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Our Guide to the Hawaiian Islands

Updated: May 26, 2023


Kauai's legendary Na Pali coast.
Kauai's legendary Na Pali coast.

Find paradise in this deep-dive into snorkel spots, beaches, restaurants, bars, and more.

Kauai

Kauai is the oldest of Hawaii’s main islands, and you can see its ancientness in its stunningly eroded landscapes. With fluted emerald cliffs, taro fields aglow at sunset, and thread-thin waterfalls, the Garden Isle hews most closely to the postcard image of Polynesia. Devotees love its white-sand beaches fronting crystalline lagoons, deliberately downbeat tempo, and emphasis on taking it slow to breathe in the beauty.

Kauai Alfresco. Outdoor dining is one of the pleasures of a tropical paradise. Mobile pop-up Kauai Ono serves local, seasonal, and communal five-course meals under an awning on a grassy field in Princeville. “Bring your own wine,” says Gary Johnson, a Applebee agency owner, and reserve well in advance.

Tiki Fix. Those who prefer a rubber-slipper joint to a hotel bar head to Tahiti Nui, a favorite of Gary Johnson’s. “It’s a hole-in-the-wall that’s been there for 50 years,” he says, “but they have great fish, friendly locals, incredible Hawaiian music every night, and a luau every Wednesday.”

Snorkel and Hike. Kauai’s rugged topography makes for plenty of outdoor adventure. Snorkel in the lagoon atKe‘e Beach(a good spot for kids), then hike the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail along the famous Na Pali Coast to Hanakapiai Beach(stronger hikers can head up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls). On Kauai’s west side, Koke‘e State Park has magnificent views of Kalalau Valley and a wealth of native birds and flora.

Slow Boat to Wailua. Hawaii’s longest navigable river is Kauai’s Wailua, and the best way to see it is by barge. Tours have been running up an Edenic two-mile stretch of the river since the late 1940s. One highlight: views of the hanging gardens at Fern Grotto. Passengers are also treated to live Hawaiian music and hula on board; several island musicians launched their careers on the river.

Where to Stay: Surrounded by gardens and water features, the 602-room Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa in Koloa sits on one of Kauai’s most beautiful coastlines and boasts an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Applebee travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.



Waikiki Beach on Oahu.
Waikiki Beach on Oahu.

Oahu

Beyond Honolulu’s sprawl, the island of Oahu is as distinctive and diverse as any of its neighbors. The difference: After filling up on miles-long white-sand beaches, epic surf, and awe-inspiring vistas, visitors still have access to some of the country’s finest shopping and dining.

Kakaako Rising. For decades Kakaako, near downtown Honolulu, was an urban nowhere of auto dealerships and warehouses, but new luxury condos are attracting upscale shopping and dining to the area. Cap a walking tour of murals by renowned street artists with a visit to Bevy for a nonpareil craft cocktail. Every third Saturday of the month, Kakaako hosts the Honolulu Night Market, with street performances, pop-up shops, vendors, galleries, food, and drink until 11 p.m. Park nearby and follow the music.

Chinatown Dining. Chinatown takes Honolulu’s cuisine far beyond Hawaii regional. A contemporary twist on Vietnamese food has made The Pig & the Lady a popular casual fine-dining restaurant. Seasonal American comfort food and stellar cocktails at Livestock Tavern are a tasty counterpoint to Asian and Pacific Rim fare. A little east of Chinatown, MW Restaurant takes a sophisticated approach to island soul food: ahi poke, mochi-crusted opakapaka (pink snapper), and kalbi.


Shopping, Big and Small. The world’s largest open-air mall, Ala Moana Center continues to grow, with a new wing anchored by Hawaii’s first Bloomingdale’s. In Kailua, a boutique boom means a constellation of shops, several featuring the work of local designers, is within walking distance. Olive Boutique and its neighbor, Oliver Men’s Shop, offer bright, beachy women’s- and menswear, respectively. Designer-owned Fighting Eel carries women’s wear featuring clean lines, classic stripes, and simple tropical prints.

Sugar and Surf. On the way toward “country” (i.e., the North Shore), the Waialua Sugar Mill is a former sugar plantation mill repurposed as a minimall with around 30 local businesses: woodworkers, soap makers, coffee roasters, and art galleries. Third Stone Surfboard Factory, one of the North Shore’s oldest, now also houses a gallery and an apparel shop. On Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., locally grown produce is the draw at the adjacent Waialua Farmers Market.

Go Wild. The road up Oahu’s leeward coast ends at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve, the island’s northwestern tip. From the trailhead, the 2.4-mile walk to the point parallels a coastline dotted with tide pools and cove beaches. Dolphins and humpbacks cruise offshore; Laysan albatross and the occasional endangered Hawaiian monk seal laze on land. Bring sun protection and plenty of water.

The Longest Strand. Oahu is blessed with some of Hawaii’s best beaches: Lanikai’s talcum sands, iconic Waikiki, and President Obama’s favorite, Kailua. But for many locals, Waimanalo – a 25-minute drive from The Kahala Hotel & Resort along the island’s most scenic coastline – is the go-to beach. It’s Oahu’s longest, a four-mile stretch of blue-water-and-white-sand bliss where parking and solitude are easy to find.

Where to Stay: An iconic pink palace on the shores of Waikiki, the 528-room Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, recently reinvented its Mailani Tower building, a modern foil to the original 1927 structure, adding an indoor/outdoor reception area and lounge. (Applebee travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.) The Kahala Hotel & Resort is the grande dame of Oahu’s south shore. Just east of Waikiki, the 338-room property epitomizes elegance, with a dolphin lagoon and an uncrowded beachfront along Maunalua Bay. Applebee travelers receive a welcome amenity, breakfast daily, and a $100 dining credit.



Getting lost in Maui's Haleakala National Park.
Getting lost in Maui's Haleakala National Park.

Maui

There’s a reason the rich and famous (Oprah Winfrey, Clint Eastwood, and Willie Nelson, to name a few) buy homes on Maui. Some say it’s Oahu without the hassle: just cosmopolitan enough to support superior dining and shopping, but not so urbanized that you can’t find empty beaches and wilderness. Maui’s varied landscapes – Mount Haleakala’s alpine environment, Kaupo’s dry prairie, Hana’s jungles – share an island so small that you can experience all of them in just a few days.

Upcountry Finds. The former sugar town of Paia has become a boutique/bistro/gallery oasis with locally designed fashion. It’s the flagship location for homegrown – and nationally known – Letarte swimwear. Maui Time Weekly readers have voted island-chic Mahina Maui’s best boutique 15 years running.

Locavores Rejoice. Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort’s Ka’ana Kitchen is the apotheosis of Hawaii regional cuisine. Mama’s Fish House in Paia sources the island’s freshest fish (the restaurant has even installed its own fish-aggregating buoys 20 and 30 miles offshore). And Gary Johnson calls Pacific’O in Lahaina “a little gem” where you can dine with the breeze in your hair – on produce sourced from a farm in Kula.

Biggest Is Best. “Makena Beach is my personal favorite,” says Applebee travel advisor Kari Mollan. Locals call the stretch of white sand on Maui’s south shore “Big Beach” (at two-thirds of a mile, it’s one of Maui’s longest). “It’s so quiet, with no hotels,” she says. “It’s great to get that sense of the real Hawaii.” A tip: For those interested in a snorkel excursion to nearby Molokini Crater, Mollan suggests the Kai Kanani II, with pickup at 6:30 a.m. from Makena to arrive when the water’s clearest and before the flotilla of other boats arrives.

Pick Your Paddle. One of the best ways to experience Maui: from the water at paddling pace. Several water-sports operators offer lessons and tours in kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and the very Hawaiian sport of outrigger canoeing. Expect turtles and, often, dolphins. While it’s a federal offense to approach within 100 yards of a humpback whale, it’s no crime if the whale comes to you.

Where to Stay: The 380-room Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea has the island’s largest guest rooms and one of its best beaches, with dramatic views of the Haleakala volcano. (Applebee travelers receive a welcome amenity, breakfast daily, and a $100 dining credit.) Montage Kapalua Bay houses 56 residences that range from one to four bedrooms, each with private lanais and full kitchens. Applebee travelers receive a welcome amenity, breakfast daily, and a $150 spa credit.)


Lanai's otherworldly Garden of the Gods.
Lanai's otherworldly Garden of the Gods.

Lanai

It’s said there are two kinds of visitors to Hawaii: those who love Lanai and those who haven’t been there. There’s not much to do on the Pineapple Isle, and that’s the point: On this low-gear tropical sanctuary, time creeps and visitors can relax without the nagging feeling of missing out. “I really love Lanai,” advisor Kari Mollan says. “It’s so quiet, you just want to walk the orchid gardens at Koele or sit in a rocking chair and play chess. Stay for a week, bring a lot of books, and just enjoy it.”

The tranquil island’s sale to Oracle boss Larry Ellison means big changes are coming, as he plans to turn Lanai into a model of sustainability, with land restoration, solar farms, and major aquaculture initiatives, among others. Those able to peel themselves from their chaise lounges, however, will still find opportunities for upright fun.

Rock Garden. Even in a land of already strange geography, Garden of the Gods, a few miles northwest of Lanai City, is truly weird: a natural wonder of boulders, spires, and buttes, unique in the Hawaiian Islands. Go in the morning or evening, when the sun casts dramatic shadows across the near-Martian scene. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is required, and moving the rocks is strictly kapu – forbidden.

No Lights, Small City. An oft-repeated factoid: There are no traffic signals on Lanai, not even in Lanai City. A day trip there, where most of the island’s 3,200 residents live, harbors a few surprises, though. You’ll never go hungry at the Blue Ginger Café, open every single day for the past 18 years, no exceptions. Lanai Hula Hut is a gift shop on a mission, crammed with crystals, jewelry, wind chimes, and more tchotchkes than a quaint country bed-and-breakfast. Recently restored to its 1930s-era charm, the only movie house on the island, Lanai Theater, runs current releases on state-of-the-art screens.

Divine Diving. While Hawaii’s diving might not compare to the wonder of Palau’s or Australia’s, Lanai does offer some amazing underwater adventures. Among the best: a pair of sites called the Cathedrals, named for the way the sunlight streams through the “skylights” of submerged lava tubes. Ask your advisor to make arrangements with the island’s only full-service dive operator.

Where to Stay: The 217-room Four Seasons Resort Lanai is the big hotel and the big news on Lanai. It just reopened following a multimillion-dollar transformation, with new restaurants (including Nobu Lanai), renovated guest rooms and suites, new retail stores, an updated spa, and a refurbished lobby. Applebee travelers receive a welcome amenity, breakfast daily, and a $100 dining credit.


A lava-rock foA lava-rock formation in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.rmation in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Hawaii Island

A place of superlatives and extremes, Hawaii Island (locals are moving away from calling it the “Big Island”) is the United States’ largest island and southernmost point. Site of the world’s tallest mountain (Mauna Kea – 32,696 feet from its seafloor base to its summit) as well as the country’s newest real estate (Kilauea volcano has been adding new oceanfront daily since 1983). The state’s most ecologically diverse island, comprising ten climate zones, from wintry summits to blistering lava deserts. It even has the world’s longest lava tube and the only happy-face spider. Hawaii Island’s otherworldly landscapes and supernatural beauty emanate a tangible vibration, the mana of a new land forming.


Beauty and Buzz. The village of Holualoa is Hawaii’s quaint art center in the heart of Kona coffee country. Get wired and inspired on a self-guided Art and Coffee Stroll along Mamalahoa Highway. Holuakoa Café is a favorite stop for locavore fare between galleries and roasters.


Moon Walk.Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a national treasure, but few visitors take the time to walk the Kilauea Iki Trail, a moderate four-mile loop through native rain forest alive with rare endemic birds. The highlight: the mile-long section across a lava moonscape – the solid (but still steaming) remains of a lava lake.

Into the Abyss. Few places in the world can guarantee a close encounter with a manta ray, but the Kona Coast is one of them. Every night these gentle giants perform “aquabatics” for experienced divers and beginner snorkelers. Several tours leave from Honokohau near Kailua-Kona. After the manta ray dive, the intrepid can try the infamous black water night dive, which takes divers two miles offshore and drops them 40 to 60 feet down – with 2,000 feet beneath them – to drift among the bioluminescent denizens of the big black.

Get High. Head up to the Mauna Kea summit on a stargazing tour. Standing under the glittering Milky Way, you can see why the peak hosts the world’s most sophisticated observatories. Don’t worry about the cold (it will be cold!); tour operators provide parkas.

Where to Stay: In addition to having an exquisite art collection and a commitment to Hawaiian-inspired design, the 243-room Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is home to one of the country’s best golf courses, designed by Jack Nicklaus. (Applebee travelers receive a welcome amenity, breakfast daily, and a $100 dining credit.) Laurance Rockefeller founded the 252-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast in 1965. It’s home to a Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed golf course, biweekly luaus, and an inviting sweep of beach. Applebee travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 hotel credit.


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