Hawaii has been on my bucket list for many years now, and I finally made it this October. When I tell folks, nearly all who haven't already been there tell me they also want to go sometime. So I thought I'd put together this little summary of my trip and some suggestions.
First, I'll confess that this was not just an average vacation trip. My fiance and I chose a beautiful Hawaiian beach for our wedding, and in retrospect, we couldn't have made a better choice. Everything was as perfect as could be, right down to the postcard sunset.
As you probably know, Hawaii consists of several islands, some more popular than others. I would say the main islands for tourism are Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the "Big Island" - Hawaii. Lanai and Molokai are two less visited islands. On this trip, we went to Oahu, then Kauai, and ended in Maui. Traveling between the islands is easy as there are several local airlines serving this market. Figure roughly $90pp one way, give or take, with flexible schedules. I suppose there are options for traveling by water as well, but we didn't investigate.
My view of Oahu was formed mainly from Honolulu, which I would describe as a big city with lots of traffic and people. As my first introduction to Hawaii, I was rather disappointed. We stayed at the Hilton on Waikiki. The trip from the airport to the hotel was a decent city drive, until we got within a mile of the hotel. That last mile took forever. Streets in Honolulu are not laid out like a grid, as in Chicago and other big cities. They go every which way, and intersections can take a lifetime, only to be followed by another just a block ahead. The hotel was high end, fabulous, and even had it's own shopping village. However, there were so many people enjoying the grounds, it seemed like Disney World on a busy day. As nice as it was, I would never stay there again. I can't have a good time when I have to fight crowds for every little thing.
The next day we got up early and toured Pearl Harbor. This is an awe inspiring monument to World War II that should be experienced by all. Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri were unforgettable experiences. I'm glad I took others' advice and went early (before 7:30), because the buses bring tourists starting at 8, and everything gets more crowded. We had seen everything we wanted to by 11 am, and off we went to Sea Park to visit the dolphins.
To be fair, although my impression of Oahu was not very good, our time here was very limited and we didn't get to explore most of the island. There are probably wonderful areas once you escape Honolulu. At Sea Park, we joined a group to play with the dolphins, another great experience. We got to touch him, dance with him, and even give him a kiss. Watching the antics and acrobatics of these aquatic mammals was a treat, and made me wonder at the patience and skill of the young trainers who have dedicated their lives to this job. Amazing.
If Oahu is on your itinerary, I would definitely recommend these two activities: Pearl Harbor, and Sea Park Dolphin Encounter. I would also recommend staying away from Waikiki, unless you don't mind crowds, and spending more time visiting the north end of the island.
They say Kauai is the Garden Isle. Understandable, because the interior and north end is covered with lush green mountains. However, the south and east edges, where most of the traffic is, is nothing special. Very different from Honolulu. The roads here are mostly 2-lane, but still crowded. Zonia commented that it reminded her of back home in the Philippines. We stayed at the Wyndham Villas up in Princeville on the north end of the island, which is a very picturesque area. I would definitely recommend that area if you go. I had two activities on my agenda for this Island. One was a helicopter tour, and the other a drive to Wailea Canyon.
Helicopters are big here, I guess because you can't see most of the island by car. This is definitely a wonderland for hikers, but the rest of us will miss closeups of most of the island's beauty. There are many choices for helicopter tours. We chose the Jack Harter company because of their reputation and the fact that they offer "doors off". It's quite a rush going up in a small copter without doors. In retrospect, I would have chosen a cheaper company closer to Princeville, just because I think it would have been pretty much the same.
Weather played a big role in our trip, in several ways. The temperatures were fine, and varied little, always around 87 in the daytime. But we happened to pick a week when the trade winds decided to take a vacation. I understand this is unusual, but our luck. What that means is that the humidity was way up, with no breeze to take the edge off. Trouble is, the resort had no air conditioning - just fans. So, my first week in Hawaii was very uncomfortable for me. I am much more comfortable back home in the Phoenix 100 degree temps. In addition, the air was foggy, with a touch of smoke from the big island's volcano. They called it "vog". It made it impossible to take good photos from the copter, or anywhere else.
The Na'Pali Coast is legendary for its beauty, but the only way to see it is from the air or by sea. The copter experience was nice, but the coast was very cloud covered. I had planned a sunset cruise along the coast, but that idea was wiped out when the surf rose. No boats were going out. So, from a tourist perspective, our trip to Kauai was a bit of a bummer. I'm not sure how you can plan for the weather, but I understand our situation was quite unusual, so you will probably do better.
Wailea Canyon is claimed to be on a par with the Grand Canyon, except with color. I was so looking forward to seeing it. The drive down from the hotel is not that far, but the roads are very slow, and it takes almost 2 hours to get to the main vista. When we got there, the entire canyon was covered in "vog", and we couldn't see a thing. So, not to be disappointed, I decided to make another trip the next day. While it wasn't completely invisible, it was still covered in vog to the point where it could not be photographed. I had read that there's a nice 12-mile hike down into the canyon where you can see various waterfalls etc, but that is past my limit as a hiker. If you go, you might want to ask if there's any way to check the weather at the canyon before making the drive.
I was somewhat disappointed with my first two islands, so I was really looking forward to a better experience on Maui. And a wedding! I wasn't disappointed. Maui is more like I expected Hawaii to be. Prettier, more open, easier to move around, and beautiful beaches everywhere. Maybe because the weather improved, or maybe because the resort (the Westin in Lahaina) had air conditioning, but Maui was very enjoyable.
Kapalua Beach, near our resort, was the place we had chosen for the wedding, and I was very pleased when I saw it in person. It was beautiful. We had dinner at Merriman's, a restaurant right on the beach, a fabulous place. We went back the next day to take more photos, and I got some great pics of Zonia on the beach at sunset.
A short walk from the resort, we went snorkeling one day. The water was cool but very refreshing. As soon as we entered the water we were greeted by a huge green sea turtle. I was testing my waterproof camera case and got some excellent pics of the turtle. Then we tried para-sailing, which was on my bucket list. I recall the days of yesteryear down in Mexico when we tried para-sailing, only to be dragged along the beach by the boat because the wind wasn't cooperating. Never got off the ground, and had a bad taste for this activity ever since.
But now they have made it so easy. You just sit on the back of the boat and suddenly you lift into the air. Up, up, up... Higher, higher... Very cool, very scary as you listen to the creaking of the canvas straps as you change angles. You look down with a gasp as you see the boat get smaller and smaller, and you realize it's just this one little nylon clothesline holding you up. Yikes! Try it!
The crowds here were not as intense as the other islands, perhaps because there are so many places to go. The roads, and the entire island was more modern and open. On our last day, we took a trip down to the "Road to Hana". This is an amazing drive with hundreds of switchbacks and many single lane bridges. It's only about 30 miles, but it takes about 3 hours, even if you don't stop. And there are many places to stop along the way. We ran out of time, so we only went about half way. If you go, give yourself the entire day for this.
Guidebooks - Don't really need them. If you want to read up before hand, just do some Google searches. Then, plan out your activities with the concierge. Don't bother spending money on books, or signing up for tours in advance.
Packing - Pack your bags, then go back and remove 50% of what you packed. You don't need the fancy dress clothes. You don't need 3 pairs of shoes. You don't need a jacket. All you need is several pairs of shorts, some light shirts, maybe a light sweater, and a pair of beach shoes or flip-flops, in addition to the jeans and tennis shoes you wear on the plane. I packed snorkel equipment, but you can rent it there. Zonia showed me where I could have rented fancy camera equipment, which would have saved me from dragging my heavy camera bag everywhere. We bought nice Hawaii T-shirts, 6 for $20. You will buy stuff there, so go with your suitcase part empty.
Shopping - This is a no-brainer, but I'll say it anyway. Don't eat at the resort, and don't shop at the resort. There are lots of good restaurants and stores in town, or in the market areas, for a lot less money. Even so, EVERYTHING is expensive here. One of our units had a kitchen, so we bought some groceries - $5/dz for eggs. Gas, $4.79/g. Breakfast at the hotel, $30pp, vs $10 in town.
When to Go - This is a tough one. They say that whale season shouldn't be missed. We missed it. November-April. If I go again, it will be in February or March, although the one problem might be crowds. I was told that the time we went, October, it is off-season and the crowds are thin. Yet we saw lots of crowds. Makes me wonder how bad high-season might be.
I'd love to hear your Hawaii experiences, and compare to mine. We have decided we'd like to revisit Maui, and if I do, I'd include the big island to visit the volcano. How about you?