James and I were in Hawaii for 10 days with my parents from May 17 through May 26. We visited Oahu, Kauai and Maui for 3 days each, with an extra day in Maui. This entry is sort of an overview of the whole trip and my thoughts on Hawaii – particularly as it compares to other places that I have visited. Later on, I will post more details about exactly what we did on each of the islands (which will be more of a travelogue/journal entry for myself). I love going back through these posts and reading the details of what I did on various trips.
The trip overall was fantastic. We had a great time and everything went off very smoothly. Only James had ever been to Hawaii at all before, and I knew basically nothing of the geography of Hawaii other than that Honolulu was on the island of Oahu. We had put quite a lot of effort into researching what we wanted to do and see, and planning the logistics of our trip. We were very pleased that the execution went off without a hitch. I don’t think we could second-guess any of the decisions we made about which islands to visit and for how long, and in which areas of each island to stay. However, having visited and stayed there, I would probably choose slightly different locations to stay (for a variety of reasons).
Hawaii is amazingly gorgeous, inspiring and breathtaking. The Fodor’s Guide we used described some of the views along the Road to Hana (on Maui) as “jaw-dropping” and that is absolutely true. There are few photos you have seen that can do Hawaii justice. This is partly because only photos taken with ultra high-end cameras that have been massively processed can really capture the depth and richness of the colors that you see. It is also partly because no photo can really capture the totality of the beauty that surrounds you all at once. It really is a paradise.
On our second day, we took a trip east out of Honolulu and went around the east and north shores of Oahu. After we got past Hanauma Bay near Koko Head (I’m going to refer to these places as if anyone knows where they are, because they can be found on Google Maps) we stopped at a roadside overlook, where we could take a picture of Koko Head and the bay behind us. It was pretty, and we were having a fun time because we were setting off on our first exploration, having done Pearl Harbor earlier in the day. After the overlook view, we crested a hill and suddenly saw dramatic, sweeping views of the deep blue ocean and the craggy coastline. It was an amazing moment, I think, for all of us. James had not been to that side of Oahu previously, and none of us had ever seen anything like it. I think this was the moment that we each realized not only how gorgeous Hawaii truly is, but also that our dreams for what the trip could be like were coming true. The real Hawaii was revealing itself to us. I also remember that at that moment, I had goosebumps (really!). We were also listening to a local radio station, and at that moment this wonderful Hawaiian version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” began playing, and it really added to the moment. That, and sharing the moment with the people that you love.
The remainder of the trip would be followed by almost constantly gorgeous views of, not similar scenery but equally beautiful, yet changing and diverse views of beaches, ocean, mountain, jungles, valleys and waterfalls. There is so much beauty in one place (well, group of islands). In fact, there is so much beauty that your mind almost becomes saturated with taking it all in. In a way, you become numb to just how exquisite it is, because you are constantly viewing what could be the most beautiful things you have ever seen or will ever see. There are parts of the Caribbean, Australia and even the mainland U.S. that rival parts of Hawaii – however it is the concentration of diverse beauty that is what is so amazing. And I have never been to the Mediterranean Sea, and I imagine it could be as beautiful.
But, there are things that I don’t like about Hawaii, too. The main thing would be the tourists. As you might imagine, the place is crawling with tourists. I lived in Florida for a time, so I am probably better prepared than many to deal with being surrounded by tourists and being in an environment that caters to tourists. There are two things that amazed me about the “Tourist Situation” in Hawaii. The first is that, although Hawaii is very expensive – as one would expect, I was shocked at how easily people seemed to be to fork over money for things. This is especially true of the little retail “crap factory” shops that sell trinkets to take home. You know, the same trinkets you see in any tourist place. The same stuff that just has the name of the place printed on it somewhere, with a little local color like puka shell necklaces made in China thrown in, just for good measure. That junk was EXPENSIVE! It was also surprisingly challenging to find anything that was locally made or produced.
The other thing that surprised me a bit, which probably shouldn’t have, is the prevalence of and seeming preference for chain restaurants. This was especially true in Honolulu. Maybe it is the fact that there are so many foreign tourists who like to get a touch of Americana while in Honolulu, but there are the usual chain stores everywhere. I would have expected more local mom-n-pop type restaurants, but they were few and far between – with one significant exception: Eggs’n Things. This is a little mom-n-pop place that is famous for all the right reasons: it’s really good. You might think it is hard to get excited about breakfast, but wait ’til you try their Macadamia Nut Pancakes with coconut syrup. Or just plain ‘ol Coconut Pancakes with maple syrup. Yum!
Otherwise, mediocre chain restaurant food seems to be the order of the day. You will find plenty of the same obsequious chains there that you do anywhere else on the mainland. Especially Starbucks. Not that I dislike Starbucks, but one would have thought it easy to find a cute local place that brews really great Kona coffee. I was really frustrated our first night in Honolulu when we went walking through Waikiki looking for a place to eat with no real plan in mind. The best restaurant we passed up was Roy’s, which is a Hawaiian-style steak house, one of which is about 15 minutes south of my house on Preston Road in Plano. I refuse to fly 3,784 miles only to eat something I can get at home. One of the places that was most highly recommended by people I know who have been to Hawaii is a place called Duke’s. The atmosphere was fantastic (it’s right on Waikiki Beach – and you pay for the view). The food was not bad, but given how people rave about it and the long wait for a table, I expected much better. They also had strolling musicians playing Polynesian songs, which was a bit off-putting. This view seemed to be shared by every other table of diners save one near us, who bought into the whole bit and took pictures with them and said “mahalo” several times when they finished.
Another bad thing about Hawaii is the cost of…everything. Most staples have to come from the mainland, and most things that are locally produced (e.g. Kona coffee, macadamia nuts, pineapples, fresh fish, etc) are sold overseas as a rare commodity. Nothing is cheap. Nothing. Well, except perhaps coconuts. Milk was $7 to $8 a gallon. Beef is very expensive. Regular unleaded gasoline was $4 to $4.50 a gallon. Even the local fish is kind of expensive. All of our meals were very expensive. I should caution that I am not at all complaining about that. I anticipated the cost of the meals and budgeted for that. We are a pretty conservative family, so the meals ended up under budget. Unfortunately, I think it made most everyone in our party a bit uncomfortable to look at the prices, and most felt a bit constrained in ordering – especially drinks. We had very few cocktails. I was glad we had dessert, though. It also made selecting a restaurant difficult, because some seemed unwilling to go to restaurants that were clearly going to be expensive. We had a few “cheap” meals (Chinese one night) but for the most part, they weren’t enjoyable. For 4 people, lunch out is pretty much going to cost $100 and dinner $200. Just accept it and try to enjoy yourself.
On two occasions we bought some groceries and had breakfast and some lunches “in”. Since we were staying in homes, not hotels, this was easy to do. But because everything is so expensive there, including things like mayonnaise, mustard and bread, I’m not sure we saved much money by trying to be frugal there. Oh, that was another thing – the local brew, Kona was more expensive than imports like Corona and Red Stripe. What gives?
Hawaiians are famously friendly. That means native Hawaiians, not the 80% of the population that is made up of white Americans who have moved to Hawaii to make a buck off of the tourist trade. Eggs’n Things is staffed by native Hawaiians. A group of native Hawaiians in a pickup truck on their way to work at a construction site said hello to us as we walked along the street to see some waterfalls. They seemed genuinely and sincerely glad that we were there. Native Hawaiians understand what tourism represents to their economy. And, I think they are just innately friendly. The white Americans working at most of the other places we went are the typical neurotic, brash Americans you find anywhere in the mainland. Most are a bit more jaded than normal, however – from waiting on demanding tourists all day long. You will also run into a lot of white Americans living/working in Hawaii who will constantly use words like “aloha” and “mahalo”. Although there are exceptions to be sure, most of these people are insincere snake-oil salesmen.
Most things are geared for the tourists – especially on Oahu and Maui. Tour buses are everywhere. Most events come in packages, like luau/snorkel package or luau/pineapple plantation tour packages, or luau/kayak packages. I think the luau is mandatory and I’m not sure how we got away without having to endure one. Most places to stay are resorts (which are very expensive, of course). The resorts take up most of the best real estate in Hawaii – although the local government seems to have done a great job of preserving public access and plenty of open space and natural areas, too. There are a lot of private rental properties (condos, townhomes and private homes) and I highly recommend that anyone travelling in groups of 4 or more look into one of these options instead of a resort.
Waikiki Beach itself, I have to say, I liked very much. The crescent shaped cove with powdery beaches was really like being in a post card. Framed by a lagoon on one side and Diamond Head on the other, the area was filled with happy vacationers swimming, surfing, kayacking, body surfing and riding in outriggers. There wasn’t a lot of stress, worry or anything other than playfulness there. If you go to Honolulu, spend the extra money to stay in Waikiki and spend all your time (except a trip to Pearl Harbor if you haven’t been) on the beach. Then, leave Honolulu and get yourself to Kauai or Maui.
I generally dislike fish. It almost always tastes fishy. But, I learned on this trip that I like a type of fish called Wahoo, which is called Ono in Hawaii. I had it several times and it was yummy. Now we need to source fresh Wahoo locally. I’ll take mine with macamadamia nuts, please!
Many people want to know how I think Hawaii compares with places like the Caribbean and Key West. Key West remains my favorite place of anywhere I have ever been, Hawaii included. It is not prettier or nicer than Hawaii. I just prefer the overall experience in the Keys to Hawaii. Key West has its share of nasty tourists, snake-oil salesmen and phonies, too, but by and large these destinations attract different types of travelers. I simply feel more at home, more comfortable and more at ease in the Keys. I really like the fact that the water is much calmer in the Keys. Pleasant boating isn’t much of an option in Hawaii, because the ocean there tends to be rough. In fact, in many parts of the northern shores of the islands, you shouldn’t go swimming in the winter months because the sea is so rough. The Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanoes, which rise up from the ocean floor. The Keys are part of the Continental Shelf of North America and are kind of a high spot of a coral reef. There is more adventuring to be had offshore. Hawaii is almost floating in the deep Pacific. Although Hawaii has it’s own interesting history and culture, I’ve just never been that drawn to it. Key West has, to me, a more interesting history as sort of a pirate town, outlaw, outpost of American civilization.
I’m sure a lot of people will be disappointed by my conclusion, but that is the way it is for me. And it doesn’t mean I don’t want to return to Hawaii – I’m sure I will. I would love to plan another big trip with my friends. And I look forward to them telling me what they think of Hawaii over cold drinks on the beach one day.
There is one exception within Hawaii to the above conclusion, and that is the town of Hanalei and Hanalei Bay. This town is near the end of the main road going around the north end of the island of Kauai, about 20 miles before you get to the end of the road at the Na Pali Coast and Ha’ena State Park. Hanalei is very laid back. The state park and the Kalalau Trail attract serious hikers and eco-tourists. I find these adventurous souls to be more enjoyable people to be around than the LA-types with too much money who seem to pervade the rest of Hawaii. Hanalei is just a really nice place with a special vibe to it that you can’t really explain (a lot like Key West).