Hawaii’s island nicknames explained

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Each of the main Hawaiian Islands has its own nickname. At first, affectionate monikers seem obvious. In fact, they are. But the history of the nicknames is actually a little deeper than one might expect. We’ll go west-to-east.

Kauai, The Garden Isle

Kauai is green. Very green. World-famously green. Of course it’s called the Garden Isle. But there is more to it than the obvious. Kauai is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands. This means that it has been subject to the elements for longer (about 5 million years and counting). The natural erosion of volcanic rock has produced incredibly rich volcanic soil that has been used to cultivate crops since the arrival of the first Polynesian people in Hawaii around 400 AD. Kauai is now home to dozens of farms growing a wide variety of subsistence and cash crops like coffee and tobacco.

Historical Fact: Hawaii’s first successful large-scale sugar plantation was established by Ladd & Company in Koloa on Kauai in 1853.

Kauai from space, with Hanalei Bay and Waimea Canyon clearly visible.

Oahu, The Gathering Place

This is also an obvious nickname for the population center of the Aloha State and its State Capitol of Honolulu. You might say Oahu is “where the action is”, where commerce happens and laws are made. About 950,000 call Oahu home, close to two-thirds of Hawaii’s overall population. Nearly 350,000 live in Honolulu-proper alone. Many Oahuans flee “the big city” for the relative calm and quiet of family and friends on the Neighbor Islands regularly. Many neighbor island residents shudder at the notion of spending long periods of time on Oahu for the same reason.

Historical Fact: Waikiki was a playground for Hawaiian royalty for hundreds of years. Local chiefs from around Oahu would come to Waikiki to pay respects and make offerings to the ali’i. Thus, “The Gathering Place”.

Oahu is, by far, the most populous Hawaiian island.

Molokai, The Friendly Isle

People are nice on Molokai. Molokai residents live their lives in many of the traditional ways of their Native Hawaiian ancestors. This means a deep-seated sense of love and family (aloha and ohana) is shared by Molokai residents. There is very little tourism on Molokai, so tourists are more of a novelty than the spectacle of thousands of visitors who throng to Hawaii’s popular resort destinations.

Historical Fact: Molokai is home to Kalaupapa, a refuge for Native Hawaiian Hansen’s Disease sufferers led by Father Damien in 1873. He was canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church in October 2009.

The Friendly Isle is also magical.

Lanai, The Pineapple Isle

This one is another no-brainer. At one point in the early 1900s, Lanai produced 75% of all pineapples in the world. Nearly all of Lanai was purchased by James Dole in 1922 and is now owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison. In 1992 pineapple production was phased out by the Dole Company. Lanai is now home to  two Four Seasons Resorts: Koele and Manele Bay.

Historical Fact: Evidence suggests that Lanai did not become inhabited until the 1500s, although Polynesians arrived in Hawaii many centuries before that.

Lanai from space.

Maui, The Valley Isle

There are a lot of valleys on Maui. The most famous is the Iao Valley, a picturesque and verdant gouge in the West Maui Mountains and home to the popular Iao Valley Needle hiking trail. The name “Valley Isle” actually comes from the fact that the island itself is a valley, with the West Maui Mountains on one side, Haleakala Crater on the other, and a vast plane between them.

Future Fact: Maui will eventually become two islands. Natural erosion and sea level rise will surely see to that in, say, about 15,000 years.

Maui from space.

Hawaii, The Big Island

We admit, this one is kind of lazy. Of all the Hawaiian Islands (which stretch 1500 miles into the North Pacific), Hawaii Island is the biggest and the tallest. But there is much more to the Big Island than it just being, well, big. It is home to most of the world’s climatic zones, from desert to rainforest to alpine. Its marvels are legion and its spiritual significance to Native Hawaiians is superlative. It is also the birthplace of King Kamehameha the Great, who first united the Hawaiian Islands under one rule in 1810.

Fun Fact: Mauna Kea, home of the currently (and spectacularly) active Kilauea Volcano, is by far the tallest mountain in the world when measured from its base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Using that measurement makes Mauna Kea nearly a mile taller than Mount Everest.

The Big Island, a speck in the sea, but massive up close.

These nicknames are an easy way to distinguish between the Hawaiian Islands for nonresidents and the industries trying to attract them. But there is history behind those names and learning about it can help visitors more fully appreciate and learn from their experiences.

“What’s in a name?”, goes the old Shakespearean question. In Hawaii, it’s a lot.