A year and a half ago, I packed up my life and moved to the island of Oahu in Hawaii. I’d never actually visited any of the Hawaiian Islands before moving day, so I did what any good, tech-dependent millennial would do—consulted Instagram for “research” about what to expect in my new home.
After scrolling through pictures of lush greenery, stunning waterfalls, and eerily well-toned beachgoers, I was thoroughly convinced that I was moving to a fantasyland unlike anywhere else I’d been before. Every day I’d find well-saturated sunshine views, don a haku lei atop my tousled blonde waves, and stumble upon secluded waterfalls where I’d take a quick dip in my cheeky bikini bottoms—which would fit me better than ever!
What I found over the past year is that the fantasyland I saw on Instagram is sometimes just that—a fantasy. In my time on Oahu, I’ve climbed waterfalls, hiked craters, and slogged through muddy trails looking for the insane, photo-worthy views I saw on Instagram. But I’ve found that they just don’t exist—at least not like the Instagram version of reality would have you believe.
Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden
I got my first hint that Instagram didn’t quite match reality when I ventured to Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden in Kaneohe a few days after my big move. Search the name of this 400-acre garden on Instagram and you’ll find one particular view that’s photographed over and over again. It’s an empty, tree-lined road leading to a striking, rippled mountain range rising high into the distance. Instagrammers love to pose in the middle of this empty road. Fashionistas in flowy skirts look whimsically into the distance, couples cuddle on the concrete and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, and mammas-to-be hold their pregnant bellies in the center of the frame and look down as if to say, “Get excited, baby! It’s a beautiful world you’re joining!”
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But, the reality? These Instagrammers are causing traffic jams. That oft-photographed area is actually the main entrance to the botanical garden, and it’s a huge pain when wannabe influencers clog up the narrow road. In fact, that street is actually lined on either side with bright lime traffic cones and orange signs politely—but clearly—instructing visitors to move along without stopping for photos. But you won’t see those ugly signs and cones in many ‘grams—they’ve conveniently been photoshopped out of the epic shots.
Stairway to Heaven
Another great example is the famed Stairway to Heaven hike on the windward side of Oahu. Also called the Haiku Stairs, this hike consists of 3,922 stairs climbing 2,200 feet up a mountain range. Unfortunately, most photos of this hike on Instagram are a case of tourists behaving badly. Okay, residents too.
The hike’s famed stairs were built decades ago by the U.S. military to provide an access route to radio antennas. The stairs were originally made of wood and then replaced with a metal set before being vandalized, deemed unsafe, and closed to the public. The state has tried to reopen the site and repair the stairs, but after complaints from residents, rising costs, and logistical issues, the stairs ultimately remained closed (though there’s hope for the future).
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Today on Oahu, a security guard monitors access points to the hiking trail and will slap you with a fine if you attempt to climb the stairs. If that’s not enough to deter you—just think about the flimsy, unmaintained railing that you’ll be holding onto the entire hike. Despite that serious concern, some Instagrammers do slip past security to snap stunning pictures on the restricted trail.
Instagram also has a tendency to twist the truth of certain experiences—even when the featured places aren’t restricted to the public. Waimea Valley, across from famed surfing spot Waimea Bay, features a paved trail winding through botanical gardens and historical sites, ending at a waterfall. You can legally enter and enjoy the space (for a small fee) and swim in the falls.
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I scratched my head when I first saw this place in real life because there’s a catch to enjoying the pool at the bottom of the 45-foot falls—swimmers are required to wear life vests, which are conspicuously absent from many Instagram photos. In fact, the whole thing is quite a regulated experience. There are lifeguards and a life jacket rental stand. There’s even some bleacher-style seating that almost makes the space look like a spot you’d go to for a dolphin show, à la SeaWorld. It’s not nearly as much of a secluded oasis as Instagram would have you think.
INSIDER TIPOpt to visit Maunawili Falls instead. After a 2.8-mile hike, you’ll get to a secluded—and much more beautiful—waterfall. No entrance fee or life jackets required here!
Skip the Apps
There are countless other examples I’ve found over the past year where photos tagged to a certain location or attraction on Instagram simply just don’t align with what I see with my own eyes. Waikiki Beach is (almost) always more crowded than what you see on Instagram, it’s impossible to look cute after hiking to the top of Koko Crater (this one has a mere 1,048 stairs), and people love to add some extra blur to make the waterfalls along the Ka’au Crater Hike look a bit more raging than they are in real life.
If you let Instagram put a place on a pedestal before you give yourself a chance to see it with your own eyes—you’ll make the mistake I did. Too often I let “doing it for the ‘gram” be my motivator to explore new places. I tried to replicate the picture-perfect vision I saw on social media instead of really looking around me and taking in Oahu’s true beauty.
Next time you visit Hawaii, ignore the apps. Go to the botanical garden not so you can stage a photo at the entrance, but so you can spend a day exploring the hidden, winding paths within. Hike to a new place not so you can fuss with filters at the summit, but so you can pat yourself on the back for challenging yourself to physically endure. And finally, don’t visit a waterfall so you can take a picture on the sidelines—dive in and enjoy it.