Hawai‘i is the type of destination that has it all. From mountains, to rainforests, to the biggest attraction—the ocean. The number of things to do in Hawai‘i is dizzying. We cover it all in our travel guides and give you honest, uninfluenced recommendations on how to create your ultimate vacation. After reviewing countless activity and adventure tours over nearly 30 years, we have narrowed down some of our top things to do in Hawai‘i. These are the definite, must-do experiences that can only be found on each island. Just remember, if these activities aren’t part of your ideal vacation, there’s way more waiting to be revealed in our guides.
Manta Ray Night Dive
This is one of the all-time, most memorable things you can do in Hawai‘i. The best experience is SCUBA diving, though there are snorkel versions of this tour. Imagine the following scene: You take a boat to a dark piece of shoreline, leaving just before sunset. When you arrive, perhaps another dive boat is already there. Damn, you think. They’ll ruin it. As you slip into the water and approach what is affectionately called the campfire, numerous lights beckon to you, like a porch light calling to moths. Then gigantic shadows blot out the lights. Mantas! As you approach, one zooms over your head, missing you by an inch. There you sit, with all the other divers, mesmerized by the performance before you. One, two, maybe three stinger-less manta rays, 6–10 feet across their wings, slowly swirling, looping and soaring all about you. Like an extraterrestrial dance performed by alien beings, these filter-feeding leviathans are more graceful than you could possibly imagine. They seem to understand that they are on stage, and they rarely disappoint. When you think you have gotten used to their size, a goliath 14-feet across may swoop in, its enormous maw scooping up thousands of the tiny, darting shrimp that cloud the water along with the bubbles. You struggle to resist the urge to reach up and touch them—it’s best to let them initiate any touching. Above the fray, a sea of needlefish gobbles up what they can. Nearby, a friendly eel might slither over to give you a kiss. If you’ve night dived before, do this one! If you’ve never night dived before, consider doing it now! Expect to spend up to $250 for this dive—the best money you will ever spend underwater, if they show.
Visit Molokini Crater
To residents and visitors in the know, the name Molokini conjures up images of crystal clear water and bright, vivid coral. If nature hadn’t made this offshore island, the Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau would have done it. This aquatic wonder was created when an undersea vent, held under pressure by the ocean’s weight, busted loose with lava and ash, building up what is called a tuff cone. The northern half has been eroded away by wave action, creating a semi-circular reef far enough offshore to be clear of runoff or sand. So underwater visibility is nearly always 100 feet, sometimes 180. Visiting Molokini means taking a boat from either Ma‘alaea (10 miles away) or Kihei Boat Ramp (6 miles). Though it seems close to Maui, don’t try to take a kayak there. Currents and winds between Molokini and Maui are too strong for most kayakers. We’ve repeatedly snorkeled the entire crater, and the best snorkeling is usually on the inside left (from the outside looking in—the side closest to Maui.) Boats that park elsewhere will likely tell you they park in the best spot, but they’re wrong. (SCUBA diving is a different matter.) The inside right is a close second, with the center the least interesting. (That’s relative; the center still has lots of coral and fish.) Don’t stay in one place; swim over near the shore to see more coral, then to deeper water for more fish. During normal trade winds, floating debris tends to accumulate in the center-left, and the water gets more churned up, so it’s best to avoid that part. But it’s usually reasonably calm. Molokini is a big, clear pool for you to play in—a giant fishbowl in the middle of the open ocean.
See the Na Pali Coast
When Hollywood needs a beautiful, remote coastline studded with majestic cliffs and glorious valleys to film movies, they often choose Kaua‘i’s Na Pali Coast. Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Six Days/ Seven Nights, King Kong and others have all used a Na Pali backdrop to convey an idyllic paradise. From the sea, this area of the island takes on a magical quality. Many people dream of seeing the Hawaiian Islands by sea. The Na Pali region is surely the most popular area to cruise, but there are others as well. This can be a fantasy trip. Rough seas are rarely part of the fantasy, but they can be part of reality, depending on conditions. Seeing Na Pali by boat is an incredible thrill that we highly recommend. Soaking up this coastline and being on a boat are exquisitely relaxing. You can see it by leaving from the west side or the north shore. They are two very different experiences, but either makes for one of our favorite things to do in Hawai‘i.
Swim with Sharks
There are two kinds of people—those who pay to stay clear of sharks and those who pay to get up close and personal with the scary critters. If swimming with dolphins is a little too tame for you (after all, how many people get eaten by mere mammals?), how about swimming with sharks? Here’s how: You hop into a cage protruding just above the surface of the ocean. For 15 minutes you watch as sandbar sharks and possibly some Galapagos sharks circle your cage menacingly. Two, three, 10, maybe 15 sharks. Watching these predators just inches from you is fantastic. They’re amazingly graceful and stealthy. We’ve SCUBA dived for years, but it wasn’t until we did this simple snorkel trip that we were able to spend this much quality time with these animals. The cage keeps them out, and the biggest openings are covered with Plexiglas, which you’ll appreciate when the big sharks bang into it. All in all, it’s an incredible adventure and one of our favorite things to do in all Hawai‘i. For those who think that cages are for posers, you can also swim freely with the beasties. Four companies do this, all out of Hale‘iwa. It’s thrilling to see the sharks so close, but some may find it unnerving when the sharks become numerous and you can’t keep track of them. Though their behavior may not be aggressive, it’s likely that some people might find the notion of a shark charging right at them aggressive. They will come right up next to you. And when they come from behind and whisk right by your mask? Yeah, that’s a bit intense. Others will love every part of it.