Born and raised in our 50th state, I’ve watched public interest in my homeland ebb and flow with the tides of politics, popular culture and the global economy. Once again, Hawaii is in the spotlight with President Bush’s recent declaration to make the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—a string of small leeward islands and atolls located 120 nautical miles west of the main chain—a marine national monument. This long-awaited political gesture will protect more than 3.5 million acres of some of the world’s oldest coral colonies as well as 7,000 sea-life species. It also creates the world’s biggest marine protected area, larger than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
While access to this pristine sliver of the planet is limited, anyone can find his or her own slice of Hawaiian paradise—be it next to a lone palm on a small patch of sand or by a waterfall hidden behind dark green taro plants—on one of the six main islands. With direct flights from San Francisco and Oakland to most islands, you could leave in the morning and be on the beach by noon Hawaii time.
Here’s our island-by-island guide from west to east.
Kauai, formed by the volcanoes Kaiwaikini and Mount Waialeale, is the fourth largest of the islands, with 552 square miles of land and a population of about 60,000.
The “Garden Isle” is the easternmost and geographically oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Since Kauai has a few million years on the rest of the islands, more than half its coastline has eroded into gorgeous sandy beaches. Moviemakers have exploited this feature throughout the years. If you’re old enough, you saw Mitzi Gaynor sing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” on the North Shore’s Lumahai Beach in South Pacific. A few decades later, nearby Kee Beach stood in for the Australian-coast backdrop in the popular 1983 TV miniseries The Thorn Birds starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward. Ricardo Montalban’s Fantasy Island came to us throughout the ’80s from Wailua Falls. And Corte Madera’s own Doug McConnell has filmed four episodes of Bay Area Backroads on this island.
“There is something special that draws me to Kauai,” the TV broadcasting veteran says. “It represents the ideal of tropical paradise.” One of his favorite treks is the Na Pali Coast, which can be explored only by foot or boat because of its imposing 2,000-foot cliffs that rise from the Pacific. McConnell urges would-be trekkers of the difficult Na Pali coastal trail to use caution and prepare properly by wearing good hiking shoes, applying sunscreen and carrying a lot of water. “It’s a great adventure to backpack the entire 11 miles over several days,” he says, “but even those who make just a day trip, hiking the first two miles to Hanakapiai Valley and its wonderful hidden beach, find it an unforgettable experience.”
Besides Na Pali, Kauai boasts two other distinctive geologic sites: Mount Waialeale and Waimea Canyon. Mount Waialeale is one of the wettest places on the planet, accounting for the lushness of the island. “It is perfectly situated right in the trade wind flow to catch the showers—up to 39 feet a year at the peak,” says Glenn James, a Maui weatherman and expert on the islands’ geography who hosts a local cable TV show and produces the website hawaiiweathertoday.com.
Waimea Canyon, on Kauai’s west side, is a 3,000-foot deep, 10-mile-long valley formed by a catastrophic volcanic explosion. Over a few million years, the black walls of canyon cliff have been painted red by minerals, and “the water (and runoff) cut deeply into the rocky sides, which is a very inspiring sight,” says James. There are countless wilderness trails into the valley; the shortest route to the canyon floor, Kukui Trail, ends at a large swimming hole—a welcome treat on a hot day.
Oahu, formed by the volcanoes Waianae and Koolau, is the third largest of the islands, with 597 square miles of land and a population of about 900,000.
Oahu, across the Kauai channel from the island of Kauai, is aptly called the Gathering Isle: 75 percent of the state’s population lives here and about 5 million tourists visit annually. It also holds the distinction of housing the only royal dwelling on U.S. soil, the Ìolani Palace. Hollywood hasn’t ignored this island either. Tom Selleck as Magnum, P.I. and Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett of Hawaii 5-O raced for years around Honolulu searching for bad guys. These days a beat-up, born-again bounty hunter named Dog, née Duane Chapman, is Oahu’s representative on the airwaves. But the true star of Dog the Bounty Hunter, and the rest of these shows, could arguably be Oahu itself.
Besides aloha-shirted TV stars and tourism, Oahu is perhaps best known for big wave riders. “The north shore of Oahu has the perfect orientation for those wintertime swells, making for the largest waves in the islands,” says James. “The source of those waves is the winter storms that migrate off the Asian continent, across the Pacific into the Gulf of Alaska.” This is great news for those who consider navigating a 25-foot wall of water fun, as well as for those of us who are content to watch.
For those who define adventure without the words “killer waves,” Oahu offers plenty of other options. For example, the three-acre (give or take an acre, depending on the tide) sandbar in Kaneohe Bay on the windward side of the island is a world away from the hassles of life (except for the droning of the airplanes from a nearby military base). Look closely and you’ll spot camouflaged flounders undulating in the currents, translucent pencil-like cornet fish, or even a juvenile blacktip reef shark swimming in the distance. Green sea turtles are a common sight, too; more than 500 are said to live in the protected bay. It’s not a surprise that this pristine stretch of sand is on the preservationist radar and soon might be designated kapu (forbidden), which nowadays means “keep out” in Hawaiian.
Hiking is a year-round event on Oahu. Certain trails, however, especially those that run along the jagged volcanic cliffs, are best saved for the dry summer months. The Pali Lookout trail is safe year-round because it is paved. This approximately two-mile trail leads through the rain-forest environs of windward Oahu and includes waterfalls and amazing views. For more than 80 trails with descriptions and photos, visit backyardoahu.com and choose according to season and level of difficulty.
Molokai, formed by volcanoes Kamakou, Mauna Loa and Kalaupapa, is the fifth largest of the chain, with 260 square miles of land and a population ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 in season.
Molokai, across the Kaiwi Channel from Oahu, is the least developed of the islands and is famous as the isolated realm of Father Damien, who treated lepers on the island until he died of the disease in 1889. While there still isn’t a stoplight or a dry cleaner on Molokai, KFC Express and Subway have managed to wash ashore, and the island is making its way onto the tourist map.
Its supercasual laid-back lifestyle earns it the nickname “the Friendly Isle.” Still, “the structure of the island makes accessibility challenging,” acknowledges Judith Bicoy of the Molokai Visitors Bureau. “The impenetrable sea cliffs, one airport and lack of public boat harbors make getting here a challenge. Visitors have to come either by airplane or ferry that comes in twice a day from Maui.”
For more than 100 years a large portion of the island was privately owned by the Molokai Ranch and used for cattle, pineapple and other agricultural purposes. Fifth-generation paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys, still live on and work the land. But these days they also offer visitors a taste of Hawaiian cowboy life in sessions called Paniolo Roundup, wherein city slickers can learn basic rodeo skills. Mountain biking is also popular on the ranch, which has more than 65 miles of trails, including the aptly named Gravity Bike Ride, with panoramic views and a 1,100-foot descent.
Despite its small size, Molokai boasts the longest beach in the islands: Papohaku stretches for three miles and is 300 yards wide. It ranks as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and is usually empty, except for the occasional lone monk seal or a few green sea turtles sunning themselves on the white sands. Molokai is also known for numerous ancient Hawaiian fish ponds and the largest coral barrier reef system in the islands, both of which provide an underwater paradise to explore. The island’s most dramatic feature is a gigantic sea cliff—the tallest in the world—rising along a sheer face more than 3,000 feet above the waves. To get a glimpse, of these cliffs is not easy, one way is to visit the former leper colony of Kalaupapa Village, nestled below the cliffs and accessible by a steep trail via hiking, mule ride or bus. Since a few surviving leprosy patients still reside there, visitors are limited to a guided tour.
Lanai, named after the volcano that formed it, is the smallest island in the chain, with only 140 square miles of land and a population of about 3,000.
Well before Lanai was purchased by James Dole in 1922 for $1 million and became known as the Pineapple Island, Hawaiians celebrated the island’s natural beauty. The carved canyon of Keahikawelo, also known as the Garden of the Gods, could be mistaken for a Salvador Dali–inspired rockscape, baking undisturbed in the arid heat for centuries. Hulopo’e, an area teeming with wildlife (fronting the Manele Bay Resort), is a protected marine reserve that’s home to spinner dolphins, green sea turtles and many colorful tropical fish.
Lanai was first spotted by a European on February 25, 1779: Captain Charles Clerke scribbled his sighting in a ship’s log while making a quick departure from Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. His superior, Captain James Cook, had just been killed and Clerke had no time for further exploration.
San Francisco attorney Griff Towle spent a summer in his youth picking pineapples and living in the little town called Lanai City. “It’s my favorite island,” says Towle, who fondly recalls afternoons of exploring the island with a friend. “It was paradise. We went out to Shipwreck Beach, took a jeep ride up Munro Trail and went scuba diving at Cathedrals.” Towle also made it out to remote Polihua Beach, one of the most famous green sea turtle nesting beaches in Hawaii. Today, he revisits these places with his family, Keahikawelo. However, now he spends time on the golf course and lounging on the beach. “It is a truly unique place on the planet, and every time I go there I’m in awe,” he says.
The paucity of people here, even when hotels are at capacity, creates the feeling of it being your own personal island—hence one of Lanai’s other names, “the Private Isle.”
Maui, formed by the volcanoes Mauna Kahalawai on the west and Haleakala in the east, is the second largest of the islands, with 727 square miles of land and a population of about 135,000.
Maui is known as the best place to windsurf in the islands. For 20 years Geoff James of Sausalito has been going there to do just that—these days with wife Sandy and daughters Daphne and Lucy in tow. The James family bypasses the hotels on the leeward side, instead renting a home on the North Shore to be close to their favorite sailing spots: Sprecklesville, Kanaha and Hookipa.
“The windward north shore of Maui has a perfect combination of trade wind angle and strength, coupled with lots of breaking waves most of the year,” confirms meteorologist Glenn James (no relation to Geoff). “These two aspects are what make the North Shore, especially from Kanaha Beach on up the coast to Hookipa Beach Park, one of the most favorable windsurfing and kiteboarding locations in the world.”
Maui offers plenty of less adrenaline-pumping opportunities as well. At Haleakala National Park, Haleakala Crater has 27 miles of trails for hikes that range from one-hour to all-day; for an overview, visit nps.gov/hale. The leeward side of Maui, where most of the hotels are, is known for snorkeling and scuba diving. In the winter, the ‘Au‘au Channel between Maui, Lanai and Molokai is a temporary home for migrating humpback whales, a protected and endangered species.
Hawaii was formed by five volcanoes—extinct Kohala, dormant Mauna Kea and Hualalai, and the active Mauna Loa and Kilauea. It is geologically the newest of the islands and the biggest, with more than 4,000 square miles of still-expanding land and a population of nearly 160,000.
Known as the Big Island, Hawaii’s land mass is not the only thing about it that is oversize. “The incredible fact about the Big Island is not only its immense size but its spectacular range of diverse climates,” says James. “Some continents do not have the variety of climates the Big Island has.” With arid desert, rain forests and a snowcapped peak, Hawaii is often called the land of fire and ice.
One of the most visited spots here is Kealakekua Bay, a Marine Life Conservation District where swimmers of all abilities can explore a large reef teeming with tropical fish; this is a favorite resting spot for spinner dolphins. It’s also the site of a memorial to Captain Cook, leader of the first European crew to make contact with native Hawaiians. While hundreds of people visit the Cook monument each day, few know about a more isolated tribute to famed adventurer and naturalist David Douglas, namesake of the Douglas fir. Douglas died in July 1834 by falling into a hunter’s trap at the untimely age of 35, alone, along the flank of Mauna Kea. Not long ago, Bay Area Backroads’ intrepid Doug McConnell led his broadcast team to Douglas’s remote gravesite. “I’ve always been in awe of David Douglas,” McConnell says. “To think of all he did in such a short time is quite inspiring.”
The journey to the grave consists of a long drive on a desolate road and a hike through the same wooded area where Douglas spent his last hours, until finally one arrives at a lone monument erected by men on horseback and mules in the 1930s. For McConnell, the trip is worth its “splendid isolation,” he says. “It’s a bittersweet reminder of a remarkable man who died in the pursuit of knowledge on a distant island he had come to cherish.”
With a summit of 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea itself is known for a host of activities, from hiking or mountain-biking its miles of trials to visiting the observatory to snow sports during the winter. Fluming—once the pastime of mischievous kids who trespassed on sugar plantations to ride abandoned canals on inner tubes—is now a full-blown tourist attraction complete with rubber rafts, life jackets and tour guides.
Waipio Valley, a.k.a. Valley of Kings, is a mile across and six miles deep. Many movies have exploited its beauty, including Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, and hikers, horseback riders and kayakers continue to visit today. For a smaller-scale yet still impressive experience, head to Kiholo Bay along the Kohala coast. The surest way to find the trail is the public access parking lot at the new Marriott resort. Look for an ancient path, marked by white rocks, called the alii trail. This trek is not for the lazy or the infirm; the weather can be hot and the terrain tricky in spots. It takes about an hour to reach your destination, but you won’t be disappointed. Salt water and fresh water combine to create a palette of bright blues, surrounded by jet-black lava. A white-sand island topped with green palms can be accessed by wading through a cool, crisp channel; there’s a good chance a giant green sea turtle might be sunbathing somewhere along the beach.