They say anything worth having is worth fighting for. Hawaii is worth having — its beautiful scenery, exciting adventures and natural wonders are at the heart of every traveler’s bucket list. And the steps I took to be there in January 2021, well, it wasn’t a “fight” in the true sense of the word, but they were well worth the prize on the other side. Here’s my Hawaiian story.

I love Hawaii. I love hiking around the cliffs on Molokai’s north side and the Big Island’s mighty Kilauea Volcano. I love driving on Maui’s winding road to Hana, stopping off to find hidden waterfalls. I love ordering mango shave ice from Lemona’s and watching the surfers on Waikiki. So, when I canceled a trip for myself — and dozens for my clients — in the summer of 2020, I counted down the days until I could visit again.

That day arrived in October when the state launched its Safe Travels Hawaii program. I quickly made plans to visit as soon as I was able, which ended up being January 2021. Here are all the steps I took to be reunited with the islands I love.

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Finally Returning to Hawaii

Before Arrival

Even before I left for my flight from LAX to KOA (Kona International Airport), I made sure my required pre-travel application, COVID test and health form were in order. According to the “Safe Travels Hawaii” program, I must have a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of departure for me to be allowed to roam the islands freely. If I did not take the test, or if my test results were delayed, I’d have to be quarantined until it’s all cleared up. While quarantining in a spacious Hawaii hotel with majestic ocean views doesn’t sound too bad, that was not on my agenda.

Hawaii is very particular about which COVID tests are allowed — they only accept a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from select approved partners. Thankfully, they provide a long list of trusted testing and travel partners, making it easy to find a test provider near you.

To get things started, I created an account and registered with the State of Hawaii’s “Safe Travels Hawaii” program. It was quick, easy and free to fill out this online application. To take my test, I went to the same place I go to purchase my usual meds, CVS, which generally has quick result times. I got my negative results back on Friday, just in time for my Saturday flight.

Also, 24 hours prior to my flight, I got an email from the Safe Travels Hawaii program with a travel and health form I needed to fill out. A few short questions about how I was feeling and the form was submitted. After completing the form, I got an email with a QR code that I needed to show to airline and airport staff upon arrival in Hawaii to help them look up my Safe Travels Hawaii account.

I decided to print out both the test results and the QR code and headed to the airport. If you don’t want to deal with paperwork, you can also log on to Hawaii's pretravel testing site to register your travel details and upload your negative results. It’s a pretty quick process, and once submitted you’ll receive a digital barcode you’ll need for your flights, car rentals and hotel check-in. I did both to be double-sure.

The Flight

The flight itself was seamless, with plenty of social distancing in the airport and at the gate. Middle seats were blocked off, so I had no one seated beside me. Please note that the airline staff are only allowed to offer a few drinks and snacks, so be sure to have a full meal before you board that six-hour flight from L.A.

When I deplaned, I was ushered into a socially distanced line to show them my hard copy of the test results and its QR code. Once scanned, I was given the green light to leave the airport. Others on my plane were selected for rapid testing on arrival. That whole process is quick and well-organized, with friendly airport staff ready to help you at every checkpoint.

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The view from Waipi'o Valley Lookout on Big Island, Hawaii
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The Mountaintop of Mauna Kea

The Aloha Spirit

Except for temperature checks at open restaurants and face coverings in public, COVID did not dampen the bounty of Hawaii and the graciousness of its people. With the window down on my rental car, soaking in the glimmering waves and high cliff walls, I drove along the gorgeous Kohala Coast without a care in the world. Check-in at the Fairmont Orchid was seamless and easy, with plenty of safety protocols and touchless transactions in place.

Two things happened everywhere I went: the sun smiled down from the sky, and I never once felt unsafe. From the mountaintop of Mauna Kea to sizzling Kilauea Volcano, I drove around the Big Island with a huge smile on my face, feeling freer than I have in months. This trip reminded me why I love to travel — and why I made traveling my profession. Nothing else fills you up with such joy and appreciation.

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Rainbow Falls, Hilo, Wailuku River State Park

Interisland Travel

I did not travel between the islands on this trip, choosing, instead, to enjoy my resort time on the Kohala Coast. But plenty of travelers to Hawaii like to explore multiple islands on extended stays. At the time of my travel, both Kauai and Maui had additional requirements in place for inter-island travel that required a second local COVID test either before or after arriving on these islands if you had already been in Hawaii for 72 hours prior to interisland travel. The testing requirement does not pertain to those arriving first on The Big Island, Maui or Kauai and then later visiting Oahu. These requirements have changed over time, so it is best to check with your travel advisor for the current rules for interisland travel.

Return Trip

Because Hawaii is a U.S. state, there was no additional testing required for my return flight back to L.A. Returning my rental car and arriving at the airport was quick and easy. Masks are required within the airport, and check-in and security was socially distanced and uncrowded.

As my flight took off, and I watched the island grow smaller in the distance until it was just a dot on the horizon, it reminded me of all the reasons I love Hawaii. The coordination needed to comply with the Safe Travels Hawaii program was more than worth the weight that was lifted from my few days in paradise.

Aloha Hawaii, until we meet again.

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