The Hawaii You Don’t Know

Hidden Hawaii: How to visit paradise like no one else

FIRST PUBLISHED Fall 2019 North Carolina Living Magazine

When people visit the Hawaiian Islands, typically, they do it like most everyone else and they visit one of two islands: O’ahu, Maui or maybe even both.

O’ahu, known also as The Gathering Place, is home to more than 80 percent of Hawaii’s population and annually, more than half of the well-over five million people who visit the islands go to O’ahu. And for good reason, with more than 125 beaches and unparalleled sites like Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, Waikiki Beach, Honolulu and the Polynesian Cultural Center, O’ahu is truly a gathering place for many. 

But, there’s so much more to the islands, and so many off-the-beaten-path places to go, why not consider planning your visit to paradise unlike most. Be it a return trip or your first time, if you’re planning a Hawaiian vacation, consider visiting and maybe even staying at one of the other islands. Here’s a quick overview on a few places that hidden Hawaii has to offer on those not-so-touristy islands. 

Hawai’i aka The Big Island

By far the largest of the islands, there’s plenty of typical touristy things to do and most are well worth dodging crowds that may, or may not show up, but there’s also plenty of off-the-beaten-path places worth visiting. An absolute must when visiting the island of Hawai’i, is a day spent exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, the park offers visitors a chance to spy flowing lava amongst one of the most geologically amazing places on the planet. If you’re a true volcano-buff, head over to the Kaʻū Desert and hike through dried lava remnants, sand and volcanic ash. 

Just as most people never get to see an active volcano, most never get to walk on a black-sand beach. Punalu’u is just off HWY 11 and though the swimming can be rough, it’s an Instagram-worthy spot for photos. And while your photos from Punalu’u will be fabulous, nothing can compare to those taken at sunset from the Mauna Kea Observatory. To get there, you’ll drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about two hours so do know that though the views are spectacular, it’s not for the young, weak of heart, or anyone prone to altitude sickness.

Now, if you really want to see hidden Hawai’i and have the cash to do so, best bet is to do so by air with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. They can take you to places so remote you’ll think you’ve landed in an episode of Lost. Who knew one island could be so diverse to have everything from snowy mountain tops to active volcanos to waterfalls and so much, much more. 

Kaua’i aka The Garden Isle

Lush rainforests and vast mountain ranges encompass more than 95 percent of this island and the summit of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale is one of the wettest spots on earth. But it’s the rainfall that keeps the island so green hence earning its nickname, “The Garden Isle.” For the nature enthusiast, visiting Waimea Canyon State Park, a 14-mile long canyon perfect for a day’s worth of hiking, is a must do. Here, you’ll encounter everything from waterfalls, to crags to gorges and buttes. Also worth exploring is the 10-mile long Koloa Heritage Trail where you’ll find a number of interesting points—one of the most impressive, Spouting Horn Park, is an ocean blowhole said to have once been home to a giant lizard named Kaikapu. Other stops along the trail include the ancient Hawaiian temple, Kihahouna Heiau; Keoneloa Bay, a one-time fishing camp with partially intact alters where locals prayed to their fishing god, Kanaaukai; and the cultural site, Kaneiolouma, an ancient village dating back to the 1400s.

Moloka’i aka The Friendly Isle

Home to the highest sea cliffs in the world, this island used to be known for its large beef cattle farm, the Moloka’i Ranch. Long since closed, the ranch comprised nearly one third of the island for farming and even had luxurious accommodations and a golf course. Nowadays, tourists won’t find any operational golf course, or large-scale hotel—at one time there was even a Sheraton complete with spectacular views, spa and golf—but Moloka’i Shores Condominiums are a best bet for lodging and the grounds are vast allowing plenty of space for long walks. If you hike directly over the north side of the grounds, you’ll land on Papohaku Beach. Also called Three Mile Beach, it’s one of the islands’ longest white-sand beaches and it’s virtually unpopulated, but be forewarned—there’s a sharp drop off and no protective reef so swimming isn’t advised. Another few miles (you’ll want to drive for this one) up the road is Kapukahehu beach. A great place to swim and spend the day, chances are you’ll be greeted by a monk seal (or two)—note, locals fish here a lot so watch for set nets. 

Two other places to visit on the island are in the town of Kaunakakai. Imamura’s carries an impressive amount of gorgeous, traditional Hawaiian fabrics and while some claim there’s still cans of SPAM on the grocery shelves left over from WWII, there is some seriously good, fresh eats here. And one of the best is the James Beard nominated Kanemitsu Bakery. Open since 1935, it’s a hotspot for delicious treats. Lastly, if you do one thing, do this: plan a day to tour Kalaupapa National Historic Park. In the 1860s, King Kamehameha V banished those suffering from leprosy to this remote area on the north shore of Moloka’i. Accessible only by boat, plane or on the back of a donkey via a steep, hillside trail, it remains a fairly primitive homage to those who lived and died there of what’s now called Hansen’s disease.

Lana’i aka The Pineapple Island

This no-stoplight, two-hotel (yes one does happen to be a Four Seasons) island is tranquil, low key and chalk full of places to explore. At one time, most of the island was a pineapple plantation—James Dole, yes, that Dole, used to own the island—but now tourism spearheads the economy. Most of the island is underdeveloped and many roads are unpaved making it the perfect place to go off-roading. Best bet it to look into renting a vehicle from Lana’i Cheap Jeeps then make plans to drive the seven miles north of Lanai City to Keahiakawelo. Also known as the garden of the Gods, some believe the rocks found there fell from the the gods’ gardens while others say they contain the souls of ancient Polynesian warriors; scientists, however, claim the rocks were formed thousands of years ago by natural erosion. Either way, it’s a fun adventure with breathtaking views of the Pacific. And, while you have that vehicle, take another a short drive to Kaiolohi’a or Shipwreck Beach. Directly offshore lies the wreck of a WWII tanker and nearby there are plenty of open trails for exploring—take Keomuku road and you’ll spy a number of petroglyphs among the strewn boulders. TIp, be sure to have a full tank of gas if you plan to explore for a long time as gas stations are scarce.

Ni’ihau aka The Forbidden Island

Named the Forbidden Island because this privately-owned island closed its borders to outsiders during a polio epidemic in the early ‘50s, and consequently kept it polio-free, has (according to the 2010 census) 170 native Hawaiian residents. The number is thought to be an estimate though as demographics aren’t traditionally kept. Purchased in 1864 for $10,000 from King Kamehameha V by Scottish born Elizabeth-Sinclair Robinson, visiting used to be impossible unless you were personally invited by the owners. But, in the ‘80s, the Robinson family started offering limited tours via their companies, Ni’ihau Helicopters and Ni’ihau Safaris. Although, if you want a glimpse at this unspoiled paradise, it will cost you. Half-day helicopter tours are $440 per person and a safari starts just under $2,000 per person.

Kaho’olawe aka The Target Isle

At only 45 square miles—for comparisons sake, Durham county is 298 sq. mi.—this uninhabited island is the smallest of the eight most-known islands and like Ni’ihau, visiting is pretty much next to impossible. Prior to 1990, this small landmass was used by the U.S. military for target practice and some believe there are still unexploded artillery shells. Nowadays, access to the land and surrounding waters is prohibited by law, but if you’re willing to do some volunteer work, you may just get a chance to visit. For a $200 fee, you can sign up to join the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission for one of the twice-monthly restoration trips. There is, however, a wait list and spots are hard to come by. Note, this type of volunteerism isn’t for the weak of heart. If conditions don’t allow for a beach landing, you may be required to swim from the vessel to land.

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