Swap those sweaters for a swimsuit and head to the Hawaiian Islands this season to experience how "winter" is done in this part of the Pacific, where clear, jewel-colored waters await to be waded in, surfed, and explored. Each island has its own unique geography and host of water activities that you can’t quite find anywhere else, whether you’re looking for an adrenaline rush or want to take it easy. Experience the essence of Hawai‘i and dive right in.
FUN FACT: Ko Olina Resort, on the island’s west side, has four protected coves that are great for families or a calm day at the beach.
Nicknamed "The Gathering Place," O‘ahu is home to nearly 1 million people and is the hub of the state. On its south shore is WaikÄ«kÄ« Beach, where the outline of Diamond Head—the remnant of a long-extinct volcano—looms over a strip of golden sand and is one of the most recognizable and iconic images of Hawai‘i. Lined with hotels and packed with sunbathers year-round, WaikÄ«kÄ« Beach is one of the best spots to learn how to surf, as the waves are usually small and gentle, thus kind to novices. There are several surfing instructors and schools in the area who will have you up and riding in no time. One of the signs that "winter" has come to O‘ahu is when its North Shore is pummeled with surf as high as 20 feet from December through February. Waves crest and strike the shore with such force that a thunderous rumble can be heard far away from the sand. The North Shore is a big-wave surfer’s mecca, so it’s no surprise that elite surfing tournaments are held here annually. Watch the pros charge the waves at the Hawaiian Pro at Hale‘iwa Ali‘i Beach Park from November 12 to 23, the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach from November 24 to December 6, and the Billabong Pipe Masters at ‘Ehukai Beach Park from December 8 to 20. At this time of year, these beaches are reserved for professionals only, so watch safely from shore.
FUN FACT: Humpback whale calves gain 100 pounds a day shortly after they are born.
Sun-seeking tourists aren’t the only ones who flock to Maui in droves during the winter months. Roughly 8,000 to 10,000 humpback whales will make their way to the shallow waters off the island’s west and south shores from November until early May. Migrating nearly 4,000 miles from the frigid seas of Alaska, the whales come to Hawai‘i to breed and give birth, and they can easily be seen breaching, blowing, and tail-slapping from the coast starting from Makena all the way up to Kapalua. Booking a whale-watching tour is the best way to see these gentle giants, who can grow up to 52 feet long and weigh 40 tons. Tours leave from Lahaina Harbor and Ma‘alaea Harbor, and many companies offer a whale-sighting guarantee, especially during the peak month of February. Tours can range from leisurely afternoon and sunset cruises to small boats with naturalists on board and even kayaking excursions.
FUN FACT: Kaua‘i has been featured in the Jurassic Park film series, including the latest installment, Jurassic World.
Down the River
Kaua‘i surfer Laird Hamilton helped make stand-up paddleboarding a mainstream sport in the early aughts, and it’s now done in waters all over the world. But there’s nothing like paddling down the Hanalei River, which lazily winds through a jungle-like landscape of taro patches and coconut trees. It’s easier to find your balance and learn the basics of stand-up paddleboarding on the river’s still waters, but once you get the hang of it you can test your newly acquired skills out in Hanalei Bay, a cove at the mouth of the river surrounded by rugged, verdant mountains. Most kayak rental and tour companies based in the town of Hanalei offer guided paddleboarding excursions.
Feeling adventurous? Spend a day to go see the Napali Coast, one of the most isolated areas in the entire state. These haunting, dramatic sea cliffs snake down the west coast of Kaua‘i for 16 miles and can reach heights of 4,000 feet, with hanging valleys that slope into a sheer drop straight into the ocean. Inhospitable and remote, Napali isn’t accessible by car and can only be seen from a helicopter tour or by sea. Hop on a catamaran, yacht, or even a rigid inflatable boat to get an up-close look at this forbidden coastline. Some tour companies have vessels that can explore sea caves or provide opportunities for snorkeling.
FUN FACT: Manta rays don’t have barbs on their tails, unlike their smaller cousins, the stingrays.
Meet the Sea Life
Nicknamed "The Big Island," Hawai‘i Island has about 265 miles of coastline, ranging from rocky shores to wide, open beaches. The Kailua-Kona side of the island usually has hot, sunny weather, along with prime spots for snorkeling. Spot colorful tropical fish and thriving coral reefs at Kahalu‘u Beach Park, a protected cove just five miles south of Kailua-Kona, where a posted sign explains the types of fish and sea urchins living in the bay. Up north on the Kohala Coast, Spencer Beach Park is a sandy beach with shady spots, picnic tables, and calm waters that’s a great destination for the whole family.
Spot a Ray
The Keauhou area of Hawai‘i Island is one of the best places in the world to see manta rays, majestic animals that can grow up to 12 feet wide. They come out after sunset to feed, and tend to gather in the waters near the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Intrepid snorkelers and certified scuba divers can swim with the giant rays on a night dive with a local tour company. You could see anywhere from a few to a dozen manta rays, depending on the amount of plankton that’s in the water at the time. If you don’t feel like getting wet, the Sheraton has a viewing deck and a nightly "Manta Talks" experience at its Manta Ray Learning Center.