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Way, way more than Hula and Luaus.
Hawai'i is a island chain located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles from the US Mainland. It was its own independent nation until 1898 when it was (under much debated circumstances) annexed by the United States. It spent about six decades as a US Territory, including being the site of the events that brought America into World War II, before being admitted into the Union as the 50th state in 1959. The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, was born and raised in Hawaii and most of the 1.2 million people who live there consider themselves to be as American as people on the mainland.
Hawai'i is a popular tourist destination for Americans, due to the fact that it's a year-round tropical resort that Americans don't need a passport to visit. This is the reason for the prevalence of the tropes Aloha Hawaii and Hula and Luaus in American media. It is also home to a very large Japanese American community, thanks mainly to its proximity to Japan, which also sends over lots of tourists (and the reason for the prevalence of the aforementioned tropes in Japanese media as well). Most Japanese who talk about having been to America mean they once went to Hawaii on a package tour.
By now, some of you are wondering about the apostrophes that sometimes appears between the two i's in Hawai'i, and in other odd places as well. Well, technically, that apostrophe is the closest analogue in the English alphabet to the 'okina, which is actually a letter in the Hawaiian alphabet. It is used to indicate that there is a brief pause preceding a vowel. (Think of how someone with a Brooklyn or Cockney accent pronounces the two "t"s in the word "bottle"). One of the best ways to spot a current or former longtime resident of the Islands is if they remember to include the 'okina in the spelling of place names as well as the names of people.
Here, one can discover a melting pot of Western, Eastern, and Pacific culture and people that can't be found anywhere else in the world.
Of the many islands and atolls that make up the Hawaiian chain, there are eight "major" islands. Seven of them are inhabited, and of those, only four have "significant" populations:
- Hawai'i: The southeasternmost island in the entire chain and the largest; larger than all of the other islands combined. As you may have noticed, it shares its name with the state. This is because King Kamehameha The Great, who first united the islands under his rule at the turn of the 19th Century, was originally a chief from this island. To avoid confusion it is often called "The Big Island". It is home to two of the three remaining active volcanoes in the Hawaiian chain: Kilauea, currently the most active volcano in the world, and Mauna Loa (the third, Lo'ihi, is currently building itself up on the seafloor roughly twenty miles off the Big Island's southeast coast, and is predicted to breach the ocean surface sometime between 10,000 and 100,000 years from now). A dormant volcano, Mauna Kea, is the location of one of the most important astronomical observation sites in the world, and it is the highest mountain in the state (also the world, if you measure it from the seafloor - Take That, Everest). It is also the source of the world-famous Kona Coffee blend.
- Maui: "The Valley Island", it is the home of the seaside town of Lahaina, which was a major whaling station in the 19th century Pacific. It's also one of the few places in the world that grows sweet onions, and plays host to one of the only sugar plantations still in business in the United States. Like Mauna Kea, many astronomical observatories and telescopes are located on Haleakalā, a dormant volcano that comprises 75% of the island's landmass.
- Kaho'olawe: Sometimes called "The Target Isle", and for good reason. It's the only major island in the chain with an official population of zero, thanks partially to a severe lack of freshwater sources (it's really dry compared to the rest of the islands), but mainly because it was a training ground and bombing range for the U.S. military from World War II all the way up to 1990. The military forked control of the island over to the state in 1994, and currently, efforts are ongoing to clear the island of unexploded ordnance. Part of the county of Maui.
- Lana'i: "The Pineapple Isle", called that because it was once a large plantation for pineapples, the fruit that everyone now associates with Hawaii. With only one town on the island, it comes behind Kaho'olawe and Ni'ihau in the competition for smallest population. Also part of the county of Maui.
- Moloka'i: "The Friendly Isle". This island is relatively low-key compared to its sisters, notable mainly for its pleasant citizens, beautiful landscapes, and former leper colony. Also part of the county of Maui.
- O'ahu: "The Gathering Place". When most people go to Hawaii, this is where they end up. The island is home to the capital city of Honolulu and about 75% of the state's total population. If the island were its own state, it would have the highest population density of any in the country. The other islands are collectively referred to as the "Neighbor Islands". Here you will find Waikiki, the famous white sand beach around which enterprising opportunists built several hotels, cheap souvenir shops, t-shirt stands and an ABC (7-ll) store every block or so. Here you will also find Pearl Harbor, the bombing of which by the Japanese Empire on December 7, 1941 finally convinced The United States to enter World War II. It is also the headquarters of the United States Navy's Pacific Fleet. In fact, there are nearly as many military bases on O'ahu as there are hotels; a detail that rubs some people the wrong way.
- Kaua'i: "The Garden Isle", and the northwesternmost of the major Hawaiian Islands. It is a quiet, lush, tropical paradise, the Hawai'i that visitors often expect to see. The sets for a few popular films and TV shows were located here. Also the home of the third mountain in the state to contend for a world record - namely, Mount Wai'ale'ale, one of the wettest locations in the world, with an average yearly rainfall of 426 inches.
- Ni'ihau: "The Forbidden Isle", located just southwest of Kaua'i, with a population numbering just under 200. A Real Life example of a Hidden Elf Village, it's difficult for tourists to secure permission to visit. Only native Hawaiians (meaning the Polynesian natives, not just natural-born Hawaii citizens) are allowed to travel to Ni'ihau for anything longer than a brief tour. It's looked upon by many Hawaiians as the state's hidden gem.