5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Hawaii

Rugged mountain peaks, tropical rainforests, uninhabited islands and volcanic activity make the Hawaiian archipelago an incredibly exciting place to explore. But, with such a diverse landscape and rich cultural traditions, here's what you need to know before you go.


Photo © Getty Images/Westend61

With over 9 million visitors per year, the Hawaiian Islands consistently rank as one of the top 10 places to visit in the United States. Recognized worldwide for prime surf conditions and warm weather year-round, Hawaii has rightfully earned its spot as must visit destination.

1. Sightseeing Safety in Hawaii

Don't rush your way to the top of Mauna Kea. Driving from sea level to 13,800ft (4,207m) altitude within two hours poses a high risk of altitude sickness. Stop half way at the Visitor Information Station (9,200ft/2,800m) to get an update on the weather conditions and adjust to the change in altitude before you continue any higher.

While driving around the Hawaiian Islands, don't be too distracted by humpback whales breaching in the ocean or the views along Crater Rim Drive as you near Kilauea Caldera. Keep your eyes on the road while in control of the vehicle. Roads in Hawaii are often built along steep ocean cliffs with tight bends, and narrow highways. Don't even try to take photos while driving the car, and never pull over to stop for a photo where it isn't safe. Find a safe place to park your car and enjoy the scenery safely.

By finding a safe place to park, you're also reducing the risk for other drivers on the road.

On the road to the north shore of Kauai. Photo credit: Getty Images/Brigitte Theriault

2. Social Etiquette in Hawaii

When visiting a local home, it's good manners to bring a gift for the host – this could be something simple, like dessert or food. It's also common to be asked to remove your shoes before entering a home.

Whether you're a beginner or pro surfer, stick to the universal code of surfing etiquette. Never drop in on someone else's wave, don't hog the waves, move out of the way of an incoming surfer if you're paddling out, only surf in locations that suit your skill level, and apologise if you accidentally get in the way.

As you should anywhere else in the world, respect the land and cultural heritage of the people while traveling across the archipelago. Hawaii's protected national parks are pristine thanks to the hard work of local environmental groups and dedicated residents. Keep it that way by disposing of all of your trash in a responsible way, especially after enjoying a day at the beach or at a local campground. 

3. Respect Sacred (Kapu) Sites in Hawaii

While traveling around the Hawaiian Islands, you'll come across signs near beaches, temples (heiau) or parks that say kapu. Kapu is a set of rules for everyday life, and the signs indicate spots that are sacred to Hawaiians. These sacred sites are often markers for important historical events, such as the birthplace of a member of Hawaiian royalty.

These places are strictly off limits for the general public. Be on your best behaviour and respect the local customs.

A sacred site in Hawaii. Photo credit: Getty Images/Phil Augustavo

4. Flash Flooding in Hawaii

Flash floods can happen without warning in lower lying, popular hangouts such as Maui's Eastern shoreline along the famed Road to Hana, even when it's not currently raining there. Flash flooding also occurs inland around waterfalls and hiking trails, so before you hit the trails always check the weather reports. Find out what to do if you become trapped while sightseeing.

5. Hawaiian Food is Delicious

Side-step the fast-food chains for these local dishes to get a real taste of Hawaii.

Traditional Hawaiian dishes originate from the Pacific Polynesian Islands, but the ethnic diversity across the Hawaiian archipelago has lead to unique flavors and styles of cooking for different dishes. Laulau is pork wrapped in taro leaves, cooked in an underground oven (imu) for hours until the smoky flavors are ready for tasting. Poi is a staple in Hawaii, made from taro root, either steamed or baked. Kalua pig is also cooked in an underground oven, and slow roasted to incredible tenderness, with a tangy barbecue sauce. Poke is a raw fish dish, served in bite-sized cubes. Try a poke bowl, which is a mix of sashimi and rice.

Want to know more about the USA? Listen to our podcast. Embracing the kitsch in America’s South, what are the bees up to in Brooklyn? The budget travel idea proving a hit, and exploring New York with the Bowery Boys.

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  • RT said

    What is very important while driving: the merge, one car from the left, one car from the right. NEVER try to be the 2nd car squeezing in. Total disrespect. It's also nice to give the shaka sign after someone lets you in.

  • Vicki Sterne said

    Our ocean can be quite dangerous, especially here on Kauai (12 drownings this year). Check the daily ocean report before choosing which beach to visit. You can ask your concierge or front desk, or download the free Kauai Beach Guide app endorsed by the Kauai Lifeguard Association.

    Flash flood watches and warnings are to be taken seriously when hiking the Na Pali coastline on the Kalalau trail. Hikers get stranded, and we have had several tourists die when attempting to cross the Hanakapiai stream during flooding. Hawaii is beautiful, but nature is powerful. Stay safe!

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