The summer after I graduated from college, I took my first trip to Hawaii. From the moment I walked off the plane, my entire body instantly relaxed, and it didn’t take much longer for me to fall in love with everything the islands have to offer — with beautiful beaches, award-winning restaurants, and a thriving international community, who wouldn’t?
A little over a year later, I packed my bags and moved to Hawaii. Since then, I’ve gotten married, bought my first house, and really made Hawaii my home. I know it probably sounds crazy, but I promise a visit to Hawaii will change your life, all you have to do is make the trip!
If you’ve been dreaming of an island vacation, consider this your ultimate guide to the Hawaii.
Did you know that there are eight major islands that comprise Hawaii? Each one has a unique personality with different experiences to offer. If you don’t already, you’ll be sure to have a favorite soon.
Nickname: “The Gathering Place”
Known for: Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city
Must do: Surf at Waikiki Beach
Visit if: …you want it all: beaches, mountains, and a city.
Nickname: “The Valley Isle”
Known for: Black sand beaches
Must do: Drive the Road to Hana
Visit if: …the beach is your number one priority.
Nickname: “The Pineapple Isle”
Known for: Celebrity sightings
Must do: Splurge on a stay at a luxury resort
Visit if: …your ideal vacation includes lots of spa time.
Nickname: “The Friendly Isle”
Known for: The birthplace of hula
Must do: Visit the royal Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove
Visit if: …you like quirky, unique experiences.
Nickname: “The Big Island”
Known for: Kilauea, a volcano that erupted earlier this year
Must do: stargaze on Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest sea mountain
Visit if: …you want a front row seat to the power of nature.
Nickname: “The Garden Isle”
Known for: Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”
Must do: Sail the Napali Coast
Visit if: …you love outdoor activities like hiking and surfing.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to visit all eight islands. Elizabeth Sinclair purchased Niihau, the “Forbidden Isle,” in 1864 and her descendants have controlled the island ever since. While helicopter tours and some hunting opportunities exist, you typically have to work as a government official, serve in the U.S. Navy, or be related to the Sinclairs to visit. Kahoolawe, the “Target Isle” is completely off limits to the public.
What to Pack
(Lots of) Swimsuits
Pack one more bathing suit than you think you’ll need. Suits will be on heavy rotation during your time here and you’ll want an extra one for when the others are inevitably wet, dirty, have gone missing, etc. While swimsuit boutiques are a dime a dozen in Hawaii, that doesn’t mean you’ll always find a style that’s flattering or fits correctly. Plus, a trip to the islands is the perfect excuse to order one or two (or a dozen) new suits.
It’s a no brainer that you should be wearing sunscreen (all day, errrr day). But did you know certain sunscreens contain ingredients that are damaging to coral and fish? Check labels for oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene before you pack. Unfortunately, you’ll find at least one of the above in most popular sunscreen brands, but a quick google search for “reef safe sunscreen” will point you in the right direction.
No matter which islands you visit, you’ll want to go on at least one hike, (I’ll spare you the details about the time I flew to another island, only packed slides, and had to rummage through the world’s smallest Walmart for men’s hiking boots). You don’t need to invest in fancy hiking boots if you don’t think you’ll ever use them again in the future. For most hikes, a pair of sneakers with solid traction will do the trick. If you’re unsure, research a hike’s level of difficulty before deciding which pair you’ll bring.
I can’t recommend packing a Turkish towel enough. Unlike its traditional counterparts, Turkish towels are incredibly thin, quick to dry, and are extremely versatile. Use it as a beach towel, a picnic blanket, or even a wrap for cooler nights.
If I could only give you one piece of advice when it comes to packing for a Hawaiian vacation, it’s this: only pack what you can fit in a carry-on. I know, I know, but hear me out. First, you’ll be glad you skipped the notoriously long wait at the baggage carousel after a long flight. Second, packing light gives you more flexibility when it comes to transportation, visiting other islands, or even where you’ll spend the night (beach camping is slightly less appealing when you’re dragging 50 pounds of luggage through the sand).
How to Get There
The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote chain of islands in the entire world, so it’s understandable that flights from the mainland have been expensive and peppered with unnecessary layovers for years. But, with major airlines adding more non-stop flights from both the West and East Coast, it’s never been easier or cheaper to visit.
Regardless of where you live, there are plenty of tried and true ways to save money on a flight. One of the simplest ways is to be flexible with the location you fly into. There are four major airports, all of which offer inter-island flights. Just keep in mind that Hawaii’s busiest seasons are the winter (particularly the holiday season), and the summer months, so you can expect flights to be slightly more expensive during those times.
Where to Stay
There’s no shortage of hotels on most of the islands and there’s generally a wide variety of price points for every budget; however, the smaller the island, the less hotels available. For this reason, you should always book in advance if possible.
AirBnb isn’t always the cheaper option in Hawaii, but definitely allows you to save in other ways (most have kitchens, laundry machines, and free scuba/snorkel/beach gear for guests to use). You’ll also more likely to get a lot more space for your money this way.
While camping is one of the most affordable and rewarding ways to experience a night on an island, it is illegal in some areas and requires permits in others. Always check online for state parks rules. If you’re interested in camping, I’d recommend doing in on the Big Island.
Things to Know
Hawaii takes great pride in protecting the environment. Be advised that you’ll have to purchase shopping bags (15 cents) at any stores and your coffee will probably be served to you with a paper straw. While it may seem like a major inconvenience, those small efforts make a big difference in keeping our oceans clean.
Dining out in Hawaii can induce a bit of a sticker shock if you don’t already live in a major city like New York or Los Angeles. Expect to pay at least $25 for almost every meal — not including alcohol.
The exceptions: local food trucks and diners! If you need to save a little money, look for “Local Grindz” — you’ll get a lot of food for a fraction of the cost.
Speaking of food, there are some things you simply MUST eat while visiting the islands. The first are malasadas, Portuguese doughnuts that are wildly popular with tourists and locals alike. They generally come coated in a variety of flavored sugars and/or custard fillings.
Other sweet treats to try include shaved ice, Ted’s Bakery pies, and fresh fruit. Once you’ve satisfied your sweet tooth, head to the local gas station for Hawaii’s most popular savory snack: spam musubi (a slice of grilled Spam on top of a block of rice, wrapped in nori). While it’s not for everyone, you have to try it at least once.
Respect the Culture
Before Hawaii was a state, it was a sovereign nation with a royal family. Ever since the last reigning queen was violently overthrown by a group of Americans farmers, Hawaii’s been fighting to preserve its customs and traditions. It’s important to remember that Hawaiian culture isn’t American culture; take time to educate yourself about Hawaii’s rich history. Most importantly, be wary of cultural appropriation.