Whether you’re moving to the Hawaiian islands for the first time, leaving Hawaii for the Mainland or just looking for some exciting new activities to enjoy while you’re living in Hawaii, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ve gathered a list of 19 must-do items across all of the islands: Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai. Consider this your “bucket list” of only-in-Hawaii experiences, ones you simply can’t miss while you’re living here. (And, don’t worry, we’ve got something for everyone in your family, from keiki to kupuna!)
Let’s dive in!
For the History Buffs in the Family
#1: Oahu: Visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial or Take the Audio Tour at Iolani Palace (or Both!)
Maybe you think our first choice for this bucket list is too touristy. During our time in Hawaii, we’ve found that we only do these so-called “touristy” items when we have visitors in town. (Or we skip them entirely!) It’s easy to overlook the top tourist destinations, but both of these represent significant pieces of Hawaii’s history, making them a “must” for any resident. And don’t skip the audio tour at Iolani Palace, either. Even if you know your Hawaiian history and the story of Queen Liliuokalani’s imprisonment, the comprehensive tour can still probably teach you something new.
#2: Maui: Make a Trip to Ulapalakua Winery
You might be wondering why there’s a winery in the history section. Well, it turns out that the ranch that now hosts Ulapalakua Winery was a favorite destination for King David Kalakaua, also known as the Merrie Monarch. The King would frequently sail over to Maui, where they had a special building constructed for him to sleep in, since it was forbidden for the king to sleep in the same room as commoners. The winery has an entire room dedicated to their extensive history, which you can enjoy while sipping a glass of wine made from the pineapples that grow just down the road.
#3: Lanai: Make a Visit to Pineapple Island
We’ve met a number of Hawaii residents who have never set foot on Lanai, which, as its nickname suggests, once played host to the largest pineapple plantation in the world. Snag a room at the charming Hotel Lanai and spend a few days exploring the island via Jeep. You’ll find a number of fascinating pieces of history, including King Kamehameha’s favorite summer fishing spot, as well as the remains of a small railroad line that once serviced a sugar cane plantation. A short hike will take you to the dilapidated railroad engine, which nestled in a kiawe forest.
#4: Big Island: Puako Petroglyph Preserve
The ancient inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands left carvings of animals, people, boats and other symbols on rocks all across the islands. At the Puako Petroglyph Preserve, you can see more than 3,000 of these petroglyphs, including ones that date as far back as the 16th century. You’ll have to take a short walk from the parking lot to view the petroglyphs, but it’s an easy trek for the whole family. Plus, if you find these carvings fascinating enough for a second dose, you can make a visit to the nearby Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve.
#5: Oahu: Nuuanu Pali Lookout
King Kamehameha was the first king to unite the Hawaiian islands under a single ruler, but he had to conquer each of the islands in order to achieve this goal. A particularly bloody—and crucial—battle took place on the cliffs of Nuuanu, where 400 warriors fell to their death. In addition to playing a crucial part in the history of the Hawaiian islands, the Nuuanu Pali lookout also offers a stunning panoramic view of the island’s windward coast.
For the Outdoorsy Types
#6: Maui: Hike Haleakala Crater
Plenty of people have driven to the 10,000-foot summit of Mount Haleakala to enjoy a stunning sunrise or sunset. But many fewer people have hiked across its crater, past dormant cinder cones, and the dramatic shades of red and black that color the wall known as “Pele’s Paint Pot” to end the day in one of the three National Park cabins. Each of the three rustic cabins sleeps 12, so you can bring your whole crew. Reservations for the cabins open 180 days in advance. Considering the Haleakala Crater has been called the quietest place on earth, you’re almost guaranteed a good night’s sleep!
#7: Kauai: Hike the Na Pali Coast
Five valleys, dramatic sea cliffs, gorgeously lush valleys, and a secluded beach at the end make this 22-mile roundtrip hike one of the most intriguing in the world. Most people plan to do this hike in two days: 11 miles to Kalalau Beach, set up camp for the night, then make the 11-mile return. If you prefer to take it slow, you can stop at the six-mile marker at Hanakoa and camp for the night, then continue on to Kalalau Beach the next day.
Keep in mind: If you plan to hike any part of this trail past the two-mile marker, you’ll need to make a reservation for a Napali Coast State Wilderness Park camping permit—even if you don’t plan to camp. You’ll also want to keep a sharp eye on weather conditions, which can make this trail treacherous, and ensure that you’re well supplied for the journey. However, that being said, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime hike well worthy of the preparation. Finally, keep in mind that Kalalau is a valley sacred valley to Hawaiians, so you’ll want to treat it with respect during your visit.
For Those Who Revel in Hawaii’s Natural Wonders
#8: Maui: Circle West Maui
It’s estimated that more than 400,000 people drive Maui’s famous Road to Hana every year. Skip the mid-day pile-up going east and, instead, head west. Circling West Maui from Kahului, past Waihee, past Kahakuloa and all the way around through Napili and into Lahaina comes with significant rewards: jaw-dropping coastal views, dramatic sea cliffs, the thrilling blowhole at Nakalele Point and many more.
However, take it from us: The road gets very narrow in many places, so go slow. Pullover to allow locals to pass wherever possible. Admire the blowhole from a safe distance—and enjoy every moment of this magical mini-road trip.
#9: Kauai: Visit the Island’s Unique “Dry” and “Wet” Caves
The island of Kauai has a number of majestic caves to explore. While both sets of caves were formed by years of erosion due to waves and water, “wet” caves still have water in them, while the “dry” ones, as the name implies, are no longer fed by a water source. The most popular with visitors include Maniniholo, Waikanaloa, and Waikapalae, which is also known as “The Blue Room” for the blue glow it gets from the reflection of the sun at certain times of the day. (You might also recognize this cave from its appearance in the 2011 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides!) These three are easily accessible and fun to explore with the whole family.
#10: Molokai: Explore the Hawaii of Long Ago in the Halawa Valley
Although the ferry to Molokai ceased operation in 2016, it’s still easy to catch a quick flight over to the Friendly Isle to enjoy the laid-back Hawaiian lifestyle. We suggest heading over to the Halawa Valley on the East End, where some of Hawaii’s original Polynesian inhabitants settled in the seventh century. Because the trail crosses private land, you’ll need to explore the area with a local guide, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio. He offers his visitors a fascinating look at the island’s history while sharing his experiences of modern-day Molokai.
#11: Big Island: Explore the Gorgeous and Sacred Waipio Valley
It’s no wonder that the Waipio Valley is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Big Island. Its plentiful hiking options and gorgeous landscape that’s dotted with waterfalls make it a must when you’re crossing off your bucket list items. Waipio is also known as the “Valley of Kings,” since it once played home to the rulers of the Kingdom of Hawaii. So as you explore the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the valley, know that you’ll be stepping in the footsteps of royalty past.
Note: If you decide to drive down to the valley floor, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle (AWD won’t cut it) and some confident driving abilities. Otherwise, you can hike down or join a tour group to take you down the steep road, whose grade averages around 25%.
For Those Who Love Being in, on and around the Water
#12: Oahu – Paddle an Outrigger to the Na Mokulua
If you’ve seen the video for Henry Kapono’s “Home in the Islands,” in which the legendary singer performs in crystal-clear, ankle-deep water with two tiny islands in the background, you’ve seen the Na Mokulua. In Hawaiian, Na Mokulua means “two islands,” and you’ll find this set right off the beach at Kailua. Now imagine paddling through turquoise water in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe to explore the two islands, along with their unique wildlife and tidepools. We think you’ll agree it sounds like an unforgettable day that deserves a spot on your bucket list.
#13: Big Island: Scuba Dive with Manta Rays
If you haven’t gotten certified as a scuba diver, what are you waiting for? All it takes is a few days dedicated to studying and skills, and you’ll discover an entirely new world waiting for you, right below sea level. You’ll find some pretty unique opportunities for diving in Hawaii, including spending some time getting up close and personal with manta rays. There’s a spot just north of Kailua-Kona where these gentle giants converge at night. As a diver, you’ll get to hang out close to the seafloor and observe the underwater ballet as the creatures swoop and dive to collect their nightly meal.
You can also see these manta rays as a snorkeler, but why not use this only-in-Hawaii experience as the excuse you’ve needed to get certified? Once you complete your training, you’ve got endless opportunities in Hawaii to continue your underwater explorations.
#14: Maui: Snorkel Molokini
When you’re standing on the beaches of South Maui, you peer out and see a little crescent-shaped rock poking out of the ocean. You’re looking at Molokini Crater, a partially-submerged volcano that also happens to be home to hundreds of species of fish and coral, many of which are endemic to Hawaii. Exploring this vibrant reef for yourself is as easy as hopping a tour boat in Lahaina or Maalaea. Along the way, you’ll enjoy coastal views of Maui and uninhabited Kahoolawe beyond.
Bonus Tip: If you got your scuba certification as we suggested in #13, you can also dive Molokini. During whale season, you might even get to enjoy an underwater whale song serenade as you cruise the reef.
#15: Kauai: Kayak Hanalei River
Many people enjoy kayaking the scenic Wailua River, but if you’re looking for something a little quieter, head to Hanalei River. The river cuts through taro fields and a nature preserve, offering you plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lush landscape, as well as Hawaii’s unique bird population. (Keep your eyes out for Hawaii’s state bird, the nene goose.) Because the river is generally calm, it’s an excellent spot for beginners, as well as people who just want to enjoy a low-key morning on the water.
For Those Who Want to Savor Those “Only in Hawaii” Moments
#16: Kauai: Take a Helicopter Tour
While helicopter tours offer a breathtaking experience on any of Hawaii’s islands, Kauai is especially suited for these types of tours since so many of its sights are inaccessible by car. If you decide that hiking the Na Pali coast (#7) is too adventurous for you, its stunning cliffs are easily enjoyed via helicopter. Or, you might consider scheduling an aerial tour of unique Waimea Canyon, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” No matter your itinerary, scheduling a helicopter tour of Kauai will give you an entirely different perspective on the island, making it a must for your bucket list.
#17: Oahu: Enjoy a Sunset Cocktail Cruise from Waikiki Beach
The traffic, the crowds, and the hustle-bustle of Waikiki can make it a place that’s tempting to skip. But there’s something magical about walking down that storied beach and stepping right from the sand onto a catamaran that’s beached itself on the shoreline. Cruise with a mai tai in hand while you enjoy views of iconic Diamond Head as the sun goes down. In our opinion, it’s something everyone should do at least once.
#18: Lanai: Visit the Cat Sanctuary
File this one under “things you never thought you’d find in Hawaii.” The tiny little island of Lanai hosts a 25,000-square-foot cat sanctuary that rescued more than 200 felines in 2018. In total, the sanctuary has helped more than 600 cats—no mean feat on an island that only has 3,000 permanent residents! If cats are your thing, hop the ferry from Lahaina Harbor and spend some time playing with these “Lanai lions,” all of whom are eligible for adoption.
#19: Big Island: Honor the Tradition of Hula, the “Heartbeat of the Hawaiian People”
Although many think of it as simply a form of dance, hula played an important role for ancient Hawaiians who used it as an oral tradition practice to share genealogy, creation stories, and history. When Christian missionaries began arriving in the Hawaiian islands in the 19th century, they converted Queen Kaahumanu to their religion. In 1830, she banned the practice of hula in public. Although this edict wasn’t as strongly enforced after her death, it wasn’t until the reign of King David Kalakaua that hula began its revival. King Kalakaua believed that hula was the language of the heart and, “therefore, the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” Today, the Big Island hosts the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in his honor. Although there are many venues to see hula in Hawaii, we suggest hopping on over to Hilo for the annual hula competition. There’s no better place to see the most skilled and passionate performers display their mastery of this art form. Supporting the festival also helps to ensure that the traditions of Hawaiian people can continue to grow—and flourish.
And This Is Just the Start…
Although these 19 activities include some of our favorite things to do in Hawaii, there’s no possible way we could capture the beauty, the majesty, and the uniqueness of these islands in a single list. We encourage you to use this list as a jumping-off point as you create a Hawaii “must do” list of your own.
Need help with your Hawaii move? Whether you’re headed to Hawaii, leaving Hawaii, or moving locally, we can help! With dedicated crews on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai, we can help you get anywhere in Hawaii—or the world. Just reach out to us for a free quote.