Whale Watching offshore Maui. Who’s watching who? Maui Visitors Bureau
Hawaii’s natural, cultural and historical travel experiences
Enjoy fabulous new images and information added to this perennially popular survey article introducing Hawaii’s nature tourism, educational, cultural and historical side.
All information has been collected first-hand by our editor, Alison Gardner. If you prefer to go straight to alternative tourism opportunities for each island, click on Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, and Big Island [Hawaii]
It hardly comes as a revelation that the Hawaiian Islands have been the number one choice of vacation destination for Americans and Canadians for much of modern traveling history. In addition, this beautiful necklace of Pacific Islands, more isolated in every direction than any other piece of real estate on earth, has a significant global attraction for visitors from many other nations.
Looking at all the islands’ beauty and accessibility today, it is difficult to imagine that they are among the last places on earth to have been occupied by humans. Estimated date of the first human foot ashore is about 100 A.D., and significant colonies of Polynesians were not established until several hundred years after that. It wasn’t until the 19th century that settlers from America, Europe and Asia impacted the islands each in their own ways.
Accessed from Oahu’s historic Kualoa Ranch, the dramatic Koolau Mountains are a short drive from Honolulu and a hiking magnet. Oahu Nature Tours
While today’s annual arrivals come for only a brief stay, a mere 25% sample more than one island. That one island is typically Oahu where, even there, many adventurous and educational surprises await those who venture beyond the obvious and dig deeper for vacation experiences.
Building and maintaining large ditches or “flumes” from mountain valleys to water fields and process the sugar cane was a major preoccupation on Kaua`i in the 1800s and 1900s.
Today, miles of “flumes” are being restored and re-opened to treat visitors to a gentle historic float through fabulous backcountry and dramatic stone tunnels. All ages love it! Kaua`i Backcountry Adventures
Increasingly over the past few years, I have personally confirmed that Hawaii’s tourism is evolving from a predictably satisfying rest and recreation haven to a destination where travelers may choose to leave behind those tantalizing mass-produced mainstream amenities to sample a more intimate experience of nature, indigenous culture, settler history, and hospitality that is uniquely Hawaiian. No detour via Waikiki for me!
The Hawaiian Islands are at the southeastern end of a sprawling chain of volcanoes that began to form some 70 million years ago. Each island is made of one or more volcanoes that first erupted on the sea floor and only emerged above the ocean’s surface after countless eruptions.
Three volcanoes active during the past two centuries are on the Big Island of Hawaii, the youngest island in the chain. Haleakala Volcano on the island of Maui last erupted in 1790. Loihi, the newest volcano, is now forming just off the west coast of the Big Island. It is still 3,000 feet beneath the ocean so it won’t break the surface any time soon!
In-Depth Travel on Oahu
Wild Side Specialty Tours introduces Oahu visitors to Hawaii’s unique marine environment and its ocean inhabitants.
This island is arguably the hardest one to visualize as having in-depth natural, cultural and historical travel experiences because it is so thoroughly associated with mainstream tourism of the sun and sand variety. Most visitors never discover that the island is 80% forested, nor that it is fairly bristling with archaeological sites and a diverse cultural history. Although it has neither the same percentage of native plant species nor birds as are found in the forests on some of the outer islands, there is plenty to see and do within easy distance of Honolulu, even if only on a couple of days’ stopover to break the long journey across the Pacific.
For over a hundred years, Hawaii’s extensive Chinese community has paid respect to ancestors on this tranquil hillside in Oahu’s lush Manoa Valley. Oahu Nature Tours
Along with some expert Oahu tour operators described in an accompanying segment, I recommend spending a good block of time at the Hawaii Maritime Center on Honolulu Harbor’s Pier 7. This fine modern museum is an excellent place to get acquainted with the cultural history of the islands, both Polynesian and Western. The various antique ships and replicas, both bobbing and boardable at the adjacent dockside, dramatically bring home the ingenuity that led to the human settlement and development of these ocean specks called Hawaii.
Our richly-illustrated feature article exploring inside Diamond Head’s volcanic cone and hiking up to its rim is full of history and wildlife sightings that make you forget Honolulu is nearby.
Maui’s Nature, Culture and Agri-Tourism
Snowbirds aside, Maui’s favorite seasonal visitors are undoubtedly the humpback whales where, between November and May, two-thirds of all the North Pacific humpbacks descend on Hawaiian waters. Offshore Maui is the center of the action, especially in the shallow waters of the Au’au Channel and the Kealaikahiki Channel fronting Molokai and Lanai where pregnant females search out quiet bays to give birth and care for their young calves. And yes, a lot of courting and mating goes on too.
Hike Maui offers a variety of rainforest, waterfall and volcano tours. Hike Maui
Water-based tours by Trilogy Excursions and the Pacific Whale Foundation offer visitors front row seats with their expert guides during the whale watching season and all year round. Even after the whales leave, there are still plenty of marine highlights that Maui and its surrounding waters and reefs stand ready to reveal, from snorkeling and diving to kayaking, marine mammal and sea turtle spotting.
And let’s not overlook the rich and varied land environment once visitors step away from the mainstream tourist areas and lovely beaches. No one has to go far to discover excellent highland and forest valley hiking, volcano exploration, and birdwatching with some of the rarest species on earth.
Cowboys on Maui? The Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) culture is alive and well in upcountry areas. Maui Visitors Bureau
Regardless of age or ability, it is possible to drive to the 10,000 foot peak of Haleakala volcano, while navigating many dramatic switchbacks. As you ascend, you find yourself looking down on puffy white cloud layers normally observed only from an airplane window seat. Better yet take a hike or a horseback ride deep into the moonscape crater for the full awe-inspiring effect. Hike Maui’s guided Haleakala Volcano Hike is a suitably-paced educational walking tour for active seniors, as are many of the company’s six waterfall, rain forest and volcano tours, half- or full-day, that explore the best nature areas on the island.
Maui has been voted “the Best Island in the World” 14 times, and “The Best Pacific Island” 18 times in a row in the prestigious Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards. This level of enthusiasm has to go way beyond the beaches and the warm sea which can be found in so many parts of the world. Check out our full length articles about Maui’s upcountry agri-tourism (wine, goat cheese and lavender) and an eco-friendly forest zipline adventure that’s also an exciting educational experience for seniors, and you will begin to appreciate the many unusual facets that make this remarkable island worth a visit …. and another …. and another.
Environmental and Geographic Diversity on Hawaii’s Big Island
Nearly every one of the Big Island’s stunningly diverse ecosystems — from stark lava fields to lush valleys — boasts its own internationally recognized park for hiking and tour-guided exploration. Living up to its nickname, it definitely qualifies as the largest island thanks to its lively history of volcanic eruptions, still creating new real estate and redefining the shoreline every day.
A benign-looking mound at first glance, Mauna Loa is a classic shield volcano of immense and potentially menacing proportions. From sea floor to summit, it is over 30,000 feet high. Yes, taller than Mount Everest! Alison Gardner
The Big Island’s ecosystem and geographical diversity is what makes it like a fascinating continent in miniature. An entire holiday is barely enough time to sample its natural treasures, ranging from 13,800-foot volcanic peaks to inviting bays and shorelines for whale- and dolphin-watching. In between these extremes, visitors have a chance to explore mountains and rivers, lush rainforests, the rims and valley bottoms of deeply chiseled valleys, and limited-access environments harboring some of the rarest bird and plant species on Earth.
If there is a crown jewel on this island full of gems, it must surely be the 230,000-acre Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, whose core is situated mid-island around the charming settlement of Volcano Village. A minimum three-day stay in a good choice of comfortable small-scale accommodations allows time to absorb and digest the immensity of nature’s power. Equally important is to take time to understand the powerful Hawaiian traditions associated with this spiritually-charged area. Making her home in the world’s most active volcano, Mt. Kilauea, the powerful and revered fire goddess, Pele, does not take kindly to being ignored.
Another special region of great cultural significance on the South Kona coast is Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, preserving the last remaining example of a Hawaiian “place of refuge”. The royal compound includes a sophisticated traditional fishpond, historic structures, and many totems, edged by a small sandy cove with large sea turtles nibbling seaweed at your feet. To this day, the 180-acre oceanfront park is steeped in the rich history of the first arrivals. Park staff members themselves are cultural treasures, sharing their knowledge and skills for the enjoyment and education of both visitors and local residents.
A collection of weathered totems guards a well-preserved Hawaiian royal compound on the Big Island’s South Kona coast. Alison Gardner
Hilo’s Town Center Features First Class Theme Museums
Discovery Center for Hawaii’s Remote Coral Reefs: Opened in May 2003, this free entry center showcases the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding marine environment. Interactive displays, engaging three-dimensional models, and immersive theater allow the visitor to experience the wonder and majesty of this special ocean region. Next to the 2,500 gallon reef fish aquarium in a small alcove is a mock-up of Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory’s Pisces V submersible. Using working robot arms, visitors experience what it might be like as a researcher descending into the dark depths of the ocean. This exhibit is a major hit with the kids, as well as adults.
Pacific Tsunami Museum: Opened in 1994, this museum features dramatic permanent exhibits that interpret the tsunami phenomena and international traveling exhibits as well. One factor that makes this museum unique is that it serves as a living testament to those who lost their lives in past tsunamis. By combining scientific information with compelling oral histories of tsunami survivors, the museum keeps the history alive in its exhibits and public programs.
Big Island Launches Green Website
The Big Island Visitors Bureau has launched a sustainable travel website for visitors who want to make their vacation “green”. Offering tips on how to visit the Big Island in an environmentally-conscious manner, the site highlights such forward-thinking suggestions as how to rent a hybrid car as well as where to shop for and eat local products. The site also includes hotels, resorts and restaurants that use green practices in their operations. The BIVB declares this sustainable tourism site to be one of the first for tourism destinations in the world.
Authentic Grassroots Experiences on Molokai
Located dead center of the five main islands of the Hawaiian chain, Moloka’i is a retreat to an earlier, slower paced time — more rural, leisurely, community-oriented, featuring mostly outdoor activities spread out across its 10- by 38-mile domain. With a resident population of less than 8,000, essentially living a Hawaiian lifestyle, it has thus far been touched lightly by tourism compared to its neighbors. Interestingly, when visitors do discover it, this island is the one where they stay the longest.
Molokai road sign is a mood-setter as you leave the airport. MVB
Hawaiian elder, Uncle Raymond, “a person of the land and the sea”. Alison Gardner
Moloka’i is memorable for distinctive colorful characters you may meet if you are open to chatting with the locals, people such as Lawrence Aki, powerful cultural and archaeological interpreter, or Uncle Raymond, a passionate island elder (kupuna) who takes care of the burial lands and oversees the archaeological restoration of a vast traditional Hawaiian tidal fish pond constructed of black lava rock. It successfully fed generations of residents in pre-contact times, and may do yet again. An equally-colorful 29-year-old addition to the island is the whimsically wonderful Big Wind Kite Factory where visitors of every age spend hours collecting free tips on kite-making and kite-flying, take a class or browse a kite inventory covering just about any theme, shape and size imaginable.
For years, Moloka’i was dependent upon large pineapple plantations for its economic base; today its rich farmlands grow many fruits and vegetables, as well as a distinctive gourmet Moloka’i coffee, not to be missed. While rambling around the island, which is exactly what a visitor should do, the R.W. Meyer Sugar Mill (1878 to 1889), is a tucked-away piece of history staffed by enthusiastic, knowledgeable volunteers and the best museum gift shop on the island. Restored to working condition, it is the oldest mill in Hawaii.
Along Moloka’i’s northern shore majestic 2,000-foot cliffs plunge almost vertically to the sea, while the south shore slopes gently into the Pacific, sheltered by the longest reef in the islands. This makes for satisfying and safe sea kayaking and snorkeling where you can’t go wrong putting yourself in the well-trained hands of Moloka’i Fish & Dive for the best guided experiences. The landscape ranges from desert-like flatlands of the 60,000 acre Moloka’i Ranch and Lodge to fragrant, surprisingly tall pine and bamboo forests.
Daphne Socher and her husband, Jonathan, started Big Wind Kite Factory in 1980 when Moloka’i was as sleepy as it gets. Alison Gardner
The sacrificial and courageous efforts of Father (now Saint) Damien between 1873 and 1889 to serve the isolated leper colony of Kalaupapa is the first thing which comes to mind for most people at the mention of Moloka’i. You will enjoy our richly-illustrated feature article about Moloka’i’s Mule Ride picking your way down the 26 switchbacks and 1,700 foot cliff face to the once-infamous Kalaupapa leper colony. It is now a surprisingly inspirational peninsula with a raw natural beauty and rare species of plants because of the imposed isolation for more than 100 years. A new wave of pilgrimage tourism may well be ahead for Moloka’i as Father Damien became a saint in the Catholic church in October 2009.
Lanai’s New Tourism Adventures
Thanks to the Dole Pineapple Company, Lana’i became a well-recognized name in the 20th century, yet few people, including visitors to Hawaii, have ever set foot on the island. This is not surprising when you consider that from the 1920s it was privately-owned, and devoted largely to ranching and pineapple plantations. Though Lana’i remains 98% Castle & Cooke property today, the focus for both the 3,000+ mainly Hawaiian residents who live there and the present company ownership has switched completely from pineapples to the slow, steady development of tourism. For this intriguing story, still evolving in the 21st century, check out our educational feature article about exploring Lana’i.
Sixth largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Lana’i is located in the center of the chain enjoying a protected location with Moloka’i and Maui to the north and Kahoolawe to the east. Approximately 13 by 18 miles and roughly triangular in shape, its name translates as “day (of) conquest”. Lana’i’s unusual beauty is most apparent in its contrasts – from vividly colorful and lush to forbiddingly stark. From sunny, white sand beaches and two of the world’s most luxurious vacation resorts (both managed by Four Seasons) to rugged pine forests worth days of wilderness hiking. And then there is Lana’i “City”, a picturesque small town throwback to somewhere between the 1920s and 1950s, showcasing well-preserved plantation architecture and a host of colorful stories. History buffs will love it.
Pu’u Pehe or Sweetheart Rock is a breathtaking island landmark at sunset. Ron Dahlquist/MVB
Cook Island Pines Create Natural Fog Drip
In 1911 Lana’i’s conservation-minded ranch manager, George Munro, observed that the single fast-growing Norfolk Island Pine planted on the ranch 36 years earlier, produced valuable dripping water every time fog and clouds swept in off the ocean. He initiated an intense program of planting related Cook Island pines right across water-starved Lana’i as a conservation measure which continues to bear rewards today.
Lana’i’s mountain ridge Munro Trail is perfect for hiking and 4WD explorations. There are plenty of distinctively-symmetrical Cook Island Pines along the route. Lanai Visitors Bureau
These dark green, often-towering pines spiking skyward in perfect symmetry remain a signature element of the island today, especially enhancing the landscape of Lana’i City where planting started in 1928. New Zealand import, George Munro is honored on the island for his many conservation contributions to Lana’i, by having the mountain-ridge Munro Trail named after him.
Kauai is the Best Island for Outdoor Lovers
Equally dramatic in a totally opposite way is the stark, chiseled topography of the vast Waimea Canyon revealing layers of geological history on this, the oldest of Hawaii’s islands at a mere 6 million years.[>
Kauai also has three National Wildlife Refuges that make the island a birdwatcher’s paradise. Some offer views of visually spectacular nesting areas along cliff formations; others demonstrate the revival of traditional Hawaiian agriculture in the form of perpetually flooded taro fields that encourage endangered waterbirds to thrive.
Kauai’s Waimea Canyon, aptly nick-named Hawaii’s Grand Canyon, is a popular hiking mecca with many well-marked trails. Alison Gardner
Old varieties of Hawaii’s sugar cane illustrate colorful diversity. Christine Faye
Stepping aside from nature exploration, visitors may enjoy a vibrant living history inside Kauai’s sugar cane story, past and present. Sleep with history in one of more than 50 authentically restored and furnished plantation worker cottages in the grounds of Waimea Plantation Cottages. Sadly, Gay and Robinson has closed their field and factory tour of the last operating sugar cane plantation and processing mill on Kauai, but the island still offers glimpses of its sugar cane history if you keep your eyes and ears open for it.
Sea kayaking along Kauai’s Na Pali coast is consistently rated very high among America’s best 100 adventures. Kauai offers 50+ miles of white sand beaches – more beach per mile than any other island in Hawaii – as well as the state’s only navigable rivers. A particularly popular island for outdoor lovers, only four percent of Kauai is developed for commercial and residential use. Sheer emerald green cliffs tower up to 4,000 feet and waterfalls spill down cliffs into ship-sized sea caves rimmed with a cobalt blue sea. Huge quantities of sea life, from dolphins and whales to sea turtles and manta rays, guarantee a memorable visit and a high level of film consumption.
The Flip Side of Paradise
The Hawaiian Islands make up .2% of the land mass of the United States, but 30% of all endangered plants and birds in the U.S. live here. There is undoubtedly a great urgency for governments and private land owners to work together to buy, manage, and preserve areas where habitat degradation and potential destruction are most evident and predictable. There is also a long-term mission for tourism operators to present creative alternatives for low-impact, grassroots experiences to a travel audience that is surely in the mood for such interactive discovery.
There are only 12 confirmed I’iwi on Oahu, but they are more common on other islands. Oahu Nature Tours
Laysan albatross have a wing-span up to 13 feet (4 meters). Oahu Nature Tours
In Janet Babb’s excellent book, Hawai`i Volcanoes: The Story Behind the Scenery, the dedication addresses “…all who find Nature not an adversary to conquer and destroy, but a storehouse of infinite knowledge and experience linking man to all things past and present.” There is no better place to explore these thoughts than in the Hawaiian Islands.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.
Feel free to explore other stories about alternative Hawaiian vacations well suited to senior travelers, their families and friends. Click on the titles below to read each inspiring article.
Maui’s wine, goats and lavender
Moloka’i mule ride
Lana’i moves slowly into tourism
Hawaiian Islands volunteer vacations
Maui’s most Hawaiian hotel
Hawaii’s tasty cultural cuisine
Hawaii tour operators and planners
Hawaii – sleeping in paradise
Language and culture
Hawaiian bird pictures
Hawaii wellness vacationing
Hawaii’s wellness providers
Maui Zipline Adventure