Hard to believe I’m writing this over 5 months after we got back from our epic Hawaii trip… AND an even more epic (although much shorter) adventures in Iceland, but it’s been a really packed few months for us here.
Thinking back on our time in Hawaii, there’s a part of me that really really wishes we had been able to go to the Big Island. Without a trip to Maona Kea and Maona Loa, I can’t really give a full reading on a true Hawaiian experience. But with a 4 year old and a pregnant wife, spending time around volcanic gases was just not in the cards.
So we had to make do with “only” visiting Oahu and Maui – both were quite spectacular, although in extremely different ways! To the point that I really feel like each island should be examined on its own merits.
Let’s start with Oahu. Home of most Hawaiians, Oahu is a major metropolitan center. The area around Waikiki in Honolulu is very urban. Lots of traffic. And the beaches are crowded. It was cool to hang around the city and see what a Polynesian American metro area could look like. Imagine Denver, but tropical and with tiki torches all over the place. But it was crowded, and frankly cities are just not my thing when it comes to vacations. Our hotel was a short walk from the beach and we barely spent any time there.
Once you get out of the Honolulu area – wow. Aside from the surreal experience of literally stepping onto the island from LOST, Jurassic Park, and dozens of other Hollywood productions, Oahu has plenty of natural splendor to offer. The entire coast outside the Waikiki area is incredible, and if you look just a bit off the beaten path you can find beaches that look like paradise – but aren’t too crowded. Aside from the volcanoes on the Big Island itself, the pictures you’ve seen of Hawaii are almost certainly of somewhere in Oahu.
Pro tip: DO NOT MISS the Polynesian Cultural Center on the northern end of the island. Museums are not our thing really -but this is NOT A MUSEUM. It’s a living cultural center with representations of Polynesian life from Hawaii to Tahiti to Fiji to New Zealand, and all the way to the Samoas. No, it’s not a replacement for visiting those countries, but if you’ve been any of them (like Ariel and I had) it was like stepping through a portal back into our honeymoon and Middle Earth adventures for a moment. Also – the luau there was truly incredible and even a little moving.
And of course Pearl Harbor is a must visit for every singly American, at least once in your life.
The bottom line with Oahu is spend some time around Waikiki, but spend most of your time getting out of the city.
That’s not a knock on Honolulu, it was a great city with lots of excellent restaurants and nightlife. But with my dad and our son around we weren’t exactly looking for parties. And it’s not that big of an island – if you’re there for a week there’s no excuse not to see every corner of it!
Maui is an entirely different animal. I wouldn’t even say it’s like a different state, it’s like a different country entirely! The thing that shocked me the most about it was that it looked almost nothing like pictures I had seen of Hawaii. Whereas Oahu was lush and tropical, most of Maui was almost like a desert! Most of the island looked like the Poolburn area in New Zealand where they filmed the Rohan scenes for Lord of the Rings.
And of course the entire island is dominated by the (dormant… but not extinct!) Haleakala volcano that makes getting from one side of the island to the other a real challenge, but is an incredible adventure on its own. Driving from sea level to 10,000 feet in less than an hour is really a mind-bending experience. You start the day in 85 degree weather, lounging in equally warm water. You end the day literally above the clouds watching the sun go down (which, when there are clouds appears to be BELOW you), and light the sky on fire. You look around, it’s 45 degrees, you’re shivering against the high winds, and it looks like you’re at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (which was the stand-in for Mordor/Mount Doom in the films) in New Zealand. Literally, Maui felt to me like they chipped off a chunk of Oceania and dragged it across the Pacific so that Americans could have an easier time visiting it.
There are no real metro areas on Maui either. Most of the island is the volcano and the relatively narrow strips of land that surround it. There are some very charming towns, like Lahaina where we stayed, and that was really all we needed.
Of course no discussion of Maui would be complete without mentioning the somewhat infamous Road to Hana. Look – I thought it was worth doing, but my biggest issue with the “divorce highway” wasn’t the winding road through a jungle with all the blind turns – it was the TOURISTS on the winding jungle road with all the blind turns. The road itself was fine. The waterfalls were very pretty. But as the driver of our vehicle, most of the time I was concentrating on either not crashing into the idiots who kept stopping short with no warning (often not even signaling at all!) to gawk at the scenery, and trying to find a safe place to park – without turning into one of those idiots who kept stopping short to gawk at the scenery!
By the end, when we were trapped for a couple of minutes between a car that was scared to move forward and a rock cliff that was inches from the passenger door, I was really ready for it to be over. In fact, by far the most impressive sites we saw actually came AFTER the Road to Hana ended, at the Pools of Ohe’o. And the drive around the “back side” of Haleakala aka the forbidden road aka the Piilani Highway, was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. Ignore anyone who tells you it’s “dangerous” or that you’ll “void your rental contract” – read my write up on it, be careful, and don’t be an idiot, and you’ll enjoy one of the most scenic drives in America.
And if you’re in Hawaii and are looking for an incredible kosher meal – you have to stop at the Maui Kosher Farm for the most unique kosher dining experience you will ever have.
I think that about wraps it up. Oahu and Maui are both very expensive, and not that easy to get to, even though they’re in the USA. From the East Coast it’s pretty much a full day of travel, unless you break it up like we did by stopping in California for for a night or two – which I highly recommend. And there are definitely other places you can get to in less time that have beautiful beaches or mountains. But they’re not Hawaii. Whether you’re an American or not, there’s a reason why this place is so iconic and in demand. There’s just… a vibe there that you don’t get in the continental US, or the Caribbean.
Another thing to note is that it’s incredibly family friendly. The distances between places are generally not far, so it means short car rides. And every restaurant had a kid’s menu so Jacob always had something to eat. So even if you missed going here for your honeymoon and have a kid – guess what, it’s not too late!
Polynesian culture is so beautiful – it’s almost addicting. And the beaches are just the perfect Pacific paradise of your dreams. Add to that the incredible natural splendor of the Oahu and Maui jungles, along with the savanna type landscapes, and awe-inspiring Haleakala, and folks you have an absolute winner on your hands here. Hawaii – even if you can only get to Oaha and/or Maui should be on everyone’s bucket list, ideally more than once so you can make repeat visits and get to all of the islands. This is the real deal folks, I can’t believe I’d been to 49 states before this one…
Verdict: Just perfection. Paradise. One of the most beautiful places on Earth. There are very very few better uses of the time you are given, than spending it getting to and being here.