Bob Cesca: "Hawaii is a State," Part Three: 10 Recommendations for Your Hawaii Vacation

Considering how grim the previous chapters of this Hawaii series have been, I thought I'd take a well-deserved break from real life with a list of my recommendations for a great Hawaii vacation.
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Considering how grim the previous chapters of this Hawaii series have been, I thought I'd take a well-deserved break from real life with a list of my recommendations for a great Hawaii vacation.
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The following is Part Three in a multi-part series about real life in Hawaii.
--Part One, “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying”
--Part Two, "Renting in Hawaii With Dogs"
--Part Two: "Renting in Hawaii With Dogs" (Continued)
--Part Two: "Renting in Hawaii With Dogs" (Conclusion)

While having lived here for four years, I've also spent a lot of time vacationing here, too. Given how it's a chain of islands, and given the diversity of landscape, it's fairly easy to feel like you've gone off on an exotic vacation, regardless of whether you fly to a different island, or if you drive a few miles from your house to a resort nearby. When we lived in Honolulu, we routinely traveled to the Big Island for weekend getaways -- and we really felt like we were going on a legitimate trip. Air travel tends to do that, even if it's only a 40-minute flight.

So, throughout the last four years, I've compiled a list of tips for vacationing here, based on personal experience as well as observing so many people who are doing it wrong. Considering how grim the previous chapters of this Hawaii series have been, I thought I'd take a well-deserved break from real life with a list of my recommendations for a great Hawaii vacation.

1) Avoid Waikiki Beach

There might be a temptation to gravitate toward the most iconic, and best known Hawaii vacation spot. Don't. It's possibly one of the worst beaches and vacation spots in Hawaii. Joy and I lived two miles from Waikiki and went to the beach exactly once. Not only is it quite small and narrow, but it's ridiculously crowded. You might be familiar with that scene from John Candy's Summer Rental in which he's stumbling across the sand, tripping over tourists and spilling cooler water all over? That's pretty close to Waikiki, especially when most other beaches are so wide open, each visitor basically gets their own strip of real estate from the parking lot to the water. If you end up vacationing in Waikiki, hop on a bus and travel a mile or two west and go to Ala Moana Beach. No crowds, and the water is much cleaner. Elsewhere, here are the beaches in Hawaii.

--Maui alone has mile upon mile of contiguous beaches that'd take you a lifetime to experience.
--On Oahu, there's Lanikai beach near Kailua, as well as Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu.
--On the Big Island, there's four of the world's greatest beaches: Kua Bay (also known as Manini'owali Beach), Hapuna, Mauna Kea Beach and Mau'umae Beach.

2) Honolulu is Nice But It's a Big City

Honolulu features hints of the Hawaii you envision before ever stepping foot here. But it's a big city with all of the usual urban trappings. There are dozens of spectacular restaurants and things to see, including the strip at Waikiki beach. But be prepared to sit in traffic and to fight crowds -- not quite what I would want from a relaxing vacation in paradise. If you decide to roll the dice and plunk your money down on Honolulu, I would strongly recommend renting a car and getting out of the city as often as possible. Drive up to the North Shore or east to Sandy Beach (Obama's favorite body surfing spot). Definitely drive west to Pearl Harbor and visit the USS Arizona Memorial, and the USS Missouri where Imperial Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. But be prepared to sit in traffic on the H-1, though, which features absolutely the worst traffic in the nation.

3) Avoid Rainy Season

It rains in Hawaii. Not a lot, but more often than you think. Sometimes for weeks on end. I can't imagine saving up for years to go on a big family vacation to Hawaii, only to arrive during a three-week rain storm. Late Spring and early Summer is the usual rainy season, and if you vacation in Waikiki during rainy season, get a good hotel because you'll spend a lot of time in your room. There are many exceptions, of course. One of my favorite vacation spots is Waikoloa on the Big Island, which is statistically the sunniest place in Hawaii with only around 10 inches of annual rainfall. There's a remarkably nice Marriott there, with a poolside bar and within walking distance of the Lava Lava Beach Club, my favorite restaurant on the Big Island.

4) The Big Island is The Best Island

Not only is the Island of Hawaii, commonly known as the Big Island, the largest of the chain, but it's also the most diverse. In a single day, you can snowboard at the summit of Mauna Kea and then swim in the crystal clear water at Hapuna Beach Park, which happens to be quite possibly the most spectacular beach in the world. The Big Island features an active volcano (Kilauea) and four out of the world's five major climate zones. There are breathtaking white sand beaches (though avoid White Sands Beach, which is tiny and overcrowded), black sand beaches, green sand beaches (the sand is volcanic glass), pitch black lava fields, rain forests, deserts, lush grasslands torn out of a Tolkien novel, western-style cattle ranches, enormous lava tubes and, yes, snow during the Winter atop Mauna Kea. If you stay in a relatively dry location such as the aforementioned Waikoloa, and if you rent a car, you'll have just about everything you need -- the tropical Hawaii vacation "feel" with beautiful weather and a solid launching point for road-trips. Avoid staying in Hilo, unless you enjoy torrential rain, though it's lovely to visit there. Kailua-Kona has an Old Hawaii flavor, but there aren't any really swimmable beaches within walking distance.

5) Get Out of the Resort

If you prefer to spend all of your time in a confined resort atmosphere, you're going to spend a fortune for a totally artificial Hawaii experience. Unless you can afford the Four Seasons on the Big Island (a longtime celebrity hot spot where rooms can run up to $10,000 per night) then you should find a less expensive hotel and enjoy the real Hawaii. Rent a car and drive. Everything goes in a circle, so it's nearly impossible to get lost. Seriously, if your idea of vacation is a wax museum replica of paradise, go on a cruise or go to Disney.

6) Don't Bring Pants or Socks

It's hot here. At this latitude, the sun is ferocious, especially in July, August and September. But regardless of season, you won't need pants, shoes or socks, so leave them at home. You won't need any of that crap, even if you plan to eat at the most expensive restaurants and, for that, a tennis shirt or an aloha shirt, a pair of shorts and some flip-flops (known here as "slippers") will do just fine. Personally, the last time I wore pants or shoes was last March, and that was only because we flew out to San Francisco for a long weekend.

7) You Will Get Sunburned

I can always tell when a cruise ship is docked in Kailua Bay because the town is filled with white people who look flame-broiled. Again, Hawaii is much closer to the equator and therefore closer to the sun. Unless you're accustomed to being outside, or unless you apply some potent sunscreen, you will get burned -- and it'll only take 30-45 minutes of exposure to happen. Even with sunscreen, you'll still get a nice tropical tan to prove you were here.

8) Whichever Island You Visit, Buy The "Revealed" Guide Book

Buy one of these, read it, and keep it with you always. You're welcome.

9) Everything Costs 30-percent More (And Booze Is Everywhere)

When I filled up with gas yesterday at Costco, it was $4.14 per gallon. At Costco. Based on my calculations for other necessities like groceries and restaurants, your budget should be ample enough to pay 30 percent more for everything. The only thing that's roughly the same price as the mainland is booze. You can buy beer, wine and liquor at any store, including Target and Walmart, and the prices are just about the same as what you might pay in a medium to large city on the mainland.

10) Use Priceline or Similar to Book Your Hotel

Joy and I once paid $85 per night through Priceline (who isn't paying me to write this) for a two bedroom suite with a full kitchen. There are really great deals here if you're tenacious when it comes to the online name-your-own-price services. Save your money for the restaurants and sight-seeing.

And one of the most important things to remember: respect Hawaiian culture. Native Hawaiians are some of the most friendly people in the world, but they've also experienced a terrible history similar to indigenous people on the mainland, marked by one humiliation after another. Their land was stolen, annexed and given away to wealthy landowners and ranchers. For more than a century, their culture, including their language, was stripped away and has only recently reemerged. Be careful about allowing your kids to strut around in coconut bras and cheap gift-shop grass skirts, and be aware that while tiki statues might be an interesting gift or souvenir, they're also sacred to the native Hawaiians. One would no sooner treat a tiki like a toy than to mock a "rain dance" in front of a family of Iroquois. Above all else, if you're friendly to the locals, they'll be friendly to you. But if you parade around like arrogant tourists, you'll be treated accordingly.

Aloha! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

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