Hawaii travel guide: Adventures in Maui and Oahu
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
Incorporated as the 50th state of the USA in 1959, Hawaii evokes images of palm trees, balmy beaches and hula dancers.
You’ll find all of these when visiting the archipelago, but there’s more to it than just sipping on cocktails by the seas. Hawaii’s a place steeped in mythology and centuries of ancient history.
The islands were settled as early as 400 C.E., by Polynesians who made their way over from the Marquesas Islands in canoes. These indigenous settlers were skilled hunters and fishermen, living in communities ruled by chieftains.
Hawaii’s military history has drawn worldwide attention as well, with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour catalysing America’s entry into WWII.
Spending two weeks on the islands of Maui and Oahu, I learnt more about Hawaii’s fascinating − and at times painful − past.
My first stop was Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands. Heading to the town of Lahaina, I visited the Old Lahaina Courthouse, which has been converted into a heritage museum.
The museum traces Lahaina’s history from ancient times to the monarchy era, where it served as capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii under Kamehameha the Great. You’ll find artifacts dating back to 1859, and even a basement jail which is now an art gallery.
On the western side of Maui is Haleakala National Park, a massive dormant shield volcano. Legend has it that the ancient Hawaiian demigod Maui climbed to its peak and lassoed the overhead sun, slowing its passage across the sky to prolong the day.
Unfortunately, the sun chose not to surface when I visited the summit on a foggy afternoon. But on clear days, you’ll witness an other-worldly landscape of multihued cliffs and cinder cones as you look down into the crater floor. There are also numerous hiking trails, some of which descend into the crater.
Another site important to the early Hawaiians was Molokini Crater, now partially submerged off the coast of Maui. The natives visited the site to fish, collect feathers and hunt for birds and eggs. Today, the islet is a popular snorkelling and diving location. Taking a boat tour out, I swam amongst countless species of fish in every colour imaginable. Do bear in mind that the waves here can get choppy though, my partner and I did get seasick and had to step back in to the boat a couple of times.
Maui's beaches can give the famous Waikiki a run for its money too. My favourite was Makena Beach. One of Maui's largest and most pristine, it stretches nearly two-thirds of a mile with beautiful sandy shores (and the lack of crowds). We had a poke bowl picnic at sunset, and loved every minute of it!
Adventures in Oahu
I then travelled to Oahu, home to two-thirds of Hawaii’s population. She’s significantly more built-up than her sister island, especially state capital Honolulu where traffic is heavy and throngs of tourists abound.
Nevertheless, the island isn’t devoid of history and culture. Hanauma Bay − a natural bay formed by volcanic activity − was used by royalty as a recreational site for fishing and entertaining guests. It’s now a marine nature preserve and snorkelling haven, with 400 species of fish and green sea turtles in its waters.
On Oahu’s north-eastern side lies Kualoa Ranch, a sacred site to ancient Hawaiians from the 13th to18th century. It hosted the Makahiki − an annual event where natives came to train and participate in warrior games.
In modern times, it’s been the film site of many popular TV shows and movies like Jurassic Park, Lost and Pearl Harbour. I joined the 90-minute movie tour, which stopped at various film locales and a backlot filled with posters, props and memorabilia from shows filmed over the years.
A luau− also known as a traditional Hawaiian party with food and entertainment − is a must-do as well. I opted for the Ka Moana Luau at Sea Life Park, and participated in activities like lei-making, hula lessons and headband weaving.
The feast included tasty local dishes like Kalua pork, pineapple cake and fresh taro rolls. After sunset, guests were treated to vibrant dance performances inspired by various Polynesian tribes.
Of course, what's a visit to Hawaii without visiting its most well-known landmark - Waikiki Beach. Yes, it's very crowded at sunset and the whole district in generally is touristy. But the sunset beach views are still worth it, and the calm waves are great for swimming or body-boarding.
Not to mention the fact that some restaurants along the beach, like The Royal Hawaiian's beachfront bar, serve up a mean Mai Tai cocktail! Other places to enjoy a well-mixed Mai Tai are Sheraton Waikiki and Duke's Waikiki. Waikiki's filled with great dining places as well, but that's for another post!
If the crowds at Waikiki do deter you, head to Lanikai Beach on Oahu'a Eastern side. Located in a residential area, it's one of the island's best-kept secrets with lovely turquoise waters and a peaceful atmosphere. For a bird's eye view of the beach, hike up the Kaiwa Ridge (Lanikai Pillbox) trail.
Scars of the past
Oahu’s military history is well-worth exploring too. Pearl Harbour was one of the highlights of my trip, especially the USS Arizona Memorial which marks the resting place of thousands of sailors killed on the vessel during the 1941 attack.
As I took a somber stroll through the outdoor Remembrance Circle, I was surprised to learn that numerous civilians − including an infant as young as 3 months − were killed in the military base attack.
I also visited the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the last American battleship to be decommissioned. The majestic vessel provides much insight into life as a marine, with most of its engine rooms and crew facilities still intact.
On board, I stood on the deck where the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945, bringing the Second World War to an end. Reflecting on Singapore’s history of Japanese occupation during WWII, it struck me to think how the surrender changed the course of my own country’s history as well.
While Hawaii is now a bustling tourist destination, her people always remember her past. I was fortunate to witness the annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade along Waikiki, where war veterans were honoured by citizens of all ethnicities. Hawaii’s history certainly goes to show that even after devastation, a state can foster reconciliation and peace.
Less heavy an experience than Pearl Harbour, a hike to Honolulu's Diamond Head Crater is another great way to discover Hawaii's military past. Its interior and surrounding areas were the home to Fort Ruger, the first United States military reservation on the island. A series of tunnels also provided access to the crater floor. You’ll make your way through several tunnels and stairs , as well as a WWII bunker, on your way to the observation deck on top.
The military base is now defunct, but you'll be rewarded with amazing views of Honolulu and Waikiki beach at the crater's summit.
I flew to Honolulu via China Eastern airlines, with a stopover in Shanghai. To get to Maui, I boarded an inter-island flight on Hawaiian Airlines.
Some practical tips:
- Being a tropical island chain, the weather in Hawaii is fairly consistent year-round at 25- 29 degrees. Bring a light jacket for windy nights, and a thick one for Haleakala’s summit. Winter (December) was actually a great time to visit, with little rain throughout my two-week stay.
- In Oahu, I recommend staying around Waikiki, Honolulu. Whilst crowded, it’s a convenient location if you don’t have a car, with tours to many popular attractions.
- Driving in Maui is a breeze, with uncrowded roads. However, Honolulu and Waikiki can get pretty crazy during peak hours, so factor in traffic jams when heading there from other parts of Oahu!
- Restaurant food can be pricey, especially with the customary 10-15% tip. Save money by buying ready-to-eat meals from supermarkets like Foodland or Safeway.
- Before visiting Haleakala National Park, you may want to take a look at the live summit web cam first. The summit can often be foggy as it was on my trip, and there goes your chance of seeing any kind of scenic views of the volcanic landscape.