Hawaii: A Guide to the Islands of Paradise

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By Mike, Debra, and Blake DuBose

Often, when people envision Hawaii, they think of flower leis, “Hawaii Five-0,” the word “aloha,” and the ukulele (an instrument whose name translates to “jumping flea”). But Hawaii is so much more than all of the stereotypes we’ve absorbed from TV and movies. It’s a vibrant group of eight islands, each with a unique, distinct personality. In all of our travels, we’ve never seen a place like it!

Having entered the union a little more than 50 years ago, Hawaii is the youngest U.S. state. Its beauty and laid-back atmosphere make it a top destination for both international and American vacationers. (The other states are referred to as the “mainland” by Hawaiians.) Nearly 8 million people visit the islands every year, 600,000 of whom are newlyweds. Tourism generates nearly $14 billion per year for Hawaii, about 21% of its total economy. Agriculture is another important industry. Hawaii exports more than 300,000 tons of pineapple per year and is the only U.S. state where coffee is a major crop. The islands are home to many species of fish, wildlife, and plants, as well as the world’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa.

Hawaii also boasts the highest life expectancy of any U.S. state and one of the lowest obesity rates (due in part to a diet that typically focuses on fish, fruits, and vegetables). Crime is low on the islands, although theft from tourists’ cars is a problem. The weather in Hawaii is generally beautiful, with average highs of 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. It rains frequently, which promotes lush vegetation. This is most evident in Kauai, the wettest spot in the world, and its rich, green farming areas. The drier western sides of the islands, which receive less rain than the wet eastern sides, are where many hotels are located.

Most tourists enter the state through the major international airport in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city. Another option is taking a cruise from the west coast to Hawaii and then touring all the islands. However, we’ve heard horror stories from other tourists about terrible storms they experienced on the way! Others fly into Honolulu and catch a seven-day cruise touring most of the islands, as our friends Tim and Valerie Whipple did. They rated the Hawaiian Norwegian Cruise Line a “10 out of 10” based on factors like “seeing so much without having to pack and unpack, having a balcony in the stateroom to see gorgeous scenery, and experiencing the natural beauty of Kauai while the ship cruised around the island.”

Hawaii is a favorite destination for our family, and we’ve visited the islands more than 25 times. We don’t say that to brag; rather, we want our readers to know that we’ve thoroughly explored and enjoyed the islands over the course of many years. We hope to share our knowledge and experience with others to help them optimize their own Hawaii vacations! If you decide to visit, here are our recommendations:

Getting There: Traveling to Hawaii can be tough on your body! A direct flight from Atlanta, GA to Honolulu, HI takes about 12 hours and crosses multiple time zones (there is a difference of about six hours between Hawaiian and Eastern Standard Time). Additionally, there are few “straight shot” flights to Hawaii, and most airlines break the trip down into multiple legs, which can add several hours to your travel time. For us, it means flying from Columbia, SC to Atlanta, GA to Los Angeles, CA and then (finally) to Honolulu, Kahului, or one of the other islands’ airports. If you are blessed with the time and resources, we would recommend flying out to Los Angeles, San Diego, or San Francisco and spending a couple of nights visiting the city and acclimating to the time zone difference. That way, your body won’t suffer as much from jet lag when you travel on to Hawaii. If possible, repeat this process on the way back home and stop for a couple of nights at a different city. (See The Art of Packing on our non-profit website, www.mikedubose.com, for tips on smart packing. While visiting Hawaii does not require a passport or Customs clearance like a trip to another country, you will experience many similar issues getting there and back, so you might desire to read our article on international travel, which can also be found on the website.)

When you arrive at the airport, look near the luggage area for free magazines that will let you know what is going on during your visit. Most islands have their own helpful weekly publication, and some include discounts or coupons.

Your Initial Visit: We recommend that first-time visitors fly into the Honolulu airport, which offers the greatest variety of flights at the lowest prices. Honolulu is located on Oahu, the third largest but most populated of the Hawaiian Islands. Its name means “the gathering place.”

Plan to spend a minimum of a week in Hawaii, not including an additional 2-3 days for travel to and from the islands and home. We don’t recommend trying to visit more than one island per trip because it wastes a lot of time flying and going through airport security. To save money on your trip, go during the low season in May. Our favorite time to visit is in January, when it’s cold in the mainland US and warm in Hawaii. There are three Japanese holidays in the last two weeks in December that bring major crowds, so you probably want to steer clear during that time. Whenever you go, however, the weather should be great—Oahu, for example, only receives about 25 inches of rain per year! When it does rain, it’s often a short-lived shower.

Overall, we recommend staying at hotels a good distance from airports, which are noisy, and avoiding the eastern sides of the islands, which tend to be wet. You can also contact the major airlines or hotels for travel packages that include airfare, hotel, and rental car. It really just depends on what activities you desire for your trip! (If you are booking a condo, by the way, be sure to ask if it is air conditioned since some rely on the trade winds for cooling. If the winds die, it’s pretty hot!) As for us, while we may briefly visit some touristy areas, we like to really experience the culture in off-the-beaten-path locations, by buying from small street vendors, and frequenting eateries that locals enjoy. 

Oahu: With 900,000 residents, Oahu is the most populated of the Hawaiian Islands. It is also the most commercialized, so we recommend it mainly to first-time visitors who want to experience the Hawaii they’ve seen on TV and in the movies. Most tourists stay in Waikiki Beach, which you’ll definitely want to visit if you are coming to Oahu for the first time. We recommend the Waikiki Hilton Hawaiian Village (try to get an ocean view room on a high floor in the rainbow tower so you can see most of the city and the ocean).

Traveling in a convertible outside of the tourist areas will expose you to amazing sights that normally only locals see. You’ll want to circle the outer edges of Oahu to discover beautiful, less populated beaches, stopping along the way for meals at small local eateries. Do your research: it took us four trips to find the beaches that we love! Also, drive carefully. Hawaiian law enforcement uses speed monitoring devices and stoplight cameras to catch violators.

The north shore of Oahu, known as the “Banzai Pipeline,” is another must-see (watch out for heavy weekend traffic, though!). To see the really big waves, you will need to visit in November-February. In fact, the media was reporting 50-foot waves at the end of January 2014, the highest in a decade! In the summer, waves are smaller.

While you’re in Oahu:

  • Don’t structure your schedule too strictly. Of course, you’ll want to visit some famous sites, but just relaxing, enjoying the culture, and eating some good food can be gifts for your mind and body. When we’re in Hawaii, our favorite activity is sitting on our balcony with a good book and listening to the waves crash!
  • Visit Pearl Harbor and the related World War II sites. You’ll want to see the memorial to the USS Arizona, the battleship that was bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 (1007 men are still entombed inside), as well as the USS Missouri (aka “Big Mo”), the battleship on which the Japanese officially surrendered, and the WWII submarine USS Bowfin.
  • Experience a traditional luau, where you’ll feast on Hawaiian barbecue, see fire dancers and hula dancers, and hear traditional Hawaiian songs.
  • Walk down Waikiki Beach, the place where films and TV shows like Blue Hawaii and Baywatch were filmed.
  • Enjoy some excellent food (see Tripadvisor.com for some restaurant suggestions and reviews). Avoid the chain restaurants and get something local!
  • Snorkel at Hanauma Bay. Go early in the day to see fascinating tropical fish.
  • Watch water shoot up through ancient lava caves at the Holona Blowhole on the southern shore.
  • Sail the water off Waikiki Beach in a catamaran. Once, after a brief rain shower, we saw four miraculous rainbows at the same time!

Maui: Nicknamed the “Valley Isle,” Maui is our favorite island, and the one we visit most. There are fewer flights available when traveling to Maui, but there are time-saving direct flights from the west coast of the U.S. (or you can detour through the Honolulu airport and catch a short flight to one of the neighboring islands). Most mainland flights to Maui come into Kahului Airport. From the airport, you’ll want to rent a car to drive to Maui’s western coast. Compared to Oahu, Maui is less populated. It has 156,000 residents and is not as commercialized, but traffic is still heavy on the weekends. Most of the locals live in Kihei.

The western side of Maui is an ideal place to stay because it isn’t rainy. If you are trying to save money, we recommend Sugar Beach Resort’s 1-3 bedroom condominiums, which have kitchens where you can cook some of your own food. The average condos are centrally located at 145 N. Kihei Road toward the western side of Maui. There is no beach, but the sunsets are beautiful. Be sure to grab a bite to eat at Fred’s in Kihei, which is a unique open-air Mexican restaurant.

One of our favorites, the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort, is located in the northwest part of Maui near Lahaina. It’s a four-star hotel but still moderately priced, and it has good ratings on Tripadvisor.com. They also have an excellent breakfast buffet. If you’re in the restaurant, give a big “aloha” to our friend Jennifer Loh, their food and beverage director! This hotel features a convenient Hertz Rent-a-Car desk. If you will be renting a car through this service, reserve a round trip van ticket for the SpeediShuttle (1-877-242-5777) to and from the airport and hotel, but book well in advance. If you want a convertible to drive around in, be sure to book that early too, as they go quickly!

If money is not a concern, the AAA five star Four Seasons Maui hotel is simply outstanding. It has incredible customer service, beautiful views, and delicious food—and you might even run into some famous people there! (In fact, the Four Seasons Maui is so good that we used it as an example of a great customer service provider in our book The Art of Building a Great Business, which is available for free download on www.mikedubose.com.) We particularly love the lobster and shrimp sandwich at Ferraro’s Ristorante (paired, of course, with some prosecco). Even if you don’t stay at the Four Seasons, it’s worth the trip to visit the luxury hotel and have lunch at Ferraro’s, especially around sunset. If you go, be sure to make reservations in advance, and say hello to our good acquaintance Jana Dimartino, the resort’s catering and restaurant manager!

Some things to see and do in Maui:

  • If you visit during December, January, or February, go whale-watching. Every year, whales travel to Maui from Alaska during this time period to mate and bear their young. Often, 5-10 males will court one female! Early to midday, when the seas are calm, is your best chance to spot these marvelous creatures. We recommend the boats employed by the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation, which have bathrooms.
  • Our favorite restaurants are Mama’s Fish House in the Paia area near the airport and Pacifico Restaurant in Lahaina. Other good restaurants include: Napili Kai Beach Resort, Lahaina Grill, Merriman’s, and Banyan Tree. If you are shopping at Whalers Village or staying at the Hyatt, Maui Fish and Pasta is another favorite and is not expensive. Also, while in Lahaina, consider Cool Cat Café for a good hamburger, or Cheeseburger in Paradise (the food is average, but it’s nice to visit and listen to the 60s and 70s music, especially if you sit upstairs where you can see the ocean).
  • Travel the Road to Hana. This 55-mile day trip boasts 617 s-curves in the road and 22 bridges. Before leaving, study a map so you don’t miss hidden landmarks. Once you reach Hana, you’ll have to return by the torturous route you came. Some people (like Blake) continue on the dirt road around the southern part of the island, which passes Charles Lindbergh’s gravesite, but beware: some rental companies won’t come get you if you break down in this part of the island. See “Driving the Hana Highway” in the January 14, 2012 Wall Street Journal for more on Hana.
  • Take a catamaran sailboat cruise around the island. This exciting trip will allow you to see parts of the island’s coast that aren’t visible by car. Sunset cocktail and dinner cruises are also a lot of fun.
  • Go to a luau. The Hyatt Regency has a good one, and the Old Lahaina luau and the Feast at Lele are both well-recommended by other travelers.
  • Do some shopping. On the weekends, artists gather in Lahaina on the western side of the island (under the big tree near the pier) to sell their artwork, jewelry, and woodwork. You can find some neat handmade items at reasonable prices there. There is free parking about 300 yards on the left beyond the big tree, and there are side parking lots in town (look for the signs) that charge by the hour. For reasonably priced handmade jewelry, stop by The Jewelry Stand in downtown Lahaina. The owner is very skilled and is passionate about her trade.

Lana’i: This island is sparsely populated, with roughly 3,000 residents. You fly into a small airport (or catch a ferry from Maui), and there are only a few major places to stay: the Four Seasons’ Lana’i at Manele Bay (a beach resort) and Lana’i the Lodge at Koele (a golf resort), and the Aqua Hotel Lanai.  The island is a good place for people who want a break from their wild and crazy lives, but does not offer many sightseeing opportunities. Cell phones don’t even work in the low areas on some parts of the island!

We stayed at the Manele Bay Beach Resort (now a Four Seasons property) and it was great. Because the island has few lights, you can see God’s beautiful stars like never before (and even some meteors) at night. The 2014 TripAdvisor.com reviews warn that the Manele Bay resort is being renovated, so check to make sure the construction is over before booking.

There are few things to do on Lana’i other than relax. Some options are renting a four-wheeler, shopping at the few stores downtown, or going golfing. Both of the Four Seasons resorts offer good—but expensive—meals. Our favorite restaurant was in the downtown Aqua Hotel Lanai and it was reasonably priced. See Matt Long’s blog Landlopers.com for a good review of Lana’i restaurants. Tripadvisor.com also has suggestions from people who have visited the island.

We have been to Lana’i twice and enjoyed it, but probably won’t return until new additions are made to the island. Still, it is a great place to sit on the balcony, listen to the water, relax, read, and think about the future. The billionaire Larry Ellison purchased 98% of Lana’i in 2012 and plans to develop a sustainable leadership retreat, so this former pineapple plantation may become a more developed and attractive island in the future!

Molokai: Molokai is the least “touristy” of the islands, with a population of only 7,000. It doesn’t even have stoplights! The island is best for people seeking a peaceful time surrounded by nature. It is noted for its steep cliffs, ample hiking opportunities, and cattle ranches.

The eastern end of Molokai is home to the Halawa Valley, a half-mile wide, 3-4 mile deep area that was settled by ancient Polynesians as early as 650 BC. One standout is Mooula Falls, a 250-foot waterfall. Please note, however, that the trail to the falls can only be taken with a guide, as it crosses private property. Guided hikes can be arranged through the activity desk at the Aqua Hotel Molokai.

Since Molokai has a small population and has not been developed with an eye toward tourism, there are limited options for dining and lodging. Personally, we were disappointed in the island; in fact, we left two days earlier than planned when we visited. It is fun, however, to take a helicopter tour of the island and view its magnificent cliffs.

Kauai: Kauai is one of the wettest places in the world, which is reflected in its emerald green countryside. After flying into the Lihue airport for a day tour, we knew we wanted to return to explore more. Eventually, we made three trips to the island.

Kauai is a populous island with more than 65,000 residents. It is fairly developed and was the setting for the movie Jurassic Park. There is even a Wal-Mart next to the airport where you can pick up groceries, beach supplies, and alcohol! The island is divided into four quadrants—north, south, east, and west—and it’s an important distinction to make when choosing where to stay. The mountains in the north receive nearly 450 inches of rain per year, while the western side and southern side receive 5 and 20 inches, respectively. When it does rain in the west or south, it ends quickly and develops into good weather. The high season in Kauai is mid-December through March, and you can secure the best prices mid-April through mid-June or September through early December.

There are major hotels available, so consult online resources like Tripadvisor.com when choosing where to stay. Our favorite is the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, which is located in Poipu on the southern tip of the island. Some of the hotels are worth visiting, including the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort. One of our friends likes Kauai Beach Resort on the eastern side of the island, which is cost-effective but comparable to one of the larger hotel chains. To save more money, you can contact private owners within the resort about renting properties directly from them.

There are also many restaurants, and some of the best are just little places on the beach. Note that many guidebooks and online resources like TripAdvisor.com organize their recommendations by location, so look for well-reviewed eateries in your area. We recommend Dondero’s and The Beach House for pricier dining options, and the downstairs area of Dukes for a good burger. In the north area, Kalypso serves good sandwiches, and on the east coast, Verde has great Mexican food. Kauai Pasta is another good, reasonably priced restaurant.

Kauai tips:

  • We highly recommend taking a helicopter ride to see the beautiful waterfalls and seaside cliffs, especially along the Na Pali coast. We use Blue Hawaiian Helicopter, which has first-class equipment, pilots, and safety records. You can even see some of the areas where Jurassic Park was filmed!
  • The most spectacular views on the island are from Kalalau Lookout and Waimea Canyon, which are essentially like smaller, greener Grand Canyons.
  • Captain Andy’s Na Pali Sailing Adventures are a lot of fun.
  • Hiking is excellent on Kauai. If you like hiking, an excellent resource is www.Hawaii-Guide.com, a website created by former DuBose Web Group team member (and Hawaii expert) John Derrick. He and his wife, Victoria, have hiked many trails throughout Hawaii, and they review several Kauai trails at www.hawaii-guide.com/kauai/kauai_must_see_and_do. Their website also contains great information on the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui.
  • The Grand Hyatt’s luau is very good, and you may also consider the Smith Family Garden Luau. If you’re on a budget, some places will allow you to skip the food and pay just to see the show.
  • The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook is a great resource if you’re planning to visit.

Hawaii: The “Big Island” or “Orchid Isle” is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands and has 187,000 citizens. Many different geographical and climate regions are represented on the island. When we first landed on Hawaii, it was on an old lava flow area and it was like being on the moon! The Big Island’s 4,000 square miles are broken down into seven major regions: Kona, Hilo, Kohala Coast, North Kohala, Hamakua Coast, Puna, and Kua. There are huge differences from region to region, from lush rainforests to black sand beaches to volcanic deserts and even snow-capped mountains!

The eastern side of the island, where its largest city, Hilo, is located, receives 130 inches of rainfall annually; whereas, some areas of the Kohala Coast receive no more than five. North Kohala, the northwestern side of the island, is a gorgeous green expanse dotted with golf courses, and Puna, the eastern side, is home to a volcano. You can walk to the newly formed crust to see the lava flowing out to the sea. In the farming regions, coffee and macadamia nuts are grown and exported to the mainland.

On our first trip to the Big Island, we stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a huge property located about 18 miles from the Kona airport. It spans 40 acres and has a beautiful golf course beside it. Hotel boats and waterways take guests to the resort’s different towers. There is unfortunately no sandy beach, but it is close to the water and there is a beach within a ten-minute walk. If you stay here, try to obtain a water view or waterfront room. It’s a little pricey, so you may want to stock up on food and drinks at the Wal-Mart before traveling to your hotel to save money. The hotel also contains a dolphin laboratory, and you can swim with them in a large pool, which was very neat (advanced reservations are required).

Another outstanding hotel we stayed in was the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, which is ranked #1 at Tripadvisor.com. It is a great hotel. There are also many other hotels, bed and breakfasts, inns, and condominiums available to rent at more budget-friendly prices. As usual, we recommend searching online for traveler reviews, especially at our favorite travel website, Tripadvisor.com. In our opinion, Kona is the most fun town on the Big Island.

Some things to do on the Big Island:

  • If you like hiking, follow the Kilauea Iki Trail along the rim of a volcanic crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • Rent a car and take a ride. Roads lead around most of the island, but be sure to fill up your car’s tank when you can because it may be a while before you see another gas station. You can also drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in two hours to experience the Mauna Kea summit.
  • Visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which boasts more than 2,000 species of plants in a 40-acre valley.
  • Play golf, but go in the morning to avoid high trade winds in the afternoon! Once, we teed off at 3:00 PM and noticed that we were the only ones on the course. Although one of us hit a 250 yard drive, the winds were so fierce, the ball landed back at our feet!
  • Enjoy the Hapuna, Manini’owali, and Mauna Kea beaches.
  • See Kealakekua Bay and Pu’uhonua O Honaunau national historic parks.
  • If you visit the volcano peak, come prepared: it gets cold up there! Also, check with locals and search online to monitor volcanic activity—the limited lava flow was very disappointing when we visited.
  • If you visit in December or January, go whale watching.
  • Take the small, unmarked dirt road to your right before Captain Cook’s Peak to find coral reefs where many locals go. There is some great snorkeling there, and we were amazed to swim in crystal clear water amongst 50-plus species of relatively friendly tropical fish! If you go in the winter months, you may want to rent a wetsuit from the local scuba shop.

Getting Home: Returning to the mainland U.S. can be a difficult adjustment. You leave one day and arrive the next, crossing over many time zones in between. Your body’s circadian rhythm will be very confused and you will probably experience severe jet lag. Of course, the best plan is to fly into Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego and stay there for a few days to get acclimated before returning home. If necessary, ask your doctor for some sleep aids. One trick we learned is to schedule both departure and return flights for Hawaii at a late hour. This reduces jet lag and helps you adjust quicker. Most importantly, when you arrive at your destination, resist the urge to go to sleep until your normal bedtime. It’s tough, but worth the effort! 

The bottom line: We’ve logged more than one million sky miles, and next to Italy, Hawaii represents our favorite vacation destination! We love the islands because of their low humidity, the year-round warm temperatures, the lack of mosquitoes, the friendly people, their stress-free lifestyle, and the unique cuisine. If we had to limit our advice to just one word, it would be “relax.” Don’t over-structure your trip! Part of the magic of this great group of islands is just going with the flow and having fun. So, aloha and mahalo!

About the Authors: Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the world in the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 44 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2016 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com