How big is Hawaii?

Maps of the United States usually show the Hawaiian Islands in a little insert box off the coast of California. That makes it very easy to underestimate both how far Hawaii is from the coast of the mainland and how large it is when compared with other states.

It is common to mention that Hawaii is the most isolated populated area on earth, and then give the distances from Japan (3,850 miles) and California (2,390 miles). The fact that the plane trip from the west coast to Hawaii is five to six hours helps reinforce the remoteness of the island chain.

But even knowing that the islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean doesn’t help to imagine how close they are to one another — or how far apart. I started wondering how to best describe this because guests often think they can visit all the islands easily, like there should be a bridge or shuttle or something. In fact, you get from island to island the same way you get to the islands in the first place: on an airplane. It’s possible to make an impulse decision to fly to another island, but it’s also possible to get stuck there without a return flight if it is a busy holiday weekend, as a friend of mine learned. The planes fill up and airfares increase with popularity, just like flights anywhere else. There are also cruise options but they are neither fast nor cheap; not usually what my visitors have had in mind, which is more like “can we visit a volcano in an afternoon while staying in Waikiki?” Some tourists seem disappointed they can’t easily visit all the islands in a week by “island hopping” on a ferry or water taxi for a fare of a few dollars.

I found an interesting map that superimposed all the islands in the state of Hawaii on a map of the United States. It put the Big Island on New Orleans, and the rest of the islands along a line that ended in San Francisco. I’m not sure if that is accurate but it is probably close. The 137 Hawaiian islands are spread across 1,500 miles of the Pacific. But most people don’t think of all the tiny little dots that scatter toward Midway. They think of the eight larger islands: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui and Hawaii (Kahoolawe is in the midst but not inhabited).

So, I looked around to see what the distance is from Niihau to the Big Island of Hawaii. Various sources put it at about 350 miles. If we put the Big Island on Washington DC and move up the eastern coast of the United States, Kauai/Niihau ends up near Springfield, Massachusetts. That’s from the District of Columbia to Maryland, New Jersey, New York, across Connecticut and into Massachusetts. I don’t think that someone planning a vacation to Washington D.C. would think that they could catch a shuttle to a town five states away. They might make it part of an overall vacation itinerary to the East Coast, but would not plan to visit museums in New York City and Philadelphia on the same day, for example.

It is fun to travel to more than one island on a Hawaii vacation, and it is very possible. But it is a separate element that involves time, money, and ideally some planning to enjoy fully.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

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