Which is the best island to visit in Hawaii? It depends! Whether you’re heading to Hawaii for soft, sandy beaches or adventures, the islands have you covered when it comes to realizing tropical dreams. In this ultimate Hawaii bucket list, top travel bloggers share the very best things to do in Hawaii on the Big Island, Kauai, Maui, Oahu, Molokai, and Lanai. If you’re looking for a list of things to do in Hawaii, this is it!
Let’s get started. Here is the very best of Hawaii:
- The Ultimate Hawaii Bucket List: Things to Do in Hawaii
- Best Things to Do on Big Island
- Best Things to Do on Kauai
- Best Things to Do on Maui
- Best Things to Do on Molokai
- Best Things to Do on Oahu
- Best Things to Do on Lanai
The Ultimate Hawaii Bucket List: Things to Do in Hawaii
Best Things to Do on Big Island
1. Visit Hawaii Volcanos National Park
And, with its fascinating geology, an active volcano, miles of lava tubes, and even ancient petroglyphs, it should be no surprise that this is one of the Big Island’s best activities.
There are few places in the world where you can actively witness a volcano in the midst of creating land.
The Big Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. But it is also the biggest. One of the top experiences at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the Crater Rim drive.
The 11-mile road trip gives a great overview of the park. This spectacular tour follows the edge of the Kilauea caldera.
There are several spots on the drive where you can park and do some hiking through the other-worldly landscape of the park.
From the trails, you can see sulfur banks and steam vents as a reminder that beneath your feet is an active caldera.
For an up-close-and-personal experience, stop and explore the Thurston Lava tubes.
Feeling more adventurous? You can skip the drive and explore the park as one long hike. But before venturing off to experience the park, either by driving or hiking, definitely make a stop at the park’s visitor center.
Here you can learn up-to-date information about volcanic activity and ask the rangers about the best spots to go for spotting lava.
It’s also the best way to find out if there are any closed off areas before you make the long drive there only to have to turn around.
Want to leave all the planning to locals? Take a guided tour that explores the Best of the Big Island in a day.
You’ll visit a black sand beach, two thundering waterfalls and Hawaii Volcanos National Park.
Check tour prices and availability here.
Where to stay near Volcanos National Park:
Stay in this stunning volcano rain forest retreat with garden waterfalls, koi ponds and a hot tub. It’s just a 6 minute drive to the park.
Guest review: “Absolutely LOVED the setting – romantic individual cabins with glass walls to look out into the woods. Owner was incredibly nice too and makes/delivers breakfast to you each day! Close drive to Volcanoes National Park too.” —Andrea Feb 2021
Christina | Wandering Wagars
Click here to download my popular printable Hawaii packing list with 31 essential items you don’t want to forget.
2. Dive with Manta Rays
If you’re wondering what to do in Hawaii, look no further than this activity on the Big Island: Snorkel or scuba dive with manta rays at night.
Just north of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island is a bay where manta rays come nightly to feed.
With a wingspan up to 18 feet/ 5.5 meters, manta rays are the largest of the rays. You can’t beat this for adventures in Hawaii!
Here’s how the viewing experience works: Local dive/snorkel operators have set up spotlights on the ocean floor to attract Plankton, tiny organisms so small that they are invisible to the naked eye.
Plankton are also the main food source for manta rays, so their presence attracts the rays.
Snorkelers hang on to large buoyant rafts on the surface (while licensed divers kneel on the bottom)
As the sun sets, the ocean becomes completely dark, except for the light from the spotlights and divers’ flashlights. Snorkelers and divers look around and peer into the darkness, looking for a sighting of the rays.
Suddenly, an enormous creature glides out of the darkness—its large rectangular mouth, covered in grills to filter the plankton—is wide open to scoop as much food as possible.
It is soon joined by more mantas, as they swoop directly over the diver’s heads, and turning upside down, swim directly under the snorkelers.
They fly, somersault, and turn through the water in an awe-inspiring dance. Seeing these enormous, almost alien-like animals so close is one of the most incredible experiences you will ever enjoy…one of the most unusual excursions in Hawaii.
There are several dive/snorkel operators in Kona. Most run combined snorkel/dive trips, though a couple are only set up for snorkelers.
Since the manta rays are in the area all year round, trips run daily. However, the ocean swells can be bigger in January and February, which can cause some trips to be canceled.
Calmer seas are definitely better, especially if you are snorkeling. (New to diving? Check out this guide to scuba gear 101.)
Where to stay in Kailua-Kona: Wake up to the lull of the waves in an oceanfront penthouse.
Watch turtles glide in the shallows and whales spout in the clear water from your own private lanai with 180-degree views.
Guest review: “Amazing location with beautiful views of the ocean and Kona sunsets. Apartment was well stocked, comfortable, and cozy.” —Carol C., Feb 2021
James Ian | Travel Collecting
How to Rent a Car in Hawaii
My top two recs are:
1. Discover Cars has no hidden fees, 24/7 customer service, and free cancellation. They search all the major rental car companies so you don’t have to.
Check price and availability on rental cars here.
2. Turo is like Airbnb for cars. It saved us $$$ during the pandemic on our Hawaii rentals when rental car prices were sky high.
3. Visit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
If you adore beautiful gardens as much as I do, then one of the definite things to see on Hawaii’s Big Island is the Hawaii Tropical Graden. It’s one of the top things to do in Hawaii if you’re on the Big Island.
Don’t miss the opportunity to tour the most stunning tropical botanical garden you’re likely to ever counter! It’s located just north of Hilo past mile marker 7 at Onomea Bay on the old coastal highway.
A visit to the garden makes a wonderful day trip if you’re headed to the east side of the island for Hawaii sight seeing.
And you most definitely should head there. The rainy side of the Big Island also makes for especially dramatic waterfalls.
While you may wonder if it’s really necessary to pay an entrance fee to a garden when you can enjoy scenic tropical vistas for free here, I promise it’s worth every penny.
You can also feel good about the small entrance fee you’ll pay, as it helps to fund this fabulous not-for-profit organization.
You’ll find more than 2,000 species of tropical plants and flowers in this 40-acre nature preserve and valley nestled into the side of the bay.
You’ll meander past the powerful Onomea waterfalls and through the orchid garden to take in the natural beauty of the scenic coastline here. Add this one to your Big Island itinerary.
To fully appreciate all Hilo has to offer, consider booking a guided tour.
In four hours, you’ll visit the botanical garden, walk historic downtown Hilo, see the Liliuokalani Japanese Park, sample nuts at the Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory, and swim at Carl Smith Beach. Learn more about the tour here.
Where to stay in Hilo: Watch the surfers glide over the waves from the hammock of your lanai in one of the most beautiful oceanfront properties in the area.
Guest review: “Saul’s place is amazing. There is something about it that makes you feel at home. It has a soul of its own. Simple but total luxury of views and morning sunrises from your own bed.”—Auerlie
Chris | Explore Now or Never
The Top 3 Things You Need to Pack for Hawaii
•Go Pro—The #1 thing I wished I’d brought on my first Maui visit.
• Turkish beach towel—Welcome to your new favorite towel.
4. Bike Mauna Kea
I like bike rides, but I love downhill bike rides. If you feel this way too, then this is a must do in Hawaii! On the Big Island, you have several options for memorable downhill rides.
Kilauea Volcano is an exciting bike ride that includes both the exhilaration of a downhill glide and the beauty of Volcanoes National Park.
From its 4,000 foot summit down to the Pacific Ocean, this ride offers plenty of thrills and amazing vistas.
There are precious few flats and even fewer uphills. While your pedals and sprockets may not get much use, this ride will give both your brakes and your nerves a workout.
Choose from several options for your downhill adventure here: You can ride to the summit, but you’ll definitely miss the sunrise.
Or, you can rent a bike and do a DIY downhill. This offers more flexibility but presents the problem of transporting the bike to the summit. The third option is to join a tour.
This offers logistical and safety benefits as well as a knowledgeable guide to enhance your experience. Check price and availability on the Kilauea Volcano bike tour here.
Whichever way you choose, it’s a fun thing to do in Hawaii!
Do you want more of a challenge? One of the longest downhill rides is from the summit of Manua Kea Volcano and it’s one of the most epic adventures in Hawaii.
This one is not for the meek, so if you are considering riding to the summit, be forewarned that it is labeled as one of the most formidable climbs in the world.
Manaus Kea rises from sea level in Hilo to over 13,000 feet (or approximately 4,200 meters).
Fun fact about Mauna Kea: Nearly 60 percent of Mauna Kea lies below the Pacific Ocean!
Mauna Kea rises over 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) from its base on the ocean floor, making it the tallest mountain on Earth!
Where to stay near Mauna Kea: Since there are no nearby lodgings near the summit, stay oceanfront at incredible Mauna Kea Beach at Hale Aloha. It’s full of Old Hawaii charm and you can throw a pebble in the sea from your lanai!
Guest review: “Amazing location with amazing views. Perfect for two people!” — Rod & Brooke S., Jan 2021
Jerome | Travel Boldly
Best Things to Do on Kauai
5. Sail the Nā Pali Coast
This is another Hawaii must do! While all of the Hawaiian Islands are beautiful, the small island of Kauai has more than its share of unique and gorgeous locations, with nine different areas enjoying government protection as a designated state park.
The Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park is one of those areas, with over 6,000 acres and 16 miles of undeveloped coast. (See my list of top 10 things to bring to Kauai here.)
Kauai is often referred to as the Garden Isle because of its exceptional beauty, but it is also the oldest inhabited island of Hawaii.
“Nā Pali” means high cliffs, and it is believed that the valley behind the coastal cliffs was where the earliest Hawaiians lived.
There are no roads that access this area of Kauai, so the only way to see the Nā Pali coast is either by hiking an 11-mile rugged trail or by boat tour. Both are great activities to do on Kauai.
Many of the Nā Pali along the coast rise a sharp and dramatic 4,000 feet above the beach. The view is striking from the Pacific.
That’s why a boat tour is one of the best activities on Kauai: It affords these views, as well as waterfalls, coastal caves, and natural arches that can be seen no other way. These unique views are striking and memorable.
As for the guides, they’re highly knowledgeable and share a wealth of information, including the recent discoveries of archaeological studies in the valley, while also pointing out fun current day facts, such as movie filming sites.
The full-day excursion also includes a stop at a secluded reef area for snorkeling and ends with the brilliant Pacific sunset. Check price and availability on a Nā Pali Coast sail and snorkel adventure here.
Or, how about a romantic sunset dinner cruise? You can learn more about one here.
The Hawaiian Islands are blessed with amazing experiences, but a Nā Pali Coast boat tour is near the top of Hawaii adventures.
There is no other place that can match the history or views that seem unaffected by human existence.
Where to stay on the Nā Pali Coast:
Enjoy spectacular views from high on a cliff above Princeville from a world-class penthouse. Romantic sunsets frame mountain waterfalls and lazy tropical breezes from this oasis at the edge of a bluff.
Guest review: “We celebrated our 30th Wedding Anniversary at Gary and Ann’s place in Princeville…it was extraordinary! We appreciated the quality of their place, the view, and all the belongings they had chosen to make the place a home.” — Valerie W., July 2020
Roxanna | Gypsy with A Day Job
6. Drive Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, is one of the most famous Kauai attractions and definitely one of the best things to do in Hawaii.
It’s truly majestic. Conveniently, you can drive to most viewpoints.
This canyon is approximately ten miles (16 km) long and up to 3,000 feet (900 m) deep, with several viewpoints where you can take in unsurpassed views.
It’s definitely one of the top places to visit in Kauai…and easy to drive here on your own with a rental car or with a guided tour.
Entrance is free to the Waimea Canyon Lookout, and there is parking available as well. This is the viewpoint where you get a panoramic view of the canyon.
Along the road, you’ll be tempted out of your car again and again at various turnouts.
However, if you do stay a couple of days in Kauai, I highly recommend a helicopter tour here.
That’s the best pay-off for getting into this magnificent canyon to enjoy close-up viewing of the mighty Waipoo Falls that can be seen from the viewpoint.
If you feel adventurous and have hiking experience, there are also several trails one can walk down into the canyon. Caution is needed though (and great shoes!)
Avoid the trails if it has been raining since landslides can occur and it’s easy to get injured—or even die—with a lack of experience.
In fact, if you’d like to leave the driving to someone else, book a full-day guided tour to Waimea Canyon (with a convenient pick-up from your hotel!). Check price and availability here.
Waimea Canyon should definitely be on your Kauai Bucket list, even if you’ve already seen the Grand Canyon!
Where to stay near Waimea Canyon: Waimea Canyon is remote so it’s far better to stay near Popipu on the south end of the island for easy access.
While it looks like it would be easy to get to from the North Shore, that’s just not possible.
You can definitely do this as a day trip from the North Shore with lots of drive time but wouldn’t you rather nest in your very private beachfront condo in Poipu?
With a double lanai and epic views of the dramatic Poipu coastline, the ocean waves lull you to sleep at night.
Guest review: “Absolutely amazing views!!! Condo is lovely with a Polynesian flair. Dreaming about coming back!“ —Janet G., Oct 2021
Alex | Swedish Nomad
7. Hike the Kalalau Trail
One of the top 10 things in Hawaii? The Kalalau Trail on the island of Kauai! It is arguably one of the most beautiful trails in the world (and top things to do on Kauai).
It provides breathtaking views of Kauai’s coastline and valleys, and it deserves a spot on every adventure seeker’s bucket list.
This incredible stretches 11 miles along the Nā Pali Coast from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach. And, while the hike is strenuous, it is well worth the work to enjoy this part of the island.
To hike the trail, begin at Ke’e beach, located at the Nā Pali Coast State Park. Arrive early, before 8 am, to ensure a parking spot.
(Note: Ke’e Beach is excellent for snorkeling. As a result, you’ll often find vendors there in the afternoon with excellent fresh, coconut water!)
You’ll hike along the coastline for the first two miles, where you will enjoy amazing views. Even if you are not able to do the entire hike, I highly recommend trying to do the first mile at least!
You’ll then reach Hanakapiai Beach. This beach is beautiful, but not safe for swimming. There are restrooms here that you can use. Many people turn around at this point, but you’ll want to continue on the trail.
Turn left at the fork for two miles—through a beautiful jungle-like forest—to reach Hanakapiai Falls, a stunning 300 foot-high waterfall. Then go right to stay on the Kalalau Trail.
The path is very rugged but doable for experienced hikers who are up for the challenge.
Many hike the entire trail in one day, but camping permits are available for those who would like to enjoy the secluded region of the coast overnight. You can’t beat this experience for Hawaiian adventures!
Remember to bring plenty of water and food, and don’t forget to wear your best hiking shoes, so that you can fully enjoy all that this beautiful island has to offer.
Where to stay near the Kalalau Trail: It’s a short drive to the trail from anywhere on the North Shore, but if you’re looking for a bucket list stay, relax in a private condo at world-famous Hanalei Bay Resort, located on 22 acres of lush foliage with an award-winning tennis program.
Enjoy jaw-dropping views of Hanalei Bay and Bali Hai over a leisurely breakfast on your lanai. One of the pools here is voted among the 10 best in the U.S.!
Guest review: “Words cannot truly describe this vacation rental…the view from the huge balcony is stunning!” —Gary W., Feb 2020
Leah | An Adventure is Calling
8. Snorkel with Sea Turtles at Tunnels
Tunnels Beach is one of the best places in Kauai! If you’re wondering about what to do in Hawaii for a week and are headed to Kauai, be sure to snorkel at Tunnels.
Thankfully, we stumbled across it while beach hopping the northern part of the island. Onshore, it really is the picture-perfect beach.
The sand is a gorgeous golden color and the beach is lined with plenty of palm trees. Opposite the beach is a lush, tropical jungle with various hiking trails not far away.
Just offshore, lava tubes create underwater caves and tunnels giving the beach its name. The lava tubes are the perfect home for all kinds of tropical fish, large and small, making Tunnels Beach an excellent snorkeling and diving spot.
I’m always a little nervous going out past where I can touch the bottom in the ocean, but the longer you are out there and the more colorful sea life you see, the more comfortable you will become.
The thing that makes Tunnels Beach truly bucket list-worthy is the sea turtles that come up to swim with you.
The wild turtles were a completely unexpected surprise when we stopped. And snorkeling with them is a one of the coolest things to do in hawaii.
And one of the most memorable things to note is that parking for the beach is limited.
It’s recommended that you park at Haena Beach Park. The best way to get a closer parking spot is to arrive early in the morning!
Where to stay near Tunnels: It’s a 20-minute drive from Princeville to Tunnels so Princeville makes a great base for seeing Queen’s Bath and all of the other amazing beaches here on the North Shore.
(Note: Don’t swim in Queen’s Bath however tempting it might seem. People are swept away by the waves here all the time.)
Stay in oceanfront luxury at 5 star Puu Poa and see whales and dolphins from your lanai. A short trail brings you to secluded Hideaways Beach. Plus, cocktails at the luxurious Princeville Hotel are just a few steps away.
Guest review: “The property was situated on a beautiful cliff above the Pacific. Hours can be spent on the lanai just watching and listening to the waves crash the shoreline. We spotted several whales as well. There is a telescope in the atrium.” — Doreen D. Feb 2020
Nikki | Chasing Departures
9. Kayak to a Secret Waterfall and Hike Wailua Canyon
Hawaii is one of our absolute favorite destinations for outdoor adventure and natural beauty. The garden island of Kauai is simply breathtaking.
One of our favorite activities here was a fun day of kayaking and hiking along the scenic valley of the Wailua River. It’s one of the very best Kauai destinations.
Setting off in the dappled morning sunshine, we enjoyed a relaxed paddle along the Wailua River taking in the majestic mountain scenery and enjoying the serenity with little more than the occasional bird call breaking the silence.
Before long, we docked our kayaks on the banks of the river and set off on foot in anticipation of reaching the ‘secret’ waterfall.
With an entertaining river guide showing us the way, we learned about many of the traditions and original uses of the land as we trekked our way through the lush rainforest.
The walk itself, while not overly physical, does include a couple of adventurous river crossings and clambering over old trees and down muddy banks to keep things interesting.
The walk is very slippery in places so I recommend wearing some good quality footwear that you don’t mind getting wet.
We heard the waterfall well before we saw it and then enjoyed a picnic at the very base of the powerful falls.
A swim in the refreshingly icy waters capped off the adventure before backtracking our way home.
Without taking a kayak to these more secluded places in Hawaii, you would never be able to reach these beautiful spots by road so I highly recommend planning such an adventure on your next visit!
In fact, I would recommend this trip for any level of fitness. Even our 7-year-old daughter had a fantastic time. Check price and availability on the Wailua River kayak tour here.
Where to stay for kayaking the Wailua River: Stay on the east side of the island at the Moana Kai beach house.
Not only is it oceanfront, but it comes with a swimming pool you’ve got to see to believe. This area makes a great base for sightseeing on the North and South shores, too.
Guest review: “We really loved staying here for our daughter’s birthday. Pool and Jacuzzi was great!” — Danielle T., Nov 2020
Karen | Big Adventures for Little Feet
Best Things to Do on Maui
10. Drive the Road to Hana
Planning a visit to the Valley Isle in Hawaii? One of the most amazing things to do in Hawaii is to drive The Road to Hana. It should be at the top of your list of things to do in Maui.( It can also be a fun activity with kids.)
Featuring 50+ miles of scenic highway with a series of hairpin turns and several dozen one-lane bridges, the drive is definitely not for the faint of heart.
But it is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Maui. It’s a drive that will take you through some of the most beautiful parts of the wet side of the island on a unique Hawaii adventure.
The drive is routinely included in lists of the top scenic drives around the world. When you drive it, you’ll see why!
Some sensational spots to stop on the drive include Ho’okipa Bay Park, where you can see surfers tackle the waves, and the Ke’anae Peninsula, where the sight of the waves pounding mightily against the black lava rock will take your breath away.
At Wai’anapanapa State Park, you can walk on a beautiful black sand beach and take in the lush tropical coastline around the beach.
Fruit stands on the honor system line the route, so pick up some sweet, local papaya, pineapple, or banana. (Or try some of the famous homemade banana bread!)
If you make stops along the way (and you should!), the drive will take all day, so start early and drive with care and patience.
Or do as we did and book a tour, so you can leave the driving to a local and just enjoy the views!
You can drive back the way you came, or do a loop of the island to return to your starting point. You can check price and availability on the guided Rod to Hana tour here.
Where to stay on the Road to Hana:
Stay in a Hawaiian dream temple. This lush eco-designed Asian-style bamboo temple is rated as one of the top 7 best places to go glamping in Hawaii!
Guest review: “In our 50 years together, my husband (retired pilot) and I have traveled the world…but THIS place…OMG THIS place is ‘it’. It was all divine, magical.” —Mike & Lilian
Dhara | It’s Not About the Miles
11. Take a Helicopter Tour
If you’ve ever been tempted to get a bird’s eye view of a place, Hawaii is the place to finally indulge! In fact, it’s a Maui bucket list item for many.
There’s really nothing like gliding straight up into the air in a matter of minutes and then dipping into lush green valleys past secret waterfalls and remote turquoise pools.
It’s truly a Hawaii bucket list experience and one of everyone’s favorite Hawaiian activities.
Most helicopters have just six seats or so, making your Maui tour from the sky a beautiful and intimate experience.
What to expect: After you board your helicopter and take to the sky, your knowledgeable guide will share an insider’s view of the island, pointing out everything from spouting whales and rainbows to the West Maui Mountains and Hana’s tropical rain forests, depending on the tour you choose.
The right tour will have an excellent safety record, friendly guides, and a local’s perspective on all things Maui.
After your tour, head to one of Maui’s food trucks for a memorable lunch.
Where to stay in West Maui: Kihei makes the perfect base for west Maui as it’s easy to get everywhere on the island. Stay in this luxury penthouse.
It’s the perfect perch for watching whales and turtles at sunset from your private lanai. There are ocean views from every single room!
Guest review: “This was our third perfect stay at #509! You can believe the pictures and the 5 star rating on this condo.” — Stacey
Check price on the Kihei oceanfront penthouse here. Or see my top picks for the best 17 Kihei beach condos here.
Chris | Explore Now or Never
12. Snorkel Molokini Crater
Searching for adventure in Hawaii or scenic tours in Hawaii? Add this one to your Maui itinerary!
Just off Maui’s west coast lies the striking Molokini Crater, a partially submerged volcano crater with a crescent shape.
In Hawaiian mythology, Molokini was a beautiful woman locked in a battle with the powerful goddess Pele for the same man.
In the legend, Pele cuts her rival in two and transforms her into a stone statue. Yikes!
Today, however, the Molokini Crater is unsurpassed as a diving and snorkeling destination. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s like swimming in an aquarium…a tropical fish fantasy come true!
Be sure to book a morning tour (instead of one in the afternoon) as the sea is calmer for clear water and a more satisfying snorkeling experience.
I recommend skipping the larger boats packed with tourists in favor of choosing a catamaran that accommodates just a handful of people.
Plan about a half-day for the tour. It’s about a one hour ride on the boat out to Molokini.
Then you’ll have time for snorkeling and lunch typically before the ride back. Enjoy! It’s a memorable day out. You can check price and availability on a Molokini Crater tour here.
Where to stay near Molokini Crater: Many of the day cruises to Molokini leave from Maalaea Harbor just north of Kihei so an oceanfront condo in Maalaea is ideal to minimize driving for an early departure. Watch turtles from your lanai…just 60 feet from the water.
Guest review: “It was the perfect location for Maui. The apartment is so comfortable and what a view!” — Julie E.
Check price and availability on Maalea oceanfront condo here.
Chris | Explore Now or Never
13. See the Humpback Whales
November to April is the best time of year for whale spotting in Hawaii (although you can still see them earlier or later!). And the best places to spot them are off the coasts of Maui, Big Island, and Kaui.
That’s because more than 10,000 humpbacks migrate from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to Hawaii this time of year.
In Maui, the Auau channel just south of Lahaina is a particularly fruitful place for whale watching.
When we visited in January, one local told us it was like “whale soup” out there…and it was! Be thoughtful about which tour you book based on the experience you’re seeking.
We enjoyed a memorable morning tour with Pac Whale Eco Adventures, a not-for-profit organization where all profits go to support the Pacific Whale Foundation through research, education and conservation efforts.
It’s one of my favorite Hawaii excursions. Check prices and availability for the tour here.
A naturalist on board taught us all about whale behavior, how to spot them on the horizon (or closer), breeding habits, lifespan, and more.
As a special bonus, after watching full breeches into the sky and dozens of whale flukes slap the water during our tour, we saw an encounter of the closest kind as a mama whale and her baby played just offshore during cocktail hour at the beach!
If you’ve never seen whales up close, treat yourself to a half-day whale watching tour while in Hawaii.
Where to stay in Lahaina: Feel the sea breeze from the water’s edge in a beautiful beachfront luxury oceanfront home. It’s in the heart of Lahaina.
Guest review: “Amazing home in a perfect location. It was so great that we extended our trip twice and ended up staying 2 weeks. It was incredible to have the beach right there, and Lahaina was our favorite town in Maui.”
Chris | Explore Now or Never
14. Catch the Sunset on Mount Haleakala
Mount Haleakala is the peak of the famous Haleakala Crater in Maui’s beautiful Haleakala National Park. It’s truly one of the US National Park’s best treasures and a unique thing to do in Hawaii.
Guidebooks typically point visitors to a sunrise experience, but I recommend heading here after a day of hiking to catch the sunset instead.
But here’s the thing: If you’re staying on the west side of the island, you’re likely to have to hit the road by 4 am or so to make it to the summit of Haleakala in time for sunrise, even if you do manage a reservation.
Unfortunately, the sunrise experience has become so well-known that overcrowding has caused the park to institute a reservation system for anyone who wishes to arrive for a sunrise viewing! (Note: You can only book 60 days in advance.)
One convenient way to see the sunrise—if you don’t mind the crowds—is to do it as a guided sunrise and breakfast tour that picks you up from your hotel and handles all the driving for you.
You can check price and availability on the sunrise Haleakala tour here.
Otherwise, at sunset, there are fewer crowds and no reservation required.
Just remember: Be sure to bring warm clothes. When the sun goes down, temperatures become frigid. Also, check the weather first before you head here with hopes of sunset.
(I’ve personally been foiled on two attempts now due to dense fog and rain. However, a Haleakala sunset remains on my Hawaii bucket list!)
Where to stay near Haleakala: If you’re heading to the park for sunrise, you can skip the early morning drive by staying at the Haleakala Princess Estate, a unique historic home with sweeping views, a huge wraparound deck, and a gorgeous tropical garden with a redwood hot tub. Eat in the garden!
Guest review: “What an amazing place. Better than the description. If I were you and you would like to stay in the Upcountry for a bit, I would build my vacation stay around when you can get this place; it’s that good.” —Nick B., Feb 2021
Chris | Explore Now or Never
Best Things to Do on Molokai
15. Visit the Leper Colony Kalaupapa National Historic Site
One epic Hawaiian adventure that should be on everyone’s bucket list is a trip to the Kalaupapa National Historic Site.
This special place was once a leper colony for victims of Hansen’s Disease (known formerly as leprosy).
For more than a century, between 1865 and 1966, sufferers of the disease we forcibly taken from their homes on other islands and shipped off on a cattle boat to the remote peninsula of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai, where they would live out their days until death.
There are still survivors on the colony today. Even though the disease has been eradicated, and a cure found, many of the residents chose to stay.
Today, Kalaupapa is no longer a prison, but a place where you can go to learn about this sad part of the history of Hawaii and to remember those who were affected by it. It is no longer a leper colony, but a sanctuary and National Historic Site.
Visiting Kalaupapa is not the easiest thing you will do. You must first acquire a permit to visit, book a tour and figure out how you will make it to the town.
You have two options for getting to Kalaupapa: hiking 3.5 miles down 2,000-foot cliffs and 26 switchbacks or flying in on a tiny plane.
Either one promises to be an adventure. Learn more about booking permits and tours for the Molokai leper colony tour.
Where to stay on Molokai: Yes, you can spend the night on Molokai!
Stay steps from the longest white sand beach in Hawaii in an upscale ocean view condo at the Ke Nani Kai Resort. Includes pool, hot tub, and direct beach acess.
Guest review: “Amazing place to relax for 6 days. My teenagers enjoyed the tidal pools and beach. I enjoyed the pool, sunsets, and the milky way.” —Israel C., June 2021
Vanessa | Wanderlust Crew
Best Things to Do on Oahu
16. Race in the Honolulu Marathon
For beginner and avid marathon runners, Honolulu Marathon is one of those activities on Oahu to do during your running career.
What better way to explore the tropical island of Oahu than to run through it for 26.2 miles (42 kilometers) in one day?!
The race occurs on the second Sunday in December and attracts over 25,000 runners from international locations, especially from Japan.
The course starts along Ala Moana Boulevard and continues along the hilly Diamond Head, calming ocean and palm trees, and ends at the Kapiolani Park.
Training for the marathon is recommended to prepare for the distance and physical exertion.
The course doesn’t have a time limit which is perfect for the first-time marathoners. If you want to walk through the whole course, you’re more than welcome to do so.
While the race may not give you a personal best time due to the number of people, it’s a fun course to experience. Runners make the race more enjoyable by dressing up in costumes.
Pikachu was a popular choice during our race. A running couple also ballroom danced their way through the marathon.
The volunteers at the water stations and cheering squad are also great to provide encouragement and high-fives along the route.
Once you cross the finish line, you’ll probably delirious and exhausted. After receiving the finisher’s medal, the best part is stuffing your belly with warm, freshly made malasadas (Portuguese donuts).
The more sugar the better on the malasadas to recuperate energy after accomplishing 26.2 miles. You deserve a massage and beach time after completing this incredible run.
Where to stay for the race: Stay at the only condo in Waikiki where you can step directly from the building onto the sand of Waikiki Beach. This Balinese-inspired beachfront corner condo offers panoramic ocean views by day and sparkling city lights by night.
Guest review: “I can’t say enough about the property and the experience. Being familiar with Waikiki, I knew exactly where the property was but didn’t expect the view to be as good as it was.” — Chris and Kristin L, Dec 2020
Jackie | Life of Doing
17. Hike Diamond Head
It’s must do Oahu! Although many people visit Oahu for the sand and surf, there is no better way to appreciate this beautiful island than from the summit of one of the most famous hikes on Oahu: Diamond Head.
If you only have a few hours to spare—or can’t bear leaving the beach for too long—we recommend Diamond Head for the most bucket list-worthy views of Waikiki. It’s an Oahu bucket list item!
Nicknamed by British sailors in the 1880s for its sparkling summit, chances are you have spotted this striking volcanic crater—450 acres long—from your sunbathing spot on Waikiki Beach.
In fact, if you have time, you can begin the hike from the beach itself! While the hike is only 1.4 miles, due to the steep incline, it takes nearly 2 hours.
To note: If you are claustrophobic, you should be aware that there are a few very narrow, dark corridors to trek through before reaching the summit.
And yet, conquering your fears are so worth it for the incredible panoramic views!
All sweat and struggle will immediately be forgotten as you witness the luscious green landscape hug the towering skyscrapers of Honolulu.
It’s a truly breathtaking experience! Just be aware that such impressive views do attract crowds.
Despite hiking Diamond Head on a weekday before 9 am we still had to queue in some sections of the trail.
Also, remember to bring cash. You’ll pay a small fee of $1 for pedestrians or $5 per car to enter the national park.
Overall, Diamond Head is a challenging, but unmissable experience worthy of your Oahu bucket list!
Where to stay near Diamond Head: Stay at an elegant, mid-century modern tropical home in a Prime Honolulu location. Slide open the beach side doors for sunrise views and balmy trade winds. Dine beachside on the lanai and then head into the jacuzzi.
Lauren | faramagan.com
18. Visit the Polynesian Culture Center
Voted as one of the top attractions in the US in 2018, the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is one of the best places to visit in Oahu. It’s the perfect place to learn about the art of Polynesian dance.
For over 50 years, the center has showcased the unique culture of Hawaii and the Polynesian islands via a series of interactive shows and displays.
Your visit to the PCC includes a trip to villages of six island nations of the Pacific where you learn how to shimmy up a palm tree to grab a coconut, do a scary Maori war dance, and drum Tahitian style.
There are canoe tours and an impressive pageant where dancers perform on boats floating along the central river.
You can even get a temporary Fijian tattoo and see replicas of the famed Moai statues from Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
When it is time to eat, you can’t miss the award-winning Ali’i luau. It’s the best entertainment in Hawaii. After the lei greeting ceremony, take your seats and get ready for a feast of the senses.
You can see the Polynesia Cultural Center on your own or leave the driving to someone else when you book a guided Best of Oahu day tour that also includes a visit to Pearl Harbor.
Check price and availability on the Best of Oahu tour here.
Try the traditional poké and freshly roasted kalua pork while you watch dance performances from all the countries of Polynesia.
You can’t help but be impressed by the fire dancers and grinning keiki (small children) in their national costumes.
In the evening, the entertainment continues in the center’s theatre show: Hā: Breath of Life. This spectacular production tells the story of the beautiful islands of Polynesia through dance and song.
The Polynesian Culture Center is an Oahu must do! You can reserve a ticket here.
Where to stay away from the crowds: If you’re heading to Oahu and looking to skip the crowds in Waikiki, stay on turquoise Turtle Bay on Oahu’s idyllic North Shore.
Enjoy dramatic ocean views from your villa at the Turtle Bay Resort. Walk right out the sliding glass door, across the lawn and onto the san. Tiki torches set the mood at night.
Guest review: “The unit is just like the pictures. Modern & very nice. Just feet from the beach. The hike along the beach and down to Campbell Preserve is breath taking.” — Drew B. Jan 2021
Katy | Untold Morsels
19. Snorkel Hanauma Bay
While I was visiting Ohau, snorkeling the Hanauma Bay was a top priority. Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve, formed within a volcanic cone, is in the southeast of Ohau.
Hana is the Hawaiin word for “bay” and “Uma” refers to the curves of Hawaiin canoes that fished this beautiful bay in earlier days.
While it was declared a protected sanctuary in 1967, Hanauma Bay has been overloved by tourists. (In fact, it was voted best beach in the United States in 2016.)
So in 1990, the City of Honolulu came up with a restoration plan since it’s still one of the best places to go in Oahu.
Today, each visitor to the park watches a nine-minute video before entering to learn about marine life, preservation, and safety.
The beach itself is stunning and quite a large area around the bay, though it can get very busy on sunny days.
You can pack your own food and cooler, but there are also snack bars if you want to buy something.
Snorkeling is a must to see the beautiful coral, 400 species of tropical fish, and Hawaiin sea turtles. (They have a nesting ground nearby.)
Visit on weekdays for fewer crowds. One important thing to note: As of February 2021, as a way to protect this fragile area from over tourism, the State of Hawaii now requires an advance reservation to visit Hanauma Bay.
This is a bit tricky since reservations can only made 48 hours in advance of visiting and reservations go quickly.
If you’d prefer to skip the wrangling for a reservation (and parking hassle…parking is not guaranteed with your reservation), book transportation that includes snorkeling equipment and a ticket to Hanauma Bay here.
Where to stay near Hanauma Bay: Enjoy views of seven islands and Hawaiian sunrises from a semi-private pier at this on-the-beach luxury home. Rinse off after beach time in the hot water outdoor shower and dine island style on the outdoor deck.
Guest review: “Our stay at Makapu’u Hale was beyond our expectations. The ocean practically comes right up to your feet as you relax on the porch, hammock or in the hot tub. The wave sounds lull you to sleep every night.” —Timothy H., May 2020
Clare | Travels in Peru
20. Skydive on the North Shore
If skydiving has been on your bucket list, then skydiving in Hawaii should be at the top!
What better place to jump out of an airplane than over an island in the Pacific Ocean? It’s one of the best experiences in Hawaii to enjoy.
We had an opportunity to go skydiving over the North Shore in Oahu, Hawaii, and cannot recommend it enough.
The whole process was so smooth, and our instructors who jumped out with us were awesome.
It will be a tandem dive, which means you will not be jumping out alone, and your instructor will do all the heavy lifting, including pulling the shoot and landing. You just get to enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it will be! Going up in the plane is a fun ride, but as soon as they open the door, it becomes so real.
The instructor I had actually asked me if I wanted to do backflips—or frontflips—out of the plane!
I asked him which he could do more of, and he said backflips, so we headed out in a backflip.
One of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. After they pull the shoot open, you’ll get to enjoy the slow and peaceful ride down.
We were spotting sea turtles in the ocean below. If you’re really looking for a true bucket list experience, skydiving should be at the top!
Sara | Our Kind of Crazy
Where to stay on North Shore: Turtle Bay is the perfect spot. Check out the ocean view villa at Turtle Bay Resort.
Guest review: “We loved our stay. The unit is perfect and is just steps from the beach!” —Chad F.
21. Tour Pearl Harbor
What to see in Hawaii? Pearl Harbor, also known as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, is an emotional and memorable experience for many.
This sobering and historic site conveys the history of the U.S. military’s presence in Hawaii and the events leading up to the attack on December 7, 1941.
As you tour around this National Historic Landmark, remember those who were lost that day, and the wave of patriotism that spread throughout the country after.
Keep in mind that this is a memorial site and resting place for thousands of individuals who perished.
The most visited Memorial is the USS Arizona, which is free of charge. However, we highly recommend you book an entry ticket well ahead of time.
The three other memorial sites —the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum—require paid ticket entry.
The Battleship Missouri, though not present at the time of the attack, was where the documents were signed to end the war between the U.S. and Japan.
Be the first at the Memorial’s entrance doors when they open to ensure you can see the sites without being overcrowded. On average, plan to spend around three hours at Pearl Harbor.
If you are keen on seeing all the sites and reading about the history at each, plan for double that time.
Pearl Harbor is an active military base, thus bags are not permitted at the memorial sites; however, there are lockers at the Visitor’s Center.
Don’t miss the opportunity to step back in time to this crucial moment in U.S. history. It’s one of Oahu’s top things to do!
This is one bucket list adventure that is really worth doing with a local guide for the full experience…especially since you’ll otherwise need to drive to two locations to experience the moving Arizona Memorial and see the famous Battleship Missouri Memorial (which is on Ford Island).
Check price and availability for a skip-the-line Pearl Harbor tour here. (It includes admission to both iconic battleships)
Christa | Expedition Wildlife
Where to stay near Pearl Harbor: Nearby Kapolei makes the perfect base to minimize drive time to Pearl Harbor.
Stay in unforgettable Ko Olina. This 11th floor oceanview penthouse is truly exceptional.
Check price and availability at Ko Olina here.
Guest review: “It truly is a gem of a place to stay on Oahu. The condo is so comfortable, the owners very responsive, and the location unbeatable. If you are looking to vacation on Oahu then this is your place to stay! You will not regret it, guaranteed!” —Jimmy C.
22. Watch the Sunrise at Lanikai Beach
Hawaii activities in Oahu must include a sunrise. One of the most beautiful bucket list experiences that we had on the island of Oahu was watching the sunrise at Lanikai Beach. It’s a popular hike on Oahu for a reason!
Rated frequently as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, it was an easy choice to include a sunrise there to our itinerary.
Lanikai is located on the island’s windward side, which is where you need to be to watch the sun rise over the ocean.
Because it is located in the west, Hawaii’s time zone makes for early mornings for many visitors especially at the beginning of a trip.
Instead of lamenting the fact that the time difference causes you to wake up before dawn while on vacation, use it to your advantage!
Do your research beforehand, check the time of the sunrise, and plan to arrive a full half hour before as that is when the sky starts to light up.
To access the beach, park along Mokolua Drive and use one of the easily spotted paths between the residences—be quiet and considerate in the early morning hours—and head to the sand.
The white sand beaches, gently swaying palm trees, and colorful skies with scattered clouds are perfectly stunning.
Bring your camera and grab a coffee and breakfast before or after at Kalapawai Market nearby. You will be accompanied by only a handful of other viewers on this gorgeous beach, most of them with their tripods.
It can feel like just you and the ocean in your own little beautiful section of paradise. We found this peaceful experience to be the perfect way to start an amazing day in Hawaii!
Sierra | Free to Travel Mama
Where to stay near Lanikai Beach: This is the perfect hideaway to enjoy the best of Lanikai Beach’s heavanly reef-protected waters. This lovely home accommodates up to 14 guests making it the perfect place to host family and friends.
Check prices and availability on the Lanikai Beach hidewaway here.
Guest review: “Perfect family getaway. Our stay at Walker’s Beach House was wonderful in every respect. Three generations could gather under one roof and yet have enough space for downtime.” — Anonymous, Feb. 2020
23. See the Big Wave Riders
If you’re headed to Oahu in winter (technically, November to March), head directly to the wild and scenic North Shore to watch the Big Wave riders compete. As one article put it recently: “It’s the epicenter of the surf universe.”
This is where the most famous surfing competitions in the world are held…here at the Bonzai Pipeline.
On our most recent visit, we happened upon the women’s finals in the World Surf League’s Billabong Pro Pipeline and watched wildcard entrant Moana Jones make surfing history. The 22 year old beat a five time world champion to clinch her win!
The previous day, legend Kelly Slater celebrated his 50th birthday by crushing the younger competition for the men’s title.
Truly, there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of watching these pros take on monster waves. After the competition, head over to nearby Shark’s Cove or Haleiwa to sample the vibrant North Shore food truck scene.
Where to stay near the Bonzai Pipeline on the North Shore: I can’t say enough good things about the studio we rented just across from Sunset Beach, not far from Kahuku. You can walk to the Bonzai Pipeline.
My review: This beautiful luxury studio feels like a secret treehouse just across from the beach. You’ll listen to the bamboo rustle outside the lanai as tropical breezes blow through. Heaven on earth!
Check price and availability on the Sunset Beach oasis here.
Best Things to Do on Lanai
24. Visit the Cat Sanctuary
After catching a short flight to the tiny island of Lanai, one of the first stops for many in-the-know animal lovers is the Lanai Cat Sanctuary.
While there are many gorgeous vistas and other fun activities on the island, cat lovers will be hard-pressed to find a place they enjoy more than the Lanai Cat Sanctuary.
It’s a Lanai bucket list item for sure!
Here you are able to visit hundreds of cats who have been relocated to their own beautiful little area, for their safety as well as that of the island’s bird species (who the feral cats like to hunt).
As you walk around, it is almost intimidating to see so many cats, more than five hundred in total.
The mix of sizes, colors, personalities, and breeds makes it extra fun to wander around and spot the different felines, whether hanging out in trees above you, hiding in cabinets next to you, or jogging up for a much-appreciated head scratch.
While you will have a chance to give plenty of love, don’t expect all of these gorgeous creatures to want attention.
But don’t worry, a little bribery with treats goes a long way and will help you make a lot of quick, very demanding friends.
If you are an animal lover visiting Hawaii, a trip to the Lanai Cat Sanctuary is a must!
While there, why not look into volunteering some of your time for their cause? Or just spend a few hours there and be prepared to make lots of furry friends!
Where to stay on Lanai: Yes, you can stay on Lanai! Stay at The Artist’s House, a retreat owned by a local fine artist with a generous deck for viewing the technicolor Lanai sunsets.
Guest review: “Clean, spacious and well-appointed space. Nice art by the host everywhere. Lovely patio. Would happily stay here again.”—Kanishka A., Nov 2021
Buddy | Trailing Away
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