Lava erupts from a fissure east of the Leilani Estates subdivision during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii on May 13. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

As someone with relatives in Hawaii, I’ve been touched by the friends who have reached out to me and my husband to see how our family is doing — and a bit bemused. My in-laws, — who are fine, thank you — live on Oahu, 200 miles from the Big Island, where the Kilauea volcano is reworking the landscape and laying waste to some residents’ dreams of paradise. Don’t be embarrassed, such misperceptions are widespread; many Hawaii-connected people are receiving similar missives. In response, a colleague sent out this helpful tweet.

I realize that this confusion is due to the unfortunate fact that the name “Hawaii” is used in so many different contexts, and that the state’s geography is unfamiliar to most mainlanders. (That goes both ways: We’ve had friends and relatives from Hawaii expect to include a visit with us outside the District, during their trips to New York City. When you live on an island that might only take an hour to circumnavigate — and where directionals are not north, south, east and west but ocean side, called “makai,” and mountain side, called “mauka” — it’s tough to grasp the vastness of the continental United States.)

So, I’d like to provide a public service by explaining what this non-Hawaii native has learned about the geography of Hawaii, and the duplicate names. Believe me, I do not do this out of any sense of superiority. Before my first visit with my future husband, I didn’t know the difference between Hawaii and Hawaii, either, and even my pronunciation of Oahu was shaky.

Hawaii can refer to a state, an island or a county. (The county covers the same area as the island, but to make things confusing, unlike most counties, it has a mayor.) The island of Hawaii received that name, according to one theory, because the word means “place of the Gods,” a reference to its mystical snow-capped mountains. The island’s greatest king, Kamehameha I, eventually conquered the other islands, uniting them as the Kingdom of Hawaii. After the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani by American business executives backed by the U.S. military, the lost monarchy became the Republic of Hawaii, then the Territory of Hawaii, then, in 1959, the State of Hawaii.

Geographically, the state of Hawaii is an archipelago, which means a group of scattered islands. According to Hawai’i Nation, which is fighting to regain sovereignty of the archipelago, Hawaii is made up of “132 islands, reefs and shoals, stretching 1,523 miles (2,451 kilometers) southeast to northwest across the Tropic of Cancer between 154 40’ to 178 25’ W longitude and 18 54’ to 28 15’ N latitude, consisting approximately of a total land area of 6,425 square miles (16,642 square kilometers).”


There are eight main islands, seven of which are inhabited. You’ve probably heard of several of them for the reasons cited below, although you might not be aware of how they should be pronounced. In the Hawaiian language, w’s are sometimes pronounced as v’s in the middle of words, so the proper way to say Hawaii is Huh-VIE-ee or Huh-VAH-ee, depending on whom you ask). Here are the islands:

Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, because it’s the largest by area (second-largest, population-wise) and to try to mitigate the confusion caused when the name of the state is the same as the name of one of its islands and counties. This is where the volcano is. It also has gorgeous beaches, ranchland and rain forest, as well as about 200,000 people.

Maui, site of the world’s largest dormant volcano, Haleakala, as well as the beautiful Hana Highway.

Lanai, 98 percent of which is owned by Oracle founder Larry Ellison and home to a couple of high-end resorts; it once was the main source of pineapples.

Molokai, the least-developed of the public islands and once the site of a leper colony. Most residents there are not interested in attracting tourists.

Oahu, home to Honolulu, the state capital, and close to 1 million residents. Also has the famed Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor and the North Shore, one of the world’s best surfing sites.

Kauai, site of recent flooding. Very lush. Scenes from “South Pacific” and “Jurassic Park” were filmed here.

●Niihau, a.k.a. the Forbidden Island. Also privately owned. Home to Native Hawaiians and source of the famed shell leis.

The eighth main island, which lies near Maui and Lana’, is Kahoolawe. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was taken over for use as a U.S. military bombing range, a situation that continued until 1990, despite years of protests. A state commission hopes to someday restore the now-barren island, which is dotted with both archaeological sites and unexploded ordnance.

Every one of these islands is actually the peak of a mountain built by lava escaping the same hole in the Earth’s mantle that is causing today’s eruptions. As the Earth’s Pacific tectonic plate shifts toward the northwest, each mountain is moved off the hot spot in an infinitesimally slow assembly line. You can tell the age of the islands by their position. Kauai and Niihau, at 5 million years, are the oldest of the inhabited islands. But the very first atoll, Midway Atoll, is almost 28 million years old, and there’s a future island forming to the south of the Big Island. For now, it’s known as Loihi.

As the lava cooled on each existing island, wind and water went to work carving spectacular canyons, valleys and ridges. Mountains captured moisture to feed growth that became rain forests. Shoreline eroded into sand. Millions of years in that transformation, this beauty and bounty attracted humans who worked the continuing process of creation into the legends that gave meaning to their lives. And word spread until the entire world had heard about a possible heaven on Earth — although not in enough detail. I hope my short primer, which has barely scratched the surface of this fascinating subject, has helped bring a little clarity to your vision of Hawaii. Go visit. No, you don’t need a visa.

More from Travel:

On Kauai, She Sees Sea Glass On the Seashore

On Maui, seeking out the hidden wows of wild Hawaii

Aloha, partner: Riding the Hawaiian range on the Big Island and Maui