The Ultimate Thrill-Seekers Guide to Hawaii
Beyond its beaches, Hawaii is a paradise for the adventurous looking for that next thrill.
Hawaii’s natural environment and rich culture make it the perfect place for epic adventures. Whether you’re looking for a challenging hike or after-dark dive or you prefer to disconnect and take an inner journey instead, Hawaii offers exhilarating adventures for all ages, interests, and skill levels. INSIDER TIP While tourists still refer to Hawaii Island as “Big Island,” Hawaiians continue to push for the use of its official name, the Island of Hawaii/Hawaii Island. (We use “Big Island” as means to simplify readers’ searches, but hope to expose our audience to the importance and cultural significance of the Ōlelo Hawai‘i language and the official island names.)
Watch the Sunrise from Maui’s Highest Peak
The elevation (more than 10,000 feet) and lack of light and environmental pollution make for a memorable sunrise experience at the summit of Haleakala. This dormant volcano and Maui’s tallest peak has immense cultural significance to Native Hawaiians and is considered a sacred site—some Hawaiians still visit Haleakala to give pule (prayer), conduct ceremonies, and connect with the land as their ancestors did—so be respectful. Learn the Hawaiian mo`olelo (stories and legends) about Haleakala from a local guide, keep noise to a minimum, and do not go off marked trails or touch and remove natural elements.
Trek a Challenging Trail
One of the best ways to experience Hawaii is by foot, and there are hiking trails suited to a spectrum of ages and abilities. Experienced hikers love the physical challenges, epic ocean views, remote beaches, and tranquility of the multi-day Kalalau Trail on Kauai. Novice hikers can enjoy the shorter well-trodden trails, like Pololu Valley Lookout on the Island of Hawaii, while still enjoying the view. Wheelchair accessible trails include the paved Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail on Oahu and Wailea Oceanfront Boardwalk Trail on Maui.
Ride the Waves
You will find some of the best waves in the world here, and multiple ways to experience riding one—from bodyboarding to surfing to outrigger canoes. And you don’t have to paddle out alone; cruise Waikiki waves with a furry friend through the Surfjack Hotel’s SUPDog partnership. Head to Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore and hop on board with Surf Dogs Hawaii or book an outrigger canoe paddling experience and learn about this traditional Hawaiian sport along Maui’s western coast through outrigger canoe activities at Ka`anapali Beach Hotel , Grand Wailea , and Westin Maui Resort & Spa .
Train Your Body and Mind With a Warrior Hula Lesson
If you don’t think hula can be classified as a “thrilling” experience, you’ve probably only been a spectator, not a participant. Hula requires incredible strength, elegance, discipline, and stamina. And this two-day experience led by Native Hawaiian kumu hula (master hula instructor) La`akea Perry, brings together fitness and Hawaiian culture through high-intensity training that includes tree climbing, swimming, and underwater rock running. The warrior hula experience includes hearty meals featuring fresh, local ingredients followed by a rejuvenating massage. It’s bookable by request only through the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina .
© Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Nicholas Tomasello
Stand in the Presence of Pele on the Island of Hawaii
WHERE: The Big Island
The goddess of fire and volcanoes, Pele, is known to create and destroy. She is revered in Hawaii, and if you’re fortunate enough to travel here when lava is flowing, you may have a chance to witness the power of Pele on the Island of Hawaii, home to Kilauea Volcano an active shield volcano. Even if Kilauea is quiet when you’re here, you can still visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park , hike the lava fields this island is famous for, and learn from a knowledgeable local guide about Pele and how the islands were created.
To truly experience Hawaii, you have to dive in. On a snorkeling or diving tour, observe green sea turtles, brightly-colored fish, and other marine life. There are options for a range of ages and skill levels across the state, including intro to scuba lessons at Aston Kaanapali Shores , kid-friendly snorkeling in a protected bay at Fairmont Orchid , and full-day boat trips around the waters of Kauai with Holoholo Charters .
See Hawaii From Above
Thrill-seekers can get a bird’s eye view of the islands while sky diving, paragliding, or touring by helicopter. Travelers seeking an elevated experience can go island hopping with Turtle Bay Resort’s multi-island helicopter expedition that includes aerial views of six Hawaiian islands and stops for a cliffside champagne toast and picnic near waterfalls. As airborne activities involve significant risk, take time to do your research and book with reputable companies.
Venture Off the Beaten Path for More Local Experiences
Although you must stay on designated trails while hiking, try venturing off the typical tourist track when planning your itinerary. Consider a visit to the smaller islands of Molokai (home to the tallest sea cliffs in the world) and Lanai, where you can engage in locally-led experiences that include learning traditional fishing techniques through the Four Seasons Resort Lanai’s Holoholo tour and connecting with the land through local storytelling on the Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike on Molokai.
Snorkel Under the Stars
WHERE: The Big Island
With so many outdoor adventures on offer in Hawaii, it would be impossible to fit everything into the daylight hours. Fortunately, there’s still plenty to do after the sun goes down, including one of the most thrilling activities in Hawaii: a manta ray snorkeling tour.
Join Native Hawaiian-owned Anelakai Adventures on their double-hull canoe for a short paddle just off the Island of Hawaii’s Kona coast. You’ll find manta rays gliding through the water. Observe from your seat or put on your snorkel gear and jump in—quietly, of course, so as not to disturb the wildlife.
For those that are unable to leave the shore, the manta rays might just come to you as they search for plankton in the mineral-rich waters of Keauhou Bay. Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa offers guests an educational manta ray viewing at the onsite Manta Center.
Get Your Hands (and Feet) Dirty
If you like surprises, getting your hands dirty, learning about history and culture, and giving back to the communities you visit, the Malama Experience at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu is perfect for you. You won’t know exactly what you’ll be doing for the day until you get there—the activities depend on what’s needed. They may include cleaning, planting, and harvesting Kalo (taro), thatching traditional grass huts, or helping with medicinal plants. What is guaranteed is an immersive experience in a verdant outdoor setting with knowledgeable Native Hawaiians who have been caring for the land.
You don’t have to be on Oahu to participate; sign up for other give-back activities across the islands, such as the reforestation and lo`i restoration projects with Camp Olowalu and Kipuka Olowalu on Maui, through the Malama Hawaii program. Or spend some time volunteering with non-profit organizations such as the Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and Maui Cultural Lands .
Look Inward with a Meditative Sound Journey
You don’t have to climb the highest mountain or dive to the ocean’s depths to find thrilling experiences in Hawaii—and not all of us can or want to do the more extreme activities. Sometimes when we sit still, disconnect from the stream of notifications in our busy lives, and turn our focus inward, we discover the most unexpected and exhilarating moments.
Go on a meditative sound journey with Native Hawaiian healer Pi’iali`i Lawson or join a Transformational Retreat with intuitive Dana Childs at Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko`olina . On Maui, find clarity with the help of Grand Wailea’s in-house astrologer Juliet Doty through an Unwind the Soul experience or astrology reading.
Pair an Adrenaline Boost with a New Skill
Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and spark an adrenaline surge while also learning a new skill. Many hotels, such as Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort and cultural centers like Ha Ola Village , offer Native Hawaiian-led workshops that may include ukulele instruction, traditional handicrafts, cooking classes, language lessons, Polynesian navigation , and other Native Hawaiian cultural activities.
Go on a Multi-Sport Excursion on Maui
Why limit yourself to one thrilling activity when there are so many? Join an Escape Adventures Multi-Sport Tour that combines hiking, cycling, sea kayaking, and more on Maui. Or create your wish list of experiences, and plot your own adventure according to your interests and skill level.
Indulge in a Land, Surf, and Sky Adventure on Oahu
Book the ultimate adventure with Hawaiian-owned and operated Kaimana Beach Hotel as your home base. The Land, Surf, Sky Package immerses you in heart-pumping experiences and culinary adventures around Oahu—from mauka (towards the mountains) to makai (towards the ocean).
Start with a morning surf session with longboard champion Kai Sallas as your instructor. Take to the skies on a helicopter tour of Oahu, then pay a visit to Kualoa Ranch for a curated picnic of champagne and locally sourced eats before setting out on a private expedition with one of the owners who will lead you through remote areas of Ka`a`awa Valley and Hakipu`u rain forests where you’ll see majestic mountains, sites sacred to Native Hawaiians, and incredible scenery that you may recognize from movies like Jurassic Park and Pearl Harbor.
Tips for Travelers Visiting Hawaii
Travelers (be it first, or 100th time to Hawaii) sometimes forget that these places are not just popular destinations, they are home to people, living culture, sacred sites, fragile ecosystems, and wildlife. Here are a few tips for safely and respectfully enjoying your adventures:
– Make sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen in Hawaii, to protect the water’s fragile ecosystem and preserve coral reefs. Reef-safe sunscreen can be purchased at any local pharmacy or grocery store.
– Hawaiian culture is deeply connected to the land, and there are sacred sites throughout the islands, many of which will not have any visible signage.
– Do your research. Not all tours are created equal. Book with reputable companies that have solid safety records (particularly important for the higher risk activities such as sky diving and helicopter flights) and conduct their tours with respect to the environment and culture
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.