So you visited Hawaii, fell in love with the island, and now you want to move here. I’ve heard this a time or two hundred before. Living in Hawaii is indeed a dream-come-true; it’s essentially a permanent vacation with the ability to live a lifestyle that you don’t need an escape from. It’s warm and sunny nearly all year long, no matter where you live on the island you’re always within a half-hour drive to the ocean, you can actually swim in said ocean all year long without a wet suit, and the word “Aloha” seems to be your new life motto. Sounds like a paradise, right? So why wouldn’t anybody want to live in Hawaii?
In this post (part 1 of 2), I’m going to dive into the cons of living in Hawaii, more specifically the downsides of living on Oahu, as that is where I lived for 11 years and where my family is from. Keep in mind that this subjective article is going to be based on my upbringing and exposure to life outside of Hawaii and having had the privilege to experience other states, countries and lifestyles to compare to, so please take it with a grain of salt as I mean no offense with anything I write. I aim to provide a balanced and honest perspective of what it is really like to live in Hawaii as a resident. (Part 2 of this article are the Pros – What It’s Really Like To Live in Hawaii)
Throughout my life I have lived in California, Idaho, Seattle, and Mexico, as well as traveled abroad long-term, but I call Hawaii home, and I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to do so. I lived on Oahu for a cumulative total of 11 years, and grew up visiting this beautiful paradise all throughout my childhood. My Grandmother’s side of the family was born and raised in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu, and my maternal side of the family lives here. My full-time profession throughout my entire working career on the island, was a Travel Consultant / Concierge for Expedia’s activities division for the State of Hawaii, so I was exposed to visitors from all over the world every day, who shared their perspectives with me on visiting the island. I have several local born-and-raised friends as well, so these varied perspectives helped me to provide a well-rounded view of what it’s really like to live in Hawaii.
Why Living in Hawaii Sucks
Well, it doesn’t. It’s awesome…most of the time. Sometimes it’s annoying and frustrating, just like living anywhere else in the world. In part 2 of this post I’ll detail the pros, but below I will share 18 downsides of living in Hawaii:
1) Extremely High Cost of Living
I lived on Oahu for nine years before moving to Seattle (the first time), where there is no state income tax and no grocery tax. After living in Seattle for nearly four years and moving back to the island, I was sticker shocked for a good two months upon my return. Everything is imported, so goods come with a higher price tag. My favorite indulgent drink is a Bhakti Chai. In Seattle, it costs $4.99. In Hawaii it costs $7.99. Milk is usually $5 – 9. Get used to dishing out a few hundred more pennies here.
2) There Are No Seasons
I am excluding the Big Island in this statement, which has something like 11 of Earth’s 13 different climate zones and even receives snow at the top of Mauna Kea!
This sentiment will be relative based on the reader. If you were born and raised on the East Coast of the United States shoveling snow and living in an Arc’teryx winter jacket for the better part of the year, you may like that Hawaii has a uni-season. But I love Fall colors and being able to go skiing in the mountains and see flowers bloom in spring (minus the hay fever). The fact that there are no seasons makes it difficult to remember where in the year we currently are. One time, my friend and I were driving to the North Shore and I asked her why there were Christmas lights everywhere. She looked at me quizzically and said, “Lisa, it’s December”. My brain did a double take before I muttered, “oh…. I thought it was July.” #Hawaiiproblems.
In places where seasons are present, it’s easier to live your life by the seasons. I.E. taking quiet time to not feel guilty about staying home in the winter to reflect, work on a project, or learn a new language. Anywhere else in the U.S. (save Florida), in January you hunker down and gain weight because it’s too cold to do anything outside. In April you do spring cleaning. In July you go outside and play every day until dark. And in September you drink pumpkin spiced lattes and go out of your way to step on a crunchy-looking leaf. Every day is July in Hawaii, which means you have to be really structured and disciplined living in Hawaii, otherwise it’s hard to get anything done because people are outside playing all day, every day. Beach volleyball or doing laundry? Hmm…really tough decision there. This is most certainly a case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Here we dictate seasons by things like when mangoes are ripe, or when the waves are big on the North Shore. (See my post on Things to Do on Oahu’s North Shore from a Local’s Perspective)
3) It’s 80 Degrees And Sunny All Year Long
Some of you are probably thinking “umm…doesn’t this belong in the ‘pros’ section? Break out the tiny violin, this girl is complaining about 80-degree weather.” I love the warmth, but I also enjoy variety, which, as we all know, is the proverbial spice of life. I actually get really excited when we have a thunderstorm or heavy winds, because it’s something different! I can actually put on a sweatshirt and maybe….maybe some pants. 80 degrees and sunny all year gets boring and old after a while. However, I’ve met countless people who disagree. They moved here from somewhere else, found their happy place, and will live and die here. To each their own.
4) Things Get Done On “Hawaiian Time”
You know that multi-billion-dollar project called “The Rail” that was meant to be finished back in 2013? Yep…still being completed….and several billion dollars over budget.
One time I was driving and saw a road sign that said, “Caution, men working ahead”…as I continued driving ahead, there were three construction workers taking a nap on the grass in the shade under a coconut tree. Hey, everybody needs a break; construction is a labor-intensive job! I just found the sign and the actuality to be quite hilarious. Only in Hawaii would you find construction crew on their work break, napping outside under a coconut tree in the shade.
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5) Lack Of Recycling, Compost, and Overall A Terrible Waste Management System
Being a central hub for tourism, the islands go through waste – a LOT of it, especially plastic. And because we live on an island, we have to ship our trash out or burn it. There are virtually no recycling bins on the streets (only waste bins), nor in hotels or restaurants. The island doesn’t compost; they only have a green waste bin for plant matter, and they only recycle aluminum and plastics with a number 1 or 2 on the bottom, and corrugated cardboard – that’s it. Because of lack of recycle bins, people default to throwing everything in the waste bin, thinking it’s out-of -sight-out-of-mind.
After living in Seattle for several years, I became spoiled with how progressive and green the state is. Seattle’s recycle and composting systems are top-notch, and they really care about their environmental footprint, stepping up as leaders in the industry. In Hawaii, not so much. Instead of seeing green roofs and gardens, you’ll see parking lots and dilapidated structures being unused and wasting precious space. Instead of compostable takeaway containers, you’ll see plastic and styrofoam (it’s a stab to my heart every time I see this.) You would think that an island would try to be more sustainable, but it doesn’t seem to be a top priority here over tourism revenue.
6) Lack of (Non-Polynesian) Culture
Hawaii is wonderfully rich in its own Polynesian culture, however, if you want to find a great local jazz bar or live indie music on any given night, you may as well book a flight to San Francisco or New York City because you won’t find many options here. It’s difficult to even find a good radio station that plays jazz, blues, symphonic music, or anything other than rap, pop or Rasta music (a mixture of Jamaican and Hawaiian). (Thank goodness for Hawaii Public Radio and KTUH (University of Hawaii college radio – 90.1 on your radio dial)). Occasionally the University of Hawaii at Manoa will host musical events, but they are few and far between. Also, because we’re an island, big theatre Broadway shows or well-known musicians rarely come our way. And when they do, shows sell out immediately.
In an article published in 2018, Hawaii News Now reported that Honolulu ranked 19th for worst traffic in the nation. In 2012 it was ranked the #1 worst city in the nation for traffic (yes, even topping L.A. and Seattle). In 2013, it was the second worst, and in 2015 the 10th worst, so we’re improving, yay! (source). We have 1.4 million people on the island, and they drive everywhere. The city’s infrastructure was built as an afterthought. We are an island after all.
8) Poor Public Transportation
Remember that rail system I spoke about earlier? Hawaii residents are still waiting on its completion, though I’m pretty sure people have stopped holding their breath by now. Besides our public city bus (called “TheBus”), which takes ten minutes to go one mile, there is no public transit system. (And no, contrary to popular belief, there are no bridges in between all the islands, and no underground systems either….unless you consider a submarine a mode of transportation.) In March of 2017, Biki, Hawaii’s first bike share system, was finally introduced; a baby step towards improvement. I get it, it’s not like we can easily chum up ocean water and build an underground system in Hawaii, but we could at least improve road conditions and add bike lanes to encourage bicycle commuting.
9) Hawaii is Not Bike-Friendly
I commuted to work 8 months out of the year when I lived in Seattle (the other 4 months were too rainy). With safe and protected trails like the Burke-Gilman Trail, biking in Seattle is not only friendly, it’s fun and popular! Here on Oahu, people don’t even know bike signals.
Example: I used to bike commute to work into Waikiki. I hand signaled to turn right by turning my elbow up at a 90-degree angle (the proper right-turn hand signal). I had the right of way, but a bus driver was making a left-hand turn. He saw my signal, smiled, waived at me, threw me a shaka, and proceeded to cut me off. He thought my right-hand turn signal was me waiving hello at him!!
10) Hawaii is Behind the Times
Being an island, inevitably we’re behind on latest trends, especially technology-related. It took forever to finally get the credit card chip reader here. Meanwhile, other mainland states are racing ahead with contact-less systems. I suppose you could say we’re a bit archaic. Jurassic Park was filmed in Hawaii, after all.” 😉
11) There is No Trader Joe’s or IKEA, and Few Consignment Stores
Okay, I know, this is a major first-world problem, but Trader Joe’s was where I bought all my cheese at a reasonable price! Thank goodness we have Costco, but when it comes to buying bulk items or furniture, we have very little in the way of a central place we can purchase used and/or refurnished furniture for cheap. This is what Facebook Marketplace is for, and it’s pretty good here because of the constant influx and departures of military families.
12) Lack of Farm-To-Table Eateries
Again, I’ve been terribly spoiled having lived in Seattle and frequently visiting Vancouver, B.C., two of the great foodie capitals of North America. I find Oahu’s foodie scene disappointing, as many restaurants cater to tourists and are overly priced, mediocre-tasting, and the ingredients are poorly sourced. Locals here love their spam, their sugary smoothies and their bento boxes and plate lunches; all of which come in plastic containers in a plastic bag. That being said, we are slowly starting to see the farm-to-table and local, organic sustainability movement catch on with the newer eateries that have opened up over the past year. You can visit my (second) most popular blog post to-date (the one you’re reading now is my top-rated!) blog post on A Local’s Ultimate Oahu Foodie Guide.
The local farm-to-table concept is also spreading to neighbor islands, Kauai, Maui, and Big Island. Check out my food blog posts (linked in this paragraph for where to find the best food on each island.)
13) Tourism Is Rampant
This is a point of contention for me because the tourism industry is directly responsible for my livelihood. It pays my bills and I love having the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world every day. I love living in a place filled with multiple cultural backgrounds and ethnicities because I believe diversity makes the world a far more interesting and dynamic place that we can all learn so much from.
However, because the island sees so many visitors each year, natural places and habitats such as Hanauma Bay on Oahu and Molokini Crater on Maui are becoming trampled and degraded. Reefs are being stepped on and erosion is occurring on many of the hikes. Whenever a place attracts a plethora of people, we need to take precautions to mitigate destruction and overpopulation. I grew up snorkeling at Hanauma Bay as a kid and have fond childhood memories of it, but unfortunately it has now turned into a massive tourist destination. Hawaii has passed a law that requires “reef safe sunscreen” to protect the dying reefs, but how will they ensure it is enforced?
14) We’re In The Middle Of Nowhere
Sometimes I look at where we’re located on a world map and when I see the tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, my hands start to sweat. * Knock on wood *, but if any disaster or attack were to happen (and it has before…think Pearl Harbor), we would really be in trouble. Knowing that there’s only one way off of this tiny little land mass is a bit unsettling. Teleportation, anyone? Also, with the eruption of the volcano on the Big Island in 2018, people freak out about the safety on other islands. Oahu is 200 miles away from the Big Island, and even the Big Island itself is fine on the Kona side. Here’s my response to that (image from Google):
15) Island Fever Is a Real Thing
Granted, I would take island fever over SADD (seasonal acute depression disorder) living in a cold, dark place any day. However, if you want to remain sane, you need to travel frequently. And in order to travel frequently, you need to have the money to do so, which leads me to my next point…
16) The Wages Don’t Match The Cost Of Living in Hawaii
Making a livable income in Hawaii is very difficult unless you’re in the right industry, or if you live in a 10 x 10 box, on a boat, or with five other people and pay under $1,000 per month in rent. There are some jobs that pay quite well, especially in the tourism industry, but they can be difficult to come by. We call this problem the “paradise tax”.
17) Petty Theft Is Common
Though this is true most anywhere in the world, it is especially prevalent as a tourist target. Break-ins are one of the most common crimes on the islands, and they’re usually targeted at tourists who are all too trusting and leave valuables in their vehicles. Be cautious and don’t leave valuables in plain sight in your car or at the beach. This goes for locals, too.
18) Tourists Come First, Nature Comes Second
You know the popular song that goes “they paved paradise to build up a parking lot…oooo bap bap bap..oooooo”? That’s pretty much how it works here. Especially on the ever-growing island of O’ahu, tourism reigns king, and laws and regulations are often overlooked simply because they know that the end result will equal…you guessed it…more tourism spending and revenue for the state.
I hope this post gives you a realistic perspective from a local resident about what it’s really like to live in Hawaii. If you are considering a move to Hawaii, or just love to come back time and time again to visit, I don’t blame you! I just ask that when you do visit or move here, to take care of the ‘aina (land) with care and respect. <3 Malama Pono (take care).
Part 2 can be found in my next post for the pros of what it’s really like to live in Hawaii…
Do you live in Hawaii or have you visited the islands? Would you add anything to this list that you feel are downsides to living in Hawaii?
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