What to Know Before You Visit the Hawaiian Islands


Freshly updated May 23, 2019!

It’s Travel Tip Tuesday! And Tropical Tuesday. I’ve been posting a lot about Maui lately, since that was our big anniversary trip this year, but I got to thinking that there are a lot of things to know before you visit any Hawaiian island. So, here is the quick run-down of things to know before you visit Hawaii–whichever island or islands you choose!


Hawaii has two official languages: English and native Hawaiian. English is widely spoken in all the islands, but the native Hawaiian language is so integrated, it’s useful to know a few words and understand a little about the language. Here are some quick facts and words to know:

Hawaiian Language and Useful Words
  • The native Hawaiian language consists of 12 letters (A, E, I, O, U; H, K, L, M, N, P, W)
  • Each letter in any Hawaiian word is pronounced; there are no silent letters
  • Each letter has only one sound; for details, check out this website
  • Each syllable contains only one or two letters; this can be helpful to remember when trying to pronounce Hawaiian words by breaking the word into smaller pieces
  • Aloha: “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “Love”
  • Haole: White person living in Hawaii; not typically derogatory, but can be so
  • Heiau: “Temple” or “Sacred Site”
  • Honu: Sea Turtle
  • Kane: Men (important for the restroom situation)
  • Kapu: “Danger,” “Sacred,” or “Keep Out”
  • Keiki: “Child” or “Children”
  • Mahalo: “Thank you”
  • Ohana: If you watched Lilo and Stitch, you know this means “family,” but it often goes beyond blood relatives as well
  • Pali: “Cliff”
  • Wahine: Women (important for the restroom situation)
Posing with my honey and a sweet “honu”!
Non-Hawaiian Words in Hawaii
  • Leeward: the side of the island that is sheltered from the wind
  • Windward: the side of the island that faces into the wind
  • Surf: Not surfing the sport. The “surf” is the water that breaks on the shoreline. If there is a “strong surf,” that means be careful out there
  • Tradewinds: also called “trades,” these are the winds that mostly come from the northeast of all the islands in the northern hemisphere (that’s Hawaii!)
  • Slippahs: “Flip flops”
  • The Big Island: The Big Island is the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, and its official name is “Hawai’i” or the “Island of Hawaii”… but that can be confusing, since all the islands are in the state of Hawai’i! So when you talk about “Hawai’i”, meaning the Island of Hawaii, go ahead and call it “the Big Island” so everyone is clear!
The beautiful Na’Pali Coast of Kauai

Getting Around

You will definitely want a car when visiting any of the islands, but possibly not every day. There is very little in the way of public transportation on any of the islands, though there’s a little bit in a couple of the larger towns like Honolulu and Waikiki, but having access to your own vehicle will be essential if you want to see much of the islands.

  • Four-wheel drive is recommended, but not essential in most areas. We needed it on the Big Island, wish we’d had it on Kauai, and we got by just fine without it on O’ahu and Maui.
  • There are some areas on Maui where you are not allowed to drive a rental car without fully compromising your rental agreement. Know the terms of your agreement before you leave the car rental company! Read more in my Guide to Rental Cars!
  • Save some money: If your hotel is within walking distance of an airport or a car rental location, consider renting a car only on the days you need one, and return it at night instead of paying to park it at your hotel. We have done this in Waikiki (on O’ahu) and in Lihue (on Kauai); parking was included at the Sheraton in Kona and Hilton Garden Inn in Hilo (on the Big Island); parking was also included in our vacation rentals in Hana and Kihei (on Maui). For more money saving strategies, check out my Saving & Money Page!
  • Uber is available on most of the inhabited islands.
Red Sand Beach, Mau’i

General Information

The Islands
  • There are six inhabited main islands in Hawaii, and most of the population lives on the big four: O’ahu, Mau’i, Kaua’i, and the Big Island.
  • The least populated islands are Moloka’i and Lana’i, both visible from Mau’i.
  • All the other Hawaiian islands can fit inside the perimeter of the Big Island… twice!
  • Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe are generally off-limits to visitors. Ni’ihau is privately owned, but there are two exclusive tours you can take. (Find out more here!) Kaho’olawe was used for target practice during World War II, and there are still unexploded bombs on the island. You can volunteer to help clear the bombs and reforest the island, but the waiting list is years long!
  • All the Hawaiian Islands are on Hawaii Standard Time (HST), and none of the islands observes daylight saving time.
Morning Views from Kehei, Maui
The Water
  • Respect the water. People come to Hawaii from all over and want to get in the ocean from the world-class beaches. But they sometimes disregard dangerous rip currents, sharks, and the fact that swimming in the ocean is far different than swimming in a pool. Please exercise caution, and if a lifeguard starts yelling instructions, please follow them.
  • Wear water shoes! This is very important. The coral, lava rock, and rough sand can cut your feet, as my husband knows from getting a deep gash in his foot because he didn’t want to wear his water shoes. Don’t go out there in bare feet!
  • Use Reef Safe sunscreen. While we were on Mau’i in 2018, Hawaii was in the process of passing a state law banning two key chemical ingredients in regular sunscreens. This is due to severe damage to Hawaii’s coral reefs. Stores in Hawaii will be selling reef safe sunscreen, but you can also get some to take with you on your vacation.
Respect the Water
Utilize Your Jet Lag
  • Schedule early-morning activities toward the beginning of your trip: sunrise lava boat tour on the Big Island; get a head-start on road trips, including the famous Road to Hana; take a sunrise walk on the beach or drive up to the Haleakala crater for a sunrise at the summit on Maui.
  • Schedule night time activities toward the end of your trip: luaus on any island; special dinners out; long walks on the beach under the stars; star gazing on the Big Island; dinner cruises.
  • Read more about utilizing jet lag in Jet Lag: Your Secret Travel Weapon!
Make jet lag your best friend!
  • The fruit is sweeter and more delicious than on the mainland.
  • You cannot bring produce to Hawaii. You may not take produce out of Hawaii either, not even the cut fruit you may purchase inside security at the airport!
Can’t even take fruits on the plane!

What to Pack

Pack your bathing suit! But don’t forget a few other things, too. You’ll be glad you remembered these things. Click any of the photos below to get yours! All the below items are affiliate links with Amazon. Just click the photo to get yours!

Dry Bag

I was amazed at how much I used my 10 L dry bag on our first island trip with it! It floats in water, keeps the sand out of your stuff, and because it can go in the water with you, you never have to worry about leaving your valuables on the beach while you enjoy the water—you can bring it in with you. This one comes in two sizes and 12 colors!

My favorite Dry Bag!
Water Shoes

The Hawaiian islands are all volcanic, and that means sharp volcanic rocks on the beaches more often than not. Between the lava rock, regular rocks, large grains of sand (not the powdery stuff you find on some other beaches in the world), and the coral that often washes up, you will be so grateful for some waterproof foot protection!

For Ladies

For Gentlemen


Coral reefs all around the world are damaged by regular sunscreen. If you plan to go snorkeling or spend much time at all in the water, please consider taking Reef Safe sunscreen with you! This set from Coola includes protective, reef safe lip balm, spray sunscreen, after sun lotion (because we all miss a spot!), and specially formulated facial sunscreen!

Insect Repellent

Hawaii does not have malaria problems, but some islands have had cases of dengue fever, and really, who likes to be swatting at bugs during a beautiful hike in the jungle? No one! This is the best bug repellent I’ve found, and it was recommended to me by a travel vaccination nurse. Just remember to apply sunscreen first, wait 15 minutes for the sunscreen to fully soak in, and apply just a little of this to your ankles, backs of your knees, wrists, and the back of your neck.

Refillable Water Bottles

No matter what, always start your day with a full bottle of water, and plan to refill it throughout the day as needed. If you’ll be hiking, swimming, or just sunning on the beach, take two full bottles of water with you! This collapsible version is perfect for travel because it takes up far less space than a traditional water bottle when it’s empty!

Quick-dry Towels

You might be surprised at how handy this towel will be to have with you on the islands. It’s a beach towel, of course, but it’s also a great seat cover for that rental car after a messy hike, and a bath towel in a pinch when that vacation rental you thought provided linens, doesn’t!

Faux Wedding Jewelry

Why shouldn’t you wear your wedding jewelry on your trip for your honeymoon, anniversary, baby moon, or other romantic getaway? Well, you can, but that increases your chance of losing them! My sweet husband lost his wedding ring either in a calm bay on a resort property on Kaua’i, just two days before our second anniversary. Whoops! He was afraid to tell me, but I wasn’t mad or upset. Rings can be replaced. But trust me, it’s better (and way cheaper!) to have a faux ring for travels! I love my silicon ring that I wear on vacation and at the gym. I never worry about it because it was so inexpensive!

For Women
They come in tons of designs and colors!
For Men
Men’s rings can be as plan or as colorful as you like!
Reusable Bags

Hawaii has banned all plastic bags, so bring your own reusable bags! You will need them for shopping, buying groceries, visiting farmers’ markets, and for take-out, so stuff a few in your luggage before you go. They’ll be useful, and they take up so little space!

The ultimate in packability—bags that fold up into themselves!

Which Island is Right for You?

Each Hawaiian island is beautiful and even magical in its own ways, but they are all worth visiting! We recommend spending at least four days on any island, and only island hop if you have at least eight days to spend. Hawaii has this uncanny ability to slow down its visitors and help them see how relaxing and enjoyable life can be. You’re on island time here, so use it to your advantage. To help you decide which island or islands to visit, here is a quick synopsis of each island we’ve visited so far, and their highlights! All the islands offer world-class hiking, surfing, and truly friendly people.


Diamond Head Overlooking Waikiki
What’s It Like?

O’ahu is the island for history buffs, icon seekers, those who want island life without giving up city life, and those who want an intro to Hawaii before exploring further. This is the most visited and the most populated island. I recommend O’ahu for first time Hawaii visitors!

  • Pearl Harbor
  • Waikiki Beach
  • Diamond Head
  • I’olani Palace
  • The original Duke’s
  • The Statue of Duke Kahanamoku
  • North Shore to get away from the city life in Honolulu and Waikiki

Also check out: What to Know Before You Visit O’ahu


Fantasy Island Falls
What’s It Like?

Kauai is for those who want peace and beauty, and who don’t want to miss out on the most gorgeous hikes in the world (in my opinion, of course). It’s called the Garden Isle because it’s always lush–this is the Hawaii you think of when you think of Hawaii, my readers.

  • The Na’Pali Coast, accessible by plane, helicopter, boat tour, or 11-mile hike (one-way); our small airplane tour remains one of our most favorite travel memories
  • Kauai Coffee Plantation–it’s the largest in the United States!
  • Unparalleled natural beauty
  • Waimea Canyon

Also check out: What to Know Before You Visit Kauai

Hawai’i Island (The Big Island)

King Kamehameha I
What’s It Like?

The Big Island is for the active traveler or adventure seeker! With hikes to colorful beaches and such contrasting landscapes, you’ll find a little bit of everything. It’s the largest but one of the least populated islands, and personally I think it’s the most underrated Hawaiian island. Where else in the world can you hike in lava fields, play in the snow, and round out your day at a luau overlooking an ancient Hawaiian heiau (temple)?

  • Active volcanoes
  • Green Sand Beach
  • Historic native Hawaiian sites
  • Star-gazing
  • Snow
  • Lava Boat Tours

Also check out: What I Wish I Knew: Hawaii’s Big Island


Enchanting Bamboo Forest
What’s It Like?

Mau’i is nicknamed “The Valley Isle,” and when you arrive, you’ll see why! Both West Maui and East Maui are mountainous due to the volcanoes that created the island, and they are connected by a valley isthmus in between. It’s lush, green, and perfectly Hawaiian. Its world-renown beaches are consistently voted some of the best in the world, and in the winter, you’re sure to see whales from shore.

  • Driving the Road to Hana
  • Snorkeling Molokini Crater
  • Helicopter Tours
  • Iwo Valley State Monument Park
  • Dining for a special occasion at Mama’s Fish House

Also check out: What to Know Before You Visit Maui


Towering Molokai Sea Cliffs
What’s It Like?

Called the “Friendly Island” and “Most Hawaiian Island,” Molokai is the most untouched and second least populated of the islands. It’s notorious for being a leper colony from 1866-1969, and today you can visit the Kalaupapa Peninsula to learn more about this and the patients who have chosen to remain there. We loved everything about Molokai—the food, the slower pace, and the incredible beauty! For all the most interesting information, take a look at Fascinating Facts about Molokai, Hawaii!

  • Kalaupapa Trail and National Historic Park
  • The tallest sea cliffs in the world (larger than Kaua’i’s Na’Pali Coast!)
  • The longest fringing reef in the United States
  • The largest white sand beach in the Hawaiian islands (Papohaku Beach)
  • Lei Making at the Molokai Plumeria Farm

Also check out: What to Know Before You Visit Molokai


Lana’i in the distance, seen from Lahaina, Maui
What’s It Like?

The most exclusive of the Hawaiian islands, Lana’i is called the “Pineapple Island.” It’s the least populated island, and 97% of the island is owned by a private citizen; the other 3% is owned by the state of Hawaii and privately owned homes. It is accessible by plane, helicopter, and ferry from Lahaina, Mau’i.

  • Shipwreck Beach
  • Garden of the Gods historic site
  • Hulopoe Beach
  • Lanai Cultural and Heritage Center

Recommended Reading and Watching

I love reading books about and set in any place I’m visiting, and I love watching movies and TV shows set in the places I’ll be visiting! Here are some of my favorite books and movies inspired by Hawaii. Click any of the photos below to get your own copy!

Waterman by David Davis

This biography of Duke Kahanamoku, Olympian and father of modern surfing, was a great read to help me understand Hawaii from a native person’s perspective and life journey. Especially when visiting O’ahu, you will see Duke references here and there. Learn about the man behind the myth!

Honolulu by Alan Brennert

This novel follows a Korean immigrant bride through a hopeful journey to marry a field worker in Hawaii, to the hard life and disappointing reality of that, to finding her way in the city, despite discrimination and against the odds in early 20th century Honolulu.

The Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn

This was a great fictional account of the real facts of Hawaii’s shift from sovereign nation to U.S. territory. It’s something I really didn’t learn in school, and since I’d never been to Hawaii before I read this book, I didn’t know anything about its history. This book was very helpful in giving me the information I needed to appreciate Hawaii in a unique way!

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

This was an eye-opening book to me. I actually didn’t know about the leper colony on Molokai until a friend told me about this book, and it was an excellent read. It follows a fictional character from the age of seven, when she was taken to Molokai after leprous sores were found on her body at school, up through adulthood. She lived at an interesting time, in interesting circumstances, and though her story is fictional, the author did a beautiful job of weaving this story into the facts.

Hawaii Revealed Series of Guide Books

These are by far the best Hawaii guide books!

These are the best! They tell you the best things to do and places to go and in a very helpful way for first timers and old Hawaii pros alike. They also have an app now!

South Pacific

I love this movie! Whether or not you like musicals, you should give this movie a try. It was filmed on Hawaii (even though Hawaii is actually in the north Pacific), so look for the beautiful places you’ll be seeing on your own trip!

From Here to Eternity

Also filmed in Hawaii and also a classic movie about World War II, this is an iconic film that will help you get excited for your trip!

Pearl Harbor

We all know about Pearl Harbor and the way it brought the United States into World War II. If O’ahu is on your list of places to visit, Pearl Harbor will probably be a part of that.

50 First Dates

I’m not an Adam Sandler fan, but this movie was so sweet! People say O’ahu is just a big city and it’s not worth visiting (people actually said that to me before my own trip to O’ahu!), but the scenery in this movie will change your mind. It’s also a great example of how people living in Hawaii look out for each other.

Jurassic Park

Full disclosure: this movie gave me nightmares. But it was filmed on Kauai and has some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. If you’re headed to Kauai, this movie will show you the Na’Pali coast before the island was obliterated in tropical storm Iniki. (It has since grown back to its beautiful self.)

Want more? Check out all my Hawaii Movie Moment blog posts from the Year of Movie Moments!

I hope this posts helped you figure out which island or islands to visit, and that it helped you feel prepared for your own trips! Still have questions? Comment below! And don’t forget to check out my Pacific Islands Page!

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4 thoughts on “What to Know Before You Visit the Hawaiian Islands

  1. Great advice — I’m local (Molokai’i and Oahu), and you’ve done a great job here! One more piece of advice — when sightseeing, stay away from the edges of cliffs and such. The volcanic ground here can quickly give way, and many people, even local but especially tourists, have perished. It also may rain — a lot! :)) Dawn

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