Hawaii Travel Guide: Overview

Hawaii, the 50th state to join the Union, is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean that’s almost 2,400 miles off the west coast of mainland United States. Made up of eight primary islands (Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe and Niihau), this tropical paradise is home to postcard-perfect beaches and waterfalls, breathtaking sunsets, active volcanoes and ancient lava flows. In addition to its natural beauty, Hawaii also has some of the world’s best coffee farms; an incredible variety of cultures, ecosystems, scenery and activities; and so much more. With all it has to offer, it’s no wonder tourism plays a huge role in Hawaii’s economy, but the Aloha State is also a permanent home to over 1.3 million people.

Hawaii Travel Guide

The first known settlement of the Hawaiian Islands dates back to 400 CE. Fishermen and farmers from the Marquesas Islands, part of modern-day French Polynesia, traveled nearly 2,000 miles by canoe to reach Hawaii’s shores and subsequently established small chiefdoms there. These lived in relative peace throughout the pristine archipelago for centuries.

Fast-forward to 1778, when Captain James Cook landed on Kauai and became the first European to set foot on the islands. Although native Hawaiians killed him a year later, his arrival had a major impact on Hawaii and its population. In the decades that followed, Christian missionaries, Western traders and whalers arrived, introducing new languages, tools and weapons. However, they also brought with them diseases that devastated local communities.

During this same time in Hawaii’s history, local chiefs were at war over land and resources. The warrior Kamehameha rose to power, united the islands in 1810 and became the first king of an independent kingdom. This lasted nearly 100 years before the United States—whose colonists controlled the production of the island’s main export, sugarcane—forced the last Hawaiian ruler to abdicate her thrown and appropriated Hawaii as part of its territory.

The most infamous date in the island’s modern history came at the start of World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Oahu’s Pearl Harbor and sank the USS Arizona. Killing over 2,400 people, including the people aboard the ship, the attack was the trigger for US involvement in the war.

In August of 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state. Today, over 9 million tourists visit Hawaii each year to experience the state’s unique island culture, relax on its beaches, play in its warm waters and explore its many volcanoes and national parks.


Hawaii’s spirit of aloha is more than just a general sense of island culture; it’s part of the state’s statutes. In 1986, reference to the Aloha Spirit was included in state law books as a reminder to government officials that “‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.” Essentially, it’s stating everyone should treat others with care and consideration. Welcome to the Aloha State!

Contemporary Hawaii is a center of multiculturalism. Its population draws a great deal of its history from ancient Polynesians, Western explorers, missionaries and Asian immigrants who largely moved to the islands to work in agriculture. Hawaii’s cultural diversity is celebrated in art, music, cuisine, sport and festivals, as well as at the many heritage sites located throughout the islands.

Backroads Pro Tip

The term “Hawaiian” is actually quite specific. It only refers to someone of native Hawaiian descent (a group that comprises less than 10 percent of the current islands’ population). Opt instead for the term “local” when referring to anyone born on the islands.

Music is a particularly well-known facet of Hawaiian culture. Like the island’s people, this globally enjoyed medium also has its roots in a meld of cultures. The ukulele, ubiquitous in the sounds of Hawaiian music, actually originated in Europe and was introduced by a Portuguese immigrant in the late 1800s. Paired with the gentle swaying movements of hula dance, Hawaiian music began to grow in popularity in the mainland United States after a performance by a quintet at the Hawaiian Pavilion during Panama Pacific International Exposition in the early 20th century. Though Hawaiian music continues to evolve, the soft sounds of classic tunes featuring ukulele and slack-key guitar can regularly be heard across the country and throughout the world. Perhaps one of the best-known Hawaiian artists today is the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose 1993 album, Facing Future, continues to top the charts and remains the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time.

Throughout the islands, you’ll see signs saying kapu, which indicates a site or area is considered sacred. A “No Trespassing” sign often accompanies this. Please look out for these signs as you explore, and afford these places the respect and reverence they deserve. Also, don’t forget to take these opportunities to learn more about the culture and history of the islands.

Good To Know

When traveling in Hawaii, keep some of the following in mind:


As is true throughout most of the United States, it is customary in Hawaii to tip service staff at bars and restaurants, leaving 15 to 20 percent of the total food or beverage bill. It’s also appropriate – and often expected – to tip a few dollars to hotel bellhops, valets and taxi drivers.

Public Behavior

Things move at a different pace in Hawaii, so try not to be in a hurry and embrace what is lovingly referred to as “Island Time.” You’ll find great service and beautiful landscapes here, and it’s all worth the (likely) wait at a restaurant or a road with slow-moving traffic.

Electric Current

The current in Hawaii is 110/120 volts and 50/60 hertz (the same as the mainland United States).

Public Bathrooms

Many of the larger beaches and parks throughout Hawaii have public facilities, though they are not always excellently maintained. If you’re headed to a more remote beach or trailhead, you can always try a restaurant, shop or hotel along the way. Nearly all these places will have public restrooms, but in a retail space or coffee shop, you might need to purchase something first to use the facilities.

Backroads Pro Tip

While these words don’t directly translate to “man” or “woman,” you’ll find that knowing the following terms will be handy when looking to use a public restroom:

•Kāne: man (the word actually derives from Hawaiian mythology and is the name of one of four major Hawaiian deities)
•Wahine: woman (refers to a Polynesian woman and/or a female surfer)

Drinking Water

Tap water is safe to drink in Hawaii. The water running through most of the islands’ taps is rainwater that goes through a natural underground filtration process. However, bottled water is readily available for those that prefer it.


Hawaii uses the US dollar. Many vendors will accept credit cards, though you may want to have some cash available for visits to smaller shops, cafes and public parking lots at beaches and parks.

Time Difference

For part of the year, Hawaii is two hours earlier than Pacific Time and five hours earlier than Eastern Time. The state doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time, however, so from March through November, when Daylight Saving Time is in effect throughout most of the country, Hawaii is three hours earlier than Pacific time and six hours earlier than eastern time.

When To Visit Hawaii

There are only two seasons in Hawaii: summer and winter. Summer is usually from May to October, and winter is usually from November to April. However, you’ll find island temperatures have more to do with location than with the time of year. The islands have several microclimates, and it can get quite chilly at higher elevations, so be sure to bring some layers if you plan to visit places like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s also worth mentioning that Kauai is home to one of the wettest places on the planet, and the northern shore can see nearly 100 inches of rain per year. The same is true on the Big Island’s Hilo side.

Backroads Pro Tip

Due to the extent of rain, trail and road closures are possible. It also means a packable poncho is always a good idea!

Whale-watching season runs from late December through early May. If you’re hoping to see wild whales on your visit to the islands, the best time to go is between January and early April. Note, while your chances are lower, you might still catch sight of one during the season’s bookend months.

Although Hawaii is well established as a major tourist destination, the increase of visitors in recent years means accommodations can book up quickly. For the best rates and availability, book in advance.

Read our When to Visit Hawaii article for more info.
Fun Facts
  • Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on the Big Island, is a now dormant volcano that’s over a million years old. Measured from the sea floor, it’s 4,445 feet taller than Mount Everest, making it the tallest mountain on Earth.
  • On the island of Lanai, there are more axis dear than people!
  • Each of the letters of the word “aloha” stand for Hawaiian words that provide a guideline for one’s behavior in Hawaii:
    oA: Akahai (kindness)
    oL: Lokahi (unity)
    oO: Olu’olu (agreeable)
    oH: Ha’aha’a (humility)
    oA: Ahonui (patience)
Regions and Cities


Home to Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city, and famed Waikiki Beach, Oahu is the most visited island in the state—and for good reason! The allure of iconic places around Honolulu, such as Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor and Waimea Bay, draws over 4 million tourists every year. Beachfront hotels and resorts abound on the south shore’s beautiful coastline, and there’s no shortage of fun activities and excellent restaurants. Venture beyond this diversely populated area, though, and you’ll find spectacular off-the-beaten-path countryside, uncrowded beaches and even richer Hawaiian heritage.

Hawaii (The Big Island)

Larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the Big Island of Hawaii is aptly named. You’ll find a variety of dramatic terrain here, including volcanic craters, lava fields, rain forests, green valleys, coffee farms and black-sand beaches. From volcanic Mauna Loa and Kilauea (the world’s most active volcano) to lush Hilo, the island’s wet side, this island features more than half the world’s climate zones and offers no shortage of geological thrills. Charming island towns, delicious food, superb biking and hiking and incredible reefs are just a few more reasons to “go Big.”


Maui’s dazzling ocean reefs, verdant tropical valleys, volcanoes and the dramatically beautiful Road to Hana are only part of what makes a visit to this island a must. Spend a day in Haleakala National Park, where you’ll find volcanic mountains and bamboo forests that give way to a waterfall descending over walls of sheer lava rock. Hoping to spot some whales? Between September and May, humpback whales escape the cold waters of their Alaskan feeding grounds and seek out the warm, inviting near-shore waters of West Maui. This makes it one of the world’s best places to spot these magnificent creatures. Round out your adventure with a stopover in charmingly laid-back towns, such as Paia or Wailea.


Nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” Kauai is an idyllic tropical paradise. The fragrant rain forests, emerald peaks and pristine landscape of the famed Na Pali Coast all seem made for hiking, while the island’s warm waters make a kayak or snorkel session impossible to resist. Head to Hanalei for fresh organic food, friendly local shops and one of the planet’s most picturesque bays. A connection to the land is palpable on Kauai and is evident in local pride in the island’s natural beauty, organic agriculture, ancient culture and even its regulations. By law, the tallest thing you’ll see in any Kauai skyline is a coconut tree!


The smallest inhabited Hawaiian island, Lanai has only 30 miles of paved roads and not a single traffic light. Once home to major pineapple plantations, the island is now owned by Larry Ellison, Oracle founder and billionaire. Despite this curious arrangement, off-the-beaten-path Lanai is an amazing place to visit. Come especially for the red lava cliffs, ancient ridge trails, guava groves, axis deer and secluded beaches.


Native Hawaiian culture and geography are perhaps best celebrated and most protected on Molokai, where more than half the population claims ancient roots. This tiny island has famously blocked proposals for tourism infrastructure and strictly guards its heritage sites, but those up for a truly unique Hawaiian experience and bit of adventure should add a visit to Molokai to their bucket lists.

Worth A Visit
  • Waimea Bay (Oahu): Hawaii is known for its epic waves and major surf competitions. To catch sight of some of these big waves, head to Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore or Makaha on Oahu’s west coast between November and February.
  • Hanalei Bay (Kauai): Postcard-perfect Hanalei Bay, which is surrounded by lush mountains, is an ideal place to while away the hours. Lounge on the beach or take part in any number of fun-filled water activities, including stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and surfing.
  • Road to Hana (Maui): This gorgeous winding road, which leads to an undeveloped region on Maui’s eastern tip, is one of the island’s most pristine areas. Hana is truly a paradise of lush jungle, isolated beaches and picturesque views.
  • Volcanoes National Park (Big Island): Famous for its renowned (and active) volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, Volcanoes National Park offers up a multitude of geological wonders. With elevations as high as 4,000 feet, though, be sure to pack a jacket!
Things To See And To Do

Full Article Coming Soon!

How To Get To Hawaii


Honolulu International Airport on Oahu is the busiest hub and is conveniently located for travel to Oahu’s Waikiki Beach or beyond. Honolulu also makes for an easy transfer point to reach other islands, including the Big Island’s Hilo or Kona International Airports; Maui’s Kahului International Airport; Kauai’s Lihue Airport or the smaller airports on Lanai and Molokai.

Flight prices vary significantly depending on the season. Remember, high season includes summer months, as well as December (especially around the holidays) through April.

When returning home, keep in mind that a limited number of flights go to the mainland, and the check-in process is usually time consuming. The Agricultural Department must screen all checked luggage. The luggage is then taken to check-in and dropped off with a TSA agent. A TSA agent inspects any carry-on luggage before you enter the terminal, and the Agricultural Department checks it before boarding. It’s always a good idea to consult the TSA website for information about the most up-to-date rules and restrictions.

Getting Around—Transportation

Public Transportation

Hawaii’s public bus system is a great low-budget option for getting around, but coverage and frequency vary from island to island. For example, the Big Island, Maui and Kauai have public buses, but they don’t run frequently, and service to many tourist destinations is limited. Bus travel is easiest on Oahu. The island’s bus service (“TheBus”) is reliable and will get you to many places you likely want to visit. However, because it doesn’t run to most trailheads, you might want to rent a car if you’re planning your own active vacation. (See below for more details.)

Independent Transport

Most visitors opt to rent cars for optimal flexibility and the ability to reach some of the islands’ remote areas that make Hawaii such a spectacular place. If renting a car is not part of your plan, many hotels and resorts offer airport transfers (often at an extra charge) and stretches of coastline on all the major islands that are ideal for donning your sun hat and staying awhile.


Hawaii is the only state possessing two official languages (English and Hawaiian). Banned from schools in the late 19th century, the Hawaiian language and its 13-letter alphabet began to die out. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, efforts were made to revive Hawaiian. Although Hawaiian became recognized as an official language in 1978, this movement for recognition continues today. Included in an amendment to the state’s constitution was a requirement for schools to promote the study of Hawaiian culture and history.

Although you’ll get by just fine speaking English on your visit to Hawaii, here’s a short list of some commonly used Hawaiian words you’ll likely hear during your visit:

  • Aloha: used as a greeting, the word is also considered a way of life characterized by thoughtful interactions, respect and goodwill
  • Mahalo: thank you
  • E kala mai: pardon me
  • Honu: green sea turtle
  • Keiki: children
  • Ohana: Family
Food And Drink

The Hawaiian Islands offer up delicious tropical fruit, fresh-caught seafood and superb coffee, just to name a few of its delectable treats. Considering attending a luau? At these traditional feasts, you’ll likely find many traditional dishes: kalua pig, steamed whole over hot rocks in an underground pit; poi, a curiously purple starch made by mashing taro root with a bit of water; laulau, meats and fish wrapped and steamed in taro leaves and loads of pineapple.

As with many aspects of Hawaii travel, its modern cuisine is influenced by the diversity of its population, including Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese traditions. The most typical dish on the islands consists of white rice, macaroni salad and a protein, such as shoyu-seasoned chicken or fried fish, all served up on a Styrofoam plate. If you really want to act like a local, order loco moco, a dish of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy, or Spam musubi, Spam-topped sushi rice wrapped in nori. If these specialties don’t suit your tastes, head to one of the island’s many health food stores for picnic-perfect sandwiches, salads and sides.

From hole-in-the-wall lunch stops to world-class restaurant fare, you’ll find a wide range of culinary options in Hawaii and something to please every palate.

Read our Food in Hawaii - What to Know and Eat article for more info.
Safety Tips

Hawaii is generally a safe place to travel and is known for its friendly aloha spirit. However, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on belongings at the beach or in crowded areas and to avoid leaving valuable items in an unattended car. Theft from parked cars—particularly rental cars, which are easy to spot with their bar code stickers—continues to be a problem throughout the islands, particularly at trailheads or in crowded beach parking lots.

If you do need assistance from law enforcement, Hawaii shares the same emergency number as the US mainland: 911. Use this number at any time for everything from fire to crime to search and rescue.

Any Hawaiian travel guide must note that the largest safety hazard here comes from nature itself: flash floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and rockslides, as well as jellyfish stings, sunburn and mosquito bites. With active volcanoes, rugged lava fields, thundering waterfalls and big waves, natural hazards are everywhere, and the weather can be unpredictable in any season as well. Be prepared (with appropriate clothing and other essentials), check the weather, and educate yourself on the area you plan to visit before doing any adventuring, including snorkeling, hiking in a remote area, cliff-jumping, surfing and more.

Though tsunamis are unlikely, know they’ve occurred and that the islands are equipped with a warning system (loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles). If you hear sirens indicating a tsunami, head to higher ground immediately.

What Is Backroads

Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. Explore all our Hawaii tours here, and we hope this guide will be enlightening as you plan your next great adventure!

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