Hawaii may have the distinction of being the most gorgeous US state. This tropical paradise is home to stunning beaches, palm trees galore, and a balmy climate, which beckons Americans from frostier states with promises of seaside margaritas regardless of season. There is so much to see in Hawaii besides the beach, however. Island living is at its best here, and there is no better way to experience the islands’ culture than by ditching the big cities and heading for the small towns instead. If escaping the tourist traps and souvenir shops and seeing the real Hawaii sounds good to you, discover these most scenic towns.
Found just over 10 miles from Honolulu, the town of Kailua is as idyllic as it gets. The town has bloomed from less than 3,000 residents to a town now more than ten times that size. A few moments walking through this quintessential beach town will show you why. Kailua is graced with two stellar beaches, even by Hawaiian standards. Here, the wind blows onshore, and the sun shines brightly. Windsurfing, parasailing, and surfing are all popular water sports in Kailua.
Visitors to Kailua will more than likely be spending their time on the white sands of Kailua Beach. Lanikai Beach is also considered one of the best beaches in the world. Thursdays are when the local farmer’s market is held, and the foods on offer might surprise you. Hawaiian-inspired elote, burgers, and tropical crepes made with local fruit are just a few of the incredible treats for sale.
The town of Haleiwa has been one of Oahu’s most popularly visited destinations for decades. In addition to being the North Shore of Oahu’s main arts hub, historic Haleiwa, located on Oahu, will ensure you experience its chill surf town vibes and plenty of island history for the inquisitive types. Haleiwa is one of the best places to catch some waves, kick back, and dine on some delicious grilled shrimp or some shaved ice.
It is recommended to visit Haleiwa and the North Shore at large during the Spring and Summer months. If you can manage the heat, the visitors will find the ocean waves gentler and more manageable. Or if waterfalls are more your speed, a visit to the stunning Waimea Falls, one of the most famous Oahu waterfalls, may be in order. Haleiwa Art Gallery is another worthwhile destination. The town is a haven for artists, after all. With landscapes like Haleiwa’s, that should be no surprise.
Lanai City, Lanai
Lanai was, for many years, synonymous with pineapples. A company that would become Dole started growing them there, and by the 1930s, Hawaii was the largest producer of the delicious yellow fruit in the entire world. Today, Dole Park remains one of the most iconic parts of Lanai City, and although Lanai City may not be the pineapple powerhouse it once was, the town remains a popular tourist destination.
Lanai City is located at the heart of Lanai Island. Found only three miles from Lanai Airport, Lanai City sits nearly 1,700 feet above sea level, making it much cooler than the island’s coasts. The lovely town is great for exploring traditional Hawaiian cuisine, jewelry, and art galleries. Visitors can learn more about Lanai’s culture at the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center and the Lanai Art Center, where work by local artists is for sale. Cat lovers will want to visit the famous Lānaʻi Cat Sanctuary, a feline adventure playground for the island’s strays.
Kailua-Kona, Big Island
Not to be confused with Kailua, the town of Kailua-Kona sits on the western slopes of Hualālai, Hawaii’s third youngest volcano. The humid climate here is ideal for the tropical forests and the lush coffee plantations Kona is known for. Kailua-Kona is often called one of Hawaii’s best small towns. Simplified to “Kona,” the town is one of the best places to explore Hawaii, whether by land or by sea.
Kona is very popular with snorkeling enthusiasts. Swimming with the fish at sunrise is perfect at King Kam Beach. Fun fact: the largest abalone farm in the nation can be visited at Keāhole Point as well. Kealakekua Bay, the place where Captain James Cook first set foot on the island in 1778, is the perfect place to kayak as well. The main tourist strip is Aliʻi Drive. There you can find plenty of souvenirs and restaurants. Finish up the day with a walk down the Kailua pier. Kona is a wonderful place to watch the sunset.
Hawi, Big Island
Hawi may very well be one of the Big Island’s best-kept secrets. Straddling the northern coastline of the Big Island’s Kohala area, Hawi Town lies directly across the Maui Channel from Kaupo. The town was formerly the central base of operations for the Kohala Sugar Mill but has since become a popular tourist destination. With a tranquil vibe and plenty of sun, Hawi is a place where visitors can experience one of Hawaii’s most eclectic but wonderful towns.
There is so much to do in Hawi for the adventurous. In the autumn, this sleepy town livens up as competitors in the world-famous Ironman Triathlon turn around in the city during the biking segment of the contest. Kohala zipline tours, skydiving trips, and more await thrill-seekers on the Big Island. Hawaii’s tropical produce can also be had in abundance at the Hawi Farmers Market, a place where roughly 200 vendors from North Kohala to Hamakua gather. For a more relaxing time, sightseers may want to see the Sacred Heart Church, Flumin’ Kohala, and Kohala Mountain Road.
Hilo, Big Island
Historic Downtown Hilo is one of the best places to experience what the Big Island is all about. Hawaii’s plantation-style architecture and historic shops are out in strength in Hilo. It rains more in town, which may contribute to Hilo’s less touristy atmosphere. Well-preserved and fighting to keep its history, Hilo is slowly going the way of more popular towns and tourist hotspots. Still, The town feels very much like Old Hawaii. Called the “City of Rainbows,” Hilo is very much worth seeing.
Nature lovers will be pleased in Hilo. The titanic Banyan Trees planted over 70 years ago can be found along Banyan Drive, and there are a plethora of parks and gardens to see like Liliuokalani Gardens, Rainbow Falls, and Wailuku River State Park. Hilo can also be a good base from which to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hilo’s Pacific Tsunami Museum entertains while educating attendees about the area’s history of powerful storms and ocean flooding.
Hanalei is the inner sanctum, one of the best parts of the already verdant tropical retreat that is Hawaii. Hanalei features historical sites, ancient green taro fields, and waterfalls galore. The views of North Kauai’s valleys and the three stunning beach parks will have you researching median home prices and asking your boss about remote work options. The unspoiled beauty of the area is truly spectacular.
Visitors also love going to Hanalei Valley Lookout. The lookout is eminently photographable and one of the best examples of Kauai’s beauty. It is an eight-mile hike up to Hanakoa Falls but the views are sublime. Limahuli Garden and Preserve offers 17 acres of tropical island paradise to explore, jam-packed with exotic plants. There is nothing like a day on the beach and Hanalei Beach does not disappoint. Surf, boogie board, and swim at one of the island’s best stretches of sand.
The charming town of Kapa’a is perfect for shoppers looking to get their fix between trips to the beach. In the distance, the mountain ridge known as the Sleeping Giant watches over the town. This is one of the most popular hikes in town thanks to the panorama at the top, but there are plenty of activities to do in town as well. Kinipopo Shopping Village and Wailua Shopping Plaza are two shopping hubs where visitors will find all the modern amenities and more at their fingertips.
If you’re looking for sights to see in Kapa’a, visit Donkey Beach and Kapaa Beach Park. This natural barrier to the Pacific is a great place to listen to the sounds of waves rolling in. There are interesting cultural sights in Kapa’a as well, such as the Kadavul Hindu Temple, whereas Hukilau Lanai Restaurant combines traditional food with an entertaining show. Kintaro’s is another delicious restaurant that combines Japanese and Hawaiian food into something exceptional.
The search for “Real Hawaii” is always ongoing. Visitors looking to get away from the tourist traps are constantly looking for off-the-beaten-path towns where the real island vibes can be found. Look no further than Hana, a town so beautiful even the drive over is worthwhile. The Road to Hana is a supremely scenic 64.4-mile-long stretch of Hawaii Routes 36 and 360, which connect the town to Kahului, Maui’s largest city. The Hana Highway is but one of several scenic drives worth taking on Maui – both for the drive itself as well as the destinations they lead to, such as a remote town or the summit of a tall volcano.
Hana is an escape from urbanity. The town is known for its historic and ultra-luxurious Hāna-Maui Resort, one of the best places to stay in town. Spending an afternoon sunbathing on the jet-black sandy beaches of Waianapanapa State Park or at Hāmoa Beach is rejuvenating and highly recommended. The beach was even called the most beautiful in the Pacific by author James Michener. Hana is also home to Pi’ilanihale Heiau, a basalt shrine whose construction dates back to the 14th century.
Hawaii is renowned as a Pacific island retreat par excellence. The glorious tropical sun filtering through palm tree fronds and crystal clear water draws tourists to the state each year in droves. For those willing to stray from the main resort towns and urban centers, there is another world to discover full of hospitality and island charm.