What’s in a nickname? In the case of Hawaii, the descriptive monikers of the Aloha State’s four largest islands provide more than just hashtags for your social media posts: They point the way to a deeper appreciation of what makes these places so special—and worth preserving. Consider them signposts for your next journey.
The Big Island has a scale all its own, thanks to the five volcanoes that created its dramatic terrain
See & Do
At press time, the thrill of a rising lava lake in Kīlauea’s immense Halema‘uma‘u Crater is still luring throngs of nighttime visitors to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Far fewer people make the 50-minute drive south to the park’s Kahuku Unit, on the slopes of Mauna Loa, where a devastating eruption in 1868 covered large swaths of ranchland in lava. Today, a variety of trails—some with panoramic coastal views—climb cinder cones, cross pastures and hardened lava, or lead to a massive pit crater harboring a native rainforest.
Amid rough lava that flowed from now-dormant Mauna Kea several thousand years ago, the Waikōloa Dry Forest shelters wiliwili trees, which sport orange blooms in late summer, and other rare native plants. Join Waikōloa Dry Forest Initiative’s twice-monthly volunteer sessions to gather seeds or tend plant seedlings, or reserve a spot for Hawaii Forest & Trail’s Maunakea Summit & Stars Give Back Experience, which stops at the forest for some hands-on conservation before continuing on to do some stargazing higher up.
Lava lovers can’t beat the location of the historic Volcano House, on the edge of Halema‘uma‘u Crater, but the coziness of Kilauea Lodge, built in 1938 as a YMCA camp, is worth the short drive to Volcano Village. Either way, bring a jacket, as the weather can turn cool and rainy at higher elevations. On the dry, warm Kohala Coast, booking a stay at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is the best way to access idyllic Kauna‘oa Beach; ask the concierge to set up a Manta Ray Moonlight Swim, and you can float above the mysterious, gentle giants with an expert guide.
The Rim at Volcano House overlooks steaming Halema‘uma‘u, where liquid lava creates a rosy evening glow; hearty fare like baked seafood rigatoni has a similarly warming effect. Closer to Kahuku, Ka Lae Coffee in Nā‘ālehu brims with enormous pastries and delectable beverages such as Ka‘ū coffee drinks, mango smoothies, and taro milkshakes. Or work up a thirst on a tour of Kona Brewing Company’s sustainable new brewery in Kailua-Kona, then sample Lemongrass Luau, Hanalei Island IPA, and other beers; afterward, head to the brewpub next door for fresh ahi poke or tacos stuffed with fish caught by Kona’s own fisherman.
Found in local grocery stores, award-winning Big Island Coffee Roasters sources beans from all of the island’s coffee-growing regions— Ka‘ū, Puna, Hāmākua, and world-renowned Kona—which produce richly flavored joe thanks to the volcanic terroir.
The deep clefts of The Valley Isle share an intimate connection with the sea and its array of marine life
See & Do
From late December through March, the shallow ocean basin between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai turns into “whale soup,” the nickname for the annual migration of breeding humpback whales from Alaska. Sail quietly and responsibly among them on a Trilogy catamaran whale-watching tour or amp up the awe factor on a private, eco-friendly kayak tour with Hawaiian Paddle Sports. Both companies offer multiple departure sites, as well as snorkeling tours. (Note: Bring natural mineral sunscreen, as Maui has banned all chemical versions to protect the coral reefs.)
Learn more about seafaring mammals at the Maui Ocean Center in Mā‘alaea, where the Humpbacks of Hawai‘i exhibit employs a 3-D sphere to surround guests with life-size cetaceans, while the Hawaiians and the Sea exhibit tells the stories of the people who sailed here in double-hulled canoes. The 1-year-old Hawai‘i Wildlife Discovery Center in Kā‘anapali also uses innovative multi-media to highlight undersea life and promote conservation.
Guests at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, can learn Polynesian wayfinding techniques from navigator Maleko Lorenzo, or watch for whales from the comfort of the posh Club Lounge with binoculars and the help of a naturalist. The Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel’s free cultural classes include traditional navigation and kilo moana (how to spot potential hazards on the ocean). At the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, kids can sign up for free sessions encountering marine life in a touch pool or “talking story” about stars with navigator Kalā Baybayan Tanaka.
At Huihui, the new beachfront restaurant at the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, a screen shows looping videos of ocean voyages while veteran chef Tom Muromoto celebrates the best Hawaiian ingredients (from fresh seafood and venison to bread-fruit and papaya) on his menu. At Moku Roots, a cheery, no-waste vegan restaurant in a Lahaina shopping strip, tī leaves serve as wrappers for leftovers—although you’re unlikely to need them when you’re done with your tasty taro burger, coconut noodles, or pineapple fried rice.
Remember puka beads? The Maui Hands boutiques in Makawao, Pa‘ia, Wailea, and Lahaina carry Pono Pukas’ modern takes on the ’70s fashion favorite, made from sea snail shell discs with naturally formed holes (puka in Hawaiian) gleaned from local beaches.
Greenery abounds on The Garden Isle, a fertile home for traditional pursuits and modern harvests
See & Do
The National Tropical Botanical Garden offers spectacular sanctuaries for some of the rarest plants on earth at sites around the island. Self-guided tours of the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, near the North Shore’s Ha‘ena Beach, wind through endangered native forest, “canoe” plants brought by the first Polynesian settlers, and ancient rock-walled taro terraces. Interested in volunteering? Sign up online, and you may be able to prune and repot unique Hawaiian species, including the world’s only fragrant hibiscuses, in the NTBG’s nursery on the South Shore, where the diverse flora of the McBryde Garden and stylized landscaping of the Allerton Garden also await.
For an alternative way to interact with plants, learn to make a Hawaiian nose f lute using local bamboo gathered by instructor John Ka‘ohelauli‘i (his last name, fittingly, means “the little leaf of the bamboo”), who leads workshops at his Sole Mates slipper boutique in Kapa‘a. He also teaches free classes in kōnane, a traditional Hawaiian two-person strategy game.
On the North Shore, 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (formerly The St. Regis Princeville) is set to emphasize natural materials in its luxurious rooms and local organic produce in seven dining outlets when it opens in February. Guests in the two-bedroom condo suites of secluded Hanalei Colony Resort can go green and cut down on emissions by using the complimentary shuttle to Hanalei and local beaches. On the East Side, Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort beckons families with a heated pool, free bikes to use on the region’s paved shoreline trail, and an engaging lū‘au in a new oceanfront pavilion.
Cold-pressed juices from local mango, soursop, and other tropical fruits are refreshing staples at Kauai Juice Co., which has locations in Kīlauea, Kapa‘a, and Po‘ipu; if you need something more substantial, add a quinoa salad with macadamia nut pesto. A yellow cottage on a Līhu‘e side street hosts the lunch-only Greenery Café, which serves locally sourced, organic soul food (think collard greens and fried fish). At the Ko‘a Kea Resort on Po‘ipu Beach’s Red Salt, executive chef and Kauai native Noelani Planas shows her flair with seafood in dishes such as seared monchong, Kona lobster risotto, and seed- and nut-crusted mahimahi.
Schedule a free tasting at Hanalei Spirits Distillery in Kīlauea. You won’t be able to resist bringing home a bottle of sweet Lilikoicello passion fruit liqueur, smooth taro vodka, or whiskey- like ‘ōkolehao, distilled from roasted tī leaves.
The Gathering Place of chiefs offers a cultural smorgasbord and sobering history lessons
See & Do
At the Polynesian Cultural Center, six “villages” showcase Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Fijian, Tahitian, and Hawaiian cultures through interactive demonstrations. The center’s new lū‘au pays tribute to Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, who was overthrown by U.S.-backed forces in 1893. Named for her motto, ‘Onipa‘a (steadfast), the poignant show includes words and music written by the multi-talented ruler.
Learn more about royal life and political intrigue at ‘Iolani Palace, in downtown Honolulu. The White Glove Tour, led by palace historian Zita Cup Choy, goes behind the stanchions of the Throne Room, State Dining Room, and King Kalākaua’s Library before climbing to the attic, where up to four guests don gloves before examining personal effects of the royal family.
To better understand another long-time local community, visit the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. This non-profit organization in Honolulu reveals the long-obscured history of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated not far from Pearl Harbor during World War II.
A new voyaging-themed cultural center, mural, and giant woven sculpture of the islands add uniquely Hawaiian touches to the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, where top local musicians perform nightly at Kani Ka Pila Grille. The Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa overlooks Queen Lili‘uokalani’s favorite surf spots, although families will be drawn upstairs to Queensbreak, a one-acre recreation deck with an excellent casual restaurant. Surf culture is central to the North Shore’s Turtle Bay Resort, but birding and farm tours and the cowboy-themed Paniolo Lū‘au reveal other fascinating aspects of the region.
Renowned for dim sum (try Fook Lam Seafood Restaurant), Honolulu’s China-town is also home to Fête, where Native Hawaiian chef Robynne Maii earned a 2022 James Beard Award for hapa (mixed) dishes, such as a Korean fried chicken sandwich with Asian pear slaw. Bookworms in paradise will want to dine in Waikiki, at the Halekulani hotel’s House Without a Key. Be sure to book Table 97, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite when he honeymooned here with Martha Gellhorn, and raise Papa’s classic daiquiri to the nightly sunset hula.
House of Mana Up in Waikiki features wares from more than 60 Hawaii-based producers of condiments, clothing, home decor, and more. Oahu standouts include lilikoi (passion fruit) butter from Kahuku Farms and Aloha Modern microfiber beach towels decorated with native plant prints.
Next Up: A Tour of the Island of Hawaii’s Powerful Volcanoes and Spiritual Sites