Hawaii’s Biggests, Bests, and Onlies

Where to find some of the Aloha State’s most alluring attractions.


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Makahiki87-123rf (CC)

Mauna Kea cinder cones in snow.


The World’s Tallest Mountain

Rising like the back of a breaching whale from the Big Island’s vast flatlands, Mauna Kea doesn’t look all K2-ishly soaring and stratospheric. But at 13,796 feet, it still counts as the planet’s most stratospheric peak, because its height is measured from bottom to top, and its official bottom is the ocean floor. A Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet offers weather and safety updates; above the station, only four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended, and altitude sickness is a definite possibility. On the mountain’s summit stands yet another record-breaker: the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy.


World’s Largest Lighthouse Lens

David Baker (CC)

Makapu'u Lighthouse.

Measuring 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide, sporting a thousand-plus prisms, the hyperradiant Fresnel lens in Makapu’u Lighthouse on the volcanic, panoramic southeasternmost point of Oahu is the world’s largest, reflecting a beam that can be seen from as far as 19 nautical miles away. Originally conceived when Hawaii was still a kingdom, then completed in 1909 atop a 600-foot sea cliff to guide ships sailing between Molokai and Oahu, the red-roofed lighthouse can be viewed from the two-mile Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail, popular with whale-watchers and mantained by the Hawaii Division of State Parks.


World’s Largest Surf Mural


Banzai Pipeline mural.

Located on the corner of Waikamilo Road and Kalani Street in Honolulu, depicting the gnarliest curl you’ll ever (hopefully) see inland, the world’s largest surf mural stands some five stories tall and occupies over 14,000 square feet. Meant to depict a massive wave at Oahu’s notorious Banzai Pipeline, the mural was painted by Brazilian-born, North Shore-of-Oahu-based artist Hilton Alves, who spent eight months planning the artwork and eight days actually producing it, pro bono, using some 150 gallons of paint. The mural’s foreground features a strip of sand on which spectators stand staring seaward alongside a sign that proclaims, handily, “the largest wave MURAL in the world.”


America’s First Revolving Restaurant

Loren Javier (CC)

Waikiki Restaurant.

Honolulu was home to America’s first revolving restaurant. Erected in 1961 on the 23rd floor of the Ala Moana Building near the vast Ala Moana shopping complex, La Ronde preceded Seattle’s Eye of the Needle eatery. It’s now closed, but visitors can enjoy a similar experience, with a very similarly breathtaking 360-degree view, at the nearby Top of Waikiki Restaurant, which also rotates and is a Honolulu classic in its own right, having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Its menu favors fresh seafood, steaks, and fusionistic fare such as Sriracha-duck pizza, Cambazola-cheese lumpia, and haupia-stuffed eclairs.


The World’s Most Active Volcano

Ben Britten (cc)

Kilauea lava.

Adorning the Big Island’s southern rim, sporting two fissure-riven rift zones and the fully formed Halema‘uma‘u caldera—which according to ancient Hawaiian mythology was the home of the lightning-and-fire-goddess, Pele—Kilauea is the world’s longest continuously erupting volcano. Dating back millennia, eruptions continue to this day. They are watched carefully by seismologists and excitedly by visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which boasts several spectacular spots from which to safely view spurting lava and swirling steam. The continuing potential of future major eruptions is no joke: Island real estate is priced according to its likelihood of being swamped by lava.


America’s Rainiest City

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On average, Hilo gets upwards of 130 inches of rain per year. Cascading from the sky with such force and volume as to strike must-stay-indoors-and-watch-movies terror in most Mainlanders, these drenching deluges are taken calmly in stride by locals who simply walk and drive through them as if through a faint fog. Even during downpours, you will find Hiloites enjoying tranquil Coconut Island, lush Liliuokalani Park, the thriving Hilo Farmers’ Market, miles of rocky coastline, and other attractions in this quietly hip Big Island college town whose unpretentious friendliness feels worlds away from Waikiki.


Species Found Only on the Islands

Wikimedia Commons

Nene goose.

The ’akepa, ’akiapola’au, and ’oma’o birds; the nene goose; i’o hawk; ’alala crow; poha berry; and anchialine pool shrimp are found only on the Big Island. Four species of honeycreeper birds are found only on Kauai. The crested honeycreeper (’akohekohe), wiliwili flower, and Haleakala silversword plant are found only on Maui. The Cyanea superba bellflower, waianacensis tree, and yellow-petaled ko’oko’olau plant grow only on Oahu. At least one subspecies of the white hibiscus known as kokio keokeo grows only on Molokai. Many of these plants and animals are severely endangered.


Published online May 22, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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