True Hawaii

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

True Hawaii

No luaus. No leis. Just a springtime ramble through the promised land.
By Jonathan Runge

Most people plan on getting their Hawaii fix in the dead of winter, which ironically is rainy season in the islands. But springtime, that fleeting lull before the summer swarm of Californians, is Hawaii in its prime. As the days dry up, forsake the protected playgrounds -- Waikiki on Oahu, Lahaina and Wailea on Maui, Kailua-Kona on Hawaii, and Poipu and Princeville on Kauai -- for those wild green valleys, canyons and craters, and empty lava-lined beaches. Whether you go by mountain bike, sea kayak, dive boat, four-wheel-drive, or your own two legs, spring is indeed the time to get out and smell the paka lana.

Waimea, Kauai
Kauai is what you'd imagine Hawaii to be, with the verdant, fluted, nearly vertical mountains of the Na Pali Coast rising up from the sea, golden sand beaches, and the scent of flowers everywhere. But what most people don't know about Kauai is that it also has a desert and a ten-mile-long, mile-wide, 3,657-foot-deep canyon, in Waimea, at the island's western end.

From the town of Waimea, take Waimea Canyon Drive (Hawaii 550) to the Puu O Kila Lookout in Kokee State Park. This 18-mile road is great for quad-burning cycling, as it starts at sea level and rises more than 4,000 vertical feet. En route, stop at the Kalalau Lookout for equally spectacular views. You can rent mountain bikes for $25 a day, including helmet and car rack, from Bicycle John in Lihue (808-245-7579), about 25 minutes east. But the best way to see the area is on foot: There are more than 50 miles of trails in the canyon and Kokee State Park (trail maps are available at the Kokee Museum). In the course of a 6.5-mile round-trip, the Awaawapuhi Trail takes you down almost 1,500 vertical feet to a precipitous lookout above the Na Pali Coast.

There's much more to Waimea than the canyon -- namely Polihale Beach directly west, one of the longest, sunniest, and most remote in the state and a choice spot to catch the green flash. Be aware of possible rip currents. For a camping permit, call the state park office at 808-241-3444.

If you head in the other direction from Waimea, you'll reach Port Allen and the home of Dive Kauai's Kulia dive boat (two-tank dive, $90; 808-822-0452), which will take you to sites like Turtle Bluffs and the northwest side of Niihau, a rarely dived area with lots of pelagics.

If you want to stay in Kokee, there are 12 spartan cabins perched 3,600 feet above the sea at the Kokee Lodge (doubles $35-$45; 808-335-6061). On the coast are the Waimea Plantation Cottages (one-bedroom cottages, $90 - $150; 808-338-1625), on a pretty beach with a pool and tennis court.

Upcountry, Maui
If you could strap on a jet pack and fly directly west from the island's eastern tip over Haleakala Crater, you'd land in Upcountry, a highland strip of rolling countryside with cool temperatures, superlative ocean views, and easy access to the lowlands and a variety of water sports. With 36 miles of hiking trails, Haleakala National Park is the area's main draw. A good over-night hike combines the Sliding Sands and Kaupo Trails to bring you from almost 10,000 feet right down to the seaside bluffs in Kaupo in just over 17 miles. For those who don't want to camp, rustic cabins in the crater go for $40 a night for up to six people; to enter the reservation lottery, send a written request at least three months in advance to Box 369, Makawao, HI 96768. For information, call the park office at 808-572-9306. Day-trippers would do best to hike the Halemauu Trail to Holua Cab-in and back, an eight-mile excursion. If you'd rather see the crater from the saddle, head out on the trail with the Thompson Ranch and Riding Stables (two-hour lunch ride, $50 per person; 808-878-1910).

Mountain bikers will gravitate to the Poli-Poli/Kula Forest Reserve at 7,000 feet, where single-track trails for riders of all abilities take you through redwood and eucalyptus forests and gulches erupting with ferns. Trails are maintained by the Maui Mountain Bike Club; for maps, send an SASE to the club at Box 689, Makawao, HI 96768. GT mountain bikes go for $15 a day or $80 a week, helmet included, from The Bike Shop (808-877-5848) in Kahului, on the north coast.

If you want to stay in Upcountry, there aren't a whole lot of options. Your best bet is the Kula Lodge (doubles, $100 - $150; 800-233-1535 or 808-878-1535), a chalet-style hotel high on the slope of Haleakala, with five simple cabins and sweeping views of western Maui and the Pacific. There are also a few B&Bs scattered about the area; contact Hawaiian Islands Bed & Breakfast & Vacation Rentals (doubles, $50 - $80; 800-258-7895 or 808-261-7895).

From the Upcountry heights, Maui's boardsailing mecca is just a seven-mile drive down Baldwin Avenue. Grab a bite at Picnic's, a great health-food restaurant in Paia, before heading to Hookipa Beach Park to watch the aerobatics of Hawaii's wave-jumping hotshots. Mortals congregate farther west at the Sprecklesville and Kanaha beaches. The biggest rental and equipment shops are in adjacent Kahului; Windrigger Maui (800-345-6284 or 808-871-7753) has a wide selection of boards and sails for $55 a day; lessons are $60 for three hours.

Seven miles south on Hawaii 350 in Kihei, Mike Severns Diving (808-879-6596) runs dive trips to sites like La Perouse Bay, with underwater lava formations, and the 300-foot wall on the backside of Molokini. A two-tank boat dive costs $95, including equipment.

Hana, Maui
Hana passes the litmus test for remoteness: Former Beatle George Harrison, about as reclusive a celebrity as there is, has a house there. Though a steady stream of rental cars makes the two-hour, 52-mile, 54-bridge, 617-turn schlepp from Kahului to Maui's rugged eastern tip each day, most simply pass though Hana en route to the Seven Sacred Pools, about an hour farther on.

The tiny town surrounds a deep bay. Surfers should head for Waikoloa Beach, at the northern end, where the waves reach four to six feet, or off the pier to the south. Snorkelers should swim out to Chain Rock, near the pier, and beach connoisseurs should plunk down on Red Sand Beach, a beautiful cove south of Kauiki Head, where the snorkeling is also first-rate. Above town, there's excellent horseback riding on the rolling pastureland at the 4,500-acre Hana Ranch (two-hour group rides, $50 per person; 808-248-8211), which stretches up the eastern slope of Haleakala Crater's 10,023-foot summit. For backroads roaming, pick up a mountain bike and maps at the Hana Gas/Service Station in town ($10 per day; 808-248-7705). Farther north, you can hike in Waianapanapa State Park; the old King's Highway, which hugs the coast, takes you on a six-mile round-trip past lava formations, crashing surf, black-sand beaches, and a heiau (ancient temple).

There are two great places to stay in Hana. The first is the exclusive Hotel Hana-Maui (doubles, $325 and up, with a 33 percent discount for stays of five nights or more; 800-321-4262 or 808-248-8211), in a plantation-like 23-acre setting with cottages among manicured gardens. For those without an extraordinary budget, Hana Plantation Houses (units, $80 - $185; 800-657-7723 or 808248-7248) offers six accommodations -- villas, houses, and studios in and around Hana.

The Windward Coast, Oahu
Despite its dense population -- more than 75 percent of Hawaii residents live here -- Oahu is worth exploring, especially when you leave Waikiki and Honolulu behind. On the opposite side of the towering Koolau Range, the Windward Coast runs from Makapuu Point, on the southeastern tip, to Kahuku Point, on the northern end. It's filled with beautiful beaches and lots of possibilities for bodysurfing, hiking, and boardsailing.

Just a 20-minute drive from Waikiki on Hawaii 72, Makapuu Beach Park, an exceptional surf bowl with five- to ten-foot waves just west of the point, is where bodysurfing and bodyboarding rule. You can rent bodyboards 12 miles north at Naish Hawaii/Windsurfing Hawaii Kailua (808-262-6068), run by the family of famed boardsailor Robby Naish. This is also the place to grab a sailboard for playtime off the bedroom suburb of Kailua, Oahu's boardsailing and kayaking headquarters because of its protected bay, steady onshore trade winds, and five-mile-long beach. Mistral boards rent for $30 - $40 a day; lessons cost $55. Kayakers should head to Twogood Kayaks Hawaii (rentals, $25 - $39 per day; lessons, $55 an hour; 808-262-5656), also in Kailua. From there you can paddle out to the uninhabited Mokolua Islands, about two miles across the bay.

Continuing some 20 miles up the coast, you'll come to Hauula, starting point for the two-hour hike through rainforest to a deep gorge, a swimming hole, and 80-odd-foot Kaliuwaa Falls. It's a popular hike, so go early on a weekday. A few miles farther is Malaekahana State Recreation Area, just north of Laie, where at low tide in calm conditions you can wade out to Goat Island, just offshore (wear reef shoes, sport sandals, or sneakers, as the coral is sharp). There's a beautiful sand crescent on the secluded north side, and good snorkeling with plenty of reef fish just off the rocks.

Spring is a good time to venture around Kahuku Point to try surfing the North Shore's fabled wave breaks; the big swells start to smooth out in April. Surf-N-Sea in Haleiwa (808-637-9887) has a surfing school for all levels (two-hour beginner lessons cost $48, including board; intermediate and advanced instruction is $25 an hour). Surf-N-Sea also runs dive trips to sites such as Sharks Cove, with trenches, arches, and lava tubes, and Three Tables, where you'll see green sea turtles (two-tank dives with all equipment, $90).

Nearby, the Turtle Bay Hilton (doubles, $160-$200; 800-445-8667 or 808-293-8811) has a beautiful location on a good swimming beach at the junction of the North Shore and the Windward Coast. Farther south, Pat's of Punaluu (one-bedroom units, $68; 800-845-8799 or 808-293-8111) is an unassuming condo complex beside a protected reef.

The least visited of all the major islands, Molokai, wedged between Oahu and Maui, is unspoiled Hawaii's last stand. There are no stoplights, malls, or fast-food restaurants -- just a low-key and very Hawaiian environment. Molokai is dominated by the 44,000-acre Molokai Ranch, which covers a large portion of the rolling dry hills and pastures on the island's western end. The Molokai Ranch Outfitters Center (808-552-2741) can arrange hour-and-a-half and five-hour horseback rides ($35 and $95, respectively) and issues permits for camping on some of its beaches. The ranch rents mountain bikes for $25 a day, plus a $25 access fee for use of its bike trails; one screamer descends 1,000 feet from Maunaloa to Kaupoa Beach.

As you head northeast, Molokai becomes dramatically mountainous and lush on the backside, with five wild, big valleys -- Halawa, Papalaua, Wailau, Pelekunu, and Waikolu -- and 4,000-foot sea cliffs towering over the north coast. Sticking out like a whale's dorsal fin is the stunning Kalaupapa Peninsula, widely known as the site of a former leper colony. To protect the privacy of the remaining residents (there are no longer any active cases of leprosy), hikers must be escorted by Damien Tours ($30 per person; 808-567-6171). You'll be given a permit to hike down an old mule trail from Palaau State Park, at the northern end of Hawaii 470.

Another popular backside hike is the hourlong Halawa Valley trek to 250-foot Maoula Falls, where there's a great swimming hole. Far more demanding is the steep, strenuous, 12-mile Wailau Trail, which runs from the south coast to the north. It's best to have a guide on this one; call Walter Naki at Molokai Action Adventures (808-558-8184). When the seas are calm, you can explore the island by sea kayak. Rent one from Fun Hogs Hawaii ($40 - $55 per day; 808-567-9292) or sign up for a kayak tour ($40 per person, including kayak and snorkeling gear). For guided scuba trips, ask for Bill Kapuni (two-tank dive, $93).

If you want a full-service resort, stay at Colony's Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club (doubles, $90 - $200; 800-777-1700 or 808-552-2555), next to two-and-a-half-mile-long Papohaku Beach. Less glamorous, but more authentic and centrally located in the main town of Kaunakakai, is the Hotel Molokai (doubles, $59 - $90; 800-423-6656 or 808-553-5347), with Polynesian-looking A-frames.

Puna, Hawaii
Jutting out of the Big Island's east side like a giant arrowhead, the lush, volcanic Puna district sits in splendid isolation south of Hilo and above Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Lava flows during the past decade have cut off access from the west, which is just fine by the residents of what happens to be one of the state's primary marijuana-growing regions (the product is called Puna Butter). Puna's core is the town of Pahoa, a funky strip of raised wooden sidewalks, art galleries, bars, and restaurants. The wild and verdant landscape to the southeast is best explored on a bicycle, but you'll have to bring your own, as there are currently no rental shops on the Hilo side of the island. The closest is Mauna Kea Mountain Bikes in Waimea, about 90 minutes away ($28 per day; 808-885-2091). Alternatively, sign up for a group ride with Adventure Tours, 808-966-4968.

From Pahoa, take Hawaii 132 about four miles to Lava Tree State Park. This is one of the most beautiful roads in Hawaii, with wild impatiens lining its sides. After checking out the park's petrified tree trunks, continue on Hawaii 132, turn off onto Pohoiki Road, and follow it for five miles until it dead-ends at the water and Hawaii 137. This coastal road will take you to Kehena, one of Hawaii's prettiest black-sand beaches. (Look for the turnout at about mile 19.) Dive trips can be arranged through the Nautilus Dive Center in Hilo (one-tank dive, $55; 808-935-6939). Bill DeRooy leads some excellent shore and boat dives to such spots as the lava fields off Kalapana, just south of Kehena. Here you'll see incredible volcanic formations and perhaps live lava flowing into the sea.

If you want to stay on a near-by beach, the Kalani Honua Cultural Center is a New Age resort carved out of 20 acres of surrounding jungle, with an Olympic-size swimming pool and 32 simple rooms (doubles, $62 - $75; 800-800-6886 or 808-965-7828), plus campsites for $15 per person.

Being so close to Madame Pele's cauldron of bubbling lava, you'll want to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are about 125 miles of hiking trails that take you through lava tubes and across the crusts of dormant vents. For an extensive map of all the possibilities, call the National Park Service at 808-967-7311. The best day hike is the Halemaumau Trail, a 6.4-mile round-trip that starts at park headquarters and descends into the Kilauea Caldera and across its floor to the edge of the smoking Halemaumau Crater. Volcano House (doubles with views, $131; 808-967-7321) is right on the caldera's rim, but be sure to ditch the busloads of tourists that swarm the place between 10 A.M. and 5 P.M. Volcano House also offers the rustic and out-of-the-way Namakani Cabins (doubles, $32), three miles up the road. If you want more luxury, stay in the village of Volcano, a mile or so from the rim at the 12-room Kilauea Lodge (doubles, $90 - $120, including breakfast; 808-967-7366), built as a YMCA in 1938.

Kohala, Hawaii
With alpine pastures, velvet green ridges, and snowcapped 13,796-foot Mauna Kea in the distance, the Kohala Peninsula, on the Big Island's northern tip, is Hawaii's little chunk of Switzerland. Start your exploration on the southeastern end in the Waipio Valley, surrounded on both sides by cliffs up to 2,000 feet high. Hundreds of years ago more than 10,000 people lived here, but today there are fewer than a hundred, and the place is said to be filled with mana (spirits). One resident who can tell you stories that will make your hair stand on end is Tom Araki, who runs a bare-bones hostelry, the Waipio Valley Hotel ($15 per person; 808-775-0368), with five rooms and no hot water, electricity, or food. More plush are the three units in the Waipio Treehouse Waterfall Retreat (doubles, $175 - $250; 808-775-7160), where hot-tub steam meets the mist of cascading waterfalls. You can ride horses through the valley with Waipio Naalapa Trail Rides ($65 per person; 808-775-0419); the two-hour ride will take you to taro patches, more waterfalls, and magnificent views. Hard-core hikers can journey into the uninhabited Waimanu Valley (eight miles each way), just over the pali (steep mountain) from Waipio. The trailhead begins at the western end of Waipio Beach, and there's a shelter around mile six. Camping permits can be obtained from the Division of Forestry and Wildlife (808-933-4221).

The 20-mile ride north on the Kohala Mountain Road (Hawaii 250) from the town of Waimea is a mountain biker's dream, with a 3,000-foot climb up a ridge with panoramic views, followed by a long cruise to the outback town of Hawi. You can rent bikes from Mauna Kea Mountain Bikes ($28 per day; 808-885-2091) in Waimea, which arranges bike tours of the peninsula ($75 per person for two riders) and other areas, including the Mauna Kea Kamikaze, a downhill plunge from the top ($100 per person, advanced riders only).

Down at sea level in the resort area of Kohala, just 30 miles south of the peninsula on the west coast, you'll find the Big Island's best boardsailing conditions at Anaehoomalu Bay. Ocean Sports Waikoloa (808-885-5555) rents Mistral and BIC sailboards for $20 an hour and offers lessons for $35 an hour. Kohala is also the home of the island's super-royal-deluxe resorts, including the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows (doubles, $290 - $495; 800-367-2323 or 808-885-6622), favored by Hollywood types for its open-air architecture and secluded beach. Those on a budget should try Leilani's at Puako Beach (units, $95 - $145; 808-882-7362), with two studios and a cottage.

Jonathan Runge is the author of Hot on Hawaii: The Definitive Guide to the Aloha State (St. Martin's Press) and other travel guidebooks.

See also:

Getting There and Around

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!