The Ultimate Hawai’ian Islands Bucket List

Hawaii is a dream trip for many. It’s a trip of a lifetime, in fact! Many people go once, thinking it will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, only to fall in love with it and do whatever it takes to go back again and again. But whether a person is going once or ends up returning for multiple trips, we all want the same thing when we go: Unique, exciting, authentic opportunities. Many people make a “bucket list,” like this one. If you want some ideas, here are the top 20 things that need to be on your Hawai’ian Islands bucket list!

20. Eat at Mama’s Fish House

Don’t let the informal name fool you; this is as fine a dining experience as one can have, particularly on the beach. You’ll need to follow their dress code, and you can plan to have quite an expensive meal, but more importantly, you’ll need to reserve your table at least three months in advance! It’s definitely a special occasion sort of event, but one that’s worthwhile for foodies, those who love to dress up, and anyone who wants to support a local business. Much of their food is caught, gathered, or farmed in the islands.

Don’t miss the “Black Pearl” dessert!
And don’t forget to turn it around! No detail is left unattended to.
Come hungry: Your Guide to Dining at Mama’s Fish House, Mau’i

19. Make Your Own Lei

Upon arrival or upon check-in at your hotel, you may be offered a lei of purple orchids. These will have come from Thailand. But don’t be disappointed! Hawai’ian lei are traditionally made of Hawai’ian plants and flowers, including plumeria, which you’ll see growing on short trees just about everywhere. If you’re keen, you might enjoy a trip to the Molokai Plumeria Farm. You can pick your own plumeria, in a variety of colors, and make your own lei right there!

We were so proud of our handmade leis!
All the details: Everything You Need to Know about Lei Making on Molokai

18. Go to Pearl Harbor

A trip to Hawaii is not well-rounded without a solemn moment at Pearl Harbor. Visiting is free, and your time there will give you a new appreciation and understanding of that “date that will live in infamy.” You might also want to visit the other museums there, including the Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine and Museum, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. You could spend 90 minutes or six hours here, but regardless, you should certainly go!

The USS Arizona Memorial
More here: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Pearl Harbor National Memorial

17. Mail a Coconut

Mail a coconut? What could be a more Hawai’ian postcard! Choose one of your own (dried out, not full of coconut water!), or buy one that’s already decorated by a local artist. You’ll have to pay postage by weight and distance, which is why you won’t want a fresh one off a tree. I sent one to my family while my husband and I were on Molokai, and it gave them a thrill! Mail one to yourself while you’re in the islands as a fun reminder of your time.

Don’t forget to mail your coconut!

16. Shop Local

Surprising or not, it’s actually very easy to shop local in Hawai’i. They have their fair share of plastic knick knacks actually made in China, but you’ll be impressed with their variety of locally-made wood carvings, quilts, produce, jams and jellies, coffee, chocolates, and so, so much more! We always bring back some Honolulu cookies and real, Hawai’ian coffee from our trips to the islands. They help us make our memories more tangible when we get back to our reality.

Support local shops and bring home a bit of the islands with you, too!
Read on: 5 Tips for Shopping Local in Your Travels
and one of my most-viewed posts: The Best Hawaiian Souvenirs

15. Go Surfing

This is one of the things I still haven’t done yet! To be honest, the ocean intimidates me quite a bit. But it’s still the thing to do in the birthplace of surfing, of course. The most iconic lessons come from the original Beach Boys (not the band!) right on Waikiki Beach. But even if you never actually stand up on a board, make sure to stop by and see the Duke himself: The “Father of Modern Surfing!”

The Duke!
Must read: The Ultimate List of Activities to Book Before Your Trip to Hawaii

14. Go Off-roading

You can see plenty of O’ahu without 4-wheel drive, but some of the best hikes, views, and experiences on the other islands can only be had with 4-wheel drive. On Lana’i, for example, there are only 30 miles of paved roads, but many amazing sites are found past where the blacktop ends. You need 4-wheel drive to truly experience it all!

4-wheel drive is essential on some of the islands. You’ll always see more!
Essential info: Where to go WITH 4-wheel Drive on Lana’i

13. Get Pictures at Pu’upehe (Sweetheart Rock)

Pu’upehe is the site of a tragic love legend, but that’s all the more reason for present-day lovers to proclaim their own feeling here, right? It’s also a short hike, and an absolutely gorgeous spot for those jealousy-inducing vacation photos! You’ll find it on the island of Lana’i. Bonus: You don’t need 4-wheel drive to get there!

My sweetheart!
More here: The Best Hikes on Lana’i

12. Hike the Kalalau Trail

This one takes a little planning, but if you want to do any hiking in Hawai’i, this is the one that needs to be at the top of your list. The world-famous Kalalau Trail on Kaua’i’s epic Na’Pali Coast requires a camping permit if you plan to hike the entire 22 miles round-trip, or a Ha’ena State Park Pass only if you, like most, want to hike the first 2-4 miles instead! You won’t be sorry, whatever you choose. This is the hike of a lifetime; the perfect addition to any bucket list, but a must for a Hawai’ian bucket list!

This view can’t be had from any other vantage point.
All the best tips: How to Sign Up to Hike the Kalalau Trail on Kaua’i

11. Explore the Pipiwai Trail

Speaking of hikes you have to do in a lifetime, be sure to make your way nearly to the end of the notable Road to Hana, and hike along the Pipiwai Trail through Mau’i’s own bamboo forest. It looks like something out of a dream, but believe me, it’s real! Take it from our experience: Stay in or near Hana, instead of doing the entire road trip in just one day. You could get this unbelievable hike all to yourself if you can get there in the morning, before the day trippers arrive.

Mythological? Maybe.
Read on: Everything You Need to Know about Taking the Road to Hana

10. Take Your Time on the Road to Hana

Speaking of staying in or close to Hana, it’s the perfect solution for taking your time to truly experience the famous road trip everyone else rushes through. Do a few hikes, take your time admiring the waterfalls. Take a dip in one of the pools they fall into! Embrace the island life, and take it slow.

Not a movie set.
Keep reading: How to Spend 3 Days on Mau’i’s Road to Hana

9. Hike Koko Head Crater

Okay, okay, not everyone is into hiking. I just urge you to choose at least one from the list and give it a try! For those who want a short hike with a big challenge, this is for you. It’s over 1,000 steps, in the form of railroad ties, to the top of a World War II bunker with an enormous view. It’s one of the best hikes on O’ahu, and in fact, one of the most unique hikes in the world.

The climb is worth it for the views!
Get more here: The Ultimate Guide to Hiking on O’ahu

8. Get the Perfect Diamond Head Photo-op

Who doesn’t recognize Waikiki’s iconic crater, Diamond Head (Le’ahi in Hawai’ian)? Looming over one of the world’s most famous beaches, Diamond Head will most certainly be in some of your photos! It’s hard to get a bad shot, what with the turquoise waters and puffy, white clouds, so find your favorite spot and get some photos you’ll love forever!

Everyone recognizes Diamond Head.

7. See Halawa Valley

Never heard of Molokai’s Halawa Valley? You’re not alone. Most people don’t think about Hawai’i beyond the four most popular islands, so Molokai’s beautiful locales don’t make it onto many people’s lists. Add to that the fact that Halawa Valley and its gorgeous waterfall are on private property, and you can see why it’s not something every visitor has done. But you can take a guided tour with one of the native Hawai’ians who live there, and truly get to know the “real” Hawai’i.

The hike is worth the waterfall reward.
Read this first: Everything You Need to Know about the Halawa Valley Cultural Hike

6. Visit Kalaupapa National Historic Site

Step 1: Read the book Molokai by Alan Brennert. Step 2: Book your trip to the island of Molokai (“The Friendly Isle”) to see Kalaupapa National Historic Site for yourself. It’s such a sad place, but at the same time, there’s so much to learn about progress and forgiveness and growing where you’re planted. Kalaupapa was once home to a leper colony, begun by King Kamehameha V in 1865. It was an attempt to prevent the spread of leprosy, to which native Hawai’ians were particularly susceptible. A handful of patients still live there, by choice.

The history of Kalaupapa and its people is the kind you can’t make up.
More here: What to Know Before You Visit the Kalaupapa National Historic Site

5. Attend a Luau

You have to do this while you’re in Hawaii, right? It took us three trips, but once we finally got to a luau during our first trip to the Island of Hawai’i, we wondered why we’d waited so long! It may be a little Disney-esque, but we did learn about hula (which some say began on Molokai) and its symbolism not just in Hawai’i, but throughout Polynesia. We ate such good food, and we got to experience the welcoming “Aloha Spirit” in a new way for us. Make a plan to go to one yourself!

See hula from all over Polynesia–Hawai’i and beyond!
Get a sneal peek: What We Ate at the Luau!

4. See Lava, then Snow

The Island of Hawai’i, also known as the “Big Island,” is, well, really big! So big in fact, that you can experience flowing lava and a snow-capped mountain top all in the same day. The active volcanoes don’t flow all the time, but they do flow often, and sometimes for long periods of time! The viewing areas change, as no one can predict where exactly the lava will pop up next, so plan to visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to get the latest information!

When you’re done, head up into the mountains to see snow at the peaks! You’ll want to bring a sweater and some long pants. It’s amazing that these two things can co-exist on the same island, but they do!

Our third anniversary was a “steamy” one!
Read on: The Ultimate Island of Hawai’i Bucket List

3. Visit a Coffee Farm

You can visit a coffee farm on almost every island, so make sure you do! And support the farm where you take your tour when you buy a bag to bring home with you. We stock up when we go, and we try to stretch it out so we can enjoy a taste of Hawai’i until our next trip to our favorite island chain.

We have always LOVED our tours of the Kaua’i Coffee Company!
Get caffeinated: Visiting Kaua’i Coffee Co: All You Need to Know

2. Take a Scenic Flight

While the view out your 737’s window may be quite nice, it’s really nothing compared to a helicopter or tiny plane when it comes to a truly scenic flight. We’ve taken helicopter tours of Ni’ihau, Mau’i, and Molokai; taken a tiny plane around the island of Kaua’i, and flown in tiny commuter aircraft for view of O’ahu, Molokai, and Lana’i. I wouldn’t trade them! You can get so much closer to the epic coastlines, see wildlife from the air, and truly get views you can’t see any other way. Take a scenic flight, even if it’s just an inter-island commuter flight. You won’t regret it!

Our scenic flight of the Na’Pali Coast is one of the experiences I’ll always love and remember!
Read this first: What to Expect Flying in a Tiny Plane

1. Visit All 8 Main Islands

This is another one Steve and I haven’t completed yet, but we’ve gotten close! The eight “main” Hawaiian islands are:

  • Island of Hawai’i
  • Kaho’olawe
  • Kaua’i
  • Lana’i
  • Mau’i
  • Molokai
  • Ni’ihau
  • O’ahu

Most people think you can visit neither Kaho’olawe nor Ni’ihau. Well, while it’s not easy, it is possible. For Kaho’olawe, you’ll have to sign up for a four-day volunteer program, requiring you to work on the land, avoid unexploded ordinances left from the island’s history as target practice, camp, and possibly swim between your vessel and the island on your way to and from this volunteer opportunity–for which there is typically a years-long wait list! Oh, and that’ll cost you $200.

For Ni’ihau, it’s a little easier, but still not a last-minute type of excursion. You can visit via helicopter, through Ni’ihau Helicopter Tours, for quite a hefty price. You’ll get a half-day tour that includes a scenic flight over the island, lunch, and access to an exclusive beach. You can also pick up anything you like off the beach, as long as it’s not alive! And you can bring any of those things back with you, as long as they fit into the helicopter. This was an epic experience that anyone who loves visiting Hawai’i should have.

We were more excited to see the Hawai’ian Monk Seals on Ni’ihau than they were to see us boring people!
Visiting Ni’ihau is possible: Your Sneak Peek at Ni’ihau: Hawaii’s Forbidden Island

Want more? You’ll find everything you need to plan your trip to Hawai’i on my dedicated Hawai’ian Islands Page!

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