I’ve had a Hawaii bucket list for many years. And it comes with its own paradox: namely that the thing that made me want to go there, at the same time, made me terrified to go there. Yes, that’s how my mind works. Just imagine how difficult it is for me to decide what kind of coffee to order, when I can conjure up that magnitude of contradiction.
But I’m going to show you all of the magical, beautiful aspects of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu – everything that made me yearn to go there – in one ultimate bucket list! Read on for the most glamorous locations, surfing, turtles, Hawaiian culture, and more!
Need some more Hawaii resources? Check out this guide to Hawaii for the first time!
Hawaii Bucket List Goals, And Fear of Kicking the Bucket
Back in 2004, I was happily curled up on my sofa watching television (it was Big Brother; I have no shame) when an advert for a new show came on to the screen. It was mysterious; it had a dark, magnetic vibe that I liked. The advert spoke of artistry, and quality. The people were beautiful. And was that a hobbit?
Yes, this was the United Kingdom promotional advert for LOST. And this was where my love/fear relationship with Hawaii began.
LOST made me fall in love with Hawaii immediately. The very first scene was set in a gorgeous bamboo forest, a deep, emerald green of towering foliage – the stuff you used to dream of as a child, imagining yourself hacking your way through the wilderness. Then it moved on to a pristine beach, soft white-gold sand framed by blue skies and bluer seas. The sun was shining; the beach’s coastline was crashing and dramatic. Who couldn’t love a view like that? Well, aside from all that plane wreckage.
Yes, there was a price to pay for falling instantly in love with the Hawaii landscape. LOST enticed me in with the beauty of its setting, and then it triggered every single fiber of my flight anxiety with a plane crash scene in the first episode.
Yeah, thanks a bunch, LOST.
Hawaii became a magical, almost mythical place. It was a place I’d fallen in love with already, a place I desperately wanted to visit, but the plane crash scene (which has run through my mind every time I’ve been on a flight since 2004) served as a crushing reminder that I possibly would never gain the courage to fly there.
But! Things are different now. Thanks to travel, I have a much better hold on my anxiety, and my flight anxiety in particular. My fear of flying is almost gone entirely. My desire to travel to Hawaii is renewed, especially when it has so much to offer. It’s perfect for exploring, having a romantic Hawaii getaway, or surfing the deep blue seas.
So I’m going to show you all of the places I want to visit in the beautiful, magical locales of Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island; my Hawaii bucket list… in order to inspire both you and me to go there!
Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu
Mokule’ia Army Beach might look strangely familiar when you arrive there, a strip of rugged coastline with crashing waves – that’s because this is where my Hawaii dream was born. Yes, this is the beach from LOST! Where better to kick off my Hawaii bucket list trip?
Although it’s pretty sedate now (the beach’s rather martial-sounding name came from the previous practice of only allowing military personnel on the sands), it caused something of a stir when LOST was being filmed. Passers-by were understandably shocked and concerned about seeing bits of plane wreckage scattered across the beach, and the local emergency services regularly received panicked calls about plane crashes. Mokule’ia Beach has been restored to a rather more peaceful existence now, but don’t be fooled – the crashing waves which look so impressive on the screen hide a vicious riptide; there’s far better places in Hawaii to go for a swim.
However, for observing dramatic beauty with a hint of Hollywood glamour, you can’t go wrong!
Hana Highway Road Trip, Maui
I absolutely love a road trip. There’s something wonderful about packing provisions and heading out in your metal steed, seeking new roads and new adventures. Indeed, my very first trip to the States featured a road trip from Omaha to Denver, and I loved that feeling of freedom: stopping at diners and historic sites, tiny towns and state parks. So what could be better for my Hawaii bucket list than the most-famed road trip route in the whole of the island chain?
The Hana Highway winds around cliffs and gorges, crosses numerous waterfalls, and has an untold number of places where you can stop your car, and go for a cooling dip in swimming holes. Or watch a sunset. Or hike into deep green bamboo forest, taking in the sights and sounds. Three Bears Falls makes for a stunning sequence of roadside waterfalls which cascade right next to the road, or you can stop at Pi’ilanihale Heiau to take in a Polynesian temple.
Never mind a road trip; I could probably spend a whole week on the highway!
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, The Big Island
In 2018 Hawaii’s volcanoes caused widespread devastation to the people living nearby, destroying homes and communities. At the same time, visits to Mt Kilauea (or as close as you can safely get) are bringing money to the local economy exactly when its needed, and are largely welcomed. It’s good to support the local community in their time of need, by visiting and spending money to bolster the local community. But be respectful; the destruction of people’s homes and lives is never “cool”.
The National Park still has some areas which are closed at the moment (keep an eye on the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park website for further updates), but you can visit the park’s Kahuku Unit, which offers a whole variety of guided tours, on every subject from the local flora and fauna, to cultural traditions and legends, to the park’s geology – and they’re absolutely free!
But let’s face it: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park should be on everyone’s USA bucket list. They’re one of the nation’s most outstanding sights, and a symbol of the strength and resilience of its people. Go along, support the locals, and take in some awe-inspiring views!
Learning to Surf at Kamehameha Iki Park, Maui
I have a confession to make: even in the deepest, darkest depths of my anxiety, I have always fancied giving surfing a try. I may have watched Blue Crush too many times.
Alas though, I’ve never done it. I’ve never even given it a try, which is why the surf schools at Lahaina Breakwall, just north of Kamehameha Iki Park, would definitely be on my Hawaii bucket list. You can’t go to Hawaii and not give it an attempt! The Lahaina Breakwall is absolutely perfect for beginners, with gentle waves that’ll get you used to the motion of surfing without being subjected to any serious wipeouts. There’s a number of surf schools located here, which will teach you in small groups (a cheaper option) or privately until you’re ready to rock the waves and progress to a more challenging beach.
Plus, if you really can’t get the hang of it, what better way to spend a few hours than sitting on a beach and watching other people fall off surfboards? You love that idea; admit it.
By the way, if you want to get into the deep blue, but surfing’s not your thing, check out this guide to diving in Hawaii!
Waikiki! The very name summons up images of beaches, cocktails, plastic flowers and suspiciously uncomfortable-looking coconut bras. But that’s a thing of the past: although Waikiki used to be overflowing with tourist tat, it’s now reinvented itself as something a bit more upmarket, whilst still fulfilling our tackiest needs (you can’t go on a trip without buying at least one tacky souvenir; it’s the law).
Boutique hotels and top restaurants are Waikiki’s trade now, which is much more fitting with its history – it was previously the site of a royal court, after Kamehameha the Great conquered Oahu. These days, you can be royally lazy on one of Waikiki’s famed beaches, or you can visit the outstanding Waikiki Aquarium and see all the ocean critters who are swimming about in the waves you’ve been swooning over.
Waikiki is also party-central, whether you’re looking for traditional Hawaiian tunes, or something a bit more raucous!
Old Lahaina Luau, Maui
One of my must-dos for any travel abroad is to thoroughly research the history and culture of wherever I’m visiting. I don’t think you can really appreciate a place without doing so: otherwise, you don’t know the story of the land and its people. When I get to my destination, it means that I’ve already got a base for the information and knowledge I’ll learn when I’m there.
I don’t think I could have a Hawaii bucket list without including somewhere like the Old Lahaina Luau, which showcases the islands’ culture and makes it accessible to all to learn from. Aside from getting some pretty awesome and authentic food (pork cooked in an underground oven; yes please!!), you can have an evening filled with traditional Hawaiian culture, including music, dancing, and demonstrations. All in front of an ocean view at sunset! As much as I love museums – and I love them a lot – something like this really takes the history you’ve read before your trip, and brings it to life.
Bear in mind though that the Old Lahaina Luau is immensely popular – reserve your place at their website!
Pearl Harbor, Oahu
Previously a bay where oysters were collected (hence the charmingly pretty name), Pearl Harbor is of course better-known as the US naval base which was attacked by Japanese forces in 1941, bringing the United States into World War Two. As someone who does work for a museum, Pearl Harbor automatically goes on to my Hawaii bucket list.
Most people will head for the USS Arizona memorial, which is built over the sunken wreck, in order to pay their respects. The USS Arizona was badly hit during the attack, with a bomb exploding in a powder magazine, which caused it to sink immediately – with little chance of evacuating, 1,177 crewmen died on board. The memorial building was built in 1962, and provides information, documentaries, and an exhibition of memorabilia, as well as cutaway section which allows you to see the ship’s remains. Boats to the memorial depart every 15 minutes from 8am onwards.
If you want some time to think after your visit, you can take the ‘Aiea Loop Trail, a hiking route which gives you some stunning views of Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head!
Whale Watching at Papawai Point, Maui
Watching whales is always a popular tourist activity, and given that Hawaii is prime whale-watching territory, it’s no surprise to find it on numerous bucket lists. But the important thing is to do it ethically, in a way which causes no distress or disruption to the animals. In some areas of the world, whale populations are dropping because visitors are loaded on to motor boats, which then follow and harass the whales just so that photographs can be taken. It’s way too distressing for the whales, who are trying to meet, to socialise, to mate, whilst the water is being churned up by numerous engines.
Papawai Point in Maui provides you with one of the best whale-watching locations in the world, whilst being 100% ethical. You cause no disruption to the whales, because you’re not on the water! Instead, the humpback whales come so close to the land that you can easily watch them from the beach – they come as close as 100 yards away! Plus you can benefit from the knowledge of the Pacific Whale Foundation, who post volunteers at the point in order to share information on those lovely leviathans.
Visit in winter for the best views!
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, The Big Island
As the history and culture vulture that I am, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park absolutely fascinates me!
The story is this: up until the 19th century, the pu’uhonua (refuge) was somewhere you could go if you broke kapu, the local ultra-strict laws on what was taboo, and what wasn’t. Punishment for breaking the kapu laws was death; your only chance was to get to the refuge where you’d be absolved of your sins by a priest. Sounds easy enough, right?
Well, not so much. The pu’uhonua was located on the sea shore, surrounded by a royal encampment and bristling with guards who had kill-on-sight orders. So miscreants had to swim far out to sea and then come up on to the refuge’s shore… if you made it through the shark-infested waters, and strong riptides. Basically, if you made it there, the gods must certainly be smiling on you after all, and you were entitled to that handy absolution ceremony.
These days, you can hike around the royal grounds and check out the revered temple, and rest up on the sacred beach which people in the past struggled so hard to get to!
The Lahaina Banyan Tree, Maui
Not all history has to be written down, or contained in a museum. It can even be a tree!
Whilst it may not be quite as old as England’s Major Oak (an elder of a tree at 800-1000 years old!), it looks quite similar – a huge, spreading tree, so big that it needs to be propped up, and the largest banyan tree in America. It’s survived pretty well since it was planted in 1873, and it now has 16 major trunks and covers an amazing acre of land.
The loveliest thing about the Lahaina Banyan Tree is that it can be counted as a symbol of Lahaina itself. It’s been carefully looked after by generations of citizens, and I think it’s incredible that we can go and touch a link to the city’s past, as it will have been touched by countless caretakers over the years. Surely there isn’t a better symbol of community than that!
Plus, it’s also an awesome spot for a celebration, which instantly gets it on my Hawaii bucket list! You can attend the tree’s birthday party on the weekend closest to April 24th, or you can stop by on the first weekend in December to see it illuminated with holiday lights. C’mon; how many people do you know who’ve been to a tree’s birthday party?? That’s badass!
Where to eat
Hawaii has a flourishing cuisine scene – indeed, due to the many foreign influences which have been added to the local fare, it can truly claim to be a home for fusion cooking! But here’s a sample of some of the best places to grab some gourmet food.
Maui: Lahaina Grill
The list of awards on this restaurant’s website speak for themselves – it has a truly international menu, with everything from American steak to Italian pasta. Check out the seafood section for the local catch!
Oahu: Sweet E’s Cafe
A short drive from Waikiki, just have a look at those waffles and french toasts! Legend has it that Sweet E’s has the best breakfast on the island, and they’re generous with the portion sizes – you’ll definitely get value for money.
The Big Island: Ka’aloa’s Super J’s
It would be downright wrong to visit Hawaii, and not have authentic Polynesian food. Their laulaus (pork or chicken wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in an underground oven) are legendary, and the prices are extremely reasonable!
Well, that’s my Hawaii Bucket List! Is there anything else I should definitely put on there? Let me know in the comments! And if you want to keep this handy for your own use – maybe you want to visit some of the same sites! – pin the image below to Pinterest!