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Three beautiful offbeat places in Hawaii where nature reigns supreme

Hawaii - Wai‘anae Coast
Hawaii - Wai‘anae Coast

Forget about Honolulu. Take the road less travelled with these three under-the-radar places in Hawaii rich in natural beauty and Hawaiian culture

Wai‘anae Coast

The Wai‘anae Coast – literally, ‘water of the mullet,’ thanks to its rich fishing grounds – is the exact opposite of Honolulu. It’s a place of quiet remoteness, no crowds and miles of wild coastline. The further north you venture, the wilder the coastline. Rural towns are home to tightly knit communities that cling to traditional Hawaiian values and heritage. Rich in culture, some of O‘ahu’s most significant archaeological landscapes are located in the valleys here; there are even petroglyphs carved into the sandstone. Unfortunately, economic oppression, commercial exploitation and gentrification have long plagued the area, so it’s important to tread lightly along this coast and travel with a respectful attitude. About an hour drive from Waikīkī, the leeward side of the island is home to plenty of hiking trails, wild dolphins and beaches (with plenty of elbow room) where snorkeling is superb. From December to May, it’s possible to see migrating humpback whales passing through. And turtles and reef fish are around all year.

Why go to the Wai‘anae Coast? The biggest draw on this rugged coast is nature. Be a citizen scientist for the day and mālama ke kai (care for and protect the sea) with Wild Side Specialty Tours, a company that runs sustainable tours focused on photography, marine education and snorkelling. Back on land, put hiking high on the agenda; there are plenty of trails to choose from. If you don’t have much time on your hands, opt for the Mā‘ili Pillbox Hike (aka Pu‘u O Hulu Trail, aka Pink Pillbox Hike). The 2-mile (roundtrip) trail is dotted with military bunkers that served as lookouts during World War II. Another quick trek is the moderately challenging Lahilahi Point Trail. For a more strenuous trek, try 4000-foot Mount Ka‘ala, the tallest peak on the island. The 6-mile (roundtrip) hike crosses boardwalks, goes up steep ridges and finishes in a cloud forest.

Moloka‘i

Moloka‘i is the heart of Hawaii – and not just geographically. The fifth-largest Hawaiian Island, Moloka‘i is only 38 miles (61 kilometres) long and 10 miles (16 kilometres) across at its widest point, but it’s home to many superlatives: the tallest sea cliffs in the world, the state’s longest fringing reef, Hawaii’s longest stretch of sandy beach… And despite being part of an island chain that’s one of the most popular visitor destinations in the world, Moloka‘i has managed to maintain a small-town vibe that has earned it the nickname the Friendly Isle. But Moloka‘i isn’t for everyone. There are no traffic lights here, no luxury resorts, no nightclubs, and no big-box retailers or chain restaurants. You won’t sip a fancy mai tai topped with liliko‘i foam at a trendy bar or indulge in a luxurious facial at a world-class spa. You may not even get consistent cell service. But what you will experience is an unspoiled paradise, with empty golden-sand beaches, peaceful native rainforests filled with endangered honeycreepers and languid days that make you feel like you’re actually on vacation.

Why go to Moloka‘i? There’s a wooden sign just outside the Moloka‘i Airport that reads, ‘Aloha. Slow down. This is Moloka‘i.’ That’s not a suggestion. The island’s seven thousand residents aren’t keen on rushing, and they expect visitors to take it easy, too. Explore the many hiking trails, across rugged sand dunes or through a pristine old-growth rainforest, or lounge on one of many stunning beaches – you’ll likely be the only one there. Native Hawaiian culture flourishes here, with many families growing taro, managing fishponds and dancing hula. The dozens of fishponds that dot the coastline are among the best preserved in the state (though many are in disrepair). From Kalaupapa to Hālawa Valley, emerald-green sea cliffs rise to almost four thousand feet above the ocean. It’s believed that here, in lush Hālawa Valley, ancient Polynesians settled as early as 650 CE. And when you see the breathtaking beauty of this classic cathedral valley, you’ll understand why.

Wailuku

At the base of the West Maui Mountains sits Wailuku: a historic town free of the tourist traps and crowds of Maui’s most popular sights. It’s a place where aunties take the keiki (children) to art class, locals line up for that morning cup of java and music lovers young and old come to listen to live tunes. Wander the streets in search of public murals or head out of town to ‘Īao Valley State Monument, where King Kamehameha I defeated Maui’s army in an effort to unite the Hawaiian islands in 1790. If you’re wondering if you should vacation on Maui in light of the devastating wildfires that ripped through Lahaina in August 2023, the answer is yes. Except for Lahaina, Maui is open for business and locals are welcoming travelers with open arms. With an economy supported almost completely by tourism, visiting – in a mindful and sustainable way – is a powerful way to boost the island’s small businesses and help Maui heal. Wailuku is about 20 miles east of Lahaina.

Why go to Wailuku? Wailuku is refreshingly Old Hawaii. Full of businesses that have been passed down through generations – funky coffee shops, boutiques, wooden storefronts, old churches – it offers a glimpse into the past mixed with a boho vibe. The town’s street murals, created by artists from around the world, have spurred a cultural renaissance over the past decade and cemented its status as a creative canvas. Stay for a few days at family-owned ‘Īao Valley Inn for dreamy views of the ‘Īao Needle, and tour the family-run Mahina Farms Maui, where fostering community and culture is the guiding principle. Visitors learn about Hawaiian plant medicine, traditional arts and the moon calendar. Hop over to the Maui Arts and Culture Center in Kahului for comedy acts and concerts by local and international musicians. The Ukelele Festival is a solid choice and outdoor movie nights are the perfect family outing. 

This article is an extract from Lonely Planet’s ‘Offbeat North America’, on sale now for AUD$64.99 at shop.lonelyplanet.com.

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