We hadn’t been planning on taking any other trips besides our summer Eurotrip this year before our wedding, but the opportunity came up to visit Hawaii for essentially free so we jumped on it. We’d always said we wouldn’t visit Hawaii except for friends’ weddings since it’s a really long trip for a destination that isn’t super “exotic”, PLUS it’s so expensive to visit (especially looking at the hotels). We probably won’t return anytime soon -unless another similar opportunity comes up!- but I’m glad we structured our trip how we did. We originally were going to spend the entire week on Kauai, one of the more rugged Hawaiian islands, but there was a state of emergency on the island last minute from severe flooding the week before we were slated to arrive. Since many of the hikes on Kauai were closed from the flooding, and we already move really quickly when traveling (read: flying 12 hours for one week of lounging on a beach would NOT be worth it for us), we changed part of our trip last minute to visit Oahu instead. We chose Oahu even though it’s probably one of the more developed islands because the forecast called for more sunshine, and I did want to get at least one beach day in! Funnily enough, our time in Oahu was more drizzly while we got some sun on the south shore of Kauai instead. Everyone I talked to recommended not to island hop if you’re just staying for a week in Hawaii, especially if you’re flying from the East Coast, but I felt like we spent a good amount of time on each island without getting too bored (take this with a grain of salt though, because we both have the attention spans of gnats…otherwise our itinerary would have been exhausting for the normal traveler.)
Overall, we spent 4 full days in Oahu (the time difference flying from the East Coast really helps with maximizing time once you get out there). We flew United Economy class since M didn’t qualify for business class, as my travel partner, which was perfectly fine since the flights were pretty empty – but know that there is no food on the really long flights if you fly economy! We also rented a car the entire time we were on the island; you can probably get by with using their public transportation, but we move really quickly and a car gave us a lot of freedom. Almost all of the Waikiki hotels charge a nightly parking fee (in addition to a nightly resort fee), which can add up quickly. Oahu hotels are relatively reasonably priced compared to some of the other Hawaiian Islands, probably because the island is much more developed and not solely dedicated to tourism. We stayed at the Hilton in the Waikiki Beach area, which was perfectly fine although not glamorous. All the perks we got (like unlimited champagne, free breakfast etc) came from my Hilton Executive status.
Below are some of the places we visited and, of course, some of our pictures, based on geography. We ended up doing quite a bit of the island, minus some more remote parts of the west coast, and were pretty happy with how much we fit in a short amount of time.
Oahu South Side
There are a lot of beautiful places right on the south side of the island near Waikiki Beach. One of the first stops was the oft-talked about Hanauma Bay. We’re glad we went – great snorkeling, and very beautiful – but it was certainly very commercialized. We arrived relatively early, around 8 AM, and there were already lines. You have to pay $7.50 each to enter (we have our own snorkeling gear, but you can rent from the beach), and then you’re horded into a theater where you have to watch a safety and conservation video. I’m glad we had to watch it, because there were a lot of tourists who clearly had never snorkeled before, so perhaps it cut down on the number of people who were stepping on the coral! The bay is closed Tuesdays to help the reef recover, and the reef is extremely shallow minus two rip currents that flow through. The beach is just fine, and the snorkeling does get crowded, although the bay is large enough to not run into other people all the time.
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail
The drive here is spectacular. The trail is very easy and paved, with a slight incline but beautiful views. It reminded me a lot of the Irish seashore. Apparently in the winter you can also see whales. Most people will just do the trail to the lighthouse, which is beautiful in itself, but we also did the more precipitous climb down to the tidepools on a different day. Be careful as the waves are very powerful, especially during high tide!
Halona Blowhole, Makapu’u Beach, Spitting Cave
These are quick stops on the way to the lighthouse, but you can climb down from the blowhole viewing platform onto this beautiful beach! There’s also a secret cave/tunnel that was fun to explore.
The most popular hike on Oahu, and the crowds show it. The hike is also paved, with a few switchbacks, and was relatively easy except for one section of really steep stairs. Thankfully it was so crowded that I couldn’t stop on the stairs even if I wanted to, because there was a whole line of people behind me! There’s also a relatively creepy tunnel you walk through after the stairs. At the end you’re rewarded with nice views of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Parking fee is $5, or you can come in on foot for $1. This was probably only a 10 minute drive from Waikiki Beach, and we saw many people take taxis (probably a good idea, because the parking lot was tiny and even though we got there relatively early we had to wait for a spot).
A quick walk from our hotel, we spent some of our last day lounging around the very long beach (not super beautiful, but not awful either!). We ended up watching some of the USA Beach Volleyball championships, relaxing & swimming a bit (we didn’t end up surfing, even though we thought about trying), and watching fireworks at night (only Friday nights).
M loves exploring cities. When we had some time, we wandered around downtown Honolulu and visited the only royal palace on American soil, and enjoying exploring Chinatown. Unfortunately, one of the restaurants we wanted to try, The Pig and the Lady, was all booked out the entire week we were there, but instead we went to delicious Japanese food in Waikiki instead. We also tried a few other classics: Helena’s Hawaiian Food (traditional Hawaiian), many acai bowls, Ono Seafood (my favorite poke spot), and various food trucks in the area.
Oahu East Side
Lanikai Beach & Kailua Beach
The most postcard-worthy beach in Oahu, with white sand beach + crystal blue waters. Parking is just on the sides of the roads. We almost rented kayaks to go out to the Mokes (the small islands you see in the photos), but then thought that sea kayaking wasn’t going to be that fun in heavy wind…so we just had some nice beach time here.
Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens
We visited in the afternoon and it was almost empty. So peaceful walking around so close to the jagged cliffs that you can see in the distance almost anywhere you drive on the island!
Right next to the botanical gardens, this was part of a universal funeral site – an easy and quick visit.
They have a bunch of group activities here such as ziplining, a movie tour, and ATVing, but we’re not a fan of organized group activities so we just explored the site ourselves and played with the horses.
Crouching Lion Hike
My favorite hike on the island!! Although technically only 1/2 mile, the hike is climbing STRAIGHT up a mountain. Some bouldering skill, and real hiking boots, are necessary. Even the trailhead doesn’t officially exist – see the signs that warn hikers not to pass, for fear of falling off the cliff. Going down was harder than going up, since the roots & branches made for nice footholds & pseudo ropes going up.
Manoa Falls Hike
The second most popular hike on the island given its proximity to Waikiki Beach, we did this hike near the end of the day so it wasn’t as crowded as it usually was. The waterfall was just fine, but the hike was through a lush jungle with interesting bamboo forests & Jurassic Park-like vegetation.
We did NOT stop by Dole’s Plantation on the way here, although that’s a typical tourist site that everyone recommends. Instead, we visited pretty much all the beaches on the north shore and spent a full day snorkeling and beaching before attending a luau. This is the farthest point from Waikiki, so we left really early to beat the traffic (as you get more north, there’s only one road leading up to the beaches).
M wouldn’t let us do a real shark dive (next time!!) so we settled for Shark’s Cove 😛 There aren’t actually any sharks here (unless you swim out too far), but there was AMAZING snorkeling (without the touristy vibe of Hanauma Bay, especially since we visited early in the day when it was a bit drizzling). Be sure to bring water shoes, and this is probably only for very strong swimmers – both of us were competitive swimmers in our past lives, and we both got pulled out by rip currents. It was worth it to see cooler things farther from shore, but probably a scary experience for people who aren’t as confident in their swimming abilities.
Turtle Beach, Waimea Beach, Sunset Beach
There are endangered sea turtles on Turtle Beach 🙂 But the lack of parking really clogs up the road to the north shore as the day progresses, since there is only the one road. The weather wasn’t amazing when we visited, so we didn’t see that many people surfing on the other beaches – but I could see how strong the waves could be!
The most expensive natural attraction we visited on the island, but very worth it. We spent a lot of time learning about all the plants & history of the Hawaiian people at the Botanical Garden (bring student IDs for a small discount off admissions). The trail meanders through interesting vegetation and plenty of signs explaining the flora & history, and ends at the Waimea Waterfall. We had to put on lifejackets to enter the waterfall, but it was surprisingly fun to jump in and try to swim to the waterfall! It doesn’t look like much, but the water was actually really powerful.
Lots of delicious food on the north shore. Can’t visit without having some of the famous shrimp! Giovanni’s had a HUGE line, and it took forever to get my food, but since I was operating on island time (for once!) I didn’t mind too much 🙂
Polynesian Cultural Center
We spent the rest of our day at the Polynesian Cultural Center to attend the luau at night. You could actually spend the entire day here, since all the “islands” have activities & shows throughout the day, like a mini-Disneyland. We got there pretty late in the day, right before our 4PM luau, but were able to explore and partake in all the activities. Apparently they employ a lot of students who go to Brigham Young University down the street………which we learned after being unwittingly convinced to go on a “tram tour” of the area -> which ended up being a tour of the Mormon temple! The luau was a great experience since M really wanted to see hula dancing & fire dancing, and we got to learn a good deal of Polynesian mythology as well. It was quite expensive though, and the food is usually just fine – although the roasted pig they had was of course the most succulent thing I’ve ever had.