Tourists come and go from Hawaii like cars in a drive-thru. The Honolulu airport echoes with “I’m not ready to leave,” “I wish I could stay longer,” and “I wish I lived here.” In fact, that was me ten years ago. My fantasy became a reality eight years later when I decided to get on that plane.
I used to picture myself sitting under a swaying palm on an isolated beach, salty after surfing for an hour, writing in my journal about my new home. I have probably done that at least once, but life becomes life, no matter where you are. Especially when you need a job and live in one of the most expensive places in the country.
Many Hawaii transplants have to remind themselves that when money is tight, at least they can go to the beach for free. State income tax is as high as 8.25%. The cheapest gas I’ve found currently costs $3.29/gallon. Food has to be shipped from the mainland, which adds extra cost. Of course, you can eat all the papayas and mangoes you want for free if you have trees. One might think that buying locally-grown food is cheaper, but sometimes it costs more than the shipped stuff in order to compete. Barges pull into Honolulu first, and from there food is transported to the other islands. Therefore, food can cost even more outside of Oahu. And then there is rent.
A one-bedroom, cinder block apartment in a low-income neighborhood usually costs upwards of $1000/month. A studio apartment in the same neighborhood can be as cheap as $700 or as expensive as $1200. Many families rent rooms in their homes for reasonable prices, hovering around $600. I have met several people paying rent to sleep on futons and share a bathroom. I’ve also known people to section-off corners of their friends’ living rooms with tapestries to create sleeping “caves.” To many, where you sleep doesn’t matter when you spend most of your time working, surfing, and hiking. If that kind of thing is important to you, then you should probably have a job – or a big savings account - before moving out here.
But I got lucky after a month of dedicated job hunting and couch-surfing. And a lot of people do. In fact, a lot of people plan on staying here 6 months to a year before returning to the mainland, but end up staying forever. Except for millionaires, transplants must assess their definitions of “quality of life.” If smaller, more modest living quarters weigh less than superior weather, surf, and scenery, then Hawaii could be the place for you.
After deciding to make the move, you must answer the question, “Which island?” Oahu hosts about 900,000 out of a million people in Hawaii. The south shore truly feels like a city. The other shores take on a more country feel, but they suffer the strain of overpopulation, as well. Many flock to Oahu because it has most of the jobs. The military, shipping industry, and UH Manoa provide a lot of employment opportunities for this island.
Honolulu also has a thriving downtown and numerous cultural attractions that other islands lack. Football fans can cheer on UH at the Aloha Stadium. Art aficionados can frequent the Bishop Museum and gallery-hop in the Arts District. Film fans can keep afloat with the latest indie films at the Doris Duke Theatre. Foodies and history buffs can savor Chinatown. Night owls can sip lychee martinis in chic Waikiki and downtown venues. These activities and more make Oahu feel more cosmopolitan than the other islands.
Those seeking more peace and quiet might want to look into Maui, the Big Island, or Kauai. While Maui’s relaxed ambiance is a far cry from Oahu’s hustle and bustle, it ranks second for resembling city life. Kahului is Maui’s most populated town and home to malls, shopping centers, and the airport. A lot of transplants choose to move to Lahaina or one of the quaint towns in upcountry.
The Big Island boasts less expensive land and numerous farms. The ever-growing island has two very distinct sides: Hilo and Kona. Kona’s climate is dry and desert-like, while Hilo’s is wet, rain-forested, and volcanic. Certain draws to the Big Island include skiing Mauna Kea, the annual Ironman in Kona, lots of country, and the world’s largest observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea.
Kauai, the Garden Isle, heaps with jungle and waterfalls. Everyone who visits Kauai falls deeply in love with it, including the likes of Julia Roberts and Pierce Brosnan. Real estate prices are extremely steep, however, thanks in part to these Hollywood buyers. Some people I know from Kauai complain that there is nothing to do there but surf and hike, and often hop to Honolulu to shop. Many would agree, however, that Kauai realizes the image of island life that most people envision before arrival. Those who prefer country to city and take advantage of nature’s bou the country, hiking, and surfing could be happy here.
The next pressing factor is transportation. As my good friend once said, “Hawaii is where cars come to die.” I have known many cars to take their last breath here. A lot of transplants buy “Hawaii Cruisers,” or beater cars for $1000 or less, end up spending a lot more money on repairs, and eventually give them to Salvation Army or Cash for Clunkers. If you are planning on staying in Hawaii indefinitely, I suggest shipping a car or spending more money on a reliable one when you get here. Shipping a car from California typically costs $1000 one-way. If a car is out of your price range, then you will need to rely on the bus or bike. Oahu is the only island with a dependable bus system, even though buses often arrive before or after schedule.
The longer you live in Hawaii, the harder it is to leave. If you are seriously considering moving, you should consult more sources. There are many facets to moving that I did not cover here - such as anti-growth sentiments, localist attitudes, and health insurance qualms. Below I have included links to other sources to provide more insight and alternate views. I also recommend the book "So You Want to Live in Hawaii" by Toni Polancy.