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Six expert tips for experiencing Hawaii like a local.
The Hawaiian Islands are not a big place, comprising eight major islands and a variety of smaller islets and atolls scattered across 1,500 ocean miles from the Big Island of Hawai’i in the south to Kure Atoll in the North. Roughly 1.5 million full-time residents live on a land mass that encompasses a little more than 6,400 square miles.
No, the 50th state in the union is not a big place. And when 8 million visitors descend on the islands each year for their eagerly anticipated vacations, it’s perhaps understandable to assume that there is little left to be discovered — and no real way to have an authentic Hawaiian experience.
Understandable, but not correct. We recently sat down with Camilla Aluli from Funjet Vacations, who has lived all her life in the Hawaiian Islands, to talk about how visitors can get a deeper sense of place and take home memories of their experiences that are both unparalleled and priceless.
1. Stroll through the villages.
When you break away from the tourist path, you have plentiful opportunities to visit real island communities. There, you can stroll though different neighborhoods, eat in local restaurants, and peruse the wares in mom-and-pop shops.
“When you get away from the resort areas, you have the chance to really be part of a local community,” Aluli said. “You get to experience how local people do business, and you can consume the foods and drinks they consume.”
Some of Aluli’s favorite spots include Kilauea and Hanapepe on Kauai; Holualoa and Honoka’a on the Big Island; Makawao and Ulupalakua on Maui; and Haleiwa and the historic Downtown/Chinatown neighborhood on Oahu.
“If you want to feel connected with Hawai’i, go places where you can talk with the local people,” Aluli advised.
2. Visit the farmers markets.
One of the greatest adventures in travel is a culinary one, and discerning visitors will want to savor the flavors of each place they visit. A great way to do this is to find the farmers markets.
“You’ll get to see all the produce and flowers, and you’ll meet the locals who are buying and selling,” Aluli said. “You’ll get a real feel for what we have here.”
Communities host farmers markets all over the islands. Aluli suggested visiting the Big Island’s new Hāmākua Harvest Farmers Market at Honoka’a, which just opened in September.
“I also recommend the KCC Farmers Market on Diamond Head Road (southeast of downtown Honolulu),” she said. “You can walk to it, and you can have coffee and breakfast up there.”
3. Attend locals’ events.
“If you’re visiting the islands, make sure to attend dances, musical performances, festivals and rodeos that aren’t staged for tourists,” Aluli said. “Then you will have an authentic experience.”
A few suggestions: Waikiki Ho’olaulea on Oahu; the Makawao Rodeo and County Fair on Maui; and the Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Festivals, May Day Festivals and Aloha Festivals, which are held on all of the islands.
If you’ll be on Oahu in November or December, be sure to catch Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing on the north shore, which is celebrated for its winter waves. And don’t worry about missing the hula; Aluli said most festivals include the traditional dance.
4. Discover the Heritage Sites of Hawai’i.
Most people know that the islands are home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Each year, more than 2.5 million people visit the famous 333,000-acre park, which is also home to the most massive mountain in the world, 13,679-foot Mauna Loa.
Fewer people are aware that the islands are home to a wide variety of additional heritage sites. While they are often overlooked, Aluli said, these treasures add valuable, rich layers to a visitor’s Hawaiian experience.
You can explore the heritage sites on Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui and Hawai’i Island here.
5. Explore the crater of a dormant volcano.
Did you know that the quietest place on earth is the crater of the Haleakalā volcano in Haleakalā National Park on Maui? Park staff members report that, on some days, they can’t get decibel readings at all — beyond the sound of metal fatigue in the recording equipment. That’s pretty quiet.
This is partly due to the fact that the area was originally set aside in 1916 as part of Hawaii National Park (and separated into its own national park in 1961). It’s also due to several unique factors: certain areas are almost devoid of life, the bowl and cinder cones offer shelter from the wind, and the altitude changes the way sound moves.
“It’s an almost lunar landscape,” Aluli said. “In places, you will see some really cool plants. You can stop at a lookout with views across the crater, but for a more immersive experience, you need to go in. Believe it or not, you can go horseback riding in there!”
6. Hike wild Maui.
While there may not be a lot of things left unknown in the Hawaiian Islands, you can still find places to go for a walk on the wild side. Aluli recommends the Maunalei Arboretum, near the Kapalua Resort in west Maui.
The remote, little-traveled arboretum’s hiking trails provide unforgettable access to the West Maui Mountains. Known to locals as Maui Komohana, these slopes are part of an eroded shield volcano that last erupted roughly 320,000 years ago.
“The arboretum is mysterious and wild,” Aluli said. “It’s not cultivated in any way. Depending on the weather, you can see waterfalls, and the hikes aren’t hard. You’ll see things you wouldn’t normally see on a walk, and if you’re looking for a little adventure, you can even hike down to a secluded beach. I personally love the transition from mountains to ocean there. It’s very calming.”
If you’re interested in identifying plants and learning more about local history, you can do organized arboretum tours. Otherwise, just lace up those hiking boots and get out there.
To find out more about Hawaiian vacations, visit Blue Sky Tours.