Best of Hawaii: 40 Favorite Sights and Activities

Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, Big Island. Upsilon Andromedae
By Jeanette Foster

There really is just one cardinal rule to enjoying a Hawaiian vacation: relax -- you are in Hawaii. Don't focus on seeing everything, but take the time to actually experience the island. If you are so busy rushing to do everything, you won't feel the magic of the island through your senses.

Photo Caption: Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, Big Island. Photo by Upsilon Andromedae/Flickr.com.
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Step on the deck where the Japanese surrendered and World War II ended at Pearl Harbor's USS Missouri Memorial. Marco Garcia
Standing on the deck of the USS Arizona Memorial -- the eternal tomb for the 1,177 sailors and Marines trapped below when the battleship sank in just 9 minutes following the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 -- is a moving experience you'll never forget. Also in Pearl Harbor, you can visit the USS Missouri Memorial, where World War II came to an end when the Japanese signed their surrender on September 2, 1945.

Photo Caption: Observation deck at the USS Arizona memorial.

Photo Caption: Step on the deck where the Japanese surrendered and World War II ended at Pearl Harbor's USS Missouri Memorial.
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Devastation Trail, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hitchster
Up on the rim of Kilauea Iki Crater, you can see what an erupting volcano did to a once-flourishing ohia forest. The scorched earth with its ghostly tree skeletons stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the lush forest. Everyone can take this half-mile hike on a paved path across the eerie bed of black cinders.

Photo Caption: Devastation Trail, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Photo by Hitchster/Flickr.com.
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Hakalau National Forest. The Big Island Visitors Bureau
Native Hawaiian birds are few -- and dwindling. But Hawaii still offers extraordinary birding for anyone nimble enough to traverse tough, mucky landscape. And the best birding is on the Big Island; birders the world over come here hoping to see three Hawaiian birds, in particular: akiapolaau, a woodpecker wannabe with a war club
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Hilo's quaint downtown contains wooden clapboard and stucco buildings eye of einstein
When the sun shines in Hilo, it's one of the most beautiful tropical cities in the Pacific. Hawaii's largest metropolis after Honolulu is a quaint, misty, flower-filled city of Victorian houses overlooking a half-moon bay, with a restored historic downtown and a clear view of Mauna Loa's often snowcapped peak. Hilo catches everyone's eye until it rains -- it rains a lot in Hilo, and when it rains, it pours.

Photo Caption: Hilo's quaint downtown contains wooden clapboard and stucco buildings with corrugated tin overhangs covering the sidewalks. Photo by eye of einstein/Flickr.com.
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Sport fisherman destination Honokohau Harbor, Kailua-Kona. Jenny Hardy
If you want to catch fish, it doesn't get any better than the Kona Coast, known internationally as the marlin capital of the world. Big-game fish, including gigantic blue marlin and other Pacific billfish, tuna, mahimahi, sailfish, swordfish, ono (also known as wahoo), and ulua (giant trevallies) roam the waters. When anglers here catch marlin that weigh 1,000 pounds or more, they call them granders; there's even a "wall of fame" on Kailua-Kona's Waterfront Row, honoring 40 anglers who've nailed more than 20 tons of fighting fish. Nearly 100 charter boats with professional captains and crews offer fishing charters out of Keauhou, Kawaihae, Honokohau, and Kailua Bay harbors.

Photo Caption: Sport fisherman destination Honokohau Harbor, Kailua-Kona.
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Sunset on Mauna Kea, approximately 14,000 ft above sea level. Frommers.com Community
The Hawaiians thought the gods lived on Mauna Kea, the world's tallest mountain at 33,476 feet when measured from the ocean's floor. Don't miss the opportunity to see the sun sink into the Pacific and watch the stars slowly come out of the inky black sky. The summit is so clear that the world's largest telescopes are located here.

Photo Caption: Sunset on Mauna Kea, approximately 14,000 ft above sea level. Photo by KKP/Frommers.com Community.
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The Kilauea Caldera Overlook is a great place to get a glimpse of the lava flow from the erupting Halema'uma'u. Bruce Omori
Some call the 3-decades-long eruption of Kilauea the Eighth Wonder of the World. It's an awe-inspiring sight at any time, but especially dramatic at night, when you can watch the glowing red lava snake down the side of the island.

Photo Caption: The Kilauea Caldera Overlook is a great place to get a glimpse of the lava flow from the erupting Halema'uma'u.
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You have to pay a $1 fee to climb the 1.4 miles to the top of Diamond Head, but the view from the 750-foot summit is priceless. Marco Garcia
Diamond Head is a moderate, but steep, walk to the summit of the 750-foot volcanic cone, Hawaii's most famous landmark. A climb to the top rewards you with a 360-degree view of the island. The 1.4-mile round-trip takes about 1½ hours.

Photo Caption: You have to pay a $1 fee to climb the 1.4 miles to the top of Diamond Head, but the view from the 750-foot summit is priceless.
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Swimming with butterfly fish at Hanauma Bay. Nick Hanna/Alamy
Oahu's most popular snorkeling spot is Hanauma Bay, a curved, 2,000-foot gold-sand beach packed elbow-to-elbow with people year- round. Part of an old crater that fell into the sea, the bay's shallow shoreline water and abundant marine life are the main attractions to snorkelers. A shallow reef outside the bay protects the inside from surf rolling in, making the waters in the bay very calm. Hanauma Bay is a conservation district; you may look at but not touch or take any marine life here. Feeding the fish is also prohibited.

Photo Caption: Swimming with butterfly fish at Hanauma Bay.
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This colorful sign welcomes visitors to Haleiwa. Kord.com/AGE Fotostock
The North Shore is the Hawaii of Hollywood -- giant waves, surfers galore, tropical jungles, waterfalls, and mysterious Hawaiian temples. If you're looking for a quieter vacation that's closer to nature, the North Shore is your place. The artsy little beach town of Haleiwa and the surrounding shoreline seem a world away from Waikiki. The North Shore boasts good restaurants, shopping, and cultural activities -- but here they come with the quiet of country living. Bed-and-breakfasts are the most common accommodations, but there's one first-class hotel and some vacation rentals as well. Be forewarned: It's an hour's drive to Honolulu and Waikiki, and it's about twice as rainy on the North Shore as in Honolulu.

Photo Caption: This colorful sign welcomes visitors to Haleiwa.
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Shred the surf or just settle in the sand for the perfect shoreline experience at Kauai's Poipu Beach. Dana Nadeau
Hanalei Bay's winter surf is the most popular on the island, but it's for experts only. Poipu Beach is an excellent spot to learn to surf; the waves are small and -- best of all -- nobody laughs when you wipe out.

Photo Caption: Shred the surf or just settle in the sand for the perfect shoreline experience at Kauai's Poipu Beach.
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It'll cost big bucks, but a Blue Hawaii helicopter tour will buy eye-popping views of Kauai's spectacular North Shore. Dana Nadeau
Don't leave Kauai without seeing it from a helicopter. It's expensive but worth the splurge. You can take home memories of the thrilling ride up and over the Kalalau Valley on Kauai's wild North Shore and into the 5,200-foot vertical temple of Mount Waialeale, the most sacred place on the island and the wettest spot on earth.

Photo Caption: It'll cost big bucks, but a Blue Hawaii helicopter tour will buy eye-popping views of Kauai's spectacular North Shore.
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Oceanarium northwest of Hanalei Bay. Frommers.com Community
Northwest of Hanalei Bay, offshore you'll find a kaleidoscopic marine world in a horseshoe-shaped cove. From the rare (long-handed spiny lobsters) to the more common (taape, conger eels, and nudibranchs), the resident population of the Ocenarium is one of the more diverse on the island. The topography, which features pinnacles, ridges, and archways, is covered with cup corals, black-coral trees, and nooks and crannies enough for a dozen dives. Snorkelers will be happy at nearby Hanalei Bay.

Photo Caption: Oceanarium northwest of Hanalei Bay. Photo by linda crawley/Frommers.com Community
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Rugged Kauai may be best seen on horseback; many tours will take you to hidden falls and beaches. Dana Nadeau
Only in Kauai can you ride a horse across the wide-open pastures of a working ranch under volcanic peaks and rein up near a waterfall pool. No wonder Kauai's paniolo (cowboys) smile and sing so much. It's worth your time and money just to get out to this seldom-seen part of Kauai.

Photo Caption: Rugged Kauai may be best seen on horseback; many tours will take you to hidden falls and beaches.
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The 3.5 mile round-trip Waimea Canyon Trail hike takes 2 to 3 hours and brings you to the breathtaking Waipoo Falls. Dana Nadeau
You want to hike Hawaii's Grand Canyon, but you don't think you have time? Take the Canyon Trail to the east rim for a breathtaking view into the 3,000-foot- deep canyon. The 3.5-mile round-trip takes 2 to 3 hours and leads to Waipoo Falls and back.

Photo Caption: Th round-trip Waimea Canyon Trail hike takes 2 to 3 hours.
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Mauna Kea Golf Course, Hawaii's Big Island Anthony Woods
The Mauna Kea Golf Course, located out on the Kohala Coast, is everyone's old favorite. One of the first fields of play to be carved out of the black lava, the dramatic, always-challenging, par-72, 18-hole championship course is still one of Hawaii's top three. The Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay
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A former whaling town, Lahaina combines a 19th-century look and feel with luxurious 21st-century amenities. Ryan Siphers
The old seaport of Lahaina is a tame version of its former self, a raucous whaling town where sailors swaggered ashore in search of women and grog. Today the village teems with restaurants, T-shirt shops, and galleries, and parts of it are downright tacky, but there's still lots of real history to be found. Lahaina is a great place to stay; accommodations include a few old hotels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts, and a handful of oceanfront condos.

Photo Caption: A former whaling town, Lahaina combines a 19th-century look and feel with luxurious 21st-century amenities.
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Hikers can climb 11 miles into a dormant volcano on Maui's Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala National Park. Kristin Mills
Hiking into Maui's dormant volcano is really the best way to see it. The terrain inside the wilderness area of the volcano, which ranges from burnt-red cinder cones to ebony-black lava flows, is simply spectacular. The best route takes in two trails: head into the crater along Sliding Sands Trail, which begins on the rim at 9,800 feet and descends into the belly of the beast, to the valley floor at 6,600 feet, and back out along Halemauu Trail. Hardy hikers can consider making the 11-mile one-way descent, which takes 9 hours, and the equally long return ascent in 1 day. The rest of us will need to extend this steep but wonderful hike to 2 days.

Photo Caption: Hikers can climb 11 miles into a dormant volcano on Maui's Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala National Park.
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Ocean backdrop at the Bay Course in Kapalua. Elisabeth Blanchet
Kapalua is probably the best nationally known golf resort in Hawaii, thanks to the PGA Mercedes Championship played here each January. The Bay and Village courses are vintage Arnold Palmer designs; the Plantation Course is a strong Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore design.

Photo Caption: Ocean backdrop at the Bay Course in Kapalua.
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Snorkeling in Molokini, Maui. mbostock
This marine life park is one of Hawaii's top dive and snorkel spots. This crescent-shaped crater has three tiers of diving: a 35-foot plateau inside the crater basin (used by beginning divers and snorkelers), a wall sloping to 70 feet just beyond the inside plateau, and a sheer wall on the outside and back-side of the crater that plunges 350 feet. This underwater park is very popular thanks to calm, clear, protected waters and an abundance of marine life, from manta rays to clouds of yellow butterflyfish.

Photo Caption: Snorkeling in Molokini, Maui. Photo by mbostock/Flickr.com.
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Watching the sun rise atop Haleakala. Agustin Tabares
Bundle up in warm clothing, fill a thermos full of hot java, and drive up to the summit. Standing at 10,000 feet, breathing in the rarefied air, and watching the first rays of light streak across the sky is a mystical experience of the highest magnitude.

Photo Caption: Watching the sun rise atop Haleakala.
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Native fruits and flowers are plentiful for purchase along the scenic, winding road to Hana. Agustin Tabares
The Hana Highway is much more than a way to get from point A to point B. Stop along the way to plunge into icy mountain ponds filled by cascading waterfalls; gaze upon vistas of waves pummeling soaring ocean cliffs; inhale the sweet aroma of blooming ginger; and take a walk back in time.

Photo Caption: Native fruits and flowers are plentiful for purchase along the scenic, winding road to Hana.
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A couple enjoys a picnic overlooking windsurfers, Lower Paia. Tor Johnson/The Hawaii Tourism Authority
Maui has Hawaii's best windsurfing beaches. In winter windsurfers from around the world flock to the town of Paia to ride the waves. Hookipa Beach, known all over the globe for its brisk winds and excellent waves, is the site of several world-championship contests

Photo Caption: A couple enjoys a picnic overlooking windsurfers, Lower Paia.
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You can bike 37 miles straight toward the center of the earth in Maui's massive Haleakala Crater. Kristin Mills
It's not even close to dawn, but here you are, rubbing your eyes awake, riding in a van up the long, dark road to the top of Maui's sleeping volcano. It's colder than you ever thought possible for a tropical island. The air is thin. You stomp your chilly feet while you wait, sipping hot coffee. Then comes the sun, exploding over the yawning Haleakala Crater, which is big enough to swallow Manhattan whole -- it's a mystical moment you won't soon forget, imprinted on a palette of dawn colors. Now you know why Hawaiians named it the House of the Sun. But there's no time to linger: Decked out in your screaming yellow parka, you mount your steed and test its most important feature -- the brakes -- because you're about to coast 37 miles down a 10,000-foot volcano.

Photo Caption: You can bike 37 miles straight toward the center of the earth in Maui's massive Haleakala Crater.
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Downtown Kaunakakai, Molokai. Background shows rainbow on East Molokai Volcano. Sanba38/Wikimedia Commons
Kaunakakai is the closest thing Molokai has to a business district. Friendly Isle Realty and Friendly Isle Travel offer islanders dream homes and vacations; Rabang's Filipino Food posts bad checks in the window; antlered deer-head trophies guard the grocery aisles at Misaki's Market; and Kanemitsu's, the town's legendary bakery, churns out fresh loaves of onion-cheese bread daily. Once an ancient canoe landing, Kaunakakai was the royal summer residence of King Kamehameha V. The port town bustled when pineapple and sugar were king, but those days, too, are gone. With its Old West
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The hiking trail to the 250-foot Moaula Falls in the Halawa Valley is closed to individuals, but challenging tours offer a magnificent payoff. Marco Garcia
Of the five great valleys of Molokai, only Halawa, with its two waterfalls, golden beach, sleepy lagoon, great surf, and offshore island, is easily accessible. A light hike will take you from the ocean to the foot of a waterfall.

Photo Caption: The hiking trail to the 250-foot Moaula Falls in the Halawa Valley is closed to individuals, but challenging tours offer a magnificent payoff.
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The links-style layout of par-72 Poipu Bay Golf Course offers challenging greens and water hazards along with its beautiful vistas. Dana Nadeau
On Kauai's flat, dry south shore is a 210-acre, links-style course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The course, which for years hosted the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, is not only scenically spectacular but also a lot of fun to play. A flock of native Hawaiian nene geese frequents the course's lakes, and you can often see whales, monk seals, and green sea turtles along the shore.

Photo Caption: Poipu Bay Golf Course offers challenging greens and water hazard.
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The mule tours and hikes down the Kalaupapa cliffs from the forest to the coast offer the best experience of Molokai's beauty. Marco Garcia
Buzzy Sproat's mules go up and down the 3-mile Kalaupapa Trail to Molokai's famous leper colony. The views are breathtaking: You'll see the world's highest sea cliffs (over 300 stories tall) and waterfalls plunging thousands of feet into the ocean. If you're afraid of heights, catch the views from the Kalaupapa Lookout, in Palaau Park.

Photo Caption: The mule tours and hikes down the Kalaupapa cliffs from the forest to the coast offer the best experience of Molokai's beauty.
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Calm, beautiful Hulopoe Bay offers great swimming and snorkeling. Kids love splashing in and exploring the tide pools. Marco Garcia
This golden, palm-fringed beach off the south coast of Lanai gently slopes down to the azure waters of a Marine Life Conservation District, where clouds of tropical fish flourish and spinner dolphins come to play. A tide pool in the lava rocks defines one side of the bay, while the other is lorded over by the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, which sits prominently on the hill above. Offshore you'll find good swimming, snorkeling, and diving; onshore there's a full complement of beach facilities, from restrooms to camping areas.

Photo Caption: Calm, beautiful Hulopoe Bay offers great swimming and snorkeling. Kids love splashing in and exploring the tide pools.
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The Garden of the Gods is a natural and astonishing landscape of rock formations of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Strewn with natural rock sculptures, Lanai's Garden of the Gods is a breathtaking testimony to the art of nature. Marco Garcia
Hop on a four-wheel-drive vehicle and head out on the dirt road that leads out of Lanai City, through the now uncultivated pineapple fields, to the Garden of the Gods, on Lanai's north shore. Take the time to explore this rugged, barren, beautiful place, full of rocks strewn by volcanic forces and shaped by the elements into a variety of shapes and colors -- brilliant reds, oranges, ochers, and yellows. Ancient Hawaiians considered this desolate, windswept place an entirely supernatural phenomenon. Scientists, however, have other, less colorful explanations. Some call the area an "ongoing posterosional event," others say it's just "plain and simple badlands." Go early in the morning when the light casts eerie shadows on the mysterious lava formations.

Photo Caption: The Garden of the Gods is a natural and astonishing landscape of rock formations of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Strewn with natural rock sculptures, Lanai's Garden of the Gods is a breathtaking testimony to the art of nature.
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Inside Cathedral I off the coast of Lanai. brian.w
Just off the south shore, two of Hawaii's best-known dive spots are found in Lanai's clear waters. The sun lights up an underwater grotto like a magnificent church, hence the name -- some scuba divers claim it is a near-religious experience. Snorkeling is terrific at nearby Hulopoe Beach.

Photo Caption: Inside Cathedral I off the coast of Lanai. Photo by brian.w/Flickr.com.
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Creative classes are offered at the art gallery in beautiful and culturally rich Lanai City. Marco Garcia
The only town on this island (pop. 3,200) sits at 1,645 feet above sea level. Built in 1924, this plantation village is a tidy grid of quaint tin-roofed cottages in bright pastels, with tropical gardens of banana, lilikoi, and papaya. Many of the residents are Filipino immigrants who worked the pineapple fields. Their clapboard homes, now worth $500,000 or more, are excellent examples of historic preservation; the whole town looks like it's been kept under a belljar.

Photo Caption: Creative classes are offered at the art gallery in beautiful and culturally rich Lanai City.
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The challenging Munro Trail takes you on an 11-mile trek to Lanai's highest point, where you'll be rewarded with an incredible view. Marco Garcia
This tough, 11-mile roundtrip, uphill climb through the groves of Norfolk Island pines is a lung-buster, but if you reach the top, you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Molokai, Maui, Kahoolawe, the peaks of the Big Island, and -- on a really clear day -- Oahu in the distance. Figure on 7 hours of hiking. The trail follows Lanai's ancient caldera rim, ending up at the island's highest point, Lanaihale.

Photo Caption: The Munro Trail takes you on an 11-mile trek to Lanai's highest point.
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Whale watching off the coast of Lanai. Frommers.com Community
Polihua Beach, Lanai's largest white-sand beach, is a great spot to look for whales in season (Nov
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Hapuna Beach State Park, Kohala. The Big Island Visitors Bureau
This half-mile-long crescent regularly wins kudos in the world's top travel magazines as the most beautiful beach in Hawaii -- some consider it one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. One look and you'll see why: Perfect cream-colored sand slopes down to crystal-clear waters that are great for swimming, snorkeling, and bodysurfing in summer; come winter, waves thunder in like stampeding horses. The facilities for picnicking and camping are top-notch, and there's plenty of parking.

Photo Caption: Hapuna Beach State Park, Kohala.
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Lanikai Beach. Ulli Seer/LOOK Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH/Alamy
Too gorgeous to be real, this stretch along the Windward Coast is one of Hawaii's postcard-perfect beaches -- a mile of golden sand as soft as powdered sugar bordering translucent turquoise waters. The waters are calm year-round and excellent for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. Two tiny offshore islands complete the picture, functioning not only as scenic backdrops, but also as bird sanctuaries.

Photo Caption: Lanikai Beach.
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Swim, snorkel, have a picnic, or just relax at Tunnels Beach & Haena Beach Park. Dana Nadeau
Backed by verdant cliffs, this curvaceous North Shore beach has starred as Paradise in many a movie. It's easy to see why Hollywood loves Haena Beach, with its grainy golden sand and translucent turquoise waters. Summer months bring calm waters for swimming and snorkeling; winter brings mighty waves for surfers. There are plenty of facilities on hand, including picnic tables, restrooms, and showers.

Photo Caption: Swim, snorkel, have a picnic, or just relax at Tunnels Beach & Haena Beach Park.
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Three miles of smooth sand on the pristine Pacific shore make Papohaku Beach a perfect location for a stroll. Marco Garcia
These gold sands stretch on for some 3 miles (it's one of Hawaii's longest beaches) and are about as wide as a football field. Offshore the ocean churns mightily in winter, but the waves die down in summer, making the calm waters inviting for swimming. It's also great for picnicking, walking, and watching sunsets.

Photo Caption: Three miles of smooth sand on the pristine Pacific shore make Papohaku Beach a perfect location for a stroll.
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Hulopoe Beach is a lazy and relaxing destination for families looking for a laid-back day in the sun. Marco Garcia
his golden, palm-fringed beach off the south coast of Lanai gently slopes down to the azure waters of a Marine Life Conservation District, where clouds of tropical fish flourish and spinner dolphins come to play. A tide pool in the lava rocks defines one side of the bay, while the other is lorded over by the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, which sits prominently on the hill above. Offshore you'll find good swimming, snorkeling, and diving; onshore there's a full complement of beach facilities, from restrooms to camping areas.

Photo Caption: Hulopoe Beach is a lazy and relaxing destination for families looking for a laid-back day in the sun.
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The Challenge at Manele in Lanai City was designed by Jack Nicklaus, and is regarded as one of the most difficult golf courses in the entire world. Hawaii Tourism Japan
For quality and seclusion, nothing in Hawaii can touch Lanai's two resort courses. The Experience at Koele, designed by Ted Robinson and Greg Norman, and the Challenge at Manele, a wonderful Jack Nicklaus effort with ocean views from every hole, both rate among Hawaii's best courses.

Photo Caption: The Challenge at Manele in Lanai City was designed by Jack Nicklaus.
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