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Where to Go Now in Hawaii

From the Big Island to Kauai, here’s where to stay and what to do, according to experts.

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Ever since Hawaii mandated a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals on March 26, it has been stop and go for reopening its borders. But borders are reopening October 15, allowing visitors to present a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arrival to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine. (The one exception for now is the Big Island of Hawaii: If you’re arriving at Kona airport, you must take a second test upon arrival in addition to showing a negative test result.)

“With proper precautions, people are booked, but looking at cancellation windows closely,” says Ken Neibaur, a luxury travel advisor with La Jolla, California–based travel agency TravelEdge. “The next couple of weeks will be crucial to see how Hawaii emerges—it would be best to have a standard entry policy for all islands, which is key for people to feel confident. I think we’ll see a significant number of requests for bookings to Hawaii.” 

Hawaii is in rare form right now, says Debbie Misajon, founder of the Coconut Traveler, and a destination expert specializing in Hawaii. With a 98 percent drop in tourism, travelers can get back to the feeling of what Hawaii used to feel like—and deeply engage with its culture in a more sustainable way.  “If you’re staying in a house or villa, request that your provisions come from a local farmer or rancher,” she said. “If splurging on a helicopter tour, choose a provider that builds in carbon off-setting in the pricing. For experiences, join a local biologist and swim with sharks, roll up your sleeves to pull invasive seaweed from a fishpond, or replant a native Hawaiian forest.” 

Whatever you choose to do, Hawaii will always be a dream destination. And as hotels reopen in the next few months, we’ve rounded up some of the places to stay and things to do, chosen by travel experts who know the islands well. 

The Big Island, Hawaii 

What to do 

Hawaii—better known as the Big Island—is the largest of the island chain, with more than 10 diverse climate zones. It is known for its endless adventure options, beaches ranging from mild to rough waters, hiking in rain forests, black-sand deserts, Volcanoes National Park with two active volcanoes—and great places to stay. 

Where to stay 

Michael King, a travel advisor based in Kansas City with Largay Travel, has visited Hawaii more than 15 times and has spent a lot of time on the Big Island. “Most people stay on the Kona side, where there is more sunshine and all the top resorts. In my opinion, the best one is the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, close to Kona airport, with great golf but not a terrific beach. You have to get further up the coast where the beaches are wider, and even there, the water can be fairly rough.”

The Four Seasons property will reopen December 1. Neibaur also loves to recommend the home rental options at the Four Seasons complex, especially for those seeking more privacy now. 

“Everyone is looking forward to the reopening of Mauna Lani, an Auberge property [soft opening on November 15], several years in the making,” said Ken Neibaur. “It’s a very large property, with a tremendous amount of public space. The Mauna Kea, part of the Autograph Collection, has been a standard for Californians, and they have villas, as well.”

King likes the area around the Mauna Kea, and has rented a condo there with his wife, Barbara, for a couple of months at a time, since it’s away from crowds, with good beaches and activities. 

Steep cliffs on the coast of Maui, as seen from the Road to Hana

Maui 

What to do 

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Maui has numerous resorts, where travelers tend to go and spend time. But there is plenty to do, says King—beaches, snorkeling, humpback whale viewing during January and early February, golf courses, and fine dining, like the famous Mama’s Fish House.

No trip to Maui is complete without a drive on the Road to Hana with more than 600 hairpin turns, says Diane Crisman of Valerie Wilson Travel. You can drive in your own car, stopping at waterfalls and hiking areas, and for Hawaiian shaved ice. “Snorkeling on Molokini [an uninhabited island close to Maui] is also a highlight,” she says. 

Where to stay 

King has some well-earned opinions on where to stay in Maui. “My favorite is the Montage Kapalua Bay [reopening October 15] up at the north end of the island. Once you arrive, there is no reason to leave or go very far, other than to explore other parts of the island. Closer to the airport, and better for sightseeing the entire island are the Four Seasons Resort Maui, the newer Andaz at Wailea, and the Fairmont Kea Lani. The Grand Wailea is huge, but it is a great family resort. I think they have the most pools and water activities for kids anywhere in Hawaii, with multiple swimming pools for different ages.” 

Advisor Josh Alexander with Protravel International also loves the Montage Kapalua Bay—specifically, their private residences, which offer “larger living spaces and with gourmet kitchens.”

The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua has its own take on a Work, Learn, and Play-cation package—families can get away together and still be productive at work or school in residential suites with small kitchens; they can move to the poolside cabana if they just need to listen in on the Zoom call. There’s enhanced Wi-Fi to stay connected everywhere on the 53-acre property. 

And as of November 20, the Four Seasons Resort Maui will reopen, with five “Safe on Maui” innovations, including 24/7 onsite medical care, a collaboration with PS at LAX (a private airport experience), pretravel COVID-19 testing resources, a virtual classroom for kids, and in-room air purifiers that clean the room every 30 minutes. 

Lanai 

What to do 

A short ferry ride from Maui is the island of Lanai, about 18 miles long with only 3,000 people living there. But there is rich culture on Lanai, says Crisman. “It’s a beautiful, unspoiled island. Be sure to see PuuPehe ‘Sweetheart Rock’ and head to the central uplands to explore by horseback or rent a Jeep to explore on your own,” she says. 

Where to stay

There are few places to stay, with just three hotels. The two flagship properties are Four Seasons: the 213-room Four Seasons Resort Lanai, which overlooks the protected marine preserve of Hulopoe Bay, and Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort, a property focused primarily on wellness programs and activities, for ages 16+. Both will reopen October 15. 

“It is one of the most expensive islands simply because of the two Four Seasons properties, and there are rentals as well,” says King. “Lanai is great for a quiet trip or honeymoon because there isn’t an urge to do a great deal.” 

Statue of legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku on the beach in Waikiki, Oahu

Oahu 

What to do 

King calls Oahu his least favorite simply because of the crowds, in pre-COVID times: Honolulu’s international airport has always welcomed many direct flights from mainland USA and Asia, and travelers tend to spend at least some time in Oahu. 

For anyone interested in American history, no trip to Hawaii would be complete without a stop at Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, says Crisman. You can spend an entire day here depending on your level of interest. She also recommends a drive to the North Shore to observe surfing and a stop at the Polynesian Cultural Center. And of course, a visit to Waikiki to see how the city meets the ocean with endless fine dining options and shopping. 

Where to stay 

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 “The Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina is here, a nice property away from the majority of resorts and Waikiki beach,” says King. “But for those wanting to be in the middle of the action, there is a high-rise Ritz-Carlton, the Kahala Hotel & Resort, the Halekulani, which is a favorite of mine, and the ‘pink’ hotel, the Royal Hawaiianwhich is front and center on the beach.” 

“For Oahu, we tend to send people to the Four Seasons [Oahu at Ko Olina], outside of Honolulu,” says Neibaur. “It has lots of different options and room types, and all rooms are ocean-facing. It does share the beach with Disney’s Aulani [opening November 1], which can be a good or bad thing, depending on the traveler. Remember that the reasons people went to Honolulu are different now, with fairly severe restrictions. When people talk about Hawaii, they want to be in the resort, protected, and not urban. So we’ll book the Four Seasons or the Kahala.” 

(Note: The traditional flagship of Oahu, the Halekulani, is not opening until July 2021, as of now. The Four Seasons is evaluating its reopening date, with a decision coming soon.)

Looking for a beautiful house with “presidential and celebrity-level security”? You could stay in a favorite of Barack and Michelle Obama—the 5-bedroom, 5.5-bathroom, plantation-style Estate, recommended by Debbie Misajon of the Coconut Traveler. Even though all beaches in Hawaii are public, this property is secluded at the very end of a beach, with its own private access. 

Kauai 

What to do 

The wildest of all the islands, Kauai—known as the Garden Island— has been the backdrop to myriad Hollywood movies and TV series, thanks to its white-sand beaches, rain forests, coastlines, waterfalls, rivers, and climate. “I think Kauai may be Hawaii’s strongest draw now,” says Neibaur. “You’re not there for nightlife, but for the beaches, exploration, and privacy.” 

As you’re choosing where to go, know the weather differences between the north and south side. “The north side, with Princeville and Mount Waialeale in the center, gets a ton of rain, averaging 450 inches a year,” says King. “But the south side is much drier and home to Hawaii’s version of the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon.” 

Where to stay 

Kauai offers beautiful residential options, though inventory goes fast, and there aren’t as many home options as on Maui, says Neibaur. He recommends the Lodge at Kukuiula for one- to five-bedroom rentals with their own oceanfront and the newer luxury Timbers complex, right in the main town of Lihue, with residences up to 3,000 square feet. 

Pure Kauai has been a high-end villa specialist on the island for almost 20 years. At Sea Song at Kahili Bay, a secluded rental house that sleeps eight, imagine cooking in that cozy kitchen with a view of the water. Hale ‘Ae Kai is inspired by Balinese design, surrounded by gardens and ponds, and centered around a gorgeous pool, perched on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. Anini Vista Drive Estate feels like its own boutique hotel, with five bedrooms, a lush pool area with two waterfalls and a bridge, plus towering palm trees everywhere.

Many five-star hotel clients also go to the Grand Hyatt Kauai on the south side of the island, says King.

Contact the advisors 

Want more information about what you have read—or have any other questions? Reach out to the advisors mentioned in the story.

Josh Alexander, Protravel Internationaljosh.alexander@protravelinc.com

Diane Crisman, Valerie Wilson Traveldianec@vwti.com 

Michael King, Largay Travelmichael@largaytravel.com  

Debbie Misajon, The Coconut Travelerdebbie@thecoconutraveler.com 

Ken Neibaur, TravelEdge: ken.neibaur@traveledge.com 

This is a developing story. Go Hawaii has up-to-date information on current travel requirements and restrictions. 

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