The islands of Hawai’i aren’t just famous, they’re infamous. Everyone with a T.V. feels familiar with it because there’s practically no show or movie that hasn’t featured Hawaii in some way.
I, for one, almost didn’t feel the need to go because I’ve been getting hit in the head with the Hawai’i stick for so long that it just feels… well, boring. Like there’s nothing beyond white beaches and hula dancing. Not that there’s anything wrong with soft sand and grass skirts, but, seriously. Is that it? Thanks, Hollywood.
I was pleasantly and surprised and sometimes confused about what the real Hawai’i actually has to offer.
After spending time on three of the major Hawaiian islands here’s my definitive list of the top 16 things to know before traveling to Hawai’i!
1. Bring Cash.
Many places don’t run internet through their stores or restaurants to accept credit cards. If you plan on traveling around to any less touristy areas you’ll want to keep plenty of cash on hand, just in case!
2. Uber is available, but not allowed everywhere.
There are strict laws in Hawai’i about how much incidental insurance cars for hire are supposed to have to drive passengers in certain places. We had to call a taxi to take us off the Kauai airport property, for instance, because Uber drivers are required to carry $400,000 of insurance to drive commercially on the premises. We hadn’t expected to spend $21 right away just to get out of the airport!
3. Chicken and roosters. Are. EVERYWHERE.
They are more common on some islands than others, but all islands have wild chickens and roosters. They are harmless, but you’ll have to keep watch for them when driving and expect to hear crowing at all hours of the day. Hello, Hei Hei! (Moana, in case that needed to be explained.)
4. One-lane bridges.
This really felt like island culture to me. There are plenty of one-lane bridges on smaller islands with a sign at both ends asking drivers to respectfully watch for oncoming traffic before entering, and to kindly allow 5-7 cars to pass before entering. And you know what? I think their system works.
5. Expect rain.
One thing everyone traveling to Hawaii for the first time needs to understand is that the islands are prone to serious and unexpected rainstorms. So bring a raincoat or umbrella (or check with your hotel in case they provide some) with you everywhere you go. But don’t worry, the rain won’t last all day!
Unless you’re there during the rainy season or in the rain forest areas. Then, yeah, it’ll rain all day.
6. Don’t expect to be showered in leis.
As stupid as it sounds this was a big let down for me!
Every. Single. Time. I saw people on T.V. go to Hawai’i they were shown being crowned with a lei as often as possible: getting off of a plane, checking in to their hotel… “Aloha! Welcome to Hawai’i! Here are some more flowers!” Well, you can be pampered with a lei at those times but YOU HAVE TO ARRANGE FOR IT IN ADVANCE. I don’t know how to contact them because we didn’t know we needed to, but we did see agencies at the airport or other touristy places that will send a greeter to meet you with a lei. Certain nice hotels may give you a lei upon arrival, but don’t expect it.
As sad as I was (especially considering we were there over Valentine’s Day) to not be showered in leis, I actually understand why they don’t. Specific flowers are stranded by hand for these leis, which can become an expensive process.
7. Every island has different weather.
So don’t bother checking your weather app for “Hawai’i” and expect to actually get that weather.
Not only does each island have it’s own weather pattern, different sides of each island have different weather. There is a “wet” side and a “dry” side to the islands, so check carefully for the exact cities you’ll be visiting when packing that rain jacket!
8. A meal is considered “Hawaiian” as long as it comes with rice and macaroni salad.
You’ll find true Hawaiian dishes like Loco Moco, Poke Bowls, Spam Musubi, etc., but even a deli sandwich or roast beef is considered “Hawaiian” as long as it’s served with a mound of white rice and macaroni salad.
We love eating local food when we travel, but 8/10 times when we searched for Hawaiian restaurants we got relatively normal food with rice and macaroni salad. Not a big deal. Just something to be aware of.
9. It’s not easy to find gas!
Outside of highly populated cities you’ll have a hard time finding gas. Many towns only have one gas station, and there may not be any on the highways that bisect islands. Do some research before taking a road trip to be adequately prepared.
10. Don’t expect good internet or cell service.
Just don’t. If you do get good internet, consider yourself lucky and try not to gloat: down the street there’s likely some poor guy not able to join his conference call.
There are obviously exceptions to this, especially for people staying in big cities. If you wander away from Waikiki though, don’t be surprised to be out of luck while on the road to a more authentic experience.
11. Meal portions are for Polynesian men.
Plan to share a meal, whenever possible! The portions are HUGE. If you’re still hungry after sharing a dish then go out for some malasadas (Portuguese donuts) afterwards.
12. Food trucks. They love food trucks!
We saw more food trucks in one place in Hawaii than we have anywhere else! Be grateful. Unless it’s raining.
13. Hawaii is a collection of many cultures, not just one.
It’s easy to assume that Hawaii is full of Japanese heritage, and it is, but that’s not the only one.
You’ll find lots of Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Tonga, Samoa, and other cultures represented in the food and people. If you are open to it, you can learn more about the world in this one place than you expected.
14. Don’t ask for Hawaiian pizza.
Just because you add pineapple to something doesn’t mean it’s part of Hawaiian culture. We heard from many different sources that pizza employees laugh at tourists who ask for Hawaiian pizza.
Be better than that.
15. It’s SHAVE Ice. Not shave’D’ ice.
You will want to eat this delicious, flaky, syrupy treat as often as possible, but if you ask for “shaved” ice you’ll get laughed at. In fact, many locals of the Big Island even call it Ice Shave!
Luckily this sweet treat is easy to replicate. Once home you’ll find yourself craving Hawaiian shave ice at all hours of the day, and it’s easy enough to find from portable street vendors in the summer months.
16. The coastline is not all white, sandy beaches.
You’ll definitely see some beautiful white beaches on the older islands (O’ahu, Maui) but others, like the Big Island, are too new to have developed much white sand.
Even on the old islands you’ll find a lot of coastline is made of rocky cliffs or black lava rock. It’s really beautiful and fun to play on, just don’t expect to lounge out unless you do some research.
I was frustrated at first to realize that Hawaii was different than I expected, but it didn’t take long for me to find the beautiful, adventurous side I was looking for.
Hawaii is an incredible place with lots to offer! It’s just best to be prepared with healthy expectations for the various places you may want to go.
Keep these things in mind and you’re sure to have a great trip to Hawaii with the best expectations!
The O’Briens sold everything in 2017 to travel the world full-time. They work online as digital nomads to fund their travels, and homeschool their son along the way. Follow them on Instagram and YouTube for a glimpse into what it’s like to travel full-time as a family!