Home to a unique mix of Pacific cultures, the most diverse variety of climates in the world, and some awe-inspiring landscapes that range from lush rainforest to volcanic desert, Hawaii’s chain of eight islands offer everything you could want from a dream holiday – but with a healthy dose of surprise, adventure and friendly American hospitality on top.
The scenery alone is worth the visit. Take the Kualoa Ranch (001 808 237 7321; kualoa.com) on the island of Oahu, the hub of Hawaii. Here, the Kaaawa Valley slopes down to a turquoise sea between twin ridges that stand proud like sentinels of rock guarding their lush tropical island. In this epic setting, it’s not hard to believe that time has stood still – and that a slow moving herd of diplodocus might still be seen traipsing across the grass. It’s little wonder that Stephen Spielberg chose the 4,000 lush acres of this estate to film the first Jurassic Park movie in the early Nineties, and has returned there to film the latest record-breaking blockbuster in the franchise Jurassic World.
Tour guides trying to explain the geological history of Oahu – and the other islands that make up Hawaii – will remind you that no dinosaurs ever lived here because the land, which was formed by a string of volcanoes rising from the ocean floor, did not exist until millions of years after the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex became extinct. But don’t let that get inhibit your imagination. The visitors pretending to scream as they have their photographs taken next to a dead tree (the trunk that Sam Neill’s Dr Alan Grant and the movie’s children used as shelter while a herd of fast moving Terrible Lizards hurdled over them in the first film of the series) certainly don’t.
Then again, Hawaii is rarely a place where you need to dream, for all the natural wonders are here to see for real, and there are many adventurous ways of experiencing them.
Besides stunning Jurassic World sightseeing, Kualoa alone offers horse-riding, quad-biking, zip lining, kayaking and paddle boarding. And you’ll find plenty more outdoor sporting activities like these wherever you go in on the archipelago.
Oahu is the island that has yielded most of the names and images that people associate with Hawaii. That’s mainly thanks to the state capital and the only real city to be found for thousands of miles: Honolulu. The birthplace of Barack Obama, located down on the south coast, is where you’ll find Waikiki beach and the historic Pearl Harbor US Navy base (nps.gov/valr), along with copious high-rise hotels, burger joints, cocktail bars and shops for all budgets lining Kalakaua Avenue.
Looking down on it all from the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa (001 808 923 1234; waikiki.hyatt.com) makes you yearn to get down there immediately in an aloha shirt and order a piña colada.
The 50th and most recent of the United States takes its name from the most eastern island in the chain – also known as The Big Island. And this, the youngest member of the archipelago, is perhaps the most startling one to see. Here, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park gives you a glimpse of the Earth at its most primitive and carnal (nps.gov/havo), thanks to Mauna Loa – one of the most active fire-breathing mountains on Earth.
You can easily spend a day or more on the road travelling through black lava fields and peering into craters, either in a hire car or with a guide (wasabitourshawaii.com). And then, as dusk approaches, sit down to dinner in The Rim restaurant at Volcano House (hawaiivolcanohouse.com) to watch the orange glow of lava gradually stand out against the night sky.
Should you have the time, and budget, to visit more islands – or if you just prefer your volcanoes extinct – Kauai and Maui are every bit as enchanting. America As You Like It (020-8742 8299;americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a 16-day trip, the “Hawaii Island Hopper” including Kauai, Maui and the Big Island, for £2,229.
The huge green cliffs and valleys of the Na Pali coastMaui
You’ll find places to snorkel on all the islands, but swimming inside Molokini, the crescent-shaped crater of an extinct volcano that has become an uninhabited islet just off the coast of Maui, is pretty special even in this part of the Pacific. Sail out with Kai Kanani (001 808 879 7218; kaikanani.com) and the chances are you’ll see a turtle. Two hours’ snorkelling is $67 (£43).
If you’re prepared to get up early (we’re talking 2am here) and wrap up warm (trust us, we mean it), watching the sun rise over the sacred crater at Mount Haleakala (nps.gov/hale) is well worth the shivering and the bleary eyes. Sausages or eggs benedict for breakfast, looking out on the hillside views at Kula Lodge (001 808 878 1535; kulalodge.com), will help you recover. It’s not far to get a taxi down to the high-end shops of Wailea itself and drop into Tommy Bahama’s for dinner. Restaurants linked to clothing chains don’t sound promising but this is a highlight – try the jerk chicken and the BBC cocktail (001 808 875 9983; tommybahama.com).
Capital view: the skyline at Honolulu on Oahu island (Chuck Paunter/HTA)Oahu
Where better to learn to surf, or for the more experienced to refine their technique, than Waikiki beach, the birthplace of the modern sport?
It was here that the Olympic swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, practised as a boy on his papa nui board before going on to popularise the surfing in California and Australia.
A two-hour group lesson with Hans Hederman (001 808 9247778 hhsurf.com) costs $78 (£52). Afterwards you can sit down to a burger at Duke’s, the restaurant dedicated to the island hero (001 808 922 2268; dukeswaikiki.com).
If you want to get away from the bustle of the beach, hiking up the side of an extinct volcanic cone at Diamond Head gives an excellent view of Honolulu and the surrounding hills (bit.ly/DiHead).
To learn about the sometimes brutal and tragic history of the islands and their people after Westerners arrived, spend a sobering afternoon at the Bishop Museum, where entry costs $19.95/£13 (001 808 847 3511; bishopmuseum.org).
Hawaii, the big Island
As well as driving around Volcanoes National Park, you can fly over the craters and, if you’re lucky, even see some molten lava with Blue Hawaiian helicopters (001 800 7862583;bluehawaiian.com). The weather can be uncertain, but if conditions mean you’re offered a coastal flight to the awe-inspiring waterfalls instead, that’s no bad thing. Ask nicely and the pilot may land on a patch of grass and let you walk around. A 50-minute helicopter tour costs $196pp (£125).
To feel at one with nature, however, you should try snorkelling at night with manta rays (001 800 677 9461; fair-wind.com). Deploying a giant floating ladder out on to the sea, the boat crew turns on spotlights to attract plankton, which in turn bring out the large rays. While you cling on to the ladder, these elegant and utterly harmless creatures will happily perform an underwater ballet for you as they hoover up their microscopic dinner. A 90-minute manta ray night snorkelling encounter costs $109pp (£169).
The attractions of starting your holiday on the western isle of Kauai are many. First, it’s the least developed in the chain, but it also has an easy pace to life that helps you settle and relax after a long flight.
The island is also home to arguably the most stunning sight in Hawaii: the huge green cliffs and valleys of the Na Pali coast. These are all but inaccessible by land and best seen by an open-door helicopter flight with a firm such as Jack Harter (001 808 245 3774; helicopters-kauai.com). A one-hour flight costs $259 (£165)pp if booked online.
You can also go for a barbecue on a boat trip along the coast with Captain Andy (001 808 335 6833; napali.com), $159pp (£101) if booked online. And, for something more genteel, you can learn about how native Hawaiians lived and used their land and their plants at the Limahuli Gardens (001 808 826 1053;ntbg.org/gardens/limahuli.php). A self-guided tour here costs $20pp (£13).
Where to stay
The Kauai Marriott Resort (001 808 245 5050;bit.ly/MarriottKauai) and its giant flower-shaped swimming pool are just a few minutes’ drive from the airport and perfect for getting over any thought of jetlag. Doubles from $259 (£164), room-only.
If you really want to get away from it all, look into the secluded, adult-only apartments on Kauai at Whaler’s Cove (001 808 742 7571; whalerscoveresort.com), which cost $381 (£242), room-only. Or if you’re going to Oahu and want to get away from the bustle of Waikiki, try the resort at Turtle Bay (001 866 475 2567;turtlebayresort.com) on the north side of the island, where doubles cost $271 (£172) room-only, and where you can go horse-riding along the resort’s trails, play golf, or simply lie back on the golden sand of the shellshaped beach.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly place to stay, the Sheraton Kona (001 808 930 4900;sheratonkona.com) offers a waterslide and a common room equipped with computer games to keep the kids amused, and you only have to walk a few minutes down the road to snorkel with the manta rays. Doubles from $143 (£91), room-only. And for the height of luxury? Maui’s Hotel Wailea (001 866 970 4167; hotelwailea.com) is the final word in five-star Hawaii, although a double will set you back $477 (£303), room-only.
Given Hawaii’s appeal to Brits, the islands are annoyingly tricky to reach. Direct flights from the UK to the Pacific state ended a couple of decades ago, and no airline has yet used the new Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” to make a non-stop flight across the Arctic to the islands; it could cover the ground in under 12 hours.
Currently, you have to change planes at least once along the way, making a minimum of 18 hours. The main hub is Honolulu, which has links from many US cities. The most direct routings from the UK are via Vancouver or Seattle, but there are more flight options from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
A high-season fare next month from Heathrow to Honolulu on United costs £1,220; in low season, you can pay less than £800. Travelling from Manchester, Air Canada has a fare of £1,075 return via Toronto and Vancouver.
Hilo in Hawaii and Kahalui in Maui are also served from the US, and these links may save you an inter-island hop. Virgin Atlantic and Delta have a one-stop trip to Kahalui via Minneapolis or Seattle for £1,275 in July.
Hopping to one or two different islands for a few days, on short internal flights that often barely last half an hour, is highly recommended to get the most from your trip and best done with Hawaiian (hawaiianairlines.com).