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The Top Thing to Do on Each Hawaiian Island

On each glorious island there's one don't-miss activity, from seeing Kauai by helicopter to exploring Maui's waterfalls on a drive to Hana.

aerial view of surf breaking against rocky and lush Nā Pali Coast on Kauai, Hawaii, picture
Photo credit
MNStudio / Shutterstock
Photo caption
Kauai's Na Pali Coast is ever evolving, as streams cut valleys and the ocean carves cliffs.

You can find sun, sand, and surf—along with poke, papaya, and plate lunches—almost anywhere you go in Hawaii. But each island has its own unique attractions as well. These are the experiences guaranteed to provide the best tropical souvenirs: indelible memories. 

Road to Hana, Maui

Amusement parks have nothing on the thrill ride known as the Road to Hana, which may be Maui's signature delight. The cliff-hugging hairpin curves of coastal Hana Highway are an exhilarating experience that leads to a dramatically different destination: peaceful Hana, one of Hawaii's most remote paradises. Along the way, cruise past waterfalls and beaches, squeak across narrow bridges, and then seek calm in the bamboo forest just 10 miles beyond town. 

Helicopter Tour, Kauai

The unmistakable visual appeal of Kauai—a popular filming locale with impossibly lush foliage and waterfalls galore—is best appreciated from the air. Climb aboard a helicopter for a Garden Isle tour unlike any ground-level view: In just an hour you can swoop over craggy, otherwise inaccessible valleys, the crystalline crescent of Hanalei Bay, the towering sea cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, and spectacular Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

Manele Bay, Lanai

The serenity and relative isolation of Lanai, one of Hawaii's smaller inhabited islands, make for the state's best snorkeling. The southern shore is home to dazzling sea life, including coral reefs, sea stars, hermit crabs, and the aquatic snails known as limpets. Don a mask and fins to explore Manele Bay, a secluded harbor and marine conservation area where you might spot spinner and bottlenose dolphins and green sea turtles.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

The Big Island—home to two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa—is the place to experience nature's power. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed in spring 2018 during an upsurge in volcanic activity—Kilauea has been erupting constantly since 1983—but has since reopened. Visitors can once again explore many of the 150 miles of trails that deliver extraordinary sights (including 115-foot-deep Keanakakoi Crater) and sensations (the heat of steam, the scent of sulfurous fumes). The Crater Rim Drive Tour leads to the crater as well as to Sulphur Banks, where gases and sulfuric acid seep from the ground, and iron oxide deposits have stained the landscape red. 

Pearl Harbor, Oahu

History, patriotism, and wonder converge at Oahu's most visited attraction. Pearl Harbor—the site of a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941—symbolizes the United States entering World War II as a combatant. The somber realities of war are on full display here, including submarines, warplanes, and recruitment posters. The USS Arizona Memorial, built atop the bombed battleship, stands in tribute to those who lost their lives. Although the memorial has been closed for repairs, visitors can arrange ahead for the planned reopening in late March.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Molokai

Largely undeveloped and little visited, Molokai may be best known as a former quarantine site for Hawaiians with leprosy. Against the backdrop of the island's natural splendor, Kalaupapa National Historical Park preserves the stories of the leper colony, which operated from 1866 to 1969, and the legacy of Belgian priest Father Damien's unwavering devotion to caring for the afflicted until he too finally succumbed to the disease.

Up Next: Visiting Kona on Any Budget

To plan your perfect island getaway, contact the AAA Vacation Experts at AAA.com/Travel

This article was first published in Spring 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.