“Are you getting married, Florine?”, “Did you go on honeymoon?”
This is pretty much the type of conversation I had on and on, before and after my trip to Hawaii. The reason? The Hawaiian Archipelago seems such a fantasy destination beyond reach that most people believed it had to be for my big day. For sure, seen from Europe, going right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a long, long trip. But then, if you’re an avid and adventurous scuba diver, passionate by incredible nature, wildlife and culture, and you know a thing or two about how to save money even in expensive locations, is it a reason to postpone just for a potential honeymoon even if is a once-in-a-lifetime trip?
I took the opportunity of a business trip to Japan, added a two-week vacation, and put all my British Airways miles into a Tokyo-Kona JAL flight to check if the Aloha State is worth all the fuss and dollars on what look like exciting scuba diving experiences.
How did I end up skipping Oahu and the world-famous Hawaiian capital of Honolulu and its even more famous Waikiki Beach? First, I had to visit one of my best friends who has lived in Maui for 5 years, and this is from there you can dive in Molokini Crater. Regarding Big Island, there was the famous manta night dive and the hope to see lava flowing into the ocean. These were the main arguments to only visit 2 of the 4 main islands. I also wanted more time to explore each island, and it was a great way to keep my travel budget under control by avoiding too many expensive inter-island flights.
Week 1: one-week itinerary in Maui
Maui is like the Eden Garden of Hawaii. I have never seen so many diverse breath-taking landscapes concentrated on such a tiny piece of land: from waterfalls flowing in lush bamboo jungles to the apocalyptic colours of Haleakala Volcano.
As a scuba diver you need to be always aware of the altitude and the risk of decompression sickness, so start with the diving and end your stay with the high altitude places like Haleakala Volcano. Even if the island is not so big, to avoid spending too much time on the road, I recommend staying in the following places:
- Lahaina, West Maui, for the best diving in Hawaii and an adventurous discovery tour of its coast – 3 days
- Kihei, Southwest Maui, to add some excellent shore diving and killer sunset on Kihei’s beach. For information, it is cheaper to dive in Molokini Crater from Kihei – 2 days
- Wailuku or Paia, East Coast, to be close to the start of the Hana Highway and the road to Haleakala National Park – 2 days
If you have a few extra days, you can hop on the only remaining ferry of Hawaii from Lahaina to Lanai. Be aware accommodation is expensive and scarce, but you can still make a day trip as it is only an hour ferry ride.
Best diving in Maui
Just let put it this way, the most impressive diving I’ve done in Hawaii was in Maui. Wouldn’t you feel eager to dive in the submerged crater of an ancient volcano, with dozens of turtles or hammerhead sharks? Count half a day for each dive site and please take into account that sometimes the weather can change rapidly so be flexible with your plans.
- Mala Wharf, from Lahaina
- The Carthaginian II shipwreck, from Lahaina
- Molokini Crater, from Kihei or Lahaina
- Ulua Beach, from Kihei
- Makena Landing, from Kihei
The dives I couldn’t do because of the weather:
- Cathedrals I & II, cavern diving in Lanai, from Lahaina
- Fish Rain, drift dive with hammerhead sharks in Molokai, from Lahaina
What to do on Maui?
- The road to Hana, from Paia or Wailuku: the number one attraction in Maui includes 59 bridges, 620 curves, more than 24 waterfalls, and too many mouth-watering stands to taste juicy dragonfruits and home-baked banana bread. It might be a touristy must-see, but I absolutely loved my day walking in a bamboo forest, swimming in 2 different waterfall pools, and snorkelling at the red sand beach. It is an intense road trip, but you can do it over and over again as there are so many secrets spots to explore. Indications are almost non-existent along the way, so you can drive yourself with preparation and concentration to spot the miles markers, or you can enjoy the ride with other travellers by taking advantage of the free tours organised by hostels in Wailuku and Paia.
- Haleakala Volcano National Park, from Paia or Wailuku: don’t miss the opportunity to visit this National Park even if the entry to the park is 25 USD for one car (the more you are in the car, the cheaper it gets per person). If you want to see the sunrise from Haleakala Crater, make sure you book your spot in advance, I thought I would have plenty of time at my arrival in Maui, but it was fully booked for the 2 upcoming weeks! It can also be done as one of the free tour organised by the hostels of Wailuku and Paia or with a private guide accredited by the Volcano National Park. Think about taking a warm rain jacket and closed walking shoes before heading to the Park. Don’t be that tourist freezing wrapped in his beach towel because Haleakala is at 3,055 m of altitude.
- Tour of West Maui, from Lahaina: I was lucky to board the Ford Explorer of Delphine from Maui Unique Tours, for a full day of adventures, snorkelling with turtles, hiking through volcanic rocks and splashing in a waterfall pool. Our mini road trip included the ancient petroglyphs of Olowalu, Nakalele Blowhole and heart shape rock, and the delicious “lilikoi” (passionfruit) or coconut cream pies of Aunty Lorraine in Kahakuloa. Lahaina itself is a delightful old charming harbour where strolling around is pleasant thanks to its historical buildings, its banyan tree square and its quiet beach where wannabe surfers train in the morning with a superb view of Lanai Island.
- Sunset drinks at Kihei’s beach: Join the locals for the most beautiful evening with the sun setting right in the Pacific Ocean. Buy a few Maui Bikini Blonde beers and enjoy the moment at one of the beach parks of Kihei. ( Be aware drinking alcohol on a beach in Hawaii is subject to some laws, in doubt, soft drinks work too, only the sunset matters here)
Where to stay on Maui?
- Banana Bungalow Hostel, Wailuku: If you like backpackers’ hostels with lively social spaces in a banana palm tree garden with even a jacuzzi, where you can quickly make new friends while cooking your free pancakes in the morning, the Banana Bungalow Hostel is the perfect address. I chose them because they offered both free tours and airport pick-up/lift 3 times a day. However, it is important to note that Wailuku has not the reputation of being the safest place in Maui, and the action we got one night just outside the hostel proved it right, plus there is almost nothing to do in Wailuku. So if you want a fancier area where there are plenty of shop and cafés where you can walk to, the Aloha Surf Hostel in Paia can be a better option, but they are a bit more expensive and don’t offer the airport rides.
- Lahaina Beach House, Lahaina: It was love at first sight with the Lahaina Beach House. The owner, Guyton refurbished last year his grandma house into this cosy luxury hostel which is right on the beautiful beach of Lahaina. I stayed there two nights, but I wished I had a few extra days there. Guyton was kind enough to keep my scuba diving bag before checking-in while I was on my West Maui tour. Warmly recommended! Get a 10% refund on your stay on booking.com with this link.
Week 2: one-week itinerary in Big Island (Hawai’i)
Kona in Big Island was my initial point of arrival from Japan, but as the Ironman triathlon was about to start a couple of days later, I directly took a domestic flight to Maui, as it would mean crowds and higher prices for everything. So it’s only after a week in Maui that I came back to explore the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, hence its nickname, which has the confusing real name of Hawaii (so yes there is Hawaii Island in the Hawaiian Archipelago in Hawaii State). If the Kona Manta Night Dive is what primarily attracted me to Big Island, I discovered other diving areas well worth the dip and many impressive nature trails well worth the hike. My itinerary recommendation for a one-week discovery of Big Island is the following and is going from northwest to southeast:
- Waikoloa, to spend time diving away from the crowd along the Kohala Coast and go explore the lush jungle and dramatic landscapes of Polulu Valley – 2 days
- Kailua-Kona, the most touristic area of Big Island with its famous Manta Night Dive, is actually an excellent base to go shore diving and explore the coffee plantations of the region – 3 days
- Hilo, not really for diving due to its unpredictable wet and windy weather (you can still go snorkelling with turtles though) but as a base to explore the extraordinary Volcano National Park – 2 days
Best diving in Big Island
- Lava tubes of the Kohala Coast, from Waikoloa
- Manta Night Dive, from Kailua-Kona
- Shore diving in Honaunau, from Kailua-Kona
The dives I couldn’t do because of the weather:
- South Point, from Kailua-Kona
- Old Kona Airport, from Kailua-Kona
What to do on Big Island?
- Polulu Valley, from Waikoloa: it was one of the most dramatic nature trails I got to hike in Hawaii. It is only 40 minutes driving away from Kohala Divers in Kawaihae so it was a perfect afternoon activity after 2 dives in the morning. Some would say it is not as beautiful as the famous Na Pali Coast in Kaui, but I was delighted by the visit of these impressive cliffs and the lush jungle surrounding the mouth of the Polulu River which lead to a long black sand beach. I recommend at least a light rain jacket and walking shoes (says the girl who forgot them that day). Find here more information about hiking at Polulu Valley.
- Kona Coffee Farms, from Kailua-Kona: What to do on a rainy day on Big Island? When I googled the question, it wasn’t obvious at all, so I just figured out that visiting a few coffee farms in the famous area of Kona, around Captain Cook Village, would be a good idea; and it was! Everywhere you can taste for free the different quality of coffee and discover what makes the Kona Coffee so unique and so expensive. I especially loved the visit of an organic farm which used French geese as a way to keep the bugs away and fertilise the plants. Don’t miss the opportunity to stop at the Coffee Shack, to enjoy coffee and macadamia nut pie in a hibiscus flower garden with a great view of Captain Cook Bay.
- Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, from Kailua-Kona, this historical park helped me with my thirst for learning more about the history of Hawaii and the Polynesian culture. Pu’uhonua means “Refuge”. In case you were breaking the sacred law or in case of war, if you could make it to the holy refuge you would be guaranteed safety and absolution. Most building and statues on display are reconstitution, but I learnt so much about the ancient traditions of the Polynesian tribes that started to colonise Hawaii that I am happy to recommend it. It is the perfect surface interval if you are shore diving at Two Steps. Learn more about Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.
- The Rainbow Falls & Carlsmith Beach Park, in Hilo. I wouldn’t have expected the chief city of the east coast of Big Island to be the home of so many things to do. If like me, coming from Kailua-Kona in the morning, you don’t have the time to visit the famous Akaka Falls, you have to know that the Rainbow Falls Park is right in the centre of Hilo. Make sure to stop at Ken’s Pancake House before heading to a snorkelling session with turtles at Carlsmith Beach Park. Fun fact: there is spring flowing into the sea hence you can feel the colder freshwater and see a halocline effect, very cool!
- The Volcano National Park, from Hilo. Be careful, as Haleakala Volcano in Maui, this trip includes going in altitude so make sure to do it at the end of your trip, 24 hours after your last dive. The visit of the Volcano National Park was the pinnacle of my trip to Hawaii. Seeing lava flowing in the ocean at the viewpoint of Kalapana and the red glow at night of the lava lake in the crater of Kilauea was one of the best things I have seen in my life: our planet Earth at work!
- Special tips to visit Volcano National Park: I learnt it the hard way (I got a foot injury, so be careful) but instead of paying the entry of 25 USD to the National Volcano Park like I did, pay for the rental bike instead of hiking to go to the lava viewpoint of Kalapana (outside of the National Park limits) and then go to the National Park at night to see the red glow of the crater (you see almost nothing during the day) as the park is open 24 hours a day and there is nobody checking entrance at night.
Where to stay on Big Island?
- Airbnb in Waikoloa Village: I couldn’t find any cool hostel in Big Island like in Maui near the places I wanted to go diving. It was especially hard in the north of the Island which is famous for the luxury 5* resorts (way beyond my budget, we talk here about hundreds of dollars a night). Hopefully, I found the beautiful house of Barbara with Airbnb only 20 minutes away from Kohala Divers. In Waikoloa Village, a 20-minute drive to Kawaihae Harbour, many owners of lovely villas offer one of their bedrooms to visitors. To get an even better deal, I gave my promotion code to my dive buddy and we got a 35 USD discount, so in the end, we only paid 82,50 USD per night or 41,25 USD per night per person! Take advantage of a 35 USD / £25 credit by creating your profile on Airbnb with this link.
- Kona Islander Inn in Kailua-Kona: I rented a cute studio apartment at the Kona Islander Inn for the 5 last days of my trip. It wasn’t big (especially the bathroom) but it had everything I needed, including a fully equipped kitchenette I used to cook breakfast and dinner every day (more savings on the trip!), and and and… a swimming pool and a hot tub in a beautiful flower garden just right next to the ocean with plenty of bars to enjoy happy hours at sunset! The cost was about 115 USD per night for my dive buddy and I, including taxes (13,42% always only indicated in the small print). Generally speaking, because Kailua-Kona is the most touristic place on Big Island, there is just more choice, so it was easier to find deals on accommodation. Get a 10% refund on your stay on booking.com with this link.
How to travel to and around the Hawaiian Islands?
Working on how you will travel to Hawaii and between islands can lead to significant savings once you have all the cards in hands. Here is all the essential information you should know when preparing your trip to Hawaii:
- From Europe, the fastest and cheapest way is via California (Los Angeles or San Francisco). A London-Los Angeles flight takes 12 hours, and from Los Angeles to Maui (Kahului Airport), it takes 6 hours. There are also some great deals that can be found by flying through Texas or Washington State. Make sure to keep track of airlines promotions through social media or newsletters as there are often deals on this route. From the US, you can fly directly to any of the main islands: Oahu, Maui or Big Island.
- If you are already in Asia, you can find some great offers with direct flights to Honolulu or Kona (but not to Maui) from Tokyo or Osaka. As JAL (Japan Airlines) is in the same alliance than British Airways, I could use my Avios on my return flight Tokyo-Kona. For information, if you don’t mind paying a bit extra and fancy a weekend in Tokyo on your way to Hawaii, I compared the costs and found the flight via Japan was 200€ more expensive than via California.
- Don’t expect to take ferries to travel between islands: there is only one now which is running between Maui and Lanai. All the other islands are only connected by plane. Basically, you have the choice between Hawaiian Airlines or Mokulele. At the time of booking my Kona-Kahului (Maui) flight, there was a significant price difference between the two. Now I know why, Hawaiian Airlines run normal size planes, while Mokulule uses only 10-seat propeller planes. I am so happy I did this in the end. Not only they accepted my buddy and I on the earlier flight (we had taken a safety margin after the arrival of our plane from Japan), but the view from such a small plane was exceptional: I clearly saw Molokini Crater from the sky. It was an unforgettable experience I highly recommend. With my checked-in bag, return flight was at 170 USD. Because it is not cheap to fly between islands, I decided I would only visit Big Island and Maui, and take the ferry to Lanai (60 USD return), and then take more time to explore each island.
- There are a few bus options both in Maui and Big Island but they don’t let you travel with big luggage. I took a bus between Maalaea Harbour and Lahaina, the ticket was 2 USD and it was quite frequent and convenient. Alternatively, you can also count on Uber rides, which are easy to find in Hawaii, but for the price of a ride between towns, you can often rent a car for a day.
- For shore diving or accessing certain sites or scenic roads, renting a car, as usual in the US, is difficult to avoid especially with scuba diving gear in tow. To find a great deal on the rental car I used discounthawaiicarrental.com. Cancellation is free so don’t hesitate to check often if you see a better deal as prices are fluctuating and rebook at a better rate at any time. I rented a car for a week on Big Island for 30 USD per day.
When to travel to Hawaii?
With air temperature between 20 and 30°C, and water temperature between 24°C to 27°C, you can travel to Hawaii all year-long. “Summer”, from May to the beginning of October, has the hottest and sunniest days. In “winter”, it is just raining a bit more, but it’s also the whale watching season, especially from February to March. In Maui, they usually start to see them in December. Next time, I will go back in wintertime, because I want to listen to the whale songs while scuba diving!
However, as one of the most touristic places in the world, some periods are more crowded than others. July and August is the peak season while October and November are the quietest months. You have no idea how happy I was to visit Hawaii in October to beat the crowd, but I found out quite late I would arrive just a few days before the Ironman Triathlon, which brings a lot of people to Big Island. Make sure to check the exact dates if you are travelling to Big Island in October.
As usual in the US, try to avoid American holidays:
- Spring Break (Different period State by State, from mid-March to mid-April)
- Memorial Day (Last Monday of May)
- Independence Day (4th of July)
- Labour Day (1st Monday in September)
- Xmas holidays from the 24th of December to the 5th of January
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