Guest Post: Is Hawaii Worth It?

Imagine yourself in Hawaii. Images of sun, surf and sand will arise and a sigh may escape your lips – even if you have never visited the islands. But these same images can connect with coastal areas of the U.S. mainland, as well as other countries and tropical islands. Is Hawaii any different? If not, it is hard to justify the time and expense it takes to get here, much less the cost of eating and driving around. I want to make a startling proposal: Hawaii may not be worth it.

I fell in love at first sight with Hawaii and have lived here several years now. But I have also talked with and heard from many, many visitors during that time. I have also come to know locals, both Hawaiian and kama‘aina (long time local residents). It has taken me awhile to figure out why the very same visitors who seem unhappiest are the ones who irritate locals the most. My breakthrough came via Twitter.

“If people want to know about Hawaii, they’re welcome. But if they just want a palm tree and tropical drink, they should go to Florida.” This came in an interview with locals who work in the Hawaii visitor (tourism) industry. A little harsh? Maybe. I’m not sure I came to Hawaii the first time for a history or culture lesson. I’m pretty sure I was interested in palm trees and I KNOW I took a picture of a Mai Tai with a little umbrella in it to send to my sister by phone. Later, I read a series of Tweets from a first-time Hawaii visitor. She was at first excited to be here; gloating to mainland co-workers. Then she was dismayed at the cost of groceries, lamenting $5 for a gallon of milk. Finally, she confided: “Hawaii is over-rated. Go to Florida or Mexico and you’ll get a better deal.”

Hmmmmm. Did the two sides of the looking glass just meet? Maybe. But as with most mirrors, there’s more than meets the eye.

While Hawaii has beautiful scenery, it is more than a movie set; it is a real place that people call home. Those of us who live here pay the same high prices for food and gasoline as visitors and the plane trip back to the mainland is just as long and expensive when we visit family. But we love it here, and want the people who visit to see why we realize we are lucky to live in Hawaii.

It is as though I invite you to a party at my house. When you arrive, your first comment is “Wow, this place is really hard to find!.” Then, “This is pretty small for what you pay, isn’t it? How much is your rent?” Later, “Have you thought about remodeling? That carpet is pretty dated. I think there’s a stain over there.” Finally, “I could have gone to two parties in town in the amount of time it took me to get here.”

Those might be comments you would make to a realtor showing you an empty open house but not to your host. I am aware my house is not perfect, but I have invited you to share it with me. Similarly, locals want visitors to be aware that they are in a particular place, not “Generic tropical beach #3.” It only takes a slight change in attitude. For example, you might say, “I’m trying to save money on food, where do you shop? What do you eat for breakfast? How do you save money on lunch?” Locals LOVE to share insider tips, even if they frequently disagree with one another.

My guests who have enjoyed Hawaii the most have either wanted to visit specific Hawaii locations, such as Pearl Harbor, or just wanted to see what Hawaii is all about with no particular expectations. The unhappiest visitor has to be the woman who thought she would be welcomed by local natives still living in grass huts who would be happy to serve up an authentic family luau in her honor. Boy, was SHE surprised. And pretty disappointed. Other less happy visitors didn’t really see any value to traveling this far just to get to a warm beach.

Another example:  Suppose you tell me, “I’d really like to see a Broadway play but New York is so far and so expensive, it’s just not worth it. I can go to a play in any major city.” You may want to see a play, but you don’t want to see a Broadway play and you certainly don’t value the experience of going to the play in New York. For your trip to be a good one, you need to realize that the play’s the thing, not the setting. For another visitor, just walking down Broadway looking at all the theaters is an enriching experience even if tickets are prohibitive. That person’s value is in experiencing New York rather than Chicago or Philadelphia.

To return to our unhappy Twitter-ers: “you’ll get a better deal” on WHAT? If Mexico and Florida are alternatives, you really want a deal on a tropical vacation, but not on a trip to Hawaii. If you don’t see the value of visiting these particular islands, the locals would prefer that you not bother. It is a waste of your time and money if you don’t care which pool you sit beside with an umbrella drink.

For potential visitors, Hawaii is not worth the trip if:

  • You just want a warm place to escape from the snow.
  • You want a place with cheap food just like you get at home.
  • The high cost of gasoline will irritate you more than whatever you drove to see.
  • You don’t really care about local culture or racial difference makes you uncomfortable.
  • You’re checking locations off some sort of bucket list or world map.
  • Any beach with a palm tree is as good as another.
  • The main goal is to send gloating pictures of sunset beaches back to co-workers.

But if your face breaks into a silly grin when you say “Hawaii” (like mine), come on over. You’re most welcome to sit on the sand and watch the boats sail by at sunset. I’ll mix the mai tais!

Cindy Scheopner is a philosopher living in Hawaii. She claims to be a “recovering” journalist but can’t seem to stop posting photos and stories on various blogs.


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15 thoughts on “Guest Post: Is Hawaii Worth It?

  1. Whew! Cindy, you really alarmed me with the opening of this post, because I happen to be planning my first trip to Hawaii and have already booked my (expensive) airfare. I went “OMG, what do you mean it’s not worth it???” 🙂 But you do raise a lot of good philosophical points here. I am as likely as anyone to complain about high prices (anywhere), but if I feel the experience is worth it, then I’ll suck it up and deal. If it isn’t, is that really Hawaii’s fault, or is it my fault for not doing my research and not figuring out what experiences would be meaningful to me–and the real WHY of wanting to go to Hawaii in the first place? We all have to take responsibility for our travels and what we get out of them.

  2. The beach v Hawaiian culture are not the only two reasons to visit Hawaii!

    I am from Australia so I have plenty of warm beach options closer to home. However, I am not interested in going to Hawaii for the local culture. I am happy to engage with it and experience local culture while I am there but it’s not the drawcard for me.

    I want to go to Hawaii for the combination of beaches and snorkel/dive spots and the fantastic hiking in the rainforest and up in volcano country. I’m interested primarily in the natural beauty of Hawaii rather than the people – but just as much the natural beauty on land as the natural beauty in and by the water!

    • I’ve spent some time in Hawaii and I suspect that saying “I’m not interested in the local culture” would be taken VERY badly by many of the people I know there — not just Native Hawaiians, either, islanders of any stripe. I have to tell you, my heart seizes to see those words, especially after my last trip there, which was all about local culture.

      Also, I think that there’s a deep connection between many locals and the natural beauty of their land. The City of Refuge, for example, is a stunningly gorgeous place, one of my favorite spots on the Big Island, but inseparable from its cultural significance and hey, the volcano is Pele’s home… part of what makes Hawaii compelling for me is that stories — and culture of the place — are in many cases totally inseparable from the landscape itself.

      Disclaimer: I don’t for a minute claim to speak for anyone living in Hawaii. All this is based PURELY on my experiences there, and I’m just a visitor from the mainland.

  3. Hawaii is magical and beautiful and so diverse. If you don’t appreciate the historical culture (what the Islands have been used for in the past), the outdoors, and the wonderful social attitude of the locals then you won’t ‘get it’. I have never been to such a great place where I could go mountain hiking in the morning then spend the late afternoon on the beach snorkeling. If you take the time to seek out local hangouts and sit and talk you will gain a lot of perspective and learn something about humanity and history. You have to unplug and slow down while in Hawaii to truly enjoy it. I have only been once and cannot wait to go back.

  4. Fun story – chase them away to research and understand why they want to visit before turning over tons of money. Probably true of most places. I like the discovery part of travel but the cost of travel has really amp’d up with the gasoline profits being taken.

    Hard to drive anywhere and justify the cost

    I am glad you have found joy in living there and a place to call home


  5. What awonderful post. I fell in love with Kaua’i specifically because of the people, culture and history. The scenery is amazing but it’s the culture that makes it special. It’s a disservice to Hawaii if visitors miss that aspect and come only for stereotypical expectations. It’s just not that kind of place.

  6. Thank you all for the comments!. I have enjoyed every minute I spent in Hawaii, beginning with my very first business trip. For quite awhile, I just couldn’t understand why anyone would not love the islands the way that I do. But I have come to see that different people value different things – and sometimes the calculation doesn’t make sense for everyone. Hawaii can’t be wrong about what it is, but it can be the wrong destination for some visitors. For others, it truly is paradise!

  7. Really good post Cindy! As a tourism marketer/PR guy here in Hawaii, this is one of the main points we try to also get across to potential travelers who are hesitant to visit for various reasons…price, distance, perception. Discounts, deals, all-inclusives, specials, values…all easy concepts for people to latch on to who vacation simply based on price and convenience. A beach is a beach is a beach is a beach.

    Then there are the “others” that you mention whose travel values are much different…cost isn’t a barrier ecause they know they can only get the Hawaii vacation experience in Hawaii…that it’s something unique, spiritual and special and sometimes hard to describe when the aloha spirit touches you…and its an experience that you’ll have for the rest of your life.

    In a couple of months we’re doing the family pilgrimage to Disneyland in Anaheim. Yes, it’s going to be expensive (by our standards). Yes, it’s going to be somewhat of a hassle to get there with the two kids, grandma, and my sister. And yes, we can probably expect some bumps along the way once we get there. But you know what, the experience we’ll share at the Happiest Place on Earth will be forever…something we really can’t get anywhere else…and and experience we know the kids will cherish forever. That’s the value. Yes, it’s worth is.

  8. I have been to Florida, to Mexico and to Hawaii and I think there is no comparison among the three. Hawaii wins, hands down. I am planning a trip there in the next month and I keep thinking about the wonderful fragrance in the air as I disembark the plane. I feel like I am entering another world, and I just can’t wait.

    Yes, it is more expensive than Florida and Mexico, but its worth every penny. The history and culture are an essential part of what makes Hawaii so fantastic. And, the natural beauty and wildlife is exceptional, no matter what island you choose.

    A beach is a beach is a beach? Not to me; a Hawaiian beach is paradise.

    • I truly enjoy the conversation in these comments. Terri, I love your last line. That is the pont of the post. And yes, the fragrance in the air entices the sense of smell along with all the stunning visual beauty. Nathan – I just had a visit from a friend on the mainland who said she spent more for four days in Washington D.C. than she did on 10 days in Hawaii, including airfare. She was not counting pennies, she only mentioned it in response to this post. She had already visited Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i but wanted to see all that O‘ahu has to offer. When you truly add in all you get in a trip to Hawaii, it’s well worth the time and money, right Carol? 🙂 Deepest thanks to you all.

  9. Pam, I didn’t say that I wasn’t interested in the local culture. I said that I wasn’t interested in going for the local culture. It’s a subtle difference and perhaps not very clearly expressed so I guess I should explain what I meant.

    I am interested in engaging with local culture wherever I go in the world. It’s part of what makes travel meaningful for me. That is different to it being the reason why I select a particular place over another.

    For example, I went to New York in 2010. The reason WHY I went was TBEX. However, I engaged with local culture when I was there, doing things like checking out the Latino food culture in Jackson Heights, Queens. I didn’t go to New York for local culture, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in it while I was there.

    The main reason I went to Siem Reap in Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat. I also engaged with local culture, for example visiting a silk weaving project was particularly memorable. But local culture is not why I went.

    On the other hand, local culture would probably be the main reason I would go to Thailand. Sure, it has pretty beaches and beautiful historic sights but that doesn’t excite me as much as experiencing contemporary Thai culture and food. Outside of sites like Machu Picchu and the Galapagos, culture would be the main reason why I would go to South America too.

    If I went to Hawaii, I would absolutely be interested in and engage with local culture, both contemporary and historic. It’s just that it’s not the main reason I would go. I am inspired by the nature of Hawaii first and foremost.

    I think my perspective on Hawaii is also different because I am not American. I don’t see it as a state in America with unique culture compared with the rest of the country. I see it as one archipelago of islands among many others in the Pacific Ocean. I live on the other side of the Pacific and the culture of Hawaii, as unique and interesting as it might be, does not have a greater claim on me than the culture of Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and so on.

  10. Thanks for the further explanation, Caitlin. It wasn’t at all clear in your original comment.

    I think you’re making some assumptions about how Americans feel about Hawaii and where it fits into our perspective. ‘ll concede that because of my connection to the islands, I’m probably an edge case.

    That said, one could easily argue that Texas — or any number of states — is a state with a unique culture compared to the rest of the country, too. Houston is markedly more different to Seattle than Honolulu is.

  11. I LOVE this blog Cindy! I still tell everyone I would like to go live in, retire in, and die in Hawaii. Maybe one day God will say yes. 🙂

  12. Speaking of Hawaiian culture, I just went to see The Descendants at the movies and I was wondering what people who know Hawaii thought if it.

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