Written by Scott Travis

November 6, 2015

Hawaii is the 50th state of the United States of America. Situated nearly at the center of the north Pacific Ocean, Hawaii marks the northeast corner of Polynesia. While it was once a major hub for the whaling, sugar and pineapple industries, it is now economically dependent on tourism and the U.S. military. The natural beauty of the islands continues to be one of Hawaii’s greatest assets. Honolulu is the state’s capital, largest city, and cultural hub.Hawaiian and English are the official languages of Hawaii.


Hawaii is an archipelago of over nineteen distinct volcanic islands located over a geological “hot spot” in the Central Pacific. The Pacific plate on which the islands ride moves to the northwest, so in general the islands are older and smaller (due to erosion) as you move from southeast to northwest. There are eight major islands, six of which are open to tourism.


Oahu (Oʻahu)

Nicknamed “the Gathering Place,” Oahu is the most populous and developed island. Its southern shore is home to the city of Honolulu, the state capital and largest city; four out of every five kama’aina (Hawaii residents) call it home. It is the governmental and commercial center of the state, and Waikiki Beach is arguably the best known tourist destination in Hawaii. Outside the city are pineapple fields, and the North Shore of Oahu, which is known each winter as the home of some of the largest waves in the world. The USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor is also very popular visitor destination.



The second largest island in the chain, and home to the 10,023 foot (3,055 m) tall volcanic mountain crater of Haleakala. It is nicknamed “the Valley Isle” for the narrow plain between Haleakala and the West Maui mountains. On the west side of the island are the resort areas of Lahaina, Kaanapali and Kapalua, while the south side is home to Kihei, and Wailea. On the east side is the tiny village of Hana, reached by one of the most winding and beautiful roads in the world.


Kauai (Kauaʻi)

“The Garden Isle” is home to several natural wonders, such as the Wailua River, Waimea Canyon, and the Na Pali Coast. Mount Waialeale is known as one of the rainiest spots in the world. It boasts the most beaches out of the major islands, with the longest being Polihale measuring 17 miles in length. It’s similar to the Big Island in that they have the most rural feel out of the 4 major islands.


Molokai (Molokaʻi)

“The Friendly Isle” is the fifth largest and one of the least developed of the main Hawaiian Islands. It is home to Kalaupapa, the place where long term sufferers of Hansen’s Disease (also known as leprosy) were forced into quarantine by the Hawaiian government until 1969. It is now known for pristine, breathtaking tropical landscapes, environmental stewardship, rich and deep Hawaiian traditions, and a visitor-friendly culture.


Lanai (Lānaʻi)

Known as “the Pineapple Isle,” formerly the world’s largest pineapple plantation owned by Dole Foods; it is now home to two high-end resorts. Just 3,135 people live on its 141 square miles. There are no traffic lights, movie theaters or bakeries. There is just one gas station and three main roads. It is ringed with vast and empty beaches, accessible only by four-wheel drive.


Niihau (Niʻihau)

A privately owned island with an entirely Native Hawaiian population. Until very recently, “the Forbidden Isle” was off limits to all but family members and invited guests of the owners. Tourism to the island is limited to helicopter, ATV, and hunting excursions originating on Kauai. There are around 130 Niihau residents and Native Hawaiian is the official language. They do not have running water, use solar power and live rent free.


Kahoolawe (Kahoʻolawe)

A former U.S. Navy bombing range, which remains uninhabited. Efforts are being made to rehabilitate the island, but cleanup efforts continue.



Where tourism is concerned, Hawaii has something for everyone. The island of Oahu, the most populous and home to the state capital and largest city of Honolulu, is great for people who wish to experience the islands and still keep the conveniences of a large city. Rainforests and hiking trails are located just minutes from Waikiki Beach, one of the world’s best tourist destinations. In the winter, large waves on Oahu’s north shore turn the normally sleepy area into the surfing capital of the world.

On the other hand, those who wish to experience Hawaii at a slower pace would do well to visit one of the Neighbor Islands (the other, less populated islands around Oahu). All the neighbor islands offer opportunities to relax and enjoy the sun and scenery. Many of the natural wonders of the Islands are located on the Neighbor Islands, from Waimea Canyon on Kauai, to Haleakala on Maui, to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Numerous waterfalls and rainforests evoke memories of what the islands might have looked like before major corporations set their sights on Hawaii. The road to Hana is one of the most scenic on Maui, as you manipulate many turns overlooking the Eastern coast of the island. It leads you over bridges and past beautiful waterfalls. Ultimately, you can end up at the Oheo Gulch Pools (which are not sacred and there’s more than seven), where the hiking is quite the experience.



Depending on where you’re located in Hawaii, the weather can be very different over even short distances. On the same day, on Oahu you might find sun over the beaches in Waikiki and rain only a few miles away in Manoa Valley.

Although the islands receive abundant amounts of both sunshine and rain, rain is more likely on the north and east sides of the islands, which face the prevailing northeasterly tradewinds (the “windward” side of the island), as well as the mountain peaks and valleys. The moist tropical air carried by the tradewinds is forced upward by the mountains, resulting in clouds and rain. Rain is less likely on the coastal areas of the “leeward” sides (the south and west sides) of the islands.

Although there are no true “seasons” in the islands in the same sense as the rest of the U.S., the climate does go through annual cycles based on rainfall. The “wet” season in Hawaii (cooler temperatures and more rainfall) runs roughly from October to March, and the “dry” season (warmer temperatures and less rainfall) from April to September. There is therefore a higher probability of rain if you visit during the peak of tourist season in late December or January.

Hurricane season in the islands runs from June to November. Although Hawaii’s relative isolation means that it is affected only rarely by tropical cyclones, a destructive storm will occasionally hit the Islands, such as Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki hitting Kauai in 1982 and 1992 respectively.

Overall, Hawaii is warm and balmy — when you step out of the plane you’ll immediately notice that the air is soft and humid — and during the summer months the tradewinds provide a pleasant breeze. Daytime temperatures generally range from the low 70s (21°C) in “winter” to the mid 80s (27°C) in “summer”. Very rarely does the air temperature exceed 90°F (32°C) even in the hottest part of summer; however, the humidity will make it feel as if it were a few degrees hotter. Ocean temperatures range between 73°F (23°C) degrees in the winter to 78°F (25.5°C) in the summer. There is usually no more than a 20°F (12°C) difference between daytime high and nighttime low temperatures.

Consequently, besides your driver’s license, credit card, camera, binoculars, and other essentials, it’s best to keep your clothes to a minimum…one or two pair of washable slacks/shorts, light shirts, walking shoes, sandals and swim gear. A light jacket or sweater may be necessary depending on when and where you go, but heavy clothing is not normally necessary in most areas. Sunscreen is essential since Hawaii’s close proximity to the Equator translates into very strong sun radiation. The suitcase space you save can be used to fill up on island purchases.

Although the above is true for most of the Islands, you will find exceptions. A good rule to remember is the higher the elevation, the cooler it will be. Upcountry areas of Kauai, Maui and the Big Island will be cooler during the day, in the 60’s, and much colder at night, in the 40’s. At the highest elevations on Maui and the Big Island, temperatures can drop to near freezing in places like Haleakala National Park, Volcanoes National Park, and Mauna Kea. On the Big Island, both of the largest mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, can receive snowfall year around, mostly in the winter, and can even experience blizzard conditions.

There is more of a difference from the day-to-night temperatures in Hawaii than there is summer-to-winter. Given that, there can be more of a difference from lower elevations to higher elevations than either of those, depending on where you are visiting. It’s important to research the areas you plan to visit and bring clothing suitable for those conditions.


Best times to go

Hawaii’s tropical weather tends to be most attractive to tourists when the weather is frightfully cold at home. It’s not surprising, then, that the peak tourist season in Hawaii is the Northern Hemisphere winter (mid-December to mid-April). The highest prices tend to be during the Christmas and New Year’s season, with a second peak around spring break in March and April. Hawaii’s weather is at its best (not too hot and not too cold, with not so much rain) in April, May, September, and October – ironically, this is also the period when some of the best deals can be had.


Get in

Foreign travelers entering Hawaii directly from another country are subject to the same entry requirements as for the United States in general.

As Hawaii is one of the 50 United States, flights to Hawaii from the U.S. Mainland (that is, all of the U.S. outside of the state) are considered domestic flights. Therefore, it is not necessary for U.S. citizens or legal immigrants to show a passport (or any documentation of U.S. citizenship or immigration status) when entering Hawaii from the U.S. Mainland. It is also not necessary for foreign visitors to show passports or visas if they arrived on a flight from the mainland (i.e. if Honolulu was not their port of entry).

With that said, Hawaii does have some unique requirements that are intended more to control the flow of plants and animals than that of people. The islands have unique plant and animal life found nowhere else. They also have diseases and pests not found on the U.S. Mainland, and are free of other diseases and pests that are commonly found elsewhere. Because of this, Hawaii is an agricultural quarantine zone relative to the mainland. For travelers, this means three things:

  1. You are required by the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture to fill out a written agricultural declaration shortly before your flight to Hawaii lands. One declaration form is required per family; the forms will be collected before landing. Any fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, and the like need to be declared and inspected by Department of Agriculture personnel at your port of arrival; some items may be prohibited from entering Hawaii at all. Penalties for non-compliance are stiff. To avoid delays and hassles, avoid bringing such items with you if at all possible. (On the reverse side of this declaration is a Hawaii Tourism Authority questionnaire that asks for information about your stay. You are encouraged but not required to complete this questionnaire.)
  2. When leaving Hawaii for the U.S. Mainland, all baggage (checked and carry-on) must be inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at the airport. With the exception of pineapples and treated papayas, any fresh fruits are prohibited from leaving Hawaii to control the spread of fruit flies. It does not matter whether the fruit was grown in Hawaii; the prohibition applies just as much to apples imported from the mainland and bought in local grocery stores. Consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more details. Bags are inspected by X-ray, so depending on the airport you leave from and the airline, be prepared to submit to as many as three checkpoints on the way to your Mainland flight: having your checked bags X-rayed in the ticket lobby, the TSA security checkpoint, and perhaps a separate agricultural inspection for your carry-on bags on the way to your gate.
  3. As Hawaii is rabies-free, pets such as dogs and cats are subject to complex and strict quarantine requirements. The least restrictive provisions (direct airport release or 5-day maximum quarantine) require, prior to arrival, at least two rabies vaccinations at least thirty days apart and at least 90 days before arrival, the latest of which must be current; microchip implantation; and a negative rabies blood test within the last three years, but at least 120 days before arrival. Pets failing to meet these requirements will be subject to quarantine for up to 120 days. These requirements usually make it prohibitive for most short-term visitors to Hawaii to bring their pets. Those planning long-term visits or moving to the Islands with sufficient lead time, however, will find these requirements useful.

Hawaii doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time, which means that the time difference between Hawaii and most of North America varies by the time of year. For reference, Hawaii is two time zones behind the U.S. West Coast, thereby accounting for a three hour time difference during DST. Arizona, which also does not observe DST save for the Navajo Reservation, is always three hours ahead of Hawaii year-round.

By plane

Most flights from the mainland US and almost all international flights land in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. From here, passengers destined for a Neighbor Island will connect to an interisland flight (see By Plane in Get Around below). Direct service from the mainland is also available to Kahului on Maui, Kona and Hilo on the Big Island, and Lihue on Kauai as well.

Depending on the airline, nonstop flights to Honolulu leave from most major gateway airports on the West Coast (as well as some smaller ones), as well as many major airports in the Midwest and East Coast. The flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco takes about 5 hours, comparable to a flight between the West and East Coasts. Thus, a flight from New York can take about 10.5 hours.

By boat

While the days where everyone arrived in Hawaii by boat are long gone, there are limited numbers of trans-Pacific cruises to Hawaii that leave from ports on the West Coast. However, one fascinating way to experience Hawaii is by taking a cruise ship between the islands (see Get around: By boat).

There are limited freighter services, but if you are an American citizen embarking in the USA and wishing to travel to Hawaii then you cannot travel this way (because of the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, which says foreign-flagged ships cannot carry passengers from one U.S. port to another unless they stop in a foreign country – try cruises from Ensenada, Baja California or Vancouver, British Columbia).

It is also worthwhile to troll west coast marinas leaving your contact info and posting to online discussion boards for people planning to spend around a month sailing from the mainland. Just remember that a month with strangers can be stressful so do what you can to be sure you have picked a good experienced crew and boat to sail with and be a good crewperson yourself. Also ensure that any expectation in either direction of compensation including work duties, food, supplies, and damaged equipment is covered in writing so everything is clear between you and the boat owner. Storms and days stuck becalmed are to be expected but this is part of the life of a real sailor as much as racing with the wind.

Get around

By plane

Because Hawaii is an archipelago, air travel is, by and large, compulsory for traveling within the state. Travelers can choose from either a scheduled or unscheduled air carrier. Both scheduled and unscheduled air carriers are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration via the state’s local Flight Standards District Office.

Three scheduled inter-island air carriers, Hawaiian Airlines, Mokulele Airlines, and Island Air, provide set scheduled flights between the islands. Go! started service in June 2006, positioning itself as a discount carrier. You can save money and time by planning “triangle routes” that arrive in Hawaii on one island and leave on another, avoiding the cost of a return inter-island flight.

Scheduled flight times run anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour and can usually be purchased a day or two before departure, although this may increase the cost of traveling.

Visitors wanting to fly according to their own demand (as opposed to a pre-set published times) should consider flying on an unscheduled air carrier also known as air taxi service. You simply contact the air carrier directly and arrange a time and place for pick up. Iolani Air and Big Island Air are two such air carriers.

The Hawaiian islands are populated with airstrips that some carriers choose not to service due to economic or operational considerations that make flights not feasible. In some instances air taxi companies may be the only means of reaching a certain location or air strip.

Hunters and campers with cumbersome gear planning trips to remote island regions, as well as visitors wishing to “island hop”, should consider air taxi service to meet their demands.

By boat

Charter boats sail and motor between some islands, especially the MauiMolokaiLanai area. But, crossing the channels between islands can be extremely rough going. Because of this, a few charter companies specialize in having boats delivered inter island and can meet you at your destination.

Inquire at nearby marinas about joining the crew of a local sailboat or yacht out for a cruise.

By car

If you want to take your car to Hawaii, it will either need to be amphibious or freighted by ship with very high cost, making this infeasible unless you plan a long-term stay in Hawaii. However, Hawaii is the only state that honors all other U.S. state vehicle licenses until they expire, provided you apply for a permit within 10 days of the car’s arrival. (Incidentally, Hawaii is also the only state that does not require intended residents to exchange their out-of-state driver’s licenses.)

Car rentals should be booked as soon as possible as the price charged is based on a supply/demand basis. The exception is Waikiki where you will not need a car on a permanent basis so just rent a car the day before you want one. Collision insurance coverage is very expensive through car rental companies (it can easily double your daily rate or more). Consider using a credit card with collision coverage. All U.S.-issued consumer Visa credit (but not debit) cards, many MasterCard cards and some American Express cards include secondary collision coverage; some American Express, Visa business and Diners Club cards offer primary coverage. Alternatively or additionally, prior to your trip, verify that both collision and liability (also called third-party) coverage from your own auto insurance company extends to rental cars. Car rental rates for 5- or 6-day periods are often the same as 7-day rentals. Use a credit card that includes medical and trip cancellation insurance benefits; if you cannot, consider buying trip insurance from your flight travel agent. View more on Hawaii car rental insurance. Also be aware some hotels may charge you for car parking; check with your hotel for parking fee before you book your car. International tourists with non U.S. credit cards are not covered by the above. By clicking on your country of origin when obtaining a quote from the car rental company’s website, often an inclusive quote with loss damage waiver and supplemental liability insurance is provided. Otherwise using a travel agent website within your country e.g. your local Expedia website or local car hire broker will often also include insurance in their quote.

Gasoline, while nowhere near the prices charged in Europe, is significantly more expensive in Hawaii than on the Mainland. Expect to pay about 10% more than the prevailing rate on the Mainland for gasoline in Honolulu. Neighbor Island prices can be as much as 10-15% above that.

Be aware that outside of the major highways (H1, H2 and H3) most locals refer to the roads not by number but by name, and will likely not understand if you ask for a road by number. For example, you would never hear someone refer to Kalanianiole Highway as “route 72” or “highway 72.”

If you ask for directions, they will likely not be given in terms of compass direction. Instead you will probably receive relative directions based on landmark. Common landmarks include mauka (toward the mountains), makai (toward the ocean), and on Oahu, ʻEwa (toward Ewa Beach, roughly west) and Diamond Head (toward Diamond Head, roughly east). So a query for a grocery store might be met with “go two blocks makai, turn right on King and it’s half a mile up on the mauka side of the street.”



The Hawaiian islands offer a vast number of activities. Hiking and eco tours are popular on most islands, with opportunities for horseback riding, ATV, air tours, and other methods of exploring the landscape. Museums and historical sites such as Pearl Harbor are also to be found throughout the islands. Cultural activities such as the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu also make for interesting day-long activities.

Oahu is famous for Pearl Harbor tours, but also popular are shark dives in cages, Waikiki snorkel tours as well as around Oahu Tours where you will see all the major highlights of Oahu including Diamond Head, the North Shore and Dole Plantation where you can sample menu items made from fresh picked pineapples.

Maui is the location for humpback whale watching from December 15 to April 15 each year as the massive humpbacks migrate to Hawaii’s warm waters to bear their calves. Also famous from Maui is the Molokini Crater which is a partially submerged volcanic crater that you can snorkel.

Kauai is untamed and beautiful. It has been featured in many major motion pictures over the past two decades (Jurassic Park, Tropic Thunder, The Descendants, Avatar, and many more) . See this island by land or by air to take in the true beauty of this island. Oh and just be ready to see the roaming Roosters that inhabit the island.

The Big island is the volcano island where you can take a land tour or fly over the incredible huge volcano on a helicopter tour. Doors off flights allow you to feel the heat from the volcano, an amazingly unique experience. Also on the Big Island you have the rare opportunity to swim with wild dolphins, not captive ones.

Hawaii is best known for its beaches and water activities. Surfing is practically a religion in Hawaii, and scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities exist nearly everywhere. In addition, jet skiing, parasailing and kayaking are available in tourist areas.

Since many of the Islands tours and excursions are interacting with nature in some way, it’s important to look in to each and make sure they are respecting the Islands. There are many endangered animals and plants, because of this there are many laws protecting them. A good example would be tour boats that have been fined for chasing dolphins or whales in order to please the tourists, while it’s actually illegal and highly disrespectful. Govern yourself the same way while you visit and remember to kokua na `aina or respect the land.


Tourists who want to get a taste of Hawaiian culture can sign up for classes in hula, surfing and lei-making at most tourist destinations.

There also a number of cultural and historical centers on Oahu well worth your time, such as the Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace.

If you have the money, the time and the inclination, the Polynesian Cultural Center provides a window into Polynesian culture. As its name implies, the Polynesian Cultural Center covers not just Hawaii but also the cultures of Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Easter Island and the Maori people of New Zealand.

The outer islands also have destinations such as Maui Center for Culture and the Arts and the Big Island has the Hilo Art Museum. the Lyman House Museum and the Pacific Tsunami Museum as well as the University of Hawaii’s ʻImiloa Astronomy Center and Kula Kai Caverns.

For those on a budget, there are many activities you can do on any island that are free. All state parks are free to visit and even some National Parks. When the National Parks are not free, most find them very affordable. Hiking, beaches, snorkeling and other like activities are always free when on public land and there are no private beaches. On the Big Island there are many free ranger programs at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical park and other locations. At the Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea, you can stay any night of the year between 6PM and 10PM and enjoy a free astronomy tour including large and small telescopes for you to look through. Some hiking and other activities are located within National Parks, like Volcanoes so they are at cost, of course.


Stay safe

Theft is a big problem in cities as well as beaches and parks. If you are camping on a beach, keep bags locked in a car (but don’t assume that they are safe in the trunk, especially if you are driving a rental) and keep valuables in a hidden money belt. Although Hawaii is generally considered relatively safe, it does have some violent crime. Consequently, women should not walk alone in unlit areas. Although Honolulu has one of the lowest violent crime rates of metro areas in the U.S., use your common sense. Stay smart and act as if you were in your own home city: lock doors, lock cars, and don’t leave valuables lying around. Some campgrounds now require a permit (this has the effect of moving homeless people away from tourist areas). Be sure to apply for a reserved area and have your permit even in free camping areas especially around Honolulu.

Any of the beaches are vulnerable to pickpockets and thieves who break into cars. If you are using a rental car, it is advised you buy a bumper sticker or two to make it seem like you are a local. Paradoxically, keeping the car windows open will prevent break-ins and car damage, as the locals will think there is nothing of worth in the car. As a rule of thumb, do not bring anything to the beach you do not plan on using. If you must bring money, bring a friend to keep it safe.

If you are planning a hike in the mountains, monitor local weather reports carefully and use extreme caution in case of rain. Rain is more likely in the mountains, and flash flooding can occur near stream beds with little or no warning. Unsuspecting hikers can drown and be swept downstream.

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