Even though Hawaii is known for its breathtaking beaches, the 50th state actually offers much more than just a swim in crystalline waters and great waves to surf. Discover the archipelago’s wonders -- away from its sandy stretches -- with this selection of activities we've come up with for you. From the soaring cliffs of the Waimea Canyon in Kauai to the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Oahu, Hawaii will win the hearts even of those who are allergic to relaxing on lounge chairs under the sun. Check out the best sun-safe activities to do while visiting any of the islands -- just make sure to slather on some SPF first.
Hotels in this story
Check Out: HANA AND THE POOLS OF OHEO
Known as “the last of the unspoiled Hawaiian frontiers”, the serene village of Hana is one of island’s gems. This isolated spot in eastern Maui is a natural wonder (but a good 2- to 4-hour drive from the main tourist areas), with a rugged, untouched coastline, beautiful waterfalls, gorgeous lookouts on the way, and the charming Hasegawa General Store, a family-run business that’s been around for four generations. Some 15 miles south, the popular Pools of Oheo are the perfect spot for a dip in a tranquil lagoon with a waterfall or a hike through the rainforest.
Stay At: Travaasa Hana
Overlooking Hana Bay, this top hotel delivers rustic luxury in the middle of Maui’s lush, secluded east coast. Incredible service, top spa, excellent food, a long list of stuff to do, and only 70 rooms on acres of uncrowded property. The rooms are large, clean, sleekly furnished — and stripped of TVs, clocks, and radios. While the resort may be hard to reach, it’s 100% worth the trip.
Check Out: LAHAINA AND THE IAO VALLEY STATE PARK
The town of Lahaina, once the whaling capital of the Pacific, has managed to retain its historic charm despite the development and the tourism. Some of the best restaurants, bars and art galleries are here, and visitors flock to the docks to hop on one of the numerous whale-watching cruises organized by several travel agents in town. For those who want to add some cultural activities to the mix, the Lahaina Jodo Mission is a serene spot, home to one of the largest statues of Buddha outside Asia. One of Maui’s most recognizable landmarks, the Iao Valley State Park and its 1,200-foot needle, is less than an hour away and features breathtaking views of the valley, a few great trails and a nature center.
Stay At: The Plantation Inn
One of Maui‘s most intimate properties, with 19, mostly courtyard-facing rooms and suites, a small pool, free breakfast from the top-notch Gerard’s Restaurant, and a small staff that practically coddles guests, the Plantation Inn is a rare and lovely option in harborfront Lahaina.
Check Out: PEARL HARBOR MEMORIAL
The USS Arizona Memorial’s visitor center offers several tours a day around the site where one of the turning points in American history took place. Here you’ll find where the majority of the sailors killed during the attack by the Japanese Imperial Forces rest, and there are several monuments commemorating the events of that infamous December 7, 1941 that are open to the public.
Situated on the largest of Ko Olina’s man-made lagoons, the elegant JW Marriott Ihilani is a solid option for families and couples, with two excellent pools, a top-ranked golf course and spa, five tennis courts, and excellent cuisine.
Forget Waikiki and its crowded beaches, and head south towards the iconic silhouette of the Diamond Head (Leahi). This 760-foot tuff crater was used as a military lookout in the early 20th century, and visitors can still explore the bunkers and tunnels, and enjoy some of the best views in Hawaii.
Stay At: The Lotus at Diamond Head
Formerly the W Waikiki, this scenic and stylish 50-room boutique hotel is about half-mile from Waikiki’s crowded areas. Features are few — no pool; no fitness center — but the standard rooms are huge, and though they still have the W’s chic decor and incredible beds, but now they cost much less. Plus, few other properties boast these views of the Diamond Head.
This smaller yet still impressive version of the Grand Canyon is one of the natural must-sees in Kauai. There are very few lookouts, so make sure to go all the way to the Kokee State Park for the best views of the gorges and the soaring cliffs of the Napali Coast. There are restrooms, picnic areas and a number of trails going from easy to challenging.
Stay At: Whalers Cove
Made up of 39 huge one- and two-bedroom luxury condos (each with its own kitchen and washer/dryer), this condo-hotel complex offers stunning views of the Pacific from its small but gorgeous pool and every room’s balcony. Sure, there’s no sandy beach, restaurant, gym, overnight desk staff, or even air conditioning, but these views are worth it.
Check Out: THE NORTH SHORE
Those who want to get a better close-up of the Napali Cliffs should head to the North Shore, where spectacular vistas, whale-watching spots and lovely towns await. While Princeville attracts tourists for its world-class golf courses, the pretty town of Hanalei is famous for its galleries, restaurants and shops. Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge is home to the historic Kilauea Lighthouse, arguably one of the best whale-watching spots in Kauai.
The 346-room Westin Princeville’s condo-style time-share units, four beautiful pools, expansive cliffside grounds, and excellent service (for a condo property) make it a solid, quiet option for families and couples. Golfers get discounted rates at the nearby golf course, and kids have access to a wide array of daily activities.
Check Out: HISTORIC KAILUA VILLAGE
Once the Hawaiian Royal Family’s quiet summer retreat, Kailua is now a lively seaside town full of shops and restaurants. For a sample of Kailua’s rich history check out Hulihee Palace, the summerhouse of the royals in the 19th century; or the Ahuena Heiau, King Kamehameha’s personal religious site, located inside the Kona Beach Hotel.
Stay At: Royal Kona Resort
The low-key, 436-room Royal Kona has long been an architectural landmark of the Kailua Bay coastline. Its convenient downtown location, affordable, clean rooms, and private lagoon access are all pluses, but be prepared to sacrifice a few frills — there’s no Jacuzzi, and the pool is small.
Check Out: MAUNA KEA
This imposing dormant volcano towers almost 14,000 feet above the Big Island, offering not only jaw-dropping views, but also the best stargazing programs in Hawaii. (Bonus: They’re free!) There are several trails through stunning volcanic formations, escorted summit tours, and lots of activities organized daily by the Onizuka Center.
Stay At: The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
This beautiful luxury beach resort on the Kohala Coast is chock-full of excellent features: Top-rated dining, golfing, tennis, fitness training, and spa experiences. It’s pricier than some comparable resorts in the area, but free extras help compensate (valet parking, Wi-Fi, and newspaper delivery, to name a few). Free activities at the on-site Hawaiian cultural center — including tours of the historic rock carvings and the former royal fishing ponds on the grounds — are also a highlight.
Check Out: KEAHIAKAWELO
This barren landscape, known as the Garden of Gods, transports the visitor to a desolate planet with no vegetation and a mysterious lunar topography from which Molokai Island can be seen in clear days. The best time of the day to visit it is at dusk, when the sun sets off the myriad colors of the spires and rocks scattered everywhere.
The 102-room Four Seasons Lodge at Koele is a serene, upscale resort with a Greg Norman-designed golf course. The resort is just a short walk from town, and features top-rated (but expensive) dining, casually elegant rooms, horseback riding facilities, and three tennis courts. The tranquil English-style grounds dotted by Asian accents — a pagoda sits across the pond from a gazebo — have a peaceful air and attract honeymooners and couples; few families visit the hotel due to the small size of the pool and the lack of direct beach access (the hotel is about a 20-minute drive from the sand). But guests at the Lodge are granted access to the sister property’s facilities (and beach) at Manele Bay via a free shuttle.
Check Out: KAUNOLU
This ancient Hawaiian fishing village, located on the southern tip of the island, is where King Kamehameha the Great would spend the summer months in the late 18th century. It is thought to have been first inhabited in the 15th century, and visitors can see the foundations of dozens of ancient homes, walls, and burial sites. It is accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle only.
The Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay is a luxury resort secluded on the small island of Lanai, offering top-rated dining, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and a pristine pool and spa. Known for its exceptional service, the resort is a favorite among honeymooners and has an impressive number of return clients considering its remote location — getting there requires either a small plane or a ferry ride, and the hotel is 20 minutes from Lanai City. The on-site restaurants are pricey, and the fee for Wi-Fi seems a bit much, but a long list of freebies (everything from yoga classes to snorkel gear) help compensate.