Many tourists can make common mistakes when visiting. Photo / Unsplash
Ten things most visitors to the islands get wrong – and how to get it right
Travelling around the island paradise of Hawaii may seem pretty self-explanatory. Choose a pretty island, plan some fun activities and pack plenty of sunscreen.
According to locals, it’s not quite that simple, and many long-time and first-time visitors often make the same mistakes.
Fortunately, by doing the exact opposite of these popular faux pas, you can ace your next trip to the tropical islands.
Mistake 1. Assuming all islands are the same
Hawaii is made up of four main islands; Hawaii (or The Big Island), Kauai, Maui and Oahu and each one offers a very different experience.
For an abundance of nature and peace, Kauai is your island, while those who prefer an urban jungle with great shopping should prioritise a visit to Maui. Similar to Kauai, Hawaii Island has a more rural feel but is far larger, with famous lava flows and active volcanoes, while Oahu mixes nature and culture for a well-rounded experience.
Lesson: Do your research before booking travel and align it with the activities you are interested in.
Mistake 2. Not respecting the environment
Hawaii is a stunning natural oasis, but to stay that way, tourists need to play their part.
Fortunately, Malama Hawaii is a programme that connects visitors with organisations that provide volunteer opportunities.
Launched in 2020, the programme means visitors can participate in activities like reforestation projects or beach clean-ups in return for special deals like free nights at certain resorts. Talk about a win-win.
Lesson: Give back to the people and places you visit by participating in a volunteer scheme.
Mistake 3. Mispronouncing Hawaiian words (or, don’t even try to learn any )
In Aotearoa, we are no stranger to tourists stumbling through place names or te reo phrases.
Similarly, in Hawaii, it’s all too common for tourists to mistakenly mispronounce common words like mahalo (it’s “ma-hah-low”, not “ma-halo”).
However, Hawaiian local Ashley Probst said some visitors intentionally say words incorrectly to make fun of the language.
“One time, I heard someone mockingly attempt to say humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the name of Hawaii’s state fish,” Probst said. “When my friend corrected a person’s pronunciation of Maui, our home island, they doubled down and told her she was wrong.”
Asking locals for help with pronunciation is okay, Probst said, as long as it is done respectfully.
Lesson: Do your homework and learn some common Hawaiian phrases before you arrive, and be humble if you get something a little wrong.
Mistake 4. Using sunscreen made with banned chemicals
Living under a hole in the ozone layer makes Kiwis very keyed up when it comes to wearing good, thick sunscreen and reapplying often.
However, when you’re on the islands, you may need to check what kind of sunscreen you have and what ingredients it contains.
In January 2021, Hawaii became the first US state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals that harm coral and marine life. You can’t buy sunscreen with these dangerous chemicals but you can bring them in from NZ.
Lesson: If you bring sunscreen from home, check the label to see if it is safe for the reefs – and your skin.
Mistake 5. Only eating at places you know and love
Travel can be full of foreign surprises and unexpected situations so it makes sense one might seek a little familiarity at a US chain restaurant they know and love – especially when travelling with little kids or picky eaters.
However, that isn’t where you’ll find the unique culture you came to experience. Hawaii has an extensive food truck scene, as well as many locally owned and operated restaurants. Give them a try. Who knows, you may fall in love with the fresh fish tacos, poke, huli huli chicken, or shave ice (note: not shaved ice).
Lesson: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!
Mistake 6. Relying on public buses or ride-share apps
You may be on an island but don’t think that means everything is within walking distance, or that public transport can get you where you need to go. Since Hawaii’s public bus system caters to residents, the services tend to be infrequent and limited to main towns, sometimes without stops at popular tourist destinations.
Additionally, taxis and ride-share vehicles tend to linger around major shopping centres, tourist spots and airports and may not be available if you stay till last call at a bar or stray from the beaten track.
Lesson: If you’re spending time in a smaller town or going off the beaten track, consider renting a vehicle for more freedom.
7. Ignore the signs
If you come across a sign that reads “kapu”, this means you could be approaching sacred land or a risky area. The area may not look particularly important or dangerous, but to ignore these signs is to disrespect the local communities.
For example, the Waipio Valley (also named the Valley Of The Kings), is often called one of the most beautiful, untouched places on the planet. However, in response to overtourism and numerous accidents, the area has been closed to visitors. Any travellers will encounter a sign that warns people to turn around and not enter.
Lesson: Follow the signs and stay away from banned areas.
Mistake 8. Leaving the warm layers at home
In pictures and postcards, Hawaii seems like a perpetually sunny paradise. In reality, these tropical islands experience tropical weather and this can mean short, unpredictable spells of rain, cloud and sun.
In general, summer is May to October and has an average daytime temperature of 29C. Winter is from November to April with an average daytime temperature of 25.6C.
Lesson: Pack a rainjacket and warm layer to go alongside your swimsuit and shorts.
Mistake 9. Grabbing a bargain souvenir from a stall
The countless tourist stalls selling inexpensive souvenirs may be tempting, but it’s worth going the extra mile (and paying the extra money) for a genuine piece of local art or craft.
Not only will you get something far more authentic and memorable than an imported trinket, but you’ll also directly support the local artists and creators on the island.
Lesson: If you want a souvenir, seek out local creations instead of mass-produced gifts.
Mistake 10. Leaving the sunset too early
You stop to take in the sky as the sun dips below the horizon, maybe grabbing your phone or camera to capture the scene. Then, once it’s set, you continue on with the evening, none the wiser that you may have missed the best part.
While the sun hitting the horizon is spectacular, locals claim that the rich afterglow is just as stunning.
Takeaway: Pull up a seat (or hunt down a bar with a view) and give yourself the time to savour the entire spectacle.