We all know about Honolulu, Kona, and Lahaina. The tropical hotspots make up the vast majority of the postcard images we associate with the Hawaiian islands. Yet, there are entire worlds worth exploring away from the major resort towns and cruise ship drop-off points. It’s a relatively small archipelago, but like most things, one that rewards those who are willing to be intrepid.
As any good travel host will preach (Bourdain et al., it’s all about absorbing your new surroundings like a local. Otherwise, you’re simply falling from one tourist trap to another, in a downward, unmemorable, and often expensive nosedive. One of the best ways to truly take in the Rainbow State is to frequent its many immersive small towns.
Put these places on your radar:
Paia is a delightful beach bum outpost just a short drive from the airport in Maui. About 3,000 people live along its walkable streets overlooking the ocean, with good beach access. Artsy and culinary-minded, the town boasts a thriving gallery scene and great proximity to the giant waves of the northern beaches.
The Road to Hana should be on your bucket list. And while the waterfall-strewn journey is one of the prettiest on the planet (do it in a jeep, you’re going to want a full panoramic view), the destination ain’t bad either. Hana is as pleasant as small towns come, with great nearby hiking per the stunning Waianapanapa State Park and the red sands of Koki Beach. It’s like a really tiny and extremely pretty version of Hilo.
Snorkeling is good even right in town and there are charming aisles to explore at Hasegawa’s General Store. For food, try some local casual bites at Da Fish Shack or some surprisingly good Thai from the open-air Thai Food by Pranee.
Don’t let the suburban feel of Kihei fool you — there are gems abundant. Beach access is plentiful and convenient and, depending on the time of year, it can be a good place to catch the occasional whale coming up for air. There’s even a great education center at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Beer drinkers will appreciate the 20 taps at What Ales You while Nalu’s South Shore Grill is a lively spot for higher-end bar food. Check out Da Kitchen for simple and satisfying Hawaiian or Nutcharee’s for quality Thai.
Even the strip malls have their treasure troves of great poke, sushi, discount surfwear, and insanely fresh tropical produce. It’s worth poking around in both Pi’ilani Village and Kihei Kalama Village.
Puako rests at zero feet in elevation and has a population of slightly more. The dot on the Big Island map boasts relatively little rainfall and beautiful beaches. At many of the area beaches, you’re likely to run into more turtles than tourists.
Check out ancient petroglyphs and the historic Hokulua Church. There are a few delightfully quiet beach access points along Puako Bay as well, where you can enter the water and snorkel out to a steep drop off where there are schools of larger fish and coral and rock archways.
Coffee junkies will appreciate Holualoa, set in the acclaimed coffee country of the Big Island. Here, you can enjoy real Kona coffee (a lot of the stuff you see labeled as such in the store is blended down) and tremendous sunset views.
Check out the town’s main gallery located within the post office or tour a coffee farm. For farm-fresh plates and a sustainable ethos, bring your appetite to Holuakoa Gardens. There are great hiking, birding, and mountain biking opportunities at the nearby Honua’ula Forest Reserve.
Waimea doesn’t fit the stereotypical Hawaiian profile but that’s part of the draw. This is Hawaiian cowboy (or, paniolos, as the Hawaiians call them) country, set in the fertile hills beneath Mauna Kea.
For lunch and a local beer, check out the Big Island Brewhaus. After, visit Anna Ranch, a gorgeous property dating back to 1910 that’s on the National Historic registry. The 110-acre spot offers tours, breathtaking scenery, and the work of a few house artisans, ranging from blacksmiths to painters. There’s a solid farmers market scene in the area and great equestrian opportunities as well.
The other Waimea is located on the southwestern edge of Kauai. It’s an old port town set very close to some Jurassic Park-like vistas and ocean cliffs. Grab a refreshing shave ice at JoJo’s or some “aloha in a bun,” as the pig-centric cart calls it, at Porky’s.
Another fine stop is Kapa’a, on the opposite side of the island. With about 11,000 residents, it’s the biggest town in Kauai, but it doesn’t feel that way. This is prime kayaking territory, along with swimming at designated spots like Lydgate Beach Park.
Sniff around at both the Wailua Shopping Plaza and Kinipopo Shipping Village for some eclectic local goods. Or, peruse the colorful storefronts of the old town, on foot or by longboard.
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