For the traveler arriving by plane, Hawaii reveals itself in the green spires of the Koolau Mountains, the glimmering high-rises of Waikiki, the aqua intensity of the water, the fleets of white sails dotting the sea, and the network of crisscrossing freeways, pineapple plantations, and sugarcane fields.
But apart from the island’s beauty, a trip to Hawaii makes you aware of its remoteness—it waits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean like a crossroads as well as a cloister. This island group is the most isolated archipelago in the world, more than 2,000 mi from the closest major land mass. The Hawaiian Islands are at the northernmost reaches of Polynesia (meaning “many islands”), within an area referred to as the Polynesian Triangle; New Zealand and Easter Island form the triangle’s other points. Yet, while it is influenced by its distant Polynesian, Asian, and American neighbors, Hawaii remains very much its own destination. As a state, it often seems as exotic as a foreign land.
Visitors often arrive with the sort of dazed, uncertain look that comes from spending hours cooped up inside a jumbo jet. Gradually their quizzical expressions will change to ones of delight, as the scent of tropical flowers carried aloft cool trade winds surrounds them and refreshes their weary lungs and limbs. Within hours they’re blissed out: Paradise has enveloped their hearts, and they become determined to stay forever.
That is how many folks discover Hawaii: They come on vacation and then realize this is where they really want to live. Yet Hawaii’s true nature is much more far-reaching and complex than one’s first few deliciously seductive impressions. Relocating to the Islands is a big step—you must learn a whole new way of life.
People here operate on Hawaiian (or Island) time, which means that if you’re late for a party, an appointment, a meeting, a dinner, or any other social function, you just don’t worry about it. On Hawaiian time people take a much more laid-back approach to everything. This may be why residents here live longer than those in other states.
Living in Hawaii teaches respect for nature. You stay out of the water when the huge winter waves come up on the north shores. You don’t plan hiking trips in the valleys during rainy days when flash floods are possible. Windows get taped up before hurricanes as a precaution against strong, damaging winds. And when the sun starts to make its descent to the horizon, you stop what you’re doing to enjoy the splendor of a Hawaiian sunset: It’s a guaranteed spectacle almost every day of the year.
Hawaii is America’s most enticingly exotic and tropical state, with 132 islands and atolls stretching across some 1,600 mi of the South Seas. It is blessed with a uniform climate of predictably warm temperatures and cool trade winds; except for the occasional squalls of December, January, and February, the rains pass quickly. They say that clean de-ionized air comes all the way from the Arctic—with no pollutants to interrupt its path—and bathes these fragrant shores.
It’s hard to believe that such a gentle place sprang from tremendously violent beginnings; the Islands emerged from the ocean as a result of continual volcanic eruptions. For centuries Hawaii’s fiery heights scorched the clouds; then for centuries more, wind and water erosion—crashing surf, mighty sea winds, and powerful rivers—carved and chiseled the great mountains and lush valleys visible today.
Each year almost 7 million visitors arrive to experience the beauty of nature’s handiwork. While most head straight for Waikiki, many bypass Oahu altogether and make the Neighbor Islands (as the rest of Hawaii is called) their final destination. What they find on any island is a combination of the wild and the tame, the serene and the slick.
Sun worshipers can’t go wrong on Hawaii. On Oahu alone there are more than 50 mi of beaches. Papohaku Beach, on Molokai, measures a whopping 3 mi in length. The Big Island’s shores, a photographer’s delight, include black-sand beaches and an unusual green-olivine beach, created long ago when a cinder cone of the mineral collapsed into a bay.
Throughout Hawaii, nature lovers find countless delights to satisfy their senses. On an easy hike in the Tantalus hills above Waikiki, you pass by tropical plants with leaves 10 times the size of those of ordinary house plants. Birds with bright yellow wings and unusual names, such as oo, flit in the highlands of Kauai. Perhaps most miraculously of all, as you walk along the bleak, steaming floor of Kilauea Iki Crater on the Big Island, you can see new life growing up from cracks in the lava: ferns, grasses, and ohia trees with scarlet blossoms.
Hawaii’s lands have been generous to its people; millions of acres have produced abundant pineapple and sugarcane crops. Historically, products from these crops make up the Islands’ two most famous exports, but faced with global competition Hawaiian farmers have had to become more diversified. First came macadamia nut farms and coffee plantations, then orchid and anthurium nurseries, and now a diverse range of such fruits and vegetables as guava, mango, bananas, and sweet onions are grown. Kauai’s farmers grow baby vegetables for use in Hawaii’s upscale restaurants, which rely more and more on local produce for their unique cuisine. On the Big Island, dairies are making their own butter from the milk of local herds and creating a fresher, more flavorful product. And Maui is becoming well known for its Upcountry farms, which cultivate such fresh herbs as fennel, basil, and thyme.
This rich natural environment now needs special protection. The people of Hawaii are aware of their fragile surroundings, and they have joined forces in order to take care of it. In the forefront of this movement is the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, a group that manages lands on most every island. It oversees programs to ensure the protection of endangered birds as well as Pepeopae, Hawaii’s most ancient bog, and Molokai’s Moomomi Dunes, one of the few remaining coastal dune areas in Hawaii.
Local painters, potters, sculptors, weavers, photographers, and others respond to their tropical surroundings in innovative ways. With deft fingers and the flick of a wrist, craftspeople handily turn lau hala—the leaves of the hala or pandanus tree—into a basket, or plumeria blossoms into a fresh, fragrant lei. One group of artists thrives near a volcano’s edge on the Big Island. On Maui, world-famous poet W. S. Merwin finds inspiration in the wonder and majesty of his delicate Island home. On Oahu, photographer Kim Taylor Reece has spent much of his time capturing the elegance of the hula. These and many other Islanders share their vision of Hawaii in a heartfelt outpouring of creativity, acting as nature’s own voice.
Hawaii is one of the world’s great sports destinations. Sports are the Island’s number-one pastime. A veritable regatta takes to the sea each day, from snorkeling-cruise boats to ocean liners. People hit the tennis courts, the golf courses, the running routes, the bridle paths, and the bike trails. Most of the major hotels offer some sort of fitness opportunities, be they aerobics classes, nature walks, weight-lifting rooms, or guided hikes to nearby outdoor attractions.
The natural physical charms of the Islands allow for a variety of accommodations, from the countrified to the chic. You might find yourself on Kauai, staying at a bed-and-breakfast and hearing stories about the Garden Isle. Or you might wind up on the Big Island in a posh Kohala Coast hotel decorated with fishponds, waterfalls, tropical gardens, gondolas, and a multimillion-dollar collection of international art. Some development has emphasized a more luxurious, upscale, and cosmopolitan Hawaii, making backcountry options harder to track down.
But with the Islands’ cultural traditions paramount—and gaining importance—the old will never completely disappear. To this day the locals have a custom of blessing all things that are new by paying tribute to the past, with a dance, a chant, a lei, or even just a few words spoken by a minister. They respect the legends of their ancestors and honor the gods accordingly. Dancers return reverently to the huge hula pavilion on the north shore of Kauai, a site that is dedicated to Laka, the goddess of the dance. Hikers leave rocks wrapped in ti leaves to thank the gods for their smooth passage. On the Big Island those who visit the steaming Halemaumau pit toss in flowers and gifts to the volcano goddess, Pele, to appease her unpredictable wrath.
Many Island customs can be learned and enjoyed by guests. One, of course, is the widely familiar, traditional lei greeting. Centuries ago, garlands of leaves, nuts, or flowers were offered to the gods; today they are a customary gift for family or friends on special occasions. Lei greetings can also be arranged for incoming visitors. It is said that the idea of bestowing a kiss along with a lei dates from World War II, when during a show a female entertainer smooched a soldier after draping him with a flower lei. Then she justified it by saying, “It’s tradition in Hawaii.” It has been so ever since.
The past endures thanks to several concerned organizations that have been fighting to save the visible remnants of days gone by. For instance, a nonprofit group called the Historic Hawaii Foundation works to preserve the state’s unique, decades-old structures despite the new high-rises springing up around them.
The results are within plain view. In downtown Honolulu you can see the historic gem that is the Iolani Palace, dating from 1882. King Kalakaua commissioned this colonial-style building for his short but dynamic reign. The only official royal residence built on American soil, it has slowly but carefully been put back together inside and out, complete with many restored furnishings from its original days.
The Neighbor Islands offer further examples of architectural preservation. In Kona, on the Big Island, you can visit the charming Mokuaikaua Church, constructed in 1837 of coral and lava rock; on Kauai, one of the most popular visitor attractions is Kilohana, a gracious sugar plantation dating from 1835. Maui’s Wananalua Church in Hana was built in 1838 out of native lava rock, timber from local hills, and coral from the surrounding seas. Molokai has 19th-century churches built by the priest Father Damien. On Lanai, during construction of the Lodge at Koele in the late ’80s, the developers actually took time to relocate historic Kalokahi O Ka Malamalama Church and the former homes of two old cowboys in order to preserve them.
As crucial to the restoration and preservation of Hawaiiana is the upkeep of its heiau, or ancient outdoor temples. On the Big Island you can visit Mookini Heiau, the birthplace of King Kamehameha the Great and now a National Historic Landmark. Iliiliopae, as big as a football field and the largest outdoor shrine in the Islands, awaits you on Molokai. In Pupukea on Oahu is Puuomahuka, a “hill of escape” where Hawaiians still leave offerings, while on Lanai is another time-honored gathering place called Halulu Heiau, near the summer home of that great king.
Not the least of Hawaii’s treasures are its people, who are open, fun-loving, and welcoming. From earliest times the Islands have beckoned to races from around the globe, beginning back when Polynesian kings and queens ruled these lands. Along the way, both Russia and France tried to claim Hawaii as their own, as did Great Britain. Many modern residents are descended from people brought here to work on the Islands’ sugar and pineapple plantations. They came from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Samoa, Thailand, and Portugal, bringing with them their cultural traditions and turning Hawaii into a Pacific melting pot.
You can taste the local color in Hawaii’s foods, a wonderful stew of flavors from around the world. On any given night you can dine on Japanese sashimi, Indian curry, Hawaiian lomilomi salmon, or Chinese roast duck, not to mention French, German, Korean, American, Mexican, Thai, Italian, Moroccan, and Greek dishes.
There are, of course, tastes that are uniquely tropical, especially when it comes to fruit. Hawaii’s trademark bananas, papayas, and pineapple grow throughout the year, while the prized mangos, watermelons, and litchis appear only in the summer. Island seafood is equally splashy, with Pacific delicacies as exotic as their names: mahimahi (dolphin fish), opakapaka (pink snapper), ulua (crevalle), and ahi (yellowfin tuna), to name a few.
Hawaii has made a dent in the international dining scene, thanks to an influx of talented chefs from around the world and the delicious attractions of Hawaii Regional cuisine, which showcases fresh local products.
Hawaii’s ethnic mix is also evident on the cultural calendar, which is a wonderful hodgepodge of events that includes Japanese bon dances, Filipino festivals, Samoan shindigs, Chinese New Year celebrations, Scottish Highland flings, Greek galas, and the yearly Aloha Festivals.
Hawaiian customs still stand out in this cross-cultural mix. Highly cherished are the hula and chants, which have their roots in ancient Island history and have been handed down for centuries—in fact, the chants are the Islands’ history, preserved in oral rather than written form. Today chants and hula are practiced almost religiously; in fact, children can learn hula in school. Each year enthusiastic audiences turn out to greet performers at hula festivals on the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui.
Along with the swaying hips of the hula, the strumming sound of the ukulele has become innately associated with Hawaii. The ukulele (the name means “jumping flea”) was brought from Portugal by sugar-plantation workers. Today most every musical group that plays old-time Hawaiian songs includes a ukulele.
Hospitality is not a new feature of the Hawaiian lifestyle. Even in ancient times, community members who failed to welcome incoming guests were shunned by the rest of society. Since then it has been a revered Island custom that when people come to call, they are not treated like anonymous tourists but embraced as cherished guests or long-lost friends. In this very special way Hawaii becomes everyone’s home—each visitor is a new and welcome member of the family.
Hawaiians go out of their way to help one another. On the freeway, even during rush hour, drivers often smile and wave you into their lane of traffic when you signal. At your hotel, the bellman carries your bag as if it’s an honor, and your waitress seems genuinely excited that you’re about to taste your first mai tai. People in the tourist industry aren’t taught such friendliness, kindness, and goodwill; it’s in their nature.
Visitors to Hawaii find this friendly spirit as intoxicating as the fragrance of the air—a blend of plumeria, ginger, mock-orange blossoms, freshly clipped hedges, newly mowed lawns, and the salt air from the Pacific surf. This alluring essence can turn the most jaded traveler into a giddy aficionado of the Islands. Its name? The aloha spirit, of course!
Aloha spirit pervades each island so strongly that it is impossible to ignore. It makes people stay in Hawaii for much longer than they originally planned, and it’s also the best reason to pay a visit to the 50th state. Enjoy your trip, and remember that you are invited to stay as long as you like.