With all the publicity Hawaii receives in TV and the movies you probably have a pretty good idea of what the islands are like even if you’ve never visited before. Beautiful weather, miles of beaches, and a welcoming spirit make Hawaii the destination of choice for over 10 million visitors every year. For those considering a trip for the first time the following article straightens out some popular misconceptions and outlines travel tips that will help you plan a vacation.
Oahu and Waikiki
Waikiki, a suburb of Honolulu, is the most popular tourist destination in Hawaii. Dozens of inexpensive hotels, the bright lights of a beautiful, active and modern city, and the allure of Waikiki Beach combine to form an intoxicating cocktail that many tourists can’t resist. Visit a travel agent and they’ll have a variety of inexpensive air and hotel packages to draw you to Waikiki.
But Oahu’s real beauty is found outside Honolulu. The scenic H3 freeway cuts through razor edged volcanic ridges and takes one from the west to east side of the island, revealing miles of beautiful beaches. You won’t find hotels or condos here, rather several nice residential towns like Kailua where President Obama and his family vacation over winter holidays. Oahu’s north shore is much less developed, and out in the “country” is where one finds a few of the most famous surf breaks in the world like the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay.
So although Waikiki wins the prize for being the most popular destination in Hawaii, it represents only a fraction of what Hawaii or even Oahu has to offer.
Based on the popularity of Waikiki Beach and the large number of visitors the islands receive every year one may expect all of Hawaii to be similarly crowded. Fortunately that’s not the case. Hawaii has dozens of great tourist beaches and on any island it’s possible to find one that’s virtually empty. This is especially true for Kauai’s north shore where you can count on many beaches being visited by only a handful of people on weekdays. Every Hawaiian Island including Oahu can accommodate those who want to get away from big tourist crowds.
Hawaii caters to everyone including those on a tight budget. The best vacation value can be found in vacation rentals which allow for the possibility of inexpensive home cooked meals. Even on Maui, sometimes referred to as the playground of the wealthy, you’ll find rentals on the beach for under $100/night at condo complexes. On Kauai the beach-side complex offers very comfortable accommodations starting at $150/night.
Car rental prices fluctuate depending on demand but rates of $30/day are common, with $20/day possible during low season. Given how much there is to see and explore renting a car is a must. Only Oahu has a good public transportation system but taking the bus can waste a lot of valuable holiday time.
Hawaii has strict zoning regulations and it’s illegal to offer vacation rentals in many areas without the proper permits. Since it’s hard for home owners to get the permits you typically can’t rent an apartment or home in any residential area you want, particularly areas that are less touristy.
Fortunately several resort areas offer a nice selection of rentals including homes, condos and cottages and some resorts have a mix of residents and vacationers, particularly on Kauai.
Hawaii probably has the best climate in the world. Winter time highs average about 78 degrees (25 Celsius), summer time highs around 86 (30 Celsius). Consistent winds prevent suffocating heat from ever taking hold. The ocean is always warm enough to swim in.
As wonderful as Hawaii’s weather is, from the perspective of a tourist who’s visiting for a week and expects the best, the weather can be frustrating. The same winds that make Hawaii one of the premier windsurfing destinations can also create unpleasant beach conditions, especially on east facing shores. Although the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii doesn’t see much rainfall, the topography of each island creates its own weather system, collecting and bunching up clouds. The result is a huge difference in weather in very short distances. For example, the wettest recorded spot on earth is on Kauai, but only 20 miles away it’s very dry, almost desert like.
The bottom line, residents of Hawaii are extremely lucky, but vacationers going for short trips need to plan winter vacations more carefully, selecting the driest region of an island to get the best possible weather.
Whatever you imagine Hawaii to contain in terms of scenery, you’re probably right. What other region of the world contains such a variety of landscapes stuffed into such a small land mass? Jungles, forests, canyons, jagged cliffs, meadows, deserts, baron fields of lava rock, red dirt, palm fringed beaches, snow capped mountains, volcanic craters, moonscapes, and waterfalls. No wonder so many movies are filmed in Hawaii.
To see the contrasting scenes you have to leave the comfort of your resort and do some driving. For example, flying into Maui you’re not going to see any evidence of lush tropical scenery. But drive the road to Hana on the south east coast and you’ll be treated to waterfalls and a million shades of green.
If you’ve seen anything on TV about Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island your impression of this area will be completely skewed. TV programs show a portion of the volcano up close at times when it’s spewing lava. Normally the volcano is simmering out of sight in a remote area of the park, and lava flow is below ground except where it enters the ocean.
Volcanoes National Park is an amazing area that should be visited. There are miles of hikes and interesting geology to explore. Just don’t go expecting to see lava. You may get lucky, but if you really want to see flowing lava you’ll need to take an air tour.
Traveling to Hawaii is probably the least stressful vacation you can take. You don’t have to worry about terrible weather, tropical diseases, crime, or contaminated food. Perhaps because there’s so little to worry about, some people start fixating on Shark attacks. There are sharks in Hawaii, but attacks are rarer than other beach destinations. Hawaii averages about 3 attacks per year making the odds of an attack more than 1 in a million. Instead of worrying about sharks, worry about dangerous ocean conditions. About 50 people drown every year in Hawaii.
Length of Stay
The islands of Hawaii are relatively small. Maui is 727 square miles, while Kauai and Oahu are less than 600. As such many people try to see several islands in one short trip. That’s a mistake because each island has so many attractions to explore, and although only separated by a half an hour plane ride, the reality of modern day airport travel means that jumping islands wastes a full day.
So although it’s technically possible to see all the islands in a couple weeks, the experience won’t be as deep or meaningful. The rule of thumb is to budget at least one week per island, if you’re a goal oriented sight seeing type. Feel free to spend several weeks on one island – you won’t regret it.
Unlike Mexico, the Caribbean or Florida, Hawaii doesn’t have a reputation as a party destination even during spring break. Most tourists are families, couples, and honeymooners. The time zone difference (PST – 3 hours, but no daylight savings) results in earlier bed times for most people including residents who sometimes have to sync up with mainland businesses. Lahaina on Maui does offer some after-hours entertainment but only Honolulu has any significant night life.
Hawaii has the most famous surf breaks in the world. Perhaps you’d like to see crazed surfers tackle Waimea Bay, the Banzai Pipeline, or Jaws. Or maybe you’re thinking of taking up surfing yourself, or at least, doing some righteous boogie boarding.
Before getting stoked about the surfing possibilities, there a few points to keep in mind. First, surf breaks are seasonal. The biggest breaks reach over 30ft in winter months, but struggle to top 2ft mid summer. And a number of beaches, especially on Maui, are situated such that they’re never really subject to any sizeable surf, even for boogie boarding. Finally, the best surf breaks are rarely suitable for novice surfers.
So if you’re considering a surfing or wave watching vacation you’ll want to research surf breaks and locations and time your trip. Kauai and Oahu have the best surf breaks for beginners although Maui does have several very mellow breaks. Spring is generally a good time for surfing with greater odds for nice sized waves that aren’t overwhelming.