Hawaii’s Biggests, Bests, and Onlies
Where to find some of the Aloha State’s most alluring attractions.
Photo by Akos Kokai (CC)
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Our 50th state isn’t just our most tropical, exotic, romantic, dramatic, distant, mango-lorious and beach-bedecked. This glittering strand of volcanic isles—known by geologists as the Hawaiian Emperor seamount chain—isn’t just generically gorgeous, interchangeable in its coconut-cocktail splendor with other idyllic outposts everywhere. In fact, Hawaii is home to many of the world’s biggest, bests, and onlies: record-breaking places and products found nowhere else in America, or even on Earth. From daredevil cliffs to ultra-rare species, here are some Hawaiian hotspots and hotshots sure to make an Aloha State vacation even more irresistible—as if we needed any extra convincing.
The World’s Tallest Sea Cliffs
Formed over millions of years of volcanic activity and massive landslides, reaching at some points 3,900 feet, plummeting seaward like monumental furls of soft green velvet, Molokai’s Kalaupapa Cliffs are the world’s tallest. Their height serves to isolate the flat, remote peninsula on which people with leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) were quarantined for over a century, largely under the tender care of the Belgian priest now known as St. Damien. This peninsula is now a gorgeous if often heartbreaking National Historical Park; the cliffs cannot be accessed by car but are usually viewed via foot, muleback, or helicopter.
America's Only Royal Palace
Amy Meridith (CC)
Other countries crawl with castles, but the vast U.S.A. sports only one formerly royal residence: downtown Honolulu’s poignantly stately ‘Iolani Palace, designed by Thomas Baker, Charles J. Wall, and Isaac Moore in the fairly rare American Florentine style, and home to 19th-century Kingdom of Hawaii monarchs including King Kalakaua, Queen Lili‘uokalani, and King Kamehameha III. Built on allegedly sacred ground, completed in 1882 at a then-vast cost of $340,000, it merged European features with Hawaiian materials. Its coral-block walls, sprawling Grand Hall, elaborate-ceilinged Throne Room, tombs, and other gracious features embellish one of the Oahu’s top tourist attractions.
America’s Only Locally Grown Coffee
Malcolm Manners (CC)
Incomparably rich when roasted, Kona coffee beans originally grew only on the hot, wet slopes of Mauna Loa and the Haulalai volcano on the Big Island, having been brought there from Brazil in the early 19th century. But a few farmers now also grow them on Maui, Kauai, and Molokai. Some farms welcome visitors. Check for Hawaii Department of Agriculture “100 percent Kona Coffee” federal trademark tags on your coffee-bean purchases to ensure their authenticity. Maintained by the Kona Historical Society, the Kona Coffee Living History Farm just south of Kailua-Kona is an authentic early-19th-century coffee plantation, staffed by costumed living-history interpreters demonstrating traditional activities.
The World’s First Water-Operated Elevator
Waldorf-Astoria Grand Wailea.
At the 40-acre beachside Waldorf-Astoria Grand Wailea luxury resort in Wailea, Maui—which features a 25,700-square-foot, six-level terraced pool area—swimsuit-clad guests enter a stone-walled tubular water-silo resembling a fairy-tale well in which they perch atop a flotation device which lifts them skyward as the water level rises. Emerging from this engineering anomaly at the top level, they can then ride the resort’s monumental waterslides back to the bottom and, if they wish, rise again. This attraction is not recommended for claustrophobes, hydrophobes, and/or acrophobes.
The World’s Largest Maze
Photo By Smart Destinations (CC)
Occupying over three acres, comprising nearly three miles of angular pathways whose walls are made from some 14,000 different local and living plants, with a huge pineapple-shaped series of paths forming its core, Dole Plantation’s Pineapple Garden Maze on Oahu is one of many activities included in the historic fruit plantation’s theme-parkish “Pineapple Experience.” One of just a handful of botanical mazes in the United States, this one was created in 1997 and expanded in 2007. One, year later, it was declared the world’s largest hedge maze. Fast finishers win prizes and get their names recorded on a sign at the maze’s entrance.
World’s Largest Outdoor Mall
Photo by Phancdp (CC)
Ala Moana sale rack.
Mere steps from the beach—but why swim or surf when you can shop?—Honolulu’s Ala Moana Center comprised 87 stores when it opened in 1959. Today it ranks as the world’s largest outdoor shopping center and boasts 290 stores, including international favorites and luxury brands such as Apple, Disney, Tiffany, Tesla, Sephora, Forever 21, Jimmy Choo, Harry Winston, Versace, Bulgari, and Louis Vuitton, as well as island-based outfits including Hilo Hattie, the Flip Flop Workshop, the Honolulu Handbag Company, Island Magnets, Kona Abalone, ABC Stores, Kahala, and Crazy Shirts. The mall also features nearly 70 restaurants. Attracting some 42 million visitors per year, it is the state of Hawaii’s most-visited destination.
America’s Steepest Road
Scott Carpenter (CC)
Waipi'o Valley road.
Descending some 900 vertical feet at a 25 percent average grade and rising to 40 percent at its most extreme, the narrow road leading into the Big Island’s Waipi’o Valley is, by some accounts, the steepest not only in the United States but in the world. Permissible only to four-wheel-drive vehicles, this plunge offers stunning rewards at the bottom: An emerald paradise stretching at sea level from dramatically waterfall-beribboned cliffs to a black-sand beach, the valley, home to a few dozen hardy inhabitants, abounds in tropical fruit trees, taro fields, wild ponies, and bucket-listy hiking trails.