There’s much more to the Aloha State than what the classic Hawaiian postcards love to show: the sparkling shorelines, the rollicking luaus, the hula dancers decked out in leis and grass skirts. And while you could (and should) experience each of those things during your time in Hawaii, there’s a treasure trove of more things to see, do, and try. All it takes is a willingness to step away from the crowds—and yes, you’ll have to peel yourself off that beach—to delve deeper into some of the Hawaiian islands’ most paradisiacal secrets.
Even if you think you know the Big Island or Oahu well, we’re betting you haven’t experienced each of the incredible activities we’ve sussed out below—some of which are still well under the radar for most tourists. Check out the video below to see many of these special places highlighted, then read on for an in-depth look at all of them (plus a few extras, too!).
If You’re Exploring The Big Island:
Fly Over—and Land in—the Big Island’s Most Impossible to Reach Places
The Big Island is the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian islands, and much of it is still undeveloped—whether that’s countryside, former sugar cane plantation land, or active volcanic area. There’s plenty to see by car, via hikes, or along the shorelines, but to truly seek out the island’s secret spots, air is the only way. Enter Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, which offers flights that air lift you into some of the Big Island’s least explored and most difficult to reach areas, like region around the active Kilauea volcano. That particular ride soars over lava flows, black sand beaches, and rainforest, then touches down at the base of the remote Punalulu Falls in the unspoiled land of Lupahoehoe Nui. It’s an exclusive landing spot for the company, and there’s really no other way to reach the area. “It would take an eternity and Herculean strength to hike to this isolated 150-acre coastal terrace or try to reach it by kayak,” says Meghan Lee, Blue Hawaii Helicopter’s director of sales and marketing. “We’re pleased to offer a way to witness this wonder by air.” The company also regularly flies to remote areas of Maui, Kauai, and Oahu.
Gallop Like a Paniolo (Hawaiian Cowboy) to Areas Cars Can’t Go
There’s something incredibly romantic about exploring Hawaii’s wildest lands on horseback, cantering though valley floors to secluded waterfalls and untouched cliff edges. At Na’alapa Stables, its all possible. The family-run company takes riders where no vehicle can go throughout the Waipio Valley and within its own exclusive 12,000 acre ranch, which provides spectacular panoramic views of the Kohala coast (you can even see Maui from there!). What’s more, Na’alapa’s equestrian experience aren’t the typical “head-to-tail” excursions, they’re individualized to abilities and thirst for adventure. Especially for experienced riders, trotting, galloping, and even cantering off-trail is encouraged—the sort of freedom that’s a real rarity among ranchers.
Experience Stand-up Paddling (SUP) at a Stunning Underwater State Park
Stand-up paddling, or as it’s colloquially known, “SUP,” is a surfing offshoot that originated in Hawaii and has been steadily spreading to the mainland U.S. But it’s a sport best experienced in Hawaii’s waters, and the Big Island has one of the best spots to give SUP a try: Kalakekua Bay in South Kona. This is the only underwater state park on the island, and it’s not to be missed. The bay hosts a huge variety of marine life including green sea turtles, manta rays, and Hawaiian spinner dolphins, and the water is almost always clear–with visibility up to 100 feet. The famed Captain Cook monument is here (marking where explorer Captain James Cook died in 1779), and with no paved roads that reach it, stand-up paddle boarding is one of the best ways to get there. FYI: you can also visit it by snorkeling, kayaking, or completing a fairly difficult hike in.
Swim Right Alongside Spinner Dolphins at a Shockingly Uncrowded Beach
If you’ve ever dreamed of having your own Flipper moment and swimming alongside some of the ocean’s friendliest mammals, Ho’okena’s Beach is where you need to be. Schools of spinner dolphins are regularly spotted swimming just outside the coastline and in the wintertime, you can sometimes see great pilot whales in the distance. 40 minutes south of Kailua-Kona where few tourists venture, the grey-black sand beach is still considered a local secret and almost never crowded. Another secret? Even if you don’t rub shoulders with a dolphin while in the water, you’ll be amazed at the colorful, untouched coral just below the water surface.
Catch a Wave at a Legendary Locals-Only Exposed Reef Break
There’s plenty of beaches with excellent surf all around the Hawaiian islands, but among them, Banyan’s Beach in Kailua-Kona is something special. Its a relatively small beach at just about 10,000 square feet, but it has the consistent surf of a fast wave and both right and left breaks. If you’re a beginner, this is a great place to pick up tips from experienced surfers; if you’re more advanced, you’ll find plenty of challenges. On most days, Banyan’s has surfers in the water from dusk ’til dawn. Most are local, but visiting pros in the know are often out there too.
Where to Stay While Exploring The Big Island? Check out the private romantic paradise of Collessie By The Sea in Kailua-Kona.
If You’re Exploring Oahu:
Spend a Leisurely Afternoon at the Island’s Most Secluded Beach
Dreaming of having a pristine white sand beach all to yourself? Here’s where to find one: just before rugged Kaena Point on Oahu’s western side is Keawaula, more commonly known as Yokohama Bay. It’s one of the most secluded parts of the island and typically pretty empty—you might spot a few fishermen, rogue surfers, or perhaps a dolphin cruising past at most. The beach itself is nice and wide, and the sunsets are simply spectacular.
Take an Epic Stroll Along an Under-the-Radar Beach Beloved by Hollywood Producers
About a 45-minute drive from famous and well-trodden Waikiki Beach is the beach of choice for those in the know: Waimanalo Bay Park, nicknamed “Sherwood’s” by locals. It’s the place for the ultimate beach stroll, as at three miles long, it’s the longest uninterrupted white-sand beach on Oahu. Visitors walk through a towering forest of ironwood trees to reach the sugary shoreline and the contrast is quite striking. This beach was the filming location for television shows Magnum P.I. and Baywatch Hawaii, and it’s even said that author James Michener wrote his famous novel Hawaii while in Waimanalo. All that, and yet this is still a beach primarily frequented by Waiamanalo locals only. Visit on a weekday and you’ll usually have it all to yourself.
Discover a Dramatic Hidden Sea Arch That Locals Call ‘the Hole in the Rock’
Tucked away behind the small town of La’ie on Oahu’s north shore is a small state park called La’ie State Wayside Park, which most people just call La’ie Point. And on a sandstone island right off the point is “the hole in the rock,” a sea arch created from a 1940s tsunami. You can walk out among the rocks, waves crashing all around you, to find not only a stunning view of the massive hole itself but also of other nearby islands and Oahu’s windward coastline. And by the way, the little sandstone island is also the site of fascinating Hawaiian lore: it’s said that it was once part of a giant lizard chopped into pieces by a demigod to stop its deadly attack on Oahu.
Photograph One of the Best Panoramic Views of Oahu from its Easternmost Point
On a looming volcanic ridge remnant rising 600-some feet above an azure ocean, Makapuʻu Point—Oahu’s easternmost edge—is one of the island’s most awe-inspiring viewpoints. From the lookout it’s possible to spot nearby Manana Island and Black Rock Island, and on a clear day the islands of Molokai and Lanai are visible too. The 46-foot Makapu’u Lighthouse also stands at the far eastern tip, and the easy hike out offers even more spectacular 360-degree vistas.
Visit a Powerful Natural Blowhole Adjacent to an Incredibly Romantic Beach Cove
The Halona Blowhole is one of Oahu’s most impressive natural features. It’s a narrow lava tube set at just the right height for waves to enter; when they do, the water becomes compressed and gushes 20 to 35 feet into the air, much like a geyser. The bigger the waves, the more forceful the eruptions (some particularly powerful blasts even elicit cheers). And after you take in the climactic blowhole, just below is one of Oahu’s most iconic beaches: Halona Beach Cove. This picturesque cove gained fame as the setting for an epic kiss between actors Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. More recently, the beach hit the big screen again as “Whitecap Bay” in the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
Take an Epic Hike of 1,048 Steps Up a Volcanic Tuff Cone
Along the southeastern side of Oahu lies Koko Head, an ancient tuff cone created by volcanic explosions thousands of years ago. More recently, the military used its 1,208-foot peak as a guard post during World War II, and a railway was erected to bring supplies to the top. Now unused, the railway’s 1,048 slats provide the sweaty stairway to the top—where the reward for all that puffing is a magnificent view of the Kaiwi Coast.
Walk to an Island You Can Have All to Yourself
During low tide it’s possible to walk to the tiny, postcard-famous offshore island of Mokolii. This is the spot to make your castaway fantasies come true for an afternoon, as you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself. There’s sea caves to explore, two small beaches to hang out on, and a decently strenuous hike up to the peak for stunning views of the Ko’olau Range and the Oahu coastline.
Where to Stay While Exploring Oahu? Check out the tropical haven of Kai Nani Villa in Kailua.