OK – let’s get to it: Yes I live in Hawaii – no I’m not crowing about it – I promise. I’ve been asked soooooo many times, however:
“Hey what’s fun and cool to do over there? Where should we go? Any local tips?
And yes – I have plenty!
I used to have an email that I wrote for a friend long, long ago that I would copy/paste every time someone pinged me. I’ve been told countless times to “put it on the blog” so here it is – a useful and practical guide to the best possible Hawaiian vacation you could have (IMHO).
Hopefully I’ve caught you before you started to “plan”. It’s what people like to do – especially those with kids (as I suspect you probably have some). It’s good to plan, but I’ll tell you right now that unless you’ve been here every year for the last 5 years – you’re overplanning . This place is just about as low-maintenance as you can get and people freak themselves out about “what’s to do?”. The answer: nothing – it’s perfect.
More on planning in general below – but know this: if you don’t plan anything, you’ll have a better trip.
This idea pervades this post so I want to start with it up front so I don’t surprise you. The reasons why are simple:
- The “touristy stuff” types know you planners are out there, so they’ve blitzed the SEO to get you to commit to their packages before you arrive. Likely you’ve investigated the place and you have plan – do me a favor and toss it. There’s a 90% chance you’ve been sucked into a tourist trap.
- Hawaii moves on its own pace. Fight it and you’re swimming up stream – best to let the trades take you where they do. The term “Hawaiian Time” is very real here – you absolutely cannot be in a hurry or you in for a world of pain.
- There are savvy people here who want your money. They aren’t crooks, but often you’ll sign up for something like “authentic Hawaiian Luau” only to find on the last day of your trip that you really would have been much happier with a bottle of wine and your spouse/family on the beach at sunset.I really need your trust here. I have a 99% batting record and if you follow at least the basics here (don’t plan anything) then you’ll have the time of your life… just give up the plans right here and now and let’s rock this.
Many times this decision is made for you – Uncle Dan’s timeshare or maybe you have a favorite. If you’re flexible, here’s an incredibly condensed list in no order:
This is the #1 destination and home to Waikiki. If you like Cruise Ships and Times Square – this is your island. It’s spectacle and crazy town, but there is a LOT to do. Keep in mind Honolulu is the 11th largest city in the United States – don’t expect Lilo and Stitch but there is a lot of island-style nightlife, art museums and so on.
Party Island and part time home of Rick Strahl. The southwest shore is home to (probably) the most amazing stretch of resorts in the entire chain – it’s basically a prison for tourists. This is OK if all you want is a pool and a beach. In fact it’s more than OK – it’s perfect. Lahaina is my 2nd favorite town on all of the islands. I don’t know why – I’m a sucker for its history and brain-blowing sunsets. Maui, however, is 2 shades from Cruise Ship.
Big Island – Hawaii
Kona-side is dry and moon-scape-y with resorts carved out of fields of lava. The diving here is the best in all of the islands. If you’re a diver or love resorts – go here. The Big Island is great as long as you don’t want to go anywhere (there’s nowhere to go). Volcano Park is … interesting but smells :) and it’s a long (3 hour) drive from everywhere. Hilo is nice too.
My Home. This is the oldest island and yes I’m biased, but I moved here for a reason. This is frontier Hawaii and probably the closest you’ll come to touching something of “real Hawaii”. I’ll have a lot more to say about resorts and Hawaii – but if you want to go home with your mind blown, Kauai is the place. Yes there are resorts and no, there’s not too much to do. If you watch those Corona commercials and salivate – this is your island. The North Shore (where I live) is magic – the rest is nice and fine, but tropical old jungle Hawaii is here, on the North Shore of Kauai.
Where To Stay?
If you’re planning a trip I’m going to guess you’ve been online and have tracked down hotels and resorts (this applies to those with children and without). Stop. Please.
Forget the hotels. They’re great and I’m sure you’ve got a great deal – that’s how they get you in. The hotels don’t make their money on the rooms – they make them on everything else (dinners, drinks, etc). You will double your bill – I promise you – in dinners and other things.
The average room fee over here is $250/night at a reasonably nice hotel. I know you’re going to scroll straight to the comments and tell me “dude no way I scored $90/night from Travelocity”! Yes – and you’ll get what you pay for. Many people don’t come back because of the nasty place they end up staying in…
OK fine - let’s lower it to $200/night and for a week that’s $1400 or so. Not so bad eh? But while you’re here you’ll need to eat each entree at that neat hotel is around $28 - $30 PER PERSON. Beers are $8 and drinks are $12. No, I’m not kidding – as I said this is where they make their money. You will double your daily room cost easily on food and “stuff” – so what to do?
Rent a condo or home. You won’t believe what you can get over here, 2 blocks from the beach. Let’s cover the costs: - 3 bedroom home 2 blocks from the beach for $1400 per week. You go to Costco (every island has one) and blow another $300 on your food – with another $200 for incidental food and guess what? You’re ahead by $900 EASY. And you have more room and you can eat when the food you like on your own time. If you have kids – this is an absolute MUST. - If you have a baby (8 months or less) what you should really do is pop for a bit more and get a house on the beach – on whatever island! Check it out: This is the Nalu Beach Cottage right on the sand in Hanalei. Yes you can find cheaper – but this place rocks. The price tag is a mind-blower at $4000 but if you travel with another couple (preferably with children) it comes in at $2000 apiece. Yes, I know that’s still crazy but the house is within baby monitor distance from the beach – and as new parents you’re not going to do anything else anyway and nap duty on vacation while your spouse is at the beach SUCKS. Tip: If you have a baby you can have them sleep in a dresser drawer on the floor – leave the baby prison at home :). - Finally – you can always find great deals on VRBO(Vacation Rental By Owner).Friends have had great success with this. Also – Craigslist is great for finding local people who might have a condo for rent here. This is mostly for people on the West Coast of the US – San Francisco, Portland, Seattle (especially), and Los Angeles/San Diego.
You gotta have tunes when you’re here and you can get them online before you come. Load your iPod and rotate these guys:
- Hapa. This album has won so many awards it’s ridiculous. You can use this as a lullaby for your kids when you get home as well…
- Brudda Iz (Isreal Kamakawiw’ole) - “The Big Man” and probably the most recognized artist from Hawaii. You can’t go wrong with any of his stuff, but this one is my favorite.
- Paula Fuga. She’s a new one and has an absolutely mind-blowing voice. Kind of Billy Holiday goes to Hawaii. “Lilikoi” is her best song :).
- Slack Key. Gotta have some of that!
Most of the places you rent these days have some kind of iPod player – but if in doubt bring your own if it’s small enough. If you want to be sure – email the person you’re renting from, they’ll tell you.
What To Do When You’re Here
OK so you’ve picked an island, you’ve got your tunes… now what to do? You won’t want to do this – and you’re going to fight me on it. I live here so you have to trust me :):):).
Nothing. Let it happen.
This is utterly impossible, I know. You’ll probably want to know “what’s to see” and “things to do” but ultimately Hawaii isn’t about “seeing stuff”. This place is incredibly serene and, well, dull. The best days of all of the vacations I’ve had here (and friends who’ve come over) are the days where they get a towel, a book, and a drink of choice and pick a beach and just soak it in.
This will sound weird, and I don’t blame you for telling me I’ve lost it – but Hawaii is a very wild place. Nature busts out of every single corner possible and you can feel what the Hawaiians call “Mana” (muh-nah) – or “magical power” if your mind is still and you’re receptive. I’ve (literally) watched people cry just watching a sunset.
It’s not just the scenery – it’s not the smell of the flowers nor the people you’re with. It’s yourself at rest, being opened to raw, powerful Mana – the magic of the land. This usually doesn’t set in until day 5 or 6 of the vacation – but when it happens to you it will be what you remember, I promise. What you really want to do is decrease the time from 5-6 days to 2-3; and you do that by not distracting yourself with busy stuff.
You might want to do a luau (Hawaiian feast) – just know that these are tourist traps – all of them. The food is good and it’s neat spectacle, but luau’s are feasts that are meant in the same way as our [Big Holiday] dinners – it’s like having Thanksgiving every weekend for people that come to visit the US. It’s kind of weird.
If you want to see Hula (which you should, it’s stunningly beautiful) take a look in the local paper’s or entertainment rags. Usually a “halau” (‘huh-lao’: hula school) is putting on a performance or benefit. This is the real stuff and make the effort to go. They tell stories and the meaning behind each dance. If you can, find the Halau that does “Mele” (Mel-ay) hula – this is the real hula and not full of grass skirts and coconut shells.
Other than that – seriously – plant yourself and challenge yourself to let the veneer of everyday life/work/whatever melt from you. Open yourself to the Mana of this place – it will touch you and blow your mind if you let it.
What Not To Do
Well you have to have this list don’t you :). Here’s some things to remember when you get here…
This place is a foreign country (of course not really... figuratively). Hawaii was only made a state in 1959 and the people were flushed out of the jungles at the turn of the century. The culture is made up of natives and immigrants from all over the world – it’s a melting pot of massive proportions.
Things move slowly – including traffic and service just about everywhere. It’s the way it is and getting upset about it makes it worse.
Drive the speed limit. You will get a ticket (or worse). It’s pretty common to see people speeding out of the airport here – used to the “speed limit +10” rule. Not here – the roads aren’t terribly safe.
Pay attention to the water. The ocean is 75 degrees (plus or minus) and is great to swim in. If there are waves make it a habit to ask lifeguards if there’s something to worry about. We’re in the middle of the Pacific and the waves are freight trains that aren’t slowed by anything at all until they hit our shores. I’ve pulled 4 people out of the water – one of them was dead. It’s not an unsafe place – it just requires attention on your part :). Be safe and courteous… (I sound like Mom).
Hopefully you’ve elected to stay in a rental – you might be wondering “what can I eat?”. You can survive (happily I might add) on this, every night if you wish:
1 block of Ahi sashimi from the grocery store ($7)
One cup of rice (20 cents)
one scoop of Poi (50 cents)
and a salad of your choice.The salad can be made from local greens – fairly cheap – or you can get the seaweed salad from the store. This meal serves 2 for $10 or so and it’s perfect – add soy and wasabi (which your house likely has) and you’re in heaven. The Ahi (red tuna) in our stores is plentiful, awesome, and cheap – just wash it and cut!
A Note About Poi
Here’s the thing about Poi – people don’t eat it right and then complain that it sucks. If you did you’d love it.
First, some history: Poi is made from Taro (Kalo) – a big tuber that grows in rain-flooded valleys. Taro farmers harvest the taro by pulling it when it’s ready, chopping off the root (to make Poi), and then replanting the left-over cap. This means the same plant can be regrown endlessly – and indeed it has.
Much of the poi that you see in the stores comes from my neck of the woods- Hanalei Poi (the picture here). The taro in this valley is incredibly old and is referred to as “the ancestors” as it has fed the Hawaiians for hundreds of years. It’s ancient, tasty, and you’re eating history…
OK – so history might not taste so good for some folks. Here’s what to do with poi:
- Don’t ever eat it straight. You’ll get laughed at.
- Add water to it. You want it the consistency of pancake batter.
- Dip your meat in it. Sushi is good – but cooked meats like chicken or steak is unreal.
- A dash of soy sauce makes all the difference.When you eat it, close your eyes and hear the breeze outside – smell the Awapuhi and night jasmine that lights up the night air and twang of the slack key. You can taste the wild earth and sea breeze in the poi – it’s incredibly good for you and if you let your mind go, you can feel the Mana from the ancient taro creep into your bones…
What To Pack
You might think this should have come first – but I had to preface a lot of stuff! If you’re coming for a week then you should bring…
- 3 bathing suits/board shorts. You can get these at Costco if you don’t have any – they’re $20 apiece.
- a pair of flip-flops (slippers over here). You can find these anywhere on the mainland, but Costco has them as well. Don’t bother with shoes or Tevas or whatever “outdoorsy” shoe thing you have. Red dirt ruins all – just get some flip flops as you’re not allowed in any house with your shoes on. Slippers come off easy and cost about $20.
- 4 T-shirts/Simple Cotton Tops. You don’t need long sleeves here unless you come in Dec/Jan/Feb – then you might want to bring a pullover (1) as well.NO SOCKS.
- Cotton Briefs (for men). Boxers will be painful after a while, and you’ll want to put your undies on after swimming TRUST ME – keep the boys dry!
That’s just about it. Most of the time the locals wear their board shorts (surf shorts) and when it rains they take their shirt off, tuck it in their shorts, and keep on truckin…
A Note About The Rain
The Resorts have made a killing by putting themselves on the South and Southwestern (“Kona”) sides of the islands. This is because visitors don’t like rain out of habit. Embrace the rain – it’s warm and the Hawaiians consider it a blessing and usually (when we’re not having a storm) the rain is gone within 15 minutes and it will be sunny again.
This is because our cloud deck is at about 700 feet versus that of the mainland, where storm clouds are up at 5-6000 feet. Our clouds move in fast and furious, dump a lot of fresh, warm rain and are gone just as quick.
The Best Time Is With Those You Love
If you’re not coming alone it helps to think about what it is you’re about to do: a vacation with the most important people of your life to a place that is all about “Aloha”. Distracting yourself with silly trips/hikes/helicopter rides is fine if you’re super bored, but there will be a time when you’re watching the sunset and it hits you... that "thing" glows inside when we're happy. A bit of a purr I suppose, when we're on vacation and we're finally on vacation.
It’s not the place – it’s you and who you’re with, sharing a wonderfully quiet and exciting moment. Embrace that – know it’s you creating the moment and do what you can to have more moments like that.
This happens readily when you “hit the Hawaiian Groove” – when the pace of home wears off and you feel yourself get lighter and the smiles come more often. Hugs (especially for your kids) make this happen faster – long walks on the beach too.
If You Come To Kauai Let Me Know…
Every Saturday (barring weather) my family and our “calabash” families (good friends) called “Black Pot” – it’s at the very end of Hanalei Bay by the pier. If you come to Kauai – this is an invite to join us. I’ve had a few friends come by and it’s been great fun – and I never get a chance to geek out!
So if you’re coming our way – there’s always a place for you at our fire!
There’s so much more I can write – but this pretty much covers the main thrust: your vacation is about you, not giving your money to silly tourist traps. You can have 10 times the vacation for less money if you let things roll and let the Mana of Hawaii pull you in.