The Ultimate Hawaii Travel Guide to Oahu, the Big Island & Lanai

Hanauma Bay Oahu

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Are you planning a trip to Oahu, the Big Island of Hawaii, or Lanai? Or maybe you’re just trying to decide which island is the best choice for your next vacation?

Well, you’re in luck because we’ve put together an ultimate guide — separated by island — with the top activities on each, remarkable beaches, the best hotels, and the best places to grab a drink or a meal.

Hawaii is a popular getaway for surfers, honeymooners, hikers, and those wanting to experience the laidback island life. Are you looking to catch some epic waves? Oahu would be a good option. Or do you want to see an active volcano? The Big Island is where you’ll want to go. Maybe you just want to get away from it all see some truly hidden gems? Lanai is perfect for that.

Whether this is your first trip, or you’ve been to the islands many times, we hope you find some new and interesting things to add to your itinerary.

Hot Tip: Headed to Maui or Kauai? Be sure to check out the best things to do, see, and enjoy in our Ultimate Hawaii Travel Guide to Maui and Kauai.

Oahu

Oahu is the third largest island in the Hawaiian Islands, but it’s home to the capital city Honolulu as well greater than two-thirds of Hawaii’s population.

Getting to Oahu

The main airport on Oahu — and the primary gateway to the Hawaiian Islands — is Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL), also known as Honolulu International Airport. HNL sees flights from many major cities in the U.S. (though the majority arrive from the West Coast) as well as countries like Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

Due to ongoing border closures, the airport is seeing a reduced amount of service, especially from Asian carriers. We hope to see all of these airlines resume service to/from HNL soon, but it remains to be seen which will return after international travel returns to “normal.” Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following airlines served HNL:

Getting Around Oahu

Once you’ve landed in Oahu, you have a few options for getting around the island.

By Car

Unless you plan on sticking to 1 area, such as Waikiki or North Shore, renting a car is your best bet for experiencing all of the different attractions on Oahu.

Some resorts on the island have rental car facilities, but by far the most popular place to rent a car on Oahu is at Honolulu’s airport since it’s typically the cheapest option. Most of the major rental car companies operate at the airport and allow you to make reservations in advance. Depending on the car you’d like, any elite status you may have, as well as the length of your trip, prices can vary wildly. We recommend booking far in advance to get the best rates.

By Public Transportation

Oahu has a public transportation system known as TheBus. Buses run every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the line. Attractions accessible by bus include Koko Crater Trail, Pearl Harbor, and Diamond Head Crater.

One-way adult fares can be purchased onboard and cost $2.75 for adults and $1.25 for kids aged 6 to 17. Discounted rates are also available for travelers ages 65+. You can buy 4-day passes for $35 at the TheBus Pass Office at Ala Moana Shopping Center and all ABC stores in Waikiki.

For more information about ticketing, fares, and timetables, visit TheBus’ website.

By Taxi or Rideshare

You should have no problem getting a taxi or rideshare (such as Uber or Lyft) from the airport, eliminating the need to drive yourself around. However, costs will add up quickly — especially if you’re planning on leaving your hotel to visit attractions around the island.

Taxi fares are regulated locally. Regardless of the cab company, you’ll pay an initial fee of $3.50, plus $5.88 per mile traveled. For trips from the HNL to Waikiki or downtown, expect to pay between $40 and $45. 

Where To Stay in Oahu

If you’re trying to maximize your points and miles, you’ll likely be staying in the Waikiki area. But there are other great areas to explore on Oahu, such as Ko Olina and the North Shore. Here are some great options for accommodations on Oahu.

The Leeward Coast

Located on Oahu’s sunny west coast, the Ko Olina area offers a few large luxury resorts, which are the main draw to this area.
Where to stay:

Honolulu

About 90% of all available rooms are located in the Honolulu area, which includes Waikiki. This is the heart of Oahu, where most people work and play.

Waikiki Beach Oahu Hotels
Image Credit: Jess Loiterton via Pexels

This means that you’ll have the widest range of lodging choices here — including budget, boutique, and luxury hotels. You’ll also find the best places to make use of your hotel points since you’ll find brands like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt.

Where to stay:

Hot Tip: Check out our guide to the best hotels in Hawaii to book with points!

The North Shore

The North Shore sits along a stunning stretch of coastline, well-known for its surfing pipeline. In terms of accommodation, it offers mostly vacation homes, B&Bs, and cottages. If you want to stay at a resort, your options are limited to exactly 1.

Where to stay:

The Windward Coast & Central Oahu

These are both primarily residential areas, with no hotels or resorts. You may, however, be able to find vacation rentals in these areas.

Top 5 Oahu Attractions

There is no shortage of amazing things to do on Oahu. From historic sites to beautiful beaches and amazing luaus, you’ll have trouble fitting in everything you want to do!

1. Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Pearl Harbor Oahu Hawaii
Image Credit: wojoan via Pixabay

From the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, you’ll be shuttled to the offshore memorial dedicated to the sailors who perished with the sinking of the USS Arizona when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. You can still see the oil seeping to the surface from the wreckage below — a reminder of the lives lost here.

Visit: Tickets are free, but advanced reservations are strongly recommended. The visitor center is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except for Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1).

Get There: The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is located at 1 Arizona Memorial Pl. in Honolulu. You can drive, arrange a private tour, or get a taxi/rideshare.

2. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is one of the best things to do on Oahu due to the shallow clear waters and abundant marine life. It even has an education center where you can learn about everything before seeing it in real life. Even if you don’t want to snorkel, it’s a gorgeous place to hang out and relax!

Visit: The Bay is open from 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. and reservations must be made in advance. The bay is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Tickets cost $25 for adults, and locals and those under 21 can enter for free.

Get There: Hanauma Bay is located at 7455 Kalanianaole Hwy. in Honolulu. Shuttles and tour buses are not allowed, so plan on renting a car or using a taxi to arrive at the Bay. Parking is an additional $3.

3. Diamond Head State Monument

Diamond Head was a site of reverence and worship for native Hawaiians. It is also one of the most iconic volcanoes in the world as it serves as a backdrop to Honolulu’s famous skyline. If you’d like a challenge, hiking 1.6 miles to its summit is one of the most popular activities on the island. Each day, thousands of people make their way to the top for panoramic views of Honolulu and beyond.

Visit: Open daily from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). Tickets cost $5 for adults, while residents and children under 3 are free.

Get There: You can take public transit (Bus #23) to Diamond Head. You can also drive yourself or get a taxi or rideshare. If you drive, note that parking is an additional $10.

4. Surf Lessons at Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach is one of the world’s most famous beaches. Even Hawaiian royalty used to visit the beach to surf and relax in the 19th century. Take a surfing lesson on this forgiving stretch of beach and you’re in for an enjoyable day!

But you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate Waikiki Beach. When you need a break from the beach itself, there are scores of shops and restaurants lining Kalakaua Avenue, which is right across the street.

Visit: There are many providers set up on the beach, but on average, a 1-hour surfing lesson will cost $70 to $110, depending on group size. These are offered daily, usually between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Get There: Kahu Surf School is one of the many options in Waikiki. They meet at the Duke Kahanamoku statue found on Kalakaua Avenue in Honolulu.

5. Luau Polynesian Cultural Center

There is so much to do at the Luau Polynesian Cultural Center, including visiting 6 authentic villages, taking a canoe tour, experiencing hands-on arts and crafts demonstrations, and attending an evening dinner and luau. It’s consistently been recognized as the best activity on Oahu, as well as the best luau, so be sure to make reservations in advance to secure your spot.

Visit: If you’d like to partake in all the activities, you can book a package for $169.95 for adults and $135.96 for kids.

Get There: Located at 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy. in Laie. This is located on the North Shore, so give yourself plenty of time to arrive. It’s recommended to leave about 60 to 75 minutes before you need to arrive.

Top Secret and Hidden Things To Do on Oahu

It’s hard to find truly “secret” things on this popular island destination, but here are a few things that have fewer tourists and are a little bit off the beaten path.

1. The Byodo-In Temple at Valley of the Temples Memorial Park

You might think you’ve been transported to Japan when you visit the Valley of the Temples. The temple is a replica of the magnificent 900-year-old Byodo-In Temple of Equality in Japan. You can also explore the beautiful temple grounds, see the peacocks, and even see an 18-foot meditation Buddha.

Visit: The park is open 365 days per year and is free to visit. If you’d like to go inside the replica temple, it’s open between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costs $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $2 for children under 12.

Get There: Located at 47-200 Kahekili Hwy. in Kaneohe. You’ll likely want a car to reach the Valley of the Temples.

2. China Walls

The official name for this stretch of cliffs is “Koko Kai Mini Beach Park,” but it’s more commonly known as the “China Walls.” If you’re heading to Hanauma Bay, this would be a great addition to your day. While there isn’t technically any beach here, you’ll find layers of lava rock overlooking the ocean. You can snorkel, fish, and even surf from this spot.

The best thing about China Walls though are the sunset views, so be sure to hang around until later in the evening.

Visit: This spot is free and the trail to access the China Walls is always accessible.

Get There: You’ll need a car to get here. Off of Kalanianaole Highway 72 and onto Lunalilo Home Road, take a left onto Poipu Drive and follow it until you reach Hanapepe Loop and take a right. Park on this road and walk down to Hanapepe Place. The beach is at the end of the street.

Hot Tip: There are no lifeguards on duty, so be cautious when you’re in the water!

3. Mermaid Caves

This area is filled with caverns of varying sizes, half-submerged along the waters and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. You’ll want to head here during low tide to experience the caves at their best! There are no tours that will take you to visit this natural wonder, so it truly is as off-the-beaten-path as you can get on Oahu!

Visit: This natural wonder is always open and free to visit.

Get There: This place is a bit hard to reach (as most secret places are!), so we’d recommend checking out this in-depth guide.

Top 5 Beaches on Oahu

You can’t go wrong with any stretch of water on Oahu, but here are some of the top picks at which to spend your day in the sun.

1. Lanikai Beach

Lanikai Beach is one of Oahu’s most picturesque beaches. And the fact that it’s isolated yet accessible — near the town of Kailua on the Windward Coast — makes it ideal for smaller crowds. This beach is located in a residential neighborhood and offers a full range of watersports: sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, and snorkeling are all at your disposal here. The water is warm, clear, and gentle since it’s protected by an offshore reef, making it family-friendly as well. If you prefer to stay on land, the sand is soft and white.

Visit: Street parking is free but limited, so try to get here early.

2. Kailua Beach Park

Located only 1 mile from Lanikai Beach, Kailua Beach Park is another great option. The beach is 3 miles of light sand and crystal-clear water. There’s also a 35-acre beach park next to it that offers volleyball courts, BBQ pits, and picnic tables to relax. If you forget to bring a lunch you can pick some up at Kalapawai Market. If you want to rent snorkeling or kayaking equipment or go windsurfing, reservations are recommended.

Visit: The park is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

3. Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach’s 2-mile stretch of white sand is the most famous on Oahu, and one of the most iconic beaches in the entire world. The beach is actually divided into several sections by various hotels, but you can walk the whole stretch by taking various boardwalks. Good swimming, stand-up paddle-boarding, and surfing are available year-round due to the calm waters. If you’re staying on Oahu, you’ll likely only be a few minutes from this beach, making it a must-visit!

Visit: You can visit this beach any time of day.

4. Sunset Beach

Sunset Oahu Hawaii Palm Trees Beach
Image Credit: Michelle Raponi via Pixabay

Sunset Beach is located on the North Shore of the island is a mecca for surfing fans in the winter. You can go to watch pros ride the giant pipeline from the safety of the shoreline and take photos of this awe-inspiring scene. During the summer, the water is calm and crystal-clear, making it the perfect destination for swimmers, snorkelers, and families.

Visit: The beach is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

5. Waimānalo Bay Beach Park (aka Hūnānāniho, Sherwoods)

Waimānalo Bay Beach Park is one of the longest beaches on the island, at 5 miles long. Despite rougher waters which make it less suitable for inexperienced swimmers, the size, scenery, and soft sand make Waimānalo a classic Hawaiian beach great for boogie boarding, fishing, sunbathing, or just walking along the shoreline.

Visit: The park is open from 7 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. daily.

Hot Tip: The best times to visit Hawaii can depend on weather conditions, crowds, and affordability. We break it down by season and by island in our guide to the best times to visit Hawaii.

Top 5 Places To Eat on Oahu

Make sure you get some Hawaiian staples including shave ice, malasadas (fried dough), and kalua pork on your next trip to Oahu.

Helena’s has been serving authentic Hawaii meals since 1946 — and the menu really hasn’t changed much since then! In 2000, this spot received multiple James Beard awards for both the kalua pig with cabbage and the luau chicken. Order one of these you’ll be sure to leave satisfied!

Visit: Located at 1240 N. School St. in Honolulu. Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Note that Helena’s is cash-only.

2. Leonard’s Bakery

Leonard’s is the home of the famous Portuguese donut (known as a malasada). The donuts are fried, covered with a sugary coating, and stuffed with all varieties of fillings, including custard, macadamia nut, and guava. The lines are always long, so get there early — or expect to wait!

Visit: Located at 933 Kapahulu Ave. in Honolulu. Open daily from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. There’s also a mobile food truck, so check the schedule to see if it might be in your area!

3. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck

This food truck is a great pick for some quick eats if you’re in the North Shore area. Giovanni’s is famous for its garlic scampi shrimp and rice plate. There’s nearly always a line, but it will move quickly. Portions are also generous, making it a great budget spot on Oahu!

Visit: Located at 56-505 Kamehameha Hwy. in Kahuku. Open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

4. Rainbow Drive-In

This old-school diner is a great spot to stop after a morning hike at Diamond Head Crater. They have traditional Hawaiian favorites, like loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger, a fried egg, and brown gravy) and saimin (a traditional Hawaiian noodle soup), as well as traditional diner picks, like burgers and slush floats. No matter when you go, expect an authentic meal with friendly service.

Visit: Located at 3308 Kanaina Ave. in Honolulu. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

5. Matsumoto Shave Ice

This famous shave (no, not shaved!) ice spot has been serving up smiles since 1953. It’s so soft and fluffy, it really can’t compare to other snow cones you’ve had before. The flavors are pretty typical, but you can add ice cream, milk, mochi, or even azuki beans to your order.

Visit: Located at 66-111 Kamehameha Hwy. #605 in Haleiwa. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Top 5 Places To Have a Drink on Oahu

From cocktails to coffee, here are some great places to get a drink on Oahu.

1. Bevy Bar

The hospitality is what makes this bar special. As far as cocktails go, you’ll find everything from classics to tropical riffs to Eastern-inspired cocktails on the menu. If you get hungry, they also serve a great menu of local food, along with several items from Taco’ako from next door.

Visit: Located at 675 Auahi St. #130 in Honolulu. Open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday).

2. Kona Coffee Purveyors | b. patisserie

This is really a recommendation for coffee and a pastry because you can’t leave here without both. First, Kona Coffee Purveyors is one of the best places in Waikiki to get fresh, local, Kona coffee. They also carry world-famous pastries from b. patisserie in San Francisco, including the black sesame Kouign-Amann.

Visit: Located inside the International Marketplace at 2330 Kalakaua Ave. #160 in Honolulu. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

3. Morning Glass Coffee & Cafe

Morning Glass Coffee has Kona and Ka’u specialty brews, as well as a few adventurous coffee options, like the Sucker Punch, made with 2 shots of espresso poured over cold-pressed lemonade. There are also a couple of tasty food options like the mac n’ cheese pancakes and lilikoi honey butter biscuits.

Visit: Located at 2955 E. Manoa Rd. in Honolulu. Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

4. Hideout 

Located inside The Laylow hotel, Hideout serves Stumptown Coffee and breakfast during the day and transforms into an open-air bar in the evenings. You can enjoy small plates, yummy cocktails, great live music, and an escape from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki.

Visit: Located at 299 Kūhiō Ave. in Honolulu. Open for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily and for dinner from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.

5. RHS Royal Hawaii Spirits

RHS Royal Hawaii Spirits produces local gin, fruit-flavored rum, whiskey, and vodka. It offers tastings and tours by appointment only, starting again in 2022. If you’re making a trip before then, you can find RHS alcohol (more than 40 options!) at restaurants and stores around the island.

Visit: Located at 1210 Dillingham Blvd. St. 25A in Honolulu. Open from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Big Island (Hawaii)

The island of Hawaii (also referred to as the Big Island) is the largest — and youngest — of the islands. You can find incredible beaches, waterfalls, and even an active volcano on this island!

Getting to the Big Island

Flyers can utilize 2 main airports to reach the Big Island.

The first is Hilo International Airport (ITO), located on the east side of the island. The following airlines serve ITO, though note that service levels may be different at the moment due to the ongoing pandemic:

  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Mokulele Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines

The other airport is Kona International Airport (KOA), located on the west side of the island. The following airlines serve KOA, though note service levels may be different at the moment due to the ongoing pandemic:

  • Air Canada
  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Japan Airlines
  • Mokulele Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • WestJet

Lastly, Waimea-Kohala Airport (MUE) is a small commuter airport that offers twice-daily service to Kahului, Maui (OGG) with Mokulele Airlines.

Getting Around the Big Island

Once you’ve landed on the Big Island, you’ll want to start exploring as quickly as possible. Here are the best ways to get around the island.

By Car

The Big Island has more than 480 miles of paved road, so unless you want to be reliant on tour pickups and rideshares to get around, you’ll probably want a rental car.

All major rental agencies have airport pickups in Kona (KOA) and Hilo (ITO) airports — some even offer rentals at the Kohala and Kona resorts.

By Taxi or Rideshare

Uber and Lyft both operate on the Big Island — both from the airports and around the island. However, as the Big Island is the biggest of the islands, costs will add up quickly if you want to explore.

Taxi fares are locally regulated, but they can vary significantly. Kona (KOA) airport notes that the price you can expect to pay from Kailua to Kona town is about $25, while a ride to Waimea can cost $100. There aren’t many taxis on the island, so it’s best to prearrange rides to ensure you can get where you need to go.

By Public Transit

The island-wide bus system, the Hele-On Bus, offers a great flat rate for riders: $2 for general fares; $1 for students, seniors, and people with disabilities; and free for kids ages 4 and under. Unfortunately, most routes don’t go to the major tourist destinations, so these might not help you. Also, be aware that fares are cash only.

For more information on routes, fares, and timetables, visit the Hele-On Bus website.

By Shuttle

SpeediShuttle and Roberts Hawaii offer door-to-door airport transfers from Kona (KOA) to hotels around the Big Island. As an example, shared rides on Roberts Hawaii start at $40 per person, and shared rides on SpeediShuttle start at $30 per person.

Where To Stay on the Big Island

The Big Island is just that — big — so it’s important to know where you’d like to situate yourself in order to maximize your time on the island. Here are the main areas you can stay, along with some great accommodation options for you to consider.

Big Island Hawaii Cliffs Water
Image Credit: Social Butterfly via Pixabay

Hamakua Coast, Puna, and Kau

These areas make up the remaining regions on the Big Island, but they’re much more remote. The only options in these areas will be inns, vacation rentals, and homestays.

Hilo

Where to stay:

Kohala

Where to stay:

Kona

Where to stay:

Top 5 Big Island Attractions

This island is known for natural beauty, so we’ve included many options to get you out exploring this stunning island.

1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is by far the most popular destination on the Big Island. Not only can you walk over solidified lava fields, but you can walk around in rain forests that are like something out of “Jurassic Park!” You might even be lucky and visit while Kīlauea is erupting. If that’s the case, make sure you stick around until the evening to see the lava glow over the Halemaʻumaʻu crater at night.

Check out the current status of the volcanoes and lava flow on the National Park’s website.

Visit: Entrance fees range from $15 to $30, depending on age and group size. The national park is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, including holidays.

Get There: Located at 1 Crater Rim Dr. in Pāhoa. Since it’s so far away from the areas where the hotels are clustered, you’ll likely need to rent a car or join a tour group.

2. Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

In ancient times, local sacred laws governed every aspect of Hawaiian society. The penalty for breaking these laws was death. However, if the criminals managed to get themselves to this place of refuge, they were absolved of their crimes as this spiritual sanctuary was protected by Lono, the god of life.

Learn all about this and more when you visit Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, which is still considered a sacred site.

Visit: Tickets range from $10 to $20, depending on the method of arrival. The entrance fee is good for 7 days. The park is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for major holidays.

Get There: Located at Highway 160 in Hōnaunau. It’s approximately 20 miles outside of Kona, so you’ll likely want to arrive via private car.

3. Akaka Falls State Park

Akaka Falls Big Island Hawaii
Image Credit: john ko via Unsplash

Akaka Falls is Hawaii’s largest waterfall at 442 feet high. Walk the easy 0.4-mile loop hike (you can do it in about 30 minutes) as it takes you through a lush jungle and multiple waterfalls, including Akaka and Kahuna Falls.

Hot Tip: If you arrive in the late morning, you’ll be able to see the sun will be shining directly on the falls.

Visit: Entry costs $5 per car. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Get There: Located about 11 miles north of Hilo at 875 Akaka Falls Rd. in Honomu.

4. Mauna Kea Summit

Mauna Kea Summit Snow Hawaii
Image Credit: Adrian Malec via Pixabay

Hawaii actually experiences snow on the top of the Mauna Kea volcano! Due to the tropical inversion at the top, it’s usually very clear most of the time, resulting in low light pollution. Because of this, Mauna Kea is known as one of the best places on Earth for stargazing.

Visit: Your best bet is to join a tour so that you can see the stars through a telescope! GetYourGuide has many options starting at $209 per person, so you can find a tour that fits your schedule and interests.

Get There: For most tours, you’ll typically meet at the visitor center, which is reached by following Highway 200 (Saddle Road) until you get to the Mauna Kea access road. This is a long drive, so leave yourself plenty of time to arrive!

5. Helicopter Tour

If you don’t have time to do the activities above, or simply want to try something new, why not combine them all into one? A helicopter tour allows you can see many of the items above and additional wonders that might be hard to access otherwise — think hidden waterfalls and fresh lava flows at the Kīlauea volcano.

Visit: Blue Hawaiian is the premier choice when it comes to helicopter tours in Hawaii. Tours start at $334 per person and vary depending on the tour duration and which airport you leave from. Tours are available daily.

Get There: Tours leave from Hilo Heliport on the east of the island as well as the Waikoloa Heliport on the west.

Top Secret and Hidden Things To Do on the Big Island

Oftentimes “hidden” means more difficult to access, and that is certainly true for these adventures. Some require a bit of a hike, but you’ll be rewarded by having some of these experiences to yourself!

1. Kaumana Lava Tubes

This attraction is only 4 miles from Hilo. An 1881 lava flow from Mauna Loa stopped just short of the city, so now you can venture up and down a lava tube created by that flow. Enter through a collapsed skylight at Kaumana Caves Park and you can explore a little under 2 miles of lava tubes.

Visit: This experience is totally free and is open 24/7.

Hot Tip: If you visit early or late in the day, be sure to bring a flashlight!

Get There: Take Hawaii 19 to the center of Hilo and head inland on Waianuenue Avenue. Drive 1 mile and keep left as it splits onto Kaumana Drive. Stay on Kaumana Drive for 3 miles. On the outside of a major bend to the right, turn left into the parking area for the caves. A sign for Kaumana Caves is on the right just before the parking area.

2. Polulu Valley

Pololu Valley is located on the northernmost part of the Big Island. The amazing valley views and cliffs overlooking the ocean are worth a trip on their own, but the real draw — the black sand beach — takes about 30 minutes of hiking to reach. This is a great road trip for everyone visiting the Big Island, but especially if you’re staying in the Waikoloa area.

Visit: You don’t need to pay any entrance fees to visit this spot.

Get There: Follow the Akoni Pule Highway (Highway 270) until it ends 8 miles east of the town of Hawi at the Pololu Valley lookout.

3. Golden Pools at Keawaiki

This 2-mile hike ends at freshwater pools that have formed via an underground connection with the ocean. There are many of these brackish pools throughout the Big Island, but these pools contain unique golden algae. Wear sturdy shoes as you’ll walk along bits of lava. You might also want to do this trail in the morning or evening to avoid hot temperatures.

Visit: There are no fees to visit the Golden Pools.

Get There: Check out AllTrails for details on how to access the trailhead.

Top 5 Beaches on the Big Island

There are so many beautiful beach spots around the Big Island, but here are some of the best.

1. Onekahakaha Beach Park

If you’re in the Hilo area, this beach park (that’s not technically a beach) could be a great pick! Instead of sand, you’ll find a grassy stretch along the coast with endless water views and plenty of natural shade. There are lots of great tide pools that are separated from the rough water by a lava rock seawall, making it great for kids to splash around in. Pack a picnic lunch and you’ll be set for a great day!

Visit: The park is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. There’s plenty of free parking, lifeguard stations, restrooms, and picnic pavilions.

2. Hapuna Beach Park

Hapuna Beach is frequently voted one of the island’s top spots to visit. It has a huge stretch of white sand beach, making it somewhat of a rare sight on this island filled with lava rocks and black sand beaches. The waters are generally calm, making it an excellent place for snorkeling and bodyboarding. If you go during the winter months, keep an eye out for breaching whales! If you want to walk along the shore, you can head to Puako Bay and back for a nice 3-mile walk.

Visit: The park is open from 7 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Parking costs $5 and you can expect lifeguard stations, restrooms, showers, concessions, and picnic areas.

3. Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park

This beach is great for families as it’s protected from high surf by an offshore reef and a harbor just north. It’s also situated next to the Pu’ukohala Heiau National Historic Site and a 15-mile stretch of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail.

Visit: Unless you’re camping (permit required), the entry gate closes at 9 p.m. then reopens at 6 a.m.

4. Kahalu’u Beach Park

Big Island Beach Sunset Turtle
Image Credit: Cristian Grigore via Pixabay

Kahalu’u Beach Park is an excellent spot for swimming and snorkeling as it has mostly calm conditions and tons of sea turtles and colorful fish to look for. In addition, the beach offers picnic tables, bathrooms, and parking. If you want to rent snorkels, lockers, or beach gear, head to the Kahalu’u Bay Education Center is located onsite.

Visit: The beach is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

5. Papakōlea Beach (Green Sand Beach)

Fair warning — this isn’t an easy beach to access. If you’re able to get there, you’ll find yourself at one of the most unique beaches in all of Hawaii. The beach is located in a bay surrounded by a cinder cone of a volcano that erupted 49,000 years ago. It’s due to the volcano that the sand is a distinctive olive hue. Swimming is only recommended for strong swimmers or when the tide is low as the water is rough.

Visit: There’s a dirt parking lot at the end of South Point Road via Highway 11 where you can park. From there, you’ll hike for about an hour through an old lava field. Then, you’ll have to head down the side of the cinder cone to access the beach. Limited services are available on the beach.

Top 5 Places To Eat on the Big Island

There are so many classics you must try on the Big Island — from poke to traditional Hawaiian comfort food. Here are some great spots to check out.

1. Da Poke Shack

Da Poke Shack is the best place on Hawaii’s Big Island to try a variety of fresh poke. This diced raw fish dish is traditional to Hawaii. Spicy Pele’s Kiss is a local favorite, but you won’t go wrong with garlic and sesame flavors. Visit early because they sell out almost every day!

Visit: Located at 76-6246 Ali’i Dr. in  Kailua-Kona. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

2. Merriman’s

Merriman’s has been a Big Island institution for over 2 decades. There are a few other Merriman restaurants around the Hawaiian Islands, though many argue this branch is his best. It’s definitely a splurge, but the exceptional cuisine and service are well worth it. Reservations are recommended.

Visit: Located at 65-1227 Opelo Rd. B in Waimea. Lunch is served Sunday through Wednesday from 11:30 am to 2 p.m. Dinner is served daily from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

3. Basik Cafe

If you haven’t tried an açaí bowl in Hawaii yet, this is a great place to do that. This is a no-frills spot that has tons of outdoor seating and is known for healthy and refreshing options.

Visit: Located at 75-5831 Kahakai Rd. in Kailua-Kona. Open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Sundays.

4. Cafe 100

Head to Cafe 100 to try loco moco, a popular regional dish. Legend even has it that it was created here! It’s a bowl of white rice beneath a juicy beef patty, layered with rich gravy and topped off with a sunny-side-up egg. Cafe 100 offers a staggering 30 varieties of this quintessential Hawaiian classic!

Visit: Located at 969 Kilauea Ave. in Hilo. Open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

5. Broke Da Mouth Grindz

Broke Da Mouth Grindz has been featured on a few TV shows, so you can bet it’s popular around the clock. This Filipino-Hawaiian fusion restaurant is best known for its garlic furikake chicken and garlic butter shrimp dishes.

Visit: Located at 74-5565 Luhia St. in Kailua-Kona. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Top 5 Places To Have a Drink on the Big Island

1. Hula Hula’s

This spot has a great happy hour, complete with a stunning waterfront location! The lilikoi (yellow passionfruit) cocktails are particularly delicious, but you’ll find plenty of food options as well. Service can vary during the busiest times, but the atmosphere and drinks are worth the trip.

Visit: Located at 93 Banyan Dr. in Hilo. Open daily from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Happy Hour is from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

2. Kona Brewing Company

Kona Brewing is a great place to have a beer and a casual patio lunch. It offers beer flights and even growlers to-go. There’s also a happy hour menu, so be sure to visit between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. for the best deals on food and drinks.

Visit: Located at 74-5612 Pawai Pl. in Kailua-Kona. Open daily from 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

3. Island Lava Java

Island Lava Java is a great place to try some excellent locally sourced Kona coffee while looking out at the Pacific Ocean. You’ll often find live musicians hanging around most days, as well!

Visit: Located at 75-5801 Ali’i Dr., Building 1 in Kailua-Kona. Open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

4. Lava Lava Beach Club

This beachfront spot offers happy hour daily from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., so show up early to enjoy a cocktail with amazing views. Then, have dinner surrounded by glowing tiki torches and live music. Sounds like a perfect evening!

Visit: Located at 69-1081 Ku’uali’i Pl. in Waikoloa Village. Open daily from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

5. Heavenly Kona Coffee Farm

Learn about how coffee is grown and roasted at Heavenly Kona Coffee’s beautiful farm. You can also sample coffee (and even coffee candy!) from one of the best coffee roasters in Kona during this 1-hour tour. Even better? Tours are only $6, and reservations are recommended.

Visit: Located at 78-1136 Bishop Rd. in Holualoa. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last tour leaving at 4 p.m. Closed Sundays.

Lanai

Lanai is the smallest of the publicly accessible islands that make up Hawaii. On top of that, only 2% of the island is owned by the state of Hawaii with the other 98% being owned by 1  individual. That being said, there’s still plenty to enjoy on this island!

Getting to Lanai

Lanai Airport (LNY) is the only airport located on the island of Lanai. The only airline that flies into Lanai is Mokulele Airlines, which operates flights to the island of Oahu.

The more common way to access Lanai is via boat from Maui. Expeditions run a passenger ferry from Maui to Lanai and back. The ride takes about 45 minutes and arrives at Manele Harbor.

Getting Around Lanai

Lanai is much smaller compared to the other islands we’ve discussed here. So small, in fact, that there is no public transportation on the island.

By Car

There aren’t many paved roads on Lanai (only 30 of the island’s 400 miles of roads are paved!), so you’ll likely want to rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle to explore the island. This can be done in advance with Lanai Car Rental in Lanai City.

4 Wheel Drive Lanai
Image Credit: Mark Orbistondo via Pixabay

By Taxi or Rideshare

Taxis are available for airport transfers and other transportation needs. However, the fleet is small and advanced reservations are recommended. You can call 808-649-0808 or email Alberta de Jetley at [email protected].

Currently, there are no rideshare options available on Lanai.

By Shuttle

Shuttle service is offered on a schedule between the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, the airport, the ferry terminal, Lanai City, and Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort.

Where To Stay in Lanai

There are only 3 hotels on the entire island of Lanai. Even the options for a homestay, such as Airbnb, are limited.

Top 3 Lanai Attractions

Many people choose to just hang out at their hotel and enjoy the resort amenities, such as golf and the epic pools. But there are still plenty of things to explore if you want to leave the resort.

1. Garden of the Gods

The Garden on the Gods, also known as Keahiakawelo, is a vast rock garden located on the north end of the island. You might feel like you’ve been transported to Mars, with the garden’s red dust and rock spires. There are many legends that surround this site. Regardless, you’ll need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get around and explore!

Visit: Rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle from your hotel or in Lanai City. Morning and dusk are the best times to visit if you’re interested in taking photos of the scenery.

Get There: Get directions and a map from your rental car facility as the roads aren’t paved.

2. Lanai Cat Sanctuary

If you’re an animal lover, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary is a must-visit. The non-profit organization is a top-notch cat haven that has taken in more than 600 cats in the last few years. It does double duty since the sanctuary helps the Lanai ecosystem by rescuing cats from protected areas where endangered ground-nesting birds live. Who knows, you might even end up coming home with a cat from Lanai!

Visit: Open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 365 days a year. There is no admission fee, but the sanctuary does survive on donations. Also, if you end up adopting a cat, fees apply!

Get There: Located at 1 Kaupili Rd. in Lanai City.

3. Lanai Culture & Heritage Center

The Lanai Culture & Heritage Center is a great place to learn about the land, people, and history of Lanai. Here, you can get a guided tour to see historic old photos, maps, and artifacts, like the tools used on pineapple plantations.

Visit: The Center is currently open by appointment only, with 24 hours notice. Email [email protected] for inquiries.

Get There: Located at 730 Lanai Ave  #126 in Lanai City.

Top 5 Beaches on Lanai

1. Hulopoe Beach

Hulopoe Bay is directly in front of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, making it Lanai’s most popular swimming and picnicking beach. To the east, you’ll find a lava terrace that has several large tide pools with an abundance of marine life. You’ll also find fantastic snorkeling, and Puu Pehe (a.k.a Sweetheart Rock) just a short hike away.

Visit: The beach is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Restroom and picnic facilities are available.

2. Shipwreck Beach

Shipwreck Beach Lanai
Image Credit: Anton Repponen via Unsplash

Shipwreck Beach, also known as Kaiolohia, is known for shallow reefs and strong currents. The combination of these 2 factors has led to many ships wrecking near here — hence its name. From the shore, you’ll have excellent views of Molokai and Maui. While it’s a great area for beachcombing and exploring, swimming here is not advised.

Visit: To get here, you’ll need to rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle and drive about 30 minutes north of Lanai City.

3. Polihua Beach

Polihua Beach is even harder to reach than Shipwreck Beach but still worth the journey. You’ll likely find this 2-mile stretch of beach empty and pristine, meaning you can sunbathe in peace! Strong winds and currents make the ocean too dangerous for swimming, though.

Visit: To get here, you’ll need to rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle and drive about an hour north of Lanai City. No restroom facilities are available.

Final Thoughts

There’s so much to see and do in Oahu, the Big Island, and Lanai — from spending time on beautiful beaches to seeing historic sites, eating great food, and exploring natural wonders. No matter where you choose to spend your vacation, Hawaii really does have it all.

Whether you’re planning a short trip or a long stay in Hawaii, we hope these recommendations can help you plan the perfect trip!


Frequently asked questions

What can you do in Oahu for free?

Most beaches in Hawaii are free but may charge for parking. This includes popular spots like Waikiki Beach and Lanikai Beach. Pearl Harbor is also free to visit, but reservations are recommended.

Is a Hawaiian luau worth it?

While it can be pricey to attend a Hawaiian luau, if you can find an authentic one (like the one we recommend at the Polynesian Cultural Center), it’s a fabulous addition to your Hawaiian itinerary. You get to sample traditional food, watch a spectacular dance show, and learn more about the Hawaiian culture.

Is it better to stay in Kona or Hilo?

Kona generally offers better weather, easier access to the best beaches and water activities, and newer and more varied resort options. Hilo is worth a visit and has closer access to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but it may be better to base longer stays on the west side of the Big Island.

What is the biggest Hawaiian island called?

The Big Island is actually known as the Island of Hawaii. Since it’s the largest of the islands in the chain (in fact it’s bigger than all other islands combined!), it received the nickname of the Big Island.

Can you stay on the island of Lanai?

This off-the-beaten-path island is a great option for those looking for seclusion. While 98% of the island is privately owned, there are still a few places to stay on the island of Lanai. There are 3 hotels and a few private homestay rentals available on Lanai.

Christy Rodriguez

About Christy Rodriguez

Christy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but lived in Texas the majority of her life. Now, work has her living in the Bay Area with her husband and yellow lab. Her first international travel experience was for a summer study abroad program in Italy. After that, she knew that she was destined to travel as much as possible. Luckily, her husband worked at Southwest Airlines, so they were introduced to the exciting world of “non-rev” travel.

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