Ultimate hotel guide: where to stay in Hawaii

It’s a long flight to the Aloha State, so it’s worth picking plush places to sleep when you land. From mega-resorts to plantation-era inns and surfer-chic hotels, these are the best island-hopping hideaways. Wednesday, 20 November 2019

With fiery volcanoes, sensational surf, wildlife and beaches that grace a thousand postcards, Hawaii makes a big impression. Beyond the hula skirts and mai tais lies a magical mix of Hawaiian, US and Asian culture — something you’ll see in surprising street art and an improving food scene. The state’s hotel scene is dominated by barefoot luxury and sprawling Waikiki resorts (many US visitors don’t leave the Honolulu suburb), but there are rewards for those who venture off-radar. When budgeting, bear in mind that overnight rates are just the beginning — tips, local taxes and resort fees of around £25 per day for ‘extras’ like wi-fi and pool towels all add to your bill.

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1. Best for surfer chic: Surfjack Hotel, Oahu (££)
‘Wish you were here’ is scrawled in big, summery script across the bottom of the Surfjack’s pool. Here’s an off-strip take on Waikiki resorts with a mix of retro swim club, rooms with breezy interiors and lots of local collaborations with artists such as Kris Goto and designers Roberta Oakes and Tori Richard, or rotating poolside DJs. Dine on avocado toast from the farm-to-table Mahina & Sun’s restaurant on site, before taking a 10-minute stroll to the beach. Thoughtful touches include plastic-free pop-ups and on-site experiences like Shakti yoga and alcohol ink painting classes.
Rooms: doubles from $207 (£170), room only.

2. Best for short stays: Paia Inn, Maui (££)
Set in the surfer town of Paia near a beach that faces the West Maui Mountains, rooms range from compact corners of the original stucco inn to leaf-shaded suites and a three-bed oceanfront beach house. Decor reflects the owners’ exotic travels — a day-bed from Bali here, Polynesian paintings by artist Avi Kiriaty there — with cool white linens and organic Malie bathroom products joining the dots. Don’t leave without trying the fusion restaurant and sushi bar, Vana — the chirashi bowl with ahi tuna is divine.
Rooms: doubles from $229 (£188), room only.

3. Best for budget Waikiki: Hotel La Croix, Oahu (£)
To save money on a Waikiki stay, you need to work back from the beach — even a few blocks can lower the bill. ‘Stay in paradise without breaking the bank’ is the tagline at Hotel La Croix, a bright and breezy base a 10-minute walk away on Kalakaua Avenue. There’s a small infinity pool, and rooms in cool, natural tones range from silver to platinum, based on space, specs and whether they’re ocean-facing — though all come with balconies, big TVs and American walnut hardwood floors and balconies. Stay three nights and you can get the fourth free as part of a special deal.
Rooms: silver from $144/£115, room only.

4. Best for families: Disney Aulani, Oahu (£££)
‘Big H, small D’ is the pitch at this all-singing, all-dancing resort in Ko Olina. ‘H’ signals Hawaii and ‘D’ for Disney — while still playful, local culture features throughout. There are Hawaiian textiles and light displays using umeke bowls in the open lobby, for example, or a Makahiki (Hawaiian New Year) character buffet. Disney elements include waterslides snaking around faux rock formations, a snorkelling pool filled with fish, meet and greets with characters like Moana and Stitch, and makeovers for kids. There are adult-only zones too, such as the Wailana infinity pool and Laniwai Spa.
Rooms: doubles from $494 (£406), room only.

5. Best for couples: Hotel Wailea, Maui (£££)
Hawaii’s only Relais & Châteaux resort luxuriates among rolling hills, koi ponds and tropical gardens overlooking wealthy Wailea in Maui. There are 72 one-bed suites and you can book classes like tropical mixology or poolside poke with chef Krista Garcia. It’s a short shuttle ride to the beach club and experiences like outrigger canoe rides. Extra splurges include private dining on a ‘tree house’ platform and in-room spa treatments.
Rooms: from $529 (£434), room only.

6. Best for plugging out: Travaasa, Maui (£££)
Accommodation here is in plantation-style bungalows and private suites. Far from Maui’s crowds, a virtue is made of the rustic location, with no radios, clocks or TVs in rooms, and experiences nodding to Hawaiian traditions such as throw-net fishing classes. Stays can be booked as inclusive (with meals, activities and a $175 (£140) daily resort credit) or room-only.
Rooms: doubles from $525 (£431) room only or $1,025 (£840) inclusive. 

7. Best for beatniks & BBQs: Waimea Plantation, Kauai (£)
Skip the resorts for a rustic taste of Hawaii at these restored plantation homes with private lanais on Kauai’s western shore. Tropical landscapes, a two-mile beach walk and island-style furniture give a taste of yesteryear. Chow down on burgers or baby-back ribs at the Chicken in a Barrel BBQ and Bar. The property fronts onto a black-sand beach near Waimea Canyon.
Rooms: doubles from $245 (£201), room only.   

8. Best for tight budgets: Kaumana Caves Inn, Hawaii (£)
Rainbow Falls, Mauna Loa volcano and, as the name suggests, Kaumana Caves — all are super-handy from this inn near Hilo. It’s a small, basic stay, albeit one with lots of colour and attention to detail — from fluffy towels to breakfasts with Big Island honey, mountain apples and freshly baked bread. Hop into the outdoor Jacuzzi or barrel sauna, and fall asleep to the sounds of the rainforest or your in-room Netflix.
Rooms: from $110 (£88), B&B. 

9. Best for discreet luxury: Kahala Resort, Oahu (£££)
With former guests including the Obamas, Frank Sinatra and Princess Diana, the Kahala’s calling card is discreet, toes-in-the-sand opulence — with prices to match. Located in a leafy neighbourhood a short transfer from Waikiki, its mid-century modern architecture holds up beautifully, and luxe interiors lead from a tall, elegantly airy lobby with sea-glass chandeliers, teak parquet floors and rattan chairs to 338 spacious bedrooms decked out in cool whites and buttery yellows with Japanese-style toilets. Pick an oceanfront room for panoramas over the Pacific.
Rooms: doubles from $450 (£369), room only.

10. Best for B+B stays: Poipu Plantation, Kauai (£)
Hawaii’s B&B scene can be somewhat patchy, but this one stands out. A small collection of 1930s plantation-style rooms and cottages set a short walk from Kauai’s southern shore. All rooms have hardwood queen beds, and cottage suites come kitted out with kitchens, spacious decks and rattan decor. One or two-beds are available, with ocean views at a $30-$40 (£24-32) premium. Breakfasts feature local dishes like Kauai sweet apple and macadamia nut pancakes, island fruits, guava sweet bread, or local island-style eggs served around a table shared with other guests.
Rooms: rental suites from $165 (£130), B&B.

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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