Aerial view of Kualoa, area of Oahu, Hawaii

Travel Guide: Aloha, Hawaii! Learn about Hawaii’s Amazing History on Your Next Trip

When we talk about travel, each person has his own set of ideas regarding what to look for at a destination. Or what comprises a wholesome trip ! For some, basking in the security of a home-like feeling in a foreign land is the most fulfilling, whereas for others, it’s the uniqueness of a place that attracts them. While some travelers prefer resorts to maximize luxury, others are avid couchsurfers who prefer a more authentic local experience. As for me personally, the most important thing that attracts me to a particular place is its culture. To understand a destination, one must know how it came to be. That’s one of the reasons I usually pay a lot of attention to history. Places, just like people, have a past that defines them. The scars they hide, the tales of glory they resound or the songs of love that they sing all together account for the enigma that they are today. Therefore, to get the best out of them, one would be wise to devote them some time and love. And eyes, of course ! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about Hawaii.

Deviating from the norm, I would leave the luring business with fun facts for later. Hawaii is not the place you need to be lured to. It’s a dream vacation that everyone is willing to run off to at the first chance. So, assuming that you are already making plans, let me help you with something more valuable – background of the rich heritage that this archipelago possesses, which the people of Hawaii want you to know and not what the world has told you about them. And no, their history doesn’t start with Captain Cook and the missionaries but instead goes back thousands of years. 

Hawaii is a group of volcanic islands in the central Pacific Ocean, and a constituent state of US, with its capital island, Honolulu, located on the island of Oahu. Comprising a fleet of 137 islands, 8 of them are habitable and the rest of the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands make up most of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the largest protected area in the U.S. and the third largest in the world. Often called the Crossroads of the Pacific, the state is strategically important to the global defense system of the United States and serves as a transportation hub of the Pacific basin. Called “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean” by Mark Twain, Hawaii was named after the proto-Polynesian word “hawaiki,” which translates roughly to “place of the gods,” or simply, “homeland.”

Hawaii’s history and heritage

Hawaii Heritage
Photo by Luke McKeown on Unsplash
  • Ancient Hawaii – According to Smithsonian, the Hawaiian Islands were first inhabited around 400 BC when Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, 2000 miles away, traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island in canoes. They were highly skilled as farmers and fishermen and lived in small groups ruled by chieftains and were mostly involved in small territorial battles with other groups.  A second wave of migration from Raiatea and Bora Bora took place in the 11th century.  According to some archaeologists and historians, “it was a later wave of immigrants from Tahiti around AD 1000 who introduced a new line of high chiefs, the kapu system, the practice of human sacrifice, and the building of heiau. This later immigration is detailed in Hawaiian mythology (moʻolelo) about Paʻao.” According to Barbara A West, author of “Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania”, the ancient Hawaiian society was caste based, similar to Hindu society in India. Thus, the Hawaiians had a thriving culture of their own before the advent of Europeans, who subsequently stripped the native inhabitants of their power, land and culture. 
  • European Settlement – In 1778, Captain James Cook became the first European to set foot on the archipelago. Atleast he the first one to document it even if some Spaniards may have been believed to have explored them in the 16th C. He named it “The Sandwich Islands” after the Earl of Sandwich. After returning to Hawaii a year later, he was killed in a confrontation with Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay, on Hawaii’s Big Island. After Cook’s visit and the publication of several books relating his voyages, the Hawaiian Islands attracted many European visitors: explorers, traders, and eventually whalers, who found the islands to be a convenient harbor and source of supplies. These visitors introduced diseases to the once-isolated islands, causing the Hawaiian population to drop precipitously. Native Hawaiians had no resistance to Eurasian diseases, such as influenza, smallpox and measles. By 1820, disease, famine and wars between the chiefs killed more than half of the Native Hawaiian population. During the 1850s, measles killed a fifth of Hawaii’s people. 
  • Kingdom of Hawaii – It originated in 1795, when the warrior chief Kamehameha the Great, of the independent island of Hawaii, conquered the independent islands of Oahu, Maui, Molokai, and Lānai and unified them under one government. In 1810, the whole Hawaiian archipelago became unified when Kauai and Niihau joined the Hawaiian Kingdom voluntarily. The Kamehameha Dynasty ruled the kingdom until 1872. Hawaii’s first king, who died in 1819, is still feted with floral parades every June 11, King Kamehameha Day. In 1874, Kalakaua Dynasty took over the reins of Hawaii and ruled until 1893 when Queen Liliuokalani, the queen regent and monarch of Hawaiian Kingdom was deposed, imprisoned and forced to abdicate by the American Colonists with help from US Marines and established Republic of Hawaii (1894-98). Booklovers can grab a copy of “Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii Queen” written by Queen Liliuokalani for brilliant insights into Hawaiian history of that time. She is also the author of “Aloha Oe”, signature Hawaiian song, and continues to remain a heroine in the hearts of people. Her residence, Honolulu’s Iolani Palace, is open to the public for tours and concerts. One interesting must know fact here is that in 1993, a century after the US coup on Hawaiian Monarchy, President Bill Clinton acknowledged the injustice of that coup and issued a formal apology.
  • Annexation of Hawaii – In 1889, US finally annexed Hawaii after passing the Newlands Resolution 1898. The move was mainly motivated by the American elites, capitalists and plantation owners. Despite several moves to get statehood, Hawaii remained a territory for 60 years as these capitalists found territorial status convenient because they remained able to import cheap, foreign labor. Such immigration and labor practices were prohibited in many states. This period also witnessed several subsequent waves of migration from Puerto Rico and Korea. The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor on Oahu Islands, Hawaii remain one of the most significant events of history. I bet most of us have read about Hawaii in the context of Pearl Harbor and Pineapples ofcourse !
  • Statehood to Hawaii – After constant rallying by the citizens, Hawaii finally gained statehood in 1959 and to date remains a democratic stronghold. The Hawaii Admissions Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower and in a watershed referendum, people of Hawaii voted in favor of statehood and made it the 50th constituent state of the USA. 

People and culture

People and Culture in Hawaii
Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Black African, white — in Hawaii, there is no single dominant group, and one-quarter of its population is mixed race. In fact, Hawaii is the most ethnically and racially diverse state in the country. Hawaii is a giant melting pot of different cultures. The “Aloha Spirit,” however commercialized it has become, is reflective of the way many diverse groups live together on the small islands.  Factors like Polynesian immigration, Tahiti immigration, European settlement, US annexation, Missionaries and  Conversions to Christianity have all played a role in the development of the culture that modern day Hawaii displays. Subsequent waves of Puerto Rican, Korean and Chinese waves of immigration of contract laborers have also heavily contributed to the demographic profile.  Each group brought its own customs, languages, and religions into the Hawaiian way of life, broadening it far beyond its Polynesian cultural origins. The descendants of these later settlers now far outnumber the descendants of the original Hawaiians.

Hawaii’s cultural milieu is the result of overlay after overlay of varied cultural groups. The traditions of many ethnic groups have become mainstream in contemporary Hawaii, including the celebration of the Chinese New Year in late January/February and the annual Japanese Bon festival in July/August. 1970s saw a renaissance of the original Polynesian Hawaiian culture with resurgence of the hula, the voyaging canoe, the art of tattooing, and its music and language. Both Hawaiian and English are the official languages here. However, you will find most natives speaking Pidgin – the unofficial Hawaiian language. So if they have to say that the restaurant is “closed”, the signboard will read “We Stay Close”. “Smoked Fish” in Pidgin will read as “Smoke Fish”. People are just averse to using D. And in Hawaii, you’ve got to do it the Hawaiian way.

Read more about the amazing traditions and customs of Hawaii here.

Must have experiences in Hawaii

Oahu – Photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

Out of the 8 habited islands in Hawaii, only 6 are open to tourists. They are – KauaiOahuMolokaiLanaiMaui, and the island of HawaiiTo decide which island to visit, checkout this amazing blog here.

  • Checkout the Heritage sites of Hawaii – Hawaii’s rich past comes to vivid life at incredible historical sites that help us understand the historical, cultural, and environmental forces that shaped Hawaii as we know it today.
    • Oahu – Called The Gathering Place, it’s the heart of Hawaii and home to Honolulu. 
      • Bishop Museum: Founded in 1889, it houses more than 24 million cultural and natural treasures from Hawaii and Polynesia.
      • Leahi (Diamond Head) State Monument: The iconic crater sitting at the edge of Waikiki is named Leahi (forehead of the ahi fish) due to its profile resembling that of the fish. 
      • Iolani Palace State Monument: Built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, Iolani Palace was home to Hawaii’s last reigning monarch and is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
      • National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific: The history of the United States military in Hawaii reaches back to the late 1800s. Also called “Punchbowl” for its location inside a crater, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific was established in 1949 as a final resting place for those who served in the armed forces.
      • Nuuanu Pali State Wayside: The lookout on these steep cliffs offer panoramic views of the Koolau mountain range and the east side of the island. This was the site of the Battle of Nuuanu, where Kamehameha the Great defeated Oahu forces and brought the island under his rule.
      • Pearl Harbor: On Dec. 7, 1941, Oahu was struck by a surprise Japanese military attack that pulled America into World War II. Most of the destruction was centered at Pearl Harbor. Today, visitors can learn about that pivotal point in world history at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which includes the USS Arizona Memorial.
      • Hanaiakamalama – Queen Emma Summer Palace: The summer retreat of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV, it houses a collection of the Queen’s personal belongings and furnishings.
      • Washington Place: This historic home named for President George Washington was the center of critical events that changed the course of Hawaii – it was the home and prison of Queen Liliuokalani, and later served as the residence of Hawaii’s governor.
    • Kauai – Called the Garden Island, it’s the 4th largest island in Hawaii. The oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain is draped in emerald valleys, sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs aged by time and the elements. Centuries of growth have formed tropical rainforests, forking rivers and cascading waterfalls. It offers scope for a variety of water and land activities and sports.
      • Kayak Wailua River
      • Snorkel on Poipu Beach
      • Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse: On a rocky peninsula, the 52-foot lighthouse was commissioned in 1913 and was dedicated to U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye in 2013. The point is also a national wildlife refuge for seabirds.
      • Waimea Canyon State Park: Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, it was carved by the Waimea River, which receives its water from Mount Waialeale.
    • Island of Hawaii/Big Island– It is the youngest and largest island in the Hawaiian chain. Travel through all but four of the world’s different climate zones here, ranging from Wet Tropical to Polar Tundra, a result of the shielding effect and elevations of the massive volcanoes Maunakea and Maunaloa.
      • Akaka Falls State Park: See two of the most dramatic waterfalls, Akaka Falls (442 feet) and Kahuna Falls (100 feet), on this scenic self-guided walk.
      • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, make up Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
      • Hulihee Palace: A former summer home for Hawaiian royalty, Hulihee Palace is at the center of Historic Kailua Village. Across Kailua Bay lies Kamakahonu and Ahuena Heiau, the royal residence of King Kamehameha. And across Alii Drive you can see Mokuaikaua Church, Hawaii’s first Christian church.
      • Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park: Preserving Hawaiian culture, the Koloko-Honokohau National Historical Park encompasses two ahupuaa (land divisions), protecting archaeological sites such as fishponds, heiau (temples) and house sites, where visitors can see first-hand what life in ancient Hawaii was like.
      • Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park: It is the site of a heiau (temple) to Lono, and also the site one of Hawaii’s most significant historical turning points – Captain James Cook first landed on the island here in 1779. The largest sheltered bay on the island of Hawaii, Kealakekua Bay is also a marine life conservation district.
      • Lapakahi State Historical Park: On the Kohala Coast, a 600-year-old Hawaiian fishing village is being preserved in archaeological sites that make up Lapakahi State Historical Park. 
      • Lyman Mission House and Museum: Built in 1839 for Christian missionaries David and Sarah Lyman, the historic Lyman Mission House offers tours to give visitors a feel for early missionary life in the Islands. Next door, the Lyman Museum, established in 1931, has artifacts and natural history exhibits on view.
      • Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park: A Native Hawaiian puuhonua (place of refuge for lawbreakers) and royal village, the South Kona national park includes heiau (temples) with carved wooden kii (statues), fishponds, and other archaeological sites.
      • Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site: Thousands of people built Puukohola Heiau by hand in 1791 for Kamehameha the Great, who dedicated it to the war god Kukailimoku. The temple was part of a prophecy that was fulfilled when Kamehameha succesfully united the Hawaiian islands.
    • Lanai – The smallest inhabited island in Hawaii, Lanai offers big enticements to its visitors. Only nine miles from Maui, yet a world away, Lanai can feel like two places. The first is found in luxurious resorts where visitors can indulge in world-class amenities and championship-level golf. The other is found bouncing along the island’s rugged back roads in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle to explore off-the-beaten-path treasures.
      • Kaunolu Village – An archeological site, it contains the largest remains of prehistoric Hawaii. 
    • Luau – One of the most festive experiences to be had on a visit to the Hawaiian Islands is a luau – a Hawaiian feast featuring lively music and vibrant cultural performances from Hawaii and greater Polynesia.
  • Adventures in Hawaii – Checkout this list compiled by National Geographic to experience some heart racing adventures in Hawaii.
    • Water Adventures
      • Surfing – No place better to ride those waves than the birthplace of surfing itself.
      • Snorkeling & Scuba – Come face to face with tropical fish, spotted eagle rays and green sea turtles on an underwater adventure in Hawaii’s 1,200 miles of coral reef.
      • Mountain Tubing – Strap on a headlamp and hop into a tube to explore inland canals, tunnels and flumes on this only-in-Kauai adventure.
      • Parasailing – get a bird’s eye view of Hawaii’s breathtaking coastline from up to 1,200 feet in the air
      • Deep Sea Fishing – Hawaii is home to some of the biggest marlin in the world as well as one of the oldest billfish tournaments, plus scores of other game fish – from wahoo to mahimahi to giant trevally.

Hawaiian cuisine

Hawaiian Cuisine
Poke – Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

The cuisine of Hawaii incorporates five distinct styles of food, reflecting the diverse food history of settlement and immigration in the Hawaiian Islands. Read a detailed blog on Hawaiian cuisine here.

  • Poi – The staple and traditional filler starch dish in Hawaiian cuisine is something known as poi. Poi is a thick paste made from taro root (similar to a yam or potato but with a starchy-er flavor) that is either steamed or baked and pounded. While pounding, water is added to the mixture to create a very sticky pudding like consistency.
  • Laulau –  It is made with pork wrapped in layers of taro leaves and cooked in an underground hot rock oven for hours until it turns soft and smoky flavored. The meat is tender and juicy while the leaves turn to a spinach like consistency.
  • Poke – Poke is the Hawaiian version of Japanese sashimi (raw fish). Hawaiian poke is served in bite sized hearty cubes. The most common type of fish is ahi (tuna), but a number of other kinds of fresh saltwater fish are also very commonly used.
  • Hawaiian Plate – For a classic Hawaiian plate, visit the James Beard Award-winning Helena’s Hawaiian Food, open since 1946. 1240 N. School Street, Honolulu
  • Shave Ice – Shave ice or Hawaiian shave ice is an ice-based dessert made by shaving a block of ice. You can read this post here to know more about this amazing sweet bomb.

Fun facts about Hawaii

  • The Hawaii state fish is the Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (aka reef triggerfish). The name means “trigger fish with a snout like a pig.” Charming, yeah? This is one of the longest words in the Hawaiian language and is an exceedingly long name for a relatively small fish (about 10 inches long). Just one of the many tongue-tangling facts about Hawaii!
  • From dry, coastal desert to snow-capped mountains, Hawaii Island is home to 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. 
  • Hawaiian alphabet only contains 12 letters — plus the ʻokina, written as an apostrophe and representing a break in a sound, which is why Hawai’i is locally pronounced as “Hawai-ee,” and the Kahakō, a line over a vowel that adds stress to that vowel. The ʻokina and kahakō change the sound of words so that words with the same Latin letters may have very different meanings.
  • The tallest mountain in the world is in HawaiiIt may be surprising to those who thought that distinction belonged to Mount Everest. While Mount Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, Hawaii island’s Maunakea is the tallest peak when measured from its base below sea level to its summit. Maunakea, the top of which even gets its share of snowfall, soars 33,500 feet up from the ocean floor.
  • The landmass of Hawaii is not finite but continues to grow. The Hawaiian islands are formed due to being situated atop a geothermal “hot spot” deep under the ocean’s surface. Hawaii Island is home to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, which is continuously erupting. The lava that spurts up hits sea level and creates new landmass, meaning there is more Hawaii being made every day.
  • Instead of a postcard, you can mail a coconut here. Beautiful, decked up and stamped coconuts with a message for $10-$12 USD. Sweet isn’t ?
  • Each Island has a Flower and a Color – This makes each island individual and unique, with flowers and colors that represent the people and the history of the island. The flowers and colors of the 8 main islands include:
    • Big Island of Hawaii:
      • Flower: Lehua Ohia
      • Color: red
    • Niihau
      • Flower: Pupu Shell
      • Color: white
    • Kauai
      • Flower: Mokihana
      • Color: Purple
    • Oahu
      • Flower: Illima
      • Color: Yellow
    • Maui
      • Flower: Lokelani
      • Color: Pink
    • Molokai
      • Flower: White Kukui Blossom
      • Color: Green
    • Lanai
      • Flower: Kaunaoa
      • Color: Orange
    • Kahoolawe
      • Flower: Hinahina
      • Color: Grey


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