When I was a sophomore in college, I stumbled upon a brochure that offered students the chance to “swap” colleges for a semester and attend any other state school for no extra charge. I was attending Portland State University at the time, and after 10 straight days of gray skies and rain, I took the brochure to my adviser’s office and said, “I’d like to go to Hawaii, please.”
A few months later, I moved to the Big Island to attend the University of Hawaii at Hilo. More than a decade later, I still look back at the time I spent living in Hawaii as some of the best days of my life.
Here are eight surprising truths about living in Hawaii that I learned firsthand — and how they all come together to make Hawaii the magical, one-of-a-kind place it is.
1. Life revolves around the ocean
It’s a given that when you live on an island in the middle of the Pacific, the ocean is going to factor more prominently into your life than it would for, say, someone living in South Dakota. But it’s hard to overstate how important the ocean is on every level here. It’s a source of spirituality, a force of nature that demands respect, and a gathering place for the community — the default location for parties and social events is always the nearest beach.
The ocean’s mood on any given day affects the whole island. Sometimes class would abruptly end 30 minutes early for no apparent reason. As the rest of the students rushed out of the classroom, I finally had to ask why.
My professor glanced up briefly while packing up his books. “Good waves today,” he said, before hurrying out to grab his board.
2. Surfboards are the most popular accessory
Speaking of which, in Hawaii, there are very few places where you won’t find a surfboard propped up against a wall or strapped to the roof of a car. Convenience stores, classrooms, grocery store parking lots, nice restaurants. They’re as ubiquitous as designer handbags in L.A. or raincoats in Portland.
3. A lot of things are really, really expensive…
The cost of living in Hawaii is famously high. Home values seem to rise astronomically every year. The rental market is expensive and competitive. A simple trip to the grocery store for bread and milk can set you back $15. There are ways to cut corners, but living in a place as beautiful and desirable as Hawaii definitely comes at a price.
4. …but the best things are really affordable.
On the flip side of Hawaii’s notoriously high cost of living are all the amazing the things that are actually more affordable here than anywhere else. The juiciest papayas and mangoes you’ve ever tasted? Available for next to nothing at the local farmers market. Shave ice with azuki beans and cream? A couple of bucks at a roadside stand. A day at the most postcard-perfect beach you’ve ever seen? Absolutely free.
5. It rains a lot.
I might have come to Hawaii to escape the Oregon rain, but it rains in Hawaii, too. A lot. (Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the whole “tropical rain forest” thing? Oops.) Rain in Hawaii varies greatly based on the season and where exactly you are on each island — just a few miles can separate entirely different climates and terrain — but expect some serious downpours (not to mention the occasional hurricane) mixed in with those gorgeous sunny days.
6. The best food isn’t at the fancy restaurants.
Hawaii’s tourist hubs are packed with high-end resorts and gourmet restaurants catering to visitors, and while these eateries are certainly lovely, if you want to find the best food in Hawaii, you’ve got to stray a little farther from the beaten path. That ramen shop in the corner of a suburban strip mall? Go there. The slightly rundown deli with a line of locals waiting for plate lunches (a Hawaiian favorite consisting of rice, macaroni salad, and meat)? Get in that line. That food truck doling out steam buns on a street corner? Order a few of those, and thank me later.
7. There’s always time to “talk story.”
Hawaiian culture moves at a different pace than other places, which can be a surprisingly difficult adjustment for people who move here from somewhere else. Hawaii is more laid back and slower paced than the mainland, and a higher value is placed on connection and relationships. People take the time to really talk to each other here in a way that’s increasingly rare. Swapping stories with friends (old and new) is a cherished pastime here. If that means that sometimes the bus is late because the driver had to stop to “talk story” with an old buddy on the side of the road, so be it.
8. Hawaii is so much more than the beach.
Most people think of Hawaii as a tropical postcard come to life, and while those sugar sand beaches definitely exist, the state is much more complex and diverse than that. Every Hawaiian island has its own ecosystem, economy, and culture, and you’ll find places within a few miles of each other that feel like totally different worlds. There are gorgeous beaches, yes, but there are also active volcanoes, dense rain forests, small farming communities, chilly mountain towns, big cities, suburbs and traffic jams. Living in Hawaii is an unforgettable experience because Hawaii is like nowhere else. If you ever get the chance to give it a try, I highly recommend it.
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