Hawaii – it’s the poster child for sun, sand and surf. An oasis in the middle of the vast blue desert known as the Pacific Ocean. A tropical destination for decades, it attracts travelers from all over the world (well mostly Japan and the US) and hums with tourists all year round. Walking down some of the main streets in Honolulu you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in Vegas with all the lights and crowded footpaths.
But Hawaii is more than just expensive designer stores and the pristine sands of Waikiki beach. While a relatively small land area, it packs a lot in and there’s plenty to do for travelers of all types. Air New Zealand offer a direct service from Auckland with airfares generally around $1000 return (actually I think theres a special on right now for $420 one way from the main centres).
Speaking of budget, there are a couple of things as a kiwi traveler you’ll need to keep in mind (when comparing winter getaway destinations).
- You can’t buy as much – the NZ dollar is relatively weak against the US dollar, compared to other destinations (e.g. Fijian, Cook Island or Australian dollar), which means your spending money won’t go as far.
- Accommodation is expensive – the nightly rate for staying in Hawaii is considerably more than other destinations so you’ll either be spending more or getting a lower quality place to stay in. We found AirBNB was a good option (here’s a link to get a $45 credit on your first night) with some places that were more interesting than a beige hotel room!
- Food is more expensive – prices for food (including just regular groceries) were considerably more than what you’d pay back home. But by booking accommodation that includes kitchen facilities you can save a bit. Keep in mind that when you eat out, you’re in the States and that means adding a 20% tip, plus tax, to your meals.
Warning: Some airbnb rentals are potentially illegal. Confirm this with the owner before booking if you have any concerns.
In terms of money, you can spend as much or as little as you like. There are cheap hostels and backpackers (or even sleep down at the beach next to the homeless if you like) next to $500/night hotels, you can rent a car or you can ride the bus – it’s up to you. I’d suggest balance – there’s no point penny pinching and missing out on the true Hawaiian adventure when you just spent $1000 on airfares.
We went early June, which while not being peak season is still busy, since schools are out. Having said that it didn’t feel like too much, maybe I was just expecting it to be terrible. To be honest I think Hawaii is just busy all the time!
Getting from the Honolulu airport
Before I get into things to do in Hawaii, obviously we need to talk about how to get from the airport – the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport – to your accommodation. There are a few options, the most expensive is taxi, which is about $50 (but could suit a group), there are shuttles – the desks are conveniently situated near the luggage carousel – which are around $10-$15 per person and there’s the bus (which is about $2.50, you need exact change and can’t take suitcases but you could send one of your party on a shuttle and everyone else take the bus). The bus departs directly from the airport, which is nice and handy. We took the shuttle because we had a suitcase but it can be slow if you’re waiting for other passengers and you’re last off.
Top ten things to do in Hawaii
I’ve tried to round up the main things you’re probably thinking about doing when coming to Hawaii. You might already know about them – my job is just to tell you what it’s really like – because not everything is like it is in the brochures.
The activities I’m going to talk about are aimed at budget travelers. I didn’t do any of the high-priced helicopter rides or ziplining, so like I said I believe balance is needed and I feel some of the best experiences in Hawaii are not necessarily the most expensive.
1 – Lava Flow
Warning: Lava is hot and will burn you if you touch it. Also lava is considered a god by native Hawaiians so avoid disrespecting it.
Sure we have active volcanoes here in New Zealand but we don’t have real live lava flows. I mean you don’t realise how freakin’ cool it is until you’re face to face with the stuff. If there was one thing I didn’t want to leave without doing this would be it – tracking down a lava flow.
There’s only one lava flow that I know about and that’s on the Big island – Kilauea (Hawaiian airlines – join their membership programme to get $10 off any checked luggage. It’s been flowing since 1983 and just keeps spewing the liquid red stuff out on a daily basis. A lot of it is underground but there are areas which have what are called ‘break outs’. This is what you’re looking for. To get there, pickup your rental car at the airport and drive to Kalpana, hire a bike (about $15 and includes a lock and flashlight, which came in handy) and ride the 3 miles to the ocean viewing area (where you can see the steam cloud as the lava flows into the sea – awesome day or night!).
Now the hard work begins. Make sure you’ve got some solid footwear, some water and sunblock – it’s going to be a hot, dry trek of about 4 or 5 miles inland, but it’s worth it! The landscape is amazing and worth visiting in itself. We found lava flows by heading towards the rising vog on the hill – yes it’s probably easier to find at night but walking over the lava rock at night would probably double your trek time (we met some starting their walk in at about 8.30pm – crazy!).
Fun fact: Apparently the story behind why you have to walk or bike the 3 miles to the ocean viewing area is to do with some idiotic bureaucracy – FEMA built the road during the main eruption and when the National Parks wanted to take it over they were told it would cost them $7 million a year, which seems ludicrous. Eventually they came to an agreement but they were only permitted to allow hikers or bikers on the road. I guess the bike rental companies aren’t complaining! Ps attention cheapskates – I know you’re tempted to walk it but just don’t. Seriously, it’s a very unpleasant, dusty walk and the torch will come in handy, trust me.
Fun fact #2: Different types of lava flow. As you walk up to the lava breakouts you will most likely come across the two types of lava flow that has solidified – Aa (pronounced are-are) and Pahoehoe (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy) – sidenote: being a New Zealander you should find the Hawaiin names easier to pronounce since they’re closely related to other polynesian languages such as Maori – Aa is the smooth rock and pahoehoe the jagged rock. Apparently molten lava sets in about 20 minutes to become hard enough to walk on, which you do at your own risk!
2 – Snorkeling
Warning: Don’t harass dolphins or any other wildlife, or damage the coral.
The activity that is synonymous with tropical holidays. It always looks amazing and hey it’s relatively cheap, I mean you can bring your own gear or just buy it from a local Walmart for $30 and you’re good to go. But it’s not for everyone. Some people are just not comfortable breathing underwater, the sea scares them (or the creatures that live there!) or they just find it tiring. So if you give it a go and find you don’t like it, don’t stress, you’re not alone. But if you’re like me and love the sea then you should definitely do it. We did bring our own snorkel gear but it’s cheap enough to buy and discard at the end of your holiday if you want to maximise your suitcase space. Definitely use flippers and get ones that protect your feet.
My two favourite snorkeling spots were Two Steps (on the Big Island) and Hanauma Bay (on Oahu). I did know about the Captain Cook memorial spot but it’s either a paid boat trip or a long walk to get there – and too far to swim from the carpark on the other side of the bay!
- Two Steps (Pae’a) – I got lucky here with an up close and personal experience, swimming with the graceful, yet rare, spinner dolphins, the ones with the disturbingly sharp dorsal fins! You start to realise how social these animals are. The dolphin swim aside, this spot probably had the most fish I’d seen anywhere. There’s a big area to explore, and deeper areas (where you’re more likely to see the dolphins as they play in the bay – please don’t harass them!). It’s right next to the National Historic Park if you’re looking to visit that too. Parking can be a little tight if it’s busy but there is paid parking within walking distance. One thing to watch for is urchins in the rock crevices – they won’t kill you but getting spiked isn’t fun.
- Hanauma Bay – An hour ride on a squashed bus (or 15 min drive) will get you from Honolulu to the bay. It’s the one most tourists go to, and it shows. It’s crowded, even in the quiet season. It’s $7.50 to get in and you have to sit through an educational presentation about being careful on the reef, essentially ‘look, don’t touch’. For most, it’s probably in one ear and out the other, especially when you look at how dead a lot of the coral is around the shore. To be fair, it’s actually pretty difficult to not walk on the coral at times – it can be very shallow in places and you can find yourself almost beached on the coral. I got some love from the coral at one point and it can be unforgiving so be careful. There are water fountains and restrooms at the beach, and a cute dog at the info centre. I explored the whole area and I would probably say the best spots are just beyond the waves, not only is it a bit deeper but there’s more fish and interesting coral, particularly over to the right of the bay.
3 – Volcano National Park
Warning: If you are sensitive to vog, check the NPS air quality conditions before entering the park.
One thing you’ll find when researching about visiting the VNP is all the potential hazards. Maybe it’s an american thing but to be honest it’s overkill. You could get the impression you’re venturing into a crocodile-infested river flanked by hungry hippos with all the mention of vog inhalation and poisonous gases in the area. The worst I had it was when I got rained on while crossing one of the craters – it’s not cold but do bring something to keep you dry, it’s quite a different climate at that altitude.
The entrance to the VNP is about a two hour drive from Hilo and is relatively remote so stock up in Hilo at the local Walmart (free Wifi yay!) before you set out. The VNP is open 24/7 but the toll booth (it’s $25 per vehicle to enter) is only manned during working hours, so if you wanted to be a mcscrooge then you could enter the park really early in the morning or late at night for free. Personally, we’re fans of the National Park Service so we don’t mind making a donation (we love the rangers, they’re always so helpful and enthusiastic!).
The visitor’s centre is a great place to plan your visit. We went first to the main crater (Jaggar museum) to see it during the day. The lava was clearly visible getting close to the rim so that was awesome. You watch it long enough you’ll see little explosions; you just have to be patient. Then it was off to drive down the Chain of Craters Rd, which takes you all the way to sea level. There are plenty of places to stop along the way and check out old lava flows and walk through extinct craters. The Thurston Lava Tube was a bit of a letdown. We were led to believe you needed torches, which you didn’t and it was super short. The best thing was doing the Kīlauea Iki Trail – allow about 40 minutes but you feel like you’re walking across the moon!
After getting down to sea level, checking out the arch and seeing the lava/ocean steam cloud (which as mentioned is best viewed from the Kalpana side) we headed back up to the summit and got a late lunch. Then it was time to go back to the crater to see it at night – it gets busy but it’s so worth it!
4 – Green sea turtles at Carlsmith beach park
Warning: It is illegal to harass the turtles
I had no idea if I’d actually get to see turtles or not. I mean I knew they were around but from what I’d read they’re pretty elusive and like to keep to themselves. But at this beach just behind the Hilo airport, there are some regular turtles that seem pretty happy to mix with the locals. The three regulars generally show up around lunchtime (there were four when we were there) but they are just the most placid, relaxed creatures around. Everyone seemed pretty good about not harassing them. For me, the best part was just swimming underneath them and looking up as they glide above me – amazing creatures.
The beach is nice enough but there is a cold water inlet on the far right of the beach, which makes it a bit chilly to swim in (well probably normal temperature when you’re from the land of the long white cloud!). It’s a great little spot, with areas for shade, a lifeguard on duty and plenty of parking. Definitely a great place to hang out for a few hours.
5 – Hapuna beach park
This is probably one of my favourite beaches in Hawaii. Parking can be a bit tight and it’ll cost you $5 to get in but the beach is super nice and there’s always lots going on. It’s just a great place to hang out with friends and do beachy stuff. Apparently there are turtles nearby but I never went to see them. There are also these little A-frame huts which you can rent by the night relatively cheaply, however I don’t think you can book online.
6 – Roadtrip in a rental across Oahu
This was a last minute thing but we had a spare day and it’s pretty cheap to rent a car (even a last minute convertible was only like $75) and petrol is super cheap. It’s the perfect place for a summer roady. The roads are great, the drivers friendly and there are plenty of cool spots to stop along the way.
On the subject of renting transport, you might think hey why not get a scooter? Normally it’s the standard mode for island transport but here are a few reasons I believe a car is better in Hawaii:
- Mopeds & scooters are different – Weird eh, yeh they look pretty much the same but apparently mopeds are for one person only and can’t be taken on the major highways, so if you were planning on taking one to the north shore it would be a long ride along the back roads. The good thing is that you dont need a motorbike licence to ride one, unlike scooters.
- Scooters need a motorbike licence – But you can have two people on them, but most of the rental prices were the same as, or more, than renting a car, so seriously why would you?
7 – Sandy beach shorebreak
Warning: Swimming here can cause injury or death
If you want sand in your togs this is the place for you. Just past the blowhole as you head North out of Honolulu this is a really fun wave that will smash you into the sand. Plenty of parking too. I used a bodyboard but it broke in half on the first wave I caught! It can be just as fun bodysurfing it. Fins definitely help. If you have a gopro I’m sure you’d get some sweet photos as the wave goes over the top before it closes out.
8 – Haleiwa historic town
On our way to the famous North Shore – rented a convertible, what else?? – we stopped in at the cute little historic town of Haleiwa (take the marked turnoff from the main highway). There are a bunch of cute shops and places to eat. It’s a nice stopping point before you hit the North Shore beaches.
9 – Cliff jumping at Waimea Bay
The famous big wave surfing spot is surprisingly flat in summer, however it does have a fun shorey. Once again parking can be tough but I got lucky, which saved a walk (note to Hawaii tourism: please make more carparks!!) however there is still the long walk across the sand (it’s a big beach!). In addition to just lazing on the beach or getting tossed around by the shorey, there is a natural climbing wall (did it!) and a big rock that you can jump off. You’ll know where to jump because there’ll generally be a big crowd up there. It’s probably about 8m high but it’s nice and deep. There are lower points if you prefer. Just make your way to the front as it’s not really a line waiting to jump, most of them are just watching.
10 – Surfing Pipeline Banzai
I do surf a little so I guess I would be a bit remiss if I didn’t surf somewhere in Hawaii at least once. After checking the surf at Pipeline (or just Pipe) wasn’t too heavy I went and rented a board from the cool guys at the Surf Shack (near the food trucks). It was $25/day for a shortboard which is pretty good compared to the prices you’ll pay back at Waikiki. You have to sign all sorts of disclaimers and leave your credit card number as it is a reef break and it can be crowded so there’s always a chance you’ll collide with the reef or another surfer. I got there a bit later in the day and they let me take one for $15 and I got a couple of hours surfing in. It’s a nice wave but probably a bit crowded for my liking but that’s just how it is – good surf and warm water = crowds (no matter where you are in the world).
That’s my top ten, feel free to ping me if you have any questions or need more detail about anything.
While not in my top ten, you are probably considering climbing up Diamond Head, maybe even to get the sunrise (because, you know, that’s what everyone else does so it must be the best right?). You can bus there but its still a bit of a walk to get to the entrance so ideally you want a taxi or just drive to the park. It’s $1 per person or $5 per car.
It’s pretty busy first thing so just because you’re up at stupid o’clock don’t expect you’ll be enjoying quiet solitude. Just follow the crowds as the line snakes its way up to the summit. It takes about 20 minutes and I didn’t find it challenging at all but if you’re unfit (or have spent most of your holiday flat on your back downing pina coladas) then you might struggle a bit.
If you want to catch the sunrise there’s a couple of things that might be working against you. Firstly, the park only opens at 6am so if the sunrise is before this then obviously you’re a bit stuck. Secondly, the clouds could come in and ruin your perfect sunrise shot.
I didn’t come across any scams, even the homeless people in Honolulu never bothered us (the reports I’d heard were obviously hugely exaggerated). I got accosted one time by some drunk stoner at Rainbow Falls (on the Big Island). It was getting dark but he was harmless enough and actually another visitor honked when he saw him grab me, just to let him know he was being watched.
As for tips, if you’re going to ride the bus always ask for a transfer receipt, it allowed us a few free rides (hey $2.50 is $2.50!!). Catch the Friday night fireworks on Waikiki. They start at 7.45pm and we found the concrete pier in front of the Outrigger Reef on the Beach (west end of Waikiki) was the best place to get some great photos.
Shaved ice seems to be super popular but in my opinion it’s overpriced for what it is, I mean seriously its frozen water and a bit of syrup! We had to wait like 30 minutes for ours. Why people line up for places like Matsumoto I have no idea (damn sheeples)! Personally I wouldn’t bother.
The ABC stores (one on every block in Honolulu!) carry a lot of snacks, drinks and beach gear at good prices.
Layer on the sunblock – the sun in Hawaii is almost as harsh as NZ!
Invest in some reef walkers ($5 from walmart), even when swimming at sandy beaches in Hawaii, most will be rocky or have coral as you swim out.
If you’re visiting the Big Island, check out the Kaumana Caves – it’s way better than the more popular Thurston Lava Tube. They seem to be off the tourist trail so a bit quieter and you can explore as much or as little as you like – they extend for over a mile in one direction. It can be a bit cramped in places, make sure you have a torch (as well as a backup – you do not want to caught in there without a light!!).