10 things you didn't know about Hawaii

There's more to everyone's fantasy holiday destination than blue skies, white sand and cocktails at sunset.

Honolulu's coastline - where city kisses the reef.
  • Kait Hanson
  • November 2018

You might think you know what to expect in the Aloha State, but there’s more to it than lazy days by picture-perfect tropical beaches. A Honolulu local busts some common myths about everything from Polynesian culture to climate and yes, luaus.

Hawaii isn’t all just white sandy beaches

While Hawaii does have some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, not all of them are white or golden – you’ll find red, green and black sand, due to minerals in the volcanic sand on Big Island and Maui. Beyond the stretch of coast are lush jungles, majestic mountain ranges including Ko’olau on Oahu, active volcanoes like Mauna Loa on the Big Island and dormant ones such as Maui’s Haleakala. Honolulu is also an urban destination with upscale boutiques, restaurants and the world’s largest open-air shopping mall, Ala Moana Center.

Not everyone in Hawaii is Hawaiian

Native Hawaiians, an aboriginal race of people who made their way to the islands from French Polynesia around 300AD, make up a small subset of the population. In fact, there is no dominant race, with people from all cultures and nationalities calling Hawaii home – only about 54 per cent of the 1.4 million people who live across the islands of Big Island, Oahu, Niihau, Kauai, Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe were actually born there. Part of Hawaii’s multicultural population can be traced to the 20th-century wave of migrant workers from Asia, who came to work at Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

The Big Island is not home to the capital

While the Big Island gets its name honestly in landmass (it’s 10,432 square kilometres), Oahu is the most densely populated and is also home to capital city Honolulu.

The Big Island is an eerie landscape.
The Big Island is an eerie landscape.

There is plenty to do that doesn’t cost much

Hiking, snorkelling, the beaches and sites such as Pearl Harbor or the Byodo-In Buddhist temple are free or inexpensive – think $13 a day to rent snorkel gear. For low-priced ono grinds (Pidgin for “delicious food”), try roadside food trucks offering garlic shrimp, fresh fruit smoothies, kalbi plates (Korean-style barbecued beef short ribs) and more.

Shave ice is different from a snow cone

Brought to the islands in the 1880s by Japanese labourers who craved kakigori – a frozen dessert – shave ice is now an iconic Hawaiian staple. Unlike American-style snow cones that use crushed ice, shave ice is created by shaving a large block of ice and topping it with sweetened fruit syrup and condensed milk. Today, it is commonly served with an ice-cream cone with add-ins such as adzuki beans and mochi (Japanese rice cake).

Shave ice is a refreshing way to cool off.
Shave ice is a refreshing way to cool off.

It’s not always sunny

Tropical showers, more common during the rainy season from November to March, provide a welcome midday cool-down and often produce colourful rainbows that stretch from mauka (mountain) to makai (ocean). True adventurers can summit peaks such as Big Island’s 4205-metre Mauna Kea. It takes about eight hours to hike the 10 kilometres to witness snow in a climate that ranges from tropical to sub-arctic.

A luau is traditionally reserved for special occasions

Locals are only likely to attend a luau – an alfresco feast with music, entertainment and hula dancing – for special occasions such as a first birthday or high-school graduation. The modern-day luau still features many of the traditional customs dating back to the early 1800s but you won’t have to gatecrash a local celebration to check one out – most large hotels organise them for tourists, offering traditional dishes such as poi (pounded taro plant), kalua pig smoked in an imu (underground oven) and haupia (coconut pudding).

A timeless dance known as hula.
A timeless dance known as hula.

Sea turtles are federally protected

Touching or disturbing Hawaiian green sea turtles, locally known as honu, attracts a hefty fine. Other wild locals you might encounter but should never harass include the humpback whale, spinner dolphin, tiger shark, Hawaiian monk seal, mongoose and nene, the state bird.

The sea turtles here are curious and friendly.
The sea turtles here are curious and friendly.

No celebration is complete without a lei

This necklace of fresh flowers strung together is a respected sign of love in Hawaiian culture. Whether you are being welcomed to the islands or attending a luau, expect to get lei’d. Lei Day, observed annually on May 1, marks a statewide celebration of the aloha spirit, complete with parades and contests across the islands.

Hawaii is the only US state that grows coffee commercially

With its tropical climate, elevation and rich soil, coffee farming has been booming in Hawaii for over a century. Kona coffee, the most renowned, is only grown on the Big Island. Heralded for their complex flavour, the beans are available at most local coffee shops to take home. Many coffee farms welcome visitors to pop in for a tour and tasting too.