Pearl Harbour, surf, aloha shirts, and Luaus are some things we immediately associate with Hawaii, but besides these, what is Hawaii famous for?
Hawaii is the 4th smaller state, the 11th least populated, and the last state to join the union. Despite this, it is one of the most popular and unique states. Located almost 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the mainland U.S.A., Hawaii has a unique culture, language, and geography, making it an attractive travel destination and an enchanting US state with plenty of popular landmarks.
Still, without further ado, let’s dive in and investigate what is Hawaii famous for?
14 things Hawaii is famous for
Surf and Surf culture
Surf is easily one of the most famous things about Hawaii. However, it is believed that it originated in ancient Polynesia and only later prospered in Hawaii.
Ancient Hawaiians considered surf (or wave sliding as it was called) much more than a recreational activity, a hobby, an extreme sport, or casual fun. In Hawaiian culture, surfing was integrated into their culture, and it was part of their religion, art, and society and had a spiritual meaning.
Surfing was generally practiced in ancient Hawaii, but the social status was significant. Kings and nobility practiced it on the best beaches with the best waves. After contact with Europeans, Hawaiian culture changed, and surf lost much of its importance for many years. Yet, modern surf can be traced back to pre-contact Hawai’s surfing.
In the early 1900s, surfing started revitalizing Hawaii, particularly Waikiki Beach. During this time, Duke Kahanamoku, who had grown up surfing, taught visitors how to surf and canoe. He was an extraordinary athlete who became a swimming Olympic champion and spread and popularized surf worldwide. He is considered the father of modern surfing.
Pearl Harbor attack
What is Hawaii famous for? The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor comes to the mind of many people, particularly the Americans.
Just before 08:00, on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, more than 350 aircraft of the Japanese Navy deployed a massive attack on the Pearl Harbor base in Honolulu. This attack surprised the US as there was no declaration of war. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2 403 Americans were killed, and essential base installations were damaged.
The Pearl Harbor attack crippled the US’ ability to counter-attack and quickly intervene in WWII. Still, the event also led the USA to formally enter WWII and eventually unbalance the war to the Allies’ side.
A Luau is a traditional Hawaiian party or feast usually accompanied by entertainment. You have seen it everywhere in pop culture—almost every time Hawaii is mentioned in movies, series, etc.
In old Hawaii, the traditional feast was called paina, and men and women ate meals separately. In 1819 King Kamehameha II removed all these religious constraints, creating the first Luau. Curiously the name luau comes from the food served at the parties. Luau means taro leaves, the main ingredient of a few foods served in a Luau.
The concept of Luau has changed a lot. Still, a modern Luau basically includes many things Hawaii is famous for Hawaiian food, Hawaiian music, hula, lei, people in aloha shirts, and the beach.
We will talk about each of these things below. Today, the Luau concept was exported, and there are Luau-themed parties everywhere in the world.
If there’s one thing it won’t lack in a Luau, that’s leis. Lots of leis. You may not know the word, but surely know what it is. You have seen it everywhere when Hawaii is depicted, particularly when someone arrives in Hawaii or a Luau.
A lei is a traditional “garland of series of objects strung together with the intent to be worn.” The most common leis are probably made with flowers but can also be with leaves, shells, seeds, etc. Traditionally, these garlands were worn by ancient Hawaiians to beautify themselves and distinguish themselves from others. The Maile lei was perhaps the most significant.
Like many other things in Hawaii, leis are symbolic and can be given for several reasons: peace, love, honor, or friendship.
Another famous thing from Hawaii that can be missed in a Luau is Hula dancing. Hula is a type of dancing typical of Hawaii developed by the Polynesians who initially settled there. Though similar to other related Pacific dances, hula is unique to the Hawaiian Islands.
Hula dancing is a complex art. There are many hand motions used to represent the lyrics of a song or chant. Hand gestures can signify aspects of nature, such as the swaying of a tree, a wave in the ocean, or a feeling or emotion, such as fondness or yearning. It’s very symbolic and emotional. A Hula dance can animate history, be it a prophecy or tales of those who came before.
Historically, Hula was presented either informally at family reunions or to entertain tribal chiefs. Like other cultural traits of Hawaii, the tradition was almost lost after encountering Europeans/Americans. Though more and more islanders have been reviving it in the last decades to connect with the culture of their ancestors.
Tourism has also played a huge role in recovering the art form, but it is more performative and less symbolic.
Aloha shirts are easily one of the best-known things in Hawaii. These are typically short-sleeved, loose-fitting, open-collar shirts printed of a lightweight fabric in colorful, bold designs of flowers, beaches, birds, and other Hawaiian motifs. Despite being mass-produced, there are so many different designs that there’s a sense that every single shirt is unique.
Aloha shirts, also called Hawaiian shirts, are iconic and a true symbol of Hawaii. They are frequently worn for casual or smart/casual events, often by men but also by women.
Hawaiian shirts are all about relaxed clothing; over the years, they have become popular with locals, tourists, and visitors worldwide.
No trip to Hawaii would be complete without buying them as souvenirs for the journey home, or if you already have one, don’t forget to include it in your Hawaii packing list! They are also casual everyday wear for islanders. You’ll fit in! It is possible to buy aloha shirts here and wear them everywhere you want.
What is Hawaii famous for besides all the cultural and historical features we have already mentioned before? The paradisiac beaches, obviously!
Hawaii has some stunning beaches, but they are also quite diverse. You have the globally famous Waikiki Beach, with all the infrastructure in the world, or Waimea Bay, world-renowned as a surfing mecca. But there are also hidden beaches, only accessible by boat or trails, with virtually no infrastructure.
Furthermore, there’s the sand. You can find typical white, golden, and volcanic black sand beaches in Hawaii. However, you can also find red sand beaches and a very, very rare green sand beach on Hawaii’s big island.
We could write one or several posts only about the beaches in Hawaii and how they attract millions of people every year to the archipelago.
The volcanoes are the other natural feature Hawaii is known for. Each of the islands is made of one or more volcanoes. They first erupted on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and emerged above sea level after countless eruptions. Over time, volcanoes created some of the most iconic landmarks and sceneries. So, it is not that Hawaii has volcanoes, but that Hawaii is made up of Volcanoes.
There are six active volcanoes, but there are many other inactive ones. Most of them are located in Hawaii island. Two of them are among the most active worldwide, Kilauea (which erupted almost continuously from 1983 to 2018) and Mauna Loa (the largest volcano on Earth, 33 times since 1843).
Mauna Kea is also worth mentioning as it’s the highest point in the archipelago, with an altitude of 4207 meters. Plus, if we consider its base at the bottom of the ocean, it’s considered the highest mountain in the world at an astonishing 10 105 meters. Other Hawaiian landmark volcanoes include Diamond Head in Oahu and Haleakala in Maui.
They are some of the most famous landmarks in Hawaii, but there are plenty of others, both manmade and natural. Among these, we must highlight the Pearl Harbour memorial with USS Arizona, ʻIolani Palace, the Dole Plantation, and the stunning Road to Hana.
Check this post if you want to learn more about the most famous landmarks in Hawaii. It includes beaches, volcanoes, human-made monuments, and other stunning places.
Hawaiian cuisine incorporates several cooking styles and food, including the fusion of native, immigrant, ethnic, and local food and ingredients. This variety and diversity have produced some amazing dishes which have become well-known in the continental USA and the rest of the world.
Some of these most typical and well-known dishes in Hawaiian cuisine include:
- Poi – the staple and filler dish of Hawaii. It’s steamed taro root pounded and mixed with water. Not everyone enjoys it, as it’s much of an acquired taste.
- Lau lau – Chunks of pork shoulder seasoned with Hawaiian salt, wrapped in thick layers of soft taro leaves and steamed inside
- Poke – is the Hawaiian sashimi. Cubes of the freshest raw fish or octopus tossed with seasonings like soy, sesame oil, and onions. See more about Poke Bowls below.
- Lomi salmon – Diced salted salmon, raw tomato, and white onion mixed together in a fresh, crunchy
- Squid luau – Taro leaves cooked with coconut milk and small pieces of squid or octopus
We have talked about Poke, but we really need to highlight Poke bowls, one of the most trendy dishes in the last years. Poke bowls are trendy across the United States (and the world), but Hawaiians have enjoyed this colorful and flavorsome delicacy since the 19th century.
Poke means “chunk” or “slice” in Hawaiian. Poke bowls became broadly consumed during the late 19th century. Japanese workers came to the islands to work in pineapple fields and introduced “donburi,” a traditional Japanese dish made with raw fish and rice. So, despite being a Hawaiian dish, it is deeply rooted in Japanese cuisine.
The original poke bawls consist of white rice topped with raw fish marinated in a blend of sesame oil, soy sauce, green onions, and other spices. Modern versions are more customized and adjusted to every taste and preference, but the fish cubes are usually the only original requirement. However, they can be marinated or baked instead of raw.
Since 1978, Hawaiian has been one of the official languages of Hawaii (the other is obviously English). Despite this, only less than 0.1% of the Hawaii population is estimated to be native speakers. Furthermore, the small island of Niihau is the only place where the native Hawaiian language is spoken daily.
Before European arrivals, Hawaiian was strictly an oral language. It was the missionaries that converted it into a written language. The Hawaiian alphabet is very simple, having only 13 letters: 5 vowels (a e i o u) and eight consonants (he ke la mu nu pi we, and the glottal stop called ʻokina).
Hawaiian has been slowly resurging, but only about 1,000 native Hawaiian speakers and around 8,000 people can fluently speak and understand the language. Public Hawaiian language immersion preschools and schools have been established, and the numbers are increasing. However, UNESCO considers Hawaiian a critically endangered language.
Some of the most famous Hawaiian words are Aloha (hello! Love, affection), Mahalo (Thank you), Maoli (native), Moku (island), ‘Ohana (family).
What is Hawaii famous for? Hawaii is infamously expensive. Being 2 000 miles (3 200 km) from the mainland U.S.A. and surrounded by water doesn’t help, but there are other reasons.
Hawaii attracts people and tourists, which makes housing costs even more expensive. Honolulu is one of the most expensive cities in the US and is often compared with San Francisco and New York, though slightly cheaper.
Even if you are only planning to travel to Hawaii, expect to pay a little more than in the mainland US. Particularly for lodging, food, and everything that needs to be imported from the mainland. Nevertheless, it’s a price worth paying. Hawaii is really unique and has some stunning views.
The 50th State
Composed of eight islands and 129 islets, Hawaii was the last state admitted to the union – it only became a US state on August 21, 1959. So, Hawaii is usually known as the 50th state and nicknamed the Aloha state.
Historically, Hawaii is one of the few American states once recognized as independent nations (Texas was independent from March 2, 1836, to February 19, 1846). The kingdom of Hawaii was sovereign from 1810 to 1898 when resident Americans and Europeans overturned the monarchy. Between 1898 and 1959, Hawaii was a territory of the United States but not a state.
* Cover photo by tomasfoto via Depositphotos
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