Having been to almost every state in the USA – I’ll get to you one day, North Dakota – it dawned on me that I’d never been to Hawaii. Pop culture had conditioned me to think of the 50th state as a paradise where women wore hula skirts, men wore Hawaiian shirts, and tourists wore leis. Of course, you can’t believe everything you see on TV. And so, I set out to visit Hawaii to discover it was everything I’d thought it would be – and more.
Known as the Big Island, Hawaii boasts a lot of surf – and a lot of turf. In the Kona district on the west coast, there are plenty of oceanside resorts and surf schools. And speaking of turf, it’s still being made on the southeastern part of the island: Cooling lava from Kilauea’s eruptions have added about 500 acres of new land along the coast since the 1980s. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to Kilauea, is one of the island’s main draws. I stayed at Volcano House – a historic lodge with a view of the crater on which it resides – and drove down to see the Thurston Lava Tube and the vast black lava fields on the scenic Chain of Craters Road.
A lengthy hike from the end of the road brings you to the popular viewing area of Kamokuna, where hot lava meets cool ocean water with a magnificent plume of steam (best seen at dusk).
Almost everyone flying to Hawaii lands in the capital of Honolulu. Many tourists stay in Waikiki Beach, a touristy area of hotels, restaurants, bars and – yes – leis, hula girl shows and resort-hosted luaus. But there are impressive places away from the commercialized strip.
Basing myself at the Surfjack, a hip, retro hotel, I discovered cuisine beyond poi and kalua pork: family-style whole snapper dinners at Mahina & Suns, savory potato beignets in the Pig and the Lady, and local favorite loco moco at Home Bar & Grill. On a drive up to the North Shore I learned that the 7-Elevens have better-than-average road snacks, from pork shumai to steamed manapua buns.
Going to the lush island of Kauai, aptly nicknamed the Garden Isle, you feel like you’ve been there before. That’s because you probably have through movies. Non-CGI scenes in “Avatar” were filmed at the island’s lush Keahua Arboretum. A helicopter ride can take you down Manawaiopuna Falls, just like the characters in “Jurassic Park.”
In the mood for more adventurous exploration? You can hike the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which goes along the Napali Coast from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach. If you want to kick your feet up on the southern shore, head to Koloa Zipline, featuring the longest zip lines on the island. Pedaling more your style? Try the Ke Ala Hele Makalae, the 17-mile “path that goes by the coast” on the island’s eastern shore.
Known as the Valley Isle, Maui is like a storybook Hawaiian experience, with its beautiful beaches, waterfalls and dudes in Hawaiian shirts (known on the islands as
Aloha shirts). Start your fairy tale at sunrise with the panoramic view atop Haleakala Mountain, where the sun appears to come up above the clouds. However, be warned; you’ll need a reservation with the National Park Service to secure a spot for sunrise.
Once the day has begun, there’s plenty to do: You can windsurf or take a kiteboarding lesson in Kanaha Beach Park – or simply bask at the beach. If you’re in the mood for a scenic, winding drive, the Hana Highway has spectacular views of the coastline and a few waterfalls. You can also go paragliding, where you’ll be treated to a bird’s-eye view of the Pacific Ocean. I dare say, you won’t find that in North Dakota.