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Are these popular spots worth the hype?

by Staff

There’s one road going east from Honolulu to popular Oahu beaches like Makapuu and Waimanalo, and on a sunny Saturday morning between Christmas and New Year’s, it was jam-packed. 

One particular slowdown happens right before Hanauma Bay. The entrance to the popular snorkeling spot is blocked with a sign that says the parking lot is full. Workers turn the cars of hopeful snorkelers around and people are walking up the hill in the hot sun with their beach chairs strapped to their backs after parking in the nearby neighborhood. 

Although the holiday week drew more crowds than typical, it’s not an unusual sight for the well-known tourist attraction. 

Hanauma Bay continues to top Hawaii travel activity lists for its calm waters and easily spotted marine life, like sea turtles and tropical fish. But for some travelers, it can seem like a headache to wake up early before the parking lot is full, often by 9 a.m. 

Even past the bay, the scenic road’s multiple lookout points are overflowing with rental cars and people snapping photos. 

For most, a Hawaiian vacation itinerary feels incomplete without a few must-do’s: Witness the islands’ natural beauty; go to a luau; snorkel with marine life; and, obviously, soak up the sun at the beach as much as possible. 

Unfortunately, there’s a big chance travelers won’t even experience the real Hawaii on their trip if they do this. 

“People love Hawaii, but they just don’t know Hawaii,” Evan Mokuahi Hayes, a Native Hawaiian who owns Hoʻomau Oʻahu Tours, which seeks to give visitors deeper and more history-driven tours of Oahu, told USA TODAY. “They love this place, but they don’t know our history.”

In Spring 2023, 67% of 1,960 Hawaii residents agreed an “authentic presentation of Hawaiian language and culture is important.” Although the industry is heading in that direction, it’s still challenging for visitors to distinguish what’s overrated and just seeking out tourist dollars, and what’s actually going to teach them more about Hawaiian history and culture. 

While travelers can research what to do, sometimes inside knowledge is the right guide. USA TODAY spoke with Native Hawaiians who work in the tourism industry on whether or not the most popular tourist attractions in the island chain are worth the hype and how to get the most out of their Hawaiian visit. 

1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 

Definitely go for its sacred history and cultural significance.

As one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is worth facing crowds for – and not just for marveling at the dramatic, ever-changing landscape (or the chance to see fiery lava.) 

“It’s a sacred treasure trove of history, culture and adventure, and itʻs the place I go to pay homage to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes,” Kaʻiulani Blankenfeld, Director of Hawaiian Culture at Hawaii Island’s Fairmont Orchid, told USA TODAY.

For Hawaiians, the over 355,000-acre park is home to Pele, making it an incredibly sacred place, from the lava fields themselves to high-elevation forests. 

The Oahu-born and raised kumu hula (hula master teacher) has danced and chanted at Halemaʻumaʻu, located inside Kīlauea’s caldera, and “felt my thoughts, spirit and body shift into another realm.” Travelers shouldn’t rush their visit; they should take it all in and be respectful to any signage. 

2. Diamond Head State Monument

Go for the sacred history, but there are other hikes with great views too. 

Diamond Head, or Lē‘ahi as it is known in Hawaiian, is arguably the most iconic Honolulu tourist attraction. The 0.8-mile-long hike up to the top of the crater is well-maintained, and the top offers a panoramic view of the southern shoreline. Before the park’s reservation system in May 2022 ($5 per person over 5 years old to enter and $10 per car), it wasn’t unusual to be hiking the popular trail in a slow, single-file line. 

Even now, it’s not exactly the most tranquil hike on the island.

Travelers who do go, shouldn’t just admire the views but research how sacred the 300,000-year-old crater is to Hawaiians, Hayes said, which Ho‘omau focuses on during its tours. Before its use as a military bunk, it was a place of worship to Native Hawaiians, and where Maui – who people may know from Disney’s “Moana” – caught the sun. 

For lesser crowds, Blankenfeld recommends the Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail on the island’s eastern side. “It offers stunning views of Oahu’s southeastern coastline, including Koko Head and Koko Crater.” It’s free and also a great place to spot humpback whales during winter.

3. Hanauma Bay

Worth making a reservation for a safe snorkeling experience.

Tucked into a volcanic cove on Oahu so the waters are always calm, Hanauma Bay has been the island’s most popular snorkeling destination for decades. During the pandemic, the bay closed so marine life could rest from human traffic and restore itself. After a few months, the water was clearer, and more fish and coral growth was recorded. 

Although non-residents have to book and pay for a timeslot ($25 per person plus service fees and $3 per car) to enter, Hayes said it’s still the best place for tourists to snorkel safely, especially for those with kids (who, if 12 and under are free to enter.)

“I think Hanauma Bay is perfectly set up for tourists,” he said. “They have people there who close the parking lot down, and there’s restrooms and trash cans.” 

He added that tourists who aren’t familiar with the ocean can often be reckless and jump in the water anywhere without realizing the almighty power of tides, swells and currents, which can end dangerously

To avoid the hectic parking situation, there’s a shuttle service to and from Waikiki for $49 per person, which covers snorkel gear but not the entrance fee. 

4. Polynesian Cultural Center

Entertaining and informative, but expensive and far from Honolulu

Located in the laidback Laie town on Oahu’s North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center is considered a Polynesian Disneyland for its six immersive villages representing the island cultures of Hawaii, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga. 

While Hayes attests to PCC’s ability to show people about Polynesia, it’s a long drive from Honolulu and will cost at least $89.95 and up to $289.95 per person, depending on whether you want to experience the two shows. 

A much cheaper and closer alternative is Bishop Museum ($28.95 per adult, cheaper for seniors and kids), which has “the largest collection of Hawaiian and Pacific cultural artifacts and natural history specimens in the world.” There’s also a Planetarium for people to learn more about the ancient navigational practice of wayfinding.

5. Iolani Palace

Definitely go, and keep exploring downtown Honolulu.

As the only official royal residence in the nation, ‘Iolani Palace is a must-do for immersing visitors in the late 1800s. “‘Iolani Palace is a great place to visit and learn the history of the Hawaiian Monarch and especially about King Kalākaua, who was really a monarch ahead of his time,” Blankenfeld said. They’ll also be educated on the tragic overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, a necessity when learning about Hawaiian history. 

Hayes recommends people go beyond the palace and visit other parts of downtown Honolulu with historical significance, all within walking distance of each other.

A few minutes away is Kawaiaha’o Church, the oldest church on Oahu, built in 1820 where many ali’i, or Hawaiian royalty spent their time. The church has a free self-guided audio tour that people can follow by scanning QR codes. View the royal pews, Princess Kai‘iulani’s bench and plantings and King Lunalilo’s tomb. 

Hayes also suggests visitors stop by the nearby Hawaiian Mission Houses ($20 per person for a guided tour, $10 for a self-guided tour) to learn more about the massive impact Christian missionaries had on Hawaii and see Hawaii’s oldest Western-style house. 

6. Road to Hana

Overhyped and there are better ways to experience Hawaii’s natural beauty.

The 52-mile-long Road to Hana drive is Maui’s most iconic activity for its stunning natural wonders. Think rainforests, waterfalls and sea cliffs. If travelers don’t leave first thing in the morning, they’ll face traffic jams and crowded waterfalls, taking away from the natural escape they were looking for. Many tourists also park their cars illegally and residents trying to commute have complained of the chaos. 

A better way for people to immerse themselves in Hawaii’s natural environments in a unique way is by volunteering with a nonprofit like Hawaii Land Trust (they also offer beach cleanups and other types of volunteer days) and Maui Cultural Lands to help care for the land by replanting native trees. Technically, you could do this on any island, and you’ll get a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s forests. 

7. A luau

Usually a tourist trap, but you should still try to experience hula. 

A quintessential Hawaiian vacation experience is going to a luau. With countless luaus across the state, it’s tough for people to know they’re not wasting their money on something made just for tourists.

Unfortunately, this can be a tricky one to navigate. “It’s harder to define authenticity in a luau today because it’s been so touristy it’s essentially like every show is almost the same everywhere,” Hayes said. “Some things you look out for are really shiny, shimmery skirts, really bright colors, all those things are a dead giveaway.” 

Hayes said the Ali‘i Lu‘au ‘Onipa‘a, which shares the last Hawaiian monarch Queen Lili‘uokalani’s story, and the following “HĀ: Breath of Life” show at PCC are solid choices. “Hands down, that’s the best dinner show; the storyline is absolutely amazing and you’re still getting all of the cultures,” he said. “You’re sitting in an amphitheater, so the seats are better and the people are actually from Tahiti or Tonga or Samoa.”

If your hotel hosts a luau experience, which tends to be pricey, try to meet with the cultural director beforehand and learn more about what’s behind their specific show. 

To experience the most authentic hula, try to seek out a hula competition. Contestants practice a song or two for months on end, striving to represent the artform in their highest regard. This is where dancers, musicians and hālau (hula schools) are putting their best foot forward, literally. 

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at [email protected].

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