There’s a reason the all-inclusive resort craze hasn’t taken hold in Hawaii. While the island chain boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, there’s so much to do off the sand that few people come here to stay in one place. I’ll never complain about spending a lazy day with a book on the beach, but after visiting the Islands six times and editing a slew of Hawaii travel guides, I know that you’re missing out if you fly five (or 11… or more…) hours just to get a tan. Here are 10 unforgettable scenic drives that I promise will make you glad you left the resort. Road to Hana — Photo courtesy of Randy Robertson
Road to Hana, Maui . . . for bucket-listers
The most famous drive in Hawaii, and one of the most beautiful roads you’ll ever travel, this journey is worthy of its praise. The curvy Hana Highway snakes along Maui’s northeast coast, passing green cliffs laced with waterfalls that plunge down to gold, black, and red sand beaches. You’ll cross narrow one-lane bridges and pass tropical fruit stands hawking produce so fresh you’ll never want to eat store-bought fruit again. The 52-mile drive to Hana from Kahului can take around two to four hours, but the round-trip is worthy of a full day. Take your time–no one rushes in Hawaii anyway. At the end of the route, chill out in laid-back Hana, where you’ll learn the true meaning of “Hawaii time.
Intel: Continue past Hana to Oheo Gulch, where terraced waterfalls provide the perfect place for a refreshing dip.
Route 560, North Shore Kauai . . .for photographers
I’ve gushed about the Road to Hana, but to me the most stunning, picturesque, quintessentially “Hawaiian” spot in the islands is Kauai’s North Shore. Beauty meets your eye wherever you look on this verdant part of the island, and as you drive west through dreamy Hanalei you’ll encounter a more local feel than the resorty areas elsewhere on the island. The drive between Princeville and Kee Beach meanders past glimmering taro fields, over charming one-lane bridges, and through Hanalei town, all with green cliffs towering mauka (toward the mountains) and sapphire ocean makai (toward the sea). Be sure to stop for a peek at Hanalei Bay–it gets my vote for the most beautiful beach in the world.
Intel: You’ll cross a number of one-lane bridges on this drive. Local etiquette calls for cars to cross these bridges in groups of five or six, not alternating sides one-by-one–don’t rush or force your way across, be patient and polite. Hanalei Taro Fields — Photo courtesy of Jess Moss
Honoapiilani Highway, Maui . . . for whale watchers
My first visit to Hawaii was magical, in part because of this drive. It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road as you cruise along the western edge of Maui–luckily I wasn’t driving, so I was free to gaze out on the sunset views and hazy horizon shadows of Lanai and Molokai. But the main reason to keep your eyes peeled is the abundance of whales in the waters around Maui, particularly between October to May. Look for the telltale splash or cloud of white vapor–they’re easy to spot, even from a moving car.
Chain of Craters Road, Big Island . . . for geology geeks
I was hoping to see lava on the Big Island, but Mother Nature does what she wants, and there’s never a guarantee you’ll see flows. I was unlucky, but I quickly learned that a drive on the 23-mile-long Chain of Craters Road through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is fascinating with or without volcanic activity. A far cry from the lush green hills of Hana Highway, HVNP is a stark landscape of barren rocks and muted colors–an unexpected but beautiful sight that tells the story of the fiery birth of the Islands. Start at Kilauea’s Crater Rim drive and make your way past aa and pahoehoe lava flows, volcanic craters, and steam vents to the coast. At the end of the drive you can see dramatic ocean cliffs and the impressive Holei Sea Arch.
Intel: While you’re here check out Halemaumau Crater–if it’s a clear night the views of lava glowing under the stars are unforgettable. Chain of Craters Road — Photo courtesy of Jess Moss
Windward Oahu . . . for families
The first time I visited Oahu I didn’t stray farther than the standard Pearl Harbor-to-Diamond Head zone, but on my second trip I quickly learned this was a mistake. Waikiki’s manicured beaches are soft and lovely, but for a more authentic Hawaiian experience, ditch the tourists and cruise along Oahu’s Windward coast. Take the Pali Highway out of the city (stopping at the famous Nuuanu Pali Lookout) before heading north on Kamehameha Highway past uncrowded beaches, small towns, and picturesque islets. Kids will love the attractions along this drive, from Mokolii, a small island also known as “Chinaman’s Hat” for its triangular shape, to the Polynesian Cultural Center, which offers an immersive look into the peoples and cultures of the South Pacific.
Intel: You can easily turn this drive into an island tour by continuing along the North Shore, past world-famous surf spots like Pipeline and Waimea Bay, then cutting south through the heart of Central Oahu.
Waimea Canyon Drive . . . for hikers
Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon’s jaw-dropping expanse will make you forget you’re on an island. Route 550 follows the rim of the red-and-green chasm, with pullouts for views along the way. The drive will give you a great sense of the canyon’s size from above, but I prefer to take a closer look by hiking into the canyon. There are plenty of trails to explore, but watch your step: some are incredibly steep, and if it’s been raining you’re bound to get pretty muddy.
Intel: Follow the drive to the Kalalau Lookout, where if you wait out the clouds, you can snap the ultimate postcard-perfect picture of Kauai’s famous Napali Coast. Waimea Canyon
Haleakala National Park, Maui . . . for early risers
Full disclosure: When I did this drive, the drastic climb from sea level to 9,740 feet at the volcano’s summit gave me altitude sickness. Nonetheless, when I wasn’t cringing from my pounding head, this was one of the most unusual landscapes I’ve ever seen, and the drive to the top has some great sights along the way. My favorite stop on this route was the Waikamoi Cloud Forest, a worthwhile spot to pause for a bird-watching hike (also, how many people can say they’ve been in a “cloud forest”?).
Intel: One of the most popular ways to see Haleakala is to wake up early and drive to the summit for sunrise. The good news is that even if you’re not typically a morning person, if you do this early on your trip you’ll have the time difference on your side and will probably be waking up earlier than normal. But be warned: You may be in the tropics, but it is cold up here at dawn. Bundle up, and bring blankets.
Hamakua Coast, Big Island . . . for history buffs
Okay, so it’s no Road to Hana, but the lush stretch between Hilo and North Kohala also boasts beaches, waterfalls, jagged cliffs, and jungle valleys. One of the most interesting stops along the route is at Laupahoehoe, where a somber tsunami memorial commemorates the lives that were lost when a monster wave struck here in 1946. This area is also drenched in ancient Hawaiian lore–be sure to stop at the Waipio Valley Lookout to gaze over the sacred boyhood home of King Kamehameha I. Hamakua Coast
Kamehameha V Hwy, Molokai . . . for those with a solid stomach
I’m hoping to check this small island off my list the next time I visit Hawaii. The main reason many people visit Molokai is to see the famous Kalaupapa Peninsula, known for its isolated leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) colony, and to pay homage to Father Damien, the priest who came here to work at the colony and who was canonized in 2009. You can’t reach Kalaupapa by car, but you can explore the eastern part of Molokai this way. I love windy scenic roads, so Kamehameha V Highway’s switchback drive to the breathtaking Halawa Valley is right up my alley.
Garden of the Gods, Lanai . . . for desert explorers
Another island I need to check off my list, Lanai made headlines recently when Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, purchased most of the island. Many people go here to get away from it all at one of the two Four Seasons Resorts, but I’m itching to rent an SUV and hit the rugged dirt Polihua Road that transports you 7 miles from Lanai City to Garden of the Gods. This sacred rocky spot looks nothing like the Hawaii of surf, sand, and palms that you imagine–you’ll feel more like you’re on the moon.