I Was That Jacka** Tourist in Hawaii

Some destinations are so iconic, even if reality bears no resemblance to the idea of the place, people will engage in magical thinking and pinch their pennies, pack their bags, and go there anyway.

For many Americans, Hawaii is that place.

For decades, the wonders of the Aloha State have undulated across the minds of the landlocked. Promises of palm trees, coconut cocktails, and blissful beaches offered a world unlike your own. No passport required.


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But Hawaii hasn’t been that place for as long as it’s been marketed as such, if it ever was. Nearly a million people live in Honolulu County. Maui’s western shore has been over-developed within an inch of its life. And lovely little Kauai is feeling the ravages of climate change. Meanwhile, many locals feel that they’re living in occupied territory by the U.S. government, so they hang the state flag upside-down in protest.

Having been a travel writer for more than 15 years, I should’ve known better than to book a trip to Hawaii. But willful ignorance has been a requisite surviving a pandemic, and my recent sojourn proved no exception.

A Pandemic-Induced Purchase

I shouldn’t have stoked my friends’ excitement at a “pandemic package deal” last March or shrugged off the complications of Hawaii’s Safe Travels program. I had one dose of a vaccine and an itch to leave New York–the perfect formula to becoming that jackass tourist you’ve spent a lifetime evading.

Hawaii is a tourism machine. In 2019, more than 10.4 million visitors dropped about $18 billion on their vacations. Then COVID-19 brought a 60% decrease in tourism, the worst of any state in the U.S. I don’t envy the local government, which was stuck in a double-bind. Most of its visitors come from the U.S. and Asia, and public health had to come first. As unemployment began to skyrocket and homelessness ticked up, the state had to restart their economy. Things began to clumsily open up.

Six thousand miles back east in a small New York City apartment, I was raring to go on my long-delayed trip and didn’t prepare for what that would mean in this new world. Had I, I might have avoided many missteps.

Fools Rush In

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” sprung to mind shortly after I arrived at the Honua Kai Resort on Maui.

After a year of looking like I might scrub into surgery at any minute, my masked jaw dropped upon seeing a swarm of unmasked people dragging loungers around packed pools. Indoor restaurants were closed, leaving the outdoor walk-up window the only option. A 45-minute wait on a not-so-socially-distanced line would eventually get me a mai tai and some items from my dinner order. The ukulele player strumming “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t help things.

Maybe I was jet-lagged or just against the all-inclusive scene, so my boyfriend Mike and I sought some adventure with a morning bike ride down Haleakalā Crater. The 90-minute drive to the summit included a spiel about going slow and keeping your distance. Fine. We bike around New York City all the time.

The first half of the journey was magical. At the 9,000-foot peak, white clouds floated across a Martian landscape of rust and brown. Silver plants miraculously bloomed between rocks.

Halfway through the 23-mile ride, we approached a sharp left and I slowed. Mike yelled and I heard rubber scraping on asphalt. I turned around to see him draped across the double-yellow lines. My eyes searched for the bike, which was stuck in a thicket of mango trees. My blood chilled. We somehow got him off of the asphalt and into the grass.

Fast forward to the indoor-outdoor ER of Maui Memorial, a mile away from the local prison. Mike texted me updates from inside: roosters roaming free, another patient in an orange jumpsuit and ankle chains, accompanied by an armed guard. Upon discharge, Mike relayed the remedy for his separated shoulder: Tylenol, a sling, and some ice. But the paperwork called for Oxycodone and…chemotherapy. Another patient’s name, diagnosis, date of birth, etc., had been carelessly given to us. (HIPAA who?)

Get to the Garden Isle

Seven days on Maui, we were yearning for Kauai, which sees half as many travelers and maintains the lushness of Hawaiian dreams.

We took the required PCR test before inter-island travel, but results were still pending the morning of our departure. At Lihue Airport on Kauai, results were still not in and the National Guard greeted us in full camo and directed us to self-quarantine. We could go directly to Hanalei Bay Resort, our planned and paid-for accommodation, and join their “quarantine bubble.” We could roam the full grounds, but could not leave before 72 hours were up, even if negative results arrived while we were checking in. (We’d also have to wear tracking bracelets.)

Or, we could double-pay and go to a “quarantine hotel,” where we’d be confined to our sleeping room without keys. There, however, we could leave the moment our negative results appeared. We punted the decision and slumped at baggage claim, refreshing our email ad nauseam for results. After five hours, hunger and defeat set in. Quarantine hotel it was.

No surprise–we were there for two nights. We ate Pizza Hut. On day three, when our results finally arrived and we escaped, the hike to Wailua Falls was closed. When we arrived at Waimea Canyon later that week, a storm rolled in. The Napali Coast State Park had no more registrations available.

Learn, dear reader, from my mistakes. No matter how savvy you fancy yourself, you’re not thinking clearly right now. The world has been cooped up, jangled about, turned around. We’re not what we once were. Before your next trip, I implore you to think, to pause, to research. Or you could end up becoming a jackass tourist. Just like me.

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