Hawaii is one of those destinations that immediately bring to mind crystal clear turquoise waters gently lapping on pristine white sand beaches, palm trees softly swaying in the balmy breeze, and colourful cocktails savoured while taking in the hues of pink and orange of a magnificent sunset over the Pacific Ocean. No wonder Hawaii is high on virtually everyone’s travel wish list! The Hawaiian archipelago has so much more to offer though. Aside from being one of the world’s safest places to travel alone, Hawaii boasts a rich and vibrant culture, an astounding variety of landscapes, hundreds of exciting activities to choose from and unique diving experiences. As a scuba diver, planning a trip to Hawaii can be both exhilarating and excruciating. We’ve done the “hard work” for you and selected the most fun things to do in Hawaii, including the islands of Maui, Hawai’i (aka the Big Island), Oahu and Kauai. By the way, to make you save a lot of time in your research, I think diving in Maui is the best!
- Dive in a volcanic crater in Molokini, Maui
- Meet the hammerhead sharks off Molokai, Maui
- Greet the rising sun from the top of a volcano at Haleakala National Park, Maui
- Take the ultimate tropical road trip along the Road to Hana, Maui
- Shore dive Mala Wharf ruins in Lahaina, Maui
- Hike through a lava field at La Perouse Bay & Hoapili Trail, Maui
- Swim by night with gigantic mantas rays in Kona, Big Island
- Hike to Green Sand Beach, Big Island
- See molten lava in action at the Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
- Go wreck diving in Oahu
- Walk the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast, Kauai
1 – Dive in a volcanic crater in Molokini, Maui
Considered to be one of the best and most unique dive and snorkel sites in the world, snorkelling or diving in Molokini is unquestionably the most popular day trip of Maui with the Road to Hana. Don’t let the popularity of the place deter you, though. Located just a few miles off Maui’s south shore, its horseshoe shape shelters a healthy reef (it has been a protected conservation district for over 50 years) with spectacular visibility, averaging 30 to 35 m on any given day. If conditions allow, you might be lucky enough to also experience the “back wall,” a vertical drop off with a maximum depth of 100 m on the south side of the crater.
Top tip: boats to Molokini depart early morning from either Maalaea harbour or the Kihei boat ramp. Take this into account for driving times, depending on where you’re staying. In the wintertime, these boat trips double up as a whale watch trip. Humpback whales take their yearly vacation in Hawaii from mid-December to mid-May, the peak season is from January to March. Their population can be so dense in the area that locals call it “whale soup”!
2 – Meet the hammerhead sharks off Molokai, Maui
If you’ve ever dreamed of swimming with sharks (we know you have, or you wouldn’t be here!), this dive is your dream come true. You’ll cruise from Lahaina harbour to the easternmost point of Molokai Island, and descend to 30 m to (hopefully) meet with schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. This spot is a nursery, but you’re likely to encounter full-grown adults, ranging from 2 to 3.5 m long. And if you’re not shark-lucky that day, don’t despair—this is a pretty incredible dive in itself, with abundant tropical fish undisturbed by fishermen or snorkelers.
Top tip: this is a weather dependent and twice-a-week only drift dive reserved for advanced divers. Talk with Lahaina’s dive shops before booking. Sightings are not guaranteed, but chances are much higher in the summer months (June-August). Note that even on good days, it involves a rough boat ride across the infamous Pailolo Channel (which means “crazy fisherman”).
3 – Greet the rising sun from the top of a volcano at Haleakala National Park, Maui
If you can find the courage to get up in the middle of the night, drive two hours in the dark to the top of a 3,000 m high mountain, and brave freezing temperatures and howling winds, you will be massively rewarded by the most awe-inspiring spectacle: the brightest starry skies you’ve ever witnessed, followed by a technicolour break of dawn and the rising of the sun over a million-year-old volcano. Haleakala, which means “the house of the rising sun,” will quite literally take your breath away. If you prefer your beauty sleep, snooze away, sunset is almost as mind-blowing.
Top tip: you need to reserve a sunrise spot months in advance on the National Park’s website. Better yet, book a tour so you can doze on the way up (some include a bike ride down the volcano after sunrise, which can be pretty fun too!). Make sure you bring layers of warm clothes and don’t schedule this activity after a dive, as you’ll be going up to 3,000m elevation.
4 – Take the ultimate tropical road trip along the Road to Hana, Maui
Nothing embodies the saying “the journey is the destination” as well as a day trip on the infamous Road to Hana. With over 600 hairpin curves, 54 one-lane bridges (each way!), countless waterfalls, a striking black sand beach, lush rainforest, and breath-taking cliffside views all around, the Road to Hana is an incredibly scenic road trip that will blow you away at every turn. Take your time and stop along the way, as Hana itself is a sleepy little country town that you could miss if you blinked—although it is worth a stop for a delicious lunch of fresh-caught fish or Hawaiian barbecue at one of the local food trucks. The road to Hana must be on any Hawaii itinerary, especially if this is your first time visiting the archipelago.
Top tip: The Road to Hana is dubbed the “Road to Divorce,” as the tricky drive can put the most solid couple (or friendship!) to the test. Rather than white-knuckling it all day and missing half the sights, opt for a small group tour, or better even, a private tour so you can control the stops. If you decide to drive yourself, start early, make sure you leave the Hana area at least 3 hours before sunset time, and heed the no trespassing signs.
5 – Shore dive Mala Wharf ruins in Lahaina, Maui
Sometimes, the best dives are just hiding in plain sight. Mala Wharf doesn’t look all that inviting for a dive with its unkempt boat ramp and crumbling pier but don’t be fooled, this might be the best shore dive you can find around the island. The wharf in question was built in 1922. Still, after 70 years of faithful service, most of it collapsed onto the ocean floor under the assault of Hurricane Iniki, which battered the archipelago in September 1992. The submerged slabs of concrete have created an artificial reef full of nooks and crannies—an ideal habitat for abundant marine life and coral growth. Shore diving in Maui in Mala Wharf is not to be missed as you’re likely to find numerous white tip reef sharks and turtles!
Top tip: boat traffic can be heavy, due to the boat ramp’s proximity, so you lust bring a flag and a safety sausage to deploy in case of emergency surfacing (note this doesn’t exempt you from checking your surroundings). Entry involves a wobbly walk over rocks in shallow water along the left side of the pier, a perilous exercise in high surf, so be mindful of conditions… and wear booties.
6 – Hike through a lava field at La Perouse Bay & Hoapili Trail, Maui
Although Haleakala, Maui’s main volcano, is only just dormant (or inactive), as opposed to extinct, it hasn’t erupted in several hundred years. The jury is still out on how many hundreds of years exactly: some claim the latest lava flow happened about 240 years ago, or shortly after Captain Cook’s visit in 1778, while others who dated the lava rocks in that area attest it could not be more recent than 500 years. Either way, hiking through Maui’s most recent lava flow, along the dramatic coastline of columnar basalt, is nothing short of remarkable. Bring your snorkel gear just in case, as Hawaiian spinner dolphins are known to frequent the bay to rest in the daytime (make sure you keep a respectful distance).
Top tip: this is an ideal activity for an overcast or even rainy day, as this hike can be brutally hot and sunny. Lava rock is as sharp as broken glass, so bring sturdy shoes (definitely no sandals), water, and hat/sunscreen. If you’re no hiker but still want to experience the stunning views, book a Kanaio coast snorkel trip (some combine Kanaio with Molokini).
7- Swim by night with gigantic mantas rays in Kona, Big Island
The manta ray night dive in Kona is one of those experiences that is likely to give you vivid memories for a lifetime. After all, it is world-famous for a reason. Right after sunset, dive boats congregate in Garden Eel’s Bay, otherwise known as Ho’ona Bay, to drop snorkelers and divers in the water, outfitted with bright dive lights. The lights attract the plankton and are the signal to manta rays that the dinner buffet is now open. On any given day, you are likely to be treated to a dozen or more mantas gracefully executing a magical ballet of barrel feeding right in front of your face, as you sit motionless at the bottom. With a wingspan sometimes reaching over 5 m, the rays get so close that you are not allowed to wear your snorkel, lest it scratches their soft belly, and you better know how to clear your mask in case a ray knocks it off your face!
Top tip: Manta sightings are not guaranteed as it depends on the plankton’s density, however most dive shops will take you out again for free if you’re unlucky (ask for details before you book with Kona’s dive centres). Two-tank dive trips allow you to watch the sunset during your surface interval between a twilight reef dive and the manta dive. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
8 – Hike to Green Sand Beach, Big Island
A few minutes’ drive away from South Point, you will find the trailhead to Papakolea Beach, better known as Green Sand Beach. The beach owes its name to the semiprecious olivine (a silicate mineral found in volcanic basalt), which has eroded from the coastline and mixed up with black sand to produce this striking shade of green, making it a unique and particularly photogenic destination. Don’t get your hopes up for a swim though, aside from a slippery trail down to the beach, the water is typically too rough even for the most experienced swimmers.
Top tip: you’ll usually find locals by the gate willing to drive you to the beach in their 4WD for a fee, don’t. Not only would you contribute to tearing up the already badly eroded coastal area, but you’d miss the best part, which is the hike.
Also, keep in mind: it is not only culturally insensitive, environmentally detrimental, and notoriously bad luck to take sand and rocks from the beach or anywhere in Hawaii, it is now also illegal and could get you in serious trouble with the TSA upon departure.
9 – See molten lava in action at the Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
The Hawaiian Islands chain was (and still is!) created by a hot spot, which is magma erupting from the seafloor. As the North Pacific plate slowly moves, it forms volcanoes which are carried away, as if they were on a conveyor belt. Kilauea, the earth’s youngest and most active volcano. It has been erupting almost continuously since 1983, and drawing crowds from around the world to see the glow of the caldera from the National Park, or new land forming in real-time down by Puna. Unlike composite volcanoes, which can erupt unexpectedly and unleash explosive geysers of lava and toxic gases, Hawaiian shield volcanoes usually ooze out lava, making it somewhat less hazardous to experience the marvel of land being created in front of your eyes. Of course, lava activity depends on the goodwill of Mrs Pele (the Hawaiian Goddess of fire and volcanoes). Still, even if it’s not actively flowing during your visit, the National Park is massive and exciting enough that it can keep you entertained for several days, especially if you like hiking.
Top tip: the eruption of 2018 not only destroyed hundreds of homes in the Puna district, but it also caused numerous earthquakes, causing permanent damage and dramatically changing the Park’s layout. As of 2020, recovery is still ongoing, and some areas have been closed indefinitely. Make sure you visit the National Volcanoes Park’s website to get the most up-to-date information on what’s open or not.
10 – Go wreck diving in Oahu
What Hawaii may lack in colourful coral reefs is made up for with a plethora of unique dive opportunities. Wreck diving in Oahu Island is definitely one of those. The island offers close to a dozen wreck diving sites to choose from, ranging from genuine WWII shipwrecks to vessels that were sunk as artificial reefs over the past decades. Some of the best sites include the YO-257, the Sea Tiger (both sunk in the 1990s as artificial reefs), and the Corsair aeroplane wreck which has been lying down there since 1946. You may think the most challenging part is to decide which shipwreck to dive, but weather conditions are likely to make that call for you, so check with dive centres before you lose sleep over this.
Top tip: wreck dives in Oahu are relatively deep, and conditions can be rough, so most dive centres require that you have experience diving wrecks, have a deep dive certification (30 m/100 ft.), and have at least 25 logged dives. Most dive centres offer wreck diving certification so it would be the perfect place to pass it if you don’t already have it.
11 – Walk the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast along, Kauai
The 11-mile trek along the Na Pali coastline is definitely not for the fainthearted or ill-prepared. Still, if you are fit and brave enough (which you probably are, being a scuba diver and all), you will experience the most dramatic scenery Hawaii has to offer. The Kalalau trail is a roller coaster of a hike, taking you from lush jungles at sea level to dizzying sea cliffs towering at almost 300 m high, then back down again several times.
For this hike, you will need to secure a permit with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, likely many months in advance. Most importantly, you will need to take safety, preparation, and gear very seriously. If you’re not up for such a challenge, or couldn’t get a permit in time, you can always go on a day hike to Hanakapia’i beach (4 miles round trip) or waterfalls (8 miles round trip) without restrictions, or sign up for a kayaking adventure.
If you’d rather drive more and hike less, consider a road trip to Waimea Canyon and Koke’ e State Park which both offer magnificent views and have plenty of hiking trails for all levels and durations. For even less effort, you can experience the Na Pali Coast from the water on a snorkel or sunset sail, or even get a bird’s eye view on a helicopter tour!
Top tip: for hiking and kayaking, you’ll want to go in the summer (May through October) to maximize your chances of good weather conditions. Check the forecast, heed flash flood warnings, and as always in Hawaii: “if in doubt, don’t go out.”
Are you looking for more inspiration for fun things to do in other safe travel destinations? If so, have a look at these additional pages:
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