I will never forget that moment. The moment when I saw the green slopes and black lava rocks during the landing approach on the plane. On a plane to one of the islands of the island chain I've been dreaming of ever since I can remember: Hawai'i.
I'll take you on my trip to Hawai'i and tell you how I managed to fulfil my lifelong dream, share my itinerary with you (and how I would change it looking back) and share my top tips for a truly memorable, responsible, enriching Hawai'i vacation.
The dream of Hawai'i
I can't remember the first moment when it struck me how fascinated I was by Hawai'i. I was very young and small. I don't know myself any other way: I love Hawai'i.
Back then, I kept all kinds of pictures that I found about Hawai'i. Snippets cut out of newspapers and magazines - I remember cutting out a little picture of the Nā Pali Coast from my grandpa's TV guide. I still have it today! I watched numerous documentaries and read magazines. I can't remember exactly if it was for Christmas or my birthday, but at some point, my parents gave me a travel guide about Hawai'i. YES! More Hawai'i reading material. 😊
I knew my big goal in life was to travel to the Hawai'ian Islands one day. In one of my Diddl doodle books, I even wrote once "My biggest dream: move to Hawai'i" - but I crossed that out at some point because I realized that I didn't want to do that after all, because I would miss the seasons of the mid-latitudes.
The idea takes shape
Fast forward to 7 years ago: I am 20 years old now and I have been living in Connecticut, USA, working as an au pair with my host family for six months already.
Initially, I planned to travel to a lot of states on the mainland and have seen quite a bit so far, such as California, Louisiana and Texas, Niagara Falls, the New England states and the U.S. capital Washington, D.C.
In addition, as an au pair, you have the advantage that your visa is valid for 13 months but only 12 months are spent with the host family. Many use this extra month as a travel month. So did I. I had planned to travel the Midwest and the northern West Coast, i.e. Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, etc. But here's the thing: After about 6 months with my host family, I had an inspiration: "I'm in the U.S. right now, after all. I'll probably never be this close to Hawai'i again. I'm not going to have the opportunity to travel to Hawai'i again so quickly and so cheaply anytime soon. I've already seen California and I don't care so much about travelling to Chicago, Florida or all the other places. It's more important for me to fulfil my dream and travel to Hawai'i. Live in the moment, Daniela!"
The decision is made
It was clear: from now on, I would save money, not go on any other big trips and plan my four-week Hawai'i vacation.
I got started: the planning has begun. I researched, booked flights, read, booked accommodations and activities etc. The day that I booked my flight to Hawai'i was amazing. I'm sure you know the feeling when it suddenly becomes more real - when a flight is booked. It is final 🙂
I had a plan for every day - every day I set my mind on something new, wanted to see something new. I was looking forward to this trip so much. Then the day finally came when my (first) lifelong dream would come true. It was weird. I had to say goodbye to my host family and I had taken them into my heart very much. But at the same time, a new adventure was waiting for me, one that I planned and financed completely by myself. I was alone - but never lonely - full of the last year's newly refuelled self-confidence, deep trust and great curiosity.
The arrival in Hawai'i
On the drive to the airport, my host father and I did not speak a word. Out of sadness because of the approaching farewell. After saying goodbye at the gate, I was crying my eyes out, already missing my host family and my American life very much. Yet here I was - at the gate, waiting for my plane to take me to Lihu'e on Kaua'i. I took off from New York City, made a stopover in Houston, and finally in San Diego. In San Diego, I spent the night at the airport. My plane to Kaua'i left first thing in the morning. It was a Hawaiian Airlines plane. The flight was long again but suddenly I saw the islands. The landing approach began and I was excited. I am here. I am in Hawai'i. We are landing. We are losing more and more altitude. I see the island out my little oval window. Black. Lava. Green. Blue. Ocean. Plants. Quickly flying past my window. You are here. I'm here. Touchdown.
I will never, ever forget that moment.
I spent a total of four weeks in the Hawai'i Islands. Here is the itinerary I chose for myself:
- Flight to Lihu'e on Kaua'i
- 10 days Kaua'i
- 5 days Big Island
- 10 days Maui
- 5 days O'ahu
- Departure from Honolulu Airport on O'ahu
I was very pleased with this itinerary and thoroughly enjoyed my time on each island.
However, if I were to go to Hawai'i again (exactly 4 weeks again), I would divide my time on each island differently:
- Flight to Lihu'e on Kaua'i
- 8 days Kaua'i
- 5 days Moloka'i
- 5 days Lana'i
- 5 days Maui
- 8 days Big Island
- Departure from Kailua-Kona Airport on Hawai'i (Big Island)
As you can see, I left out O'ahu altogether. This was not by mistake but intentional. Personally, I liked O'ahu the least because it is very touristy and urban.
I liked Kaua'i the most and Big Island came second on my first trip. It is incredibly interesting, especially if you study the geological phenomena more closely and understand them better, as I am nowadays doing during my studies of earth sciences.
When I say that I like an island "least of all" it doesn't mean that I don't like the island at all. It means that I still liked the island a lot but not the very best. Each of the Hawai'ian Islands is incredibly beautiful and yet there are many different opinions and perspectives. After all, they say, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." That is true!
I didn't visit the islands Moloka'i and Lana'i the first time around but if I travel to Hawai'i again, these two beauties will be on my itinerary.
Which island suits you best? Find out in the Hawaii Guide!
I have stayed in hostels on each island and cooked for myself as far as possible. I had a very good experience with hostels and felt comfortable everywhere. I slept in a shared room in each hostel. You are only for the night, possibly for breakfast and sometimes for dinner in the accommodation anyway.
Otherwise, you spend the whole day outside. I enjoyed going to the local supermarkets, buying sweet lilikoi (passion fruit) at the market or oven-warm banana bread from the roadside.
Light and spontaneous
As I mentioned above, when I planned for Hawai'i, I had thought about what I wanted to do every day of my 4-week stay. I knew exactly when I would see the Nā Pali Coast, when I would learn how to surf and when I would visit the Kīlauea.
As soon as I arrived in Hawai'i, I scrapped those plans. I immediately met people with whom I was on the road right from the first day and would be on the road for the next 10 days. And of course, they did not plan exactly what was on my plan for day 1 - 10... 😊
I love the decision I made that first day: to break away from plans and just do what came up, with nice people who wanted the same thing I wanted: to have beautiful experiences with other people and explore the Hawai'ian Islands.
Although I tend to be the person who plans everything out very precisely, has an exact schedule for every exam and plans for the coming week ready every Sunday evening, this decision was not difficult for me at all. Almost as if a new lightness entered my life without me being fully aware of it as I arrived in Hawai'i.
Without smartphone in Hawai'i
By the way, I didn't have a rental car because I was still 20 years old at that time and therefore the insurance would have been too expensive. Believe it or not, I didn't have a cell phone during this 4-week Hawai'i adventure either. Why? In the U.S., I didn't have my German cell phone (which, by the way, was a regular old Nokia, not a smartphone; when I was a senior in high school, those were just coming into fashion, but I didn't get one then).
In the USA, I became the owner of an iPhone, my very first smartphone, which the host family lent me for the time of my stay with them. At the end of my stay, of course, I gave this phone back - and so I was without a smartphone for several weeks.
I believe that was pretty good. I did have a laptop with me, but I only turned it on once a day, if at all, in the evening. I took photos with my beloved digital camera.
I can't say for sure but I am quite I'm convinced: Not having a cell phone was a blessing.
I had no problems meeting people, calling a cab or anything else. I had my laptop with me, so I could go on the Internet if I needed to. And I could ask people if I needed any information or was looking for something on the road. I think not having a cell phone made me more aware of the islands and their people. Being in the now, on the islands, living my dream.
The reflection: what would have made my stay better
I love these islands. I feel connected to them. The history, the old and new islands, the nature, the geology, the plants and animals. And the rain. The water. The people who live so close to nature, so friendly and open-minded.
But if I could travel back in time, I would change one thing: I would look much more closely, even more closely than I already have, at Hawai'i's culture, language and fascinating geology. Even though my vacation was incredible, I know one thing now with a little more travel and life experience:
Everything becomes much, much more interesting when you know more about it. A vacation becomes much, much more enjoyable when you feel connected to the local people and the country itself.
And connection is created by getting to know each other.
The secret is to inform yourself before the trip and not during. Because people always say: "I'll find out everything once I am on-site, anyway," but that's not quite true.
At least I know it differently from my own experience: on-site, you get a bit of an impression, but you do not understand everything fully and you can not immediately process the information. It is often the case that you simply shoot photos without understanding what you are photographing.
If you inform yourself extensively before the trip, you can then process the content much better by making connections, since you have gotten a much better overview of the topic. What you have learned is deepened and much better understood. This builds a deeper connection to your travel destination and creates a richer travel experience that is much more likely to stick in our minds. Strong emotions create strong memories.
When you're in Hawai'i, let go. Let go of your worries, let go of who you think you are. And be simple. Be spontaneous, be friendly, be flexible.
Be happy about the rain and the wind. Respect the people, the land and the ocean. Take a heartfelt interest in Hawai'i, the people of Hawai'i, nature and culture. Put yourself in the background - it makes you realize that you are a small part of a magical world where values and love for our fellow human beings and the earth mean much more and make happier than materials and status.
Photos (c) Daniela Dägele