Surprising Things No One Tells You About Visiting Hawaii (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 19
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Starting to plan your Hawaii vacation for the world of Post-Covid travel? Or maybe just fantasizing about being surrounded by palm trees on a pristine beach for a little mental getaway?
I first visited Hawaii back in 2015 and then moved here in the summer of 2020. Now that I've lived here for a while, I feel ready to share 11 things about visiting that nobody warns you about before coming to Hawaii.
It's a beautiful place to visit, there's no denying it. Still, you'll enjoy your Hawaiian vacation that much more if you show up prepared!
As I live on Oahu, this post will focus on this island, though most, if not all, of these points apply to other islands as well!
1. Chickens are everywhere in Hawaii!
On the mainland, there seems to always be an ongoing debate within towns about whether or not to allow residents to keep backyard chickens. In Hawaii, the debate would be pointless; chickens are literally everywhere!
I'll never forget walking to Target on my first day of my first Hawaii visit and seeing a flock of chickens wandering around the Target parking lot. The more time I've spent here, the more prolific I've realized these feral chickens are.
While at first it's pretty funny seeing chickens wandering everywhere from busy parking lots to crossing in the middle of the road, the chickens have actually become a bit of a problem on many islands and are difficult to control due to a lack of natural predators. Kauai has the biggest chicken problem of all, though many other islands have their fair share.
2. Count on rain. Always.
There are an average of 90 "rainy" days a year in Hawaii, but even on a bright summer day, you shouldn't be surprised to have a sudden rainstorm pass through, seemingly out of nowhere. Weather apps are notoriously unreliable predictors of Hawaii rain, and even if it may not be raining in the exact spot where you are, it can literally be raining just a couple of blocks away.
The good news is, the sudden rains usually move through quickly. If you're at the beach and can wait it out, you'll likely end up with sun in a few minutes and a much less crowded beach after all the people who cleared out.
If you're planning to hike, bring shoes that can trek through mud, and plan to get very wet and filthy. It's also not a bad idea to have a towel for wiping off and a plastic bag for muddy shoes when you get back to your car.
3. Bring bug spray.
When you think of Hawaii, you likely think of a tropical paradise, and I'm willing to bet you don't imagine pesky mosquitoes encroaching on that blissful, serene image.
Compared to many tropical destinations, Hawaii has relatively few mosquitoes. However, "relatively few" can still make for a really uncomfortable experience if you get caught unprepared and find yourself being feasted on.
4. Honking is illegal in Hawaii.
Especially if you come from a busy metropolitan area like DC where I last lived, you may notice an eerie quiet as you drive around the islands. That's because honking is actually illegal in Hawaii except "when reasonably necessary to ensure safe operation," or in other words, if it's a warning to avoid a collision.
So for those renting a car, unless someone is literally about to slam into you, lay off the horn, and enjoy the quieter and friendlier driving atmosphere here. Oh, and don't be surprised to see shakas thrown out by drivers as a thank you for letting them in.
5. Hawaii actually has seasons (so plan accordingly)
Located at just 21 degrees north of the equator, Hawaii is famous for having beautiful, moderate weather all year long. However, there are still seasons here, which is something you need to plan for if you have a specific activity in mind.
The winter season extends from about December - March. This brings cooler temperatures to the islands as well as reduced breezes from the tradewinds. Daytime temperatures stay between about 75-82 degrees, with it dropping to the low 70s and even 60s during night time and early morning. This also means colder water temperatures in general, so be prepared with your colder water swim and snorkel gear.
The waves all along the north shore are famously huge during winter, which is great if you're coming to surf but poor timing if you're hoping to do some north shore swimming or snorkeling. Additionally, it means any boat-related north shore activities (like snorkel tours and shark cage dives) will be done on very tumultuous seas, which you may want to avoid if prone to sea sickness (or at least come prepared with dramamine).
If you want to spot some humpback whales from the shore or a whale-watching cruise, you'll only catch them here in winter.
The summer brings warmer water and air temperatures along with lower surf around the island, making it the ideal time for relaxing at the beach and snorkeling anywhere on the island. However, keep in mind that most Hawaii homes and rental properties do not have air conditioning, so your lodgings will be hotter overall. It's also peak tourist season, so prices will be higher and everything more crowded. It's also the hottest time for hiking, so any hike with open exposure is best done early in the morning.
6. It's a great place for stargazing.
Coming from the mainland, where most urban and suburban areas have so much light pollution you're lucky to catch even a few stars in the sky, it really is incredible to go outside on a Hawaii night and see a beautiful, bright, starry sky. That's one of the unexpected benefits of being on an island in the middle of the ocean.
While even a telescope will give you a great view (you might even be able to see Saturn's rings!), you can appreciate the beautiful sky just from walking outside. I had an incredible view of the meteor shower in late 2020 from my backyard; I spotted about 20 shooting stars clearer than I've ever seen them.
If your interest in the celestial extends beyond your typical backyard stargazing, check out the W,M. Keck observatory on the Big Island near the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that's also the highest peak in Hawai'i. This observatory is home to the third and fourth largest telescopes in the world. Star Gaze Hawaii is a company that offers seaside stargazing tours on the Big Island and O'ahu.
7. Check the tides and wind.
This one goes hand in hand with number five about Hawaii seasons, but so many tourists who come to visit Hawai'i don't realize how much wind and waves can affect their plans for the day. In this case, it isn't just about planning for the best trip you can have; it's also about keeping yourself and those who work in rescue services safe.
If you're planning to visit any beach or to engage in any water-related activity in Hawaii like swimming, kayaking, surfing, paddle boarding, or even coastal climbing/walking, do your research before you go. Check apps like Surfline, and if the swells are above 2-4 feet, it's best to steer clear (unless you're very experienced and can safely carry on).
Windy is a handy app for checking wind speed and gusts. If winds are above 10 mph, you're going to struggle staying on track with any paddle boarding or kayaking, and you're more likely to get blown way off course.
When it comes to hikes, wind is especially important to pay attention to. If you're planning to do any ridgeline hikes (like the Pali Puka, pictured below) or any hike that takes you to heights in the open air, again, don't go if the winds are above 10 mph. All it takes is one surge to send you careening down a cliff.
So please be mindful not only of your own safety but of the safety of those emergency personnel who would need to risk their own lives to rescue you out of a dire situation that could have been avoided.
Check out a few sobering facts from the Honolulu Civil Beat:
Hawaii’s visitor drowning rate — 5.7 per 1 million visitor arrivals — dwarfs those in states like North Carolina and Florida, where drowning rates are .5 and .9 drownings per 1 million visitors, respectively. Drowning has been the leading cause of fatal injuries for visitors for decades. From 2005 to 2014, 49 percent of visitors who died of injuries did so by drowning, compared to just 5 percent for locals, according to state Department of Health data.
On Kauai and Maui... visitors comprise almost three-fourths of all fatal injuries.
For those who live in Hawaii, it seems we see stories of rescues and even deaths on a near daily basis.
Come prepared, and do your research. If in doubt, don't go out.
8. There's no beach parking.
All beaches are public in Hawaii, which means many of the most famously beautiful beaches in the world are located in residential neighborhoods. Apart from a handful of beaches, most either have tiny parking lots or street parking only. On the north shore, this often means parallel parking alongside the very busy Likelike Highway.
The same is true for most hikes on the islands. What does this mean for visitors?
First and foremost, be respectful. Don't block anyone's driveway, and try to avoid parking on their grass. Go through the neighborhood quietly and respectfully. Use common sense and try not to be raucous or inconsiderate.
Secondly, don't bring your valuables in the car. Plenty of visitors come back from a hike or the beach to find their window smashed and things taken from their cars. It's best to avoid bringing any valuables with you. Some people prefer to leave their car doors unlocked to avoid a broken window, but that's a personal preference.
And finally, just go ahead and assume that you will be driving around looking for parking and are likely to end up parking a ways away from your desired destination. This can be a hassle if you're hauling a surf or paddle board or if you bring a lot with you to the beach, so pack accordingly. If you have access to bicycles, that's a better bet for many beaches, like Lanikai and Kailua, particularly on the weekends.
9. Come prepared for jellyfish.
Another pest that might not have entered into your picture of paradise: Hawaii beaches have jellyfish, primarily the Portuguese Man o Wars (which are not TECHNICALLY jellyfish but may as well be) and sometimes box jellyfish.
A Man o War's sting isn't terrible for adults, depending on your pain threshold, but doesn't quite feel like a mermaid kiss, either. Unsurprisingly, a Man o War sting is particularly painful for children.
Everyone has a remedy to swear by: I make sure I carry Benadryl spray in my beach bag as well as my car, which seems to take some of the sting away. If you have anything cold, pressing that to the spot can also help. I've even seen a local grab some berries off a nearby bush and smash them into a sting, insisting it helps.
For your Friends fans, there's always the urine solution to fall back on.
All in all, the sting doesn't feel great, but I've found it fades relatively quickly, and you'll be ready to get back in the water before you know it.
10. Carry change if you're planning on parking.
Most of the world might have upgraded their parking meters to take card payments through a designated app, but not Hawai'i!
Most, if not all, parking meters on O'ahu and other islands accept coins only, so if you're driving and parking, come prepared with a thick roll of quarters. (They will accept dimes and nickels, too, but you'll end up using a ton without actually getting much parking time out of it.)
If you're short on change, look for a large public parking lot, which is more likely to accept a card payment.
11. Bring your reef-safe sunscreen.
You may already have your favorite go-to brand of sunscreen, but if you're coming to Hawai'i, make sure that you get some that's "reef safe."
Most sunscreens contain chemicals that inhibit green algae, damage coral reefs, and cause deformities and other issues in fish, dolphins, sea urchins, mussels, and more (source).
The ocean surrounding the Hawaii islands contains more than 400,000 acres of coral reef, and more than 25% of all marine species are endemic to Hawaii (source).
So if you're coming to Hawaii, please be considerate of the beautiful and thriving underwater life here, and choose a sunscreen that is designated "reef safe." You can find a list of these sunscreens here. You can also wait until you get on-island and find lots of options at a local ABC store.
That's the end of Part One of the most surprising things no one tells you about visiting Hawaii!
What are you hoping to see in Part Two?
Pin this now to reference when planning your next trip to Hawaii!