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Things to Do in Hawaii

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National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
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37 Tours and Activities

therwise and colloquially known as Punchbowl Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a United States Armed Forces cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery gathers millions of visitors every year, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Hawaii. It is dedicated to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard members who lost their lives in their line of duty.

The location of the cemetery wasn’t the fruit of coincidence; it is located on what Hawaiians called “Hill of Sacrifice,” which used to be an altar where they offered human sacrifices to pagan gods and where they installed a battery of two cannons used to salute prominent arrivals and signify noteworthy instances. Since the site was established in 1949, approximately 53,000 World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and their dependents have been interred in these grounds.

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Puaʻa Kaʻa State Wayside Park
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A pleasant stop on the road to Hana, the Pua’a Ka’a Park offers the chance to take a scenic break from the long drive. Stretch your legs on its dirt path to nearby waterfalls and natural pools. The farther you’re willing to walk, the taller the waterfalls become and many people bring a picnic to enjoy as a part of this diversion.

Totaling five acres the area here is lush with tropical plants which, with the sound of the waterfalls, create a distinct rainforest feel. Picnic tables are set against scenic backdrops, and fish and tadpoles are visible in the shallower pools. Watch for wild birds and mongoose. The walking paths here are not rigorous, but a refreshing dip in one of the pools is a highlight for many on a hot day.

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Ala Moana Beach Park
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Ala Moana Beach Park is where locals head to enjoy a weekend in the sun. While it’s moderately crowded during the middle of the week, sunny weekends are like an outdoor block party where everyone is down at the beach. Coolers, pop-up tents, BBQ’s, and beach chairs sprawl across 76 acres, and it’s a festive atmosphere along this white sand stretch of Honolulu coastline.

Even with the park’s popularity, however, visitors can still find their own little corner for relaxing out on the sand. The protected lagoon is ideal for lap swimming or visitors traveling with young children, and the offshore reef is where boogie boarders and surfers race across the waves. There isn’t much to see in the way of snorkeling, but the calm waters are perfect for sunbathing while sprawled on an inflatable raft. Lay out a blanket in the shaded grass area if you need to escape the sun, or work up a sweat on the park’s jogging trails or the popular beachfront tennis courts.

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Hawaii State Capitol
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Hawaii’s Capitol building doesn’t have the grand golden domes of capitols in other U.S. states, instead its exterior is blocky and reminiscent of the 1960s postmodern era in which it was built. But, like other capitols, its features are rife with symbolism. Inside, the central courtyard opens to the sky via narrowing layers set to mimic the interior of the volcano; the two Legislative chambers also feature unique sloped walls to achieve a similar effect. The eight supporting pillars on the front and back of the building narrow toward the top to evoke the trunks of royal palm trees, there is one for each of the main Hawaiian Islands. A raised moat reflecting pool surrounds the building and is said to symbolize the Pacific surrounding the Islands.

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Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
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On Ford Island in the heart of infamous Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Aviation Museum’s two massive hangars totaling more than 120,000 square feet house military aircraft from the WWII Vietnam and the Korean War. Given its setting, the highlights here are Pearl Harbor related: Hangar 37 houses Japanese Zero planes, a civilian plane that was shot down during the Pearl Harbor attacks, and a P-40 fighter plane similar to those that took flight on Dec. 7th, 1941. On the door of Hangar 79, it’s still possible to see bullet holes left from that day. But there are plenty of other planes to pique the aviation-enthusiasts interest including an authentic F4F Wildcat, the actual Stearman N2S-3 piloted solo by former President George H.W. Bush and several MiG planes from the Korean conflict.

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Kapiolani Park
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Even as early 1877, the Hawaiian Royalty recognized the need for preserving open space. With the city of Honolulu rapidly growing, King David Kalakaua—the last reigning King of Hawaii—allocated 130 of Waikiki’s acres towards a park for the people of Hawaii. Naming it after his beloved wife—Queen Kapiolani—the park today offers sprawling green fields for locals, visitors, and families.

In addition to the soccer fields, tennis courts, and jogging paths, the park also houses the Honolulu Zoo and public art shows on the weekends. For special events, the Waikiki Shell is a performance venue set in the middle of Kapiolani Park, where some of the world’s largest musical acts will throw concerts, benefits, and shows just minutes from Waikiki Beach. The Honolulu Marathon—held every December—usually finishes at Kapiolani Park, and even during other times of the year, this is a happening place for Honolulu residents to escape the city rush.

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Manoa Falls
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Located at the back of Honolulu’s lush Manoa Valley, Manoa Falls is a 150 ft. waterfall which is accessible by a one-hour hike. It’s the perfect distance for those wanting an easy workout, and it’s close enough to the city that you can squeeze in a visit if you only have a couple of hours.

Parking for the falls is $5 and is in the parking lot by the Rainbow’s End snack shop, and this moderate trail weaves its way between swaying stands of creaking bamboo and the sweet scent of eucalyptus. After .8 miles the trail emerges at majestic Manoa Falls, and the flow is highly dependent upon the amount of recent rainfall. On some days this can be a thundering torrent of jungle whitewater, whereas on other days (particularly in summer) the falls can be reduced to little more than a trickle.

Regardless of season, however, the shaded trail is often wet, and mud can line the narrow trail during pretty much every day of the year.

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Saddle Road (Hawaii Route 200)
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Like a lonely ribbon of black asphalt across the Big Island’s empty bosom, Saddle Road provides the fastest means of driving between Hilo and Kona. There was once a time when this remote stretch of highway was one of the worst roads in Hawaii, but substantial improvements and re-paving have made it accessible and open to cars.

From Hilo, Saddle Road climbs through residential neighborhoods towards a lush, mist-soaked rainforest. The green of ferns is gradually replaced by the brown of desert scrub brush, and fog is common as the road climbs toward 6,600 feet in elevation. Passing between the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—Hawaii’s dueling 13,000-foot mountains that are often snowcapped in winter—the road passes the turnoff for the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center, where stargazers gather each evening. Cell phone service is spotty on Saddle Road, and for the entire duration of its 48-mile stretch there are no gas stations or supply shops.

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Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives
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Two of the oldest wooden houses in Hawaii—the former site of the Sandwich Islands mission, the Island’s first western colony—remain not far from the skyrises of downtown Honolulu’s financial and government district. The Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives is comprised of the Frame House, the Chamberlain House and the Printing Office—built between 1821 and 1841, and restored and furnished as they would have been in the early 19th century. Each feature small exhibits and artifacts detailing early missionary’s way of life: a recreation of a medical dispensary, chamber pots in the rooms and quilts on the beds. Short-term exhibitions regularly make an appearance too and have included features on children’s toys, portraits and portrait-making, quilts and reading. The site also includes a library featuring over 12,000 printed works, handwritten missionary journals and a printing press used to create the first written Hawaiian language materials.

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Honolulu Hale
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The Honolulu Municipal Building doesn’t have quite the ring of Honolulu Hale—though they are one and the same. The Hale, which means house in Hawaiian, is home Oahu’s city hall— government offices including the chambers of the Mayor and the Honolulu City Council. The Spanish Colonial Revival building—a popular style in Honolulu in the 1920s—was completed in 1928, and, in addition to being interesting architecturally, hosts regular city and public functions including the popular annual Honolulu City Lights. Each December since the mid 1980s, a giant 21-foot “Shaka Santa” (that is, Santa flashing his one-handed shaka sign) and Tutu Mele (Mrs. Claus) adorn the building’s fountain pool accompanied by a flurry of colored light displays and lawn ornaments. The public is welcomed inside the building to walk amongst ornately-decorated and -themed Christmas trees, which are judged for their creativity; original artwork from area school children lines the walls.

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More Things to Do in Hawaii

Duke Kahanamoku Statue

Duke Kahanamoku Statue

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Ala Moana Center

Ala Moana Center

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Just across the street from the tropical Pacific Ocean in downtown Honolulu, the four-story Ala Moana Center (often just called Ala Moana) is currently the world’s largest outdoor shopping mall. With 2.4 million square feet of retail space alone (that’s as much as 42 football fields!), the sprawling property boasts 340 shops and 80 restaurants including national and international name brands chains (Burberry, Cartier, Apple, Gap, Macy’s, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and Barnes & Noble) as well as Hawaii-only outlets (Happy Wahine Boutique, Big Island Candies, Kahala Sportswear, Martin & MacArthur, Honolulu Coffee Co. and Sand People). Free live entertainment—from singing competitions to hula performances and fashion shows—often take place in its central corridor stage. Always bustling, Ala Moana Center is the place to see and be seen for residents and visitors alike.

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Honolulu Zoo

Honolulu Zoo

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The shriek of the Honolulu Zoo’s population of endangered white-handed gibbons is a familiar morning sound to Waikiki’s regular surfing contingent; the zoo is just across the street from some of the most popular beginner surf breaks toward the far end of Waikiki near Diamond Head crater. In addition to the monkeys, the sprawling 42-acre open-air zoo is home to more than 900 tropical animals including elephants, black rhino, giraffe, Sumatran tiger, aardvark, meerkat, orangutan, birds, reptiles and more. The zoo also houses animals only found in Hawaii, including the state bird, the nēnē, as well as a number of endemic plants in and around the enclosures.

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Bishop Museum

Bishop Museum

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For the lowdown on Polynesian lore, legend, history and anthropology, drop into the Bishop Museum. Far from dry, displays range from woven hats, sculptures and scientific exhibits to planetarium shows and historical artifacts.

Take a welcome tour, view the plants of the Pacific, watch a lava-melting demonstration or hear island oral history. There’s also a calendar of events, activities and exhibitions to entertain the kids, from circus acts to hula shows.

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Honolulu Museum of Art

Honolulu Museum of Art

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What is formerly known as the Honolulu Academy of Arts is the leading museum of its kind the state of Hawaii, and hosts one of the largest single collections of Asian and Pan-Pacific art in the United States at 50,000 objects. It represents all the major cultures of Hawaii and spans 5,000 years, from ancient times to today. Founded by esteemed local missionary Anna Rice Cooke in 1927 in Honolulu’s most beautiful Hawaiian-style building, the museum continues to present international caliber exhibitions along with its permanent collection, which is home to world-class pieces by none other than Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Warhol.

The museum actually encompasses several building, scattered over 3.2 acres near downtown Honolulu; it features the Spalding House, the Doris Duke Theatre, the Robert Allerton Art Library, the Art School and the Shangri La Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

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Pipiwai Trail

Pipiwai Trail

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Even in the middle of a sunny day, hikers here will often find they are strolling along in near darkness. The towering bamboo is so thick in places that it nearly blocks out the sun, and it creaks and whistles high in the branches as it blows in the East Maui wind. The dense jungle of bamboo aside, what makes this hike such a Maui favorite is the multiple waterfalls and swimming holes. Reaching the waterfalls can be treacherous, however, as the trail leading down from the highway to the falls is steep, slippery, and dirt. Even the entrance requires skirting a fence that has been cleared for easier entry, and it’s a “proceed at your own risk” type of trail that isn’t officially marked.

For those who choose to visit, however, four different waterfalls splash their way through a forest is laden with bamboo and guava. Each waterfall has a small swimming hole where you can escape the midday heat, and the bottom two falls are the most accessible for hikers.

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Opaekaa Falls

Opaekaa Falls

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Kaua‘i, is green, and Kaua‘i is wet—but that’s also why it’s so beautiful. Parts of the island receive over 400 inches of rainfall every year, and all that rain means the “Garden Isle” is dripping in dozens of waterfalls. While some of these waterfalls require trekking through mud just to gain a glimpse of their splendor, others ones such as Opaeka‘a Falls only require stepping out of the car. Tumbling just over 150’, Opaeka‘a Falls is a year-round waterfall that is guaranteed to be flowing. The falls usually feature two separate streams that splash their way down the cliff face, but after periods of especially heavy rain, the two falls can merge into a single, explosive cascade. Whatever the size, the best time to visit is usually in the late morning when the falls are bathed in sunlight—and if it happens to be cloudy day, the falls are so close and easily accessible it’s easy to pay another visit.

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Fern Grotto

Fern Grotto

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Perfect acoustics and gorgeous scenery come together at Fern Grotto, the highlight of a cruise on the Wailua River.

A natural amphitheater, the fern-filled grotto provides a unique venue for visitors to hear traditional Hawaiian music in one of the islands’ most beautiful outdoor settings. The beautiful grotto was created by volcanic activity, and is draped in tropical ferns.

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Anini Beach

Anini Beach

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Waioli Mission House

Waioli Mission House

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Maunalua Bay

Maunalua Bay

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Maunalua Bay is a popular bay for water sports activities on Oahu’s south shore. Home to many stand up paddlers and kayakers, snorkelers and divers also come to explore the nearby reef. Hawaiian for “two mountains,” Maunalua Bay is framed by the Ko’olau range and sits by the peaks of Koko Crater and Koko Head.

Famous for its sunsets, the adventure beach is especially popular among Honolulu’s boaters and jet skiers who come to make the most of Maunalua Bay’s launch site. Look out for parasailers while you’re here too, and if you’re coming to Maunalua Bay to snorkel or scuba dive the reef is a mile out to shore, its crystal-clear waters full of colorful reef fish and bright green sea turtles. If you’d rather relax, there are also park benches available on the shore where it’s popular to enjoy a picnic under the setting sun.

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Mt. Tantalus

Mt. Tantalus

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Koko Crater

Koko Crater

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Koko Crater is where locals head when they’re in need of a really good workout, and it’s also a popular visitor attraction thanks to the stunning views from the top. In order to reach the summit, however, you’ll first need to conquer the 1,048 steps that run in a straight line up the mountain. The steps themselves are actually railroad ties left over from WWII, and while the first half of the steps are moderately steep, it’s the final push to the 1,100-foot summit that make your legs really start to burn.

The reward for reaching the top, however, is unobstructed, 360-degree of the southeastern section of O‘ahu. Gaze down towards Hanauma Bay and the turquoise waters of the crater, and watch as waves break along Sandy Beach and form foamy ribbons of white. Neighboring Diamond Head looms in the west and is backed by Honolulu, and the island of Moloka‘i—and sometimes Lana‘i—float on the eastern horizon.

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