Discover stunning coastal landscapes of Hawaii

Feb 2, 2024 | Destinations, Hawaii

Discover stunning coastal landscapes of Hawaii

Feb 2, 2024 | Destinations, Hawaii

The coastal landscapes of Hawaii are, without doubt, some of the most stunning in the world. Unique landforms and features you can discover along the shores of the Hawaiian Islands include towering sea cliffs, cascading waterfalls, lush tropical forests, rugged volcanic formations, secluded beaches in a myriad of colours, vibrant coral reefs and historic Hawaiian landmarks. Read on to learn more about Hawaii's unique and varied coastal landscapes and discover some distinct coastal features on each of Hawaii's five main inhabited islands.

While some of the breathtaking coastal landscapes of Hawaii, such as the Hana Highway, in Kauai, can be experienced on land, by car or bus, or on foot, some are best viewed (or can only be viewed) from the air or from the ocean. If you’re short on time, a helicopter ride is a magical way to view Hawaii’s stunning coast by air. However, if you have more time or would like a more immersive experience, spend a morning or afternoon on a small boat tour exploring otherwise inaccessible coastlines, charter a yacht for a weekend to explore two or more islands for a more intimate experience, or book an inter-island Hawaii cruise, which will take you past the spectacular coastal landscapes of Hawaii’s main islands.

Unique coastal landscapes of Hawaii

Some of the landscapes and unique Hawaiian features you’ll discover as you sail or cruise Hawaii’s coastal waters are:

Towering Sea Cliffs

Along the coastlines of all of Hawaii’s main islands, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island, Molokai, and Lanai, volcanic sea cliffs can be found, rising directly out of the Pacific Ocean.

Carved by thousands of years of wave action and erosion, Hawaii’s coastal cliffs vary in height, shape, and colour, depending on their age, composition and steepness, and are distinctive Hawaii Island coastal features.

Colours of the cliffs range from emerald green, where they are covered in lush vegetation, to yellow-brown and rusty red, where hematite (iron) rich lava has oxidized in the air as it cooled.

Some of these rugged sea cliffs are hundreds of feet high, with striking pinnacle-shaped spires, such as those along the iconic Na Pali Coast, and are an absolutely breathtaking sight.

Rising dramatically above the clear blue coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 ft in height, Molokai’s towering sea cliffs are the highest in the world and are a spectacular sight.

While some of Hawaii’s sea cliffs are accessible by road or on foot, such as those along Maui’s Hana Hawaii or along most of Oahu’s shores, many others are not, such as much of the Na Pali Coast and Molokai’s sea cliffs. Although some can be viewed from another vantage point on the islands, the best way to view these spectacular volcanic coastal formations is by air or sea. A helicopter ride will give you a bird’s eye view of the most inaccessible spots, while a boat trip will also reward you with stunning views from up close.

Pictured below are Molokai’s towering sea cliffs which can also be viewed from above on a flight from Maui.

Towering Sea Cliffs of Molokai

Cascading Waterfalls

Hawaii is renowned for its stunning waterfalls, many of which are accessible by road. However, many are hidden and/or are inaccessible on land. Towering cascading waterfalls and lush vegetation may be found on the steep, rugged slopes of sea cliffs, creating breathtaking views that can often only be seen by boat or from the air.

Cascading Waterfalls of the Kohala Coast

Lush Tropical Forests

Thick rainforests cover the volcanic slopes on Hawaii’s main islands. Generally found on the windward coasts (or eastern side) of the islands, the prevailing winds carry moisture-laden air from the ocean, that rises over Hawaii’s mountains. As it cools, it condenses to form rain producing clouds. The wetter climate results in ideal conditions for dense vegetation, towering trees, and a diverse array of plant life, much of which is endemic to Hawaii, that can be seen covering the volcanic cliffsides. These lush green coastal cliffs, some of which are inaccessible by car or on foot, create a stunning backdrop against the turquoise waters of the Pacific.

Lush Tropical Rainforests of Maui’s Coast

Rugged Volcanic Formations

The Hawaiian Islands were formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and oceanic erosion. Evidence of this can clearly be seen in the rugged volcanic formations that line the coast. Visible from the water, crater rims, lava tubes, and ancient lava flows, provide a glimpse into the islands’ fiery past.

Rugged Volcanic Formations on Na Pali Coast

Secluded Beaches in a Myriad of Colours

Hawaii is famous for its beautiful beaches which can be found in a myriad of colours, including white, yellow, black, green and red. From a boat, you’ll have an excellent view of palm-fringed sandy shores surrounded by volcanic lava fields and rugged mountains. As turquoise waters lap gently against the shoreline, you’ll feel the urge to swim, snorkel, or simply relax on sun-drenched sands.

Secluded Beaches in a Myriad of Colours - pictured is the green sand beach of Papakōlea on Hawaii Island

Vibrant Coral Reefs

Beneath the surface of Hawaii’s coastal waters, vibrant coral reefs teem with marine life. Home to tropical fish, sea turtles, and other marine animals, the reefs are a vibrant underwater world waiting to be explored. From a boat, you’ll have the opportunity to spot patches of coral reef shimmering just below the surface and witness some of Hawaii’s endemic marine creatures.

Vibrant Coral Reefs pictured with yellow butterfly fish

Historic Hawaiian Landmarks

The Hawaiian Islands are rich in history and culture, evidence of which can be seen from the water. Coastal landmarks, including ancient heiaus (temples), historic lighthouses, and colonial-era forts, reveal Hawaii’s long history and heritage. From a boat, you’ll have the opportunity to spot some of these historic Hawaiian landmarks and cultural sites nestled along the coastline.

Pictured is Ahu'ena Heiau Temple in Kamakahonu Bay, Kona (Hawaii)

Stunning Coastal Landscapes of Hawaii’s five main islands

Below are examples of some of the unique coastal features you can discover on Hawaii’s five main islands.

Oahu County

Le’ahi (aka Diamond Head): Depart from Honolulu Harbor and one of the first coastal features you may encounter is Le’ahi. You may be more familiar with its English name,Diamond Head. This prominent landmark located along Oahu’s southeastern coast, near Waikiki, is a volcanic tuff cone, that was created as a result of several volcanic eruptions around 300,000 years ago.

Hanauma Bay: protected marine bay with azure waters and colourful coral reefs, Hanauma Bay is a popular snorkelling spot on Oahu’s southeastern coast. The result of volcanic eruptions and coastal erosion over thousands of years, this curved bay near Le’ahi, formed within a volcanic crater.

Maui County

Hana’s Winding Coastline: A scenic roadway that winds along the northeastern coast of Maui, offers breathtaking views of lush rainforests, waterfalls, and a dramatic coastline. A drive along the Hana Highway, rewards the visitor with spectacular views around every curve. An alternative, more leisurely, way to to view this stunning coast is by boat, especially at the height of the tourist season, when the Hana Highway can be busy. From the ocean, you’ll capture views of this spectacular coastline from a different perspective, without having to navigate its 620 curves and 49 bridges.

Molokai Sea Cliffs: Home to some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world, Molokai’s northern coastline is a spectacular sight from the air or sea. One of the most striking is the famous Kalaupapa Cliffs, the stunning backdrop to the Kalaupapa Peninsula, which is a restricted area. From 1866 Hawaiians afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were banished to this isolated peninsula by King Kamehameha V. Although there is a trail that leads down to the peninsula, a permit is needed, and the trail is not suitable for everyone. So, a boat trip or yachting adventure are ideal ways to view Kalaupapa and Molokai’s spectacular sea cliffs oceanside instead. You can also see the cliffs on a flight to Molokai, which is an ideal day-trip destination from Maui.

Molokini Crater: Located off the southwest coast of Maui, this unique geological formation is a partially submerged volcanic crater. Renowned for its crystal-clear waters and diverse marine life, Molokini is an excellent snorkeling and diving site. Visible from Maui Island, for a closeup view of this unique volcanic landform, you’ll need to hop on a sightseeing boat from Ma’alaea Harbor or charter a yacht.

Lanai Coast: Visible from the south coast of Maui Island, the rugged coastline of Lanai Island, often referred to as the “Pineapple Island,” features red-coloured sea cliffs and caves, secluded beaches, and stunning rock formations like Sweetheart Rock (Puu Pehe). Although the island is not car-free and rental cars are available to explore the island, the best way to explore Lanai’s coastal features is by boat. You may even catch a glimpse of spinner dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life.

Kauai County

Na Pali Coast: Probably the most recognized coastline in Hawaii, its dramatic sea cliffs, lush green valleys, and towering waterfalls are iconic. Formed over millions of years through a combination of volcanic activity, erosion, and geological processes the Na Pali Coast is one of the most picturesque and rugged coastlines in Hawaii. Located on Kauai’s northwestern shore, Na Pali Coast is inaccessible by road and a permit is required to hike its dangerous trail, it is therefore best viewed from the ocean (or the air).

Kauai’s South Coast: The southern coast of Kauai features picturesque beaches, rugged cliffs, and the iconic Spouting Horn blowhole, where seawater shoots up through lava tubes. The south shore is accessible by road, however, a more leisurely way to view its coastal features is by boat. You’ll also get a chance to view the south shore from your cruise ship on an inter-island Hawaii cruise as it arrives at and departs from Nawiliwili Harbor.

Hawaii Island

Waipio Valley: On the northeastern coast of Hawaii Island, Waipio Valley is characterized by steep cliffs, verdant valleys, and black sand beaches. As you sail or cruise along the northeastern shores, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of this rugged coastline.

Kohala Coast: Located on the western side of Hawaii Island, the Kohala Coast is known for its black lava fields, luxury resorts, and pristine beaches. As you sail along or cruise past the Kohala Coast, you’ll also enjoy breathtaking views of Hawaii’s two highest volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well as the smaller Hualalai. Rising to over 4,000 metres above sea level, in wintertime, you may even glimpse snow on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Kilauea Volcano: While not technically on the coast, Kilauea Volcano is a sight to behold when viewed from the ocean as you sail or cruise along Hawaii Island’s southeastern shores. During periods of volcanic activity, this can be an especially unique experience, as lava sometimes flows into the ocean, creating plumes of hot steam. New coastlines created by these lava flows is often only accessible by boat as roadways and trails can be cut off and new lava, which can take months or even years to cool, is too hot and rugged to walk on.

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