Hawaii is a tropical paradise, the air fragrant with unique floral notes and a touch of salt air. A unique sense of nature fills the islands, from remote spots to the center of Waikiki.  I visited Oahu and Maui—and didn’t have nearly enough time while there—so I must make a return trip and explore more. Here are some of my favorite nature scenes in Oahu and Maui.

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1 — So these aren’t really nature, but surfboards seem to be a part of nature in Hawaii. Waikiki Beach is dominated by Diamond Head (shown in the main photo on this page), but the surfers amazed me almost as much as the sheer beauty of ocean, sand and mountain. I watched for hours as people jumped on these boards and faced down the waves. Best view? Waterside table at Edge of Waikiki at Sheraton Waikiki.

Hawaii Plumeria

2 — I have no idea how many varieties there must be of Plumeria, but I fell in love with the fragrant flowers—available in an assortment of colors including pink, rose, white and yellow. It’s a heady smell that made me feel an immediate sense of relaxation. The lei I received at the airport contained these gorgeous flowers and it kept my room smelling so sweet the entire four days I spent in Waikiki. These beautiful examples were in the gardens at Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki.

Warning sign at Nakalele Blowhole

hardened lava flow at Nakalele Blowhole

Nakalele Blowhole

3 — After leaving the urban beauty of Waikiki, I was fascinated by the lush jungle of Maui. We headed north from Sheraton Maui with the Pacific on one side and the West Maui Forest Reserve on the other. Officially Highway 30, it is also called the North Loop Coastline Highway, the Kahakuloa Valley road and—according to the locals—Kahekili Highway. Whatever the name, this is one narrow road. Extremely. At one point, we passed so close to another car that the driver’s side mirror on our rented Jeep went over the top of the driver’s side mirror or a little sedan. But the drive is worth it. One of my favorite spots along the way is the Nakalele Blowhole. The ocean forces water up a hole in the hardened lava flow, creating a natural blowhole. There’s a turnout just past mile marker 38 and then you can walk a short distance to observe the blowhole from above. If you’re sure-footed, you can walk the 1200 feet down toward the blowhole. As the sign says, however, keep your distance—it’s not a water park, but natural and can be dangerous, especially during high tides. It’s safest to never put yourself between the blowhole and the ocean.

road near Kahakuloa

4 — As I said, the road is amazing. It winds along the coast the entire distance, but is really only this narrow for about a mile. No worries, there are pull-outs along the way and when traffic backs up, someone is always good about getting out and directing everyone in a sort of jigsaw-like configuration to get everyone moving again. Just drive slowly and be patient. Everything here moves on Maui time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re on vacation.

Kahakuloa Head

Kahakuloa Head close up

5 — As you drive along the Kahekili Highway, there is a beautiful mountain looming in the distance. Lovingly called “Elephant’s Rock” by the locals, Kahakuloa Head rises 636 feet and alongside it is Pu’u Kahuli-‘anapa. Like much of Hawaii, Kahakuloa Head is steeped in folklore. According to local tales, the 18th-century King Kahekili would climb up about 200 feet every day and jump into the water below. If you stop at the overlook on the top of the hill before reaching Kahakuloa Head, you can look across the water at the coast of Molokai in the distance.

Valley near Kaukini Gallery Maui

Valley above Kahakuloa

Church in Kahakuloa

6 — Driving through the Kahakuloa Valley is almost like a trip back in time. This area is isolated and rural. Keep driving toward the village of Kahakuloa. The village is home to two of my favorite things on the trip—Kahakuloa church and Julia’s Best Banana Bread. The church was founded in 1887 and, although in disrepair, there are efforts underway to preserve it. Julia’s Best Banana Bread is a bright green roadside stand between mile markers 12 and 13 as you drive through the village. I’m not a banana bread fan, but this bread was simply amazing. They serve it (warm) with a liliko’i (passion fruit) butter that is quite tasty and unique from anything I would ever find here in Phoenix. We bought two loaves of bread, the butter (which shipped back in my checked baggage just fine inside plastic bags) and a toasted nut crunch that was filled with cashews, pistachios and macadamias.

Kaukini Gallery Maui

7 — As you continue up the hill past Kahakuloa, be sure to stop into Kaukini Gallery. The outside offers views over the Kahakuloa Valley that rival the best “wow” moments of my life. Inside, the gallery features handcrafted work from more than 100 Hawaiian artists. You can find everything from paintings and woodwork to jewelry and ceramics. I regret that I didn’t buy the pair of earrings I fell in love with there. I’ll just have to go back.

Yellow hibiscus

8 — The official state flower for Hawaii is the yellow hibiscus, or Pua Aloalo (or Ma’o-hua-hele) to the locals. These are the most beautiful flowers and the blooms seem almost perfect against the dark green foliage and the brilliant blue skies.

Lahaina

View of Lanai from Lahaina

9 — The town of Lahaina is so uniquely Hawaii. While it is somewhat controversial—there are a TON of tourist shops in the little fishing village—there are some real gems here. The view across to Lanai is the perfect place to whale watch or rent a sailboat for an afternoon on the water. If you’re hungry, head to Sugar Cane Maui for a great deck, magnificent ocean views and outstanding food. We just happened upon this place and it was one of the real finds on the trip. The restaurant is owned by Chef Philippe Chin, born in France to a Chinese father and French mom, formally trained in Paris, worked at award-winning restaurants around the world and is a James Beard Award nominee. My husband and I shared the Maui onion rings—thinly sliced sweet Maui onions coated in a house-made tempura and deep fried. I had the spicy ahi poke salad with ahi tuna, Maui onion, coconut gel, tobiko (fish roe) and Kula cabbage kimchee. It was so simple but so full of flavor. A perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Sunset at Sheraton Maui

10 — Sunsets over the Pacific. Days of whale watching. Lush greenery. Strands of sand that glow golden in the sunlight. I have no doubt why people consider Hawaii paradise. In one single afternoon while sitting on our deck at Sheraton Maui, which is on a 3-mile stretch of beach in Ka’anapali, we saw six different pods of humpback whales. I can’t even begin to count how many whales we saw during our trip and they were all just off the coast.

I have to admit that I was a little hesitant about visiting Hawaii. So many people go there and I was afraid it would be too commercialized. Yes, there are a lot of tourists. Yes, Waikiki is crazy busy and very urban. But there’s so much to see on the islands and the sense of nature surrounds you everywhere—even in the middle of the city. We are already planning our next trip and this time we will do more off-road excursions to explore the islands. In my travels, I don’t often return to the same place because there is just so much to see in the world. But I will return to Hawaii—the draw is magical. Mahalo to Starwood Hotels for hosting me during this amazing visit to the islands.

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