Now that 2012 is rolling in earnest, it's time to plan your ultimate trip to the Hawaiian Islands. Maybe you've been here before, or only dreamed of visiting. But in either case, you'll want to peruse our list of Hawaii must-sees — the locations that epitomize a trip to these Islands, beyond just hitting the beach. If you plan on hitting any of these six islands, consider this your to-do list. For visitors and kama'aina (Hawaii-born and raised) alike, they're life changing experiences to always remember. Read on and see why.
THE POLYNESIAN CULTURAL CENTER Why? It's much, much more than a luau.
This center on Oahu's northern Windward coast, in the small town of Laie, celebrates the many cultures of Polynesia, each of which contributed to the unique culture of ancient Hawaii.
Music, chanting, dance, shows, presentations and crafts greet you as you visit each village, representing the islands of Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa, Samoa, the Marquesas Islands and Fiji. Feast on prime rib and seafood at the Alii Luau, and stay for the explosive, fiery "HA: Breath of Life" show. You'll leave amazed by the cultural range of the Pacific, and the humor and aloha of its people.
For some, perhaps the idea of visiting a gravesite isn't their idea of a vacation getaway. But the Arizona Memorial is different — there's a reason it's the island's most popular attraction. Before heading to the memorial by boat, you are immersed in the history of the era, in the events that led up to the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, the day on which America's historical course inexorably changed, and the day that ended the lives of most of the 1,177 aboard the USS Arizona.
With this in context, you'll step aboard the elegant structure elevated above the watery wreckage. Visitors from around the world come here, including from Japan, to share the somber spirit of this place. You'll have an appreciation for how far the world has come, and to whom we owe a debt. As one of the civilian witnesses of the attack noted, "It's wonderful, and yet it's so sad."
HALEAKALA CRATER Why? The House of the Sun will shock you from tropical torpor.
We've written on the delightful moonscape of Haleakala before and you've no doubt heard of its majestic sunrise. If you aren't a morning person, the stark geography, colors and native life of this place will entrance no matter what time you go. You can criss-cross over the park's many trails, or just marvel in the view from the visitors center. And as you drive back down from the 10,000-foot summit, along the mountain's western flank, and take in the remarkable view of Maui and the outer islands from that height, you'll see why so many think it's a magical place. And worth a day away from the beach. (Photo: 3D Travel, Inc.)
MOLOKINI Why? Maui's marine life loves this sunken volcanic crater.
If you love swimming among tropical marine life, Maui is unquestionably the island for you. This volcanic islet off the island's southern coast benefits from its isolation and rich coral life, creating a happy home for many of Hawaii's sea creatures: more than 250 kinds of fish, turtles, octopus, small reef sharks and more. Take your waterproof camera.
HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK Why? It's home to the world's most active volcano.
Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983, making it the world's most active and a sight to behond. The National Park Service updates daily what areas of the park are off limits and from where you can safely view the lava flows, and there are magnificent trails and park features to explore away from the lava.
The planet is building subdivisions — don't miss it. (A new fissure developed on Kilauea's eastern flank early last year. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey.)
MAUNA KEA OBSERVATORIES Why? View the wonders of the universe.
The summit at Mauna Kea is just shy of 14,000 feet. Here you'll find world-class telescopes that capture faint traces of galaxies at the edge of the known universe. You'll also find beautiful rocky vistas and, in clear weather, the summits of Mauna Loa to the south and Haleakala on Maui. Stop first at the Visitor Information Station at 9,300 feet to get the latest conditions at the summit. If you decide to go no further, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy has several public telescopes with exceptional viewing power, plus the nightly (and free!) Stargazing Program from 6-10 p.m. that includes a documentary and nighttime views of the stars through the facility's telescopes.
WAIMEA CANYON Why? Mark Twain was impressed, and you will be, too.
With powerful rivers of water rolling off Mount Wai'ale'ale, one of the wettest places on Earth, over a period of 6 million years, the formation of this canyon was assured. Be awed by the dramatic color contrast between red layers of land against the green parklands and blue skies. Whether you come to hike into its crevasses or just enjoy the view from various lookouts, you'll agree with Mark Twain when he dubbed Waimea the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" (Photo: David Croxford/Hawaii Magazine).
ALLERTON GARDEN Why? Kaua'i is called The Garden Isle. This national botanical garden is one of its gems.
You don't have to be a plant lover to appreciate this remarkable 85-acre preserve on Kauai's south shore. Take a guided tour or a self-tour, learning about the plethora of flora along the way. Bring your camera and video camera — this kind of beauty is something you have to share back home.
HULOPO'E BAY Why? This marine preserve redefines "pristine."
Also known as Manele Bay, with the elegant Four Seasons situated atop seaside cliffs, this marine preserve on the southern coast of Lana'i is the happy home of much of Hawaii's tropical marine life — especially the playful spinner dolphins who routinely frolic in its waters.
The bay is lined with lava-rimmed tidal pools that offer additional concentrations of marine life and excellent, protected snorkeling. (Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons).
GARDEN OF THE GODS Why? Excellent views paired with the mysticism of an otherworldly landscape.
The land is laid bare here, with a palette of earth tones that would trump the masters. It's beauty is in its strangeness, particularly on an island with pine-marked greenness and crystalline waters. Take a walk through as you enjoy the views of Maui, Moloka'i and beyond — or, if you're a mountain biker, this is one of the top spots.
KALAUPAPA Why? No matter your religion, it's a geological wonder with the world's tallest sea cliffs.
This unusual peninsula (also known as Makanalua) was formed by a shield volcano that formed when lava flowed outward from the ocean floor, the last known volcanic activity on Moloka'i. Though part of the island, it consequently looks distinctly separate, and is in fact isolated by the more than 3,000-foot-tall sea cliffs that cut it off from the rest of the island. It's here that sufferers of Hansen's Disease (also known as leprosy) were banished in the 1800s, and here that Saint Damien ministered to and cared for them until his early death from the disease.