There are lots of beautiful beaches in the world, so, sure, relaxing in the sand with nothing more on your mind than whether it’s time to reapply sunscreen does have its appeal. But among all the tropical paradises, Hawaii holds a special place.
And it isn’t only the magnificent scenery, the inviting crystalline water or the always-perfect temperature that makes these islands unique—it’s also the sense of history and the hospitality of the people. A visit here offers a multitude of unforgettable sights, sounds and tastes. We found the 10 only-in-Hawaii experiences that no visitor should miss.
1. Hang ten
Quick—what is the first image that comes to mind when we say “Hawaii”? If it’s surfers skimming across waves, why not learn how to do it yourself? You may not be ready for the mega swells of Oahu’s famed North Shore, but the gentle, rolling sets at Waikiki Beach offer great conditions for newbies.
Take a lesson with Clyde Aikau—who has been recognized as a “Waikiki Surf Legend” by the historic Outrigger Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Foundation—and you’ll learn basic moves, wave selection and in-water etiquette. Aikau’s Pure Hawaiian Surf Academy offers lessons at the beach at the Hilton Hawaiian Village (hiltonhawaiianvillage.com).
2. Hone your hula
Watch a hula performance and you’ll see rhythmically swinging hips and graceful arm movements that alternately simulate swaying trees, frolicking fish and birds in flight. Traditionally (and before the Hawaiians developed a written language), hula was the way history and stories were passed on through the generations. Each Wednesday morning, guests at the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach in Oahu have the opportunity to learn this ancient and alluring dance from Shelsea Ai Apana, a fourth-generation dancer. At the end of the hour-long class, you’ll not only be surprised at how good a workout you’ve gotten (plan on discovering a few muscles along your waist you never knew you had), but you’ll also learn the message and meaning behind each movement and song.
Or you can get inspired by attending the Merrie Monarch Festival, the annual Super Bowl of hula contests, where the best halaus (hula schools) from all the islands compete in a six-day tournament. The festival begins on Easter Sunday in Hilo on the Big Island (royal-hawaiian.com; merriemonarchfestival.org).
3. Luau like royalty
Though you can find a luau at just about every resort in Hawaii, the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui is widely regarded as the best and most authentic in the islands. The evening starts with a lei greeting and tropical cocktails served under swaying palms. Then the star attraction, the kalua pig, is brought out from the imu, the traditional underground oven in which it has been slowly roasting all day.
At the buffet dinner, in addition to the succulent pig, you can sample local delicacies like ahi poke (marinated raw ahi tuna), pohole salad (fern shoots) and poi (Taro pudding-like dish). Once the sun sets, the evening’s entertainment begins, with a program that recounts the exciting history of Hawaii in song and dance (reservations are required; 800-248-5828).
4. Get lei’d
Hawaiians often speak of the aloha spirit, the warm, welcoming embrace extended by islanders to everyone who visits. This spirit is best expressed through the tradition of giving leis. You can learn to create your own floral garlands using traditional flowers like colorful orchids and fragrant plumeria, bougainvillea and pikake, or with native kukui nuts, feathers and ferns at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa in Honolulu (classes are complimentary for hotel guests; hiltonhawaiianvillage.com).
5. See the sun and stars
Here’s a secret: One of the most romantic and amazing spots to watch the sunset in Hawaii isn’t from a warm spot on the sand. In fact, you’ll have to put on a down parka and gloves if you take one of Mauna Kea Summit Adventures’ van tours up to the snow-capped top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. With the summit at 13,796 feet, you’ll watch up close as the sun slips beneath the clouds, bathing the sky in gorgeous streaks of pink, purple, red and orange.
After sunset, the astronomer-guides set up powerful telescopes that will give you spectacular views of the night sky. Take plenty of snapshots of the two of you bundled up in cold-weather gear—your friends and family will get a kick out of trying to figure out how your tropical holiday took a detour through the Arctic (maunakea.com).
6. Ride the range
Rounding up cattle on horseback isn’t usually associated with the islands where sand and surf rule, but Hawaii has a cowboy tradition dating back to the early 1800s. In fact, the first Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolos, were working on ranches long before their more celebrated counterparts in the American West yippeed their first ki-yay.
Several of the family-owned ranches still exist as working ranches. One, the 65,000-acre Molokai Ranch, offers accommodations in a luxury 22-room lodge and lessons in horse grooming, saddling and riding in the property’s rodeo arena. Once you’re comfortable on horseback, you can try your hand at herding cattle or take in the spectacular tropical scenery as you ride along the two-mile Kanaa trail (molokairanch.com).
Although you can’t stay at the 2,500-acre Princeville Ranch on Kauai, you can participate in the property’s Paniolo Cattle Drive. The hour-and-a-half roundup takes place every 5 to 10 days, when the herds of cattle need to be moved to new pastures (adventureskauai.com).
7. Go historic
The story of Hawaii’s ancient past is evident in the music, dance and language of the people. But it’s also written and preserved in petroglyphs, carvings and inscriptions found on the dark volcanic rock along the Kohala coast area of the Big Island. Made by the island’s earliest inhabitants, the glyphs depict everyday life as well as wildlife.
Walk along the one-mile King’s Trail, an ancient coastal path once utilized by Hawaiian royalty, and you’ll feel as though you’ve taken a step into the area’s folklore. The Kings’ Shops at Waikoloa Beach Resort offer free one-hour guided tours daily. Also available are Hawaiian arts and crafts classes, where local elders teach traditional skills, such as coconut-frond weaving, feather-crafting, Hawaiian quilting and woodworking (waikoloabeachresort.com).
8. Learn the ukulele
Sugarcane workers from Portugal introduced this small instrument to Hawaii in the 1880s and it’s now closely associated with the island’s indigenous music. Since the ukulele has just four strings and a straightforward chord progression, learning how to pluck a simple tune is surprisingly easy.
Every Friday, the award-winning musician and founding father of contemporary island music, Kelly Boy DeLima, hosts poolside ukulele classes at the Sheraton Waikiki on Oahu. After class you can show off your strumming skills when Kelly Boy invites you to join him during his nightly stage show (classes and entertainment are complimentary for hotel guests; sheraton-waikiki.com).
9. Taste the wine
Just an hour’s drive from Maui’s main resort areas of Wailea and Kaanapali, you’ll find one of the most unexpected sights in Hawaii—vineyards. On the slopes of the island’s dormant volcano, high above the picture postcard beaches, Tedeschi Vineyards has been producing wine since 1974.
The tasting room, located in the venerable King’s Cottage, which was built in 1874 for Hawaii’s last king, features an 18-foot-long bar that is made from the trunk of a single mango tree. Take a free tour of the grounds and winery, then picnic under the shade of the hundred-year-old trees. Be sure to sample the winery’s Maui Splash and Hula O’Maui sparkling wines, both made with island-grown pineapple (mauiwine.com).
10. Venture into the volcano
No visit to Hawaii is complete without getting a firsthand look at the volcanoes that formed the island chain—and that continue to remake the land today. Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island, contains two of the world’s most active volcanoes—Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The restless Kilauea, in particular, continues to spit curling steam clouds and fiery molten lava onto the black sand beaches and into the ocean.
You could drive to the park’s visitor center, get a map and go on a self-guided hiking tour around the area. But a bird’s-eye view via state-of-the-art helicopter on Blue Hawaiian Helicopters Circle of Fire tour promises a more spectacular experience (bluehawaiian.com).