Is Hawaii an Island, or a State?

When people start planning their first trip to Hawaii, if they don’t know much about the islands, they come to some curious mysteries that have to be solved. One is—Soooo is Hawai‘i an Island or a State?

Well, it’s Both Actually

The Big Island, more than any other in this state, is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to names. This is the biggest island in the state, so big, in fact that you could lay all the other islands on its surface and still have room to drive around. Because it’s so huge, it’s commonly referred to as (brace yourself) the Big Island. Its Hawaiian name is Hawai‘i. So far, so good. But the whole state is called Hawai‘i. So you figure the capital must be here, right? Nope, Honolulu is on O‘ahu. This must be where most of the people live, then, huh? Uh-uh. O‘ahu has 80 percent of the population. Well, this must be where Pearl Harbor is, correct? EEHH—Wrong answer—it’s on O‘ahu, too. 

So why is the state named after the island of Hawaii? Because it’s the biggest island, and this is where King Kamehameha the Great was from. It was he who brought all the islands under one rule for the first time. His first capital was here at Kailua (another naming headache). When you do all that, you have some historical influence. I always refer to this island as the Big Island. When I say Hawai‘i, I mean the whole state. (You know, even my brother, when he came to visit me on the Big Island, called from Honolulu to have me pick him up. You should have seen how ticked he got when I said, John, you’re on the wrong island, man. You need to buy another ticket.) You said you were on the main island! No, I said I was on the big Island. Same thing! Sorry. It ain’t. In short, in Hawai‘i could be anywhere—on Hawai‘i is on the Big Island.

Don’t Get Confused..

Let me give you another example of some naming confusions. Kilauea Volcano has been the flashy volcanic star for many decades. Except for a Mauna Loa lava flow in 1984, during my lifetime all of the eruptions in Hawaii have been by Kilauea. But over on Kauai that’s also a Kilauea. It’s a town. I remember being on Kauai, sitting at an outdoor table in Kilauea eating lunch when a couple approached me, unfolded a map and asked what was the quickest way to get to the lava flows. I pointed my arm and said they were 350 miles, and 6 islands over that a way. “But it says the lava flows are at Kilauea. I felt bad for them. At least on the mainland if you go to the wrong Kansas City, say the one in MO, it’s a short drive to the one in Kansas.

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