Any 'Best Of' travel guide inevitably includes the Hawaiian Islands as the best place for sun, sand and natural attractions - the place to head for an idyllic beach holiday.
Hawaii has some of the best beaches in the United States, each unique in its dimensions, shapes and hues. These sandy stretches are fronted by crystal waters teeming with tropical fish darting through forests of coral. Some of the world's best surfing and watersport opportunities are offered here and for those intent on premium sightseeing it is hard to beat the thrill of watching lava flow from the world's longest erupting volcano.
Visitors who relish exploring different cultures and ancient civilisations will find the best of Polynesian relics in which to indulge their passions, as they soak up some of the (spiritual power) with which the islands were imbued by the legendary gods and goddesses.
The state of Hawaii includes approximately 130 islands in the Pacific Ocean, many of which are uninhabited. The islands lie about 1,600 miles (2,600km) off the coast of mainland USA. The largest island, Hawaii, is known unimaginatively as the Big Island, but the state capital, Honolulu, and most of the population is located on the smaller island of Oahu, which is also the main tourist destination. The other main islands are Maui, Molokai and Kauai. Between them the islands boast an amazingly diverse geography providing endless recreation opportunities, from snowboarding on mountain summits to hiking through rainforests. It's no wonder that Hawaii is one of the most popular travel destinations in the United States: the possibilities offered by a Hawaiian holiday are limited only by the boundaries of the imagination.
Hawaii is not only rich in natural beauty but is also steeped in spectacular history, making it a superb destination to explore.
Most visitors tend to be drawn to the beaches on their arrival and Hawaii will certainly not disappoint. Waikiki is a beautiful stretch of the oceanfront and is considered to be Hawaii's most popular tourist attraction, offering visitors a vibrant experience with loads of exciting nightlife and entertainment too. The shoreline of Oahu is certainly a main attraction in its own right, drawing not only beach-goers but surfers to the north shores for some sun, sand and surf. With many resorts on any one of the spectacular islands to choose from and the lively nightlife and good cuisine found in most regions, relaxation is not hard to find on the Big Island.
Other renowned attractions of Hawaii include the Diamond Head Crater; Hilo, which has been dubbed 'Hawaii's forgotten city'; the award-winning Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu; The Polynesian Cultural Centre; the USS Arizona Memorial; and The Haleakala National Park. With so much to choose from and an array of tastes catered to, Hawaii will leave any visitor more than satisfied and with the plan of a possible return visit in the works!
The main attraction for visitors to Oahu are the range of 139 beaches which, from the pounding waves of the north shore to the gentle swells of Waikiki in the south, offer the chance to bathe and soak up the sun, or tackle a variety of watersports in water temperatures that never fall below 75ºF (24ºC) all year round.
The south shore is favoured by families, offering picnic spots and opportunities for snorkelling, tide-pooling and swimming. Magic Island near Waikiki is a peninsula where the beach is protected by a man-made breakwater offering safe bathing and a stretch of shady, grassy areas on which to picnic. At Ala Moana Beach a half-mile of white sand is protected by a reef, washed by calm shallow waters. Hanauma Bay marine sanctuary is located in the crater of an extinct volcano and is an ideal snorkelling spot while Waikiki Beach, the most famous stretch of sand in the world, draws about four million visitors a year to its sands where sun worshippers can buy fast food, snacks and cocktails to enjoy under their rented umbrellas.
The North shore is favoured by surfers, particularly during the winter months when waves can reach heights of 25 feet (8m) at beaches like Ehukai with its famed Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Waimea Beach.
The East shore boasts lush tropical beach settings with conditions ideal for windsurfing and sailing. Kailua Beach Park is picturesque and usually in the 'top ten beaches in the United States' lists. Lanikai is even better. Sandy Beach is popular for kite-flying, and Waimanalo offers four miles of uninterrupted white sand framed by palm trees.
On the West coast the Ko Olina Resort and Marina offers seven crescent shaped sandy beaches with palm trees and views of the Waianae Mountains, and Yokohama Bay is a quiet, beautiful spot away from the madding crowds.
Hula down to Hilo, which has been dubbed 'Hawaii's forgotten city' on the coast of the Big Island, for a dose of old-time Hawaii. The city may be the second largest in the State, but Hilo has a small-town feel. Overlooking beautiful Hilo Bay, and dominated by two volcanoes (the active Mauna Loa and dormant Mauna Kea), the city was a trading centre for native Hawaiians in ancient times, then became an important port once the westerners had discovered that the area was ideal for growing sugar cane.
More modern times have seen Hilo bear the brunt of two tsunamis, one in 1946 and another in 1960, but the hardy citizens of Hilo cleaned up their city after each affliction and now the high-water marks of these devastating events are a tourist attraction, along with the Pacific Tsunami Museum on the corner of Front and Kalakaua Streets.
Although reminders of the past are everywhere, in the architecture and attractions, Hilo is a young, happening city, home to the University of Hawaii and the Merrie Monarch Festival, celebrating hula dancing, held annually in the week after Easter.
Another of the hottest happenings in Hilo is the Farmers' Market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays along Front Street, when more than 100 vendors set up their stalls selling everything from fresh produce to Portuguese pastries and native crafts.
The downtown area of Hilo contains Hawaii's largest collection of historic buildings, dating back to the turn of the century. There are plenty of restaurants, museums, a rainforest zoo and the beautiful Nani Mau Gardens to explore. Beyond the city itself the countryside is photogenically beautiful, with waterfalls plunging down the hillsides, forming rainbows that light up the lush vegetation. It rains a lot, but mostly in the late afternoons, ensuring that the area stays vividly green. The volcanic beaches in the area are covered in jet-black sand, offsetting the brilliant white spray and blue, glassy waters. Hilo is a colourful kaleidoscope of Hawaii, filled with friendly, smiling people waiting to welcome visitors.
Hawaii's top tourist attraction, the Polynesian Cultural Centre, is situated on the Kamehameha Highway in Laie on the scenic north shore of Oahu island. This remarkable venue, visited by more than one million people a year, consists of seven Polynesian 'islands' in a beautifully landscaped 42-acre setting, representing Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Tonga, all situated in a freshwater lagoon.
The centre gives visitors a holistic insight into the culture of the different Polynesian communities, employing students from the nearby Brigham Young University-Hawaii campus to bring various activities, from pageants and ceremonies to tribal tattooing demonstrations, to life.
A highlight of a visit to the Centre is the evening show spectacular, 'Horizons', presented in the 2,770 seat Pacific Theatre with its multi-level stages allowing for fiery volcanoes and brilliant fountains to erupt as special effects in this huge Polynesian song and dance revue.
The Bishop Museum in Honolulu is the largest museum in Hawaii and the premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific, recognised worldwide for its cultural collections, research projects and educational programmes. The museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop, in honour of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family of Hawaii.
Originally the museum housed the extensive family heirlooms of the royal family, but now the collection includes millions of artefacts, documents and photographs relating to Hawaii and other Pacific island cultures. It also has one of the largest natural history specimen collections in the world. All these treasures are housed in the former Kamehameha School for Boys in Bernice Street, Honolulu, established by the princess, which moved to a new location in 1940.
Opposite a bustling shopping centre on the Kahekili Highway in Kaneohe, below the Koolau mountains, nestles a little piece of Japan tucked away in Hawaii. The Valley of the Temples Memorial Park contains oriental gardens and koi ponds, a massive nine-foot Buddha statue, Japanese Tea House and an exact replica of Japan's 900-year-old Byodo-in Temple, the original of which stands in Uji near Kyoto. The temple was recreated to honour the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.
The only royal residence in the United States, the Iolani Palace, stands on the corner of King and Richard Streets in Honolulu, its opulent interior giving a glimpse into the lives of Hawaii's last reigning monarchs between 1882 and 1893.
It was originally home to King Kalakaua and his Queen, until he died in 1891. His successor, Queen Lili'uokalani, then took up residence until the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893 by the US Marines in a palace coup. The palace has been fully restored. Visitors on guided tours can see the portraits of Hawaiian kings and queens, valuable vases and statuary, the grand staircase, the throne room decorated in crimson and gold, the state dining room and the royal family's private quarters.
The USS Arizona was one of several United States battle ships that were sunk by the Japanese Imperial Navy during its surprise historic attack on Pearl Harbour, Oahu, on December 7, 1941, causing the US to enter into World War II. The Arizona sank in about nine minutes, along with 1,177 sailors and marines who were on board.
Visitors are carried by Navy shuttle boats to the unusual memorial centre, which has been constructed over the sunken hull that lies six feet (2m) below. The names of the dead are inscribed in stone inside the memorial. Visitors are shown a documentary film, and can view artefacts and exhibits explaining the tragedy. The memorial is open daily, but there is always a large queue for the free tickets, which are issued on a first-come-first-served basis, so be prepared to wait. Bookings are not taken.
Enter Honolulu's Chinatown neighbourhood through the Gateway Plaza on the corner of Bethel and Hotel streets in the city's downtown business district, and you step into an exciting and exotic world made up of a colourful and eclectic blend of Southeast Asian cultures.
Here Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, and a myriad of other ethnic groups work in harmony to sell their wares, serve their delicacies and perpetuate their cultural traditions.
The market sells an array of delicacies from noodles to duck eggs, and tantalising smells issue from the numerous inexpensive speciality restaurants in this 15-block area. Visitors can also consult a herbalist, view an art exhibit, watch a dragon procession, make an offering at a Buddhist temple, or perhaps buy a precious jade memento in this rich and memorable part of town.
The Haleakala National Park extends from the summit of the volcano, down into the crater, then across the volcano's southeast slopes to Maui's east coast, beyond the town of Hana. The main reason for the park being visited by nearly one and a half million people a year, is the attraction of peering down into the crater of what is the world's largest dormant volcano. Haleakala last erupted in 1790, and has been deadly quiet ever since, although it is not considered to be inactive. The massive crater covers 19 square miles (49 sq km): big enough to hold the whole of Manhattan. Hawaiians regard the crater as a sacred site.
It is possible to drive to the summit along a twisting road that climbs 10,000 feet (3,000m) in just 37 miles (60km); visitors can also explore the desolate landscape inside the crater on hiking or biking trails. There are numerous other opportunities for recreational activities in the National Park too. The Park's headquarters just inside the park entrance provides information of activities and programmes offered. The Haleakala Visitor Centre near the summit of the volcano explains, via exhibits, the history, ecology, geology and volcanology of the area.
The Maui Ocean Centre is an unrivalled aquatic experience and the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. The Centre is located in oceanfront Ma'alaea Village off the Honoapiilani Highway, within minutes of all major resort areas; it consists of indoor and outdoor displays allowing visitors to see, touch and explore Hawaii's unique marine environment. The walk-through aquarium contains thousands of fish showcased in more than 60 interactive habitat exhibits, including the Turtle Lagoon, Hammerhead Harbor, Sea Jelly Gallery, and the Marine Mammal Discovery Center.
One of Lahaina's best preserved 19th-century landmarks, the house in Front Street built by Rev. Dwight Baldwin in 1834, stands now as the oldest house in Maui. Baldwin was a missionary who started a farm on the island and was responsible for growing the first plantations of Hawaii's indigenous pineapples, the fruit that is now enjoyed worldwide.
Baldwin's home gives an insight into island life in the missionary era. Alongside is the Master's Reading Room, another of Maui's oldest buildings, which used to be frequented by visiting sea captains when missionaries closed down seafront bars in the early 19th century. The building is now occupied by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which issues maps and guides for visitors wishing to take a walking tour around Lahaina's historic attractions.
No visit to Maui is complete without hitting the highway - the Hana Highway, that is - that runs for about 50 miles (81km) between Kailua and Hana on the northeastern coast of the island. This hair-raising but incredibly scenic coastal drive was built in 1927 by gangs of convicts. It twists and turns its way along the coastal cliffs, containing 56 bridges and 600 hairpin bends. The route winds through numerous lush valleys lined with dozens of waterfalls, dense rainforest, bamboo thickets, fern groves and tulip trees.
Visitors need at least a day to traverse the highway, stopping to enjoy a dip in mountain pools or exploring off-shooting hiking trails, many of which lead to historic sites, like the little 19th century church built of lava and coral in the village of Keanae. There are two national parks on the route, some lava caves, blowholes, temple ruins and of course unsurpassed views.
The stately mansion of Hulihe'e is situated on Alii Drive in Kailua Kona on the west coast of Hawaii's Big Island. It was built in 1883 and served as the holiday home of Hawaiian royalty until 1925 when it was turned into a museum; it now houses a collection of ancient Hawaiian artefacts and personal memorabilia of the Hawaiian royal family. The bust of King Kalakaua's presides over the entrance hall, while the beautiful Koa dining table carved from a single log of wood graces the Kuhio Room.
Little touches like Princess Ruth's hatbox made from the trunk of a coconut tree and the cradle of Prince Albert, son of King Kamehameha IV, bring alive a sense of history in the house. The highlight of the collection is the impressive wardrobe in the Kawanakoa Room, which is made of koa wood and trimmed with the King's crest and carvings of classic Greek muses.
In the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park surrounding the earth's most massive volcano, Mauna Loa, visitors can actually watch lava flow into the sea from Kilauea, the still active on-site volcano. Park rangers direct visitors to the daily eruption activity on a dramatic burnt landscape, which transforms the landscape with the ongoing eruption. The park is located 30 miles (48km) southwest of Hilo on Highway 11, on the south-east coast of Big Island. Inside the park the Thomas A Jaggar Museum provides a fascinating insight into the geology of a volcano, as well as the cultural aspect of Hawaii's legendary volcano goddess, Pele. Visitors can view seismograph readings, study earth science displays and enjoy photographs of volcanic eruptions.
Hilo has been destroyed several times by tsunamis. The first-hand oral testimony of tsunami survivors is now preserved along with some other fascinating information in the Pacific Tsunami Museum, located on Kamehameha Avenue in the town. The museum features a series of permanent exhibits that interpret the tsunami phenomena, the Pacific Tsunami Warning system, the history of tsunami in the Pacific Basin, tsunami of the future, myths and legends about tsunami and public safety measures for tsunami disasters.
This important Hawaiian cultural and historical site on the black-lava Kona Coast of the Big Island contains some forbidding-looking giant idols, although it was in fact built as a refuge for ancient Hawaiians who had violated kapu (social taboo) or as a sanctuary for defeated warriors. The surrounding area outside the huge enclosing wall was home to several generations of powerful chiefs.
The 182-acre park also boasts other archaeological sites including some temple platforms, royal fishponds and the ruins of ancient villages. The Hale o Keawe temple, which contains the mortal remains of 23 Hawaiian chiefs, and some thatched buildings have been reconstructed.
Synonymous with surf, sand and sun, Hawaii is a place where South African and Australian surf legends Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards and Wayne 'Rabbit' Bartholomew pioneered the surfing scene, turning it into the professional sport it is today. Hawaii's surfing beaches are internationally famous, as immortalised in the surfing documentary Riding Giants.
The most famous surfing beach in Hawaii is Oahu's North Shore, featuring the classic point break of Waimea Bay as well as the likes of Waikiki, Off the Wall, Backdoor Pipe, Sunset Beach (known for its big wave surfing) and the notorious Pipeline, a reef break located off Ehukai Beach Park ideal for eager spectators, bikini-clad girlfriends and surf photographers due to its close proximity to the beach.
Oahu's North Shore works best during the winter months when large waves are created by winter storms in the North Pacific, a stark contrast to the clear, calm water during the summer months. Other key spots for surfing in Hawaii include a great point break at Magic Sands Point on Big Island, the reef break of Pine Trees in Kauai, and Maui's Honolua Bay.
Beginners are also catered for with small and easy rollers at places like Waikiki Beach, Chuns Reef, Cockroach Bay and Puena Point, and there are plenty of surf schools and experienced instructors available. The south coast of Kauai is also an excellent surfing spot for beginners, with reliable waves at Poipu and Kalapaki Beach.
For a taste of the coffee industry that flourished in the early 20th century on the Big Island visitors can tour the Uchida Coffee Farm, south of Kealakekua town on the Kona Coast. Tour guides in period costumes show off the original farmhouse, bathhouse, coffee mill and drying platforms. Only a few miles away is the Kona Historical Society Museum, housed in the old Greenwell family store, where photographs, ranching and coffee farming exhibits are on display. The store was built by Henry Greenwell in 1875.
Since 90 per cent of Kauai is inaccessible by road, hiking is a great way to experience the island's celebrated natural bounty. There are a number of good hiking trails around the island, but by far the most famous, and the most popular, is the strenuous 11 mile (about 18km) Kalalau trail, which winds along the Na Pali Coast. This spectacular coastline is dotted with waterfalls and swift-flowing streams, which over centuries, have cut steep, narrow valleys, that terminate in rugged cliffs overhanging the ocean.
The trail begins at the end of the road at Kee Beach, and most hikers will opt to camp out for at least one night before returning. It is possible only to hike the first two miles (about 3km) of the trail, which will lead hikers to Hanakapiai Beach, where they'll be greeted by breathtaking views of Kauai's North Shore. Note that the Kalalau trail will take even well-conditioned hikers a full day to complete, and should not be undertaken lightly; however, those who are willing to put in the effort, will be richly rewarded.
Permits are required when continuing beyond Hanakapi'ai Valley (two miles into the trail), whether you are planning to camp overnight or not, and can be obtained from the State Parks office in Lihue during normal business hours.
The award-winning Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu is home to more than 3,500 plants and animals. One of the oldest aquariums in the United States, the facility is a great place to say hello to the colourful inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean, including zebra shark, giant octopus, monk seal, sea turtles, and giant clam.
The aquarium offers classes and activities for children, however these are very popular and must be booked in advance to avoid disappointment.
One of the most famous landmarks in Hawaii, Diamond Head dominates the landscape over Honolulu. Officially termed an extinct volcanic tuff cone, the mammoth cone is a US Monument, and a popular attraction on Oahu.
Located near resorts and beaches in Honolulu, Diamond Head has a hiking trail that takes roughly two hours to complete; while the trail is uneven and includes nearly 200 steps, the view of Oahu from the summit is well worth the effort.
Note that hikers should bring plenty of water and protection from the heat, as there are no facilities along the trail, and the only comfort station is located at the base of the crater.
A rugged coast of extreme beauty, the Na Pali Coastline stretches 15 miles (24km) from Ke'e Beach all the way to Polihale State Park on the island of Kauai. The rugged cliffs create a paradise of peaks and valleys, bubbling streams and dramatic waterfalls.
The area is inaccessible by car; the Kalalau Trail from the end of Hawaii Route 56 (called the Kuhio Highway) provides the only land access for hikers, traversing 11 miles (18km) and crossing five major valleys before reaching Kalalau Beach at the base of Kalalau Valley. A popular way to explore the NÄ Pali Coast is by kayak as the original islanders did, allowed by permit between May and September.
The climate of Hawaii is more subtropical than tropical, due to the fact that the sea surrounding the islands has a moderating effect. Weather conditions tend to be fairly consistent, with little temperature variation. There are two seasons, neither of which is particularly extreme. Summer (May to October) has pleasant temperatures and humidity is low, with the average highs of 82°F (28°C). Winter (November to April) has temperatures that rarely fall below 65°F (18°C). The climate of each Hawaiian island can differ according to whether they fall on the windward side or not, as those areas on the windward side experience more rain and cloud cover caused by prevailing north easterly trade winds. Hawaiian resorts tend to therefore cluster on the leeward sides so that tourists can enjoy the benefits of more sunshine.
Located in Honolulu's Chinatown, Helena's Hawaiian Food is an unassuming eatery that has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the best restuarants in Oahu to sample Hawaiian specialties like Kalua Pig, Lomi Salmon, Pipikaula-Style Short Ribs, and Haupia (a coconut milk-based dessert). Portions are small and economical, which allow diners to try several dishes at once, or sample one of the set menus. Helena's is always busy, so expect to wait a minimum of 15 minutes for a table. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday, 10.30am to 7.30pm.
Uncle Clay's doesn't have a large menu, but that hasn't stopped it from becoming one of the most popular restaurants in Hawaii. The restaurant specialises in a range of shaved ices using all-natural ingredients ranging from sweet potato and kale to chocolate, guava and coffee: this isn't your average snow cone! Uncle Clay and his staff draw equally rave reviews for the friendly service. Despite the restaurant's location in an unassuming strip mall, it is a must-visit on any trip to Honolulu.
An old-school steakhouse with a reputation for the best cuts of beef in Honolulu, Hy's Steakhouse is set in an elegant wood-panelled dining room in the Waikiki Park Heights Hotel. The menu offers a mixture of American, European, Hawaiian and Pacific cuisine, including their famous Kiawe-Broiled Steaks. Reservations recommended.
Sushi Sasabune isn't a cheap sushi joint with a bumpy conveyor belt; the chefs take pride in each creation, made from the freshest ingredients like Japanese sea urchin, Louisiana blue crab, or Nova Scotia salmon. The elegant dining room offers a menu of excellent options, but the real experience at Sushi Sasabune is to be had at the sushi bar, where 'Sushi Nazi' chefs are very specific about how each type of sushi is to be eaten; a special experience for any sushi lover!
Housed in the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki, La Mer is a breezy and romantic oceanside restaurant known for its impeccable service and French cuisine. The menu, offering choices like Dorade Baked in a Rosemary Salt Crust and Big Island Lobster, is accompanied by an excellent wine selection, and the tasting menu is a great option for diners who just can't decide. Reservations are recommended. Diners should note that children under eight are not allowed at La Mer.
You can't go to Honolulu and not try the malasadas from Leonard's Bakery. Fluffy balls of dough are fried until just crispy and coated in cinnamon and sugar or filled with fresh custard… it's impossible to eat just one! Leonard's Bakery also offers a variety of freshly-baked goods like cookies, cakes, danishes and Pao Doce (Portuguese sweetbread). The small bakery can get very crowded, and unfortunately there are no tables to sit at.