With their fiery volcanoes, palm-fringed beaches, verdant valleys, glorious rainbows and awesome cliffs, the islands of Hawaii boast some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery on earth. Despite their isolation, two thousand miles out in the Pacific, they belong very definitely to the United States. Pulling in more than seven million tourists per year, the fiftieth state can seem at times like a gigantic theme park.
Honolulu, on Oahu, is by far the largest city in Hawaii, while Waikiki, its resort annexe, is the main tourist centre. Three other islands attract sizeable numbers of visitors: Hawaii itself, also known as the Big Island in a vain attempt to avoid confusion, Maui and Kauai. All the islands share a similar topography and climate. Ocean winds shed their rain on their northeast, windward coasts, keeping them wet and green; the southwest, leeward (or “Kona”) coasts can be almost barren, and so make ideal locations for big resorts. While temperatures remain consistent all year at between 70°F and 85°F, rainfall is heaviest from December to March, which nonetheless remains the most popular time to visit. Although a visit to Hawaii doesn’t have to cost a fortune, the one major expense you can’t avoid, except possibly on Oahu, is car rental.
See our comprehensive first-timers-guide to the Hawaiian islands for more detail on each of the six freely visited islands, and keep reading for more history and contemporary context.
Each of the Hawaiian islands was forced up like a vast mass of candle drippings by submarine volcanic action. The “hot spot” that fuelled them all has remained stationary as the Pacific plate drifts above. That process continues at Kilauea on the Big Island, where lava explodes into the sea to add new land day by day, while the oldest islands are now mere atolls way to the northwest. Until two thousand years ago, these unknown specks were populated only by the few plants, birds and animals carried here by wind or wave. The first known human inhabitants were the Polynesians, who arrived in two principal migrations: from the Marquesas from around 200 AD, and another from Tahiti several centuries later.
No western ship chanced upon Hawaii until Captain Cook reached Kauai in 1778. He was amazed to find a civilization sharing a culture – and language – with the peoples of the South Pacific. Although Cook himself was killed on the Big Island in 1779, his visit started an irreversible process of change. In reshaping the islands to suit their needs, Westerners decimated the indigenous flora and fauna – as well as the Hawaiians themselves. Cook’s men estimated that there were a million islanders; the population today is roughly the same, but barely eight thousand pure-blood Hawaiians are left.
Within a few years of Cook’s arrival, Kamehameha became the first king to unite all the islands. However, exposure to the world economy swiftly devastated Hawaii’s traditional way of life. White advisers and ministers soon dominated the government, and the descendants of the first missionaries from New England became Hawaii’s most powerful class. As the US grew increasingly reliant on Hawaiian-grown sugar, Hawaii moved inexorably towards annexation. In 1887 an all-white group of “concerned businessmen” forced King David Kalakaua to surrender power, and subsequently called in a US warship and declared a provisional republican government. US President Cleveland (a Democrat) responded that “Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands…(It) was wholly without justification…not merely a wrong but a disgrace”.
On August 12, 1898, Hawaii was formally annexed as a territory of the United States. Its ultimate integration into the American mainstream was hastened by its crucial role in the war against Japan, and the expansion of tourism thereafter. The islands finally became the fiftieth of the United States in 1959, after a plebiscite showed a seventeen-to-one majority in favour. The only group to oppose statehood were the few remaining native Hawaiians.
Roughly sixty percent of the 1.4-million modern Hawaiians were born here. Around 38 percent are of Asian descent and 26 percent Caucasian, with 150,000 claiming at least some Hawaiian ancestry. With agriculture in decline, the need to import virtually all the basics of life results in a high cost of living.
Few vestiges of ancient Hawaii remain. What is presented as “historic” usually postdates the missionary impact. Ruined temples (heiaus) to the old gods still stand in some places, but Hawaii’s “old towns” are pure nineteenth-century Americana, with false-front stores and raised wooden boardwalks. While authentic hula is a powerful art form, you’re most likely to encounter it bastardized in a luau. Primarily tourist money-spinners, these “traditional feasts” provide an opportunity to sample Hawaiian foods such as kalua pig, baked underground, and local fish such as ono, ahi, mahi-mahi and lomi-lomi (raw salmon).
The Hawaiian language endures primarily in place names and music. At first glance it looks unpronounceable – especially as its written form uses just twelve letters (the five vowels, plus h, k, l, m, n, p, and w) – but each letter is enunciated individually, and long words break down into repeated sounds, such as “meha-meha” in “Kamehameha”.