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Winter in Hawaii

Why is spending winter in Hawaii so special? Employee Allie K. shares some of her favorite things to do in the Islands during this time of year.

Imagine it’s the coldest day of the year – a record level of snow has fallen, cars are iced over, sidewalks are barely recognizable under mountains of white powder, and before you can even think of stepping outside, you must carefully layer on enough articles of thermal clothing to make sure that not one inch of bare skin is exposed before exiting your front door. But then, you remember your trip to Hawaii is tomorrow, and the icy atmosphere begins to melt away in your mind as you’re transported across the Pacific to brighter days where the warmth of the tropics awaits.

Winter in Hawaii is a special and unique time to be in the Islands. You can forget your parka, boots and gloves at home, and simply cruise in your slippers, swimsuit, shorts and summer gear all day long. Walking barefoot on the beach at sunrise, you can put Colbie Caillat’s “Christmas in the Sand” on repeat, build a sandman with a saltwater smile, and splash in the snow-like sea foam as the winter waves meet the shoreline. These are the day-to-day moments of a warm winter that can bring true joy to anyone – especially those who travel from a colder climate to thaw out and feel the sunshine of a tropical Hawaiian winter. And this is just the beginning. Here are a few of our favorite things to do during winter in Hawaii. 

1. Whale watching season

Perhaps the most spectacular part of winter (in my opinion) is whale season. Humpback whales travel to our Islands from Alaska each year to mate, give birth and raise their calves. The season stretches from November to May, with the winter months of mid-December to March coinciding with the peak of whale season. Whether you’re on a hike with an ocean view, swimming at the beach, or anywhere near the Pacific, keep an eye on the horizon for breaching, tail slaps, or spouts as the humpback whales make Hawaii their winter home. For a more immersive experience, you can take a whale watching tour on all different kinds of boats to see the whales in their natural environment and learn from local guides. Please do keep in mind that humpback whales are a federally protected species in Hawaii, and you must not approach a humpback whale within 100 yards while in Hawaiian waters. A guided tour is a great way to learn how to respectfully view the whales while still giving them space. One of my favorite days last winter was joining Maui Kayak Adventures for a guided kayak whale watch tour where you could even hear the whales singing through the water. You can also stop by the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui to learn more about these magnificent creatures!  While Maui is a haven for whale lovers, humpbacks can be spotted across all the Hawaiian Islands. If you decide to do a whale watch or ocean excursion from Hawaii Island, you may even be lucky enough to see snow atop Mauna Kea while floating in the warm coastal water below.

Whale Watching by Allie K.

Above: Photo courtesy of Allie K.

2. Big wave surfing

Beyond the magic of whale season, winter waves are a sight see (or surf)! The North Shore of Oahu comes alive in the winter months, with spectacular waves that draw the best surfers from all around the world. If your trip coincides with one of the many surf contests held on Oahu, I highly recommend going to watch a live event to witness the professional surfers in their element, carving paths with their boards on top of mountains of water. Check out the World Surf League online for the latest on event scheduling. Even if there is not a contest going on, it is still important to keep an eye on the surf report for signs of a monster swell. The waves can reach heights that are hard to comprehend, and frequented places where people swim in the summer become eruptions of water as waves barrel into the bays and beaches. In times like these, only the bold and experienced ocean athletes will go out for the ride of their lives -- or at least of the winter! It’s always fun to watch, but of course keep the power of the ocean in mind by staying at a considerable distance from the shore and going to guarded beaches. 

While you’re up on the North Shore, be sure to fuel up at some of the local shops and food trucks as the dining options up there are worth the drive in itself! Some of my favorite stops while on the North Shore are The Elephant Shack for pad thai, Aji Limo Truck for poke bowls, Wicked HI Cafe for pizza and slushies, Haleiwa Bowls for acai bowls, and Raised by the Waves for coffee, island rolls and other awesome healthy, plant-based options.  

North Shore

3. Get out and get active

After surfing or watching the waves, another fun way to stay active in the winter is through joining one of the road races across the Islands. Winter is a great time to race since the weather is the perfect temperature for an outdoor event and you can get in a workout in the shade of the morning before hitting the beach in the warmth of the afternoon. Not to mention, the scenic beauty will motivate and captivate you like nowhere else! A couple of fun ones are the Run & Walk for Whales held by the Pacific Whale Foundation in February on Maui, the King’s Runner 10k through the south shore of Oahu in March, and if you want to see Oahu by foot, the Honolulu Marathon takes place in December and offers a few different race distances that participants can run or walk. It’s a fun way to connect with the community and it always makes the mai tais and malasadas that much more enjoyable later in the day! Reward yourself at Monkeypod or Moku Kitchen for the drinks and Leonard’s for the pastries!

Marathon runner

4. Tropical holiday festivities

If you’re lucky enough to be in Hawaii during the holiday season, the festivities definitely feel even brighter amidst a tropical backdrop. Waikiki lights up with palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights, Christmas trees decorated with plumeria flowers and surfing Santas on holiday from the North Pole. The Royal Hawaiian Center puts up a creative display with ornaments and decorations that make for a fun photo opportunity. The Sheraton Waikiki always impresses me with its massive holiday- and Hawaii-themed sand sculptures viewable in the entryway of the resort. Honolulu City Lights is another fun Christmas celebration with a massive Christmas tree decorated outside Honolulu Hale, a big Shaka Santa and Mrs. Claus statue, and other festive decorations. After Christmas, it's worthwhile to stay around for the New Year’s Eve fireworks, as starting a New Year with fireworks over the Pacific Ocean is a great way to transition into a new year.

Tropical holiday festivities by Allie K.

Above: Photo courtesy of Allie K.

5. Starlight, star bright

Another must-do for the winter season in Hawaii is stargazing. One of my favorite places to do this is high up on Haleakala at Haleakala National Park on Maui. If you drive up here for sunset and then take your time going down, once all the daylight fades away, you can see truly spectacular stars glistening in a dense pattern across the sky. As the sun sets a bit earlier in the winter, it is even worthwhile to drive up well after dark, find a safe place to pull over, and lay in the back of your truck or on a blanket and gaze upwards, looking for shooting stars and constellations.

Haleakala National Park

Above: Photo courtesy of Allie K.

6. Do go chasing waterfalls

Winter season also marks the onset of the rainy season in Hawaii. That means that the waterfalls are flowing, and it is the best time of the year to view them! Two of my absolute favorites are Rainbow Falls and Akaka Falls on Hawaii Island. Be on the lookout for rainbows throughout the day, as this is when the Rainbow State really shines. 

Winter waterfall

Above: Photo courtesy of Allie K.

I’ll leave you with this final great fact about winter in Hawaii – the sunrise is so much later than in the summer, making it easy and extra enjoyable to wake up in time to catch a stunning sunrise from a scenic spot in the Islands. This and a warm cup of 100% Kona coffee will make your winter in Hawaii one to remember.