1. Don’t Forget Sunscreen (The Right Sunscreen, Too)
There are a couple reasons this is top of my list. Hawaii is closer to the equator than you probably realize, so it has a stronger UV index that you’re likely expecting. Hawaii’s trade winds have a cooling effect and allow for a fairly temperate climate, but that doesn’t mean the sun is any less ferocious. In fact, that temperate climate often leads tourists to underestimate their sun exposure while in Hawaii. No one wants to start their trip with a sunburn, and even if you tan marvelously, sunscreen is such an important part of skincare.
More important, though, is making sure you’re bringing the right kind of sunscreen with you to Hawaii. Yes, you want a high SPF, but you also want to ensure your sunscreen doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.
As of January 1, 2021, a bill went into effect in Hawaii that bans the sale, offer of sale, and distribution of any sunscreen, excluding facial cosmetics, that contains oxybenzone or octinoxate, without a prescription. These are active ingredients in approximately 80% of sunscreen, so it’s important you are mindful of what sunscreen you’re bringing into Hawaii.
Why the ban? Studies are showing that these ingredients are also basically like kryptonite to coral reef and are damaging the reef or potentially even killing it all together. With sunscreen leading to the destruction of our wildlife and marine life in the oceans, it’s so important to make sure we’re bringing eco-friendly sunscreen to Hawaii.
2. Don’t Only Eat At Chains
Seriously, we all know I’m a foodie so you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m here singing the song of “EAT LOCAL”. I mean, in general, I just believe in eating local. Food culture is such an amazing way to try to connect to a new place you’re visiting. There are so many delicious and unique dishes to try while visiting Hawaii, so definitely give it all a chance (presuming you don’t have any sort of food allergies, etc, of course).
Also, definitely check out farmer’s markets that are local to you, because the fresh food is worth the trip. Not only will you find a rainbow of fresh fruit and veggies, but also local coffee, macadamia nuts, jams, baked goods, and even handmade goodies that make wonderful souvenirs. You can also find pop-up stands offering local dishes.
My favorite thing to do is find an older restaurant that locals go to regularly, pop-up stands, food trucks, local bakeries. I want to see locals enjoying a meal because that means with all the delicious options around, this one is totally worth the time (and potentially the tourist crowd).
Some of my favorite foods include malasadas, shave ice, garlic shrimp, kalbi, and loco moco.
Also, while I mentioned not eating at chains, I do have to call out McDonald’s. The consistency of McDonald’s menus across the U.S. make it a super popular stop for folks, but Hawaii has some special menu items that are unique to Hawaii. Their local breakfast platters have Portuguese sausage, SPAM, and rice with eggs. They also have saimin, which is similar to ramen. My favorite, though, is the haupia pies. Very delicious.
3. Don’t Get Too Close to Wildlife
This one is simple. Be mindful that there are laws protecting wildlife in Hawaii. Endangered, threatened and indigenous species, including humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, the yellow-bellied sea snake, and all species of turtles are protected by Hawaiian law.
You’ll often see the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles roped off on the beach to try to protect them. You can totally take photos and appreciate them, but do it from a distance. Stay at least 50 feet away, on land and on water, just to be safe. Remember, there are laws protecting these animals, and touching, harassing or worse is a felony.
In general, just be mindful of warning signs. They will be everywhere. If there is a sign telling you not to get close to the animals, just don’t do it. Is there a sign saying “Strong Current”? Believe there is a legitimately strong current. If a trail is closed, a trail is closed. Period.
4. Don’t Be A Less Than Courteous Driver
First thing’s first. Island time is real. That lends itself to driving styles in Hawaii, too. People will routinely drive under the speed limit on the islands. While the speed limit might be 45 mph, you’ll often find people going 30 or 35 mph instead. Speeding is a quick way to stand out as a tourist and also hear some words from the locals.
Merging etiquette is the standard in Hawaii so anticipate it. This isn’t being pushy or rude, it’s just the normal way of driving on the islands. Everyone makes space for merging drivers so definitely do the same. You’ll even see folks on highways stop to let cars on smaller streets merge. Seriously, so kind but if you’re used to a faster pass or a more cutthroat style of driving, it might be jarring.
Also, don’t honk your horn unless it’s an emergency. Honking your horn otherwise is considered rude. And also against state law.
Final comment is to make sure you are being mindful of all “kapu” signals and signs you see in Hawaii. Anything notating that you shouldn’t enter, trespass, etc. Traditional kapu signs aren’t as super common, but you may occasionally see two sticks crossed like an “x” with two balls shapes on the top of each stick.
5. Don’t Bring Shells, Sand, Lava Rocks, Coral Home
This is what we call a rookie mistake and you’ll want to avoid it for a few reasons:
- If everyone did it, and I’m talking about the millions and millions of visitors to Hawaii, you’d deplete this beautiful and limited natural resource.
- It’s illegal to take anything from a national park, so going to Hawaii Volcano National Park and grabbing some lava rocks is 100% against the law. It’s also illegal to take sand from Hawaii and can be met with a $100,000 fine.
- It may or may not be associated with a curse. Real talk, Pele’s Curse was likely made up by rightfully upset park rangers who wanted to keep tourists from stealing lava rocks. Whether you believe in it or not, every year thousands of pounds of rocks and sands are mailed back to Hawaii every year because people believe they need to either because they feel bad for breaking the law, somehow were ignorant of the law, or are trying to break the curse.
If you need to mail back some illegally taken items, here are some addresses that might work for you:
Sand taken from Hawaii state beaches can be sent to:
Division of State Parks
P.O. Box 621
Honolulu, HI 96809
Lava rocks picked up on the islands of Maui, Lanai or Molokai can be returned to:
Haleakala National Park (island of Maui)
P.O. Box 369
Makawao, HI 96768-0369
Lava rocks picked up on the Big Island of Hawai’i can be returned to:
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
P.O. Box 52
Hawai’i National Park, HI 96718-0052
Rocks picked up on the island of Kauai can be returned to:
Kokee Natural History Museum
P.O. Box 100
Kekaha, HI 96752
6. Don’t Overplan Your Days
As I mentioned earlier, Island Time is real. Getting places on the islands will take longer than you expect. And that’s not just getting around one island, but also getting between the islands.
When planning your travel around the island, keep in mind that you’ll rarely see locals going the speed limit. Also, service at restaurants and stores is generally a bit slower that you will likely expect. Adding too much to your day will end up with you super stressed out. You need to be mindful that things also close earlier on Island Time. Things will be open until typically 7pm or 8pm at the latest.
All the islands are different and timing will be unique depending on the island you’re visiting. For instance, Big Island can take over six hours to drive around the perimeter. Some bloggers will say 4 hours, but having done it, I find it difficult to believe even in the perfect circumstances that you can do that drive in so little time. Or what about Oahu, the most populated island? Traffic will always be worse there which means things will naturally take longer.
While the islands all feel close together, planning island hopping day trips will end up in a stressful day. Truthfully, the islands aren’t super accessible to one another. It can feel like you’re so close yet so far. Unfortunately, you can’t really ferry or boat between the islands so your best option is flying. And let me tell you, the planes are on island time, too.
I’d also recommend not planning on visiting too many islands during your trip unless you really have ample time to do so. When I see folks trying to visit 4 islands during a 6 day trip, my heart sinks. You’ll spend so much time at airports and just not enough time truly enjoying the uniqueness of each island.
7. Don’t Forget About Renting a Car
I grew up in a city with ample public transportation, so owning a car or even renting a car while visiting just wasn’t needed. Please listen to me when I say that Hawaii is not a place where you try to save money by forgetting about a rental car. Especially on more rural islands, like Kauai. Public transportation just isn’t accessible on the islands, and what is available isn’t as tourist friendly as some cities, states, countries. Renting a car ensures you can explore what these amazing islands have to offer with a little more control (but again, island time is a thing).
Also, while Waikiki is an Uber and taxi haven, places like Kauai just aren’t. Speaking of Waikiki, that’s really one of the only cities where you can likely shuttle or hotel pickup your way around town if you really aren’t planning to see much further away on the island. But what’s the fun in that?
Finally, rental cars can be very limited on these islands, so be sure to keep checking on your rental to make sure it’s still available for you. Especially the specific model-type you are expecting.
(And a quick note: Hawaii isn’t crime free. Don’t leave valuables in your rental cars, folks. Should be obvious, but it’s just smart to put that out there.)
8. Don’t Assume What the Weather Will Be
Hawaii is known for beautiful weather. It can lull you into a false sense of thinking you only need to pack shorts and tank tops and sandals. And listen, I’m all about fashion being a personal thing so you dress how you want to dress. Just make sure you really take into account the activities you’re doing.
Take inventory of what activities you’re planning and then confirm their recommended dress codes. For instance, a luau might mean a slightly nicer fit. Hiking means a better shoe.
Also, keep in mind that while the daytime temperatures are nice and temperate, the nighttime can get a little chilly. Don’t forget a light jacket and even some leggings just in case.
9. Don’t Expect Late Nights
In general, things close a lot earlier than you’d likely expect. Obviously, places like Waikiki will have a more bustling nightlife than smaller or more rural areas, like basically the entire island of Kauai.
There are a few reasons for this. A lot of the lifestyle on the islands include earlier starts to your day. Boat tours, watching sunrises, preparing for long drives. Additionally, electricity costs are super high in Hawaii, which definitely accounts for being more conservative about usage.
If you’re looking for late nights, resorts will likely be your best bet. Otherwise, enjoy waking up with the beautiful sunshine, plan more of your itinerary in the morning and early afternoon and then just enjoy a relaxing evening.
10. Don’t Assume All Islands Are The Same
There is a common misconception that all the islands are super small and equally accessible and honestly, that’s just not true. Hawaii is made up of multiple islands of varying sizes with varying road accessibility. Each island is unique and will offer you very different travel experiences.
- Hawaii “The Big Island”: largest Hawaiian island featuring the only active volcano.
- Kauai “The Garden Isle”: oldest and northernmost island that is covered in emerald valleys, dramatic waterfalls, sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs showing the islands age.
- Lanai “The Pineapple Isle”: off the coast of Maui, it is the smallest publicly inhabited island in the chain.
- Maui “The Valley Isle”: beloved island known for the Road to Hana, beautiful beaches, and humpback whales.
- Molokai “The Enlightening Isle”: the most remote of the islands and home to a majority Native population.
- Oahu “The Gathering Place”: home to Honolulu, as well as the majority of Hawaii’s population.