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Green Sea Turtle at Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii

10 experiences you absolutely must have in Hawaii

There are a lot of things typically associated with Hawaii, and visitors to the state are likely to get involved in at least some of them.

You might be imagining lei garlands drooped around the necks of tourists, brightly coloured Aloha shirts, or Hawaiian dancers entertaining a crowd at a lūʻau put on by the fancy resorts.

But in my opinion, Hawaii is best experienced when you make an effort to escape from those stereotypes and dig a little deeper into what makes this set of Pacific islands really awesome.

The marine life, the unique landscapes, and the delicious food are just some of the things you’ll find on this list of experiences you absolutely must have in Hawaii.

Amazing Hawaii experiences:

Green Sea Turtle at Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii
A sea turtle at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo

1. Spot a sea turtle

One thing I reeeeally wanted to do in Hawaii was spot a sea turtle. It actually took me most of the trip to find one – numerous beaches and snorkelling spots on the Big Island’s west coast had left me disappointed (not in the swimming and snorkelling, just in the lack of sea turtles).

Finally, when we made it to the east coast, I looked up on Google Maps to see if I could find a swimming spot near Hilo that had frequent sightings of turtles. Carlsmith Beach Park seemed like a good option, so we drove there for an afternoon of swimming and relaxing by the ocean. We were lucky enough to see FOUR sea turtles while we were there! Super stoked!

If you do spot a sea turtle in Hawaii, make an effort to stay at least 10 ft (3m) away to ensure you don’t disturb them. There are laws around getting too close to these ocean dwellers, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Snorkelling at Captain Cook, Big Island, Hawaii
Snorkelling at Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island

2. Snorkel with tropical fish

The islands of Hawaii are surrounded by coral reefs, making it an incredible place to go snorkelling with tropical fish. We did this at Two Step and at the Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island, with Captain Cook being my favourite of the two. You can get to me monument by hiking, kayaking, or by boat tour – head to my Kona travel guide to find out more or book a snorkel boat tour.

Poke, Hawaii
Vegetarian poke from Honaunau Poke Shop on the Big Island

3. Eat poke

If you’ve never heard of poke, you’re in for a treat! This Hawaiian seafood dish is a kind of Asian fusion with Japanese elements. It traditionally starts with cubes of raw fish, which is served with a range of toppings/sides of rice, fresh salads, seasonings and sauces.

It is possible to find vegetarian poke, as we did at Honaunau Poke Shop on the Big Island and at Poke & Box in Honolulu, with the option of tofu cubes instead of fish.

Early morning lava viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Lava viewing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island

4. Stand on a volcano

Standing on an active volcano is something you can do at only a few destinations, and in Hawaii you may have the chance to actually see an eruption in action!

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is where you’ll find Kīlauea – one of Earth’s most active volcanoes. We were lucky enough to be visiting while the volcano was in an eruption phase, and were actually able to see the flow of lava (from a safe distance, of course!).

If you can’t get to the volcano or aren’t visiting while the volcano is erupting, Hawaii has plenty of dormant volcanoes that you can explore. Haleakala in Maui is the world’s largest dormant volcano, and visitors can drive up to the crater rim for amazing views over the island. You can also hike up Diamond Head in Oahu which is a 300,000-year old volcanic cone with views over Honolulu.

Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Papakōlea Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii

5. See a beach with green sand

A green sand beach? Surely, that can’t be real! Papakōlea Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of only four green sand beaches in the world, so this is a rare gem in the list of Hawaii attractions.

It’s quite a trek to get there, but the difficulty in accessing it makes the beach even more special to see. From the parking area at South Point, it’s a 1 hour walk each way via gravel, rock, and sand paths that follow the coastline. Some tourists also opt for a ride with the locals in their 4X4, however, this is illegal and has caused extensive damage to the sandy dunes that line part of the coast. Having not gone with this option, I can’t vouch for it and personally I felt like the beach is much more rewarding after the hike.

The beach itself is fairly small and is set at the base of a cove with a reasonably steep descent to the bottom. The beach is not particularly well protected from the elements – we had plenty of wind, and the skies opened up for a short downpour while we were there. Luckily we’d been smart enough to bring our rain jackets along. Don’t forget to apply plenty of sunscreen before you head out and carry a full bottle of water with you for the hike.

Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii

6. See a beach with black sand

I have been to a few black sand beaches before (in Greece & Iceland), but the Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii was my favourite so far! The sand is made from small volcanic rock particles which, unlike many other types of sand, doesn’t stick to your skin.

We set up a beach towel and laid under the palm trees, which was pleasant even on a cloudy day. There were also rock pools lined with black pebbles which I imagine would get bath-water warm when the sun is shining.

Hala Tree Organic Coffee Farm, Kona, Hawaii
Coffee tastings at Hala Tree Organic Coffee Farm near Kona

7. Sample the produce

Hawaii’s climate and volcanic soil give the islands plenty of nutrients for growing luscious fresh produce. Some of the foods that the islands are known for are tropical fruits (such as pineapples and coconuts), macadamias, and coffee. We visited the Hala Tree Organic Coffee Farm near Kona and sampled the freshly brewed goods. So tasty!

Hawaii Shave Ice, Honolulu, Hawaii
Shave ice from Banan Waikiki Shore in Honolulu

8. Try a shave ice

Shave ice is a popular treat in Hawaii which is made from–you guessed it–ice shavings that are flavoured with sweet toppings. It’s very similar to kakigōri in Japan and kind of like an American snow cone, except that a snow cone is made from crushed ice rather than the thin shaved ice found in the Japanese or Hawaiian versions.

We got ours at the Banan Waikiki Shore which is probably one of the most expensive places to get shave ice in Honolulu, but it was also completely awesome because they are sustainably made using fresh ingredients from local farmers. I honestly wasn’t expecting shave ice to taste so good! I would really recommend splashing out on a fancy one if you get the chance.

Tropical cocktails at Pineapples, Hilo, Hawaii
Tropical cocktails from Pineapples in Hilo

9. Drink tropical cocktails

Hawaii is known for it’s variety of tropical cocktails, and the themed containers used for serving these beverages can also be fun! Go to a tiki bar and drink from a tiki mug, or order a fruity piña colada served in a whole pineapple (try this at Pineapples in Hilo!). Also make sure you try a classic Mai Tai, which is the cocktail that Hawaii is most famous for.

Akaka Falls near Hilo, Big Island, Hawaii
Akaka Falls near Hilo on the Big Island

10. Go hiking

Hawaii’s amazing landscapes are best experienced from a hiking trail. Hiking doesn’t have to be long and tiring, either – short walks can be just as rewarding.

My favourite hike was the 5.3km (3.3 mi) Kīlauea Iki Trail loop in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but Akaka Falls near Hilo on the Big Island was also lovely and much shorter as a 20-minute loop that travelled through thick rainforest.

Look up which hikes are the local and traveller favourites in your destination and pick up your walking shoes!

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