Hawaii 101

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Sep 14, 2009
Hawaii aerial view
Hawaii aerial view / ademyan/iStock

By: Laurel Delp

The islands make up our very own tropical paradise, a startlingly beautiful mix of lush tropical forest, velvety sand beaches, and serrate volcanic peaks. The rich, distinctive culture blends customs of the Polynesians who arrived about 1,500 years ago, the American and European missionaries and whalers of the 19th century, and subsequent Portuguese and Asian plantation and ranch workers. The world’s most isolated archipelago, Hawaii is just about as exotic as this country gets. Yet in 2009, on its 50th birthday, the 50th state is more accessible than ever.

For the first time in years, airfares to Hawaii are affordable. Luxury resorts are pitching not just free nights but also resort and airline credits and perks ranging from complimentary rental cars and spa treatments to green fee credits on famous courses.

The state of Hawaii includes eight volcanic islands and hundreds of unoccupied atolls, but the main tourist islands are Oahu, home of the capital, Honolulu; Kauai; Maui; and Hawaii, always called the Big Island. Each island is unique, with its own tenor and look, though all offer the chance to listen to slack key guitar, learn to paddleboard (all the rage), chase rainbows, and eat fresh fish with unpronounceable names. These days, new resorts are springing up, and most of the classic hotels have just undergone cutting-edge remodelings. Add to that a rising restaurant scene, and Hawaii is downright irresistible.

 View our Hawaii slideshow by photographer Andy Mahr for a closer look at the rich, enticing beauty of the 50th state.


Bustling Oahu, called the Gathering Place, mashes up tropical beauty, cultural sites, and the buzz of Hawaii’s biggest city, Honolulu.

Oahu tends to get a bum rap. Aside from Pearl Harbor, it’s most famous for Waikiki, the iconic strip of sand in Honolulu where Duke Kahanamoku taught movie stars to surf. In the late 1970s, Waikiki sprouted a near solid line of high-rise hotels, resulting in serious beach erosion and elbow-to-elbow sunbathers. The less developed “outer” islands suddenly became more fashionable, and the world’s most famous beach began to sink into shabbiness. But it deserves a second look.

In the last few years Waikiki has cleaned up its beachfront and the hotels have spent millions on refurbishment. Glitzy designer boutiques now line Kalakaua Avenue and the formerly grotty Lewers Street has been reborn as slick Beach Walk.

Serious diners will find in Honolulu many of Hawaii’s can’t-miss restaurants. Planted in a strip mall, elegant Alan Wong’s Restaurant (808-949-2526) riffs on regional cuisine with creations like a mini loco moco (see A Glossary of Hawaiian Cheap Eats) topped with quail egg, or mochi-crusted pink snapper. In Waikiki’s La Mer (808-923-2311) at the Halekulani hotel, locals and tourists alike splurge on chef Yves Garnier’s French specialities made with fresh island ingredients.

For nightlife, head to Chai’s Island Bistro (808-585-0011), a tasty Pacific Rim fusion restaurant that also showcases top Hawaiian musicians. The thirtyninehotel (808-599-2552) is an art gallery by day and club by night in newly bohemian Chinatown. Or opt for the classic, surfing-themed Duke’s Waikiki (808-922-2268) in the Outrigger Waikiki hotel – so corny it’s cool.

Oahu specializes in amenity-laden, expansive resorts. The iconic Royal Hawaiian (www.royal-hawaiian.com), built in 1927 in quasi-Moorish style and wrapped in acres of lush landscaping, still sits like an elaborate garden hat amid the high-rises of Waikiki. A recent top-to-bottom makeover restored the glamour quotient to the “Pink Palace of the Pacific” while adding witty touches like pink-and-silver wallpaper. Down the beach, the equally fabled Halekulani (www.halekulani.com) offers indulgently large rooms, most with ocean views. The Diamond Head suites have echt postcard views of their namesake volcanic crater. As a bonus, the room rate includes admission to cultural attractions such as Doris Duke’s Shangri La estate and Iolani Palace.

Behind the Halekulani, its less pricey sister, the chic Waikiki Parc (www.waikikiparc.com), houses a Nobu restaurant. By the eighth-floor pool, the hotel often screens movies or offers complimentary wine and canapés after sundown. The 1950s-era Outrigger Reef on the Beach (www.outrigger.com), just east of the Halekulani, offers a million-dollar location minus the lofty rate. The hotel and its spa recently scored a renovation, but fortunately for travelers, the well appointed rooms stayed the same price.

A mere 15-minute drive east from Waikiki is the Kahala Hotel & Resort (www.kahalaresort.com), bordered by the Diamond Head and Koko Head craters. The resort combines the isolated peace of an outer-island stay with easy access to Honolulu. The hotel has hosted every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson and as many royals. None of the ample rooms has a bad view.

Honolulu also possesses ample cultural attractions – for those who can pry themselves off the sand. At the Bishop Museum (www.bishopmuseum.org), the just-reopened Hawaiian Hall presents the world’s most comprehensive collection of Hawaiian artifacts. The Honolulu Academy of Arts (www.honoluluacademy.org) contains more than 50,000 works, including a stunning collection of Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints. The art academy partners with the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to offer tours of Shangri La (www.shangrilahawaii.org), the home the famous heiress built in the 1930s for her vast Islamic art collection. To gain an understanding of Hawaii’s past – when it was still ruled by a monarchy – visit the Iolani Palace (www.iolanipalace.org). The former royal residence has been transformed into a museum filled with period furniture and crown jewels.

For all their buzz, Waikiki and its environs amount to just a fraction of Oahu. On the lush eastern Windward coast, a 30-minute drive from Waikiki, lies one of the island’s best swimming beaches, Lanikai. Anchored by the town of Kailua, the peaceful area cradles elegant homes alongside funky B&Bs like Hawaii’s Hidden Hideaway (www.ahawaiibnb.com), which supplies beach towels, mats, and chairs at no charge. Over on the noncommercial west (Leeward) side of the island, Wild Side Specialty Tours (www.sailhawaii.com) leads intimate expeditions out of Waianae Harbor to swim with wild dolphins.

Along the North Shore, about 40 miles from Waikiki, the world’s top surfers battle 30-foot waves at famed spots like the Banzai Pipeline and Sunset. Amateurs can watch the pros from the beach, or if it’s summer (when the waves are docile), give surfing a go. An essential North Shore stop is Giovanni’s White Shrimp Truck in Kahuku for grilled, fresh-from-the-sea shrimp served with corn on the cob. There is only one resort on the North Shore, but luckily for travelers, it is a terrific one: The 880-acre Turtle Bay Resort (www.turtlebayresort.com) offers two of the island’s best golf courses (designed by Arnold Palmer and George Fazio), plus a surf school, tennis courts, and a fantastic spa.


Despite its growing popularity – and increasingly upscale accommodations – Kauai still has some of the most pristine landscapes and an unhurried charm.

Kauai is known as the Garden Isle, and the moniker is justified: Full of fragrant blossoms and green mountains carved into anthropomorphic shapes, Kauai is hypnotically beautiful. With a population of only 63,000, the island is the least crowded and most relaxed of the four islands.

The two major resort areas are Princeville on the North Shore and Poipu on the south. The drive between the two takes about 1.5 hours on a bucolic highway that mostly hugs the eastern coast. Kauai’s most famous calling cards are the redwalled Waimea Canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and Na Pali, a savage coast of towering jade cliffs along the northwest. Waimea Canyon is 10 miles long, a mile across, and 3,587 feet deep. One can hike parts of the canyon (and even camp overnight at Koke’e State Park) or drive beside it on the panoramic Waimea Canyon Road. Na Pali can be hiked as well: Kauai Nature Tours (www.kauainaturetours.com) offers geologist-led trips. But to take in quintessential Na Pali – the otherworldly expanse familiar from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park – board a sailboat (www.captandys.com), kayak (www.outfitterskauai.com), or helicopter. Blue Hawaiian (www.bluehawaiian.com) flies quiet, modern EcoStars with expansive windows.

In 2009, two significant new resorts are launching on opposite sides of Kauai. On the North Shore, the St. Regis Princeville (www.stregis princeville.com) debuts in October. It will boast a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, butler service, and quite possibly the most spectacular setting in Hawaii. Rooms will grant views of Hanalei Bay and verdant mountains that spout waterfalls after rains.

On the South Shore, the other big-deal launch is Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort (www.koakea.com), an adaptation of the old Poipu Beach Hotel that opened last April as the island’s first boutique hotel. The individually designed rooms all come with lanais (porches) and both the restaurant and the full spa are outstanding.

As an alternative, Pure Kauai (www.purekauai.com) rents plush homes of all sizes and can provide guests with private chefs and personalized itineraries that include everything from surfing lessons to horseback riding on the beach. A great value on the Princeville side is the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas (www.starwood.com), whose roomy villas all come with flat-screen TVs, kitchens, and washers and dryers. Guests have access to concierge services and three swimming pools.

On the waterfront in Poipu, The Beach House (808-742-1424) serves chef Todd Barrett’s take on local line-caught fish and island produce including Kamuela tomatoes and Omao baby greens – plus a sublime chocolate soufflé. Further west, past Waimea, drivers should ask for directions to the dirt road leading to Polihale State Beach, one of the world’s great hidden gems, with miles of wide, sugary sand – nearly deserted on weekdays.

And on the North Shore, just west of Princeville in the sleepy town of Hanalei, trendy Bar Acuda (808-826-7081) offers vintages from a short but excellent wine list to accompany tapas such as bacalao-stuffed squid or Humboldt Fog goat cheese with North Shore honeycomb.


Relaxed Maui is a crowd-pleaser, from the rim of the Haleakala crater to the long beaches ripe for whale-watching and the scenic, cliff-lined Hana Highway.

Maui – easily the most famous and celebrity strewn of the outer isles – is Hawaii’s second largest island. The east end is distinguished by the massive dormant volcano Haleakala. The towns clinging to Haleakala’s flanks (an area called Upcountry), have welcomed plantation workers, paniolos (or cowboys), hippies, artists, and now specialty farmers. One can hike along the rim of the volcano’s giant crater, with views of a stark lunar landscape and the sapphire ocean 10,000 feet below. The green West Maui Mountains rise on the island’s west side. Here, chichi resorts and golf courses cluster in beachside developments around Kapalua and Kaanapali, as well as on the southwest coast around Wailea.

In Kapalua, the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua (www.ritzcarlton.com) occupies a prime spot by a famous surfing cove. A little world unto itself, the resort offers reams of activities, including an extensive new Ambassadors of the Environment program, run in concert with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Open Ocean, whereby guests learn about ecology, then venture out for firsthand experiences. A renovation last year slicked up the in-room amenities and gave the property a more distinctly Hawaiian look.

Kapalua also hosts several noteworthy restaurants: Sansei Seafood (808-669-6286) features D.K. Kodama’s imaginative sushi using ingredients such as foie gras and roe aioli. Merriman’s Kapalua (808/669-6400), famed chef Peter Merriman’s new spot, presents a candle-lit terrace and largely organic offerings such as Hirabara Farm greens, Keahole clams, and fresh-caught marlin sashimi.

Near West Maui’s biggest town, Lahaina, and a mile from the beach, B&B Ho’oilo House (www.hooilohouse.com) offers six rooms with Balinese decor, lanais, and outdoor showers.

West Maui forms a shallow basin with neighboring islands Lanai and Molokai (see Off the Path) that attracts some 3,000 mating and calving humpback whales from October through April. To get a closer look, try the cruises arranged by Pacific Whale Foundation (www.pacificwhale.org). Next door, the Maui Ocean Center (www.mauioceancenter.com) offers scuba diving in a 750,000-gallon tank with (well-fed) sharks. Expeditions led by Maui Eco Tours (www.mauiecotours.com) let passengers kayak out among the marine life.

An hour’s drive southwest of Lahaina, in the swanky Wailea area, the Four Seasons Maui (www.fourseasons.com/maui) just opened an adults-only infinity pool on a bluff with views of Lanai. Its guests can sample a “tapas menu” of poolside spa treatments, including foot and shoulder massages. Notably, the hotel does not gouge guests with hidden resort fees or charge for pool cabanas (costing as much as a hotel room at other resorts).

Nearby is Joe’s Bar & Grill (808-875-7767), Beverly Gannon’s tribute to comfort food. The celebrity chef’s famous flagship restaurant,
Hali’imaile General Store (808-572-2666), resides amid Upcountry pineapple fields.

Far from the west side’s bustle of resorts, shopping, and restaurants lies the Hotel Hana-Maui (www.hotelhanamaui.com). Reaching it requires a slow but spectacular 2.5-hour drive along the famed Hana Highway, threading through verdant jungle and by rocky drop-offs. The hotel, a Sherman’s Travel Smart Luxury Award winner, promises an escape from the everyday. All the bungalows have lanais, wood floors, and colorful Hawaiian prints; some come with hot tubs. Its prize accommodations are the Sea Ranch bungalows.

At the start of the Hana Highway is Ho’okipa State Beach, where unceasing winds power windsurfers across the often choppy waters. In the town of Paia nearby, Paia Fish Market (www.paiafishmarket.com) serves up a perfect grilled fish sandwich topped with coleslaw.

Big Island

The Big Island’s dramatic variations in terrain, from snow-capped mountains to sere black lava fields, make a visit seem like several vacations in one.

Hawaii’s largest island has 11 of the world’s 13 climates. Its tallest volcanic peak, Mauna Kea, rises 13,796 feet, though if measured from the ocean floor, the summit surpasses Mount Everest. In the south, Kilauea, whose crater is bigger than Manhattan, still erupts, sending into the ocean lava flows that harden and expand the island’s immense size. People who fly into Kona airport expecting lush tropics are shocked to land on a black lava field dotted with graffiti written in bleached coral.

To get oriented, picture the island divided in two: Kona is the dry, sunny western side with most of the resorts while Hilo is the wet, tropical eastern side. An ideal visit would encompass both coasts.

Two of the island’s star attractions stand in between. Volcanoes National Park spans 520 square miles and contains the still-active Kilauea. Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com) naturalists lead trips to see the park’s rain forest, lava tubes, and, if the timing is right, flowing lava. The outfitter also runs tours up Mauna Kea, the other must-see, for an unforgettable sunset hike followed by stargazing through giant Celestron telescopes.

The island’s finest resorts lie on the Kohala coast, north of the west side’s twin towns of Kailua-Kona. The 243-room Four Seasons Hualalai (www.fourseasons.com/hualalai) stands out for its service, a newly remodeled spa with an apothecary where guests can concoct their own scrubs, and stunning new suites. Twenty miles north, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (www.princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel), built in 1965 by Laurance Rockefeller, recently underwent a major renovation, which enlarged the rooms and added a spa. On the golf course designed by his father, Rees Jones recently replanted the famous third hole – the one that Robert Trent Jones once promised Rockefeller would be the most beautiful in the world. Left undisturbed: the wide crescent of beach, the finest of any resort in Hawaii.

Above Kailua-Kona in artsy Holualoa, the 30-acre Holualoa Inn (www.holualoainn.com) offers stylish rooms with updated plantation style
decor. In Kailua, drop in to waterfront Huggo’s on the Rocks (808-329-1493), a 40-year-old restaurant and watering hole serving super-fresh fish; the manager swears he can tell the time of day by which fishermen are claiming the bar.

Twelve miles inland, in the town of Waimea, lies one of Hawaii’s first great restaurants, Merriman’s (808-885-6822). For a fantastically scenic ride, keep driving north from Waimea to the bohemian village of Hawi via mountainside Highway 250. Cruise past horse farms and ranches, then return to Kohala on coastal Highway 270. In front of the Sheraton Keauhou, Fair Wind (www.fair-wind.com) offers thrilling night snorkeling or scuba diving with giant manta rays. The mantas, their huge mouths agape, do loop-de-loops right under divers. Nearby in Kealakekua Bay snorkelers can explore a marine reserve filled with sea turtles, spinner dolphins, and eels. Go with an outfitter such as Fair Wind, or rent a kayak. Afterward stop in at The Coffee Shack (808-328-9795), a hole-in-the-wall local favorite serving Kona coffee and casual fare on a clifftop lanai with smashing views.

On the Hilo side of the island, plan for rainforest hikes in lieu of beach bumming. In the town of Hilo, the five-room Shipman House Bed & Breakfast (www.hilo-hawaii.com) is a genuine piece of Hawaiian history, dating from 1899. For breakfast, the owners serve fruit plucked from their 20 types of trees and homemade macadamia nut granola. In town, browse the folksy farmers’ market for lychee-like rambutans and locally made clothing and jewelry.

From Hilo, drive north along the Hamakua Coast. First, visit the fern-filled gorges and cascades of Akaka Falls State Park. End the journey by hiking through taro fields into the isolated, emerald-green Waipio Valley, bound by jutting cliffs and saturated with towering waterfalls.

Off the Path: Lanai and Molokai


Little Lanai is a company island – Dole reigned here for years before foreign competition made it too expensive to grow pineapples. Now the 3,000 some locals are supported by tourism and the two resorts on the island, which are both Four Seasons properties. The Lodge at Koele (www.fourseasons.com/koele) rests on a mountaintop surrounded by Cook pines, with two rolling golf courses. The plantation-style Manele Bay (www.fourseasons.com/manelebay) sits by the ocean. Far more economical is the tiny Hotel Lanai (www.hotellanai.com) in Lanai City – actually a peaceful, small town. Renowned chef Beverly Gannon (of Joe’s and Hali’imaile General Store on Maui) oversees the hotel restaurant’s menu. Forty minutes away by car is Keahiakawelo, known as the Garden of the Gods. On this harsh, dry promontory, erosion has worn rocks into towers resembling the Southwest’s hoodoos. Fly to Lanai from Honolulu, or go for a day trip on the Expeditions ferry (www.go-lanai.com), which leaves from Lahaina on Maui. Or sail from Maui on a luxurious catamaran with Trilogy (www.sailtrilogy.com).


Home to the highest percentage of native Hawaiians in the state, Molokai is said to be the birthplace of hula. The island also harbors the world’s highest sea cliffs, a stunning stretch of sinuous folds with drops of as much as 3,600 feet. With a population of about 7,000, Molokai is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and people don’t just leave flowers at the tombstones of departed loved ones – they leave cans of beer. There are no traffic lights, and no luxury resorts. Visit for the day from Lahaina in Maui via a 1.5-hour ferry ride (www.molokaiferry.com) or fly in from Honolulu. Or better yet, stay a while: Rent a car with four-wheel drive to explore some of Hawaii’s widest, longest beaches, like Papohaku, on the island’s dry west side. Then drive to the lush Halawa Valley on the east side, and hike to a waterfall. End the day in an open-air, oceanfront bungalow at Hotel Molokai (www.hotelmolokai.com).

Hawaii's Restaurant Revolution

Today Hawaii is all locally grown this and boutique farms that. But not long ago the islands’ restaurants served mostly mediocre fare, using produce flown in from the mainland. The watershed moment occurred about 20 years ago, when a group of ambitious, world-class chefs formed Hawaii Regional Cuisine. The chefs guaranteed small farmers that they would buy the farmers’ entire crop if they grew high-quality fruits and vegetables. Those original chefs – Peter Merriman, Roy Yamaguchi, Beverly Gannon, Alan Wong, and George Mavrothalassitis, among others – sparked a culinary coup. Now Hawaii nurtures specialty farmers, fruit growers, and cheesemakers. Ranchers rear grass-fed cows and aquatic farmers raise rare varieties such as black cod. And now a generation of young chefs is taking up the torch.

A Glossary of Hawaiian Cheap Eats

Given the island’s rich variety of cultures, Hawaii offers some of the best (and most idiosyncratic) bargain eats of anywhere.

SAIMIN: A uniquely Hawaiian noodle-in-broth dish that is either Japanese or Chinese in origin, depending on who’s telling the story

PLATE LUNCH: A meal of macaroni or potato salad (sometimes both), along with chicken, pork, or beef drowned in gravy

LOCO MOCO: A hamburger patty on two scoops of gravy-covered rice, with egg on top

OKAZUYA: A Japanese-style deli that sells plate lunches, bento boxes, poke (the Hawaiian version of ceviche, mixed with seaweed), teriyaki, and sometimes (go figure) spaghetti

MALASADAS: Holeless, Portuguese doughnuts filled with cream


One Week: Pick one island and try a couple of resorts. On Kauai, for instance, divide time between Poipu and Princeville; or on Oahu, between Waikiki and the North Shore; or on Maui, between Kapalua (or Wailea) and Hana. Alternatively, spend three nights on Oahu and then four nights on Kauai, Maui, or the Big Island.

10 Days: Spend two nights on Oahu, three nights on Kauai or Maui, and five nights on the Big Island. Or take a weeklong cruise through the islands (leaving from Honolulu) and before or after the voyage enjoy several nights on Oahu.

Two Weeks: Stay three nights each on Oahu, Kauai, and Maui, and five on the Big Island. Old hands looking for a new escape might want to spend four nights at Hotel Hana-Maui on Maui, then four more on Lanai, and another four at Princeville on Kauai or on Oahu (at the Kahala resort or on the North Shore). Spend the last two nights re-acclimating in Waikiki.

When to Go

Winter months bring rain, mostly in the morning and late afternoon, with sun appearing for the rest of the day. The dry season starts in April. Rates are higher during holidays, especially spring break, but Hawaii is popular year-round, so prices vary little with the seasons.

Getting There & Around

Honolulu is the main hub, but nonstop flights from the mainland go to all four islands. Traveling between the islands requires booking a flight through Go!, Mokulele Airlines, or Hawaiian Airlines.

Most people rent (and return) cars at the airports. Two essential local terms used in driving directions include mauka (mountainward) and makai (oceanward). In Waikiki, hotel parking rates can run from $25 to $30 a night.

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