While Hawaii is technically part of the United States, over 2,000 miles and a slew of cultural differences separate the islands from the US mainland. Hawaii is a veritable melting pot, and the modern culture of the islands is a stew of Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Asian, Portuguese, and American influence that is unlike anywhere else in the states.
It’s all too easy for the uninformed traveler to make a cultural faux pas. To ensure that you quickly fall into rhythm with the islands, maximize your experience, and lessen your footprint on your first visit, here is the complete lowdown on WHAT NOT TO DO IN HAWAII.
* In August of 2023, Maui wildfires devastated the town of Lahaina. The recovery will take years. Please be respectful to the community and the land as you visit the unrestricted areas of West Maui. DO NOT try to access any restricted areas. They will be clearly marked as a reminder. Please consider volunteering on your visit to Maui as a way to show your appreciation for this beautiful place.
1. Don’t touch or get too close to wildlife- turtles, dolphins, monk seals, and nenes.
Not only are these animals endangered, but touching them can pass diseases between you and them (did you know sea turtles carry salmonella?). In addition, many of the animals you encounter in Hawaii are ʻaumakua. ʻAumakua are family-specific and represent physical manifestations of deceased ancestors (take the manta ray in the movie Moana, for example). Touching an animal is disrespectful to the animal itself and the ʻaumakua they represent. Remember to give them plenty of space as well, and just in case you were wondering, no, there are no snakes in Hawaii to worry about.
2. Don’t touch or walk on coral.
Just because you’re wearing water shoes doesn’t mean you should step on the reef. Sure, your feet won’t get cut up, but coral reefs are living organisms vital to the ocean’s health. Stepping on or touching corals can severely damage or even kill them.
3. Don’t take lava rocks home.
Taking lava rocks home also means you are packing Madame Pele’s curse home with you. Don’t believe in curses? In 2017, Haleakala National Park on Maui received over 100 packages a month containing lava rocks people had swiped from the park. Most packages included apology letters to Madame Pele detailing accounts of unescapable bad luck that had struck them since taking the rocks home. The same goes for sand and coral.
4. Don’t forget to throw shaka when someone lets you into your lane.
If someone lets you go in traffic, toss them a wave or shaka. It’s the island way.
5. Don’t avoid Hawaiian/local food.
The haupia pie or spam breakfast from McDonald’s doesn’t count. Instead, stop by a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall or food truck to get an authentic taste of island cuisine. Hawaiian fares include lau lau, poi, and kalua pig, but modern-day island eats span the likes of spam musubi, chow fun, and plate lunches complete with white rice and mac salad. On Maui, try Braddah Hutts in Hana, Sam Sato’s, or Piko Cafe. A Maui luau is another great way to try a lot of Hawaiian food all at once.
6. Don’t underestimate the sun.
One application of sunscreen for a whole day in the sun is not enough- and if you don’t believe me today, you will understand what I mean tomorrow when your skin is a fiery shade of crimson. Sunscreen and shade is the name of the game. It is also very important to make sure that you are using reef-safe sunscreen to prevent any further damage to our delicate reefs.
7. Don’t use sunscreen that’s not reef-safe.
In addition to sun protection, it’s essential to keep the reef in mind when lathering up. While oxybenzone and octinoxate, the two worst chemicals for reef health, have been banned in Hawaii, mineral-based sunscreens are the safest option for the reef. Non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are two reef-safe ingredients. Check out this article on reef-safe sunscreen.
8. Don’t forget to give other beachgoers space while setting up for the day.
Unfortunately, many visitors are oblivious to this because they don’t know any better. When setting up for a beach day, give others their space. If you see chairs and towels laid out on the sand, don’t set your stuff up three feet from theirs- especially if there is an entire empty beach to enjoy. Unless it’s a crazy-crowded day at the beach, try to give others at least 10 feet of breathing room. It’s just another way of respecting someone’s bubble.
9. Don’t call everyone who lives in Hawaii ‘Hawaiian.’
While calling someone from California a ‘Californian’ might fly, it’s not the same in Hawaii. Hawaiian is an ethnicity also known as kanaka maoli. Someone born and raised in Hawaii might be Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, or Caucasian, but they are not Hawaiian unless they’re of Hawaiian descent.
10. Don’t pack your passport for the flight.
I shouldn’t even have to mention this one, but… You don’t need your passport unless you’re traveling to Hawaii from outside the United States. Hawaii is the 50th state (est. 1959).
11. Don’t forget to pull over for other drivers on narrow country roads, particularly the Road to Hana on Maui.
For visitors, Hana Highway is a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime scenic drive. However, the sinuous 50-mile highway is the lifeline to school, work, grocery stores, and medical care for Hana residents. Believe it or not, some people live in Hana and work in Kahului. After working all day, the last thing they want is to be stuck behind an endless chain of rental cars driving 10 miles under the speed limit. Therefore, it’s imperative to pull over and let others pass, even if you think you’re leading a caravan of other visitors. A local mother might be trying to get home to her kids after work, stuck at the end of a trail of 15 rental cars. The bottom line is to remember that people live and work along the road to Hana, and vacationers are not the only drivers on the road. The same goes for other narrow backcountry roads around the state. It is hard to have a relaxing drive with someone in your rearview mirror, so pull over for a quick second and let them pass. You will usually hear a light horn tap to show appreciation or see a shaka and a smile from the driver. Then you can resume your cruise at your pace.
12. Don’t park in no-parking zones or with your car sticking out into the street.
While this is also crucial on the road to Hana, this goes for anywhere in Hawaii. If there are no parking signs, they are likely there for a reason. Don’t park there! Additionally, if you’re trying to park on the side of the road, but your car can’t fit on the shoulder, don’t park there. Visitors parking half in the street have caused major traffic jams and backups on the road to Hana (so often that it prompted the county to put up no parking signs in the areas with the worst, most frequent offenses).
13. Don’t trespass.
Trespassing to get to beautiful places is an issue all around the state. Most people don’t like it when strangers go tromping through their yard unannounced- so skip the destination if it’s located on private property. KAPU is another sign you may see, which basically means that this is a sacred area, and we are prepared to defend it. That is not a situation you want to see played out, so it’s best to choose a different destination.
14. Don’t assume every island is the same.
Each island has its own flavor. The Big Island is raw and wild, with active volcanoes, beautiful beaches, and vast swathes of empty land. Maui is known for its upscale resorts, laid-back vibe, and countless activities. Oahu is the hustle and bustle isle- the pulse of the Pacific. Great surf, great restaurants, nightlife, shopping, and iconic historical sites characterize this island. Over on Kauai, nature is the star of the show and is perfect for people who just want to kick back and relax, hike, or explore.
15. Don’t cross a busy street without using a crosswalk.
While we’re all guilty of jaywalking at some point in our lives, crossing a quiet street is much different than crossing a busy intersection willy-nilly. In some busy tourist areas, watching people dart across the road is like observing a dangerous game of Frogger. Don’t step out into the road with your kids in tow, expecting drivers to see you and stop for you- just play it safe and use a crosswalk.
16. Don’t ignore posted warning signs or weather alerts.
While Hawaii may seem an idyllic place, the ocean and weather can be volatile and unforgiving. Always pay attention to posted warning signs like high surf, strong currents, jellyfish present, and dangerous shore break, and be wary of weather alerts like flash flooding.
17. Don’t wear shoes in someone else’s home.
This quirky custom was adopted from Japanese culture. Now, removing your shoes is commonplace in every household in Hawaii.
18. Don’t leave valuables unattended in your car.
Leaving a purse or camera visible in your car is an easy way to become a victim of a smash-and-grab theft. Some thieves even watch parking areas to see if people stash valuables in their trunks. To avoid getting your valuables swiped, either bring them with you on your person, leave them at the hotel, or discreetly hide them so they’re not visible in the car. A small backpack with water, sunscreen, snacks, and valuables like a wallet, keys, and cell phone usually does the trick.
19. Don’t smoke on the beach.
Cigarette smoking on beaches in Hawaii is illegal, and it kind of ruins the vibe for everyone else. So don’t do it- just enjoy the fresh salty air.
20. Don’t wander off-trail.
Traipsing off-trail can not only get you lost, but it can also spread invasive species into sensitive areas and crush native insects and plant seedlings. There are many rare, endemic species in the wilderness of Hawaii. Please help preserve their well-being by staying on the marked trails. This is a very important “What Not To Do In Hawaii.”
21. Don’t get distracted by ocean views or whales while driving.
There are some incredibly scenic highways in Hawaii. It’s easy to get distracted by the views or a breaching whale. Unfortunately, this has caused car accidents in the past- which is one of the worst things that can happen while on vacation. Keep your eyes on the road and wait until you arrive at a scenic lookout (there are plenty) to do your admiring. Or take a whale-watching tour.
22. Don’t swim in brown or murky water.
Brown or murky water is not the norm in Hawaii. Brown water usually occurs after heavy rains, flash floods, or near river mouths and runoffs. Swimming in murky water is a bad idea for several reasons. For starters, sharks feed in murky waters and near river mouths, which can carry dead animals out to sea. Secondly, brown water is usually high in bacteria, and swimming in it with even the smallest open cut can result in a nasty staph infection- which is extremely common in Hawaii.
23. Don’t visit without learning about the culture and history of the islands.
Hawaiian culture and history are nothing short of fascinating. Learning about the navigation techniques of ancient Polynesian voyagers, the incredible resourcefulness of the Hawaiian people, and even the formation of the islands themselves will only elevate your experience in Hawaii. In addition, understanding Hawaii’s statehood story will offer insight into attitudes surrounding specific issues in the islands today. Stop by a local museum, check if your hotel has any cultural activities, or connect with a cultural practitioner.
24. Don’t overload your itinerary.
Packing your Maui itinerary solid will only leave you feeling more drained and stressed out than before your vacation. Instead, plan a few things, adjust to island time, and understand that you can’t do everything in one trip. After all, if you miss a few things, it only gives you more reason to return.
25. Don’t expect perfect weather 24/7, 365.
Hawaii’s famous rainbows, rainforests, and waterfalls wouldn’t be possible without a little- or sometimes a lot- of rain. Some of Hawaii’s peaks are among the rainiest in the world, like Kauai’s Mt. Waiʻaleʻale and Maui’s Mauna Kalahawai. Typically you can head to a different side of the island to escape the rain, but windward towns like Hilo on the Big Island and Hana on Maui see a bit of rain almost every day. If it rains, just shake it off and understand the wet weather only contributes to Hawaii’s epic beauty. Rain tends to move quickly across the islands, and the phrase, “Just wait five minutes,” proves true a lot of the time.
26. Don’t forget to tip.
Hawaii is among one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. While most people are well-versed in restaurant tipping etiquette, don’t forget to tip your tour guide, taxi driver, server, valet, housekeeping, etc.
27. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself and perpetuate the spirit of aloha.
Things don’t always go as planned, and that’s ok, even on a long-awaited vacation. If you hit a minor bump in the road, remember to breathe, smile, and treat everyone with the same respect that you would want to be treated with.