Dear Hawaii: I’m sorry.


Indeed, I owe the islands of Hawaii an apology.  For years now I’ve been telling anyone willing to listen (and quite a few who couldn’t care less) just how much I disliked Hawaii.  That hasn’t stopped me from visiting 5 times in the past three years – when it comes to miles on the cheap I’m easy – but I never really enjoyed the trips.

Until this past weekend.

The reason?  I got the hell out of Waikiki.  I even made it off Oahu and out to another island (the Big Island).  And that made all the difference in the world.  It was incredibly refreshing to discover normal people hanging out and enjoying the island life rather than catering to package tourists in high-rise hotel towers on a fake beach.  I got to hang out with locals who actually enjoyed living there and leading relatively normal lives, not just running tourist trap tours and pretending that they actually serve decent food.

At the encouragement of my friend Vince, a longtime resident of the Big Island, I paid him a visit.  Immediately after arriving in Honolulu I found myself making the long trek over to the commuter/interisland terminal for the short flight to Hilo.  Sure, Vince lives near Kona on the other side of the island, but I figured why not get an extra airport in my collection and see some more of the island by driving across. 

I booked a bed at the Hilo Bay Hostel, knowing that I’d be in late, out early and not have too much need of a full service establishment.  It was clean (enough) and the others staying there were quite friendly.  It also is right in the middle of town which meant easy access to a few bars at night and to decent breakfast in the morning at Bear’s Coffee.  The breakfast was fine but the conversations there were absolutely phenomenal. I happened to sit amongst a few folks at the counter who were recounting their days running the local pot growing operations and private security shops, regaling each other with tales of who was doing what and reminiscing about how they “had to get out when the cocaine came in.”  I also was up early enough to catch a sunrise over the shoals that sit just off the edge of downtown.  Not too shabby.

After breakfast I hopped in the rental car (pretty cheap via these guys) and set out along the Saddle Road across the middle of the island to meet up with Vince.  The drive to Kona has gotten significantly better in recent months due to the repaving of that road.  There is only one section now that is in terrible disrepair.  I don’t really know how bad it used to be but I made the drive much more quickly than I expected to (about 2 hours versus the 3 I was led to believe it would take) and it was fresh asphalt for the vast majority of the trip.  No complaints at all.

Our destination that morning was Hapuna Beach State Park, a bit north of town and adjacent to the Hapuna Beach Prince hotel.  The beach was crowded but not so much so that we couldn’t find space to lay out some towels and catch some sun (too much, in my case).  Plus the waves were pretty good there and Vince provided boogie boards.  It had been about 17 years since I last rode on one but, much like riding a bicycle it all came rushing back to me, including the sensation of being slammed into the sandy bottom by a wave as I wiped out during one ride.  No lingering effects but definitely a bit woozy for a few seconds there. 

Relaxing between sets a Hapuna Beach State Park

We also did a bit of cultural tourism, paying a visit to the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site.  The site was the long standing seat of power for the Hawaiian islands.  It was 200 years ago when King Kamehameha finally completed his unification of the islands as a single kingdom, the completion of a 19 year effort that started with the construction of a war temple at the Pu’ukohola Heiau site.  Among other things I learned during the visit, apparently the opposing leader sacrificed at the temple knew that the meeting was a setup that would involve his death but he went anyways, knowing that it was his fate to be the death that would provide the power to unify the peoples of Hawaii.  That’s pretty impressive.

The temple itself is not open for tourists (it is still used by native Hawaiians performing religious rituals) but the site is and there is a well labeled trail, some videos explaining the history at the ranger station and another local beach at the base of the cliffs.  The other beach – Spencer State Park – is even more of a locals hangout than Hapuna Beach.  They permit camping and there is a small, well protected beach that was quite pleasant.  Again we came across many families out enjoying the Saturday afternoon.  There were more grills running than I could count and my mouth was watering at the sight of all the different foods being prepared.  Alas, no time to try to crash one of the many parties; we had a plane to catch.

The beach at Spencer State Park on the Big Island

Yes, we had a plane to catch.  That’s because during the afternoon I had convinced Vince to make the hop over to Oahu with me that evening to meet up with a half dozen other guys for dinner.  The fact that he had no running water at home that night probably helped in the convincing, though I still like to think that I really was that motivating.  Anyways, off to the airport and on to the plane. 

It was a whirlwind 18 hours on the Big Island but infinitely better than any of my previous trips to Oahu.  Next time one of the $250 fares to Hawaii comes up I know what I’ll be doing when I arrive in Honolulu: leaving!

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

7 Comments

  1. Plus 1. Absolutely. I’ve not done the Big Island, but can highly recommend Maui. Stay away from the over-touristy areas in Kaanapali, grab a cheap condo in Kihei, and tear around the island from La Perouse Bay to Hana. It’s phenomenal.

  2. Great entry. We’re just starting the process of planning a trip to Hawaii and we’re planning on getting to the Big Island this trip, in addition to Oahu.

  3. Good report, and I agree, a stark contrast from touristy Waikiki. We drove across the big island from Kona to Hilo and stopped at a few places along the way, including the Tropical Bontanical Gardens which were really nice. Next time you’ll have to check out Volcanoes National Park too. We had lunch in the small town of “Volcano” near the park, great local place for plate lunch.

  4. The island of Hawaii (aka Big Island) is definitely my favorite, and I have seen all the major ones except Lanai (my Molokai visit was only a day trip via ferry from Maui, but I did rent a car and drove all over the place, so I probably saw percentage-wise more in 6-8 hrs than you did in 18 hrs on the Big Island).

    That said, Oahu does have some nice and not so touristy parts, too. Just get away from Honolulu and Waikiki. And it’s often cheaper, faster, and easier for a quick long-weekeend trip to just go to Oahu.

    But as others already commented: definitely go back to see the active volcano in Volcano Natioonal Park. And also go up to the telescopes on Mauna Kea.

  5. Just back from Oahu and Kauai yesterday. First time to Hawaii. I totally agree on Oahu–no reason to go there ever again. Luckily we were only there for 3 nights. The 5 nights in Kauai was our best vacation ever. We already made plans to return to Kauai next year!

  6. There are plenty of reasons to go to Oahu. The trick is to get away from Waikiki. The North Shore is wonderful. So are the parks on the east coast. The problem is that they are neither particularly easy nor affordable to get to. It can be done; it just means spending a bit more time and money to do so.

    Given the options available on the other islands I figure it is worth it to just try those rather than stay in Waikiki these days.

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