Helen Van Berkel has her heart in her mouth when she takes to the road in Hawaii.

Terror was like a barrel of rabid rats clawing my insides. A couple of times I decided I just couldn't do this. But it was too late: the smiling woman gave me the keys and in her friendly American accent wished me a "nice day". You've got this, I reassured myself, hopping into the passenger seat of my rental car, hopping out and nonchalantly scuttling around the car to the seat that had the steering wheel.

I scrabbled against the driver's door for the gear stick, turned on the window wipers to indicate my intention to pull out and eased on to the Nimitz Highway to drive to Waikiki.

What if I crashed? What if locals ran me off the road and snatched my keys? I wished for a big "tourist" sign and flashing lights to warn other drivers away, but unfortunately my blue Hyundai Elantra hatchback and later my silver Nissan Rogue SUV blended in with the locals. Much of Hawaii is criss-crossed by freeways and there's enough traffic to follow in the tricky bits. The only guidance the internet offered had been Grand Theft Auto-style driving games — not how I intended to drive in Hawaii — or Bad Drivers USA videos on YouTube. All I learned from the latter was that angry people who make road-ragey videos have overactive horn fingers.


I only met one triggered horn-honker — when I drifted a little to the right of my freeway lane. Otherwise I got a polite little honk to remind me that you're allowed to turn right on a red light in the US, a logical option that nevertheless feels so wrong; one for stopping on an orange, which no one does. I puzzled for ages why I got honked (politely) for waiting for oncoming traffic on a left turn until, while freaking as a queue of traffic turned left on the red, I noticed the green arrow at the far side of the intersection, multiple lanes away from the red lights. So don't expect the arrows to be in a logical place — and watch out for pedestrian crossings that seem to be at every intersection.

GPS became my best friend, guiding me from the Alamo Rental Car yard at Honolulu Airport to my hotel in Waikiki, although it struggled at times to keep up with me and told me to "turn right now", twice sending me off the freeway. And on the Big Island of Hawaii, it refused to admit the existence of the 4200m Mauna Kea volcano, probably the biggest landmark there. Instead, it sent us on a dodgy, one-lane ribbon of road through the blasted lava fields of Mauna Loa where we met a lovely but similarly GPS-misrouted couple from India.

The phrases "left loose, right tight", to remind myself to stay on the correct side of the road at intersections became my mantras, along with [passenger] "Grace in the gutter".

The sounds of my wheels on rumble strips accompanied us as we circumnavigated Oahu and I fought a tendency to drift out of my lane, conditioned by years of left-hand driving to have the line on my right.

I also had to be careful not to simply pull over to the left and into oncoming traffic when I spotted yet another stretch of stunning coastline or volcanic mountainside I wanted a closer look at.

Speed varies widely — there are even minimum speed limits in places — and Hawaii has no traffic cameras. But the biggest thing to watch out for are rental car charges: my Nissan Rogue, which cost NZ$112.16 for two days when I booked it, had an extra $45.02 plus $97.99 added for the GPS and God-knows-what when I checked my credit card back in New Zealand — plus the prepaid petrol (US$40) that only came to US$31.07 has yet to be refunded by the petrol station. The $136.47 for the two-day Hyundai rental morphed into $372.60, with insurance and a GPS added. The Hyundai, which I'd internet-booked to pick up in the city for drop-off at the airport also turned out to need picking up at the airport.

Finally, I was able to flash my indicator to turn back into the car yard, easily use my right hand to slip it into park and hand the keys of the all-panels-intact Nissan back to the car rental people and join the queues for the bus.

Hawaiian Airlines flies from Auckland to Honolulu, with return Economy Class fares from $769, on sale until 11.59pm tonight, for selected dates.