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Hawaii Vacation Guide

Waikiki beach, Honolulu, Hawaii

The islands that make up Hawaii are quite distinct, but as a whole, they represent a wonderland of tropical adventure. With activities including, hiking, dolphin cruises, kitesurfing, sailing, scuba diving, whale watching, surfing, snorkeling and skydiving, Hawaii offers something for everyone. Being the southernmost of the United States, the islands are located in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Though its main islands are located at roughly the same latitude as Central Mexico, the chain of volcanic islands that comprises Hawaii stretches for over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) through the Pacific Ocean. Each of the 132 islands is actually the mountaintop of a giant submerged volcano, though only seven are inhabited.

As the plethora of international surfers here will attest, Hawaii is regarded as the surf capital of the world. Waves of every shape and size bless these shores, especially along the coast of Oahu. In fact, every November, the internationally-acclaimed Triple Crown of Surfing is held at Banzai Pipeline on the northern coast of Oahu. Another famous spot is a beach known as "Jaws," named after the monstrous waves—some reaching 70 feet (21m)—that roll in from seas as distant as Siberia. The most populated of the islands, Oahu is also home to the state capital of Honolulu, which hosts some of Hawaii's best festivals, such as Chinese New Year and Honolulu Festival.

Named after a trickster deity of the Pacific, Maui is Hawaii's second largest island. Due to its numerous canyons found between the two volcanoes that make up the island, Maui is often referred to as the Valley Island. The isthmus connecting the two mountains is home to extensive sugar plantations and perched high above is the volcanic peak of Haleakala. This is currently the world's largest dormant crater, though that may change, as seismologists expect an eruption in the next few centuries. Kaanapali is one of Hawaii's main resort areas and Wailea on the southern Maui coast is another popular tourist destination. Due to its shallow waters, Maui is popular with the humpback whales that come to give birth to their calves every winter.

Being the largest of the island chain, Hawaii is also known as the Big Island. Two of its five volcanoes are still active, including Kilauea, one of the top natural attractions of Hawaii. When Kilauea and Mauna Loa erupt, they often spit lava down the mountains into the sea, which is quite a sight to behold. Also known as the Orchid Isle, the island is home to twelve climactic zones, with tropical rain forests, deserts and even frozen tundra atop the mighty Mauna Kea volcano. The Big Island hosts the annual Hula Festival, Kona Coffee Festival and Ironman Triathlon.

Lanai is known for its pineapple production but is also home to some amazing marine parks and the impressive rock-strewn Garden of the Gods. Kauai, where Captain Cook first set foot, is one of Hawaii's less visited islands, but not due to any dearth of beauty. The island receives a lot of rainfall, which has resulted in an impressive display of flora—thus its "Garden Island" nickname. Being the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands—over ten million years old—Kauai is home to amazing sights, such as the breathtaking Waimea Canyon.

Mark Twain once called Hawaii the "loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean." Having visited many more tropical islands than our literary friend, we can attest to the truth of his boastful statement. But don't take our word for it—come discover the raw beauty and lively culture for yourself.

Top Attractions

Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii

Waimea Canyon

Also called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, this impressive valley on Kauai is famous for its red lava beds. In ancient times a massive earthquake caused all of the rivers to flow together, which then carved its way through the lava rock. The result is this picturesque canyon, which measures a mile across, twelve miles long and over 3,500 feet (1,067m) deep.


No visit to Hawaii would be complete without a visit to a volcano. Diamond Head, located on Oahu, is a popular spot for hiking. On the Big Island lies the active Kilauea, part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is probably the best spot to see red-hot lava. For those on Maui, Haleakala provides an amazing glimpse into its huge dormant crater. This is our favorite sunrise view in Hawaii, best when visited half an hour before the solar birth.


Nature-lovers flock to Hawaii's beautiful waterfalls. On the Big Island Rainbow Falls and the 440 foot (134m) Akaka Falls are highlights, while Maui is blessed with the Seven Sacred Pools, which is on the road to Hana. Kauai is bedecked with plenty of cascades as well; Opaekaa Falls on the North Shore is perhaps Hawaii's most impressive. Besides great photo ops, the fresh-water pools of these waterfalls are the most refreshing reason to visit.


Yes, in Hawaii there are flowers everywhere! For those that want a closer glimpse than the traditional lei around the neck, there are some amazing gardens to check out. Maui's Kula Botanical Garden is home to over seven hundred native and exotic plants, such as orchids and bromeliads. Oahu's Foster Botanical Garden is renowned for its exotic trees, but the jewel in our opinion are the sprawling Liluokalani Gardens on the Big Island, which are elegant Japanese gardens complete with pagodas, bonsai and a moon gate bridge.

Garden of the Gods

Here on the north shore of Lanai, this exotic rock garden is one of the most mystical spots of Hawaii. Volcanic activity has created rocks of every shape and color imaginable and distributed them throughout this wind-swept locale. It comes as no surprise ancient Hawaiians saw a supernatural force at work here in this Garden of the Gods.

Battleship Row

This collection of military naval ships at Pearl Harbor is quite impressive, especially the USS Arizona Memorial which pays tribute to the 1,117 US servicemen that lost their lives on that fateful December 7th in 1941. The US Battleship Missouri Museum and the submarine museum here are worth a visit as well.


Yes, it's true: Hawaiian beaches do live up to their hype. Whether looking for turquoise waters to snorkel, a tranquil bay for swimming or white sands to stroll, Hawaiian beaches offer something for everyone. For the best sunrise and breathtaking turquoise waters, check out Lanikai Beach on Oahu. Punaluu beach on the Big Island is our favorite black sand beach, especially with its endangered turtles and freshwater pool.

Marine Parks

With nine marine life conservation areas, Hawaii is the ideal spot to bring along snorkel and fins. The most well-known parks are Waikiki Beach and Hanauma Bay on Oahu, Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island and Molokini off the coast of Maui. But don't forget Manele Bay and Hulopoe Bay off the coast of Lanai. There are plenty of tour agencies that offer snorkeling trips and scuba dives.

Downtown Honolulu

In addition to top-notch restaurants and bars, there are some great nightclubs here in the big city as well. 'Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on US soil, is a great spot for a day-time visit, as is the Mission House which presents the history of the missionaries that arrived in the mid 1800s. The original house is still decorated with its original furniture and provides a great insight into the history of the times. In addition the State Capitol and Hawaii Maritime Museum are among many of the other popular tourist attractions.


As any surfer will soon learn, Hawaii is the land of the big waves. The surf is great year-round, though the action shifts between the northern coast in the winter and the southern coast in the summer. Oahu is blessed with the most active surf scene, especially the town of Haleiwa. Surf enthusiasts won't want to miss the Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Rip (both off of Oahu), which are arguably the two best breaks in the world.

Hawaiian People and Culture

Hawaiian women performing traditional dance

Though Hawaii has more people of multi-ethnic origin than any other American state, their Aloha spirit bonds them together. Local culture has been shaped by native Hawaiians, as well as Japanese, Filipino, European, Samoan, Korean and Chinese immigrants. Being America's most culturally-diverse state, Hawaii is home to a dizzying array of cultural events and festivals, featuring everything from hula dancing to the Honolulu symphony. Though native Hawaiians possess a rich cultural tradition, it was the arrival of Christianity, Hawaii's incorporation with the US and present-day realities that triggered profound effects on the cultural make-up of Hawaii. The death of the kahunas that passed down the oral traditions of the past sadly resulted in the loss of a lot of indigenous history.

In actuality, the Hawaiians destroyed their heiaus temples and rejected many of their indigenous beliefs before the missionaries' arrival in 1820. The first task of the missionaries—most of who arrived from puritan New England—was to transcribe the native language into written form. They quickly established schools and introduced western medicine and soon enough Christianity had taken over.

But Hawaiians today still hold on to a lot of their native traditions. The hula dance, for example, was once performed as a religious ritual in honor of chiefs and gods, primarily for Laka, the hula goddess. Repetitive chants (mele) are accompanied by music from ukuleles and instruments made from gourds and coconuts. The men used the hula to display their virility, while the women displayed a more sensual side. The hula was discouraged by the puritanical missionaries and faded from public display for years, but thanks in part to King David Kalakaua, it has experienced a renaissance of sorts and remains an important part of present-day Hawaiian culture.

As any visitor will notice, the sense of family (ohana) is extremely strong on the islands. This sense of ohana also extends to ancestors whom are still revered today. Large families often live together and most social gatherings are dominated by family ties. Luaus, the famous Hawaiian beach parties, are big family affairs as well. This tradition, centered around Kalua pig —cooked in an underground oven—is a popular way for visitors to sample Hawaiian delicacies such as limu (seaweed) and haupia (coconut pudding). With exposure to such bountiful spreads of food, the word ono (delicious) soon creeps into every tourist's vocabulary.

Another tradition that has stood the test of time is lei-giving. Leis were once an integral part of the hula dance as an offering to Laka, but today are bestowed to signify respect, love or welcome. Though flowered leis are the most popular, they can be made from leaves, shells, feathers, animal teeth and seeds as well.

Hawaiians maintain a deep respect for nature, as their ancestors did generations back. Aina symbolizes this respect, which is rooted in ancient Hawaiian religion. Unlike religions that look to the skies for answers, the Hawaiian deities were all land-based, living in the seas, mountains and plants. Though this old religion is no longer adhered to, Hawaiians have maintained their strong connection with nature, which is apparent in their ecological awareness and their local art.

Though technically American citizens, Hawaiians still view themselves as separate from mainlanders and treasure their traditional culture with pride. More and more islanders are learning the Hawaiian language and studying their islands' rich history in order to guarantee its survival well into the future.

Hawaiian History

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Big Island, Hawaii

Due to their isolation in the middle of the Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands were not settled until expert seamen from Polynesia, using their indigenous astronomical and marine knowledge, arrived as early as 700 BC. The first settlers arrived from the Marquesas Islands and then about eighteen centuries later, a group from the Society Islands (Tahiti) settled here as well.

Pre-European Hawaiian society existed without writing, relying on the oral tradition passed down through kahunas to maintain their cultural traditions. Their society was made up of small kingdoms with highly-stratified caste systems. Below the king, his chief minister and high priest were the chiefs (ali'i), whose power was based on ancestral lineage. Next on the chain—though often just as important for society—were the kahunas, who were holy men responsible for administering medicine and casting spells. The majority of the islanders though were common people (makaainana) that fought in the chiefs' armies, paid royal taxes (just like the rest of us) and worked on civic projects, such as building fishpond walls. At the bottom of the totem pole were the slaves (kauwa) who were treated as outcasts.

Tribal culture was based on the kapu system, a strict set of rules that maintained social order and made sure each caste followed ascribed rules. Kneeling in the presence of high-ranking officials was one such rule; breaking any of these sacred "taboos" resulted in harsh punishment or death. Religious life was centered around the local temples (heiau) which were dedicated to the four Gods that symbolized the universal forces: Lone, Kane, Kanaloa and Ku. The ali'i and kahuna performed ceremonies—which sometimes included human sacrifice—while families worshipped their own gods (aumakua).

Though many credit Captain Cook as being the first European to visit these shores, it was actually the Spanish, under the command of Portuguese navigator João Gaetano, who first visited the islands. During one of their many Pacific crosses between their colonies in western Mexico and the Philippines, the Spanish fleet happened upon Hawaii, which they named the Isla de Mesa Group. But the Spanish kept the islands a secret, knowing the British would undoubtedly set out to establish Pacific bases there. But though navigators remained silent, it was the mapmakers that did the Spanish in. In 1742, when the British man-of-war Centurion laid siege to the Pacific, a Spanish galleon was captured and its treasure was seized. But more valuable than any chest of gold was the map that revealed the existence of the Isla de Mesa Group. It is assumed this chart fell into the hands of Captain Cook, who arrived during a local makahiki festival that paid tribute to the Hawaiian deity Lono. It was believed this deity would return to the people on a floating island, so when Cook's two giant ships sailed into Kealakekua Bay on January 20, 1778, the British captain was welcomed with reverence. But when Cook departed the islands the next year and his ship's mast broke, he was forced to return to Hawaii. By that point, the locals realized he was far from God-like and in an ensuing fight, he was killed.

Hawaiian history underwent rapid change from that point forward. Though the islands were united politically for the first time in 1810, when King Kamehameha conquered the islands with his fierce warriors, the arrival of more foreign ships brought diseases that the locals had no immunity for and large numbers of Hawaiians died as a result. Kamehameha wasn't the only member of the royalty to instigate change on the islands. Queen Kaahumanu, convinced her husband King Kamehameha II to eat with women, which helped abolish the kapu system that had treated women as second-class citizens for so long. Then, Liholiho ordered god images and heiau temples to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, relations with the young United States were developing rapidly. In the mid-1800s there was a growing desire on behalf of the sugar plantation owners to annex with the US, in order to provide a stable market for their product. Hawaii's independence was threatened by the sugar trade, especially when the American Civil War cut off the North from the South's sugar supply. By 1866, it was obvious the whites were trying to take over the islands, even sparking a fistfight in the Hawaiian Legislature. Pearl Harbor was soon ceded to the Americans, which was met with widespread disapproval from the Hawaiian public, who were weary about having such a potent power's military base in their backyard. Though most locals were opposed to annexation, the business interests thought the monarchy was incapable of protecting their economic interests. When Queen Lili'uokalani tried to pass a new constitution to strengthen the power of the monarchy, the annexationists took action and formed a provisional government; their militia went on to take over while US Marines and soldiers landed in Honolulu to "maintain order." The Queen soon capitulated in early 1893 and two weeks later, the provisional government raised the American flag over Honolulu. A few years later, Hawaiian loyalists staged a revolt, but the Queen was arrested and the perpetrators defeated.

On January 7, 1898 President McKinley made annexation official and sent a commission of senators to decide what type of laws were needed in Hawaii. The islands remained a "territory" of the US, as many Americans were opposed to granting statehood to a population that was not European in origin.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the governor imposed martial law and turned over all power to the US military until the end of 1944. Though Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps on the mainland, they were not quarantined in Hawaii, perhaps due to their importance in the plantation economy. At that time, the island's economy was dominated by pineapple and sugar plantations, with many of the workers coming from Japan and China.

Natural Wonders

Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii

It is impossible to distinguish the "natural attractions" of these islands, as Hawaii is dominated by nature. Since the islands are merely the tips of underwater volcanoes, we can only imagine the inherent beauty that lies beneath. The exposed mountaintops that comprise this island chain are dominated by rugged lava rock, yet softened by tropical vegetation and bathed by warm seas and sultry sunny weather. From lava deserts to highland rain forests, there is truly a dazzling geographical range on the Hawaiian islands.

The islands are located in a very seismological active region, thus the fury of Hawaii's volcanoes has not passed. On the big island of Hawaii, Mount Kilauea has pumped out 2 billion cubic yards of lava in a little over a decade! It still spews lava and molten rock, which has added over 500 acres of new real estate to the island in the last twenty years. Lying dormant, though no less impressive, is Mount Haleakala on Maui, which allows visitors an exciting look deep into her crater. Along the islands' shores, volcanic rocks protrude from the water and some beaches are covered in black volcanic sand, evidence of molten flow from past millennia. Mauna Kea on the Big Island is the largest mountain on the planet measured from the seafloor, though less than a third of its altitude reaches above sea level.

Another extreme aspect of Hawaii's natural make-up are the seas surrounding the islands. The marine life here is quite an attraction, with everything from whales to sharks to dolphins swimming among the nine Marine Life Conservation Areas. There are plenty of species populating these waters that cannot be found anywhere else in the world; in fact, a quarter of the marine life here is endemic to Hawaii, such as the unofficial state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua'a, also conveniently known as the Hawaiian Triggerfish.

Climbing back onto land, Hawaii is endowed with an incredible array of animals, with more endangered species than any other US state. The state bird, the nene, is an endangered goose endemic to the islands. The intensely colorful tropical flowers, such as the lovely yellow hibiscus, are easily accessed through one of many gardens or state parks peppered throughout the islands. Another natural wonder here are the waterfalls; raging rivers plunge into freshwater pools, including the towering 442 foot (134m) Akaka Falls on the main island.

Due to this intensity and the role of nature in the local culture, Hawaii isn't about "seeing" nature, it's about "living" it.

Climate and Weather

Click for Honolulu, Hawaii Forecast

Hawaii's climate—though complex—is extremely pleasant. The weather is warm year-round and due to northeasterly trade winds that keep the air moving, humidity is not overwhelming. Being more than two thousand miles from the nearest land mass, Hawaii is the most isolated spot on Earth. So, when Arctic winter air finally makes landfall, its temperature is up to 100 degrees warmer than when it left the Arctic. Upon arrival, the cold air has shed its mittens and is ready to bask in the sun.

Due to its tropical location, Hawaii does not experience a lot of variation based on the seasons, but there does exist a big difference in weather from one island to the next. Here on these volcanic islands, the shape of the mountains is the major determinant of climate. Being isolated in the middle of the Pacific, the islands' weather would be identical if each were flat and shaped the same. But the mountains dictate the flow of air, which gives rise to climatic conditions. In the windward areas—where air rises from the sea—moisture forms into clouds, which are responsible for rainfall. But the leeward areas—where air descends—are generally dry and sunny. Plus, many of Hawaii's mountains are so high—rising to nearly 14,000 feet (4,267m)—that temperatures and weather conditions change dramatically. Plenty of frigid mountain climbers that find themselves in sub-Arctic conditions cannot believe they are in Hawaii of all places.

There are generally two seasons in Hawaii; winter ranges from October to April and summer lasts from May to September. Of course the word winter is relative, as temperatures remain in the 70's, though these months do experience more rainfall. Due to storm tracks, atmospheric eddies, anticyclones and other meteorological jargon, winter storms have been known to hit the islands from the surrounding seas for days or weeks at a time. In general though, the dry leeward areas receive all of their rainfall from intense winter storms, while the wetter regions receive their rain from both winter storms and trade wind showers, experiencing less seasonal variation. It is hard to give exact precipitation figures, as some parts of Hawaii receive 5 inches (13 cm) of rain per year, while others are bombarded with 450 inches (1,143 cm)!

August and September are the warmest months on the islands, while February and March are the "coolest." The daily high temperature in Hawaii averages 87° F(30° C) and water temperature hovers between 74° F(23° C) and 80° F(26° C). Hawaii's climate varies significantly from island to island based on time of year, so visitors should check on conditions prior to arrival.

Map and Location

Map of Hawaii

Location: Pacific Ocean, northern tip of Polynesian Triangle; 2,440 miles southwest of continental US.

Geographic coordinates: Latitude: 16° 55' N to 23° N; Longitude:154° 40' W to 162° W

Time Zone: Hawaiian-Aleutian Time Zone (GMT -10)

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