When you think of Hawaii, what comes to mind? A paradise with golden beaches and turquoise ocean water, hula dancers swaying as you sip a mai tai? Ok, this stereotypical “island paradise” definitely exists there, but I’m here to tell you it’s not what makes Hawaii an amazing place to visit. Hawaii is home to incredible biodiversity, rich culture, and a serious food scene. Those beaches are worth visiting, of course. There’s just so much more to experience.
First, some background: Hawaii is a chain of volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They were formed millions of years ago and settled by Polynesian seafarers 1000 or so years ago. Besides being excellent navigators, the ancient Hawaiians developed a sophisticated society and a unique system of agriculture that coexisted with the islands’ ecosystems. The first Europeans arrived in 1778, and the 19th century saw increasing outside influence on the islands. Eventually Hawaii was annexed by the United States, but that’s a complicated story for another time.
Let’s fast forward to the 20th century: Hawaii was the location of a U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, where an attack pulled the United States into World War II. The war and the years that followed brought rapid modernization to Hawaii. Statehood, the first jet airliners, and a steady stream of tourists from the mainland all transformed Hawaii’s economy forever. That’s when the image as a “welcoming paradise” for tourists really took off. Mai tais for everyone!
Unfortunately, this welcoming reputation has come at a cost to the locals over the years. The environment is under immense pressure, with forests reduced to a fraction of their original size and reefs decimated by pollution and overfishing. Tourism has driven up prices of housing and made it impossible for many middle- and low-income residents to afford it. Most recently, Hawaii saw a massive spike in COVID-19 cases when it re-opened to tourism in early 2021.
Some folks may say these are reasons you should not visit Hawaii, but I disagree. You should definitely visit, just go with the right attitude. Be open to learning what makes Hawai’i uniquely awesome and treat the islands with the respect of a guest in someone else’s home. (That’s what I tried to do!)
Hawaii is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Get out into nature and you’ll find everything from tropical rainforest to dry grassland, not to mention the underwater habitats like coral reefs. I was amazed by the animals and plants we saw in just a tiny part of the islands. When we went hiking in Kauai, we passed rows of colorful flowers and huge trees in the rainforest. There are several species of hibiscus native to Hawaii that grow basically everywhere, part of why Kauai is nicknamed the “garden island.”
Even better was venturing into the ocean. We got up close with wildlife near Kauai’s Na Pali Coast when a group of dolphins came and swam around our tour boat. It felt like a National Geographic moment watching the dolphins playing by the bow of the catamaran. (If you make it to Kauaii, a trip to the coast is a must-do.)
In Honolulu, we got to see green sea turtles and lots of fish just a short way from the busy beaches of Waikiki. It was like an aquarium back home, except we were swimming in their natural environment! Even in the most crowded of areas, we were never far from a world of natural beauty and someone eager to teach us about it.
I loved learning about Hawaiian culture and history, too. The Bishop Museum in Honolulu has a collection of artifacts that show what the ancient Hawaiians accomplished. One of my favorites was a traditional thatch building called a hale. I was surprised to learn that these “grass huts” were pretty great houses—comfortable and durable, despite being made completely of natural materials. (That means no nails!)
On Kauai, you can see part of the ingenious system of fish ponds created by ancient Hawaiians. They built stone pools by the ocean, luring fish in through a small gate and trapping them inside. Then they systematically harvested fish, leaving enough to sustain a breeding population. This system of aquaculture provided enough fish to feed whole communities.
Even a touristy luau can be a window into Hawaiian culture, if you pay attention. The famous hula dance is rooted in a tradition of storytelling, where the movements of the dancers help tell the story of the mele (chant/song). Luaus usually showcase traditions from other Polynesian islands too, like the daredevil fire knife dance from Samoa. Just remember that these traditions mean a lot to the cultures that have practiced them for many years.
Delicious food might not come to mind when you think of Hawaii, but it should. Surrounded by the ocean, the islands of course have incredible seafood. “Ahi” is the Hawaiian word for yellowfin or bigeye tuna, and you’ll find it everywhere. If you’ve never tried poke (“poh-kay”), well, you need to. It’s made of chunks of fresh ahi typically in a soy-based marinade. Make sure to try some of the other great local fish like ono and mahi-mahi.
Hawaii has amazing local produce too, like pineapples, bananas, and mangoes. You’ll see all sorts of fresh tropical fruits in the markets. Smoothie places are everywhere. I’m not normally that excited about smoothies, but Hawaii does tropical treats at a very high level.
Hawaii’s cultural melting pot means there’s great food from around the world. I loved exploring Honolulu’s Chinatown and finding excellent Chinese, Thai, Laotian, and Vietnamese food. If you’re into dessert, there’s shave ice, a treat that originated from the islands’ Japanese immigrants and is now a local staple. It’s a fluffy snow of fresh shaved ice topped with delicious fruit syrups and sometimes other goodies.
Skip the Beach?
So, should you skip the beach in Hawaii? Of course not, but I hope you won’t get stuck there. You don’t want to miss all the other things that make Hawaii special. Take a walk through the rainforest or search for the best local food. With a bit of curiosity for Hawaii and it’s people, you can get beyond the stereotyped paradise to find a place that’s even better.