Travel Edition 2021: Escape to the islands

Ways To See Hawaii
Karen Eakins

We’ve had to feed our passion by finding safer options closer to home and exploring more of our nation’s great destinations. And now that Hawaii has recently reopened its doors to visitors, it might be a great time to wander a little farther.

Whether you’re visiting Hawaii for the first time or your 50th, this tropical adventure just might be the medicine to cure your cabin fever. And with several direct flights from Denver, it couldn’t be easier to escape to the islands.

Choosing your island(s)

Whether you’re opting to island hop or explore one island extensively, most visitors tend to choose from the four most-populated islands: Oahu, Hawaii (aka The Big Island), Maui, and Kauai, but Molokai and Lanai offer equally great adventures. The islands share many of  the same general characteristics, but make no mistake, they each have their own unique personality as well.


Pearl Harbor’s historical displays include the exhibit gallery Road to War. © Karen Eakins

Definitely the most urban of the islands, Oahu holds the capital. Visit Honolulu’s legislative heart downtown to stroll through the unique state capitol and tour Iolani Palace, then head out to Pearl Harbor National Monument and the USS Arizona Memorial. Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue, with its movie-star views of Diamond Head’s iconic bluff, dramatic beachside sunsets, and access to luxury retail and souvenir shops, is a bustling destination, as well. If you want to get out of the city and explore more of the island, a visit to the famous Dole Pineapple Plantation, the North Shore’s Sunset Beach on Waimea Bay, and the Polynesian Cultural Center are must-sees.

The Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island has five active volcanos—Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Kohala, and Hualalai—and Volcanoes National Park, established in 1916, is the primary target of most travelers. The island of Hawaii is the largest and also the youngest. On the west side (Kona side) of this rugged island, Keauhou Bay’s Manta Ray Learning Center, home to 250 resident manta rays, some weighing up to 1,500 pounds, is also a travelers’ favorite. The east side (Hilo side) is filled with lush valleys and dramatic waterfalls. Taking a helicopter tour over this vast region is a breathtaking experience.


The laidback island of Maui is not only a prime spot for visitors, it’s also a gathering spot for 5,000 humpback whales that migrate here every winter from Alaska. A whale-watching boat tour is a must-do. Lahaina’s renowned Front Street welcomes visitors with historical buildings housing art galleries, shops, and restaurants, including the classic Kimo’s, home of the famous Hula Pie, and the first Cheeseburger in Paradise. Sunrise hikes up 10,023-foot Haleakala, the world’s largest dormant volcano, and driving the famous Road to Hana are other popular activities.


An aerial view of the Na Pali Cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii. © Kerrick James

Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai is a place where you’ll want to indulge in its lush, carefree life. An adventurer’s mecca (90 percent is inaccessible by car), Kauai is the place for outdoor enthusiasts, whether you’re looking for hiking, ziplining, mountain biking, river kayaking, or horseback riding. It’s also home to Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and a helicopter flight is the best way to see it. Soaring above the canyon, the spectacular Napali Coast’s 3,000-foot cliffs, thundering waterfalls, and Mount Waialeale—one of Earth’s wettest spots—will create a lasting memory.


As Hawaii’s fifth largest island, Molokai is home to the world’s highest sea cliffs and the longest continuous fringing reef. It offers plenty of activities for the outdoor adventurer, whether you want to take a guided hike along the cliffs to Kalaupapa National Historical Park or stroll along Papohaku Beach—one of Hawaii’s largest white-sand beaches. You can also experience true Hawaiian culture, since a large part of the island’s population is of native ancestry, who continue to preserve their rural lifestyle.


The smallest inhabited island, Lanai is luxurious, yet rugged. You can relax and be adventurous at the same time. Visitors can indulge in world-class amenities and championship-level golf, yet also explore off-the-beaten-path treasures, such as the rock garden of Keahiakawelo, on its 400 miles of 4-wheel-drive trails. If you’re wanting to get “off the grid,” this is the ideal island to do just that. There are 18 miles of secluded beaches where you can watch for spinner dolphins, snorkel, or even horseback ride.

Ways to visit

Kayaking is one of the many activities available on a small-ship cruise around the islands. © Julie Quarry

Now that you know a little about each of the islands, your next big decision will be to decide how to visit them. If you’re a newbie to Hawaii, you may want to see as many islands as possible. A guided small-group tour, where all travel arrangements are handled for you, is perhaps the easiest option. You’ll see many of each island’s iconic sites and have plenty of free time to explore other places and activities, which can give you a primer to which island(s) you might want to visit on your next trip.

If being in a group, even a small one, doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, independent tours are another viable option. With such partners as Pleasant Holidays, you can choose your own transportation, accommodations, and experiences to zero in on one or more islands in-depth.

For example, you can choose to stay at a historic property, such as the Royal Hawaiian, a shareable vacation rental for a family group, a golf resort, or a well-known branded hotel. From there, you can customize your own culinary adventure, family fun, golf or sightseeing itinerary, just to name a few.

Another popular way to explore Hawaii is by cruise ship. Cruises offers a variety of choices, from 15 to 50 days, sailing from the mainland or just around the islands, round-trip or one-way, large-ship or small-ship. So, depending on your budget and available time, you’re likely to find something to suit your needs.

Cruising the islands on a large-ship cruise. Courtesy of Princess Cruises

Round-trip voyages typically give you more time at sea yet less time on each island, whereas one-way voyages are shorter overall and primarily focuses on one island that you can explore thoroughly.

If you want non-stop entertainment and the opportunity to make many new friends, opt for a large-ship cruise, such as aboard Princess, Holland America, or Norwegian, which offers numerous entertainment and dining options. Travelers searching for a quieter approach with more downtime can still discover secluded spots tucked away onboard and choose more intimate dining options. Booking a balcony room will also guarantee you a private space.

Small-ship cruises, such as with UnCruise Adventures, by their very nature are quieter and more intimate, so it’s possible to make friends in far smaller settings and enjoy entertainment that leans more toward lectures and learning experiences. Small ships don’t sail the ocean, so you’ll embark and debark in Hawaii, and they often have intriguing itineraries since they can dock in smaller ports.

Many cruise lines will offer a preview of the islands with themed meals before you arrive, but don’t miss the opportunity to experience authentic local treats, such as poke, poi, kalua pig, shave ice, and loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger, a fried egg, and brown gravy), while exploring onshore. True foodies know Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, is becoming a world-class culinary destination.

Cruises also provide you with an opportunity to explore the island through excursions—whether you want to taste the islands at a luau, snorkel the azure waters (equipment provided), learn the hula, discover Hawaiian culture, or hop on that helicopter. You can also arrange to take your own smaller, or private, excursion with local operators. Just keep in mind, the ship won’t wait for you if you’re late.

Hawaii is so special, no matter how you choose to travel or which island(s) you want to experience, you really can’t go wrong. Aloha!

Karen Eakins is a freelance writer based in Omaha, Neb., and a frequent contributor to AAA publications.