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Travels for Engineers to Hawaii

By David H. Allen


Over the course of the preceding thirty years, I’ve traveled to The Hawaiian Islands seventeen times, including Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Kauai and Lanai. I’ve also taken a multi-day interisland ship cruise, and I have scuba-dived off the coast of three of the islands. Thankfully, I have never taken students to Hawaii on study abroad.

On the other hand, I have found the Hawaiian Islands to be a veritable treasure trove of interesting sites for engineers. And although Hawaii would be one of my top recommended destinations even if there were no engineering marvels to be found, I cannot overemphasize the importance of visiting Hawaii for the purpose of understanding nature on our planet. Accordingly, in this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in what can only be described as Paradise on Earth.

Historic Sites for Engineers

Hawaii is located at the mid-point of the Pacific Ocean, making it one of the most remote land masses on Earth. It is actually a chain of hundreds of islands that were formed by an imperfection in the Earth’s crust called The Hawaiian Hotspot at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, thus allowing billions and billions of tons of magma to escape into the ocean and gradually create what amounts to a mid-Pacific mountain range that runs roughly northwest to southeast. This is due to the fact that the hotspot is slowly drifting toward the southwest, thereby rendering the newest land mass at the southeastern edge, and the oldest at the northwestern edge. At this end, the oldest part of the range, one finds Midway Island, the scene of a pivotal battle of World War II. Midway itself is small, flat and uninspiring. Midway is slowly disappearing beneath the surface of the ocean, as the elements wash its coastline into the depths.

At the other end of the chain, the newest island is the Big Island of Hawaii. Furthermore, there is an island birthing off the southeast coast of Hawaii named Lö’ihi that will punch through the surface of the ocean in perhaps as little as ten thousand years. As a result of this slow transit southeastwards of volcanic activity, the islands in the Hawaiian chain are like a living classroom depicting the geologic evolution of the surface of our planet. At one million years in age, the Big Island is quite young, and as a result, it is perhaps not as interesting as some of the older islands in the chain, and this is due to the fact that weather hasn’t had sufficient time to wear down the enormous volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea (Fig. 1). And of course, Kilauea continues to erupt at a more or less steady pace, thereby creating new land mass each and every day.

Fig. 1 The Big Island

To the northwest, Maui is the site of the dormant (and spectacular!) volcano Haleakala. Further up the chain Lanai, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai are all several million years old, having undergone the corrosive effects of weather over a sufficiently long period of time to create impressive valleys, verdure and tropical paradises. And this is why I can’t get enough of these fabulous islands: I know of no other place on Earth where as one progresses up the island chain from southeast to northwest it is like progressing backwards in time a million years per island. And to truly understand this process, you will need to visit at least four or five of the islands in the chain.

Below I will review a few of my favorite spots on several of the more prominent islands in the chain, moving from youngest to oldest.

Hawaii (also called The Big Island to distinguish it from the entire chain)

The Big Island is exactly what the name implies – the biggest island in the entire Hawaiian chain. There are several noteworthy sites on this island. First, and perhaps most obvious is the two dominant mountains: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. At 14,000 feet in elevation, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain on Earth if it were measured from its base some 20,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Despite the more or less steady deposition of lava on the island, it has taken millions of years to create this truly massive mountain. And perhaps most amazing of all – it actually snows on the peak on occasion, and of course, Hawaiians race up to the peak and ski until the snow is melted.

Another interesting feature of Mauna Kea is the recent lava flows. There were several in the twentieth century, and you can tell their relative ages by the amount of vegetation that has sprung up on each of the flows. Here is a full-scale laboratory explaining much regarding erosion and plant evolution. The plants tend to break up the lava, thereby allowing increasingly complex verdure to spring up in a relatively short span of time.

On the southern tip of The Big Island, Kilauea continues to erupt (Fig. 2), sometimes violently. This is one of the best places on Earth to visit a still active volcano, and this is my view the most important reason for visiting this island – it is a nursery for new land mass.

Fig. 2 Kilauea Volcano

One last point about the Big Island is worth mentioning before moving on – the microclimates on this island are perhaps the most apparent of all the Hawaiian Islands. This is due primarily to two facts: the prevailing winds blow from the west in the Hawaiian Islands, and the Big Island is composed primarily of two massive mountains. These mountains push the trade winds upwards, in the process adiabatically cooling the air as it rushes from west to east across the island. The result is a very dry west side of the island, and a quite rainy eastern side of the island. And as we all know, lots of rain produces both erosion and plenty of plant life. This dramatic difference in microclimate is quite obvious on the Big Island.


About sixty miles to the north of the Big Island lies the island of Maui, also called The Valley Isle. The reason for this name becomes apparent even before you land on Maui, because the plane glides in along a valley midway between two peaks on opposing portions of the island. It soon becomes apparent that Maui was at one time two separate islands, and rainfall and erosion caused the two to become joined together over time. This created a large fairly level plain in the center of the island that was until recently used for farming purposes (primarily sugar cane). Thus, visiting Maui is like visiting two separate islands at one time, and for my money, this makes it one of my two favorite islands in the chain. In fact, as I write this blog I am planning my next visit to Maui.

There are several sites on Maui that are right up there with the most impressive vistas I’ve ever seen on Earth. Foremost among these is a visit to the crater of Haleakala (Fig. 3). When you arrive at the peak (at over ten thousand feet), you will not only be able to see The Big Island to the south, you will be treated to a fabulous view of the caldera, which is absolutely enormous! But make sure to plan ahead, because the peak is quite often shrouded in clouds, thereby making the two hour drive a waste of time.

Fig. 3 Haleakala Crater

Aside from Haleakala, there are quite a few additional treasures on Maui. My favorite is actually offshore – a tiny island called Molokini (Fig. 4). This is the cone of a long-extinct volcano to the west of the southern portion of Maui. What makes it fabulous for me is the shallow and warm water within the caldera, thereby supporting a veritable cornucopia of sea life, including several types of sharks, eels, and even giant manta rays. I dove both the caldera and the back face of Molokini, and those were the best dives I’ve ever done in my life. And if you don’t scuba, no problem – simply snorkel and you will see a whole lot! You’ll have to take a cruise boat to get out there, but trust me – it will be well worth the money!

Fig. 4 Molokini

Up on the northwest portion of Maui you will find the former whaling town of Lahaina. This is my favorite town in all of the Hawaiian Islands. And each year from January to March the humpback whales come down from Alaska to mate. And yes – you can go out on a sailing vessel and get right up close to them. This is the best place I’ve been for whale watching.

You can also go to the eastern end of Maui, including the south coast, where you will encounter the wilds of Hawaii, just the way it was in former times. And when you’ve finished your round-island, touring the town of Kihei is a great place to rest and recover.

And finally, if you are possessed of a whopping amount of money that you can’t seem to spend, try one of the hotels in Wailea, most of which start at about a thousand dollars a night. Okay, so maybe you don’t have that kind of cash – no problem – all coastline in the Hawaiian Islands is public land. So you can drive right down to the beach and walk along a beach path behind these ostentatious hotels and act rich! And of course – this is one of my very favorite things to do in Maui.

Lanai and Molokai

I’ve only been to Lanai once, and I only sailed around Molokai, so I can’t say much about these two islands other than to say that there is not much to see on them other than a subsea formation called the cathedrals (which is spectacular, but can only be seen by scuba diving). I would avoid these islands unless you want to get away from people, in which case you will love them (although Lanai is extremely expensive!).


Oahu is of course the most famous of the Hawaiian Islands, and also the most populous. I’ve been there at least a half dozen times, and to be honest, I hope I never have to go there again. It has become quite crowded and excessively expensive in recent years, especially anywhere close to Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. But if you are bound and determined to visit Oahu, I recommend that you research the hotels before choosing where to stay, as quite a few are in my view overpriced.

My favorite things to do on Oahu include: Pearl Harbor/The Arizona, Hanauma Bay, Punch Bowl (the national cemetery is therein), a hike to Diamondhead, the North Shore, and scuba diving the sunken ship off the west coast. Unfortunately, the Arizona has been closed indefinitely for some time now. Furthermore, Hanauma Bay (which is undeniably spectacular!) has become so overcrowded that you will have to make reservations to go there.

Ultimately, my advice is to spend no more than three days on Oahu and then head for the other islands!


And now we come to my favorite Hawaiian Island, and quite frankly, one of my favorite places on Earth – the island of Kauai. At eight million years of age, Kauai is just right – not too young, and not too old – squarely within the Goldilocks zone along the Hawaiian chain of islands. Kauai is called The Garden Isle, and for good reason – it is absolutely chock full of gorgeous plant life. This island is in my view the ultimate tropical paradise on Earth, and I’ve been to quite a few of them.

My favorite things to see on Kauai are the Napali Coast, Waimea Canyon, and Hanalei. All three of these are absolutely spectacular. And if you want to see them at their best, take a helicopter ride. True, it’s quite expensive, but well worth the money (I’ve done it five times). I also recommend the waterborne cruise along the Napali Coast, which is in my opinion the most gorgeous stretch of coastline on Earth.

If you’re into hiking, I highly recommend the hike along the Napali Coast (reservations required) and the Alakai Swamp (the highest swamp on Earth, Fig. 5). There are also numerous practically deserted absolutely gorgeous beaches on the North Shore (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5 The Alakai Swamp


Fig. 6 A Deserted Beach on Kauai's North Shore

I’ve stayed in quite a few of the upscale (and expensive!) hotels in the Hawaiian Islands. If you want to stay in one, I personally recommend the Grand Hyatt in Poipu (Fig. 7). It is somewhat like a slice of Disney World, only it’s actually real! But stay tuned, because the Princeville Hotel (located on the north shore), which has been closed for renovation for several years, may be equally spectacular when it reopens.

The Grand Hyatt Hotel in Poipu

And last but not least, a visit to Waimea Canyon (Fig. 8), called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, is an absolute must! You will have to carve out a full day for this trek to the southwestern portion of Kauai, but you will be rewarded with some truly spectacular scenery. This canyon is not only the site of much of the scenery from such movies as Jurassic Park, it is a fabulous laboratory illustrating the geology of our planet.

Fig. 8 Waimea Canyon

It will take you at least three weeks to see all of the sites on the four main islands listed above, so you may find it necessary to make multiple visits to the Hawaiian Islands. But trust me on this, you will learn so much that you will never regret the expense. Hawaii is truly the Jewel of the Pacific, and in my view, the most incredible place in the United States.

In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the other cities mentioned in my previous blogs. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Note: Figures 5-8 in this blog were taken by me. Citations for Figures 1-4 are below.

Fig. 1: Photo taken by Volcanoes National Park on 8 August 2016 and published under Creative Commons under Creative Commons Share-Alike License 4.0: Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International — CC BY-SA 4.0

Fig. 2: Photo taken by a National Park employee is in the public domain.

Fig. 3: Photo taken by CatHouy on 1 August 2018 and published under Creative Commons under Creative Commons Share-Alike License 4.0: Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International — CC BY-SA 4.0

Fig. 4: Photo taken by Kirk Ouimet on 5 March 2018 and published under Creative Commons under Creative Commons Share-Alike License 4.0: Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International — CC BY-SA 4.0

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