A Snapshot of Hawaii
Oahu. The state's capital, Honolulu, is on Oahu; this is the center of Hawaii's economy and by far the most populated island in the chain—900,000 residents adds up to 71% of the state's population. At 597 square mi Oahu is the third largest island in the chain; the majority of residents live in or around Honolulu, so the rest of the island still fits neatly into the tropical, untouched vision of Hawaii. Situated southeast of Kauai and northwest of Maui, Oahu is a central location for island hopping. Surfing contests on the legendary North Shore, Pearl Harbor, and iconic Waikiki Beach are all here.
Maui. The second largest island in the chain, Maui's 729 square mi are home to only 119,000 people but host approximately 2.5 million tourists every year. Maui is northwest of the Big Island, and close enough to be visible from its beaches on a clear day. With its restaurants and lively nightlife, Maui is the only island that competes with Oahu in terms of entertainment; its charm lies in the fact that although entertainment is available, Maui's towns still feel like island villages compared to the heaving modern city of Honolulu.
Hawaii (The Big Island). The Big Island has the second largest population of the islands (167,000) but feels sparsely settled due to its size. It's 4,038 square mi and growing—all of the other islands could fit onto the Big Island and there would still be room left over. The southernmost island in the chain (slightly southeast of Maui), the Big Island is home to Kilauea, the most active volcano on the planet. It percolates within Volcanoes National Park, which draws 2.5 million visitors every year.
Kauai. The northernmost island in the chain (northwest of Oahu), Kauai is, at approximately 540 square mi, the fourth largest of all the islands and the least populated of the larger islands, with just under 63,000 residents. Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai claims the title "wettest spot on earth" with an annual average rainfall of 460 inches. Kauai is a favorite with honeymooners and others wanting to get away from it all—lush and peaceful, it's the perfect escape from the modern world.
Molokai. North of Lanai and Maui, and east of Oahu, Molokai is Hawaii's fifth largest island, encompassing 260 square mi. On a clear night, the lights of Honolulu are visible from Molokai's western shore. Molokai is sparsely populated, with just under 7,400 residents, the majority of whom are native Hawaiians. Most of Molokai's 85,000 annual visitors travel from Maui or Oahu to spend the day exploring its beaches, cliffs, and former leper colony on Kalaupapa Peninsula.
Lanai. Lying just off Maui's western coast, Lanai looks nothing like its sister islands, with pine trees and deserts in place of palm trees and beaches. Still, the tiny 140-square-mi island is home to nearly 3,000 residents and draws an average of 90,000 visitors each year to two resorts (one in the mountains and one at the shore), both operated by Four Seasons.
The Hawaiian Islands comprise more than just the islands inhabited and visited by humans. A total of 19 islands and atolls constitutes the State of Hawaii, with a total landmass of 6,423.4 square mi. The Islands are actually exposed peaks of a submersed mountain range called the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. The range was formed as the Pacific plate moved very slowly (around 32 mi every million years) over a "hot spot" in the earth's mantle. Because the plate moved northwestwardly, the Islands in the northwest portion of the archipelago (chain) are older, which is also why they're smaller—they have been eroding longer.
The Big Island is the youngest, and thus the largest, island in the chain. It is built from seven different volcanoes, including Mauna Loa, which is the largest shield volcano on the planet. Mauna Loa and Kilauea are the only Hawaiian volcanoes still erupting with any sort of frequency. Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984. Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. Mauna Kea (Big Island), Hualalai (Big Island), and Haleakala (Maui) are all in what's called the Post Shield stage of volcanic development—eruptions decrease steadily for up to 250,000 years before ceasing entirely. Kohala (Big Island), Lanai (Lanai), and Waianae (Oahu) are considered extinct volcanoes, in the erosional stage of development; Koolau (Oahu) and West Maui (Maui) volcanoes are extinct volcanoes in the rejuvenation stage—after lying dormant for hundreds of thousands of years, they began erupting again, but only once every several thousand years.
There is currently an active undersea volcano called Loihi that has been erupting regularly. If it continues its current pattern, it should breach the ocean's surface in tens of thousands of years.
Flora & Fauna
Though much of the plant life associated with Hawaii today (pineapple, hibiscus, orchid, plumeria) was brought by Tahitian, Samoan, or European visitors, Hawaii is also home to several endemic species, like the koa tree and the yellow hibiscus. Long-dormant volcanic craters are perfect hiding places for rare plants (like the silversword, a rare cousin of the sunflower, which grows on Hawaii's three tallest peaks: Haleakala, Mauna Kea, and Mauna Loa, and nowhere else on Earth). Many of these endemic species are now threatened by the encroachment of introduced plants and animals. Hawaii is also home to a handful of plants that have evolved into uniquely Hawaiian versions of their original selves. Mint, for example, develops its unique taste to keep would-be predators from eating its leaves. As there were no such predators in Hawaii for hundreds of years, a mintless mint evolved; similar stories exist for the Islands' nettle-less nettles, thorn-less briars.
Hawaii's climate is well suited to growing several types of flowers, most of which are introduced species. Plumeria creeps over all of the Islands; orchids run rampant on the Big Island; bright orange ilima light up the mountains of Oahu. These flowers give the Hawaiian leis their color and fragrance.
As with the plant life, the majority of the animals in Hawaii today were brought here by visitors. Axis deer from India roam the mountains of Lanai. The Islands are home to dozens of rat species, all stowaways on long boat rides over from Tahiti, England, and Samoa; the mongoose was brought to keep the rats out of the sugar plantations—a failed effort as the mongoose hunts by day, the rat by night. Many of Hawaii's birds, like the nene (Hawaii's state bird) and the pueo (Hawaiian owl) are endemic; unfortunately, about 80% are also endangered.
The ocean surrounding the Islands teems with animal life. Once scarce manta rays have made their way back to the Big Island; spinner dolphins and sea turtles can be found off the coast of all the Islands; and every year from December to May, the humpback whales migrate past Hawaii in droves.
Long before both Christopher Columbus and the Vikings, Polynesian seafarers set out to explore the vast stretches of open ocean in double-hulled canoes. Now regarded as some of the world's greatest navigators, the ancestors of the Hawaiian people sailed across the Pacific Ocean using the stars, birds, and sea life as their guides. From Western Polynesia they traveled back and forth between Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the Society Isles, settling the outer reaches of the Pacific, Hawaii, and Easter Island, as early as AD 300. The golden era of Polynesian voyaging peaked around ad 1200, after which the distant Hawaiian Islands were left to develop their own unique cultural practices in relative isolation.
When the British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, he found a deeply religious, agrarian society governed by numerous alii, or chiefs. Revered as a god upon his arrival, Cook was later killed in a skirmish over a stolen boat. With guns and ammunition purchased from Cook, the Big Island chief, Kamehameha, gained a significant advantage over the other Hawaiian alii. He united Hawaii into one kingdom in 1810, bringing an end to the frequent interisland battles that had previously dominated Hawaiian life. Tragically, the new kingdom was beset with troubles. Their religion was abandoned. European explorers brought foreign diseases with them; within a few short years the Hawaiian population was cut in half. It was further weakened by the onset of the sandalwood trade in the mid-1800s. All able-bodied men were sent into the forest to harvest the fragrant tree, so that Kamehameha's successor, Liholiho could pay off debts incurred to American merchants. Onto this stage came rowdy foreign whalers, ambitious entrepreneurs, and well-intentioned but perhaps misguided missionaries. New laws regarding land ownership and religious practices eroded the cultural underpinnings of pre-contact Hawaii. Each successor to the Hawaiian throne sacrificed more control over the island kingdom. Finally in 1893, the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown by a group of American and European businessmen and government officials, aided by an armed militia. This led to the creation of the Republic of Hawaii, which quickly became a territory of the United States through resolutions passed by Congress (rather than through treaties). Hawaii remained a territory for 60 years; Pearl Harbor was attacked as part of the United States in 1941 during World War II. It wasn't until 1959, however, that Hawaii was officially admitted as the 50th State.
Legends & Mythology
Ancient deities play a huge role in Hawaiian life today—not just in daily rituals, but in the Hawaiians' reverence for their land. Gods and goddesses tend to be associated with particular parts of the land, and most of them are connected with many places thanks to the body of stories built up around each.
The goddess Pele lives in Kilauea Volcano and rules over the Big Island. She is a feisty goddess known for turning enemies into trees or destroying the homes of adversaries with fire. She also has a penchant for gin, which is why you'll see gin bottles circling some of the craters at Volcanoes National Park. It's not the litter it appears to be, but rather an offering to placate the Volcano goddess. The Valley Isle's namesake, the demigod Maui, is a well-known Polynesian trickster. When his mother Hina complained that there were too few hours in the day, Maui promised to slow the sun. Upon hearing this, the god Moemoe teased Maui for boasting, but undeterred, the demigod wove a strong cord and lassoed the sun. Angry, the sun scorched the fields until an agreement was reached: during summer, the sun would travel more slowly. In winter, it would return to its quick pace. For ridiculing Maui, Moemoe was turned into a large rock that still juts from the water near Kahakualoa.
One of the most important ways the ancient Hawaiians showed respect for their gods and goddesses was through the hula. Various forms of the hula were performed as prayers to the gods and as praise to the chiefs. Performances were taken very seriously, as a mistake was thought to invalidate the prayer, or even to offend the god or chief in question. Hula is still performed both as entertainment and as prayer; it is not uncommon for a hula performance to be included in an official government ceremony.
Hawaiian culture and traditions have experienced a renaissance over the last few decades. There is a real effort to revive traditions and to respect history as the Islands go through major changes and welcome more and more newcomers every day. New developments often have a Hawaiian cultural expert on staff to ensure cultural sensitivity and to educate newcomers.
Nonetheless, development remains a huge issue for all Islanders—land prices are skyrocketing, putting many areas out of reach for the native population. Traffic is becoming a problem on roads that were not designed to accommodate all the new drivers, and the Islands' limited natural resources are being seriously tapped. The government, though sluggish to respond at first, is trying to make development in Hawaii as sustainable as possible. Rules for new developments protect natural as well as cultural resources, and local governments have set ambitious conservation goals. Despite all efforts to ease its effect on the land and its people, large-scale, rapid development is not anyone's ideal, and Islanders are understandably less than thrilled with the prospect of a million more tourists visiting every year or buying up property that residents themselves can't afford.
That said, the aloha spirit is alive and well. Though you may encounter the occasional "haole hater" (haole—pronounced "howlie"—is a somewhat pejorative term for caucasians), the majority of Islanders are warm, a welcoming people who are eager to share their culture with those who respect it.