What to see and do in Hawai‘i

Waianapanapa beach on Maui The black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the island of Maui.

Right in the heart of the Pacific, the remote and beautiful archipelago of Hawai‘i is about as fabled a vacation destination as they come.

Its scenery—palm and pandanus beaches, knife-back ridges cloaked in tropical vegetation, otherworldly volcanic craters and lava fields—is dreamlike, and its indigenous Polynesian culture is alive, strong, and fascinating. It’s easy to feel like you’re at the ends of the Earth in this tropical wonderland, which makes it all the more remarkable how quickly you can reach it from the West Coast.

To help guide us through the fundamentals and highlights of Hawai‘i travel, we turn to Susan Gildart, a AAA Travel Advisor who needed only one trip to fall head over heels for the islands. “Hawai‘i is one of the most unique destinations in the world,” she says. “From volcanic mountains to the lush tropical landscapes, these exotic islands of paradise are just a flight away. No passport necessary!”

AAA Travel Agent Susan Gildart

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Susan Gildart is here to share her tips and insights on Hawai'i. AAA can help you plan the perfect trip to Hawai'i, or wherever your dream vacation is. Contact a AAA Travel Advisor today, or visit a branch to meet with an advisor or take advantage of other travel services.

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Fast facts

A map of Hawai'i

A chain of 8

The main Hawaiian islands are, from east to west, Hawai‘i (often called “the Big Island”), Maui, Kaho‘olawe, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, and Ni‘ihau. A string of uninhabited isles and atolls form the Northwestern Hawai‘ian Islands to the northwest of Ni‘ihau, including French Frigate Shoals and Midway Atoll.

Hawai‘i's hub

Honolulu on the island of O‘ahu is the capital and biggest city in Hawai‘i, and serves as a popular jumping-off point for explorations of the island chain.

Fun fact

The Hawaiian islands compose the most remote major landmass on the planet, with the nearest significant land—the western coast of North America and other Polynesian islands—more than 2,400 miles away.

RELATED: 8 myths & misconceptions about Hawai‘i travel

What to see

Diamond Head (O‘ahu)

Lace up your sneakers (or hiking boots) and trek to the 761-foot summit of Diamond Head State Monument, where you'll be treated to spectacular 360-degree vistas of Waikiki. The hike is steep and you'll need to bring water and sun protection, but the breathtaking views make the effort worthwhile, and this is one of the best fun things to do with friends.

The USS Arizona Memorial at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Pearl Harbor (O‘ahu)

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes and submarines attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on the O‘ahu shore—the galvanizing event that ushered America into the Second World War. Today, this fateful lagoon falls within the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (formerly part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument), where you can reflect upon the military strike and its repercussions.

“I’d read about it, watched movies depicting it, and heard about it all my life,” Susan says. “But the emotions that come over you when you visit this sacred sight are truly hard to describe.”

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (The Big Island)

One of the standout sites in the U.S. National Park Service, Hawai‘i Volcanoes encompasses a pair of extraordinary “fire mountains”: Mauna Loa, among the largest summits on Earth; and Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes. Kilauea, Susan notes, “is seen by millions of tourists each year, which makes it the most visited attraction in Hawai‘i and the most visited volcano in the world.”

From its bleakly beautiful craters to its thriving rainforest, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is spellbinding—famous for the red glow of the lava at night.

Mauna Kea (The Big Island)

It's no secret that this dormant volcano has great night skies—that's why its 13,800-foot summit is home to 13 telescopes, including some of the largest in the world. Since the summit is closed to the public at night, stargazers should head to the parking lot at the Maunakea Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet. (The center itself is closed as of Oct. 19.) Nighttime temperatures at this elevation can fall below freezing, so dress warmly.

The Road to Hana (Maui)

Ranking among the world’s all-out beauty drives, the Road to Hana—aka the Hana Highway—runs some 65 miles between Kahului and Hana along Maui's northern coast. On tap is a magnificent distillation of some of Hawai‘i's defining scenery: abundant waterfalls, verdant plant life, postcard-perfect beaches, and ocean vistas: 

“The drive to Hana is definitely worth it,” Susan says. “For those who get carsick, though, you might want to refrain" or take motion-sickness medicine.

Read about the top 7 things to do on a Hana Highway road trip

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

The highest point on Maui, this 10,023-foot shield volcano dominates the island’s east and is the centerpiece of Haleakala National Park. This remarkable terrain stretches from the vast, windswept summit crater to the pounding surf of the Kipahulu coast. As the national park with the most endangered species in the country, Haleakala is teeming with unique beauty.

Read about the top 5 things to do at Haleakala National Park

Waimea Canyon (Kaua‘i)

The awe-inspiring Waimea Canyon in western Kaua'i is a gaping, colorful abyss more than 2,500 feet deep that you can goggle at from Highway 550, or drop into via an extensive trail network.

As Susan puts it: “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific—what more can you say but, ‘Spectacular!’ ”

The Na Pali Coast (Kaua‘i)

Rejuvenate the soul with a sail hike, or helicopter tour along Kaua‘i's famous Na Pali Coast. Emerald green pinnacles extend upwards towards crystal skies for 17 miles. Velvety cliffs and fresh waterfalls line stupendous valleys. The terrain is as it has been for centuries: respected and revered by man.


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What to eat

Traditional luau food

Communal cooking and feasting combined with music and dancing makes the luau one of the best-known cultural experiences in Hawai‘i. “This celebration of Hawaiian culture is not to be missed,” Susan says. Dishes at luaus often include kalua pig roasted in an underground oven, the taro-root starch known as poi, and the zestily seasoned raw fish called poke.


Yes, you read that right: Spam, the humble canned meat brought to Hawai‘i by the U.S. military and enthusiastically adapted into local cuisine.

“Hawai‘i consumes more Spam than any other state,” Susan explains. “It can be found in many dishes, from Spam fried rice to Spam eggs. Hawai‘i even hosts a Spam festival each year.”

Kona coffee

Among the most coveted Hawaiian exports is Kona coffee, grown on the rich volcanic slopes of the Big Island’s Kona Districts. Susan: “For coffee lovers, this is a must-try!”

Where to stay & how to get around

Stay on O‘ahu

"In O‘ahu, consider iconic Waikiki Beach for surfing, shopping, and easy transportation around the island," Susan says. "If you’re in the mood for a quieter and more peaceful relaxation-focused getaway, Turtle Bay in the north may be more up your alley.”

Stay on Maui

“In Maui,” Susan says, “consider the Wailea area if you’re a golf enthusiast. For great stretches of beach, plentiful restaurants, and nightlife, look into the Ka'anapali area.”

Getting around the state

“If you are staying on O‘ahu near Waikiki Beach,” Susan says, “no car’s necessary as it is easy to get around the island via trolleys and city buses. On Maui, Kaua‘i, and the Big Island of Hawai‘i, renting a car is your best bet.”

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