Okay, let's be real for a moment: It would be easy to do a blog called "1,000 Places to See in Hawaii Before You Die." Hawaii is brimming with epiphanies of place, both grand and intimate. But, back to fantastyland, let's assume you are traveling through the islands and want see ten knock-your-socks off spots on the four major islands. We'll start in the north and head south, and presenting Hawaii's all-star attractions (though not all are tourist spots, per se.)
1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai
One look and you'll know why it's called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, a 2,000 foot deep, 12 mile long gorge of pinkish-orange rock accented by waterfalls and exotic plants. Scenic turnouts abound. You can walk to the bottom at the Kukui Trail. But the kicker for Waimea Canyon is getting to the top rim: From the top is an eagle eye view down to the tropical Kalalau Valley. And all along the ocean side rim of the canyon are trails out the Napali (The Cliffs) with awesome views.
2. Hanalei Bay, Kauai
Pictured above, Hanalei exudes astounding scenic beauty and aloha. A 3-mile crescent of fine sand is ringed by towering jagged green cliffs. After rains a dozen or more ribbonny white waterfalls dress it up. Hanalei Town is the essence of laid-back cool.
3. Windward Wild Beaches, Kauai
For about 30 miles on the east shore of Kauai (from Anahola to Princeville) are pasturelands with mountain views. Few people realize (since signs are scarce) that most of the wild beaches in Hawaii lie along this stretch. Many require a short hike down a steep hillside, but nothing small children can't handle. Yellow sand beaches, a dozen or more, are home to monk seals and shorebird. Midway on the coast is the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. A light house set high on the most-northerly land in the main Hawaiian chain, offers views of whales, dolhins, monk seals, Nene birds, and many species of shorebirds. Admission is cheap, like two bucks.
4. Waikiki Beach, Oahu
Yes, Waikiki is kitschy and crammed with tourists and high-rises. But it is also real to the bone, with layers of Hawaiian culture along its tiki-torched boulevards. Diamond Head lords over the scene, and there are many parklands and beaches mixed in. Pardon the word, but Waikiki is iconic on a world-class level, like the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate, and Empire State Building. While you're there, be sure to make the short trip to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Arizona Memorial, which will make even cynics patriotic, at least for the afternoon. Punchbowl Memorial in Honolulu is also hallowed among American historic sites.
5. Windward Oahu
Circle counterclockwise by car from Waikiki and you'll reach the Windward Coast, where the jagged green Ko'olau Range gives way to the Pacific. You'll have to rub your eyes to check if this dreamy landscape is true. The H3 freeway circles back to Waikiki, one of the most dramatic rides in the U.S., as it penetrates the mountains like a missile.
6. Haleakala, Maui
The crater (technically the eroded valley) of this 10,000 foot high active volcanoe is laced with trails. It's a world unto itself. People like to go up for sunrise (Haleakala means House of the Sun), but the better bet is to drive up while it's light and check out sunset.
7. Hana Highway, Maui
A conga line of rental cars cram this serpentine road each day, so don't expect quietude, unless you leave early or late. More than fifty mossy one-lane bridges traverse countless streams, and dozens of waterfalls tumble from jungle creases. This is a trip you can take many times and see new things. Maui Trailblazer readers only slow down at sleepy Hana Town, and continue another twisty stretch to the Pools of Oheo, which are part of the lower section of Haleakala National Park.
8. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Geology happens in real time on the Big Island, which currently has two active eruptions within the Kilauea Volano's comples system. It's very weird to see the ground glowing red and flowing. But the park also offers rich tropical forests, with a symphony of birds. Thurston Lava Tube is the most well known place to see the green side of the volanoe. From visitor centers and overlooks are many smash-mouth views into the huge Kilauea Caldera, a portion of which is now emitting a tower of volcanic gas.
9. Saddle Road, Big Island
Newly paved and graded, this space-age highway cuts through 50-plus miles of volcanic wasteland, right between the two largest mountains on earth (measured from their bases): Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Most visitors head up Mauna Kea to see all the celestial observatories. But few people know you can drive up big, round Mauna Loa, where many of the earth's weather observatories keep an eye on global warming, and other events.
10. South Kohala Coast, Big Island
Drive for 40 miles north of Kona on the island's west shore through an apocalyptic wasteland, with square miles of jagged barren lava daring anyone to set foot. But, all along the coast, a few miles in from the road, are oases of greenery with pristine beaches. This land is too new to be eroded by streams, so the coastal waters are gin clear. Many of the beaches are at destination resorts (with public access) and many are at state and county beaches. And many of these nuggets of paradise are a short walk from the well-known areas, waiting there for you to discover.
(The Trailblazer Travel Book guides for the Islands have all the details to explore this list---as well as the treasure map to the other 990 top spots!)