Hilo in Hawaii Island and Haleiwa in Oahu are among Hawaii’s best small towns. // © 2013 HTA/Tor Johnson
Small towns in Hawaii impart a feeling of nostalgia that’s hard to resist. Like a tropical time warp, they urge visitors to slow down, chill out and enjoy a days-gone-by ambience while browsing unpretentious shops, munching on homemade food and chatting with friendly residents.
Sure, larger cities around the state may offer more in the way of nightlife and shopping. But Hawaii’s small towns, with their fun blend of local history, quaint architecture and hip boutiques, exude an aura of relaxation.
What these five humble haunts lack in size, they make up for in personality. Stop by and stroll around the next time you’re nearby and see what we mean.
At the turn of the 20th century, Haleiwa was the place to vacation for rich Honolulu residents who made the long trip to Oahu’s north shore to stay at the late, great Haleiwa Hotel. These days the vibe of this quaint town is decidedly more casual, with bed-and-breakfasts as the accommodations of choice and shave ice stands drawing a dedicated following. A one-hour drive from Waikiki, Haleiwa provides the perfect stopping-off point en route to winter’s professional surf contests at nearby beaches. Year-round, however, the town charms visitors with its plantation-style buildings, local cafes and surf-oriented shops.
Here’s another north shore fave, this time on the island of Kauai. Cross the one-lane bridge that defines its eastern edge and immediately you fall under the spell of the timeless town. The setting is splendid, with waterfall-laced mountains and lush green acres of taro, the ancient Hawaiian staple crop. History buffs can visit its Waioli Mission House and century-old pier jutting into Hanalei Bay. Shoppers can pick up Kauai-made art and wood works and music lovers can listen to Hawaiian concerts at the community center. Diners enjoy a mix of cuisines, including sushi, tapas and burgers. Outdoor buffs can go kayaking on its river and surfing in its picturesque bay.
Hilo, Hawaii Island
While it’s true that Hilo gets a lot of rain, all that moisture results in spectacular cascade waterfalls, rich rain forests and opulent gardens like nowhere else on Hawaii Island. Its roots run deep, way back to 1100 A.D., and today’s visitors can see historic landmarks like the massive Naha Stone which Hawaii’s King Kamehameha reputedly moved single-handedly. Hilo’s crescent bay sets a lovely stage for unique museums such as Imiloa Astronomy Center, art galleries including the East Hawaii Cultural Center, oases like Liliuokalani Gardens, distinctive shops such as Sig Zane Designs and the Hilo Farmers’ Market, one of the best of its kind in the state.
Lanai City, Lanai
In the 1920s, pineapple ruled the tiny island of Lanai, and Lanai City was built to house the field workers who came from other countries. These days, plantation-style architecture holds forth in Lanai’s only burg, keeping cool at the 1,645 elevation. The center of commerce is pine tree-lined Dole Park, where visitors can find one-of-a-kind shops like Dis ‘n Dat; local creations at the Lanai Art Center; espresso at Coffee Works; and restaurants serving a range of fare from classic plate lunches at Cafe 565 to Italian cuisine at Pele’s Other Garden. For those spending the night, keep it simple at the Hotel Lanai which dates back to the early 1920s or stay in style at Four Seasons’ Lodge at Koele.
Paia is much more than just the four-mile marker on the 52-mile road to Hana. Minutes from the windsurfing mecca of Hookipa Beach, the one-time sugar town has preserved its plantation architecture and rustic buildings appealing to present-day wave riders and tourists alike. The overall effect is a laid-back vibe with boutiques both homespun and high-end, galleries, antique stores and, of course, surf shops. Locals like to congregate here over great cuisine, from the crepes and curries of Cafe Des Amis and the fresh catch of Paia Fish Market to island-style confections from Ono Gelato Company. It’s a great example of what gives small towns in Hawaii such a big allure.