How To Spend the Holidays in Hawaii

Learn how to make the most of your family holiday in Hawaii with things to do in Oahu and other island adventures with this comprehensive guide.

By the time we reach the final weeks of the year, many of us are not dreaming of a white Christmas — at least not the nearly 800,000 people who visit Hawaii every December. With time off school and work allowing for longer vacations, and frigid weather pummeling much of the continental United States, it’s not difficult to see the appeal of a bucket-list vacation in Hawaii.

On which of the Aloha State’s four largest islands will you choose to celebrate your special holiday: Oahu, Maui, Kauai or Hawaii? Read on to find out more about the four islands’ locales and how you and your family can experience the magic of the season on each.

Oahu

Where to fly? Honolulu International Airport, on the southern coast of Oahu.

The most populated and visited of the Hawaiian Islands is Oahu, aka “The Gathering Place.” Its diverse landscape features Mt. Kaala and the Waianae and Koolau Mountains, as well as the famous North Shore, a surfers’ paradise for its legendary waves.

Shaka and Tutu Mele at Honolulu City Lights. Photo by Daniel Ramirez, Flickr. Shaka and Tutu Mele at Honolulu City Lights. Photo by Daniel Ramirez, Flickr.

Holiday visitors will love Honolulu City Lights, a free, nearly month-long celebration featuring a 50-foot pine tree, indoor tree displays, children’s rides, food vendors and an annual parade. The festive displays also include 21-foot surfer versions of Santa and Mrs. Claus, known as Shaka Santa (named after the famous Hawaiian pinky and thumb gesture called Shaka, which is a common surfer greeting that conveys the Aloha spirit and signals that everything is OK) and Tutu Mele. This year’s festivities run from Dec. 3 through Dec. 30.

Kick off the Festival of Lights with one of the state’s most prominent Hanukah celebrations, the Public Menorah Lighting Ceremony. Held at King Kalakaua Park on Dec. 23, the free event will feature the lighting of an 18-foot menorah, live music, children’s games and latkes, traditional potato pancakes.

Maui

Where to fly? Kahului Airport, in Maui County, east of Kahului

Voted “Best Island” by Condé Nast Traveler readers for 20-plus years, Maui makes great use of every one of its 727 square miles: visitors can explore mountain valleys, a tropical rain forest, a 400-foot waterfall, beaches and a 10,000-foot dormant volcano crater.

The island’s holiday offerings are just as dynamic as its landscape. In southwest Maui, drive onto the grounds of the Grand Wailea Waldorf Astoria, through 8 miles of white-light-lit monkey-pod trees, to enjoy a slew of Christmas- and Hanukah-themed activities, including lighting a life-size menorah, a gingerbread village and Santa’s beachfront arrival on an authentic Hawaiian voyaging canoe. Prices vary by event.

The Banyan Tree decorated in holiday lights. The Banyan Tree decorated in holiday lights.

Drive southwest around the West Maui Forest Reserve to see a piece of Hawaii’s iconic culture at the Banyan Tree in historic Lahaina. The 143-year-old landmark began as an 8-foot sapling, planted to honor the 50th anniversary of the first missionary in the state. Today, it boasts a dozen main trunks and spans nearly an acre. Decorated with 6,500 colored lights, the majestic display can be enjoyed for free from Dec. 3 through New Year’s Day. Afterward, treat the kiddos to the pineapple Dole Whip, a popular Maui treat, at Lappert’s Ice Cream & Coffee, then stroll through town along the picturesque Front Street, which is lined with restaurants, galleries and shops.

Kauai

Where to fly? Lihue Airport, on the southeast coast of Kauai.

Kauai’s Nepali Coast. Kauai’s Nepali Coast.

With lush vegetation and colorful flora, Kauai’s “Garden Island” moniker is well-earned. For adventurers, Hawaii’s oldest island also offers the only navigable rivers in Hawaii, such as the popular Wailua River, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and the breathtaking sea cliffs of the Nepali Coast.

Experience Kauai’s unique spirit at the award-winning Festival of Lights, a collection of Christmas art crafted from recycled materials and built around the work of the late Auntie Josie Chansky, a local folk artist who displayed a trash-to-treasure winter wonderland at her home for 20 years. The free event takes place in southeast Kauai at the Historic County Building on weekend nights through December; check the event’s Facebook page for final dates and times.

Spend Christmas Day hiking the secluded landscapes of Koke’e State Park, located in the northwest part of the island. Search for native birds at the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, an annual hunt dating back more than a century that is held in all 50 states and is one of the world’s largest bird conservation efforts. As you scan the skies for wildlife, walk the Alakai Trail that climbs toward the 4,000-foot ridge above the “hidden” Kalalau Valley.

Hawaii (The Big Island)

Where to fly? Kona International Airport, on the west coast of Hawaii.

The largest of the Hawaiian Islands and home to eight of Earth’s 13 climate zones, the island of Hawaii truly offers something for everyone. Java junkies can taste fresh coffee at Kona’s plantations, art lovers will keep busy in Downtown Hilo and thrill seekers can trek to one of the most active volcanoes in the world: Kilauea.

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

Drive to the western side of the island for the Holualoa Music and Light Festival in Kona this December. Experience the spirit of the season in this artist village, which is filled with shops and galleries and located in the heart of Kona’s coffee land. See the town Christmas tree lit on the lawn of the old library while enjoying tasty treats and listening to live holiday music.

Thousands of humpback whales flock to the island’s warm shallows in late December, making it the perfect time to catch a tour with Captain Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watching Adventures from Kailua-Kona, which is on the western shore of the island, near Mokuaikaua. McSweeney hosts every trip and uses more than four decades of experience to guarantee at least one whale sighting per trip. Three-and-a-half-hour cruises depart at 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. daily, including on Christmas Day. Tour tickets are $99 per child and $110 per adult, and reservations are required.

Spending the holidays in Hawaii?

Find the nearest Alamo Hawaii car rental location

About the Author

Kara Wyar is a writer and editor based in Dallas who has been published in The Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, D CEO, D Weddings and the Houston Chronicle, among others.