Far-flung Hawaii is the favoured holiday spot for many a celebrity. Lisa Haynes discovers there’s more to the South Pacific paradise than just beaches and palm trees.
It’s 6.20am and I’m standing in freezing fog, teeth chattering, rubbing my hands together. When packing for Hawaii, I didn’t expect to need gloves and a bobble hat.
And then the sun slowly breaks. We’re 10,000ft high on the summit of Haleakala National Park in Maui for the daily sunrise ritual. It might be the traditional E’ala’e chanting or the elated reaction from the crowd, but the atmosphere feels euphoric as the beams of light slowly illuminate the spectacular mountain range.
First shock to the system: Hawaii is infinitely more than just a surfer’s paradise. The islands are among the most remote places in the world and, investigating the rare, endemic plant life on the way down from the summit, it feels like it.
Each of the eight main islands even has its own distinct character. We begin our Hawaiian hop in perhaps the most developed, O’ahu. Expecting palm trees and sandy beaches, I’m taken aback to land in the midst of high rises, traffic jams and designer super-stores in Waikiki on the south shore.
However, just an hour’s drive north is Kualoa Ranch dubbed “movie set valley”. Hundreds of blockbuster movies and TV shows have been filmed in the 4,000-acre site and we slow down to observe signposts pointing to edge-of-seat moments and take pictures. I step into Godzilla’s giant footprint, pose with iconic signage for Jurassic Park, and inspect Lost’s plane crash site.
The two-hour Kamehameha Highway scenic drive to the tip of the island boasts mountains to the left and the blue Pacific to the right. It’s at spectacular Turtle Bay, with its roaring ocean frontage, that we realise that surfing is practically a religion here.
Rows of boards are stacked up in varying heights and countless rash guards sit drying outside the hotel’s surf school – wetsuits are deemed unnecessary in the warm water.
It’s only fitting that I have my first-ever surfing lesson in nearby Kawela Bay, a secluded lagoon that’s pretty tame by surfing standards.
Dodging coconut shells and roaming cockerels, our instructors from Hans Hedemann run through the basics on the sand – preferred foot forward, paddling lying on belly and – the tricky bit – how to transition seamlessly to an upright position and stay there.
Just 45 minutes in the ocean feels exhausting but, despite a run-in with some coral, we all manage to ‘ride a wave’ for at least five seconds of glory before zonking out on the beach.
During winter, spots like Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach and Sunset Beach on the north shore are meccas for pro surfers, drawn by monster waves of 40 feet or more. This stretch of coastline – dubbed – can suddenly transform into a car lot loaded with waxed boards if there’s a good swell, even if that’s a Tuesday afternoon. Everything stops for surfing.
Soaking up the laid-back north shore culture, we potter around charming surf towns, like Haleiwa. From art galleries to ‘Grass Skirt Grill’ restaurants and souvenir stores, the promenade of shop fronts looks like a rainbow paint explosion. Even the pink McDonald’s is the prettiest I’ve seen.
Hawaii’s answer to Mr Whippy, the popular Matsumoto Shaved Ice store, is the real tourist magnet. Frequented by the Obamas, queues run out the door for the menu of 30 plus radioactive-looking flavoured syrups. I slurp on the Hawaiian signature combo of pineapple, coconut and banana – adzuki beans optional!
It takes just 35 minutes to fly from Honolulu to Kahului in Maui, the perfect opportunity to absorb Hawaii’s varied landscape from a height. Those postcards featuring surf and palm trees only tell half the story – add desert, mountains, rainforest and volcanoes to the paradise picture.
After our epic 10,000ft Haleakala sunrise, we explore upcountry Maui where we sip pineapple wine at Maui’s Winery, toast lavender scones at the breathtakingly beautiful Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm, and gorge on cheese at the Surfing Goat Dairy.
But it’s not until I take the legendary Road to Hana, along Maui’s rugged eastern coastline, that I really appreciate Hawaii’s diversity.
The 83km drive is a series of bendy roads, narrow bridges and hairpin turns, but the incredible, unspoilt views make the nausea worthwhile.
Everything gets greener and wetter with every mile. The 6,000 feet of lush, green rainforest separates with ferocious waterfalls fuelled by the driving rain as we climb higher and higher.
After what feels like hours, our driver announces “we’ve made it to Hana” and windswept bright African tulips lead the way to the Wai’anapanapa State Park.
There’s more ceremonial action on our last night when we get to experience a traditional luau at Lahaina. With leis reinstated around our necks, hula dancing and oli chanting honouring the land, it feels like the Hawaii you might see in old movies.
We indulge in the five-course Polynesian feast and drink Mai Tais while reminiscing about our adventures.
A hui kaua, Hawaii. That’s “until we meet again” – and I’ve learnt how to stand on a surfboard for more than a minute.
• Lisa Haynes was a guest of Go Hawaii. Visit www.gohawaii.com.
Hotels: The Modern Honolulu, from £184 a night (www.themodernhonolulu.com); Turtle Bay Resort, from £249 per night (www.turtlebayresort.com); The Westin Maui Resort & Spa, from £249 a night (www.westinmaui.com); Sheraton Maui, from £282 per night (www.sheraton-maui.com). Flights: United Airlines, from £697 return, from London Heathrow to Honolulu (www.united.com); Hawaiian Airlines, from £114 return, from Honolulu to Kahului (www.hawaiianairlines.com).