We’re the kind of people our friends love to hate. They regularly ask, When are you going to Hawaii? and when we say, next month or even next year, they often give us&emdash;as Hawaiian residents say&emdash;stinkeye.
We love these islands. One of us first traveled here in 1968, later photographing for a Honolulu newspaper. One of us edits Hawaiian guidebooks. We know it’s corny, but the islands feel like home&emdash;and we aren’t the only visitors who feel that way.
So when friends consider visiting the most remote island chain in the world, they often ask about our favorite places. While we love the familiar&emdash;Pearl Harbor, Maui beaches, Haleakala crater, Waikiki&emdash;we suggest some eye-popping, only-in-Hawaii spots that dazzle mainlanders and some kama’ainas (locals). Put ’em on your before-I-die list. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
Kalaupapa peninsula (Molokai)
People sometimes wonder: Why would I want to see a place where people died of leprosy?
You want to go because the Kalaupapa peninsula is one of the most beautiful places in Hawaii, with one of the sweetest, saddest stories ever told. Leprosy&emdash;properly called Hansen’s disease&emdash;attacks the nerves and nearly always is fatal without intervention (it can be arrested with sulfone drugs); it often leaves patients deformed. Traditionally, lepers were ostracized because the disease was thought to be highly contagious, but, in fact, not everyone who is exposed contracts it. Thousands of Hawaiians with leprosy or considered suspects&emdash;that is, patients thought to have the disease because of telltale skin lesions or because relatives had it&emdash;were banished to Kalaupapa beginning in 1866.
To visit the Kalaupapa Settlement, you must be escorted or sponsored, and the only way to see the settlement is through Damien Tours. If you’re lucky, your escort will be Damien Tours’ Richard Marks, the sheriff of Kalaupapa and a former Hansen’s disease patient.
Marks is a master storyteller about Father Damien de Veuster, the Belgian priest who came here to care for the sick in 1873 and died of Hansen’s disease in 1889. Bouncing around the isolated Molokai peninsula in an old bus, stopping occasionally to feed the wild pigs, Marks will show you St. Philomena Catholic Church, built by Damien, and much more. There are approximately 35 elderly former patients who have chosen to live out their lives at Kalaupapa. So time is short to hear the story from people who lived it.
You can’t stay overnight here, and you’ll need to either hike or ride a mule down the three-mile, extremely steep trail that leads to the Damien Tours’ gathering spot in an open field by the ocean. Or you can fly in and out for the day (we recommend the latter)&emdash;but there is nothing in Hawaii comparable to a visit to Kalaupapa.
For information: Damien Tours: (808) 567-6171. Molokai
Mule Rides: (808) 567-6088. Paragon Air (808) 244-3356. Molokai Air Shuttle: (808) 567-6847.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park(The Big Island)
When we get lonely for Hawaii, we sometimes dial this number programmed into a cell phone: (808) 985-6000. We listen to what we call the volcano hotline from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, updating us on the Kilauea Volcano, which has been erupting virtually continuously since 1983.
HVNP consists of a cooler, upcountry plateau, as well as a down-by-the-sea lava area a 45-minute drive down the mountain. There are many easy day hikes, as well as more challenging ones. We recommend staying in the nearby village of Volcano to take advantage of all the sights.
This is the only place in the United States where you can walk on the planet’s newest land where it’s re-paved the highway on its way to the ocean. There are places and times when you can safely walk near slow-moving lava or, from a safe distance, watch it enter the sea.
According to legend, Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, makes her home at Kilauea, and you need to know that Hawaiians do not consider her a mythical character. We once had a USGS geologist, wearing an aloha shirt and a hard hat, on a walk over very new lava, tell us, If she wants you, she’ll take you.
Fortunately, Pele has been good to us, but this is dangerous country: People have died here. But with common sense and good advice from park rangers, this is one place you can get up close and personal with the forces that shape the Earth.
For information: nps.gov/havo.
Iolani Palace (Oahu)
This is&emdash;pun intended&emdash;the crown jewel of the Hawaiian Islands. Really. The crown jewels live in the basement of the only royal palace in the United States. Of course, this wasn’t the United States when King David Kalakaua built the Victorian-style palace in 1882&emdash;it was the Kingdom of Hawaii. Hawaii’s royals, called ali’i, patterned themselves after British royalty.
A group of American businessmen overthrew the kingdom and Kalakaua’s sister, Queen Liliuokalani, in 1893. They turned the palace into government office buildings, and it became the Capitol after Hawaii became a state in 1959. (One of us likes to remember that in the 1960s and ’70s, the palace exterior served as Steve McGarrett’s office in Hawaii Five-O.)
Today, beautifully restored to its Victorian splendor, the palace is a must-see. The tours are well-presented by docents, and we are always touched by the story of Queen Liliuokalani, who was imprisoned here after she was overthrown. In her room is a large quilt on which she embroidered the Hawaiian motto: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.)
If you’re lucky enough to visit on a Friday at noon, pick a spot on the palace lawn to listen to the Royal Hawaiian Band. It’s the only full-time municipal band in the nation, founded in 1836 by King Kamehameha III, offering a bit of free musical time travel.
For information: (808) 538-1471; iolanipalace.org.
Shipwreck Beach (Lanai)
Lanai is one of Hawaii’s least-visited islands. So if you get to Lanai, you’re a rarity. And if you rent a Jeep and make the journey down to Shipwreck Beach, you’re even more unusual.
Virtually the whole island of Lanai was dedicated to growing pineapple until the late 1980s, when the Dole Corporation shut down operations and built two luxury hotels&emdash;the Manele Bay and the Lodge at Koele. For those who can’t afford such luxury ($400 a night and up), there’s the historic Hotel Lanai, 11 modest rooms built in 1922. (The island’s only town, Lanai City, also has a number of B & B-style accommodations.)
In addition to snorkeling Hulopo’e Beach by the Manele Bay resort, we love Lanai for its get-away-from-it-all qualities. Be sure to drive or hike the Munro Trail, a top-of-the-world roadway, and look across the channel at busy Maui.
For us, the primary lure is Shipwreck Beach. You can easily find a mostly paved road out of town to one end of the eight-mile-long beach. But to get to the other end is a much-longer, bumpier ride, sometimes tricky even with four-wheel-drive. Check first with locals for directions and conditions.
What you’ll see is not the palm-tree’d fantasy Hawaiian beach, but a rugged, isolated shoreline with a World War II Liberty Ship partially sunk on an offshore reef in the channel between Lanai and Molokai. It’s not the only wreck&emdash;for years, ships have run aground here, and you may see parts of others.
It’s not a tropically beautiful beach; it’s the tide pools, beachcombing and sense of romance, of mystery and pirates, of discovering old ship fittings and timbers in the shifting sands. Assorted flotsam and jetsam from ships drift ashore. We’ve spent hours looking through old tangled lines and fishing floats.
We’ve spent hours here and not seen another human. You’ll feel a bit like shipwrecked souls of yore, but with a Jeep waiting to carry you back to town.
For information about lodging: Manele Bay
and the Lodge of Koele (800-321-4666); Hotel Lanai (800-795-7211).
Pu’u o Kila Lookout, Kalalau Valley (Kauai)
The Na Pali coast of Kauai is largely inaccessible, though some brave souls hike the treacherous 11-mile trail from the North Shore to Kalalau Beach. We like to look at it from the top, specifically the second lookout at the end of the road past Kokee State Park visitors’ center. However, the paved road is often closed to cars at the first Kalalau lookout, so you must go the extra mile on foot to the end of the road.
The hike to Pu’u o Kila is worth it. If you’re there at a time when the view is clear, it’s like looking down into Eden. And even if clouds have gathered, hang around for 15 minutes or so&emdash;they move so quickly that when the curtain parts, we promise you’ll want to gaze at the view all day.
For information: kokee.org.
Beyond Hana (Maui)
Every Hawaiian guidebook advises Maui visitors to drive to Hana. The once kidney-jarring road has long been smoothed out, though it’s still slow and windy through the rain forest, but most folks make the long drive and back in a day. They see very little past Hana, unless they drive the 10 miles to Oheo Gulch, which was formerly and mistakenly called the Seven Sacred Pools. (Seven Sacred Pools was marketing spin&emdash;there are more than seven pools and they’re not particularly sacred to Hawaiians.) To make the trip in one day, people would have to quickly look around and then return to their west-side hotels.
We like to spend a couple of nights in condos or B & Bs around Hana. It’s quiet and small, as well as historic; it’s a small village that still feels like old Hawaii. The massive Pi’ilani Hale Heiau sits just outside town, the state’s largest restored heiau in a lovely botanical garden. (A heiau is a lava rock platform, a kind of Hawaiian shrine where Hawaiians still place offerings.)
We’ve spent hours walking and wading around Oheo Gulch with its pools ascending up the back side of Haleakala, Maui’s largest dormant volcano. But we also love Kipahulu, about a mile beyond Oheo. Charles Lindbergh is buried there in the Palapala Ho’omau Church cemetery, near his friend Sam Pryor who, with Laurence Rockefeller, donated a lot of acreage to the National Park Service for preservation. The cemetery contains the graves of six gibbons Pryor and his wife cared for like children.
Less than five miles past Kipahulu, the terrain changes from green jungle to grassy savannah&emdash;you are now on the dry side of Maui. Upslope, Haleakala stretches seemingly to the sky; downslope, the ocean rages.
You might stop for sodas and snacks at the tiny, old Kaupo Store, which sits below the Kaupo Gap, a huge gash in the crater. Keep driving west, admiring the vast grasslands around you. This is wild Maui at its best. Residents drive their cars here all the time, but rental car agencies may prohibit doing so in some cars. (Many renters ignore the prohibition that is written on the rental contract.)
Instead of going back through Hana, we like to continue on this road through upcountry Maui, which changes to green grasslands where cattle and vineyards thrive.
Kauai’s North Shore
Leaving the rest of Kauai behind and crossing the Hanalei River bridge is like going to a separate island. Large tour buses can’t cross the bridge, and it’s only nine miles to the end of the road.
Legend has it that a Hawaiian mo’o, a huge mythical lizard, drapes itself around Hanalei Bay, dropping from the mountains to the shoreline. (From the overlook before you drop into the valley, you can see the mo’o’s snout lying in the water.) The town is an eclectic mix of unusual characters and ordinary residents, some with a great deal of money, since real estate here can be some of the priciest in the islands.
As you travel out of Hanalei, you’ll cross seven one-lane bridges, some of them quaint wooden structures. Local etiquette dictates that cars on one side come across and, when they’re done, cars on the other side get their turn.
At Haena Beach Park, six miles past Hanalei, if you look makai, you’ll see beautiful ocean, which can make for marvelous snorkeling in the area in summer but is best avoided in winter. If you look mauka, you can’t miss the legendary triangular peak of Mt. Makana, better known to fans of South Pacific as Bali Hai.
At the base of Mt. Makana is the steeply terraced Limahuli Garden, one of four national tropical botanical gardens in Hawaii (they provide umbrellas and bug juice&emdash;both good ideas). We love to walk around the terraces, which were used by ancient Hawaiians to grow crops some 10 centuries ago.
In less than a mile the road ends at Ke’e Beach, the beginning of the Na Pali coast. Much of the year this is a great place to watch the sunset or wade in the shallows (as always, watch for ocean swells and unpredictable conditions). It also is the launching point for brave hikers wishing to tackle that rugged 11-mile Kalalau Trail.
Waipio Valley (The Big Island)
There are few places in the islands where centuries-old rural life still reigns; Waipio Valley is one. There’s nothing resembling modern development, and you get only a hint of its picturesque beauty when you see it from the overlook at the end of Highway 240 on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island.
Literally, you need to go the extra mile&emdash;and it feels like it’s straight down&emdash;to the valley floor and look around. The road, a 25 percent grade, is so steep it’s nearly impossible to travel without a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so your rental car needs to stay up top. Your options are to walk down (and hope some kind folks offer you a ride back up) or take a tour of the valley. The Waipio Valley Shuttle (808-775-7121) offers one tour option.
We like the quaint, mule-drawn wagon tour by Waipio Valley Wagon Tours (808-775-9518). You are vanned down, then pulled through the valley in a wagon as your guide talks story about the land and its people. (Caution: a bit bumpy for those with bad backs.)
But our favorite part is not on these tours: one of the most dramatic, remote, mile-wide beaches in the state. While technically a black-sand beach, it’s an old beach, so the sand here is grayish, but still that rich volcanic land eroded by ocean over eons. Standing on the beach, you can look back in the valley on a clear day and see waterfalls cascading down the steep sides and get a feel for how Hawaiians lived for centuries before Westerners arrived.
Waipio was the site of President John F. Kennedy’s first Peace Corps training camp in the ’60s. This feels like an away-from-it-all paradise. Two herds of wild horses survived the tsunami of 1946, which swept much of Waipio clean. We’ve seen them drinking from the streams that run through the valley to the ocean&emdash;a most memorable sight.
Un-Oahu: Vistas Forever
The first time one of us went to Oahu, she was disappointed. It’s all city and crowds, she complained. The other one smiled and drove her away from the busy-ness. In 15 minutes, I can have you in a rain forest, he promised&emdash;and did.
He took her to Tantalus and Round Top mountains on a 10-mile loop road that rises 1,600 feet a few miles above the crowded freeways and dense high-rises of Honolulu. She, like most first-timers, never expected such vistas.
You’ve gotta love an island, though the most populated in Hawaii, that has killer views from two defunct volcanoes and an hour away has surfers putting on daily shows for beach-gawkers.
While hiking Diamond Head offers fabulous views, we also like visiting the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl. (World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle and Ellison Onizuka, one of the Challenger astronauts, are buried here.) Walk to the lookout and gaze westward over Honolulu’s soaring skyline out to the ocean. On a clear day, you really can see forever.
Driving up the Pali Highway (Highway 61), one of the clearest views is from the Pali Lookout. Standing in the notch of the dramatic Ko’olau mountains, you’ll feel the full force of wind off the ocean as you look at windward Oahu from about 1,200 feet up.
Heading up the rural North Shore is a treat, stopping to look at the big three surfing spots in the Pacific: Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. This is the place, especially in winter, to see big waves rolling and roiling that can reach 20 or 30 feet high. It’s like a combination of tsunami and steamroller&emdash;not to be missed. Neither is the shave ice at Matsumoto’s in the town of Haleiwa.