Journeys to the most far-flung destinations and holidays where you can get close to nature will be two of the big travel trends for 2020, according to tour experts Abercrombie & Kent. And few places offer the chance to combine the two as neatly as Hawaii.
The 50th American state is a string of volcanic outcrops in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, some 2,000 miles off the coast of California – and its isolation means it is home to wildlife seen nowhere else on Earth.
The animals, insects, fish and birds on its barren lava fields, in its lush rainforests, its warm tropical seas and even within its incredible waterfalls are set to be celebrated in a fascinating new BBC2 series called Earth’s Tropical Islands, which starts on New Year’s Day.
On a crest of a wave: Surfers tackle a huge wave in Hawaii
Highlights in Hawaii include some of the world’s best whale-watching. More than 10,000 humpback whales cross the Pacific every year to mate and give birth in the shallow waters around the Hawaiian islands. Males can jump 50ft out of the water as they try to impress a female, who in turn can put on her own incredible display, rising up and repeatedly slamming the water with her tail.
The peak whale-watching season starts this month and can run until the middle of April. Tour firms such as Audley Travel can arrange sunrise cruises as part of bespoke Hawaiian holiday packages, including a 13-day self-drive trip from £3,940pp.
Independent travellers can get details of tours from any hotel concierge and from boat firms in all the main tourist towns.
Head to the warm waters and you’re likely to see countless playful dolphins as well as the giant whales. If you get lucky, you should also find yourself coming face to face with unique Hawaiian green turtles, drawn to the islands’ mostly golden sands. Nesting season is in the summer months, though sightings happen all year.
Throughout the year, Hawaii’s waters tend to stay at a balmy 27C and scuba-diving or snorkelling trips are world-beating.
Highlights in Hawaii include some of the world’s best whale-watching. Pictured is a humpback whale rising out of the water
The waters, fiercely protected by strict marine conservation rules, are some of the clearest in the world.
On sunny days you can often see as far as 200ft down, and naturalists say that on many reefs every single colourful fish you see will be unique to Hawaii.
Equally unique is the friendly-faced Hawaiian monk seal, one of the world’s rarest breeds. Its numbers are slowly being coaxed above a recent low of about 1,500.
More dramatic are Hawaii’s huge manta rays. With spans of up to 18ft, they’re the second biggest in the world.
Locals say the best way to see them is on a night-time snorkel trip. You’re taken to a likely spot, jump in, keep quiet and hold on to a floating board. Lights on the underside of the board attract plankton, and mantas swoop in for dinner.
The good news is that manta rays don’t migrate, so they can be found throughout the year.
Back on land, nature abounds, even on city streets. If you spot a blue banner wrapped around a tree alongside Waikiki beach in Honolulu, then look up. The tapes are there to warn everyone that a fluffy, pre-feathered white tern chick is perched on a branch (they often don’t have nests) waiting for its parents to fly back and feed it.
See a friendly face: An adorable-looking Hawaiian monk seal
Although the wonderful wildlife draws travellers, Hawaii has plenty else to offer. There are dozens of islands to explore but most holidaymakers stick to the Big Four, at least on a first visit. They often start with Oahu, also called the gathering place. It’s where most flights land (if you’re lucky you’ll be given a flowery lei around your neck as a welcome), and it has the biggest town in Honolulu, and the most famous beach in Waikiki.
High-rise hotels, restaurants, beach bars and cafes line the sweeping shoreline, making Honolulu resemble the world’s other sunny, party cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv and Barcelona. The best first-night advice is to throw yourself into the madness of the crowds and enjoy a mai tai before sleeping off any jet lag.
Next morning, forget about a full English and choose a Hawaiian breakfast instead – a huge, colourful fruit plate served with warm banana bread. Then clear your head with a hike to the top of the island’s most iconic landmark, Diamond Head.
It’s a 300,000-year-old, saucer-shaped volcanic crater on the edge of the main town, so dominant it’s been dubbed Hawaii’s Table Mountain. The walk to the top is only a mile long, but it is steep in parts and can take about an hour.
A hike to the top of Hawaii’s most iconic landmark, Diamond Head (pictured), is a must
Back at sea level, Oahu is the site of Pearl Harbor and a respectful visitor tour includes the USS Arizona memorial.
Tour firms offer tickets or buy them at the official National Park Service (NPS) website, nps.gov.
At night on Oahu, seafood will be everywhere and you’ll eat well at roadside shrimp trucks or stands. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck or Shrimp Shack are said by visitors to be among the best.
Afterwards, another Hawaii tradition is to try a flavoured dessert called shave ice. A classic place to do so is Matsumoto’s Shave Ice on the island’s north shore (also the best place to surf). Matsumoto’s has been there for nearly 70 years and has almost as many flavours.
Confusingly, the second of the main islands is actually called Hawaii – its nickname is the Big Island. Fewer long-haul flights land there, but short internal flights or boat trips between all the main islands are cheap and frequent.
The Big Island draws volcano- lovers. It’s the site of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and includes two of the world’s most active craters. You can do a crater rim drive, take a back-country hike, join a ranger tour or listen to scientists at ‘after dark in the park’ talks in the auditorium. There are thermal waters and misty rainforests on land, and divers say the waters near the town of Kona are among the clearest on Earth.
Paradise: Snorkelling with a turtle over the reefs in South Maui
Finally, forget the Hard Rock Cafe and earn bragging rights by eating at the island’s Lava Rock Cafe instead.
Sports-lovers often head to the next of the Big Four islands, Kauai, or the Garden Island. It’s where Jurassic Park was filmed in 1993, and today zip-wires stretch from rocky peaks, mountain tubing is popular, and world-class golf and surfing abounds.
The last of the big islands is Maui, or the Valley Island. It has more miles of swimmable beaches than anywhere else in Hawaii, and the sand is the most colourful. Expect to see hues of green, red, black and white.
You can sail out to Molokini Crater, a semi-circular, half-submerged ancient crater, for amazing snorkelling. And a tip from recent travellers is to book a ticket with the NPS, set your alarm clock, wrap up warm and head into the Haleakala National Park to watch the colours of a Pacific sunrise from 10,000ft above sea level.
There are more than 100 volcanic atolls to discover and every resident will give a different answer when you ask for their favourite spot. Hawaii isn’t easy to reach but it always repays the effort.