When it comes to romance and adventure, Hawaii has it all: secluded beaches, colorful sunsets, tropical rainforests, volcanic craters, coral reefs, canyons, and even an active volcano. With stable temperatures year-round and an abundance of outdoor activities, renting a vehicle might not be the first thing that comes to mind while imagining a romantic Hawaii vacation — but one of the best (and most convenient) ways to explore the main Hawaiian Islands is by car. Each island offers visitors its own unique natural wonders, many of which can be visited in the same day with the right itinerary.
These romantic, scenic drives showcase some of the best sights Hawaii has to offer. Regardless of whether you’re a convertible type of couple or a four-wheel drive pair, remember to take as much time as you need to soak in the surroundings. The “spirit of aloha” is in the journey, after all.
One: Waimea Canyon
What: Kauai is the smallest of the four main Hawaiian Islands, which means its natural diversity is easier to come by. Case in point: Waimea Canyon Drive is only 18 miles long, but it brings travelers from a small coastal town through a desert canyon and ends up in a rainforest. From various points on this small highway, travelers can simultaneously view the colorful sands in the desert, the lush greenery in the forest and swamp, and the beaches along the Pacific Ocean.
Where: Waimea Canyon Drive (State Highway 550) heads North through Western Kauai. It starts in Waimea, a sleepy little town that was originally the capital of Kauai. The road winds upwards through valleys and red sand banks, providing great coastal views in the rearview mirror. There are several lookouts and opportunities to pull over and admire the scenery on the way to the canyon. Past Waimea Canyon, Koke’e State Park turns dark green and damp as the road winds into the cloud forest of this 4,345-acre rainforest region.
When: The varieties of colors throughout this drive ensure great viewing at any point on a clear day, but the sunsets can be particularly spectacular. The sunset isn’t the only dramatic drop, however — nighttime temperatures can dip to 40°F in parts of Koke’e, so be prepared.
How Long: This is a short but winding drive with lots to see. Allow a leisurely two hours, excluding time for walks and hikes.
How to Get There: The town of Waimea is 25 miles from Lihue Airport, which is a 30-minute flight from Honolulu. Waimea Canyon Drive (State Highway 550) starts in Waimea at the intersection with Kaumuali’i Highway (State Highway 50). The entrance to the park is six miles along Waimea Canyon Drive, which merges with Koke’e Road. Koke’e State Park is also on State Highway 550, about six miles from Waimea Canyon.
Highlight: Waimea Canyon is consistently referred to as a miniature Grand Canyon. Its colors and views are just as spectacular, but at a fraction of the size — only one mile wide, 12 miles long, and 3,567 feet deep.
Two: Hana Highway
What: Perhaps the most famous of Hawaii’s scenic drives, the Hana Highway follows the winding northern coast of Maui along State Highway 360. The road take visitors through cliffs, beaches, waterfalls, rainforests, and villages on the journey from Kahului to Hana. The speed limit is low (typically 25 miles per hour), but it isn’t always a leisurely drive; this 52-mile stretch of state highway has approximately 600 sharp curves and 59 bridges (most one lane, despite two-way traffic).
Where: The drive starts in built-up Kahului on the Hana Highway (State Highway 36, which becomes State Highway 360). There are enough stops and sights along the way to keep drivers entertained for days. Those on a day trip may way to explore these notable highlights.
Twin Falls (mile marker 2 after State Highway 360 begins) is the first accessible waterfall area on the journey. There are actually more than two waterfalls on this residentially maintained land, as well as a variety of interesting native vegetation.
The Keanae Peninsula (left on Keanae Peninsula Road, just after mile marker 16) offers beautiful, jagged coastal views. The quiet Keanae village remains true to its native Hawaiian roots; residents cast fishing nets and grow their own taro for poi.
The tropical village of Hana (mile marker 31) has waterfalls, gardens, ponds, hikes, colorful beaches, and a ranch. This is an area worth exploring as much as time will allow.
The official “Road to Hana” drive ends at Hana, but the Hana Highway extends 12 miles to Kipahulu. Be warned: Many rental car agreements specifically forbid travelers from driving the rugged road past Hana.
How to Get There: Kahului is approximately 5 miles from Kahului Airport and approximately 30 miles from Kapalua Airport. Both are about a 35-minute flight from Honolulu. Hana Airport is three miles from Hana and 50 miles from Kahului. Flights at this smaller, commuter airport often require connections.
When: The Hana Highway is scenic year-round. Leave early to avoid traffic, which can back up on this two-lane highway. It’s best to start the drive before 9am and journey in a clock-wise position to optimize the sun.
How Long: Allow anywhere from three hours (one way) to two days for the drive, depending on how long you stop at each site.
Highlight: The Hana Highway showcases some marvelously colored beaches. Pa’iloa Beach in Wai’anapanapa State Park (just past mile marker 32) has a spectacular volcanic black sand beach. Kaihalulu Beach is an isolated, red sand beach resulting from a caved-in cinder cone. (Park on Uakea Road near Hauoli and it’s a steep, five-minute hike to Kaihalulu.)
Three: Volcanoes National Park
What: The drive through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park showcases one of Hawaii’s most versatile and unique landscapes. The Big Island is continually growing and changing; lava flow from Mount Kilauea has added over 560 acres of new land since the volcano’s initial eruption in January, 1983. This is the youngest and largest island, making it particularly important for the study of evolution and endemic biodiversity. The slow physical changes coupled with the unpredictable lava flow mean that each day offers travelers a slightly different experience.
Where: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park comprises 333,000 acres in the southwest of the Big Island — all in the presence of Kilauea, which ranks amongst the world’s most active volcanoes. The 60 miles of paved road throughout this park are well-marked. Stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center first for air quality alerts and eruption updates as well as general information.
The aptly named Crater Rim Drive brings visitors around the caldera to the volcanic steam vents and sulphur banks, the Jaggar Museum, the Devastation Trail, the Thurston Lava Tube, and several overlooks. From there, explore the different climates of the East Rift Zone by driving Chain of Craters Road down to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs and on to the Holei Sea Arch, where the road has been buried by lava. The Big Island’s newest land along the Pacific Ocean is visible from the road as the elevation slowly drops.
How to Get There: The park entrance is about 30 miles from Hilo Airport and about 100 miles from Kona Airport, both of which are approximately a 45-minute flight from Honolulu. The park entrance is on Hawaii Belt Road (State Highway 11). Admission is $10 per car and a ticket is valid for seven days.
When: Ignore the general forecast for the rest of the Big Island. There are several different environments throughout the park — which is typically much cooler than other parts of the Big Island — so it’s best to be prepared for anything. Check the park forecast (dress in layers, no matter what), the eruption updates, and the air quality status on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 24-hour hotline (tel. 808/985-6000).
High levels of vog (volcanic fog) and laze (hydrochloric acid) can cause problems for travelers with heart or breathing conditions. Visitors should keep their car windows closed while driving through, just to be safe. Pregnant women and small children are discouraged from entering the park.
How Long: Allow at least four hours to fully explore this park by car — more if you take advantage of the numerous great hikes.
Highlight: While it’s hard to fully comprehend the extent of Kilauea’s destruction, walking through the cracked, cooled lava past the Holei Sea Arch towards the most recent eruption will give you a better idea (and a look at the steam plume). In this part of the park, the black lava swirls have covered absolutely everything — even a large part of the main road.
The best vantage point for the current eruption (at the Pu’u O’o cinder-and-spatter cone) is actually just outside the park on State Highway 130, past Pahoa. Lava levels vary day to day, so check with park rangers.
Four: Kona and Kohala Coast
What: It’s a persistent myth that the Big Island has no worthwhile beaches. Because of the ever-changing landscape, new beaches are still appearing. This 40-mile stretch of road between Kahaluu and Kawaihae is chock-full of romantic, postcard-worthy beaches.
While the beaches of the Kona and Kohala Coasts may be beautiful, the real draw is what swims beneath the surface. Schools of colorful tropical fish, Hawaiian green sea turtles, and manta rays gather near reefs. It’s often possible to see them simply by wading in. Snorkel near a shallow reef (look for rocks jutting above the water) to view the full spectrum of marine life.
Where: Start at Kahaluu Beach Park in Keauhou, on Ali’i Drive (after mile marker 4.5). This is the Kona Coast’s most popular beach because of its excellent snorkeling. White Sands Beach is next door, about a mile away. A word of warning: at high tide, this beach disappears. Travel about five miles on Ali’i Drive to Palani Road, then turn left at Queen Kaahumanu Highway (HI-19). Kekaha Kai State Park (also called Kona Coast State Park) starts after mile marker 90. There are two main access roads to Mahaiula Bay Beach and Kua Bay Beach. Technically, there are six beaches along this five mile shoreline.
They are mostly sheltered from winds and therefore ideal for swimming. Further along Queen Kaahumanu Highway (mile marker 76), turn onto Waikoloa Beach Drive for Anaehoomalu Bay. This is one of the Kohala Coast’s most beautiful and family friendly beaches. Sea turtles inhabit the shallow water at the south end of the bay. Hapuna Beach is just past mile marker 69. This is one of the Big Island’s widest beaches; it has a shallow shore, making it great for swimming and snorkeling. Mauna Kea Beach (by mile marker 68) is famous for its turtles and manta rays — and infamous for its parking problems. The Mauna Kea Hotel monitors the parking lot, allowing only 30 non-guest vehicles in at a time. There can be waits on the weekend, but this beach is worth it.
When: Throughout the western shores of the Big Island, most days are beach days, weather-wise. This means parking at smaller beaches can be a major issue — especially on weekends, when many families camp out. The best time to visit any beach is early and on a weekday. The ocean can become especially rough in winter, with strong undertows and dangerous currents. Always check the surf and snorkel forecasts before swimming and never swim alone or during bad weather.
How Long: The Kona and Kohala Coasts beach drive itself takes two hours. Make a day (or two) of it and allow as much time for beach stops as possible.
How to Get There: Kona Airport is 13 miles from Kahaluu and 29 miles from Kawaihae. Hilo Airport is 95 miles from Kahaluu and 70 miles from the town of Kawaihae. Both airports are approximately a 50-minute flight from Honolulu.
Highlight: Not all beaches were created equal, but you can’t go wrong with any of these. The real thrill is swimming alongside an endangered Hawaiian green sea turtle in its natural habitat. These creatures are protected, so look but don’t touch.
Five: Upcountry Maui
What: Travel from the 10,023 summit of Mount Haleakala to sea level in under 40 miles of a winding, scenic road, all the while taking in some of Maui’s best countryside. This drive has it all: several climates, a giant shield volcano, a national park, lavender fields, eucalyptus groves, small towns, ranches, and the beach.
Where: Haleakala National Park consists of 30,183 acres, only a few miles of which are drivable. Both the crater and the summit are easily accessible by car. Starting at the Haleakala Crater, turn off at the Pu’u’ula’ula Summit. Zig and zag down Mount Haleakala on Crater Road/Haleakala Highway (State Highway 378), stopping at the variety of overlooks along the way. Turn left once Haleakala Highway intersects with Kekaulike Avenue (State Highway 377) and then left again at Waipoli Road for a detour to the famous Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm.
Double back to Haleakala Highway (which confusingly also becomes State Highway 377) and follow the road through eucalyptus groves and tropical gardens. Follow Hanamu Road, Olinda Road, and Baldwin Road to the small, old-fashioned town of Makawao. This is cowboy country, as evidenced by the hitching posts outside the main shops.
Follow Baldwin Avenue all the way to the ever-evolving town of Pa’ia, which still boasts remnants of its heyday as a sugar mill town and its resurgence as a hippie mecca. From there, continue down Baldwin Avenue to Pa’ia Bay Beach on Maui’s North Shore.
How to Get There: Haleakala National Park is about 30 miles from Kahului Airport and 55 miles from Kapalua Airport, both of which are approximately a 35 minute flight from Honolulu. The entrance to the park is on Haleakala Highway (State Highway 378). The park fee is $10 per vehicle. A ticket is valid for three days.
When: Panoramic views are the key to this drive. It’s best to visit on a very slightly cloudy day; at this elevation, clouds help set the scene. (They’re also fun to drive through.) Visitors in winter are more likely to see rain throughout Upcountry.
The average yearly temperature in Maui holds steady at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but Haleakala’s temperatures can dip below freezing in winter. At any time of year, it’s essential to wear layers of clothing. It can easily be 80 degrees at sea level and 40 degrees on Haleakala. As a general rule, for every 1,000 feet in elevation the temperature drops 3 degrees.
How Long: Although it’s not far in distance, allow at least four hours for this trip.
Highlight: Try to catch the sunrise at the Haleakala Crater, which measures 7.45 miles across, 2.17 miles wide, and 2,822 feet deep. (“Haleakala” is Hawaiian for “house of the sun,” after all.) Arrive at least an hour before sunrise (parking is limited) and bring winter clothes, since temperatures hover around freezing with wind chill. If the weather is cooperating, you’ll get to see the crater and everything around it illuminated in a stunning variety of colors.