"The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean" is how Mark Twain famously described these Polynesian beauties. And few would disagree, even today. Hawaii's smoldering volcanic peaks, hemmed by coal-black and snow-white beaches, are as stunning now as they were when Twain spent four months here back in 1866.
It's our loss that Twain never peeked beneath the surface at the lava-cast seascape of gothic arches, tubes and caverns. He would have relished the fact that more than a quarter of the local fish species are endemic and surely would have enjoyed writing about such creatures as the humuhumunukunukuapua'a (lagoon triggerfish).
The eight big islands and 33 atolls of the 50th state aren't big--you could pack them comfortably inside Maryland--but they are unusual. Where else do you find islands that rise from a seafloor four--yes, four--miles below the surface? With some of Hawaii's peaks topping 13,000 feet, you're really diving the roof of the blue Himalayas, but in water that rarely dips below 70 degrees in the winter and reaches the mid-80s in summer. Reef divers will savor the tepid shallows right offshore, while pelagic enthusiasts need only fin a little farther to find 150-foot vis and a bottomless big-game park.
Each of Hawaii's main islands--Oahu, the Big Island (Hawaii), Maui and Kauai--has a distinctive flavor and offers slide-show panoramas and an intriguing cast of rare and marvelous characters. "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for company and Hawaii for the diving," Twain once said. I added the Hawaii part, but I'm sure he would have approved.
"Diving Oahu is all about variety," says Joakim "Jo" Hjelm, a Swedish dive instructor with Island Divers Hawaii. "We've got half a dozen shipwrecks, some of which you can penetrate, and great drift dives at places like Spitting Caves and Sea Caves. We also have just about every species of wildlife found in Hawaii, from monk seals to white-tip reef sharks to Spanish dancer nudibranchs."
Most of the diving is concentrated in the sheltered waters of Mamala Bay, where Honolulu's mirrored office buildings wink from the shaded canyons between Waikiki Beach hotels. The concrete skyline melds into basaltic headlands as you sweep around the eastern hook of Makapuu Point, where rough water keeps sites at Manana and Moku islands pristine. Head west from Honolulu, past the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, and you'll find more tranquil water.
It was here in 1982 that another Navy ship, the 165-foot Mahi, settled upright at 95 feet, sacrificed as an artificial reef. While rust and storms have made her impenetrable, Poseidon has dressed her bones in delicate snowflake corals and red sponges. Look for frogfish near the railings (beware the sea urchins), and hover around her mast--a dozen porcupine pufferfish play there. The ghostly guardians of the Mahi, a squadron of eight eagle rays, are almost always seen soaring in the stiff current. Dive the Mahi in the morning at high tide for best vis and a smoother commute. Bring along a light to shine into her dark skeleton.
Koko Craters, a trio of reef ledges bottoming out in sand at about 35 feet, is the place to go for reptile fun. On calm summer days, green turtles snooze beneath the ledges and take regular air breaks. "On an average dive you might spot three," Hjelm says, "but I've seen as many as 15." If you tire of the turtles, scout around for morays, scorpionfish and soldierfish.
Beach diving along the notorious North Shore? It sounds suicidal--and in winter, when Alaskan waves vent their fury, it is. But in summer, Three Tables, a trio of volcanic mini-mesas north of Waimea Bay, is a great place to spend a few hours. The rocks have been scoured clean of coral by the surf, but the volcanic formations are the attraction. There are ledges and swim-throughs, caverns and lava tubes, all between 20 and 45 feet. Bring a light and check the ceilings for Spanish dancer nudibranchs. And no matter how tempting, never, ever dive it in winter--deadly wave sets arrive with no warning.
Topside To-Do List
Drive serpentine Highway 72 along the Waimanalo Coast.
Cast a plumeria lei over the USS Arizona National Memorial.
There are lots of reasons honeymooners gravitate to Maui: hip nightlife, perfect tanning weather and 80 gorgeous beaches strung along the 120-mile coast. But what makes the diving great here is that Maui isn't just Maui. Eons ago, mega-island Maui Nui collapsed into the sea, leaving behind sister islands, Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe. "Maui Nui created this sheltered basin unique in Hawaii," says Dan Saunders, a skipper and dive instructor at Lahaina Divers. "Everywhere else, the ocean plunges 18,000 feet, but inside the remains of Maui Nui it's just 400 feet deep."
The shallow basin acts as a breakwater, taming incoming swells. The warm, shallow water is also why the whales come. From November to April, 2,000 North Pacific humpbacks, more than half the total population, migrate here from Alaskan feeding grounds to mate, calve and nurse their newborns. In season, their eerie songs will reverberate inside your lungs as you dive.
Molokini Crater, the signature crescent crater three miles off the leeward shore, is Maui's (and probably the state's) most popular dive site. You can explore the sheltered coral rubble and sandy terraces inside, or get the best of both worlds at Reef's End, where the 15-story crater shrugs into the open ocean. The dive starts inside and works around the outside wall where currents generate deep-water upwellings.
"You can see almost every species of butterflyfish, wrasse, octopus, shrimp and eel out there. Once or twice a week mantas show up at cleaning stations. Not long ago four dolphins came in and rolled over on the sand for us to scratch their bellies," Saunders says. And there are sharks, of course. Galapagos sharks, gray reef sharks, whale sharks, tigers. "We even had a great white cruise through."
Lanai sits across the roiling Kealaikahiki Channel. A former Dole pineapple plantation, Lanai has a population smaller than a Vermont liberal arts college and a half dozen dive sites along the south shore. Most impressive are the Cathedrals, twin lava grottoes three miles apart.
You enter First Cathedral through a 20-foot-high medieval arch that opens into a cavern the size of a Las Vegas chapel. Look up and you'll be treated to a dazzling light show as the shafts of sunlight pierce the thin lava-skin roof. As you depart on the Shotgun (a natural surge-assisted diver-expulsion vent), look for beautiful endemics like blue, red and green saddle wrasse and bluestripe butterflyfish.
Second Cathedral is a larger, more dramatic version of First with swim-throughs and the ghostly "chandelier"--a six-foot-long skull-white coral tree suspended from the ceiling.
Molokai, another former pineapple plantation and site of a notorious 19th-century leper colony, has only one site: Mokuhooniki Island. It's rarely dived since it can only be reached half a dozen times a year from Maui when a Kona storm blows in.
Topside To-Do List
Coast down 10,023-foot Haleakala on a mountain bike.
Visit the former leper colony at Kalaupapa National Historical Park.
You're halfway up the world's tallest mountain. Below you, the slopes fade 20,000 feet into the deep, above they climb another 13,679 feet, where sun glints off the ice-bound summit of Mauna Loa. From base to peak, it's over 5,000 feet taller than Mount Everest. Welcome to oxygen-assisted mountaineering, Big Island style.
When you dive the Big Island, you're really diving five massive volcanoes (three of them active), and an island that, incredibly, is still rising out of the Pacific. If you've ever wanted to understand the fiery heart of Mother Nature, this is the place.
Hop a low-level helicopter ride along the southeast coast over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and you'll see 70 million years of geology in action as Kilauea bleeds more than half a million cubic yards of magma every day. And you can get even closer. Hike out at dusk from the ranger station at the end of Chain of Craters road (wear a headlamp, thick-soled hiking boots, long pants and leather gloves). Stay at least a quarter mile away, because when the oozing lava burps into the boiling surf it creates a glowing red cloud of hydrochloric acid. And, no, you can't dive here, and, yes, it's a dumb question.
You can, however, see what happens when the magma cools by checking out dive sites along the sun-blessed Kona and Kohala coasts, where a string of accessible dive sites highlight fire goddess Pele's tempered earth.
"Golden Arches is a favorite," says Trish Morris-Plise, captain and dive guide with Big Island Divers. "Like most Big Island dive sites, it's within 100 yards of shore because the underwater slope drops off so steeply." The site derives its name not from a burger-serving clown, but from blue-stripe snapper schooling beneath the south arch. "I think they were brought in from the Marquesas in the 1950s as food fish," Morris-Plise says, "but the Hawaiians won't kill yellow fish because yellow is one of the royal colors." The dive is mellow--there is no need to dip deeper than 50 feet--and the surge is gentle. On a good day, the vis can reach 150 feet.
There's plenty of underwater nightlife on the Kona Coast, too. There are two locations where dive operators have created manta encounters by attracting plankton with cinema lights. A decade ago mantas began showing up to feed in the lightpools cast from what is now the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa. The Sheraton dive is barely 30 feet, and the surge can be strong. Garden Eel Cove, right off the airport, has the benefit of a more sheltered location--which also attracts napping dolphins during the day.
Topside To-Do List
Explore the summit of Kilauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Tour Kona coffee country, where some of the world's most coveted java is produced.
Locals will tell you that Kauai is the way Hawaii used to be--a landscape of brooding sea cliffs, 43 sugar-sand beaches unspoiled by high-rise hotels, and barefoot beach towns with sing-song names like Hanalei Bay. There's even Waimea Canyon, a Navajo-red valley that is spun with early morning rainbows, tinseled with waterfalls and proudly claimed by locals to be "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific."
Above it all rise goliaths Mount Kawaikini and sister peak Mount Wai'ale'ale, often billed as the wettest place on the planet (nearly 60 feet of rain fell one year). It's Kauai's wild spirit, and the rain, oddly enough, that distinguishes the diving here. "These are algae-based reefs," explains Linda Marsh, owner of Bubbles Below. "Because of the nutrient-rich runoff, we have more invertebrates, and they in turn attract big schools of fish, which lure predators like barracuda. And we've got some wild-looking invertebrates," she says. "If you've ever seen a Hawaiian lobster, you'll know what I mean. They are blood-red with brilliant blue hair, fantastic to see on a night dive."
Kauai's most unique dive isn't off Kauai, but off Ni'ihau, also known as the "Forbidden Island." This desert isle 17 miles southwest of Kauai has been privately owned by the Robinson family since 1864 and is home to Hawaiian-speaking Polynesians. While the island is closed to outsiders, state law permits diving along the coast. Diving Ni'ihau, however, is an all-day commitment; it can take an hour and a half to reach the island, and more than two hours fighting the seas on the way back.
Aptly named Vertical Awareness and nearby Pyramid Point are the most popular spots. Vertical Awareness is an undersea pinnacle that rises from 280 feet and crowns just shy of 40 feet. The upper half of the sheer seamount is cleaved with cracks knobbed with rare granulated and tiger cowries; some tigers can grow to six inches. The real treat, however, is an encounter with an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, one of the last of 1,500 left on the planet. "The male that hangs out there is incredibly curious," Marsh says. "And when we do a blue-water swim to dive Pyramid Point, he tags along."
Closer to home, the Sheraton Caverns are an excellent novice dive on the south side. Turtles rest among the ledges and caverns that range from 38 to 58 feet. Divemasters can also point out unusually cooperative cleaning stations where the wrasse rotate, depending on the incoming traffic. Sharp eyes might earn you a trophy leaffish, too, swaying among the rubble.
Topside To-Do List
Take a helicopter tour of the Mount Wai'ale'ale crater, Na pali Coast and Waimea Canyon. Visit the Hule'ia Wildlife Refuge and swing on the rope used by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Average water temps range from a low in the mid- to high 70s in March to the low to mid-80s in August. Of course, visibility varies from island to island, but it's usually quite excellent; often more than 100 feet. There's no bad time of year to visit Hawaii. However, swells from Alaska in winter make diving the state's northern sites practically impossible. Pack a 3mm suit in winter if you're prone to getting cold.
It's sunny and warm, though it can rain a lot. There's very little annual variation in air temperatures--the average high is 85 degrees, and the typical low is 70 degrees.
www.hawaiianairlines.com), Aloha Airlines (www.alohaairlines.com), Island Air (www.islandair.com), and Pacific Wings (http://184.108.40.206/index.asp). If you're flying with Hawaiian or Aloha Airlines from Honolulu to another island, you'll depart from the inter-island terminal, which is connected to the main terminal. If you're flying with Island Air or Pacific Wings from Honolulu to another island, you'll depart from the commuter terminal, adjacent to the inter-island terminal.If you're catching a connecting flight from Honolulu to another island, check your baggage claim ticket to make sure your luggage has been checked through to your final destination. If your baggage claim ticket reads HNL, your luggage will only go as far as Honolulu International Airport. You must pick up your bags and re-check them. The main Hawaii airport codes are Honolulu, Oahu (HNL); Hilo, Hawaii (ITO); Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (KOA); Lihue, Kauai (LIH); and Kahului, Maui (OGG). The islands are served by four inter-island airlines: Hawaiian Airlines (