Hawaii is such a unique destination…the Hawaiian Islands are some of the most remote islands in the world, but being the 50th US state has made them so accessible. For so many people, a trip to Hawaii is a once in a lifetime dream. And for a lot of people, Hawaii is the farthest they’ll ever go from home (by a longshot) and not to mention one of the most expensive trips they’ll ever take.
Going to Hawaii is not like going on a casual beach trip to Florida, so this post is going to be loaded with Hawaii travel tips to help you out.
Here’s an idea of what to expect from this post (so you can bear with me if it seems like it’s taking a weird turn ; )
The beginning: an overview of Hawaii in general that breaks down helpful stuff like the main islands, which cities and airports you’ll fly into for each island, how long it takes to fly to Hawaii, time zones, and how big the islands are.
The middle: a brief history of Hawaii so you can understand how it ties into the current tourism landscape and what I call a common courtesy “code of conduct” for visitors to the islands (this is stuff you really want to know before you get there).
More middle: more traditional Hawaii travel tips that you’re probably expecting like how much stuff costs, what the weather is like, when whale season is, how to dress, etc.
The end: a roundup of topics that I feel somewhat strongly about including illegal vacation rentals (yikes, you don’t want to get caught in one of these), post COVID travel tips, and what’s considered a “must do” in Hawaii.
Don’t miss these Hawaii “Must Dos”
Right…like I said…a bit of a mish mash but hang in there and I promise you’re going to come out of this post with a LOT of insight that’s going to make your trip to Hawaii go MUCH more smoothly.
Hawaii is a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean that is about 2000 miles from the US mainland. There are four main islands (Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island-also known as Hawaii), two smaller islands near Maui (Molokai and Lanai) and two other islands that aren’t visitable (Kaho’olawe and Ni’ihau). Oahu is considered the main island (home to Honolulu-the state’s capital, Waikiki, and over a million people) but it’s not the “Big Island.”
The four main islands are all easily accessible from the US mainland. Molokai and Lanai are easily reached from Oahu or Maui. Here’s a list of each island’s major city and airport code:
Big Island/Kona (KOA)
BIg Island/Hilo (ITO)
It seems like a world away but Hawaii is actually only a 5 or 6-hour flight from California. It’s 6 hours going to Hawaii, and 5 hours coming back from Hawaii. There are so many more direct flights to Hawaii now from the midwest and even the east coast. From the midwest (Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Austin, etc.) you’re looking at 8-9 hours and from the east coast (New York, Boston, Orlando, etc) it’s usually 11-12.
The Hawaiian Islands run on the Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone. Hawaii also doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time so they’re 3 hours behind West Coast time (6 hours behind East coast time) when we’re on Daylight savings time, and 2/5 hours when we’re not.
The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic eruptions and the age of each island inversely corresponds to its size (and some of its features). Kauai is the oldest island (formed almost 6 million years ago) and also the smallest island. Oahu is the second oldest island and second smallest. Maui is the second youngest island (formed about 1.3 million years ago) and second largest island. And the Big Island comes in as the baby island and the only island with ACTIVE volcanoes which means that it’s still growing!! Maui and the Big Island are the only islands where you’ll find the dramatic black sand beaches (formed when lava meets the ocean) because they’re still relatively young. Oahu and Kauai are the islands with the most dramatic green jagged mountains because they’re older and have suffered more erosion.
So in terms of size: Big Island > Maui > Oahu > Kauai
And in terms of age: Kauai > Oahu > Maui > Big Island
Molokai and Lanai were originally part of Maui but as the islands have sunk, they’ve become three separate islands.
As far as which island is best or which you should visit, there’s not really a definitive answer. Although people who have visited before usually have very strong opinions ; ) each island is fairly unique and has a lot to offer. While each island has a handful of attractions (natural and manmade) that you’ll only find on that island, EVERY island has supherb beaches, snorkeling, water sports, resorts, etc. In other words, your “dream Hawaiian vacation” can be had on each island. Read more about figuring out which island to visit here and a comparison between Maui and Kauai here.
What You Need to Know Before You Go to Hawaii
It may feel like a different country, but remember, you’re still in the US. Hawaii has a very distinct culture and its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean often makes it feel like a foreign land, so many visitors question how things are done. Here’s the deal: everything works like it does back home, except when it doesn’t : ) Seriously though, your phone service works like normal, you don’t need a passport (you’d be surprised how often people ask this), and you don’t call the US mainland “the states” like you would when in Europe. But you will find yourself subject to the quirks of “island life.” Things move slower so relax and just go with the flow.
This leads into the first big thing you need to know:
Yes, Hawaii is the 50th state in the Union, but there are many people who consider it an illegally occupied sovereign nation. Whether or not you agree with that is beside the point, but understanding the perspective and respecting the people of Hawaii will go a long way towards enriching your travel experience.
Here’s a quick rundown: The Kingdom of Hawaii was a thriving monarchy under the rule of King Kamehameha I (united the islands in 1810). The first missionaries showed up in 1820. The first sugar cane plantation was opened in 1835, and the Hawaiian Islands developed a reputation as prime agricultural land (this is when American influence in Hawaiian government begins). By the 1850s, the plantations were booming and they needed more labor. Immigrants were recruited from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Portugal.
In 1882, the Iolani Palace was completed and it had electricity before the White House and Buckingham Palace. In 1887, the US began leasing Pearl Harbor. Later in 1887, a group of largely non-Hawaiians drafted a new constitution (signed under threat of force) that stripped the King of power (later called the Bayonet Constitution). In 1891, Lili’uokalani (the last Queen of Hawaii) ascended to the throne and in 1893 she attempted to pass a new constitution that would give power back to the people of Hawaii.
It gets really complicated from here, but basically a coup to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii followed immediately, designed largely by American businessmen and backed by the US military (a show of force mostly). To protect American property and interests in the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Republic of Hawaii was formed as the US tried to move towards annexation.
Interestingly, the treaty to annex Hawaii never passed the Senate and it gets a little murky as to how President McKinley eventually signed the Newlands Resolution in 1898 which created the Territory of Hawaii. Sanford B. Dole (yep, the fruit guy : ) was appointed as the first Territorial Governor which tells a lot of the story, and Queen Lili’uokalani eventually died under house arrest.