Must-Do in Hawaii: Best Activities for Each Hawaiian Island

Travel advisor Carol Johnston petting a cat on a sunny terrace
Curated By

Carol Johnston

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  • USA

  • Hawai'i

  • Kaua'i

  • Oahu

  • Arts & Culture

  • Beaches

  • Domestic Travel

  • Food & Wine

  • Relaxing

  • Hiking

  • Outdoors

aerial view of buildings and the ocean
Curator’s statement

Hawaii captured my heart on my first trip and has continued to be a favorite place to visit. Over the years, I have visited the islands of Hawaii, Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Lanai in addition to having the opportunity to live on Oahu for several months. Many warned me of “island fever”, but despite being able to drive from one end of the island to the other in a short period of time (without traffic, of course), I never found a shortage of things to do. This is my list of the must-do items on the islands. Combine an active vacation with a chance to learn about a rich culture and plenty of downtime to enjoy some true relaxation.

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Where to stay

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Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Autograph Collection

Island-style hotel with an array of activities including legendary Hawaii surfing.

Fora Perks
  • $100 hotel / resort credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea

Expect spot-on service, a mix of upscale restaurants and a prime location overlooking famed Wailea Beach.

Fora Perks
  • When you book Four Seasons through Fora, you will enjoy exclusive Four Seasons Preferred Partner benefits. Your advisor will be pleased to give you more details.

The Kahala Hotel & Resort

On gorgeous grounds just outside Waikiki, this historic hotel has an award-winning restaurant and quiet stretch of beachfront.

Fora Perks
  • $100 hotel / resort credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

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Travel advisor Carol Johnston petting a cat on a sunny terrace

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Must-do activities in Hawaii

lounge chairs next to palm trees during daytime

Must-do activities on the Big Island

Visit Waimea. This small town sits at the edge of cattle country. This is where to go to see a rodeo or go horseback riding. It is also home to several brew pubs—a favorite is the Big Island Brewhaus where you will find high-quality artisan beers and delicious food fit for any foodies in your group.

Exploring the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is definitely a must-do! The 2023 eruptions gave way to the world’s largest lava lake and humbled many to nature’s power that reclaimed roads and homes in the 2021 eruptions. The park has reopened to visitors and hikers. Many choose to fly over the park with helicopters and small planes resuming tours. Beware of poor air quality due to volcanic activity, particularly when flying low over the area.

Another must-do on the Big Island? Visiting a coffee farm in Kona. The Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation offers hiking/walking areas, educational tours and coffee tastings.

Hike the King’s Highway Foot trail to experience the incredible landscape and explore the lava formations. Best to do it in the morning—and take plenty of water. Several places to venture to the coast for beautiful ocean views.

Must-do activities on Maui

Visit Lahaina. I love walking around this town and visiting the many artist studios. There is also no shortage of restaurants. Walking along the water just out of town is the perfect opportunity to spot sea turtles. Be patient, at first as I walked along, I didn’t notice any. Then, when I stopped to answer a call, I squealed when I realized how many turtles were swimming around. My father forgave me for the shocking sound coming through the phone!

The Road to Hana and the Seven Sisters Pools are a must-do in Hawaii. Be prepared for crowds and traffic and be mindful if you are the driver. This all-day excursion allows you to experience the beauty of the island, with numerous waterfalls and lush greenery.

Take a Hike. Always a must-do in Hawaii no matter the island! I love the hikes along the coast in Wailea.

Drive up to the top of Haleakala (be aware it can be cold at this altitude). If you enjoy bike riding, you can rent a bike (pre-arranged) to ride on your return trip.

Dinner in Paia. Paia Fish Market for a casual dining experience with fresh, tasty fish dishes.

Must-do activities on Oahu

Get a morning pastry (order ahead of time on Tock) at the Bread Shop in Kaimuki.

Get a poke bowl at Ono Seafood.

Take a Hike. Must-do hikes include Diamond Head, the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse, Manoa Falls and the Aiea Loop Trail. While I was living on Oahu, I made a point of trying a new trail every weekend and there are still MANY I haven’t traveled.

Visit a Botanic Garden (or two). The Koko Head Crater is one of my favorites, and could also be considered an easy hike if you venture to the African area. If you are there March-October, you will experience the fragrance and beauty of the Plumeria Gardens in bloom.

Paddle an Outrigger Canoe. Trips can be arranged in Waikiki, but I prefer the other side of the Island. Kailua Ocean Adventures has great experiences that are a bit longer than those in Waikiki. If you go to Kailua, be sure to make a reservation for dinner at Buzz’s Original Steakhouse—request an outdoor table.

Go surfing (or take a lesson). Kayaking, snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding are other options to get you into the incredible waters.

Learn about the history of the Hawaiian people. The Bishop Museum and the Iolani Palace are a great start.

Must-do activities on Kauai

Take a hike. This area has an abundance of great hiking. My first trip to this area included the hike along the Na Pali Coast (Kalaulau Trail), which was incredible for its gorgeous views, but also for the fragrance of the Guava plants growing along the trail. Although the trail is more popular now, and thus, can be a bit of a highway, it is still a must-do still and worth the effort. Be sure to have your bathing suit to jump in one of the ponds along the river. And, there are plenty of other choices if you prefer fewer crowds.

Take a boat trip along the Na Pali Coast. See the spectacular green cliffs from the water.

Relax. Kauai is a great place to take some time for a spa, yoga class or walk on the beach.

Must-do activities on Lanai

Take a hike. Take a guided hike, Pu’upehe Cultural Hike, to learn about the island and its people.

Take a class and learn to make a lei or basket.

Learn about Hawaiian Culture - a must-do on any of the Hawaiian islands. Choose from many cultural experiences and visits to ancient sites and ruins.

Gaze at the stars at night!

A note on my favorite hotels in Hawaii

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (The Big Island): I love taking in the breezes in the interior courtyard with a traditional Hawaiian design. The hotel is surrounded by large, inviting green areas, and an amazing stretch of soft, white sand beach. The water is warm and fantastic for swimming. Enjoy breakfast with welcoming views of the water and gardens to get your day started right.

Four Seasons Wailea (Maui): I love both Ka’anapali and Wailea, and the Four Seasons (Wailea) is a place to consider. Situated on a hill above the beach, this is a great location for spotting whales. While I hear that it is much more crowded since the White Lotus fame, I can’t imagine that there is not still much to love.

Kahala (Oahu): The Kahala is home to some of my favorite beaches in Hawaii. They are a bit less crowded than Waikiki and are great for learning to surf or enjoying a swim. The Kahala also features several of the top restaurants in Oahu and an open-air bar for beach-watching and relaxing.

Turtle Bay Resort (Oahu): One of my favorite hotels. I love the hiking areas surrounding the hotel. Be sure to hike in your bathing suit as there are many opportunities to hop into the water in a secluded cove for a quick swim. Kayaks can be rented at the hotel and offer even more opportunities to enjoy the water. Surfing is also great along the North Shore. But, beware of the season—the North Shore is known for its gigantic surf in the winter months and is best for observing expert surfers.

Hotel Hanalei Bay (Kauai): The North Shore of Kauai is best outside of the “winter months” when rain and strong trade winds can take a bit away from the experience. Flooding is also common in some areas. Otherwise, this is my favorite area on the island and offers the iconic lush gardens that Kauai is known for. Snorkeling here can also be spectacular. Indulge in a beach massage and take a yoga class.

Lanai (Four Seasons Lanai): Lanai allows you to experience the Hawaiian Islands as they existed in an earlier time. A visit to this island allows you to learn about the Hawaiian language and culture as you relax in an incredible location.

Places to eat & drink in Hawaii

tables and chairs on a patio during sunset

In addition to all of the things you must do in Hawaii, there are so many restaurants you must try! Here are the ones I included above:

  • Buzz's Original Steakhouse (Oahu) - Ask for a table on the deck. Former President Obama frequents this place.

  • The Breadshop (Oahu) - Order ahead on Tock Morning pastries and coffee are wonderful.

  • Ono Seafood (Oahu) - Wonderful place for Poke. Ahi tuna is a favorite.

  • Paia Fish House (Maui) - Casual spot for great fish.

  • Hoku's (Oahu) - Upscale at the Kahala Resort, this spot will not disappoint. If you don't think of Hawai'i as a place for good wines - think again.

  • Nobu Lanai (Lanai) - excellent sushi options with incredible service.

Need to Know

Each island has its own vibe and appeal, and its own must-do activities. However, since most flights go through Oahu, you can lose the better part of a day even for a short flight. Thus, I would recommend spending at least 3 days on each island. If you can't do it all in one trip - no problem. You will want to return again and again once you have experienced aloha.

Planning a trip to Oahu? Check out my Active 3-Day Itinerary for Honolulu.

Travel advisor Carol Johnston petting a cat on a sunny terrace

Travel Advisor

Carol Johnston

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Hawai'i, and our continuing series on travel to Oahu and travel to Maui.