacation spots in Oceania, to help you pick the best option for your next trip.

Pick Tahiti for…


Allison exploring Tahiti while staying at a resort, wearing a bikini, with infinity pool, palm tree, blue sky, and Moorea in distance, while walking barefoot on a bridge.
It actually costs less to stay at a resort in Tahiti than a basic hotel in Maui!

Surprisingly, I found Tahiti a relatively affordable destination — at least compared to Hawaii, especially more popular islands like Maui.

I wrote up my full Tahiti trip cost in a post here, so you can see for yourself how it’s very possible to visit Tahiti on a budget.

While airfare to Tahiti is more expensive — I typically pay about $600 USD roundtrip for a flight to Tahiti and $300 USD roundtrip for a flight to a Hawaiian island — but you easily recoup that expense on day one or two of your vacation.

Note that these prices are based on flying out of San Francisco (prices are similar out of Los Angeles) — if you’re coming from, say, New Zealand or Australia, prices will be rather different.

Accommodations in Tahiti and Moorea are about half the price of similar accommodations in Hawaii.

I recently had to cancel a trip to Maui because I couldn’t find a single hotel or Airbnb under $500 a night!

Meanwhile, we stayed at a deluxe room in the Intercontinental with views of Moorea for $360 a night, and the guest houses we stayed at averaged out around $150 a night.

Food is also cheaper in Tahiti compared to Hawaii, about half the price on average.

Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

Divemaster on the ground with a reef shark
My divemaster in Moorea just casually sitting on the ocean floor to observe a white-tipped reef shark!

Tahiti and Moorea have some of the best shore snorkeling I’ve ever gotten to see, with extremely healthy coral reefs and an impossible to imagine number of fish swimming about.

The lagoon in Moorea with the blacktip sharks and pink whiprays are a particularly fond memory I have about snorkeling in Moorea!

And when you go scuba diving, it gets even better — the diving in Tahiti and Moorea is unlike I’ve seen anywhere else in my years of diving experience.

I did eight dives total, four in Tahiti and four in Moorea, and I was constantly surprised by how beautiful the scenery was and how alive the oceans were. I can’t even count how many sea turtles I saw!

Meanwhile, while Hawaii has a handful of really memorable dives — manta ray night diving in Kona, the Molokini Back Wall, the Lanai Cathedrals — overall, it doesn’t hold a candle to the variety of reef life you’ll see on literally any dive in Tahiti.

We didn’t even get to go to the best diving islands, Rangiroa and Fakarava, and I still feel confident that Tahiti comes out on top when you compare Tahiti vs. Hawaii for scuba diving.

Plus, going back to the point before, diving in Tahiti is a fraction of the cost of diving in Hawaii.

An average two-tank dive in Tahiti costs around $90-120 USD, depending on how many you book, as you can get great savings packages if you buy several dives at the same time.

Meanwhile, a two-tank dive in Hawaii can cost around $200-400 USD, depending on where you go and with who. Even a one-tank night dive costs around $200 USD!

Less Commercialism

Allison with her back to the camera with her arms in front of a waterfall in Tahiti
A benefit of less commercialization? Virtually all of Tahiti’s beautiful attractions are free!

My biggest takeaway from visiting Tahiti was that it is far less commercialized than Hawaii.

Yes, there are plenty of resorts — particularly on Bora Bora — but in general, I didn’t find it particularly built up or overly catering to tourists in a way that sometimes feels a bit “Disneyfied” in Hawaii.

Many parts of the Tahitian islands maintain that authentic, laid-back island feel.

Plus, it seemed like many people were deeply connected to their Polynesian culture through language, craftsmanship, dress, food, tattooing customs, and more.

Unfortunately for Hawaii, this is less the case — which is not to fault Hawaii or Native Hawaiians, but just to offer as a point of comparison.

My theory is that while both Tahiti and Hawaii are occupied/colonized lands, Tahiti is much further away from its colonial power (France) than Hawaii is, which is very actively occupied by the United States since its annexation.

As a result, Tahiti has been able to maintain more of its cultural authenticity, whereas outside influence in Hawaii has encouraged the commodification of many Hawaiian traditions, like hula dancing and luaus, creating an uneasy feeling of commercialization for me.

French Language and French-Polynesian Cuisine

mahi mahi with salad and puff pastry croute
Food in French Polynesia is a delicious blend of Polynesian cuisine and French cooking — like this mahi mahi and mussel dish with cream sauce and puff pastry!

This can be a pro or a con depending on how you prefer to travel!

I personally loved hearing French alongside Tahitian and having the chance to dust off my rusty French skills was very fun.

I also enjoyed the delicious French pastries that the many French living overseas in Tahiti and Moorea have brought over.

However, if language barriers make you antsy, this may be a reason to pick Hawaii vs. Tahiti because there is no language barrier in Hawaii.

That said, the language barrier I experienced in Tahiti and Moorea was rather minimal, as most people I encountered spoke English.

There was just a handful of times where my French was useful, but I imagine that changes once you leave the trio of most popular islands (Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora).

Overwater Bungalows

Allison at the overwater bungalows
I didn’t get to stay an overwater bungalow… this time… but here’s hoping for next time!

French Polynesia is one of the ultimate honeymoon destinations and its overwater bungalows are a bucket list must for many.

French Polynesia is where the overwater bungalow was first invented, and you’ll find almost too many to pick from, with nearly 1,000 overwater bungalow suites in total spread across the Society Islands, the Island of Tahiti, and islands in the Tuamoto Atoll.

Bora Bora is the most popular spot for luxury resorts with overwater bungalows, and with good reason: white sand beaches everywhere you look, crystal lagoons, and views of the Mt. Otemanu virtually wherever you stay on the island.

Many of the overwater bungalow resorts in Bora Bora are set on their own private motus (islet chains) that surround the main island of Bora Bora, so they are extremely private since you can only access them by boat.

It can be overwhelming for sure, so I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite overwater bungalows in French Polynesia here in this post.

I also have a guide to the best places to stay in Moorea, including 3 overwater bungalow options there!

Hawaii, on the other hand, doesn’t have any overwater bungalows. So if this is a wish list item for you, you simply have to pick a Tahitian getaway!

Humpback Whale Snorkeling

Humpback whale mother and her young as seen from underwater while snorkeling
Snorkeling with humpback whales is something you can only do in Tahiti and Moorea!

While humpback whales also visit Hawaii, only in Tahiti do you have the opportunity to swim with these gentle giants!

They visit between July and early November each year, and there are a plethora of tours that will bring you a safe distance for both you and the whale so you can observe them in the water without bothering them.

I enjoyed whale watching in Oahu — but I can only imagine how much cooler it would have been from under the water if I was in Tahiti (unfortunately, I came too late this season for whale snorkeling!).

If you can time your visit for whale season, it’s the best thing to do in Moorea (though you can also do it in Tahiti!).

More Ethical Travel

The caves of Grottes de Maraa in Tahiti, Allison standing in front of a pool of turquoise water and ferns above the top of the cave's mouth

At the time of update (May 2023), it’s worth noting that Hawaii (and in particular, Oahu) is undergoing a water crisis.

Native Hawaiians and Kama’aina (those born on the islands) have been asking travelers to refrain from visiting Hawaii until the water crisis is solved, as tourism is exacerbating the situation.

While tourism is certainly a large part of the Hawaiian economy, water is life: and while water is in scarce supply in Hawaii, perhaps it’s time to consider a vacation elsewhere.

That said, I’m no expert on the matter, and I’m simply amplifying of some Hawaiians who have asked people not to come.

There are also people from Hawaii who have the opposite opinion and don’t agree with asking people not to come to Hawaii. You can watch an opposing viewpoint here that makes some good points.

While there are certainly ramifications for visiting any location, particularly one so remote as a Pacific island, the reality is that the situation in French Polynesia is more sustainable at present and the infrastructure is more prepared for the level of tourism it receives.

A view of the tahiti iti landscape, which is only easy to access with your own rental car in tahiti

This is not to shame anyone for their vacation choices, because I don’t have the right answers either — I visited Oahu and Kauai back in February 2022, before the water crisis got very loud but while locals were still expressing concerns about overtourism.

However, I do believe that at the time of writing, visiting French Polynesia is the more sustainable of the two options and has a less harmful impact on locals.

They currently receive about 300,000 tourists per year; compare this to Hawaii receiving around 9 million tourists per year!

That said, French Polynesia’s land mass covers about 1/4 that of Hawaii (despite having a geographic range nearly as large as continental Europe), so in proportion to its size, that’s the impact of about about 1.2 million tourists… still about 8 times fewer than Hawaii.

Even with its minimal tourism by comparison, French Polynesia is currently working on plans for sustainability caps on tourism.

Pick Hawaii for…


view of oahu from above in a helicopter
Waikiki is the most built up part of Oahu, with lots of nightlife to enjoy!

One thing Tahiti emphatically does not have is nightlife. It’s way more buzzy during the day, and it gets really quiet at night, even in Papeete, where there are very few nightclubs and bars.

While are a few bars in Papeete, it’s not comparable at all to Hawaii, especially in Honolulu, Oahu which has the most nightlife options in all of Hawaii, especially in Waikiki.

Some Hawaiian islands are sleepier than others, especially Kauai, so I’d opt for Oahu if you really want to experience some nightlife while you’re on your vacation!

Natural Beauty

The beautiful vibrant Na Pali Coast seen from a helicopter tour over Kauai
Seeing the Na Pali coast from a helicopter is simply breathtaking!

It’s really tough to compare two island paradises, but if I had to, I think Hawaii has more variety in its geography and landscape.

Where else can you find the green turret-like spires of the Na Pali Coast next to the Southwest-looking Waimea Canyon and red dirt waterfalls on one island, and active volcanoes on the next?

Hawaii has two of the United States’ National Parks, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and Haleakalā National Park on Maui.

Both are absolutely spectacular, especially the former if you are so lucky as to witness volcanic activity during your stay!

While Tahiti has a lot of beauty, such as the Papeno’o Valley and Fa’aruma’i Waterfalls, these don’t quite compete with what Hawaiian islands have to offer.


the beautiful green sands at green sand beach with blue water
Yes, Hawaii really does have its own green sand beach!

This is a tough pick, because I did enjoy the beaches on Tahiti and Moorea, but I don’t think they compare to Hawaiian beaches overall.

Hawaii has some truly spectacular beaches like the black sand beaches and green sand beaches of the Big Island, as well as white sand beaches on Oahu like Lanikai Beach and Hanalei Bay.

Meanwhile, the two Polynesian islands I visited, Tahiti and Moorea, didn’t have the best beaches.

They did lead out to crystal clear waters and beautiful reefs, but the sand was lack-luster and not the most enjoyable to relax and sunbathe on.

I didn’t get a chance to visit other Polynesian islands that may have been beaches, like Bora Bora, Rangiroa, or Tikehau, though, so this is only my point of view based on the islands of Tahiti that I was able to visit.

No Need for Passport for Americans

Person holding a passport in an airport
No need for passports for Americans to visit Hawaii! Just a driver’s license or ID card will do.

If you’re American, one great thing that tips the favor to Hawaii vs. Tahiti is that you don’t need a passport to get there!

If you’ve been dragging your feet on getting your passport or getting it renewed, Hawaii is an easy option to get your tropical island fix without a bureaucratic headache.

However, this is only relevant for Americans and those with green cards — if you’re European, for example, French Polynesia may be the better alternative because passport control is extremely simple there since you technically are not leaving France!


volcano hike in hawaii wiht a trailhead leading to a volcano
You can hike volcanic craters in Hawaii, but not Tahiti!

While you can go hiking in Tahiti, there are far fewer options and they aren’t as impressive as the options for hiking in Hawaii.

There are a variety of bucket-list worthy hikes in the Hawaiian islands, from the pillbox hikes of Oahu to the Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast (a trekking bucket list item if there ever was one!) to the volcano hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

There are some hiking trails in Tahiti and Moorea and some of the other volcanic islands in the Society Islands, but there are fewer options and they aren’t as well-maintained as Hawaiian trailheads.

What Is My Pick Between Tahiti or Hawaii?

Allison and her partner having a drink at the swim up bar at the Intercontinental in Tahiti

Despite the longer travel time (about 2 hours more) and need to grab my passport, Tahiti beats Hawaii over and over again for me.

There’s a reason why I canceled a 10-day trip to Hawaii and swapped it out for a trip to Mexico instead, but I’m still planning to visit French Polynesia for a few weeks later this year.

Plus, French Polynesia has more of what I look for when I travel: cultural authenticity, underwater magic, and delicious food.

I also still feel like I have so much more of French Polynesia to discover, whereas I’ve been to every one of the four major islands of Hawaii at least once by now.

The few drawbacks that Tahiti does have don’t actually bother me, so I’ll pick Tahiti time and again over Hawaii.

That said, I can see who Hawaii might be better for — American families with young kids who prefer the ease and comfort of chains and familiar brands.

But as a solo traveler or someone who travels with my partner or friends, Tahiti is the way to go for me!

33 Magical Things to Do in Kona (+ Day Trips and Tours)

Kona is on the west side of the Big Island of Hawai’i, where most flights arrive on the island. 

It is the most lively part of the island, offering numerous bars, restaurants, resorts, and beaches. 

So when you come to Kona, you are coming to a city in one of the most beautiful places in the world, the island of Hawai’i!

There will be opportunities to swim with manta rays and Hawaiian spinner dolphins. You will get to explore pali (cliffs) and valleys and volcanoes.

You will most likely see at least one rainbow; they are on the license plate for a reason! 

Getting Around Kona

view of a beach on the big island of hawaii

Your best bet is to rent a car when you come to the Big Island. The public bus system does not always follow its schedule, and it is just not reliable, especially if you want to see all you can.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental from Kailua-Kona Airport here.

If you stay in downtown Kona, you can certainly walk to some of the major downtown attractions. However, many of the places on this list of things to do in Kona require a car to visit properly.

You may also want to rent a bike to explore the Kona area if you prefer not to drive. Bike Works Kona can help you out here!

Where to Stay in Kona

sunset photo in hawaii

BOUTIQUE | Traveling to Hawaiʻi means staying close to the beach as much as possible and Kona Coast Resort offers just that.

This beautiful resort features 2 outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court, 3 hot tubs, and a sauna. Not yet sold?

This resort also offers large air-conditioned villas with a fully furnished kitchen, a living, and a dining room to accommodate even big families. If you ask me, your Big Island stay can’t get any better than this!

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RESORT | If you want a resort stay, I recommend staying at Royal Kona Resort. It has its own private beach so you don’t have to worry about the summer influx that crowds most “public” beaches.

The resort also has a saltwater lagoon, an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and the best part? It has no resort fees!

And don’t worry if all the activities on the island tire you out, you can just head to the on-site spa and wellness centre for a relaxing massage.

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LUXURY | Kona might have a number of resorts but nothing speaks luxury like Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.

From the beautiful sunsets on the beach, the stunning views, the Golf Course, the top-notch service, to the large rooms with Hawaiian-inspired décor, everything is perfectly designed to make you feel at home while enjoying all the luxuries it provides.

It’s safe to say that Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is your best bet at experiencing maximum luxury while in Kona!

Check availability and rates on | Book on

VRBO | I understand that not everyone wants to stay in hotels! If you’re that person who prefers a homey feel while traveling, I recommend staying at this beautiful beachfront condo.

Designed with a beachy and a tropical eclectic style with a mix of Hawaiian decor, this place will make you feel like you’re in Hawaiʻi whether you’re inside or outside.

The condo features a modern kitchen with all appliances should you need to make your meals, a sizeable bathroom, and not forgetting the stunning beach views from the balcony. It’s also in a few minute’s walk to almost everything you’ll need.

 Check availability and rates on Vrbo

Top Things to Do in Kailua-Kona 

Start your journey by checking out some of the local beaches.

ocean waves crashing on the shore in kailua kona

One great feature of Kona is the access to beaches from the main downtown area along Ali’i Drive. You may walk to one or more of them depending are where you start or go by car.

Magic Sands Beach Park is a popular choice and is easily walkable from one of the most lively areas of downtown Kona.

If you continue north down Ali’i’ Drive, you will arrive at Pāhoehoe Beach Park

It would be a bit of a walk (close to an hour) from the main downtown area but still doable depending on where you start.

There is no ocean access here, but it is a great picnic spot.

Another walkable beach from downtown Kona is Kahalu’u Beach Park, again depending on where you start. You will find the best snorkeling in Kailua-Kona here! 

This beach is south of Magic Sands Beach Park.

view seen from half under the water half above the water near the beach in kona

Head all the way north to the end of Ali’i Drive to stop at Kamakahonu Beach. This beach is sometimes referred to as “Keiki beach,” meaning “kids beach,” because of the calm waters. 

The beach is an excellent spot for water sports. It is also within proximity to Kailua Pier.

At Kamakahonu, you will also find Kona Boys Beach Shack

They offer all sorts of rentals, including: snorkels, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUP), body boards, chairs, umbrellas, coolers, life jackets, bikes, and dry sacks, right from the beach!

a hawaiian canoe on the beach with palm trees

You can reserve your gear ahead of time on their website, too.

Another way you can get to the beaches besides walking or driving is to take the Kona Trolley to reach the pier. It is only $2.00! 

The trolley also stops at Magic Sands Beach ParkKahaluu Beach, along with restaurants, hotels, and Water Front Row. It is super convenient!

You can also rent a bike to make getting to and from the Kailua-Kona beaches even more accessible!

Go on a helicopter tour to see lava flows from above.

lava flows in hawaii as seen from a helicopter

One of the coolest things to do in Kona is embark on a helicopter tour which will take you over Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park!

​This is a great way to see the island from an entirely different perspective.

Melt your stress away with a hot tub spa experience.

Before you leave the island, you can reset your system in a relaxing hot tub with a massage.

There are multiple places to get a massage and soak in a hot tub. I just love Mamalahoa Hot Tubs, south of Kona in Kealakekua.

The saltwater teak hot tubs are outside, with the option for a night soak under the stars. You will enjoy plenty of privacy as little thatch huts surround these teak tubs. There are also lovely outdoor showers.

The hot tubs are a great option if you are on a budget as it is only $50 for two people, or $60 for a night soak. If adding a massage is too pricey, you will still have the chance to relax and detox.

To boost your healing, they also offer many methods of massage, including hot stone. Massages are a great way to ease muscle tension and release toxins in the body.

Go kayaking or paddleboarding.

woman kayaking in a yellow kayak on brilliant clear water

One of the coolest ways to experience Hawai’i is from the water!

Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard at one of the many water sport outfitters which will prepare you for all manner of aquatic outdoor activities!

Marvel at the beautiful and historic Hulihee Palace.

yellow toned historic building of hulihee palace on the road with palm trees in front of the ocean

The beautiful oceanfront Huliheʻe Palace is located on Ali’i Drive in Kailua village, and it’s a great place to go to learn a little more about the history of the Hawaiian monarchy on the Hawaiian islands, before the U.S. occupation of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.

Built in 1838, Huliheʻe Palace was once a summer home for Hawaiian royalty such as King Kalākaua and Queen Kapiʻolani. It is home to beautiful traditional Hawaiian architecture such as koa wood furniture and beautiful artifacts from Hawaiian monarchs.

There are guided tours of the palace available, at 10 AM and 1 PM daily. 

Check out Mokuaikaua Church.

stone church with hawaiian foliage in front and a tall steeple

Built in 1820 by two missionaries given permission to operate a church by King Kamehameha II, Moku‘aikaua Church was the first Christian church built on the Hawaiian islands. 

It’s located across the street from Hulihee Palace in a very historic part of Kailua close to Kailua Pier, so it’s easy to pop in and visit. 

The exterior is now built of stone, after the original structure burned several times, and the inside of the church is beautiful with traditional koa wood decorating the interior 

Savor the taste of fresh-caught fish with poke.

tasty and fresh tuna poke with avocado and green onion and cucumber

There are countless poke spots in Kailua Kona. Many of them are right on the ocean along Ali’i Drive! 

One popular spot for waterside dining is Da Poke Shack. There is also one down south in Captain Cook.

Another great Kona poke spot is Umeke’s Fish Market and Restaurant. This restaurant is committed to locally sourcing its food. 

That means the fish, vegetables, fruit, and meat are locally sourced whenever possible! As a result, it will be among the freshest food you will have while visiting Hawai’i.

And finally, we have Pau Hana Poke, a tiny hole in the wall. This is a local favorite and also serve as a fish market. 

The menu can evolve differently depending on what is available. Local fishermen always provide the freshest fish. 

It is take-out only here, so grab some poke and head to a beach.

Snorkel with spinner dolphins at Two Step.

a pod of spinner dolphins under the water at two step beach

Two Step is one of the best places on the entire island to snorkel! 

It is incredible, and you may find yourself swimming among Hawaiian Spinner dolphins. They come to Honaunau Bay to rest, play, and clean their bellies in the sand. 

Never will you have as great of a chance to swim with wild dolphins as you do on the island of Hawai’i! 

It is best to come here in the morning if you want to swim with the pae’a (that’s Hawaiian for dolphin).

Not to mention there are countless fish and coral to view when snorkeling at Two Step. You will also most likely get to see honu (sea turtles).

This spot is south of Kailua Kona by about 40 minutes, but it is totally worth the drive.

Embrace the taste of Kona coffee.

kona coffee farm on a hillside overlooking the ocean

There are numerous coffee farms on the Big Island. You can visit any time of year and you will get to sip on samples of delicious coffee, right from the source!

Greenwell Farms is located out of town in Kealakekua. They were recently voted Hawaii’s Best Farm Tour by Hawai’i Magazine! 

The tour is fun and informative.. plus, they have excellent coffee!

Hula Daddy Kona Coffee is another great option and is convenient to Kona in Hulualoa. They offer tours by reservation and free coffee tastings. 

Even if you do not want a tour, you can come by and try their coffee!

For a farm tour right in town, head up the hill to Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. They offer tours with off-road vehicles. 

You don’t have to walk on this tour; however, if you do want to hike around a bit, they have lava tubes and trails to explore as well. Plus, you get to sample that glorious Kona coffee!

And finally, we have Hala Tree Organic Coffee Farm. I love this farm because it is not only organic, but the property is lovely. 

You will get to taste your coffee on a lanai (covered porch) that overlooks the Pacific Ocean while you sip your java.  

It is a good idea to call ahead before you visit any of these farms to make a reservation if needed.

Watch the manta rays mesmerize you with a night snorkel tour.

a manta ray feeding at night illuminated by lights on the boat

You very well may have gone on your coffee tour and are feeling quite energized! 

Take that energy and go for a night dive with manta rays. There are many tour outfitters available that will provide this experience.

It is guaranteed you will swim with the manta rays when you take a manta ray night tour in Kona! 

Manta rays are attracted to light, so the tour operators will shine a light in the water to bring the manta rays to you, while you float and snorkel among these gentle giants.

You can also do a night dive with manta rays too!

Fun fact: Manta rays are attracted to light because that is where the highest amount of plankton is for them to consume. The closer to the light they are, the more plankton they can ingest. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Grab some beers at the Kona Brewing Company.

a frosty cold beer in kona

A visit to Kailua-Kona offers excellent opportunities for bar hopping. You can bar hop at many places along Ali’i Drive, plus you just have to visit Kona Brewing Company!

A stop at Kona Brewing Company is a great way to start the night. They have an extensive menu in their tasting room! 

This menu has food pairing options to accompany one of their many excellent beers, so it’s a great place for dinner and a drink.

Check out the nightlife along Ali’i Drive.

You can then head on over to Ali’i Drive, which is one of the prime nightlife stretches in Kona. It’s also a great place to watch the sunset!

Not sure where to start? Laverne’s Sports Bar is a popular spot. 

I also have had an awesome time at MY BAR + Pizza and more!- LGBTQ Friendly Hot Spot. This bar is inclusive and super fun! They have karaoke, DJs on the weekends, and pool tables. 

Sam’s Hideaway is also a good spot if you are looking for nightlife. Plus, Humpy’s Big Island Ale House offers live music and a selection of over 30 microbrews — great if you enjoyed Kona Brewing Company and want to keep the craft beer train going!

Additionally, you may want to make the trek to Rays on the Bay, located in the Kailua-Kona Sheraton. 

It is not necessarily a nightlife spot as they close at 11 PM. However, they offer the unique experience of viewing manta rays from their viewing platform after dark!

Gaze in wonder while whale watching.

A rare close-up breach by a humpback whale delights whale watchers

Kona is one of the best spots to see the humpback whale migration, as it is on the west side of the island — which means they swim right past Kona! 

The best time to see whales in Hawai’i is from April to December. The Big Island is the only spot in the US where these whales mate, calve, and nurse their young, which means the humpbacks hang out here quite a lot!

There are many tour companies you can use to get your humpback whale watching tour. You will most likely see other sea creatures like dolphins on this adventure, as well.

Going on a whale watching boat tour is one of the most essential things to do in Kona, so be sure not to miss it!

Appreciate plants at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden.

a hibiscus flower in a garden in hawaii

Come to the Amy Greenwell Botanical Gardens to learn about traditional Hawaiian gardening among a historic site. 

There are sacred grounds to explore and the Pa‘ikapahu Heiau, a sacred temple. There are many rare and almost extinct species of plants preserved here: over 200 native plants, to be more specific!

These gardens are a beloved spot in Kona, primarily because of Amy Greenwall. She was a hula-dancing, plant-loving, and vivacious woman. 

She wanted to preserve the Hawaiian culture, and you can do the same with a visit to this special place!

Sample tasty tropical fruit at a farmer’s market.

Fruit stand at the farmers market in Big Island Hawaii

There are many farmers’ markets in Kailua-Kona. You can find mangos, soursop, rambutan, bananas, and more, depending on the time of years! 

Plus, you can discover sweet breads, honey, local products, and artisan jewelry.

The Kona Farmers Market is located right in downtown historic Kona Village on Ali’i Drive. It runs Wednesday through Sunday, so there are plenty of opportunities to hit up this great market. 

You can get flowers or lilikoi (passionfruit) as you enjoy a day strolling the market in Kona!

The Pure Kona Green Market happens on Sundays in Captain Cook. It is a beautiful market with many wonderful products made by local farmers and artists.

The market is at the Amy Greenwell Botanical Gardens, so perhaps your visit to the gardens could correspond with a visit to this weekly market.

Additionally, the Ho’oulu Community Farmers Market is a great choice. There are fewer purveyors of fruits and veggies than the other markets. 

However, the market is excellent if you are looking for arts and crafts produced by locals. It is held on Wednesdays.

Continue your connection with Hawai’i by learning to hula.

Close up of a hula dancer on a stage, focus on the her feet

There are many studios to learn some hula when you visit Hawai’i! A lot of people confuse hula with Polynesian dance, but hula is a lot less fast-paced than Polynesian dance.

So, what is hula? It is a series of hand gestures that tell a story of the land and people of Hawai’i, following the lyrics and music of a song. 

As you gesture with your hands you rock your hips back and forth creating a beautiful, mesmerizing dance that honors the earth, the sea, and the sacred traditions of ancient Hawai’i.

You can find hula lessons at the Sheraton Hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel, and Mani Lani.

Lehua Rose Weddings also does hula and lei making classes. You can also find free hula lessons at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park.

Dance into the night at a luau.

three men spinning fire at a hawaii luau

Continue your journey of connecting with Hawaiian culture and the aloha spirit with a luau! There are many options for luau experiences on the island. 

We like Voyagers of the Pacific at Royal Kona Resort as they provide some great hands-on experiences.

You can make a lei, learn hula, and see demonstrations of Polynesian arts. But, of course, a luau is not complete without pig roasted in an imu, an underground oven. 

Your reservation at this luau includes all activities, a dinner buffet, and drinks from the bar.

Try out scuba diving.

a sea turtle swimming above a diver

One of the best ways to see more of the underwater world of Hawai’i is by diving!

Whether you’re already PADI-certified to dive or you’d like to try diving for the first time, there are a variety of scuba schools in Kailua-Kona that can make that happen. 

A few we recommend are Kona Honu Divers, Kona Diving Company, and Big Island Divers.

Shop your heart out in Kailua-Kona.

The Kona Trolley is an excellent resource for a shopping adventure! 

You can make your way to all the major shopping centers via this convenient trolley. 

Stop at areas like Coconut Grove Marketplace, Kona Ali’i Gardens Marketplace, and Kona Inn Shopping Village. 

At Coconut Grove, you can hit up Kanaka Kava, Island Lava Java, and ABC Stores for souvenirs and mini-mart products, or try Ali’i Gardens Marketplace for great eats. And of course, you can’t miss TJ’s BBQ!

Don’t forget to hit Kona Inn Shopping Village, right off Ali’i Drive. It is considered the marketplace with the best view, where you can find boutiques, galleries, clothing stores, and excellent restaurants.

You can also head to The Shops At Mauna Lani, where you can participate in a lei-making class. 

Alternately, check out Keauhou Shopping Center, where you can find bookstores, boutiques, and live music.

Day Trips from Kona

Wind your way up the coast to Pololu Valley and Hawi.

view from the area around hawi on the coast of hawaii

On your way to Pololu, you will pass through the quaint historic town of Hawi. This is one of my favorite spots on the island! 

It is truly magical and worth the one-hour and ten-minute drive up the coast! 

Not only is the town just fantastic, but the drive is also wonderful, too. There is also access to beaches and snorkeling here.

While Hawi is pretty tiny, there are many great shops, galleries, and restaurants to hit. Plus, they have a weekly farmers market.

Sweet Potatoe Kitchen serves some of the best vegan food I have ever had. The food is made with love and care. Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery is also a nice choice for Pacific Rim fare with an artistic flair. 

You can also visit Kohala Coffee Mill. The name of this coffee shop is a nod to the history of this area as it was once the location of a sugar cane mill.

Admire the Pololu Valley.

Polulu Valley remote sea cliffs Hawaii Big island

As you continue your adventure in the Kohala moku (district), you end at the northern tip of the island at Pololu.

You can park near the lookout to view stunning green hills descending into the ocean, but don’t stop there. Instead, hike down the pali (cliffs) into the enchanting Pololu Valley.

Down in the valley, green cliffs, black sand beaches, and ocean views will surround you. They also have swings down here for you to enjoy!

Take note: the hike down is steep. It is slippery and muddy after it rains.

Visit the peaceful Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Hawaiian style wood carving in Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park

There are two historic parks accessible from Kailua-Kona: Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park and Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. 

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is south of Kona in Hōnaunau, HI. It has always been a place of peace. 

Puʻuhonua is known as “the place of refuge.” No fighting was allowed to occur here. So much so that criminals who broke the Kapu laws of ancient Hawai’i could come here for refuge — if they could make it. It was beneficial for those that committed crimes with the consequence of death.

You can also visit the Royal Grounds outside the Pu’uhonua. They offer self-guided walking tours and ranger-led tours. 

Finally, take the hike to Ki’ilae Village, an abandoned fishing town for 2.5-miles of mountain views.

See the sacred Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park.

beach of hawaii with a tree

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is a sacred place to Native Hawaiians. 

The inhabitants of Kaloko-Honokōhau lived in this barren land of lava rock for centuries. They revered the land, and it is said that they became one with the spirit of Kaloko-Honokōhau.

They survived by fishing and creating aquaculture ponds, and they were experts at finding fresh water in this desolate area.

Today, you can learn more about the history and view wildlife such as green sea turtles. They like to hang on the rock here; just give them space! 

You can also hop in the water and snorkel here. Please, always use reef-safe sunscreen; it’s the law (and it’s also just the right thing to do!).

Escape the crowds at Makalawena Beach.

the beautiful blue waters of the beach at makalawena

The North Kona coast has a plethora of beaches to explore. Most of them require a little trekking to reach.

But once you do, you will find white sand beaches, black sand beaches, and calm waters to swim in!

Makalawena is a treasure. You will want to head towards Mahai’ula Bay between the 90 and 91-mile markers on Highway 19 to reach the trailhead for Makalawena Beach. 

At Makalawena, you can enjoy the calm, blue waters of Pu’u Ali’i Bay.

You can also enjoy multiple landmarks and beaches on your 1-mile hike, including Hayden Cove, Mahai’ula Bay Beach, and Pu’u Ali’i Beach.

Check out Manini’owali Beach and Kua Bay.

two colorful beach umbrellas behind black lava rock with beautiful turquoise sea and white sand in the background

This is another one of the most spectacular beaches on the Kona Coast and it’s absolutely worth a day trip from Kona.

It’s one of the most beautiful clear water beaches in the United States, so it’s definitely worth saving some time to come here.

It’s a great place for bodyboarding, snorkeling, and just relaxing on the beach and enjoying the contrast between the soft white sand and brilliant blue sea.

Marvel at Kalahuipua’a Historic Park.

fish Pond in Kalahuipuaa Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

Located in Waimea, the Kalahuipua’a Historic Park is best known for its unique natural fishponds as well as its lava tube.

It’s easy to do a quick hike to explore more of this beautiful area of the park!

Relax on Lone Palm Beach (Keawaiki).

the golden pools of lone palm peach a beautifu natural ecosystem

Lone Palm (Keawaiki) is located in the South Kohala moku

The beach is black sand, and there are beautiful golden pools (which are not suitable for swimming, due to the sensitive ecosystem) along the trail. 

But don’t worry: there is plenty of ocean to enjoy once you reach the beach. Plus, there is a freshwater spring! You will hike across harsh lava fields to reach it, so wear boots.

To reach the trailhead, park at the ʻAnaehoʻomalu Bay parking area and hike south. There are restrooms and showers at this trailhead, too. 

You can also access Lone Palm at mile-marker 79 on Highway 19. From here, you will hike north.

To reach these beaches, you will hike a few miles, but trust me, the hike is so worth it! 

Whichever way you go, be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen and a hat, as you will be pretty exposed to the sun on your hike. There is no shade.

See some more Hawaiian spinner dolphins at Kealakekua Bay.

the brilliant clear water at Kealakekua bay

Kealakekua Bay is a great spot for water sports, which presents the opportunity to swim with dolphins if you’re lucky, or dolphin watch from land if you prefer not to swim! 

Depending on what you prefer, you can kayak, snorkel, or scuba dive here: all of the above are amazing choices!

Marine life conservation is a focus in Kealakekua Bay. It is also a historic location, as it is where Captain Cook first landed on the island of Hawai’i.

He was the first Brit to land in the islands. But, unfortunately, he was killed in a skirmish right on Kealakekua Bay (to be clear, it was definitely his fault — trying to kidnap kings usually doesn’t go over well).

You’ll find the Captain Cook Monument located on this bay marking this historical site.

Nāpo’opo’o Beach Park, on the southern end of Kealakekua State Park, is where you can find this monument.

There is also a hikiau heiau (sacred temple) on the bay’s east side near Nāpo’opo’o Pier. This temple is to honor the Hawaiian god Lono. 

He is the god of rain, music, fertility, agriculture, and peace. It was said he came to earth on a rainbow… so it is perhaps no surprise that the Big Island of Hawai’i is so blessed with rainbows!

Look in wonder at ancient petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs in Waikoloa Field, on the King's Trail

Get your hike on at the Waikoloa Petroglyphs Reserve and the Puakō Petroglyph Archeological Preserve. 

Both are north of Kona in Kohala. If you are interested in history, these places will be unique!

At both parks, you can see many images etched into the lava rock. You will see sea turtles, human forms, spirals, and more. They have a high concentration of petroglyphs. The exact age of the petroglyphs is unknown, but it could be anywhere from 500 to 2,000 years old.

You can spend an afternoon on a petroglyph tour! So get your hike on and enjoy checking out these historic pieces of art from the ancient Hawaiians.

Plan your trip around a hula festival.

people watching hula dancers in hawaii

If you want to see hula performers, the Big Island has many festivals to enjoy! 

The most famous of these is the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. It happens the week after Easter every year and is one of the world’s most renowned hula and Polynesian arts competitions.

The Iolani Luahine Hula Festival and Hula Scholarship Competition happens in January or February, right in Kona. 

Another option is the Queen Liliuokalani Festival, which happens in Hilo in September. 

There is also the Moku o Keawe International Festival which occurs on the Kohala Coast in November.

Make the trek down south to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

view of the lava flows at hawaii volcanoes np

If you come to the Big Island, visiting this national park is essential! 

You can get there from Kona two ways. Both take about 2 hours to drive, and there are great stops along the way. 

I suggest getting a super early start and taking the southern route on the way there and the northern route along Saddle Road on the way back.

As you venture south, you will drive past some major landmarks of the Big Island. This includes South Point (Ka Lae)the Green Sands Beach (Papakōlea), and Black Sands Beach (Punalu’u). 

South Point is going to be reasonably accessible as you can drive there from Highway 11. You can also hit Green Sands Beach; just take note it takes 2.5 miles to hike to the beach from South Point.

Punalu’u is easy for a quick stop. You will also want to check out Punalu’u Bake Shop on your way. This place is famous for its malasadas and sweetbreads. Hanahou Restaurant is also my favorite spot for a burger on the island.

Once you reach Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you will have the opportunity for hiking. Take your pick of what ecosystem to immerse yourself in: there are rainforests, desolate lava fields, and craters.

You can also drive along Chain of Craters Road, where you can find endless hiking trails. Including one with access to petroglyphs. The road ends at the famed Hōlei Sea Arch. 

Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, in the Kilauea Caldera, cannot be missed. It is best to view this at dusk or night. You can view the steaming crater, which glows red from the magma bubbling below.

On your way back to Kona, I suggest stopping at Mauna Kea Observatory for a stunning show beneath the stars. There is no better place in the world than Hawai’i to view the night sky!

Indulge your sweet tooth with a cacao farm tour.

cacao beans on a farm in hawaii

There are quite a few cacao farms on the Big Island where you can tour the trees and taste the chocolate made with the cacao plant. 

Cacao is a tree with yellow oval fruit. The seeds of the fruit are used to make cacao, which is later converted into chocolate. The fruit is also pretty good.

Kuaiwi Farm is a great spot for this activity. While their coffee farm tour is popular, you can also take a candy-making class with unlimited sampling. Yum!

You can also visit the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Farm.  You can come here for a tour and sample their milk, dark, and rare criollo chocolates. 

There is nothing like organic chocolate right from the source — and there’s no better way to celebrate a Hawaii babymoon, is there?


The Big Island is one of my favorite places in the world. I miss the energy and the views almost every day. You will too after you come here.

You will awaken your senses to gorgeous, sweet-smelling tropical flowers and fruit. You will hike and swim with dolphins over stunning coral reefs. You will eat poke of fresh-caught fish, sip on beers at Kona Brewing Company, or dance hula.

The people will be welcoming and warm, excited to show you aloha and hospitality. Please respect the natives of Hawai’i. This is their island, and you are merely visiting. Treat the land and the people with love.

You will learn the meaning of the aloha spirit. This is the most incredible privilege of spending time in Hawai’i. An attitude of love and gratitude is at the heart of the meaning of Aloha. You will find yourself saying, “Mahalo (thank you)” for encountering such a beautiful sentiment to bring home with you.

A trip to Hawai’i will be eye-opening and cleansing. You will have a renewed sense of presence when you return home. It will live on deep in your soul for years to come. Aloha. Malama pono (take good care).

The Perfect 5 Day Big Island Itinerary (Day By Day Guide)

beaches near hilo hawaii

If you are considering a trip to the Big Island (aka the island of Hawaiʻi), your head is in the right place! 

Picture yourself basking beneath waterfalls or hiking over lava fields. Perhaps you will relax on a beautiful black sand beach or enjoy the warmth of a geothermal pool.

As you can see in just a few words, there is no place quite like the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. it is one of the most spectacular places to visit in the world! 

Plus, despite being the largest island, it is one of the quieter and more rural Hawaiian islands.

By now, islands like Maui and Kauai have largely been taken over by tourism, and Oahu is the most developed and industrial of the Hawaiian archipelago.

plants and red flowers and palm trees with a waterfall flowing in the distance in the waipio valley

Hawaiʻi is different, with more undeveloped small towns and beautiful stops that haven’t quite succumbed to mass commercialization in the same way.

While Kona and Hilo are rather developed, there’s a whole ton of area in between that is far less built-up!

On this 5 day Big Island itinerary, we’ll start on the Kona side of the island, and then we’ll road trip over to the Hilo side. 

This post was first written on June 13, 2021. It was written by guest writer Allison Coulter, who lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for six months, traveling by van around the island. It has since been updated several times to reflect Covid updates and changes. It was last updated March 29, 2023.

When to Go: The Big Island of Hawai'i is a pleasant destination with beautiful tropical weather all year round!

But even with that, some months are better than others and in that case, May through October is the best time to visit the Big Island when the sun is fully out and the chances of rain are low. Spring and fall is also a good time to visit if you want to escape the influx of tourists and enjoy lower rates on accommodation.

Though hurricanes are rare on the Big Island, be sure to check the weather before you travel during the hurricane season which is June through November - or entirely avoid this time if you're not sure.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, I recommend basing yourself in Kona, and Hilo to get the most out of your Big Island trip.

In Kona, I recommend staying at Kona Coast Resort (boutique hotel), Royal Kona Resort for a resort stay, or Four Seasons Resort Hualalai for a luxurious stay. And if you want a homey feel, you'll love this beautiful beachfront condo.

When in Hilo, I suggest staying at Hilo Vacation Rental for a charming and budget-friendly stay, SCP Hilo Hotel for a bit of luxurious yet affordable stay, Arnott's Lodge & Hiking Adventures for backpackers, or Grand Naniloa Hotel (boutique hotel). If you want a homey feel, I suggest staying at this Oceanfront luxurious house.

How to Get Around: Having a car is essential if you want to fully enjoy the Big Island and visit places public buses cannot go. You could use taxis, Uber, Lyft, private tours to get around but that can get expensive pretty fast and that's why I think renting a car is much better.

If you do choose to rent a car, compare car rentals and prices from here.  

Best Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a stargazing tour on Mauna Kea, a snorkeling tour in Kealakekua Bay, or a manta ray snorkeling experience.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: Since you'll spend plenty of time on the beach, I recommend taking this Dock & Bay travel towel which is 100% made from recycled materials. You'll need a swimsuit to fully enjoy the beaches -- this is my favorite swimwear  -- and of course sunscreen -- I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s moisturizing and soothing for you and also harmless for marine life! 

A Note on Visiting Hawaiʻi

rocky beach with lava rock and bright blue water and palm trees

One important thing to mention about the island of Hawaiʻi is that it is the home to the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, which is under U.S. occupation.

When you visit this island, be curious and respectful of the Native Hawaiian way of life. The state we now know as Hawaii was forcibly annexed, without treaty or legal right, from the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. 

This island is their ancestral land, and many of the locations mentioned here are sacred to them. Do not take anything from the island, including lava rock. It is said it will bring you bad luck if you do! 

If you are respectful, you will have a wonderful time on this island. It is full of magical, intense energy. With the right mindset, visiting the Big Island, the land of aloha, can be transformative.

Move with Aloha

a reddish orange pinkish sunset with palm trees silhouetted in hawaii. seeing a hawaiian sunset is a must on your big island itinerary!

A note on the concept of aloha: Despite what popular culture portrays, aloha is more than just hello and goodbye! 

In the Hawaiian language, “Alo” means “presence.” “Ha” means “the essence of life.” It is an expression of love and understanding that we are all connected to spirit. 

When you live with aloha, you live with passion and considerations for the natural world, its creatures, and your fellow humans. Isn’t that a great way to be? 

So try it out while you move through this Big Island itinerary. I promise you won’t regret it, and you may walk away with a new point of view!

Enjoy and move with aloha in your heart during your five days on the Big Island.

Where to Stay on the Big Island

rocky beach with some sandy areas and grass and lots of palm trees in the kona area

It might be called the Big Island but it’s actually pretty small which makes getting around easy.

This means that you can choose 2 towns (Kona and Hilo in this case) to make your base and visit everything else from here since most of the popular attractions are within driving distances from these towns.

Kona Accommodations

BOUTIQUE | Traveling to Hawaiʻi means staying close to the beach as much as possible and Kona Coast Resort offers just that.

This beautiful resort features 2 outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court, 3 hot tubs, and a sauna. Not yet sold?

This resort also offers large air-conditioned villas with a fully furnished kitchen, a living, and a dining room to accommodate even big families. If you ask me, your Big Island stay can’t get any better than this!

Check availability and rates on | Book on

RESORT | If you want a resort stay, I recommend staying at Royal Kona Resort. It has its own private beach so you don’t have to worry about the summer influx that crowds most “public” beaches.

The resort also has a saltwater lagoon, an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and the best part? It has no resort fees!

And don’t worry if all the activities on the island tire you out, you can just head to the on-site spa and wellness centre for a relaxing massage.

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LUXURY | Kona might have a number of resorts but nothing speaks luxury like Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.

From the beautiful sunsets on the beach, the stunning views, the Golf Course, the top-notch service, to the large rooms with Hawaiian-inspired décor, everything is perfectly designed to make you feel at home while enjoying all the luxuries it provides.

It’s safe to say that Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is your best bet at experiencing maximum luxury while in Kona!

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VRBO | I understand that not everyone wants to stay in hotels! If you’re that person who prefers a homey feel while traveling, I recommend staying at this beautiful beachfront condo.

Designed with a beachy and a tropical eclectic style with a mix of Hawaiian decor, this place will make you feel like you’re in Hawaiʻi whether you’re inside or outside.

The condo features a modern kitchen with all appliances should you need to make your meals, a sizeable bathroom, and not forgetting the stunning beach views from the balcony. It’s also in a few minute’s walk to almost everything you’ll need.

 Check availability and rates on Vrbo

Hilo Accommodations

BOUTIQUE | Located just 30 miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the heart of Hilo, Grand Naniloa Hotel, a Doubletree by Hilton is the best hotel to stay for the stunning ocean or harbor views of Hilo Bay at an affordable cost.

The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, sundeck, and an on-site restaurant that serves local seafood dishes — perfect for indulging in the local Hawaiian cuisine!

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MID-RANGE | If you thought you couldn’t have a piece of luxury at an affordable price, SCP Hilo Hotel will make you think twice.

Eco-friendly and cozy, this hotel has modern, clean, and comfortable rooms with an inviting lobby designed to make you feel welcome.

And if you’re a traveler who wants to stay fit while on the road, you’ll love their fitness room!

Check availability and rates on | Book on

BUDGET | If you want something affordable yet still comfortable, I recommend staying at Hilo Vacation Rental.

While there is nothing extraordinary to boast about, this guest house offers a kitchen, clean rooms, a TV installed in each room, a clean and large bathroom, and an outdoor gas bbq to socialize with other travelers. It might seem basic but it provides the best bang for your buck. 

Check availability and rates on | Book on

What to Pack for the Big Island

traveler poking molten hot lava at volcanoes national park

Travel Guides: I have included everything that I think will help you enjoy your stay on the Big Island but I found this Hawaii The Big Island Revealed Guide book offers the most in-depth information.

While blogs are great, guidebook companies have far more resources to put extensive time into research. So combine my personal experience with this highly rated guide book and you can be assured of an amazing time on the Island.

An awesome travel towel: With all the beaches on the Island, you’ll definitely need to take a towel and I am not talking about the small microfiber towel that almost does nothing!

I am talking about the true microfiber towel that not only works well on a beach day but also after a long shower. I am in love with this amazing towel from Dock & Bay. It’s eco-friendly (100% from recycled materials), and it repels all sand with just one single shake. Let’s see your standard beach towel do that!

Bathing suits you love: A Big Island vacation is incomplete without bathing suits! Take a swimsuit that will make you feel comfortable.

I love wearing a two-piece but I usually get that awkward discomfort especially after enjoying all the local dishes but after a number of trials, I found the answer. High-waisted swimsuits!

I love this one, and this one is a great plus-size option with a high waist and a classic shape. You should choose to take 2-3 swimsuits to the Big Island to avoid having to put on a wet swimsuit — yuck.

Reef-safe sunscreen: Sunscreen is essential when visiting the Big Island! But don’t just take any random sunscreen. Take and use one that is not only great for your skin but also for marine life too.

I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s moisturizing and soothing for you, and harmless for the animals who call Big Island’s waters their home! Not only is it the right thing to do, but bringing chemical-laden sunscreen is actually illegal when visiting Hawaiʻi.

Comfortable travel sandals: It’s going to take a lifetime for anyone to convince me that there are better travel sandals than my Birkenstocks — I could be buried in them if it were possible!

I may sound a bit hyperbolic, but honestly, that’s how essential I feel they are when I travel. I personally love the Birkenstock Gizeh leather thong style but the classic two-buckle Arizona slides are also cute and comfortable. These are the exact shoes I have and love!

One tip, though: Wear them for 2-3 days before your trip so they can form the shape of your foot. They’ll be a bit uncomfortable at first but nothing major (I just bought a second pair recently and I can vouch for them for the second time).

Chemical-free insect repellent: Just like the sunscreen, the bug spray you take should be chemical-free to not harm the sensitive ecosystem of Hawaiʻi especially when you go in the water.

A simple lemon eucalyptus spray like this will keep most mosquitos away without the harsh chemicals which can mess up delicate ecosystems.

Getting Around the Big Island

view of a beach on the big island of hawaii

Trying to get a lot done in a short amount of time? Your best bet is to rent a car when you come to the Big Island.

It can be pricy depending on when you travel, but it will save you a lot of time and headache.

The public bus system does not always follow its schedule, and it is just not reliable, especially if you want to see all you can with just 5 days on the Big Island.

If following this itinerary, you’ll want to rent your car from Kailua-Kona Airport.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine!

It searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental, so you know you’re getting the best deal. Compare prices for car rental from Kailua-Kona Airport here.

5 Day Big Island Itinerary

The area around Kailua Kona with palm trees and a beach

Day 1 of your Big Island Itinerary: Kailua-Kona

You will most likely fly into the Kona airport when you visit the island of Hawai’i. It is one of the most populated areas of the island and definitely the liveliest! 

There are beautiful places to eat Hawaiian food and plenty of beaches to explore, so let’s dive into this Hawaii itinerary headfirst!

Eat a tasty and hearty breakfast.

To start your day off right, head over to 808 Grindz Cafe for breakfast! I promise you it will be “ono,” which is Hawaiian for delicious! 

You can enjoy waffles or eggs benedict. Plus, they have an extensive moco menu! 

Loco moco is a classic Hawaiian dish. They also have vegetarian options, so there’s something for everyone.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson via Flickr

Hop in your rental car and drive north.

I always find that taking a drive in a new place is a great way to get to know it! To start this Big Island itinerary, I suggest heading north to Pololū and the town of Hawi

Pololū Valley is a magical place on the island. It was once home to the ancient Hawaiians, where they enjoyed a plethora of plant life like the Hawaiian staple, taro. 

The view from the lookout at Pololū is stunning, so be sure to bring your camera.

Hike down into Polulū Valley.

You will be even more enchanted when you hike down into Polulū Valley

It is a very steep but short hike of just over a half-mile. Keep in mind that it can be pretty slippery and muddy after rainfall… which is fairly often; after all, Hawai’i is a tropical island!

Down in the valley, you will find rocky shores, black sand beaches, and a couple of swings for your Instagrammable moments! 

You can also follow the path to the other side of the valley and hike some more for great views of the neighboring valley.

the landscapes around polulu valley with green cliffs, beach, and ocean

Visit the charming town of Hawi.

Once you have enjoyed your time relaxing or hiking in Pololū Valley, head back towards Hawi. This town is extraordinary!

There are some great coffee shops in town. There is excellent coffee in Hawai’i, in general — Kona coffee is famous for a reason!

We suggest going to Kohala Coffee Mill, which is our favorite in Hawi. They have an extensive sandwich menu, pastries, ice cream, and Hawaiian shave ice.

In Hawi, you will also find the vegan comfort food restaurant, Sweet Potato Kitchen. I highly highly recommend this place, even if you are not vegan! 

The food is incredibly healthy and even more delicious. You will sense how much love is put into the food here.

After lunch, you can spend an hour or two walking the main road of this small and captivating town. There is an incredible apothecary, as well as art galleries and clothing and souvenir shops.

a pale green painted restaurant in the town of hawi hawaii
Photo Credit: D Smith via Flickr

Drive back to Kona via the coast.

Once you have had your fill of Hawi, begin heading back to Kona along the Kona coast. 

Enjoy the view and the salt air in your hair as you drive down the coastline, windows down of course!

You may want to stop at another beach on your way down into Kona. We will leave the choice up to you, but we suggest Manini’owali Beach!

You may instead want to just head into Kona for dinner before your night tour… yes, we’ve got something special up our sleeve for your first night in Kona!

the brilliant blue waters of maniniowali beach in hawaii near kona

Grab an early dinner.

You cannot visit Hawai’i without enjoying an oceanside meal! 

In Kona, Foster’s Kitchen is the place for dinner with a view. Enjoy dishes featuring ahi tuna, flatbread pizzas, or their fantastic goat cheese bruschetta! They also serve steak, fish, pasta, and more. You will find this place to be ono, trust us!

Prepare for an incredible manta ray snorkel experience.

After dinner, you will want to head back to your hotel to prepare for your night tour! 

The tour we picked for you will be a highlight of your trip! Tonight, you will get to swim with manta rays — in the dark!

The manta ray night snorkeling tour starts at 6:30 PM, so plan your Big Island itinerary accordingly.

Book your night manta ray snorkeling experience here!

night diving with manta rays

The tour features a sunset cruise on a 34-foot catamaran with the opportunity to then float among manta rays! 

These gentle giants are angelic, graceful, and beautiful…. don’t be afraid of the ‘ray’ in their name, these animals are truly docile and gentle.

This is one of the coolest things to do in Kona, so don’t miss it!

The tour will have you on their float, lit with LED lights (so yes, you will be able to see them, even though it’s dark out!). 

These lights attract the manta rays, so it is almost a 100% chance that you will see them. Plus, you will get to float and snorkel with other sea creatures.

That is just an awesome way to end your first day in Hawai’i! 

You will probably be keen on heading back to your hotel after a busy day. Get some rest and prepare for another spectacular day on the Big Island. It will be an early start tomorrow!

Day 2 of your Big Island Itinerary: Kailua-Kona

Start the day with a snorkel trip.

spinner dolphins in hawaii in the water underneath the water

To begin your day, you will be snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay along the Kona coast! 

The bay is famous for the presence of Hawaiian spinner dolphins, which frequent this area regularly, so you have a great chance of seeing them and possibly even snorkeling with them.

This 4-hour tour begins at 8:00 AM so, try to arrive early. We suggest having a very light breakfast beforehand, such as a piece of toast and some fruit. You don’t want to overeat, but you don’t want an empty stomach either!

There will be a safety briefing, and they will provide snorkel equipment, snacks, and beverages. You can also rent an underwater camera to document your time snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay!

Not only will you likely see dolphins, but you will explore underwater caves, plus many species of coral and fish. What a stellar way to start your day!

Book your snorkeling morning tour here!

snorkeling under the water

Have a tasty lunch back in Kona.

After your tour, make your way back towards Kona for lunch. 

Where to? The Coffee Shack is our favorite spot, and it is right near Kealakekua Bay! 

Don’t let the name fool you; they have an excellent menu and sit-down dining with a view of the Pacific Ocean. 

The papaya special is one of the best items on the menu. You can also enjoy sandwiches, salads, and pizza. 

They also have lilikoi (passionfruit) cheesecake and coconut cream pie, among other fabulous Hawaiian desserts.

Check out a local coffee farm.

Kona is famous for its eponymous coffee, and no trip to Kona would be complete without visiting a coffee farm!

After lunch, head to Hala Tree Coffee Farm. This organic coffee farm offers tours and will have you swooning over their coffee by the end. Plus, it is a beautiful property!

a coffee farm in kona with views of the pacific ocean

Relax your muscles at the Mamalahoa Hot Tubs.

After your coffee farm visit, head back towards Kona and stop at Mamalahoa Hot Tubs and Massage to give your muscles some love after your snorkel tour! 

Each hot tub is made of teak wood and sits under its own private “hale,” Hawaiian for “hut.”

After your moment of rest and relaxation, why not have a beer? You earned it.

Grab a beer at the Kona Brewing Company.

A stop at Kona Brewing Company is a must for any Big Island bucket list. 

They are steadily working on becoming one of the most sustainable, eco-conscious breweries in the world, and they deserve our applause and support! 

When you visit, you will enjoy a vast food menu, perfect for dinnertime. You can sample their great beers right from the source, too. 

Their menu even includes beer pairing to give your tastebuds the ultimate experience!

different beers sampling at kona brewing company
Photo Credit: Sean Hagen via Flickr

Catch an incredible sunset.

For sunset, stop at Pāhoehoe Beach Park for a gorgeous view. You can even walk there from Kona Brewing Company! 

Magic Sands Beach Park is also an excellent option and is a shorter walk, as well as just about anywhere on Ali’i Drive!

Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see a sunset. You may even be lucky enough to see the “green flash.” 

The green flash is a natural phenomenon in which the sun lights up green just as it goes past the horizon. Hawai’i is one of the few places in the world to witness this! 

[editor’s note: I’ve seen it once or twice in California — it’s pretty incredible, but also pretty rare!]

the beautiful area of alii drive in kona

Check out the Kona nightlife.

If you are not too tired out, you may want to continue your evening exploring Kona’s nightlife along Alii Drive. 

Laverne’s Sports Bar is a local favorite. Humpy’s Big Island Ale House is also a great spot, along with Gertrude’s Jazz Bar. Enjoy the night on your tropical vacation. 

Make sure you get some solid sleep, too: we’ve got another jam-packed day on this Big Island itinerary… you’ve only got 5 days in Hawaii, after all!

Day 3 of your Big Island Itinerary: Kailua-Kona

fruit stand in kona

Okay, so here we go, day 3. Your final day in Kailua-Kona. 

We are going to make this one an epic beach day!

Fuel up for the day.

Stop at HiCo Hawaiian Coffee to charge up for the day with a quick breakfast. 

They serve locally grown coffee and a Hawaiian staple, musubi. Musubi is similar to sushi as it contains meat and veggies wrapped in rice and seaweed. The most famous is spam musubi!

Their menu also features chia pudding, paninis, and more.

a piece of spam musubi in a plate

Pack up a picnic lunch.

From there, head to the local grocery store, Island Naturals, to get supplies for lunch. 

It is good to bring a backpack to store your lunch choices as you will be taking a bit of a hike to get to our beach recommendation! 

Island Naturals sell insulated shopping bags to help you keep your food at a proper temperature. Be sure to pack plenty of water…. and a hammock wouldn’t hurt either!

Take a hike to Makalawena Beach.

Next, you will head north out of Kona towards the trailhead for Makalawena Beach

You can find the trailhead on the road towards Mahai’ula Bay between the 90 and 91-mile markers on Highway 19. 

It is about a 1-mile hike to reach the beach, and it’s not too intense, though it can be hot, hence the water we told you to bring!

You will be thrilled by the calmer waters and white sandy beaches flanked with palm trees. Rest, relax, or swim until you’re ready for your beach picnic lunch.

photo of makalawena beach in hawaii near kona

Head back to Kona for a whale watching tour.

After that, you will need to head back to Kona for your afternoon whale-watching tour. 

You will be hoping to see the beautiful and majestic humpback whales that migrate past Hawaii — they are quite a sight to see. 

Take note, the best time to see humpbacks on the Big Island is from December to April, but you will likely be able to see whales year-round. 

The Big Island of Hawaii is the only spot in the US where humpbacks mate, nurse, and calve their young!

Book your whale-watching cruise online here!

person pointing at a breaching humpback whale in hawaii

This tour consists of 2.5 hours on the Pacific Ocean, taking in the island’s sights while trying to spot whales and their calves! 

They will provide snacks and beverages along the tour, so don’t worry about needing to grab lunch beforehand. 

Best of all, you can use their hydrophone, which will allow you to listen to whalesong! It’s a remarkable feature of this tour. If your timing is right, this tour will leave you inspired!

Check out Honaunau Bay.

After your cruise, head over to Two Step on the Honaunau Bay, one of the most popular snorkeling spots on the island of Hawai’i. 

It is located south of Kailua Kona in Captain Cook. Spinner dolphins frequent this spot to rest and play!

You very well may get to swim with dolphins a second time here! 

You will also see countless coral and maybe even the Hawai’i state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a species of triggerfish. 

Try to say that Hawaiian word ten times fast! 

the famous state fish of hawaii with bright stripes and beautiful colors

Check out the Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Right next to Two Steps is Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park

You should come here to learn about ancient Hawaiian culture and pay tribute to the rightful owners of Hawai’i.

The history of Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is that it was once a place of refuge, protected by the god Lono, the god of life. 

Anyone who broke the law or needed to escape any kind of persecution could come to this place, and no harm would come to them. This place of peace is a worthwhile stop on any Big Island itinerary!

wood carvings at hawaiian state park

Spend the night at a luau.

Continue your journey of connecting with Hawaiian culture and aloha spirit with a luau! 

There are many options for luau experiences on the island. We like Voyagers of the Pacific, Royal Kona Resort’s luau, because of the hands-on experiences they provide.

You can make a lei, learn hula, and see demonstrations of Polynesian arts. 

Book your luau online here!

two female figures silhouetted against the orange sky at sunset doing a hula dance at a luau on this big island itinerary

A luau is not complete without pig roasted in an “imu,” an underground oven — which is exactly how they do it with Voyagers of the Pacific. 

Your reservation at this luau includes all activities, a dinner buffet, and drinks from the bar.

There doesn’t seem to be a better way to spend your last night on Kona side!

Day 4 of your Big Island Itinerary: Hilo

beaches near hilo hawaii

Hilo is your next destination on the Big Island! 

Before you head out, make sure you fuel up for your drive, pack some snacks, and bring plenty of water. 

We also suggest you get an early start to get the most out of your day, as this Hawaii itinerary is jam-packed.

I suggest making this day into a road trip type of day! 

Google will tell you to take the Saddle Road from Kailua-Kona to Hilo, an hour and a half drive. However, you will miss out on some Big Island highlights going that way.

Head to Ka Lae, aka South Point.

Instead of heading west to east, head south and follow Highway 11. Your first destination will be Ka Lae, also known as South Point. 

It is the southernmost point in the United States! It will take you about an hour and a half to reach South Point from Kailua-Kona.

Take note; there are no facilities here, so make sure you pack food and water. Despite that, the view is incredible! 

You may even see people bravely jumping off the cliff into the ocean below. Do not jump if you are not a strong swimmer. There is a ladder to help you get back up onto land.

the ka lae south point coastline, the southernmost part of the united states. blue sky and bluer water.

Marvel at the Green Sand Beach.

Papakōlea, also known as Green Sand Beach, is easy to reach from the parking area at South Point. You will need to walk south on the road which runs along the coast. 

It is 2.5 miles one way, so keep that in mind – it’s a long trek in the Hawaii sun!

Illegal roads have been “created” by 4WD vehicles, but these are extremely damaging to the ecosystem, and locals have asked visitors to stop and walk instead.

You can read more about this issue here.

Once you reach the beach, you may also want to go for a swim here if the water is not too rough. It can get pretty wild, so swim with caution.

Fun fact: Green Sands Beach is green from a natural phenomenon: olivine crystals that were formed in lava rock!

the beautiful green sands at green sand beach with blue water

Head to Hana Hou for lunch.

Once you have completed your adventure at Ka Lae and Papakōlea, you will surely be ready for lunch! 

Continue south on Highway 11 to Hana Hou Restaurant (the southernmost restaurant in the US!), less than 30 minutes away. Hana Hou means “bravo!” in Hawaiian – and the food is so good, it will have you saying just that!

This small family-run restaurant has some of the best burgers in the world! Plus, they serve traditional Hawaiian dishes and diner food. Sometimes there is live music by locals. 

You may see patrons get up and dance the hula, too! You also may find yourself in a Hawaiian sing-a-long. 

Even without all the fanfare, this is a wonderful place to connect with a small authentic Hawaiian restaurant.

Photo Credit: Kirk K via Flickr

Eat malasadas at the tasty Punalu’u Bakery.

Just across the street is the world-famous Punalu’u Bakery, another must-stop on your road trip day!

Enjoy their sweet bread or a malasada. Malasada is a donut-like pastry stuffed with sweet fillings like lilikoi or pineapple.

malasadas for sale - little donuts with sugar

Make your way through Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

From Punalu’u Bakery, continue on Highway 11, making your way towards Hilo. You will enter Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in about 45 minutes!

You can continue your road trip vibes with a journey down Chain of Craters Road. 

There is a spot along this road to view petroglyphs and it ends at the Holei Sea Arch. Lava flowing into the ocean formed the sea arch — it’s super cool.

At Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you can also see Kilauea Caldera at the crater rim and check out the beautiful steam vents. The caldera is incredible as it glows from the lava bubbling beneath. 

Honestly, viewing the caldera is best at night, so if you wanted to, you could head back to the park later in the night or on your last day.

view of the lava flows at hawaii volcanoes np

Try some tea wine.

Additionally, Volcano Winery is just a 5-minute drive from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The wines are yummy, especially their tea wine! 

It is one of the best alcoholic beverages I have ever had. Just be careful since you are driving to not overdo it. 

The property is lovely and park-like, allowing for a nice relaxing time tasting wines. They do not serve food, but you are welcome to bring your own.

Continue your drive to Hilo.

From there it is just 45 minutes to Hilo. You want to time your trip so you arrive for your next tour by 3:30 PM! 

If you didn’t get an early start, you may need to tweak these road trip suggestions, perhaps skipping the Green Sand Beach which is the longest side-trip of this road trip, or grabbing a to-go lunch instead of having a sit-down meal.

arriving at hilo road

Take a stargazing tour on Mauna Kea.

This tour not only brings you up to Mauna Kea for nighttime stargazing, but it also will have you exploring Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, and the Kaumana Caves, three other essential things to do in Hilo

You will then head along Saddle Road as you make your way past Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, two of the largest volcanoes in the world. 

You will then get to view stars and other celestial bodies through a telescope. Hawai’i has some of the darkest skies in the world, so it is by far one of the best places to view the night sky!

Book your stargazing tour online here!

view of stars over mauna kea on a dark night

Mauna Kea (called Maunakea by Native Hawaiians, one word) has a complex history, and it is essential to mention this when speaking of this landmark, which is sacred to Native Hawaiians.

Maunakea is considered the “Mountain of Wākea”; Wākea is the first father of Hawai’i according to Native beliefs.

That’s where the name comes from, shortened from “Ka Mauna a Wākea'” (Hawaiian for the Mountain of Wākea)

Not only is this his sacred mountain, but it was traditionally a burial ground. 

While it is awe-inspiring to view the stars from a telescope on the mountain, the telescopes shouldn’t be there in the first place. 

Many Native Hawaiians protested the desecration of their sacred mountain, and they are still protesting about the new telescopes. 

Still, the telescopes were built. 

milky way over mauna kea

Note that on this tour, you won’t be visiting the giant telescopes (those are scientific facilities rather than touristic ones) that the Hawaiians are protesting against. 

Rather, you will be using smaller, portable telescopes, interfering less with the land than the giant telescopes.

I’m not here to say what the right or wrong answer is here about the telescopes, but be mindful that there is an ongoing debate about this and listen to Hawaiian volces.

Or finish the night off with a kava experience.

If you want a different kind of activity to cap off your night, head over to Bayfront Kava Bar for a pleasant, relaxing kava experience. 

Kava has an ancient history on the islands of Hawai’i. The original Hawaiians brought kava with them when they left Polynesia over 2,000 years ago. 

Who knows – you may actually be sampling kava that was grown from the same plant!

brewing kava tea in bowls

Drinking kava was traditionally steeped in the spiritual rituals of the ancient Hawaiians. 

Before you drink your kava, you will want to honor this tradition. Ask your bartender to show you how to drink kava!

As kava is a calming, slightly psychoactive substance, you will probably be ready for bed after your trip to the kava bar. 

Don’t worry; you will not get high on kava; it is just very relaxing… though you may have more active dreams than normal!

Day 5 of your Big Island Itinerary: Hilo

Your last day on the Big Island will be another great day!

Here’s how to tackle your last day in Hawaii.

beach park in hilo with water and trees

Grab a delicious breakfast.

Start the day with a visit to Hawaiian Style Cafe for breakfast. They open at 8 AM on weekdays and 7 AM on Fridays and weekends. 

This place gets very crowded, so you might want to make a reservation. Also, keep in mind that we suggest an awesome tour at 9:30 AM, so you will want to arrive right around the time they open! 

You will enjoy their Hawaiian-style breakfasts of steak and eggs, Hawaiian sweet bread, French toast, or their kalua hash.

After breakfast, it is time for your final snorkeling tour!

Visit the Sea Turtle Lagoon of Hilo Bay.

swimming with sea turtles in hawaii

This 3-hour tour will show you what Hilo Bay is all about! 

You will swim with sea turtles, dolphins, and octopuses amongst colorful coral reefs. Plus, you will check out black sand beaches! 

They include local snacks and beverages along with this guided tour. It will be magic.

Book your snorkeling tour!

Grab lunch at the Booch Bar.

After your tour, it will be lunchtime. We suggest you hit up a local favorite, The Booch Bar. This restaurant features vegan and vegetarian food along with fresh-caught fish. 

There are many great options featuring fare that is “alive,” meaning that it is fermented and full of probiotics.

They also sell kombucha on draft from local kombucha makers, Big Island Booch. You can even get a growler of booch if you want. They also have wine, prosecco, and draft beer.

Check out Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens.

gardens in hilo with a japanese style pagoda in the distance

After lunch, make your way to Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens for a lovely stroll by the bay off of Banyan Drive. The park is gorgeous and features a Japanese-style botanical garden.

It is also adjacent to Coconut Island, which is very small and easy to walk to via a footbridge. Plus, the tiny island has a cool history.

Coconut Island was initially called Moku Ola by the ancient Hawaiians. It translates to “healing island.” According to lore, one could heal themselves by swimming around the island three times!

Plus, you can check out the banyan trees on Banyan Drive. These trees are massive and known for their beauty. 

The trees on Banyan Drive are named for the celebrities that planted them. It is also called the “Hilo Walk of Fame.”

Check out the beautiful ‘Akaka Falls State Park.

the beautiful akaka falls streaming from above

One of the most beautiful waterfalls on the Big Island is ‘Akaka Falls, which is located about a 10-minute drive from Hilo.

The viewpoint for ‘Akaka Falls is located about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot. It’s an easy 0.5-mile loop that leads you past a view of this stunning 442-foot single-drop waterfall.

Walk around downtown Hilo.

Once you have enjoyed the parks and Banyan Drive, head to downtown Hilo for a stroll and get to know this small town! 

There are bookstores, souvenir shops, restaurants, and even a thrift store to check out.

Additionally, there are galleries featuring art from local artists. You can also hit up the mall if you want to do some heavy-duty souvenir shopping at Prince Kuhio Plaza.

There may also be a farmer’s market depending on the day of the week!

farmers market in hilo

Have a final delicious dinner.

Once you’ve strolled around Hilo, you will probably be ready to eat dinner!

For one last dinner with a view, head to The Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm. This restaurant will provide you with some of the freshest sushi you have ever had. 

The fish is sourced from their aqua farm. You really can’t get any fresher than that!

In addition to fish, you can enjoy chicken, steak, and pasta dishes at this ono restaurant. It will have you saying, Mahalo Nui loa, which translates to thank you very much!

Enjoy your last night in paradise.

After this final meal, you will want to head back to your hotel to get ready to leave the island and do some chilling out.

We know you will have had an awe-inspiring experience on the Big Island! 

You will have danced with dolphins, swam with sea turtles, and hiked to beautiful places. We sincerely hope that you will carry the aloha spirit with you on your travels! 


You can learn an awful lot from the traditions of Hawai’i. Be open to this, and Hawai’i will transform you.

Respect the natural areas you visit, the history, and the locals. According to legends, Tutu Pele (the volcano goddess of Kilauea Caldera) may unleash her wrath upon you if you fail to do so! 

She will definitely bring you bad luck if you take any artifacts, stones, or plants from the island. If you can manage to move with aloha, you will have a fantastic time on the Big Island!

Mahalo and aloha to you.

45 Awesome Things to Do in Hilo, Hawaii (+ Day Trips & Tours!)

beach park in hilo with water and trees

Hilo is one of the “major cities” of the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. However, it is no metropolis by any means!

The Big Island’s cities are pretty small when compared to, say, Honolulu on Oahu

That said, Hilo is a beautiful small city with lots to do in and around the surrounding area regardless of its size.

The Big Island consists of six moku (districts). Hilo is its own moku surrounded by the moku of Puna, Hamakua, and Kaʻū, with the closest access to Puna and Hāmākua.

When you come to Hilo, you will see that a tight-knit community lives here. There are many small businesses to support, the wonderful Hilo farmers market to enjoy, and endless things to do in Hilo Bay. 

Plus, you will find many exciting day trips from Hilo.

We’re about to get into all the best things to do in Hilo, but first, a few notes before visiting Hawaiʻi.

TIP: Planning to visit both Hilo and Kona? Follow our 5-day Big Island itinerary for full details on how to plan the perfect Big Island trip!

This post was first written on June 10, 2021. It was written by guest writer Allison Coulter, who lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for six months, traveling by van around the island. It has since been updated several times to reflect Covid updates and changes. It was last updated March 29, 2023.

A Note About Visiting Hilo, Hawaii

Plant life in front of one of the beaches of Hilo Hawaii

It is essential to state that when you visit Hawaiʻi, you understand that this is the home of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, a monarchy with centuries of history and culturethat was overthrown by the U.S. government and is still presently occupied.

Like most land in the nation now known as the United States, this land is stolen land. 

As magnificent as Hawaiʻi is, remember where you are when you come to Hilo. Honor the traditions of the Hawaiian people and move with the aloha spirit throughout this sacred land.

Aloha is more than just a greeting that means both hello and goodbye, as has been popularized through culture; aloha is a way of life. 

Aloha is a word that describes the life-force energy of love and connection that runs through us all and the land. It comes from two Hawaiian words, “alo” which means ‘share’ and “ha” which means “essence/breath of life”.

Live with aloha. Honor the Hawaiian ancestors and present-day kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians). Be respectful and leave nothing behind when you visit the Big Island.

Getting Around Hilo

Road on Banyan Drive, Hilo, big island of Hawaii

Your best bet is to rent a car when you come to the Big Island. The public bus system does not always follow its schedule, and it is just not reliable, especially if you want to see all you can.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental from Hilo Airport here.

If you stay in downtown Hilo, you can certainly walk to some of the major downtown attractions. However, many of the places on this list of things to do in Hilo require a car to visit properly.

You may also want to rent a bike to explore Hilo proper. Mid Pacific Wheels, LLC can help you out with a bike rental.

Where to Stay in Hilo

One option, especially if you are on a budget, is the Wild Ginger Inn, an outdoor hostel and inn. There are dorms as well as private rooms. The rooms are basic and sit among palm trees and tropical vegetation.
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

Orchid Tree Bed and Breakfast is another fabulous option. You’ll enjoy fresh fruit in the mornings along with their pool and hot tub. They also have a lovely lanai (covered porch) and easy access to the beach and downtown Hilo.
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

For a more bougie stay, Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is your choice. Most rooms have a private lanai which will offer spacious views of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea. Plus, I mean, it has the word castle in the name…
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls is also an incredible place to stay. Enjoy views of the falls and farm-to-table eating. They also offer cooking classes. They have rooms, suites, and off-grid cabins in which to stay. They are stewards of the land here, with sustainability at the heart of their business practices.
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

Best Things to Do in Hilo Town, Hawaii

Marvel at the incredible Rainbow Falls.

One of the most enticing things about traveling to the island of Hawaiʻi is the opportunity to see waterfalls: the island is jam-packed with them. 

In fact, there is a great one right in Hilo town, Rainbow Falls. This is part of the Wailuku River State Park.

Rainbow Falls (Wainuenue) has easy access from downtown Hilo and does not require much of a hike — just 0.1 miles in fact. There is a parking lot and restrooms here. 

Because of its easy access and incredible beauty, it is one of the most photographed waterfalls in all of Hawai’i.

the waterfall of rainbow falls in hawaii surrounded by lush green foliage

Check out the majestic 1,000-year-old banyan tree.

If you walk towards the top of the falls at Wainuenue, you’ll find a banyan tree over 1000 years old! 

It has been there since before Hawaiʻi was a territory and then state of the US, and it stands as a testament to the long, ancient history of Hawaiʻi.

I love to imagine the centuries of children of Native Hawaiians who enjoyed this tree, basking underneath and climbing within this tree. It will be hard for you to resist the urge to do the same!

Hike to Wai’ale Falls and its Boiling Pots.

Nearby Rainbow Falls (Wainuenue) is another set of falls, Wai’ale Falls, also part of Wailuku River State Park in Hilo, Hawaii.

When you visit Wai’ale Falls, you will also have the opportunity to view the Boiling Pots Lookout (Pe’epe’e Falls).

This area is vibrating with movement from the water. It is a worthwhile stop when checking out the best Big Island waterfalls!

the river where you can find the 'boiling pots' near hilo hawaii

Visit the Hilo Nursery Arboretum.

Head to the Hilo Nursery Arboretum located at 19 East Kawili St in Hilo town. 

Visitors are allowed to fill up one grocery bag of fruit per day. Just make sure you check-in at the visitors center for permission first!

There are breadfruit trees, cacao trees, citrus trees, and more!

Shop at the Hilo Farmers Market.

You can also hit the Hilo Farmers Market. The market has vendors 7 days per week from 6 AM to 3 PM. 

The big market days are on Wednesdays and Saturdays where there are more vendors, so prioritize those days if you can.

Whichever day you go to the farmers market, you will find an abundance of fruit, veggies, fresh-cut tropical flowers, and artisan goods! 

You can find soursop or sweet bread, turmeric pastes, or longon fruits, among dozens of other delicious delights! 

Whatever your pleasure, there will be something for you to enjoy and take back to your lodgings.

Flowers, bananas, and other produce and goods at the Hilo Farmers Market

Explore downtown Hilo.

In downtown Hilo, there are many shops and restaurants to explore. You can enjoy boutiques and galleries in the wooden waterfront buildings (hundreds of years old!). 

Check out one of the bookstores to find books on Hawaiian culture and spirituality. You can also get ice cream or Hawaiian shave ice, a popular local treat!

We suggest checking out Two Ladies Kitchen for Japanese-style desserts. For one of the best burgers on the island, hit up Hilo Burger Joint.

Want to do some learning? Head to The Mokupapapa Discovery Center for a Hawaiian cultural experience featuring an aquarium.

Visit Kaipalaoa Landing.

This historic place in Hilo is considered a “wahi pana” or a “legendary place” in Hawaiian culture.

It is believed that King Kamehameha loved to surf here and it is here where he gave the town of Hilo its name.

You’ll find a white lighthouse here with several numbers printed on it. These numbers represent four years that tsunamis hit Hilo (1946, 1952, 1957 and 1960). Each year is marked with a line, which represents the height of the tsunami waves that hit the town.

white lighthouse on a cloudy day at a famous place in hilo

Check out the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

You don’t need to leave Hilo to be one with the stars!

The marvelous ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center features interactive exhibits, a domed planetarium, and beautiful gardens of native Hawaiian plants. It is run by the University of Hawaii.

One thing that’s particularly cool about the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center is how it showcases the particularly Hawaiian relationship to astronomy, and how the first Hawaiians navigated to these islands from Polynesia using the stars.

The gift shop here is also particularly excellent.

Learn history at the Pacific Tsunami Museum.

As an island state, it’s unsurprising that Hawaii is particularly susceptible to tsunamis. 

Over the years, several tsunamis have devastated the island of Hawaiʻi and in particular, the east coast side of the island and Hilo.

This museum explains how tsunamis are formed and goes over the history of the 1946 Pacific Tsunami and the 1960 Chilean Tsunami and how they impacted Hilo, Kona, and other parts of the the Big Island.

Enjoy a tasty loco moco.

A visit to Hawaiʻi is not complete without enjoying a loco moco plate lunch. 

Loco moco is a popular dish featuring rice, gravy, and some kind of meat, usually a beef patty or spam. 

For this, you want to go to Hawaiian Style Cafe, whichis also a super popular spot for brunch. They have some of the best Hawaiian food in town!

a traditional dish of moco loco a famous hawaiian dish

Watch the surfers at Honoli’i Beach Park.

Located just two miles from downtown Hilo, this gorgeous black sand beach is a great place to while away a few hours!

Head there early in the morning or at sunset to see surfers navigating these epic waves!

Check out the Lyman Museum.

The Lyman Museum (also called the Lyman Mission House) is the oldest wooden house on the island of Hawaiʻi.

It was built in the late 1830s after a married missionary couple, David and Sarah Lyman, arrived in Hawaiʻi from New England after a six-month sea voyage.

While the history of missionaries has always been problematic, particularly their drive to import their culture into another, the house itself is an interesting historical place.

It once hosted many important guests, including members of the Hawaiian royal family and famed author Mark Twain.

Sample some incredible poke.

You will also want to try out some poke, which is a Hawaiian raw marinated fish dish served with rice and veggies.

In Hilo, Poke Market is the spot for this. Not only can you get poke dishes, but this is also a fish market. 

Come here for fresh-caught fish and poke created by a world-class chef. Plus, locals run this restaurant and market, and they are wonderful and worth supporting!

Close up of a bowl of tuna poke with avocado, cucumber, scallions and chili

Visit the Liliuokalani Park and Gardens

The gardens are right on Hilo Bay, so you will enjoy views of the water and Mauna Kea while you stroll. 

They are named after Princess Lili’uokalani, the last sovereign of Hawai’i before the United States illegally seized the Hawaiian islands.

At the gardens, you will find a Japanese Garden with peaceful streams running throughout through these gorgeous gardens, as well as traditional pagodas and other Japanese garden fixtures. 

This garden was created in tribute to all the immigrants from Japan who have shaped modern-day Hawaiian culture and identity.

Red japanese pagoda in the middle of the hilo gardens

Check out the scenic Banyan Drive.

Liliuokalani Botanical Garden is also within proximity to Banyan Drive

Banyan Drive is also called the “Hilo Hollywood Walk of Fame.” Celebrities planted the banyan trees here. 

It is yet another opportunity to enjoy these massive trees with their vinous trunks and climbing branches!

Take the bridge to Coconut Island.

Another great thing about visiting Liliuokalani Park and Gardens is that the gardens have easy access to Coconut Island via a land bridge.

 Coconut Island was initially called Moku Ola, “healing island,” as Native Hawaiians believe the island to have healing properties.

Healing powers or not, Coconut Island has two great sandy beaches that are protected from the waves by the pier in Hilo, so it’s a great place for a calm swim or wade, and the beaches are beautiful to stroll along even if you don’t want to go for a swim!

Bridge leading towards the Coconut Island in Hilo, from the gardens

Head to Hilo Bay for a snorkeling adventure.

You can enter the water in a myriad of places in Hilo to enjoy the coral and diverse ocean wildlife of Hawaiʻi! 

You may see Hawaiian spinner dolphins or the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the state fish of Hawaiʻi. You may also see spearfishermen hunting beneath the surface!

Take out your snorkel mask at Richardson Ocean Park.

There are many great places to snorkel near Hilo. Richardson Ocean Park is one of the best spots in the area! 

If you don’t have your own gear, or if you’re a little hesitant to head out on your own, many tour outfitters can take you on a tour if you are new to snorkeling.

If you are more experienced, you can simply hop in the water with your snorkel gear, and you will find yourself immersed in the wonder of the beautiful sea creatures of Hilo Bay!

Take note: It is best to snorkel in calm waters with no cloud cover for the best underwater visibility.

Even if you don’t feel like snorkeling, it’s a great place to walk around, with lots of beautiful tropical flora right alongside the beach.

trees by the ocean in hilo hawaii floating next to a lagoon

Grab some beers or draft kombucha in Hilo town.

Head on over to Hilo Brewing Company, where you can sample some beers and great eats! 

We like the Hilo Golden Ale and the Mauna Kea Pale Ale. Foodwise, they serve hot dogs, wings, charcuterie, hummus, nachos, and sandwiches.

You may perhaps instead want to sample draft kombucha. You can find Big Island Booch at The Booch Bar. 

Draft kombucha is significantly better than bottled booch. It is so much more refreshing from the tap! 

Also, the Booch Bar is known for its “living” food. Their food menu consists of many fermented foods, salads, and vegan options, great for you if you are health-conscious. 

Fermented food provides precious probiotics to aid in your gut health. It also is just delicious. We love The Booch Bar!

Relax in the lagoons of Carlsmith Beach Park.

While many of the beaches near Hilo have some rough surf, Carlsmith Beach Park is a nice and relaxing place with calm waters.

This is a great place to bring out your snorkel and try to spot some sea turtles and tropical fish. There are also tidepools to explore and picnic tables if you want to bring your own lunch.

the turquoise waters of Carlsmith beach park is one of best places to swim and snorkel close to Hilo.

Best Things to Do Near Hilo: Day Trips & Excursions

Take an incredible helicopter tour over volcanoes and waterfalls.

The best way to see the views around Hilo? By helicopter, of course!

This Circle of Fire and Waterfalls Helicopter tour will show you all the best of the Big Island from a convenient departure point in Hilo.

You’ll fly over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, seeing both the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes from a sky-high perspective. 

You’ll also get to see the Halemaumau Crater and other important sites that make up the national park, and as you return, you’ll pass by the Hamakua Coast and its many gorgeous waterfalls.

Book your Helicopter Tour here!

Helicopter zooming in to show the volcano flows on Hawaii

See the breathtaking ʻAkaka Falls State Park.

For another waterfall adventure, head out of town to visit ʻAkaka Falls State Park in the North Hilo District! 

These falls offer more of an opportunity for jungle hiking than the waterfalls mentioned above. It is only a 0.4-mile loop trail, but it will definitely get the heart pumping! 

There are a lot of stairs and pavement as you descend and ascend among bamboo and palms. These tall falls are absolutely gorgeous. 

They are just a 10-minute drive from Hilo Town, and they’re one of the best things to do near Hilo!

the impressive single drop waterfall of akaka falls in hawaii surrounded by lush greenery

Spend the night camping at Kole Kole State Beach.

Kole Kole is a lovely little coastal state park with plenty of grassy areas to set up your tent. 

The grassy camping area in is adjacent to a beautiful set of cascading falls, which flow right into the ocean. 

They are great for climbing and swimming in as you enjoy the view of the wild Pacific Ocean. The beach is full of pebbles and rocks to explore as well — bring water shoes!

There are no designated campsites, just a field to set up your tent in. You will have ocean views as you sit in a valley flanked with vertical, green hills. 

There are restrooms here and a pavilion with electricity to charge your phone or set up speakers for music. 

Just respect your neighbors if you choose to use the electricity at this park — do not have bright lights or loud music, and turn everything off at a reasonable hour so people can rest.

Snorkel with sea turtles and dolphins.

We already suggested a few places in Hilo where you can snorkel and possibly see sea turtles, but there are also guided excursions from Hilo that offer small-group snorkel tours (no more than six people per group).

This is a good way to go if you’ve never snorkeled before and you want a bit of a primer before you hit the waters! Snorkeling is easy but it can be intimidating if it’s your first time, so going with a group can be a good idea.

Book your sea turtle snorkeling excursion here!

Two sea turtles under the water close to the camera

Enjoy a relaxing kava experience in Puna moku.

Kava, also known as ʻawa, has been used in Hawaiʻi for over two thousand years. 

It is one of the original “canoe plants,” which means it was brought over from Polynesia when the original Hawaiians left those islands.

Kava is a mildly psychoactive plant that has a very calming effect. You will drink a cold tea made with the roots. 

When you partake in a kava experience, it’s a practice to honor the earth, the ancestors, and your third eye. Ask your “bartender” to show you the ropes as to how to drink kava properly.

The kava bar you will be going to is Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar. It is located in Pāhoa, a 30-minute drive from Hilo, in the same spot where there is a weekly night market.

Dance to the music at Uncle Robert’s Night Market.

You can find the night market near Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar. It has been hosted for many years by a local Hawaiian family.

This night market will bring you local vendors selling all kinds of artisan crafts and delicious food. You can get yourself some delicious macadamia ice cream (a Hawaiʻi must!) or a T-shirt with original art from a local Hawaiian artist.

There is also always live music at the night market. It is a beautiful opportunity to see Hawaiian and popular music! 

The ukuleles will be strumming, guitars humming, and voices will be harmonizing. Get out on the dance floor and enjoy the night at this market with neighbors in the lava fields of Pāhoa.

Note: Uncle Robert’s Night Market happens every Wednesday night from 5 to 10 PM.

Scoop of Kona coffe and macadamia nut ice cream in a yellow cup

Take a day trip to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is one of the most unique national parks you may ever have the privilege to visit! 

All in one place, you can hike in the jungle or along a desolate crater. You’ll also find lava fields, steam vents, and petroglyphs.

There are several ways to visit Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, either by guided tour or self-driving.

Guided tour is the easiest way to go, and it can also combine several other of these Hilo day trips into a single one-day tour.

Amazing shapes and patterns of molten cooled lava landscape in the evening in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

This tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park also includes stops at the Waipio Valley waterfalls and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

It’s a small group tour (maximum 15 people) and you’ll enjoy a picnic lunch in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and be given ample time to hike a few miles around the stunning volcanic landscapes if you choose.

You’ll also get to check out a private lava tube at Kauhi Cavern (access is exclusive to the tour!) and spend time checking out active steam vents and lava craters, including Halema’uma’u and Kilauea Iki craters.

Book your Hawaii Volcanoes NP tour here!

If you are self-driving, drive along Chain of Craters Road to see the many craters and spacious views of the Pacific. 

This beautiful scenic drive has easy access to some petroglyphs. Plus, it ends at Hōlei Sea Arch! 

As lava poured into the ocean 550 years ago, it made the arch. The arch will eventually crumble into the sea, so it is lucky to view a fleeting structure such as this.

Sea arch made from cooled lava from a lava flow in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

One of the other main highlights of Hawai’i Volcanoes is the Halemaumau (Pelehonuamea) Crater on the Kilauea Volcano. 

It is an active volcano with a crater that glows red from the lava flowing below! You can see the glow as you approach the national park from the west at dusk and night. 

There is a museum and several overlooks to view the steaming, glowing crater.

When it comes to Hawaiian spirituality, Halemaʻumaʻu is the home of the volcano goddess Pele. Tutu Pele is the goddess of destruction and rebirth, she who shapes and forms the land. 

In Hawaiian culture, she is highly revered. She may wrap you up in her mothering arms or chew you up and spit you out. If you respect Hawaiʻi when you visit, she will most likely wrap you up in her arms. 

However, sometimes we just need some destruction to be reborn into new life — a story the island of Hawaiʻi knows well, as both the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian islands!

Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Take a ride on a wa’a (a traditional Hawaiian canoe).

The wa’a (pronounced “vah-ah”) is the same type of vessel that the original Hawaiians used to make their way thousands of miles across the Pacific over two thousand years ago. 

These canoes look like a traditional canoe with a deep body and an outrigger. Riding in one is a unique excursion to experience when in Hilo!

There are multiple tour companies available to give you an experience rowing these vessels on Hilo Bay. 

It is a great workout and an even better way to glimpse into history. It is just awe-inspiring to think about how the ancient Polynesians crossed the Pacific navigating with the stars to reach these islands thousands of miles away across the open ocean.

Check out Kaumana Caves State Park.

This state park near Hilo is an interesting place to go to see the geological history of the island firsthand! 

It’s only a 10-minute drive from Hilo, but it feels like another world.

These caves are actually lava tubes formed by the eruptions of Mauna Loa, another one of the active volcanoes on the Big Island.

You can hike in the lava tube. Bring sturdy, closed-toe shoes (the lava rocks are slippery) and plenty of light sources, like a flashlight or headlamp. Just a cellphone flashlight won’t cut it!

Sip wine in the town of Volcano.

Make your way southwest, 45 minutes from Hilo, to the town of Volcano. 

Note: This excursion would pair nicely with your visit to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park!

Volcano Winery and Tea Farm is a lovely winery and farm. Their award-winning Infusion Tea Wine is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted! 

You will like it, especially if you love tea. They also have wines featuring classic Hawaiian flavors of macadamia nut or guava and traditional wines like pinot noir. 

You can get a flight and try them all!

They do not serve food here, but perhaps you can take some of your farmers’ market finds with you. 

They allow picnicking on the premises. So, I guess you can call it a BYOF (bring your own food)!

Feast your eyes on rainbow eucalyptus.

Head back up north to Kalōpā State Recreation Area in Honoka’a. On your way into the park, you can view rainbow eucalyptus along the road! 

These magnificent trees have brightly colored bark with hues of pinks, greens, and purple.

They’re quite magical and you won’t be able to resist taking some photos!

the multicolored bark of the rainbow eucalyptus tree (blue, purple, red, yellow, and more)

Check out the native ‘ohi’a forest in Kalōpā.

Additionally, there are great hiking opportunities in Kalōpā, along with camping and cabins.

They also have a native ‘ohi’a forest to check out. These trees are sacred to Hawaiians. They are the first vegetation to grow in the lava fields, a desolate environment where little vegetation can survive naturally. 

They are responsible for creating the first soil to build on the lava where other plants can eventually grow. So, they are responsible for the lush forest that you will experience at Kalōpā and all around the island.

There is a legend connected to the ‘ohi’a tree and its flower, the lehua flower. 

the brilliant red flower o the lehua flower growing on the o'hia plant

‘Ohi’a was a love interest of Pele. However, he was already in love with Lehua. Pele, in her fury, turned ‘Ohi’a into a tree. The gods were dissatisfied with this. 

In turn, they made Lehua a flower of the tree so she and ‘Ohi’a would never be separated.

According to legend, if you pluck a Lehua flower, it will rain that day, as they are the tears of the lovers who never want to be separated.

Check out Puna moku and the Kalapana Lava Fields.

In Puna, make your way to the Kalapana Lava Fields or experience the ocean along the Red Road. You can also visit steam vents in the area!

Kalapana is where you can view the lava flowing into the ocean when the volcano is erupting. This is not something that will constantly be occurring. 

The last lava flow ended in May 2021, but you may still be able to see this depending on when you visit. If you are lucky enough, it will blow your mind!

Lava field of Hawaii, crossing a black rock barren wasteland, with Pacific Ocean in the distance

Bring aloha spirit to the town of Pāhoa.

In the Puna moku, you will find Pāhoa. It rains a lot here, so there are beautiful lush forests.

Pāhoa itself is a charming little town. When visiting, bring aloha spirit with you. 

Large areas of Pāhoa were wiped out in 2018 when lava consumed Leilani Estates and numerous beloved natural areas. 

I used to live in Leilani Estates (in 2016). It broke my heart to know that the lovely house in the rainforest where I lived was swallowed by lava.

However, the people of Pāhoa are resilient and eccentric. Come here to support this vibrant community. 

There are many opportunities to dance to live music or drive along beautiful winding roads surrounded by the rainforest of Pāhoa and the Puna district. Plus, Pāhoa town has many cool shops and great spots to grab a bite. 

We especially recommend Pho’ 19. Be sure also to check out the beautiful Painted Church!

Additionally, there are many communes and opportunities to volunteer for discounted rates at one of the many eco-retreats in Puna moku. 

We recommend Hedonesia Eco-Community, where you can participate in art and garden projects as you stay in one of their structures in the rainforest. Some may stay in a converted bus or a lovely little hut.

You may also want to check out Cinderland Eco-Community who offer WWOOF’ing (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms) opportunities.

Hit the road to explore the Pepe’eoko Scenic Drive.

Head north of Hilo on Highway 19 to traverse 40 miles up to the Hamakua Coast, ending at Waipio Valley (more on Waipiʻo below). 

You will get to tour one of the most beautiful parts of the island with this drive. The views are endless and the waterfalls are plentiful! 

Visit ʻAkaka Falls (as mentioned above) and feast your eyes on Kahuna Falls at the World Botanicals Gardens, another worthy stop on your journey.

Check out the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

As you drive on Highway 19, there are many little shops and vendors selling fruit and coconuts along the way. 

One place not to skip is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden at Onomea Bay (less than 9 miles from Hilo), which is self-described as “a beautiful garden in a valley on the ocean”. 

These gardens are truly spectacular. It is a place to learn about plant botany, marvel at the beautiful tropical flowers, take a stroll, and enjoy the majesty of nature!

Tourist admiring lush tropical vegetation of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden of Big Island of Hawaii

Take a detour to Honoka’a for some shopping and eating.

Additionally, you’ll want to take a detour into Honoka’a, a quaint little town at the “doorway to Waipiʻo Valley.” 

There are many shops and boutiques in the charming town of Honoka’a. You can find Hawaiian-made goods and stunning batik sarongs. 

Plus, you should stop at Tex Drive-in for malasadas (Portuguese stuffed donuts). You will then be able to make your way to Waipiʻo Valley, the next place on this list of things to do in Hilo.

Engage in a spiritual journey down into Waipiʻo Valley.

Waipiʻo is one of the most iconic locations on the Big Island! The view from the lookout is stunning enough to fill your soul.

However, if you choose to hike down into the valley, you will indeed be moved by the energy here, as it is a sacred place to the Hawaiians.

Waipiʻo was home to King Kamehameha. He is a highly revered figure in Hawaiian culture. You will see his name everywhere.

According to lore, King Kamehameha stood at 7 feet tall and is remembered for rolling the Naha Stone. 

An ancient Hawaiian prophecy once stated that whoever could move the stone would unite the islands, which he did. He rolled the two-ton stone and subsequently joined the islands, ending 100 years of war. You can see the Naha Stone in Hilo today, in front of the Hilo Public Library.

It is not an easy hike down into the valley as it is very steep. You will hike 4.7 miles round trip when exploring Waipiʻo. 

Along the hike, there are black sand beaches and a view of Wailoa River. 

Take note: after rain, the stream can be flowing pretty intensely, so use caution should you desire to cross the creek for additional exploration.

If you can’t drive or don’t plan on renting a car while in Hilo, you can take a guided tour of the Waipio Valley.

Book your Waipio tour online here!

an aerial photo of the beautiful and lushly green waipio valley

See the stars on Mauna Kea.

When it comes to viewing the night sky, there is no better place than Hawai‘i. Seriously. You will be totally in awe. 

Head through Saddle Road and then up to Mauna Kea. You can ride up to the Visitor Center and observatory to view the stars through a telescope.

However, it is still amazing to just head up Mauna Kea (Maunakea in Hawaiian) and view the stars on a hillside!

When I was there, I was lucky enough to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. The show was insane. 

I could see long golden trails as hundreds of shooting stars flew across the sky. I simply brought a blanket, laid down with friends, and watched in awe. You can do this too, meteor shower or not!

Purple night sky studded with millions of stars on Mauna Kea

Another way to see the stars on Mauna Kea is through a guided stargazing tour.

This includes a transfer to Mauna Kea from Hilo, and once you arrive, you will get to borrow their large-aperture telescopes to see all the incredible galaxies and nebulas and planetary bodies from some of the darkest skies on Earth.

The guided tour is led by astronomers who are experts in their fields, having written numerous scientific articles and worked at world-class observatories, and they’re here to share their guidance with you!

If you want to go stargazing on Mauna Kea, under one of the darkest skies you’ll find on all of planet Earth, this tour is a must-do.

Book your stargazing tour of Mauna Kea here!

the stars of the milky way galaxy visible over the telescopes on mauna kea

An important thing to note is that Maunakea is a sacred mountain to Native Hawaiians. There is much controversy over the fact that large, obtrusive telescopes were built on her. 

Please be respectful when you come up here and acknowledge that Maunakea is a place where the desires of U.S. settlers and Native Hawaiians collide. 

That does not mean you cannot or should not come for stargazing, but come with awareness of how Native Hawaiians feel about the larger telescope projects. Do your best to treat Maunakea with the same awe that they do.

There is currently controversy around another planned telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, which has set off protests and revived calls for more Native Hawaiian sovereignty over their sacred lands. 

You can read a bit more about the protests and the young activists leading the way here.

Fun Fact: Mauna Kea is the tallest sea mountain in the world. And, if you count what’s below sea level, it is taller than Everest.

giant silver and white telescopes located on mauna kea in hawaii

Drive your way to Kaʻū moku.

Many of Kaʻū’s sights are about an hour and a half drive from Hilo. 

The drive will be worth it as it offers captivating views of dramatic pali (Hawaiian for cliffs), the Kaʻū Desert, and of course, the Pacific Ocean!

Check out the southernmost point in the U.S.

When you head to Kaʻū, you will be able to see some of the highlights of the Big Island. 

One such spot is South Point (Ka Lae). South Point is the southernmost point in the United States.

You will see many people jumping off of South Point into the ocean below. It is dangerous to do, so only participate if you are an experienced cliff-jumper and a strong swimmer.

Hike to Green Sands Beach (Papakōlea).

From the parking lot at South Point, you can hike south along the dirt road to Green Sands Beach (Papakōlea). It is accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance as well.

After you make the 2.5-mile journey to this stunning beach, a beach coated in olivine crystals and smatterings of black sand among the white sand with greet you. 

You can relax on the beach or swim in the water. Be aware that the water can be pretty rough, so proceed with caution!

the waters of the green sand beach of hawaii with turquoise water

Check out the town of Nāʻālehu.

From Green Sands, head back towards Hilo and stop in the town of Nāʻālehu (Naalehu). You can get some great eats here! 

For incredible burgers and loco moco, Hanahou Restaurant is your stop. I just love this small family-owned restaurant. Sometimes there is even live music and hula.

You can also hit up Punalu’u Bake Shop, “the southernmost bake shop in the United States.” They are known for their malasadas and tasty Hawaiian sweet bread. 

If you need a pick-me-up, they serve coffee and other beverages. They have outdoor seating in their garden, too!

traditional portuguese donuts covered in sugar

Marvel at the black sands of Punalu’u Beach.

Another highlight of Ka’u is Punalu’u Beach (Black Sands Beach). It is a great beach! 

You will most likely see honu (sea turtles) resting on the beach. You can also hop in the water and enjoy snorkeling here.

palm trees against black sand on a beach in hawaii big island near hilo

Bask in the glory of a trip well spent.

These suggestions are but a few of the many experiences you can have on the Big Island while you are based in Hilo Town. 

Seriously, the list goes on and on! However, I hope that you will find these ideas fulfilling and fun and you have lots of ideas for what to do in Hilo and around it.

The Big Island is a magical place for you to visit. You will be awe-struck by the views, the waterfalls, and the stars. 

Romp around the rainforest, take a drive along the coast, and take in the sights of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

No matter what, the people are friendly and welcoming. The memories you will make will be etched in your soul.

I encourage you to open yourself up to the aloha spirit as you traverse this island. Respect the Āina (land). Treat every human, creature, and piece of land with aloha. You will be glowing with mana (spirit energy) when you head back home.

With that, I leave you with: Aloha Āina (love the land). Malama pono (take good care).

Big Island Hikes: 17 Breathtaking Hikes on Hawaiʻi

the waterfall of rainbow falls in hawaii surrounded by lush green foliage

Hiking on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi is one of the greatest opportunities to enjoy incredible landscapes and inspiring views.

The Big Island is otherwise known as the island of Hawaiʻi, and it’s received the nickname of “The Big Island” to distinguish itself from the U.S. state of Hawaii.

The Big Island is of the most beautiful places on earth to hike. One of the coolest things about the Big Island is that there are eight different climate zones. On just one island, you can explore rainforests, desert areas, and ice caps (plus more).

female hiker standing on mauna loa looking at the clouds and views below the summit

When you come to Hawaiʻi, you will realize that it is largely made up of two massive mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Mauna Loa is the largest mountain by volume in the world, whereas Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world if you count what’s below sea level — move over, Everest!

These massive mountains lend themselves to some pretty stellar hiking on the Big Island, as you can imagine!

There is also incredible hiking in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, where you may even get to see lava flowing.

The Big Island is named so because the lava is always flowing, and therefore new land is born every day.

It’s the biggest island of the Hawaiʻian islands, but it’s also the newest. There are five volcanoes on the island of Hawaiʻi: Kīlauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea (Maunakea), Kohala, and Hualālai.

When I lived on the Big Island, I was able to walk right up to the lava flow when hiking in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park!

However, this was because of the timing and is not guaranteed. It just depends on what the lava is doing.

This is also why helicopter rides are a popular attraction on the Big Island. You can always see the flow overhead; it is just too difficult to get to if the lava is flowing in a remote area.

Check out Hawaii helicopters tour online here!

In addition to high elevation climbs and hiking amongst volcanoes, the Big Island is full of beautiful green forests and offers coastal hiking and gorgeous valleys.

Hike on the desert plains, along the shoreline, in the rain forest, or through lava tubes. It does not really matter; every place is spectacular. The Big Island is just that amazing.

We will categorize these Big Island hikes based on regions: Kaʻū, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Hilo, Hāmākua, Kohala, Kona, Saddle Road, and Puna.

First, though, let’s talk some quick logistics about getting to Hawaiʻi in these current pandemic times as well as how to get around Hawaiʻi once you arrive!

This post was originally published on June 5, 2021 by guest writer Allison Coulter, who lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for six months traveling by van. It has been updated several times since and was last updated March 29, 2023 to reflect changes and updates since it was written.

Getting Around Hawai’i

view of a beach on the big island of hawaii

Your best bet is to rent a car when you come to the Big Island, especially if you are hiking.

The public bus system does not necessarily go to all these trailheads, and it is just not reliable, especially if you want to see all you can.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine.

It searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental, so you know you’re getting the best price! Compare prices for car rental from Kailua-Kona Airport here.

Most of these hikes are more accessible from Kailua-Kona, and more flights land there, which is why I suggest renting a car there.

However, if you are basing yourself in Hilo, you will want to rent your car at Hilo Airport instead.

Big Island Hikes in Kaʻū

First, we have rural and scenic Kaʻū, which is home to South Point, the southernmost point in the United States.

There are great places to hike on the plains of this area while enjoying the intensity of the dramatic landscapes, as the ocean is always in sight.

There are no amenities in the Kaʻū hiking areas, so bring what you need to have a safe, comfortable journey: some local Hawaiʻian foods to snack on, plenty of water, comfortable clothing and footwear, and anything you need for camping.

You can, however, freely camp on the public lands here. Leave no litter or trash behind, and be sure to dig a hole for your bathroom needs.

South Point

Length: 0.5 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

You can drive down the dirt roads leading to South Point, where you can then take the short hike to South Point, the southernmost point in the United States.

You may see people jumping off the cliff into the ocean here.. and, you may want to join them! There is a ladder you can climb back up after you jump.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to jump off the cliff, you will enjoy spacious views of the Pacific Ocean.

Papakōlea (Green Sands Beach)

Length: 5.6 miles
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

From South Point, you can make the trek to Green Sands Beach. This unique beach gets its name from mineral deposits of olivine crystals.

These deposits come from an ancient lava flow which formed this beach. The beach also contains black and white sands so it is greener in some areas than in others.

The hike follows a dirt road, which makes it easy to navigate. You may even be able to hop a ride with a local driving to the beach. Hitchhiking is very common on the Big Island.

However, I would not recommend driving a rental to Papakōlea unless it’s a 4-wheel drive, as the road is rough.

Once you arrive, either hiking or hitchhiking your way to the beach, stop for a few moments and breathe and take in the beauty. The views are wonderful.

Note: Do not remove any sand from here or any Hawai’ian beach – it’s illegal and fines can be as high as $100,000 (plus Pele may curse you!)

Kaʻū Desert Trailhead

Length: 3.8 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back.

When visiting the Kaʻū district, you want to be sure to check out this trail on the Big Island! It’s special because you will have the opportunity to see fossils of human footprints in the rock along the path.

You will be exposed to the Kaʻū “desert,” which is largely desolate. You should bring lots of water, a hat, and sunscreen.

You will see some wildflowers and the prolific ohia tree along the way. Plus, enjoy more impressive views of the Pacific!

Punaluʻu (Black Sands Beach)

Length: 5.8 miles
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

Come here if you want to see sea turtles — they are almost always laying on the beach!

Plus you get to see rare black sand beaches made of lava rock. You can tweak this hike to your liking or hike the entire length of Punaluʻu Bay.

Plus, there are many places to post up on the beach here. There are also restrooms and sometimes food vendors.

Hikes in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

This park has it all… including a luxury hotel! There are camping areas here as well if you’re looking for a more low-key way to spend a few nights in this gorgeous national park.

You can fill your water at the visitors center and check out the displays, or head down Chain of Craters Road to view the sea arch. You can find petroglyphs, lava tubes, rainforest, and desolate craters. It is of the ultimate in Big Island hiking destinations!

You can even see the glow of Kilauea Caldera at its corresponding museum! Peep the steam vents on your way down Crater Rim Drive to see the caldera. The glow of the caldera can be seen from long distances

Halapē (Puʻu Loa via the Puna Coast Trail)

reddish brown rock with bits of green grass and vegetation on this big island hike to halape

Length: 11.3 miles
Rating: Difficult
Route Type: Point-to-point

This hike is not for you if you are an inexperienced hiker. You will need a water filter to refill water, or you’ll have to bring a lot of water to handle this 11-mile one-way, 22-mile roundtrip hike.

Due to its length, this hike is ideal for an overnight backpacking trip; however, you will need a permit for backcountry adventures.

You will find Halapē on the Puʻu Loa via the Puna Coast Trail. You will begin and end on a road, so if you’re traveling with a friend and two cars, you may want to leave vehicles on either end.

Otherwise, you’ll have to prepare a ride ahead of time or hike all the way back, doubling the length of this difficult hike.

This will be a tough but rewarding Big Island hike with some pretty hefty elevation gains. However, you won’t be disappointed with the result. The reward of hiking to Halapē is supreme!

Picture a private beach and freshwater swimming holes in an incredible oasis amongst the desolate lava fields, practically all to yourself.

Puʻu Loa Petroglyphs Trail

Length: 1.2 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

This is a convenient trail stop-off on your way down Chain of Craters Road, which you can take to check out the sea arch.

This road is a major pipeline through the park with many stops along the way which make a great introduction to hiking on the Big Island.

We like this stop as it is an easy hike with an incredible connection to the ancient Hawaiʻians, where you can acknowledge and pay your respects to their centuries of stewardships of the island.

There is a boardwalk along with parts of the trail which increases the ease of this walk, so this is really one that shouldn’t be skipped while hiking the Big Island.

Kīlauea Craters Trail and Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tubes)

people hiking on the Kīlauea crater trail with volcanic landscapes on a sunny day

Length: 8.0 miles
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Loop

This trail will give you a well-round experience of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. You will hike in the craters of long-since-erupted areas of the volcanoes you will be walking on. You may even see steam rising from the ground!

You will get to experience jungle and rare plant species that can only grow in this unique landscape. Plus, as you hike, you’ll walk across lava fields and through lava tube caves — be sure to bring sturdy hiking shoes, as these volcanic rocks can be jagged and rough!

Big Island Hikes in Hilo

Hilo is a rainy area of the Big Island, so you’ll want to come equipped with some weatherproof gear if hiking near Hilo.

It is one of the busier areas of the island, though it is not as busy as Kona. There are lots of places to check out here, but we will stick with hikes for now!

One of the main draws for hikes in this area is the waterfalls: there are several, and we’ll cover a few of the best Big Island waterfall hikes below.

Rainbow Falls (Waiānuenue)

the rainbow falls waterfall in big island with green lush plants in the foreground

Length: 0.1-0.2 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

This is one of the most photographed spots in Hilo, and the hike couldn’t be easier!

You can easily view them after a short 0.1-mile hike. Then hike further up the trail to the upper falls (0.2 miles).

When you venture upwards you will get to view one of the most incredible banyan trees I have ever seen — it is over 1000 years old and truly majestic.

Trust me, you will want to climb it. It is not too difficult as the tree allows for “hallways” that form along its many branches. It is a spectacular sight to see and a fun playground for all.

Waiʻale Falls Trail and Boiling Pots Lookout

Sunset over the park with the waterfall and a lot of greenery and lava rocks. Boiling pots on the Big Island. Tropical forest.

Length: 0.6 miles (plus an additional 0.3 miles for the Boiling Pots lookout).
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

Here you can view another gorgeous waterfall, plus the Boiling Pots Lookout is pretty stellar, too, and the rapids below will surely impress!

It is also nice as these are two more short hikes with great rewards. You can easily do Rainbow Falls and Waiʻale Falls in a single day of hiking in Hilo. Have a waterfall-themed hike day!

Liliʻuokalani Botanical Garden, Banyan Drive, and Coconut Island Loop

a giant banyan tree in big island hawaii

Length: 2.3 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Loop

This is a great way to see a few Hilo landmarks in one fell swoop!

The Liliʻuokalani Gardens are absolutely lovely: you’ll feel like you’re in Japan as you walk through these 25-acre gardens, which were built in 1917 as tribute to the Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaiʻi to work the sugar cane fields.

The gardens are named after the last reigning monarch of Hawaiʻi, Queen Liliʻuokalani, who was overthrown when the United States invaded the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, as a way of honoring her.

You’ll continue down along Banyan Drive, which is cool because of the beautiful banyans, of course! The banyans were planted by celebrities who have placards on the trees. It’s known as the “Hilo Walk of Fame”.

Finally, Coconut Island is a tiny little island with a park, restrooms, and some beaches. It is popular to jump off the tower in the waters of Hilo Bay from here.

Fun fact: Coconut Island was originally called Mokuola by the Native Hawai’ians. It translates literally to “island [moku] of life [ola]” but can be understood as meaning “healing island”. It was said that one could heal themselves by swimming around the island three times!

Big Island Hikes in Hāmākua

Head north from Hilo to picturesque Hāmākua, which is an excellent part of the island for “rainbow hunting” in the wet climate of Hilo… plus it is just such a beautiful part of the island!

Get lost in the jungle or a sacred valley as you explore Hāmākua.

Waipiʻo Valley Trail

Waipiʻo Valley is a valley located in the Hamakua District of the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. "Waipiʻo" means "curved water" in the Hawaiian language.

Length: 4.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

This is by far one of the most beautiful hiking spots on the Big Island! It is truly magical.

You will have to endure the steep grade of the road down into the valley, but it is worth every step.

Also, be aware that there is a river crossing here. At times the river is not passable due to heavy rainfall, so keep that in mind.

Waipiʻo Valley is a sacred valley to the Native Hawaiʻians (kānaka maoli). It was a place where they lived and celebrated together. In fact, King Kamehameha — the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi — was raised in this valley.

I urge you to remember this when you visit. Hold space for the remaining kānaka maoli, the Native Hawaiʻians, from whom this beautiful land was taken, and who suffered devastating effects from U.S. imperialism, colonization, and annexation.

You can do this by ensuring history stays alive by learning the history of Hawaiʻi and approaching the culture and language of Hawaiʻi with curiosity.

You will have a fuller, more rewarding experience in Hawaiʻi in general if you hold to this rule of respect and curiosity.

Best Big Island Hikes in Kohala

Kohala is situated at the very top of the Big Island. There are just a couple of spots for hiking here.

Be sure to stop in the wonderful town of Hawi to fuel up for your trip. The town is so charming, you might not ever want to leave!

Pololū Trail and ʻĀwini Lookout

the rugged becah of polulu after a hike on the big island

Length: 0.9 miles (3.9 miles to ʻĀwini)
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

This Big Island trail will take you down to Pololū Valley, where you can enjoy views of the ocean and the green mountains which cascade along the coastline.

There are some swings here for you to enjoy. We suggest bringing a hammock to relax in while taking in the sights and sounds.

The beach is pretty rocky in parts, but if you bring a hammock, you will be all set!

To explore the area more, keep hiking past the beach and follow the trail up to ʻĀwini Lookout. It can be pretty wet and muddy to hike but you get great views and the heart pumping. This is where the 3.9 miles comes in!

Big Island Hikes in Kona

Next, we have the “Kona side”. There is a huge amount of things to do in the Kona district!

One of the big draws of Kona is hiking to some hidden beaches along the coast. Plus there are forest and lava hikes for you to enjoy among the many other activities in Kona!

Makalawena Beach (Pu‘u Ali‘i)

Length: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

This is the best beach on the Big Island (the hike is fully worth it!)! It is rarely crowded by beachgoers because of the effort it takes to get there.

You will walk down a road to reach the beach. It has no shade so be sure to bring your reef-safe sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water.

Once you reach the beach you can continue walking to make this a 4-mile hike if you desire. The waters are usually calm for swimming so you may want to just jump right in and enjoy the blue water and white sandy beach!

Puʻu Wa’awa’a Cinder Cone Trail

green and orange cinder cone seen from above

Length: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Loop

Puʻu Waʻawaʻa Cinder Cone State Park has many great hikes! We like this one as you end up at the top of Puʻu Wa’awa’a

You will get to see an awesome view of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, two of my favorite mountains in the world.

The rock formation is also super cool, and you can enjoy wildflowers and spacious views from here

Kealakekua Bay

brilliant turquoise waters in a bay in hawaii big island

Length: 3.8 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

To find the unmarked trailhead, park on Nāpōʻopoʻo Road at telephone pole #4. There are other turn-outs to park in so please do not block the road!

This is an awesome Big Island hike that ends at the bay, so you may want to bring snorkel gear along. You may get to see ruins from old Hawaiʻian villages.

At low tide, you may see the placard which marks where Captain Cook landed. The story is that Captain Cook was killed by Native Hawaiʻians, but the full story is rarely told.

The real story is that Captain Cook, on this third voyage to Hawaiʻi, attempted to kidnap the King Kalaniʻōpuʻu to hold for ransom in return for a stolen boat, and that Captain Cook died in the struggle. (So, yeah, if you attempt to kidnap the king, you can’t really be surprised by the results…)

Along this hike, besides seeing this interesting historical landmark, you may also get to see Hawaiian spinner dolphins and other beautiful wildlife.

Best Saddle Road Hikes on the Big Island

Cutting across the island is Saddle Road. It is from here you can access hikes on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. You may even want to summit them!

Prepare for the cooler temperatures that occur at higher altitudes. Also, be aware that hiking at these elevations can cause Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Remember to stop frequently if you choose to hike up the mountain, which is almost 14,000 feet!

Bring plenty of water and snacks. Take your time and allow yourself to acclimate to the elevation. Be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen. It feels cool, but you are super exposed to the sun!

Mauna Loa Summit

volcanic rock and cinder cones on the mauna loa summit trail on the big island

Length: 13 miles
Difficulty: Hard
Route type: Out and back

When you climb Mauna Loa, you are hiking on the world’s largest mountain by volume in the world and the world’s largest volcano!

To get to the trailhead, take Saddle Road to Mauna Kea Observatory Road (between mile markers 27 and 28). Park at the trailhead after 17.5 miles of driving on this road. It is one lane in some spots and rough so drive carefully.

Bring a map, although the route is marked with cairns so it is relatively easy to navigate. Just be sure not to hop on the Mauna Loa Trail that begins in the lowland; that is not the same trail you are on here.

Mauna Kea (Maunakea) Summit via Humu’ula Trail

summit of mauna kea the tallest mountain in hawaii

Length: 12 miles
Difficulty: Hard
Route Type: Out and back

To get to the trailhead follow the same directions for Mauna Loa’s trailhead but stop at Ellison Onizuka Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station after about 6 miles.

This is where the trailhead will be. You need a permit to hike Mauna Kea (spelled Maunukea in the Hawaiian language), but it is easy to do with a self-registration station at the trailhead. Be sure to drop off your registration at the visitor center!

You will get to hike past Lake Waiau which is the highest lake in the Pacific Basin. Plus when you climb Mauna Kea, you are hiking the highest mountain in Hawaiʻi, in the Pacific Rim, and the highest sea mountain in the world.

Mauna Kea is named for the Hawaiian sky god Wākea, making this a sacred mountain. Please remember this as you climb. Do not litter or remove anything from the island you are not permitted to.

Honor the tumultuous history of this mountain. There are still many activists protesting the 30 Meter Telescope and further development of Maunakea, as it is just that sacred to the kānaka maoli.

A note about “leaving no trace”: this is a Western concept that is not practiced by many Indigenous groups. You may see some offerings made by the Native Hawaiʻians to the goddess of Maunakea, Poliʻahu; however, this is not needed by outsiders as it can be offensive if done incorrectly.

You absolutely should not interfere with anyone you see leaving an offering, as this is not your place as a visitor. “Leave no trace” does not apply to Indigenous people following their ancestral Indigenous practices, and enforcing this on them is a form of cultural erasure.

In addition to these massive Big Island summit hikes on Saddle Road, there are plenty of shorter hikes you can do.

Puʻu ʻo‘o Trail (8.3 miles), Pu’u Kalepeamoa Loop (1.3 or 3.8 miles), or Kaūmana Trail (2.7 miles) are some other great options for this area.

Hikes in the Puna District

Views of the sea and black lava rocks of recent eruptions of Kilauea from Kalapana for sunset, Puna district, Big island, Hawaii

The only district not fully covered in this article includes the Puna District. This is where a lot of the rainfall on the island occurs.

If the lava is flowing in the right direction, you can access the lava flow from the Puna District. Hiking on the Kalapana Lava Fields to see lava pouring from the mountainside is truly awe-inspiring.

I hope you get to experience it when you visit the Big Island. There are many beautiful spots along the Red Road to explore, as well. Puna is a really special part of the island, so don’t count it out!


The Big Island is full of adventure and learning opportunities, where you can learn the history of these islands through connecting with its nature and its beauty.

Show up with an open heart and an open mind full of curiosity, and the island will embrace you. Honor the ancient and present-day Native Hawai’ians through educating yourself and taking care of this sacred place.

It is full of jaw-dropping views and incredible experiences, so leave it just as beautiful as you found it. Enjoy your exploration as you hike the Big Island!

5 Jaw-Dropping Bucket List Hikes in Oahu

Oahu is within the Hawaiian Island chain. It was formed from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

Oahu is known for mesmerizing natural beauty — complete with white sands, humpback whale watching, tropical flora, dense jungle and waterfalls.

Oahu is also a culturally rich and historically significant place. It’s known for important landmarks that should be on any Honolulu itinerary, like Pearl Harbor and the Iolani Palace.

Visitors can enjoy extravagant luaus, sip Mai Tais, and learn about the island’s early Polynesian inhabitants. 

Tackling these incredible hikes in Oahu, you’ll also experience the island’s captivating allure. See its beauty first hand. Visit historically significant locations, and connect with locals. 

These Oahu hikes are perfect for backpackers, tourists, and adventurers. These hikes span a variety of skill levels, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy!

A Note on Visiting Hawaiʻi

rocky beach with lava rock and bright blue water and palm trees

One important thing to mention about the island of Hawaiʻi is that it is the home to the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, which is under U.S. occupation.

When you visit this island, be curious and respectful of the Native Hawaiian way of life. The state we now know as Hawaii was forcibly annexed, without treaty or legal right, from the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. 

This island is their ancestral land, and many of the locations mentioned here are sacred to them. Do not take anything from the island, including lava rock. It is said it will bring you bad luck if you do! 

If you are respectful, you will have a wonderful time on this island. It is full of magical, intense energy. With the right mindset, visiting the Big Island, the land of aloha, can be transformative.

Move with Aloha

a reddish orange pinkish sunset with palm trees silhouetted in hawaii. seeing a hawaiian sunset is a must on your big island itinerary!

A note on the concept of aloha: Despite what popular culture portrays, aloha is more than just hello and goodbye! 

In the Hawaiian language, “Alo” means “presence.” “Ha” means “the essence of life.” It is an expression of love and understanding that we are all connected to spirit. 

When you live with aloha, you live with passion and considerations for the natural world, its creatures, and your fellow humans. Isn’t that a great way to be? 

So try it out while you move through this Big Island itinerary. I promise you won’t regret it, and you may walk away with a new point of view!

Enjoy and move with aloha in your heart during your five days on the Big Island.

5 Best Hikes in Oahu

All of these hikes are impressive in their own way. You’ll be guaranteed to enjoy stunning views and natural features. Some of these hikes are very low key, and others are quite challenging. 

This guide includes all the information you’ll need to pick the hike that’s right for you… or enjoy them all!

Diamond Head

2023 NOTE: A permit is now required to hike Diamond Head.

Diamond Head is one of the top attractions on the island of Oahu. It is a massive volcanic tuff cone located on the island’s southern shore.

This crater is over 300,000 years old! Also, the topography you see was all made from one single eruption!

Diamond Head is a short 30-minute bike ride from Waikiki. Waikiki Beach is one of the popular places to stay in Oahu among tourists.

Waikiki is where you’ll find all the best shopping, dining and entertainment on the island.

Besides insane geological history, Diamond Head also has a unique military history. The US Government purchased this land in 1905 and built Hawaii’s first military reservation here.

The slopes of the crater were used to store guns and ammo.

Some of these tunnels created by the military still remain, and you’ll be able to walk through one of them!

You’ll also be able to lay eyes on a WWII bunker & the famous Diamond Head Lighthouse.

At Diamond Head, visitors can hike to the edge of this prehistoric volcano. Views from the top are amazing!

Enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the Pacific Ocean and spot the city of Honolulu in the distance. 

This out and back trail span 1.8 miles. Along the way, you’ll climb some stairs and gain nearly 500 ft in elevation.

This trail is rated moderate in difficulty. It’s best to arrive early in the morning because the sun can be unrelenting. There is no tree cover along this path. 

Waimea Falls

Waimea Falls is a very short and scenic hike. It’s perfect for families. This 1 mile out and back path takes you through lush botanical gardens, ending at a waterfall. 

Waimea Falls is located on Oahu’s North Shore. This place has an interesting history as well.

In the past, it was an community entertainment venue where locals would come to watch cliff jumpers and hula dancers.

Today, Waimea Falls is still a cultural hub. Make sure to check their schedule for workshops, activities and classes offered.

It’s a great place to learn more about Hawaiian culture and history.

Once you hike to the waterfall, you will be provided with life jackets. This is one of the few waterfalls in Oahu that you are able to swim up to!

Jump in and enjoy the surrounding jungle views!

Manoa Falls

Manoa Falls is one of the most captivating waterfalls in Oahu!

The water falls over 150ft over the edge of the mountainside. It’s a popular hike among tourists and locals alike.

It’s a 1.7 mile out and back trail that’s rated moderate. You gain over 600 ft in elevation. 

The trail can be a bit slippery and muddy, so be sure to wear appropriate attire and shoes. Along this hike, you can spot guava, bamboo and eucalyptus plants! It takes most people about 30 minutes to reach the falls.

Disclaimer: This is not a waterfall you can swim in! There are some big slippery rocks in the pool and some microbes that can cause disease. 

When visiting Manoa Falls, be sure to check out the nearby Lyon Arboretum. 

Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail

The Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail is one of the most scenic hikes in Hawaii.

It’s a 2 mile round-trip trek that offers panoramic views of Oahu’s southeastern shoreline. Along your hike, you’ll be able to catch glimpses of the Koko Crater and Koko Ridge. 

The trail’s namesake is the Makapu‘u Lighthouse. This historic lighthouse was built in 1909 and displays an iconic red roof.

It has the largest lens of any lighthouse in the United States, and it’s been listed as one of America’s Historic Places. 

 Makapu‘u Point is the southeasternmost point on Oahu. Before the lighthouse was built, this area was vital to maritime commerce.

When the lens for this lighthouse was created, it was an engineering and technological marvel. It was displayed proudly at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

During your hike, you’ll be able to see beautiful views of this distinct lighthouse, and postcard perfect pictures!

On a clear day, you may even be able to see to Moloka‘i and Lana‘i.

Just offshore of the hiking trail, there are many nature sanctuaries including a bird refuge. You can also spot migrating whales! This is a place where you’ll want to bring your binoculars. 

There’s not much shade along this trail, so make sure to bring a hat and sunscreen!

Koko Stairs

The Koko Stairs are also called the ‘Koko Crater Trail.’ It’s a challenging hike that involves climbing up 1,000 stairs! Seriously.

This trail is rated difficult and it’s 1.8 miles total out and back. Hikers will gain nearly 1,000 ft in elevation during this climb! 

The Koko Crater is another volcanic tuff cone.

The “stairs” aren’t really stairs. It’s actually an old railroad line that’s been attached to a hillside. One could easily twist an ankle here! So, please bring appropriate footwear. 

These stairs also have ties to military endeavors during WWII. They were built to lead up to one of the famous Pillbox bunkers.

At that time, a railway was used to carry essentials up to the bunker. 

It’s usually easy to find parking at the base of this hike. It starts off pretty easy, but gets progressively more challenging as you climb.

There is also one scary area where you will have to pass over a questionable bridge. Although, alternative route options are available for hikers wanting to skip that part.

Although, you’ll be graciously rewarded at the top. Soak in the mesmerizing views of Hanauma Bay and the Port Lock Peninsula! Make sure to take plenty of breaks and to pace yourself on the way to the top. There is limited shade on this hike.

Author Bio

Valentina’s Destinations was born from my obsession with meticulously researching, organizing, and planning my travel itineraries. I’m originally from Serbia, but I grew up in Chicago. I love hunting down local restaurants, unique experiences, and hidden gems.

You can follow my adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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Doors Off Helicopter Tour in Kauai: 15 Things to Know Before Your Nāpali Coast Helicopter Tour

Deep green cathedral spires alternately bathing in sunlight and hiding behind misty puffs of cloud.

Layers of canyon stacked one on top of another in a stunning array of colors.

The impossibly blue and wild Pacific Ocean meeting hidden white sand beaches.

Waterfalls only visible by helicopter, so many it is literally impossible to keep count…

These are just some of the things you’ll see on a helicopter flight around Kauai, which is aptly nicknamed The Garden Isle for its lush interior and stunning landscapes.

View of the Na Pali Coast as seen from a doors off helicopter. Red rock and green landscape and rugged coastline and ocean water.

As you soar over this stunning island, you’ll see exactly why it was used as the setting for Jurassic Park.

There is a prehistoric quality to the landscape in Kauai, more so than any other island in Hawaii.

Even despite the increase in tourism over the years, Kauai retains an untouched aspect to its natural beauty.

Honestly, the landscape is unbeatable: islands like Maui and Oahu can’t quite compete with Kauai, despite having other draws, like whale watching and larger cities.

Taking a doors off helicopter tour of Kauai sounds like a dream come true, and it is! But it is one you will enjoy all the more if you are prepared for it — and don’t make the same three big mistakes I did!

This post was originally written April 17, 2022 after the author's February 2022 trip to Kauai. Edits were last made on August 4, 2022 in order to keep information up-to-date and reflect recent changes, such as changing Covid-19 protocols in Hawaii.

What to Expect on Your Doors Off Helicopter Tour: 15 Things You Should Know

Red helicopter on the helipads in Lihue Airport

Note: This post is written from my perspective flying with Air Kauai as a full paying customer. I was not sponsored for this nor any other part of my Hawaii trip, and I paid out of pocket for everything.

99% of the time that I travel, I do not let people know I am a blogger, so that I can have an experience similar to any other traveler and not receive any preferential treatment.

The very few times I accept a free or discounted experience, I always disclose it and still provide an impartial review, imagining myself in the place of a paying customer and considering the value proposition.

We did plenty of research while planning our Kauai itinerary and we decided to fly with Air Kauai, who has a perfect safety record and has been flying for more than 25 years and offers flights on other islands under their sister company, Air Maui.

We felt confident that this was the best helicopter tour when we considered value for our money and loved our experience and can recommend it wholeheartedly.

We ended up booking our tickets through Viator because we wanted the protection of their 24-hour cancellation policy (plus it’s cheaper than going directly through Air Kauai).

Check out the exact doors-off helicopter tour we did here!

All the helicopter tours follow a similar route.

No matter which Kauai helicopter tour company you end up flying with, they all follow a similar route around the island of Kauai.

First off, you will depart from Lihue Airport. You’ll have to put your phone in airplane mode as per FAA regulations as you are officially in the Hawaiian airspace!

Below is the doors off Kauai helicopter tour itinerary we took, in order:

First: Hanapepe Valley (Manawaiopuna Falls & Kahili Falls)

The famous Jurassic Falls, a 400 foot waterfall as only visible from the sky on a doors off helicopter tour in Kauai
Manawaiopuna Falls, also known as Jurassic Falls

Shortly into your flight, you’ll pass through the Hanapepe Valley.

This is where you’ll see a series of impressive waterfalls, the largest of which is Manawaiopuna Falls, aka Jurassic Falls.

This waterfall is only visible by helicopter tour, so admire it knowing that you are getting a view few other people in the world are lucky enough to experience!

Several waterfalls cascading through the Kauai landscape with brilliant turquoise poools at each waterfall base
Kahili Falls, also known as Five Sisters Waterfall

But this isn’t the only secret waterfall you’ll get to spot from the sky: you’ll also get to spot the Five Sisters Falls (aka Kahili Falls).

This stunning series of several tiers of waterfall cascading through the gorgeous lush countryside and is one of the most stunning sights you’ll see on a tour full of stunning sights!

Once you’ve seen these lush green landscapes, be prepared to be surprised as you head inland towards Waimea Canyon, where the landscapes turn less lush and more arid.

Next: Olokele Canyon and Waimea Canyon

Flying up the Olokele Canyon towards Waimea Canyon

After passing by such a lush and waterfall-rich landscape, you’ll quickly change course as you head to the Olokele Canyon.

This landscape is where the verdant landscapes of Kauai begin to change to something more arid and desert-like.

Finally, you’ll reach the even more stunning Waimea Canyon, aptly nicknamed as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

The layered rock of Waimea Canyon, aka the Grand Canyon of the Pacific

While many nicknames of this nature often overstate the comparison, I found Waimea Canyon to be just as impressive (although obviously smaller) as the Grand Canyon.

Passing through it and getting to see all the different colors of the canyon was absolutely breathtaking, and it’s a real contrast in terms of landscape compared to what precedes it — and what comes next!

Next: The Na Pali Coast

The beautiful vibrant Na Pali Coast seen from a helicopter tour over Kauai
The beginning of the Na Pali Coast portion of the helicopter tour.

After the Waimea Canyon, you’ll reach the gorgeous Na Pali Coast, which is probably the reason why you opted for a Kauai doors off helicopter tour to begin with!

This is easily the most spectacular part of the helicopter ride, as you soar over the impossibly blue Pacific waters and the emerald-green lush spires of the Na Pali Coast.

The cathedral spires of the Na Pali coast, spiky green mountains
The stunning jagged spires of the Na Pali Coast

However, the Na Pali coast helicopter tour portion can also be finicky. This is the area with the most fog, so there is always a chance you won’t be able to appreciate its green spires and coastal landscape in its full glory.

We, however, got lucky.

The impossible ruggedness of the Na Pali Coast is hard to put into words until you see it from the air.

It’s almost inconceivable that there’s actually a 11-mile trail (one-way) through this rugged terrain — it seems impossible to traverse.

Unknown beaches along the Napali Coast

Most beautiful of all perhaps are the beaches where those two stunning sights of the Pacific and the Na Pali Coast intersect.

You’ll fly over famous beaches like Kalalau Beach and Ke’e Beach, plus other lesser-known beaches that are tucked away like hidden pockets in the craggy landscape.

Next: The North Shore & Mount Waialeale

Stunning wave patterns off the North Shore of Kauai

After the Na Pali Coast, you’ll fly over the North Shore of Kauai, over Hanalei Bay and other lesser-known beaches that are stunning (and easy to visit on your Kauai itinerary).

Following the Waimea River for a bit, you’ll head back inland to Mount Waialeale, which is known to be one of the wettest places on the planet.

The so-called Weeping Wall in Kauai where there are several waterfalls on a giant mountain edge
The Weeping Wall of Mt. Waialeale

This magic microclimate around the mountain makes it accumulate more than 450 inches of rainfall per year!

This is the second-tallest mountain on Kauai, so you’ll soar quite high as you approach it, often entering a cloud before lowering down so you can admire the countless waterfalls streaming down the Weeping Wall.

This part can be the coldest part of the journey!

Finally: Back to Lihue Airport

Reapproaching Lihue Airport at the end of the helicopter tour

Mt. Waialeale is the final stop of your open door tour, and after that you’ll return to Lihue Airport a changed person.

Truly, nothing compares to the beauty of seeing these natural wonders for yourself from the sky.

It was so beautiful I wanted to cry, and I feel so lucky that I got the chance to see the entire island of Kauai from such a unique perspective.

It gets cold — so dress warm!

Cold bare legs on a doors off helicopter tour of Kauai
Do as I say, not as I do!

Honestly, this should be common sense… but as my own experience shows me, common sense is not so common — including (especially?) when it comes to myself.

I don’t know what possessed me to wear shorts on a helicopter tour, considering I sleep with three blankets even in the summer, but I did… and I regretted it.

I’m not sure of the exact altitudes you reach, but you do go quite high. Since you soar over the Na Pali Coastline which is around 4,000 feet high, I’m guessing you top out around 5,000-6,000 feet in altitude.

They will give you a jacket which will keep your upper body warm enough, but my legs were prickling and freezing the entire trip!

Sensibly, my friend wore pants and had a much better time then I did, since she wasn’t freezing cold for the entire Kauai helicopter tour.

You can’t bring any loose items on your flight.

No doors = no loose items of any kind!

Again, this may initially seem obvious, but no loose items of any kind are allowed on a doors off helicopter tour.

We were a little disappointed to realize that the rules about no loose items included not being allowed to bring cameras, with the exception of cellphones.

Our Kauai helicopter tour company provided a lanyard case for our phones that secured them safely to ourselves, so we wouldn’t drop them.

And frankly, once we got up in the air, I immediately understood why we weren’t allowed to bring larger cameras (even strapped around our neck or wrist).

The wind is intense once you get in the sky and get moving, and it would be really difficult and hectic to manage anything larger than a cellphone.

On a similar note, you can’t wear flip-flops or sandals on the flight, since these are a hazard and may fly off. You’ll need to wear closed-toe shoes like sneakers for your flight.

Also, if you have long hair, you’ll need to tie it up (and you’ll want to, otherwise it will be in your face the entire time and you won’t be able to see a thing!).

The wind is stronger than you think!

I present this uber-attractive selfie as evidence of the insane strength of the wind!

As I mentioned above, the wind is intense. Your skin will be rippling across your legs and face as you soar through the sky on your epic helicopter tour over Kauai!

The best way to prepare for this is to make sure you are covered up (pants, people! Again, learn from my foolishness) and to make sure that your goggles are secured strongly over your noise-cancelling headset.

Which leads me to my next tip for taking a doors off helicopter tour in Kauai…

Wear contacts, or have a lanyard for your glasses if you must wear them.

Not yet regretting that I wore glasses, not contacts….

I foolishly didn’t wear my contact lenses for my flight… another thing I ended up regretting!

Technically, the goggles can go over glasses just fine. However, I did end up feeling like my goggles were a bit loose due to the intensity of the wind shaking my headset.

That made me nervous that my goggles were going to come off — and then it was only a matter of time before my glasses, too, plunged off the edge of the helicopter, never to be seen again!

So, learn from my foolishness: either just wear the dang contacts or make sure you have a nerdy li’l lanyard for your glasses. You’ll fly more at ease, trust me!

There are age restrictions on the flights.

The views from the ‘window seats’ are epic — but you’ll need to be 16+ to enjoy them!

Due to safety concerns, there are some age restrictions that apply to these helicopter tours.

For one, no kids under age 10 are allowed on the flights, period. Kids from 10-18 years old must be accompanied by an adult.

Finally, people must be at least 16 or older in order to sit on the edge seat (no window seats here — this is a doors off flight, after all).

If you are traveling with kids in the 10-15 year old range who really want the edge seat, prepare them that they will receive a middle seat ahead of time to avoid disappointment.

A doors off Kauai helicopter tour is still going to be a spectacular experience, no matter which seat you receive!

Be sure to arrive on time for check-in.

Don’t be late — there are a few things to do once you check in for your helicopter tour!

Check-in starts 45 minutes before your departure time, so don’t be late! You need those 45 minutes.

Keep in mind that the Kauai helicopter tour companies are all located along Ahukini Road, not at the main Lihue Airport.

You will want to put directions to your particular helicopter company in your GPS and go there, rather than just to the airport in general, otherwise you’re in for a long walk!

Once you arrive at your helicopter tour company, you will need to check in any loose items such as purses, wallets, sunglasses, etc.

You will also receive a lanyard for your smartphone so you can have it on you to safely take photos.

You’ll also need to watch a safety briefing video before being brought over to the helipad area where the helicopters depart from.

You’ll get your jacket, goggles, and noise-cancelling headset there on the helicopter launching area.

The company will take some souvenir photos of you before seating you in a particular and pre-determined order.

Each party of two gets one edge seat.

Flying as a pair? Decide who gets the edge seat (or flip a coin!)

I flew with Air Kauai Helicopters, so my experience is limited to their helicopters.

Other helicopter tour operators in Kauai may have a slightly different seat arrangement: this was my experience.

On our Kauai helicopter excursion, there were two seats next to the pilot, and then four seats in the back.

That means there are six guests per helicopter flight, and three of them get edge seats.

My flight consisted of two couples, each of whom got an edge seat, and two single people.

I was the lucky single one who got the edge seat, whereas the other solo traveler got the middle seat next to me.

Keep this in mind if you are a couple booking together. Book on the same booking, so that at least one of you can get an edge seat!

As a rule, they reserve one edge seat per couple who books.

If you book separately from a friend, call to make sure you’re on the same flight.

Be careful when booking that you end up on the same flight!

As I mentioned before, my friend and I ended up on different helicopter tours through the same company.

I didn’t realize when I booked my flight that when you book an “afternoon” sightseeing flight, you are booking one of several potential time slots.

I ended up on the 1 PM flight and my friend was on the 2 PM flight, and by the time we realized it, there was no way to rectify it and fly together.

It ended up being a good thing, actually, as we each got to have an edge seat and we sat in different parts of the helicopter so we were able to compare notes on our experience.

(It also bought me an hour to come back to life from my motion sickness — but more on that in a bit).

However, if you’re not a blogger taking notes in order to write a guide to taking a doors-off helicopter in Kauai… chances are you probably want to fly with your travel companion!

If you book separately online, be sure to call the company as far in advance as possible to request that you are put on the same flight.

You cannot dangle your legs out of the helicopter.

With views like these, you don’t need to dangle your legs out for “that Instagram shot”!

I have seen Instagram photos of the “legs dangling shot” over the Na Pali Coast, but I later learned that this is no longer doable for safety reasons.

Doors off helicopter companies in the US have since changed their regulations regarding doors off helicopter tours and the types of seats and harnesses that can be used.

This was in response to an incident in New York City and was changed due to safety reasons.

We were strictly told not to put any part of our body outside the helicopter as it was a safety risk, and there were signs clearly showing us not to dangle our legs for “the shot” as we checked in for our helicopter flight.

So to recap, while you’ve probably seen photos of this, and it may have been allowed in the past, regulations have since changed. Be aware in advance so you won’t be disappointed!

Trust me, you can still get amazing photos even if your feet aren’t in the shot 😉

Masks are required for check in, but not for the helicopter flight.

No masks on the flight needed, as the ventilation is more than sufficient with a doors off tour!

I traveled to Hawaii in February 2022, as Hawaii was the final state maintaining its mask mandate.

(Update on August 4, 2022: The mask mandate has now been dropped as of March 25, 2022).

Air Kauai checked our temperatures prior to check in and asked us to wear a mask while we were in the check-in area and in the van that took us to the helicopter launching area.

Once we arrived on the helicopter launch area, we were allowed to take off our masks and we did not need to wear them on the flight.

Even though I generally am very happy to wear my mask, I’m glad that it wasn’t required on the doors-off flight, as it would have been just one more thing flapping against my face!

Plus, with the insane cross-ventilation you get, and the fact that no one is talking during the flight, your infection risk is virtually nil on a helicopter flight.

Afternoon is the best time of day for flights.

The afternoon light is gorgeous!

If you’re looking for epic lighting conditions, I suggest booking an afternoon flight instead of a morning flight.

You will get better lighting on the Na Pali Coast, which is the most spectacular part of the tour.

My friend and I accidentally ended up on flights an hour apart, so we were able to compare our photos and see who had the better lighting.

While the lighting was still beautiful on my 1 PM tour, her photos on her 2 PM tour came out better and had better lighting.

(She was also notably less motion sick than I was, which leads me to my next point…)

Take Dramamine beforehand if you are prone to motion sickness.

Image not found: Allison laying on the ground for an hour after her flight because she forgot to take Dramamine

I got quite motion sick on my helicopter tour of Kauai, which made it hard to enjoy it to the fullest.

It was my first time doing a doors off helicopter tour, and I foolishly thought it would be similar enough to a doors on helicopter, which I had done before with no issues.

I figured I didn’t need any sort of Dramamine or anything like that, since I don’t get motion sick when I fly on airplanes or on previous helicopter flights I had done to the Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire.

I tend to only get motion sick on boats and winding roads when I’m in the back seat, so I didn’t even think to take a motion sickness pill. I definitely lived to regret that!

What I didn’t anticipate was that there would be a lot more shaking on a doors off helicopter tour, since the wind goes right through the helicopter and shakes it a fair amount.

I don’t do well with rocking motions, so I started to feel sick pretty quickly on my helicopter tour of Kauai.

(If we’re counting, that’s mistake #3 I made on this 45-minute long doors off helicopter tour, which is an impressive mistake-per-minute ratio, even for me.)

If you’ve ever gotten motion sickness, or think you have the potential to, I strongly suggest taking a non-drowsy Dramamine before your helicopter adventure tour.

It won’t hurt, and it may end up keeping you from getting sick and missing out on some of the wonder of the tour – so don’t forget to put Dramamine on your checklist of what to pack for Hawaii!

Even though I got motion sick, I still enjoyed my tour and was able to pay attention to the sights enough to enjoy my tour and photograph and video its beauty.

I did, however, literally lay down for nearly an hour in order to recalibrate while my friend did her flight!

That said, my friend also sometimes gets motion sick, and she was totally fine on her flight.

Anecdotally, she was on a flight with a girl who often gets motion sick, but she had taken a Dramamine beforehand and was fine.

In short: learn from my mistakes, and take the damn Dramamine.

The best seat is directly behind the pilot.

Inside tip: the seat behind the pilot has the best views in the house!

Since my friend and I took different helicopter tours, we were able to compare our photos and our experiences.

She said that she had better views and also felt that the wind was less intense on the pilot’s side!

This makes sense as the right side of the plane, where the pilot flies, is typically facing towards the island.

Meanwhile, the left side of the plane is generally facing towards the ocean (and its accompanying winds!).

While the pilot makes an effort to rotate the plane as much as possible so everyone can get those stunning views of the Na Pali Coast and its sea cliffs, they do have to fly facing forward.

Naturally, the person behind them will get the clearest views of the Na Pali Coast the longest!

Let me say that I give this advice with the caveat that there are six seats on a plane and only one edge seat on the pilot’s side.

Only one person can get “the best seat in the house” and odds are, it might not be you!

Be gracious — feel free to request this seat, but know that other people may be slotted for that seat.

This may either be for safety reasons (they consider weight distribution when they seat the plane) or because someone else has already claimed it.

Be aware of cancellation policies.

The doors off helicopter you take!
Our helicopter for the tour!

With a high-ticket tour like a doors-off helicopter tour, you’ll want to be aware of the cancellation policy.

We booked our doors-off helicopter tour with Viator, which offers a flexible 24-hour cancellation policy, which is the main reason we booked with them. (It’s also $5 cheaper there — not much, but it’s something!)

Book your tour online here!

If we booked through the Air Kauai website, we would have only had a 48-hour cancellation period and it would have been a few dollars more.

In this instance, booking with a third party offered us more protection in case our plans changed last minute — which is peace of mind that is priceless during these Covid times!