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Things YOU didn’t know about Hawaii: The Big Island

Hawaii is essentially paradise, with the added benefit of not having to perish to see it. It’s therefore no surprise that the beaches and mountains of the islands are studded with five star hotels and resorts; many of the tourists visit the “Aloha State” to relax. Most people don’t realize, however, that while being a state, Hawaii is actually not very American at all. In fact, Hawaii is so unique (due in part to its geographical isolation) that it merits a visit outside the padlocked gates of a resort. Frustratingly for writers and photographers alike, what can be found there is both stereotypical and beautiful, all while feeling familiar. Some people say it feels like home.


Moreover, each island is quite different one from the other. The Big Island (i.e. “Hawaii”) is the island the state was named after. It is, quite obviously, the largest of the archipelago, and it is known as one of the least cosmopolitan. Here, you will find a rough guide to the Big Island, focusing on information you might need for anything, ranging from a short holiday to starting your life on the island.



The Culture: 

Hawaii is fiercely protective of its cultural identity, and with reason. Not all too surprisingly, Hawaii’s admission to statehood in the U.S.A. in 1959 is the end result of a violent and forceful takeover. The archipelago was first populated around 300 CE by explorers from Polynesian islands. In 1795, King Kamehameha unified the islands, and Hawaii became an independent constitutional monarchy. American and European forces eventually set their eye on Hawaii. In the 1800s, a group of predominantly white Americans overthrew the government. Shortly thereafter, the last monarch of Hawaii was ousted by the United States government using armed forces, and Hawaii was annexed.



Understandably, there is a significant anti-tourist, quasi-racist sentiment in Hawaii against non-natives. The slur for non-natives is “Haole,” (pronounced “howlee”) a term which taken in context means something along the lines of a hapless, harmful, and white. This is a sentiment which may even go unnoticed by the average tourist. My own experience with this was simply the knowledge, in the back of my mind, that this existed.

A more positive aspect of Hawaiian pride is the local culture. Hula, for example, is the traditional Hawaiian dance, which dates back to the original Polynesian settlers on the islands. While many may think of the dance as women slowly swaying their hips to soporific ukulele music, this is not always true. In reality, hula can be fast, and hula can be for men. There are two types of hula: Hula ‘Auana and Hula Kahiko. ‘Auana is more modern and is accompanied by a guitar or a ukulele, while Kahiko is more ancient and is accompanied by chant and traditional instruments; this type of hula is in theory a sacred ritual. The Merrie Monarch is a yearly hula show, which takes place on the Big Island itself, in Hilo. Every year, people flock to see the show: the performance usually sells out, so get tickets early!

Photo Credit: Hawaiian Airlines via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Hawaiian Airlines via Compfight cc

You may also know of Hawaii for its draw to hippies and eccentrics alike. The Big Island itself, being such a rural and fertile land, is a prime example. There is, undoubtedly, something weird, other-world-like, and magical about Hawaii. Regardless of where you stand on the scale from atheist to religious, if you take the time to wander away from the guided tour and into the nature, you’ll feel it too. Because of this, many local ancient legends still survive to this day. For example, to avoid ghosts and evil spirits, you should never whistle at night or take any volcanic rock/anything from a beach away from the islands (if you’re on holiday). Furthermore, one should always show respect to Pele, the personification of the Hawaiian volcanoes; she often takes the form of an old woman with long, white hair.


The Hawaiian language is fascinating (one of its letters is written as an apostrophe), it sounds beautiful (it only has 8 consonants), and is all but dead. However, the language has fused with English to form a mix, a pidgin of the two tongues. It comes with its own accent, and is so prominent that many words are used in everyday English.  Some examples, to help you better understand, are: pau (or finished), shoots (or OK, sounds good), mahalo (or thank you), pau hana (or finished with work), kapu (or forbidden, taboo, relating to rules or land), slippahs (or flip-flops), ono (or delicious), da kine (or the thingy, used to replace almost any word), grinds (or food). My personal favorite is hanna butta days (or childhood), with hana meaning nose, and butta meaning butter. In short: nose butter days, or snot days. Perhaps most importantly, most people pronounce the name of the state incorrectly: the right pronunciation is actually more similar to “Huh-VIE-ee.”

Photo Credit: avriette via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: avriette via Compfight cc

You may find yourself using the word ono (delicious) more than the others. Hawaiian food is insanely tasty and almost too filling. While Kalua Pig (pork that is slow cooked in a hole in the ground) is one of the most well-known dishes, I would also recommend trying poke (raw fish salad), loko moko (white rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy), Laulau (food also cooked in a hole in the ground but wrapped in taro leaves), spam musubi (similar to sushi, spam on white rice wrapped together with nori seaweed), and malasadas (Hawaii’s version of a Portuguese doughnut). If you feel brave, don’t forget to try kava, a drink derived from the root of a plant with sedative properties.

Photo Credit: RubyWhatever via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: RubyWhatever via Compfight cc

The Nature:


One of the main reasons people visit Hawaii is its almost disturbingly beautiful scenery. Truly, every picture you will take there will be the best picture you have ever taken; it will almost seem artificial. This is due, in part, to Hollywood: both Lost and Jurassic Park were partially filmed in Hawaii (on the island of Oahu). Here are some oddities and facts that I learned about the nature that saturates the Big Island.


One of the first things you will notice about the Big Island is the almost deafening sound of the Coqui tree frogs at night. It’s said that the Coqui tree frogs arrived on Hawaii on a shipment of plants from Puerto Rico. While the arrival of the frogs brought down property value in Hawaii, in Puerto Rico they’re welcomed and simply a part of the natural background white sound. When you visit the Big Island, particularly on Hilo-side (the eastern side of the island), it will most likely be the last sound you hear before going to sleep.

Photo Credit: kari08lynne via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: kari08lynne via Compfight cc

The Big Island is famous for having 8 (out of the recognized 13) different climate zones. You can go from a tropical jungle to an arid patch of land to a high-altitude mountain in a matter of hours. While the island itself is quite small, you at least get a whole lot of variety.

Photo Credit: LoveBigIsland

Photo Credit: LoveBigIsland

One of the less enjoyable aspects of the Big Island is the vog. The word “vog” itself is a mixture of the words “volcanic,” “smog,” and “fog,” and it’s essentially volcanic air pollution. I never fancied myself as being particularly susceptible to allergies or pollution, but let me tell you – vog changed my mind, and quick. My eyes were constantly itching, I couldn’t wear contact lenses for more than a few hours, and I was a sneezing, wheezing, coughing mess. A word of advice: neither anti-histamines nor decongestion medicine helped much. The best solution I found was a vog tea at the local supermarket.


While you may or may not be affected by the vog, the nature will more than make up for your discomfort. One of the Big Island’s most common and breathtaking sights is the Banyan tree. The Banyan is basically a fig tree, which can be found primarily in India, and also elsewhere, ranging from Cambodia, to Indonesia, to Florida. Along with the tree itself, the Big Island also shares its legend with India: you should never sleep (or pee, for that matter) under a Banyan tree; if you do, the ghosts will get you.

Photo Credit: Tim Conway via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tim Conway via Compfight cc

The Big Island is also known for its breathtaking cliffs and waterfalls. The logical thing to do with the aforementioned combination is of course to cliff jump! While it’s easy to find the best hikes to go cliff jumping at, but my personal recommendation is to go to South Point. Ka Lae, or South Point, is the southernmost tip of the United States. It’s only mildly dangerous, with waves crashing into the jagged cliffs and whisperings of sharks perusing its violent waters. However, everyone does it, and I can guarantee you that if done properly, it is totally safe. The locals have grown up jumping off anything with any sort of height that looks onto water, so you can do it too!


Finally, on the Big Island, you can climb to the very top of the world. Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain (since it is measured starting below sea level, even though it stands at a mere 4,205 meters). Not only will you literally be above the clouds if you make the trek up there, but you will be very, very close to the stars. Some of the world’s most powerful and well-known observatories are atop the dormant volcano, such as the Keck Observatory, along with many others. The Big Island is so dedicated to the astrology that happens high above, in fact, that the street lights in the city are yellow, to minimize the light pollution. If you do go up on Mauna Kea, go for the sunset, and make sure to dress as warm as possible – it is really, really, really cold.



If you don’t like adventure, you will learn to love it. If you prefer the city to the jungle, you will change the mind. I’ve always preferred old and dark cities to sunny, bright islands, but if I had to choose a single place to live out the rest of my days, the Big Island would be it. Now, go visit the rest of the islands!

All non-credited photos courtesy of Christopher Bobek Photography and Rae Bathgate.

Rae Bathgate

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