The ESTA is valid for all US territories and can also be used to travel to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (although not for Guam or Saipan). Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at some of the more exotic/remote locations that you can visit under the Visa Waiver Program, and we’re starting with the most isolated population on the planet.
So, as you are surely planning your September escape, in search of lower prices and less tourists, we’re going to pitch you on Hawaii: a place that immediately conjures up images of paradisiac beaches, extravagant shirts, ukuleles and surfing. Hopefully veering away from the stereotype a little, let’s explore…
First thing’s first, September is a wonderful time to visit this gorgeous archipelago. Whilst the summer begins to fade out across many parts of the northern hemisphere, in Hawaii it’s one of the hottest months. That said, proximity to the sea and a consistent breeze make the heat pleasant and totally bearable. You can also expect a fair few microclimates as you island hop and make your way around the state.
So, what is there to see? Well to begin with, it’s important to understand that Hawaii is formed of eight islands. Six of these islands are open to visitors. Surely this will make you wonder what goes on at the other two islands; the first, Kaho’olawe, is a former bombing range with a population of zero, and which is only accessible to volunteers, and the second, Ni’ihau, has been privately owned since 1864. The other six islands are Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, and Hawaii. The last of the group, ‘Hawaii’, is often just called ‘the Big Island’, to avoid confusion with Hawaii the overall state.
Each island is different and has something different to offer, but you don’t need to visit them all to have a rich and unique experience in the tropics. When planning your trip, you’ll need to account for travel between the islands. Surprisingly, the only way to travel between them is by flying, for which you have a choice of three airlines: the aptly named Island Air, the equally aptly named Hawaiian Airlines, and Mokulele. It’s certainly advised to book your flights in advance instead of waiting until you get there, as prices can vary considerably. If you plan your island hopping schedule a couple of months in advance, you will most likely be able to find flights for less than $100.
Now, it’s important to decide what it is that most appeals to you about Hawaii. Is it the rural, natural landscapes? The excellent surf? Do you want to experience some nightlife while you’re there? This will dictate which are the best islands to visit on your trip…
This is the most visited and most popular island in Hawaii, and it’s where the state capital, Honolulu, lies. As well having the state’s cultural and economic hub, Oahu is also home to what are widely deemed to be the best beaches in Hawaii, including that of Waikiki.
Oahu is the place where traditional Hawaii intertwines with the 21st century. Despite being fairly crowded in parts, particularly around Honolulu in the south, the northern side of the island is calm, with unspoiled beaches and excellent waves for surfing fans (Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay in particular, among others). At the same time, you can expect to find a vast array of cuisines, including, unsurprisingly, divine seafood. History buffs can also explore the tourist sites around Pearl Harbor, which played a huge role in the history of the island and, indeed, the world.
Big Island is so named for its size. In fact, it is bigger than all of the other islands that comprise Hawaii put together. Further still, it is constantly growing because of the active lava coming from the Kilauea volcano. This is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and can be found in Volcanoes National Park, alongside the Mauna Loa volcano. The world heritage site is one of the most spectacular sites on the island, taking up a huge portion of the south-east side. It is a fantastic spot for trekking and hiking, and is a must-see for nature lovers.
Whilst we tend to associate Hawaii with sunny beaches, Big Island actually has 11 different climate zones, which cover all the extremes, from sun and rain to snow and desert conditions. The north-east part of the island, known as the Kohala Coast, is where you can expect the most sun, whereas the east is home to tropical rainforests, spectacular valleys and idyllic waterfalls, owing to its much rainier conditions.
Many of the island’s visitors like to indulge in snorkeling and diving, and you can’t visit without sampling some of the most renowned, and expensive, coffee in the world: Ka’u coffee. Caffeine fiends can also take tours around some of the coffee farms on the island, in between visits to historical parks and temples.
Also known as the Valley Isle, Maui is perhaps more of a resort island, but also has an extensive range of outdoor activities for hikers and cyclists. With its black lava shores it’s a geologist’s dream, and its towering mountain, Haleakala, also houses beautiful flower farms and emerald fields. If you can handle the hike, Haleakala – which means ‘House of the Sun’ – is one of the most jaw-dropping locations in the world for witnessing the sunrise.
Referred to as the Garden Island, you can expect untouched tropical landscapes in Kauai. Though the island has small, cozy towns and a laid-back feel throughout, it’s primary appeal comes from the outdoor activities that it has to offer. As well as surfing and snorkeling, it’s also a popular spot for horse-riding, cycling and even zip-lining. Of course, the beaches are as pristine as you might imagine, and some of them are so isolated that you may find you’re the only one there.
Molokai has a reputation of being the purest, most ‘Hawaiian’ of the state. This is partly due to the fact that the population of the island has actively decided to keep it largely undeveloped. In fact, planning regulations only allow for buildings that are no taller than a palm tree. There’s a real sense of tradition here, with many of its residents (just a few thousand people) still following the ways of their ancestors, surviving on their own fishing and hunting. Molokai is quiet, peaceful and blissfully remote, dotted in towering waterfalls, rainforest, and the tallest sea cliffs in the world.
The quietest of the islands that can be visited, Lanai is a place to switch off and be pampered. The island is home to the major resorts, including two Four Seasons, and is oriented more around organized activities. These activities include those that are most popular across all of the islands, such as surfing, kayaking and hiking, and is also the best option for golfers. With two internationally renowned golf courses, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a game.
Out of all of these islands, Oahu and Big Island are the most popular among tourists, and have an ample offer of accommodation for visitors, from rural lodges to five star hotels. A holiday to Hawaii is a dream for many, but with lowering airfares and accommodation, it is now more affordable and doable than ever before. To get there, you will have to fly into mainland USA first, ideally somewhere on the west coast. From there, you will need to take a separate flight, which will take a minimum of five hours. Because of the stopover, a trip to Hawaii can be perfectly well integrated into a bigger trip; consider spending a few days in California or Seattle before or after your idyllic paradise break.
Thanks to the Visa Waiver Program, citizens of 38 member countries can travel to Hawaii with ESTA – the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. You can apply for ESTA online, and receive your approval via email within 24 hours. The whole ESTA application process takes around ten minutes, and you will just need to answer some security questions and provide your passport details. The ESTA is perfect for anybody traveling to the USA as a tourist or on business, as it eliminates the need for a traditional US visa.
What are you waiting for? Paradise awaits!