Last updated: 11:30 AM ET, Thu November 10 2016

9 Things You Must Know Before Taking Your Hawaiian Vacation

Features & Advice Scott Laird November 10, 2016

9 Things You Must Know Before Taking Your Hawaiian Vacation

PHOTO:Queen’s Surf Beach, Waikiki. (Photo courtesy of Scott Laird)

The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most popular tourist spots in the world, and for good reason. Gorgeous beaches, fine weather, plenty of world class restaurants and cultural activities all conspire to make the “Islands of Aloha” one of the world’s most iconic vacation destinations.

However, there are a few things to remember when vacationing in the 50th State that can help smooth your journey and prevent the “ugly tourist” label from being applied.

Malama ka ‘aina o ke kai

This literally means “care for the land and the ocean” and it’s the number one rule for everybody sharing these islands. This means obeying signage, giving wildlife their space (you may be subject to fines if you don’t, but it’s also pono, or the right thing to do) putting rubbish in the correct place (the bins mostly say Mahalo which is commonly misunderstood to mean “Trash”—trash is ‘opala and Mahalo means “Thank You”). It’s also important to remember that all beaches are public property in Hawai‘i and the rules should be followed out of respect—smoking, drinking alcohol, and nude or topless sunbathing are illegal.

READ MORE: Koloa Rum Company: Paradise In A Glass

Remember the term “Hawaiian” is very specific

Most Americans of any race or ethnicity will identify themselves as “Californians” or “New Yorkers”. This practice does not extend to the Aloha State, where the term Hawaiian is used to describe only those with Native Hawaiian ancestry. Non-Native Hawaiian residents use the term kama‘aina (child of the land, one born and/or raised in the islands), local, or Hawai‘i resident. You also can’t tell if someone has Native Hawaiian ancestry by looking at them or by their name. If you simply must know, the most polite way to inquire is to ask “What is your heritage?” instead of asking “what kind of Asian” they are or “if they’re a ‘real’ Hawaiian."


Photo via Flickr/Bernard Spragg

It’s also important to understand that there’s not all cultural practices in Hawai‘i are Native Hawaiian. Many locals traditionally understand a flower (worn by a man or woman) above the left or right ear is indicative of one’s relationship status, but this tradition isn’t rooted in the practices of pre-contact Hawai‘i—it’s a modern introduction. Nevertheless, it’s still woven itself into the cultural zeitgeist of many local residents.

Call It “The Mainland”

Some Hawai‘i residents may jokingly refer to the contiguous 48 states as “America”, but call it that or “The States” as a visitor and you’ll quickly be reminded that Hawai‘i has been a state for more than a half-century.

Don’t expect perfection

Yes, Hawai‘i is paradise, but it’s not perfect. Everybody wants a table with a view, an upgrade to a better room, a late check out, and perfect sunsets every night. As wonderful as it is, Hawai‘i is a place on earth that’s populated by mortal visitor industry workers. This means sometimes you don’t get the table “up front” or there’s a long wait, the hotel is fully booked, or the restaurant has run out of the fresh catch. I’ve seen enough visitors so convinced that a completely perfect vacation is their right as a consumer, and they end up flying off the handle over seemingly trivial things. Frustration and disappointment happen in Hawai‘i just like they do everywhere else. Roll with it.

Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii

Photo via Flickr/Jeff Kubina

Leave the car horn alone, and leave your car unlocked

Driving with aloha is a tradition in Hawai‘i; that means letting motorists merge in traffic, showing gratitude with a wave of a “shaka” and never honking unless it’s a life-or-death situation. Unfortunately, rental car break-ins aren’t uncommon (rental cars are easily identified by the bar code stickers on their windows) so be sure to take valuables with you and leave your doors unlocked so your windows won’t get broken by treasure-hunting burglars.

Pidgin is fun to hear, but don’t try speaking it

Pidgin is a creole language that is the product of the multicultural makeup of plantation communities that grew out of several waves of arrivals of contracted workers from Japan, China, the Philippines, and Portugal in addition to Native Hawaiians. The language is a musically lilting mirepoix of linguistic features from each of these areas, and it can be tempting to try it out. Don’t. Unlike traveling abroad, when it’s a good idea to at least attempt speaking the local language, the same wisdom doesn’t fly in Hawai‘i. It would be akin to visiting the South and mocking everybody’s accent.

Liquid Avalanche

Photo via Flickr/Floyd Manzano

Yes, things are expensive

You won’t get much sympathy from Hawai‘i residents when you complain about the cost of milk and gasoline. Your cost irritations during your vacation could easily be a major budgeting problem for them in their day-to-day lives that they’ll continue to face long after you’ve gone back home, and to the luxury ignoring the tagline at the end of commercials that “prices may be higher in Alaska and Hawai‘i”.

READ MORE: How To Get Up Close To A Lava Flow in Hawaii

Don’t say you’d “sleep on the beach” if you could move here

That’s cute and everything, but accessibility to affordable housing and homelessness are real issues the state grapples with, so those types of remarks may not be as well-received as you’ve meant them to be. 

Watch your remarks about international visitors

Visitors are attracted to the beauty of Hawai‘i from all over the world, but the islands’ location in the central Pacific makes them easily accessible from much of Asia. Many Americans who haven’t had much contact with Asian visitors may find some of their vacation habits somewhat different from their own. Others may find it tempting to draw ironies between Japan’s involvement in Pearl Harbor and the subsequent popularity of the islands with Japanese visitors. Know that this is particularly insensitive, in the only U.S. state with an Asian plurality (where many residents are of Japanese descent), and one whose livelihood depends almost entirely on tourism, regardless of where its visitors originate.

Pearl Harbor Memorial

Photo via Flickr/Andrew Currie

The Takeaway: Hawai‘i is a unique place, with a rich, complicated history and complex sociopolitical factors that simmer unseen below the surface that most visitors never manage to penetrate. Knowing a few basic facts about local culture and values will go a long way on your first or subsequent visits to the Islands of Aloha.

Note: Some Hawaiian Language diacritical marks such as the kahiko (macron) have been omitted for web browser compatibility