There's more than one way to "do" Hawaii, and honestly, there's not really a wrong way to do it. Over the years, my Hawaiian trips have varied from luaus with the fam growing up, to celebrating my high school graduation with my best friends on Waikiki, to hiking the Na Pali coast with my husband, to learning how to surf in a hurricane (true story). I love Maui, Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island each in different ways, and have unique memories on each island. I think most Americans (certainly us sun-worshipping Californians) have a nostalgic love for our western neighboring state… we are rejuvenated by the Aloha spirit we take home with us, sandy and sunburned.
Some even love Hawaii so much they end up moving there… like my in-laws. As Nick's dad and stepmom call the Big Island home half the year, we are fortunate to have an excuse to visit frequently! Hawaii's rich history, unparalleled surf culture, and stunning tropical landscapes make for a fabulous vacation no matter how you slice it... and while I don't consider myself an expert on the Aloha State by any means, I have visited enough times to have some definitive takeaways if you're planning a visit.
Last month, I traveled to Hawaii with Fairmont Hotels and was treated to the trip of a lifetime: I snorkeled with honu (sea turtles) via a private chartered yacht, gawked at Jurassic Park landscapes via a sunrise helicopter ride, gorged on delectable food, made my own haku lei, talked story with locals over excellent glasses of wine, paddled a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe, and enjoyed countless other special moments. It felt like I was on a honeymoon with my new friends who were also on the trip, and I can truly say was hands down the best time in Hawaii I've ever had. Here's how I did it.
It’s nice to splurge once you’re in Hawaii, but a surprisingly easy way to save some dollars is on airfare. One of my favorite methods is Pomelo, a subscription email service that notifies you when good flight deals come up (you can set your preferences on what kind of destinations you want to hear about). I typically receive at least a few Hawaii flight deals each month that are extremely affordable (under $400 roundtrip). This is relative based on your dates and departure city of course, but if you're west coast based, you can certainly find really nice deals if your dates are flexible. I typically fly with Hawaiian Airlines or Alaska Airlines (side note: both offer great travel credit cards that are worth looking into).
· Maui: Kahului Airport (OGG)
· Big Island: Kona International Airport (KOA)
· Oahu: Honolulu International Airport (HNL)
· Kauai: Lihue Airport (LIH)
Start With Maui
It can be a bit overwhelming to start the Hawaiian vacation planning process, especially if it's your first time to the islands, so let me take the guesswork out for you: look no further than Maui and Hawai'i (the Big Island). Maui is quintessential Hawaii: jaw-dropping mountains and white sandy beaches littered with shells as big as your hand, photography inspiration for days (road to Hana, anyone?), and endless shopping and food. It's the perfect blend of enough to do and not feeling too slow (*cough* Kauai) and still laidback with authentic Hawaiian charm sans the party scene stamp (*cough* Oahu). Of course these are generalizations and as previously mentioned, I truly love all the Hawaiian Islands I've been to... but Maui is definitely the perfect first impression of Hawaii.
For accommodations, look no further than Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, probably the most gorgeous resort I've stayed at in my entire life. While I certainly encourage you to leave the resort from time to time and explore Maui on your own, hotel amenities will make that hard to do with stunning pool views, golf, ocean access, world-class dining, and free fitness gear for rent (leave the sneakers at home!). Coming with a group? Splurging on the luxury beach villa is 100% worth it for the full luxe experience complete with your own private deck, pool, BBQ, and fresh snacks and juices replaced daily. Next, don't miss the Willow Stream Spa (unbelievable treatments)! Just make sure to leave enough time to properly slather yourself in the nutrient-rich mud and soak it all up in the steam room. Bonus points if you complete a scenic hike along the historic King’s Trail led by the resort’s Energy Ambassador, Heather Peck, who is a wealth of knowledge and will help you truly appreciate the island’s rich cultural history. Maui is truly something special.
The Big Island Is Calling
The Big Island is Hawaii's hidden gem. The biggest and newest of all the Hawaiian islands, made famous by the volcano Kīlauea (which until quite recently has been continuously erupting since 1983) Hawai'i is something truly special. On my recent trip here, I enjoyed a few days with Nick's family at their home in Kailua Kona, then made my way to the Fairmont Orchid, which is perfectly reminiscent of Hawai’i -- it reminded me of Hawaii before the commercialism and tourism we see prevalent today. I was truly spoiled during my stay here (the Fairmont Gold rooms are spectacular, but afternoon tea time at the private Fairmont Gold Lounge stole my heart). It was here I had my most authentic moments and conversations as the resort invites you to truly indulge in one simple act: enjoying. Of course the Spa Without Walls is fabulous (massage by the ocean, anyone?) and of course the world class golf courses are renowned, and OF COURSE the food is simply to die for, but it was the feeling of being invited into an ohana that made me fall in love with Fairmont Orchid and the Big Island as a whole. Do not miss a helicopter ride with Paradise Helicopters over the entire island, including the rainy Hilo side where you’ll witness dozens of jaw-dropping waterfalls! Pay a little extra to have the copter land halfway through the tour for a cup of coffee custom brewed by the pilot (this is as magical as it sounds). Bring your ginger if you’re prone to motion sickness!
Flying to the Big Island from Maui, or vice versa? I highly recommend Mokulule Airlines: an island hopper no-frills flight. You won't have to wait in security and you can even walk up and spontaneously book a flight day of if you want to check out another island (Maui is their hub, so each flight routes through there). Flight prices vary, but I found tickets for $50 from the Big Island to Maui. Can't beat that price, especially since you avoid airport and security hassle!
Tips For The First Timer
Hawaii’s year-round tropical climate means you shouldn’t need to bring very many clothes. You will live in a solid pair of sandals or flip flops the whole trip. Wear a normal comfortable travel outfit for the flight there (planes can often be chilly, so it’s nice to have a light jacket) and plan on wearing the same outfit on your flight home to conserve luggage space. In addition to tanks and shorts, a few swimsuits, hiking clothes and maybe a rain shell, you’ll want some nice evening outfits: think flowy dresses, beautiful prints, and maxi skirts. I have brought heels to Hawaii and never worn them: sandals transition perfectly from pool to dinner. If you stay at the Fairmont Kea Lani beach villa, you can do a load of laundry in the in-room washer and dryer which is a GAME CHANGER. Bring half the clothes you normally would, and reuse them the second half of your trip to conserve room in your suitcase!
Hawaiian sunsets are everything. When I travel, my plans each evening revolve around where I want to watch the sunset: from an amazing table at my new favorite seafood restaurant? From the water? From a boat? Don’t miss a single sunset while you’re there: they truly are that life-giving. Keep an eye out for the green flash right as the sun goes down!
Sunscreen is ESSENTIAL, but please make sure you wear a brand that is safe for reefs (it will be a different consistency than the sunscreen you’re used to, so it takes some getting used to). Reefs around the world are disappearing at an alarming rate, and Hawaiian reefs have been especially effected by tourist’s sunscreen. Do your research and please be mindful of your environment, especially while in the ocean: do not litter, do not touch the coral, and if you spot wildlife on the shore (sea turtle, Hawaiian monk seal, etc.) please be respectful and stay at least 10 feet away.
The Aloha Spirit
I personally don’t like to overplan when I travel: I figure out flights and accommodations and enjoy the exploration along the way. The moments you’ll fall in love with Hawaii are the unplanned moments: seeing your first sea turtle sunbathing on the beach, trying surfing for the first time, hiking to a remote waterfall then going for a dip, playing a round of golf with the ocean spray on your face, a conversation with a local, saying yes to a second Mai Tai while watching sunset and waiting for that elusive green flash (it’s real!). Since I’ve been back home in Lake Tahoe, I’ve been enjoying beautiful products from the Fairmont Store like their teas and Le Labo bath products and it’s like I carried a piece of the islands home with me (shop here)! It will certainly have to do until I can make it back to Hawaii… which will hopefully be sooner rather than later. What’s your favorite Hawaiian island?