We LOVE Hawaii!! If you’re planning a trip there soon (or just dreaming about it), you NEED to read this post. When I plan a trip, I do LOTS of research–I want to know the best places to eat, the must-see sites, and the must-do adventures. I want to know ALL the tips and tricks. I’m a planner; hence one of my nicknames, Trip Advisor (seriously!). I LOVE exploring and seeing new places, and I ENJOY amazing food. SO, if doing the planning and the research isn’t YOUR thing, I’ve got you covered!
Last Fall, my husband, Chad, and I went to Hawaii for the first time, and we fell in love with it!! We started in Oahu and then met Karli and her husband, Jud, in Maui. You’ll definitely want a rental car unless you plan on staying at your resort the whole time. The islands are relatively small and you can easily drive anywhere you want to go. I also recommend purchasing your own snorkel gear ahead of time. With just a few exceptions, all Hawaii beaches are open to the public. So if you’re out exploring, it’s nice to be able to grab your snorkel gear and go. It’s crazy how many fish there are everywhere! There are definitely some spots that are better than others for snorkeling. We carried our gear everywhere and tried several different locations (I will highlight our favorites). You can rent snorkel gear, but you only have it for a given period of time, and you have to pay for it every time you rent it. So it’s much easier and much cheaper to bring your own! This is the snorkel gear I own. I bought this particular set because of the reviews and the price, and it worked GREAT! Because you need your mask to fit snugly, you do feel the pressure around your nose and eyes after a while. So next time I’m actually going to try something more like this full face snorkel mask! They look and sound pretty cool!
Chad and I only spent three days on the island of Oahu, so our itinerary was jam-packed! After we had arrived and picked up our rental car we headed to Pearl Harbor, which is close to the Honolulu International Airport. We ate at Restaurant 604 overlooking the harbor. It was good food and a great view. At Pearl Harbor there is a very peaceful, almost sacred, feeling. We spent a few hours there, but you could easily spend several hours depending on what you want to do. The USS Arizona Memorial is free of charge, but you have to get your tickets in advance or early on the day you plan to visit because seating is limited and spots do fill up quickly. We purchased ours online before our trip here. There is a minimal service fee when you book online, but it’s only $1.50 per person and then you don’t have to worry about getting tickets the day you visit. They show you a short documentary and then a US Navy boat takes you to the memorial. There are also a couple of small museums you can walk through that are really neat. There are some other paid tour options in the above link as well where you can also see the Battleship Missouri Memorial and a couple other museums.
We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort (we used credit card reward points to pay for our stay, go here to read how it works), which is AMAZING, but we honestly didn’t spend much time there. (This is the view from our room.) It’s on the south side of the island in Waikiki, which is close to Honolulu. The resort is HUGE and it’s right on Waikiki Beach. There are lots of shops, restaurants, and things to do right there at the resort. And it’s very kid-friendly with several pools and waterslides. If you are planning on hanging out at your resort, I would recommend staying there. But if you’ll be spending most of your time exploring the island, you might choose to stay elsewhere. Waikiki is a pretty big city, so it’s crowded and there are a lot of people. There are lots of fun shops and restaurants in downtown Waikiki, but it’s not what most people picture when they think of Hawaii. If you plan to spend any time in Waikiki though, you HAVE to eat at Duke’s! Everything we tried there was delicious and the Hula Pie is soooo good (if you’re not a fan of pie, it’s not real pie–it’s ice cream, like Winger’s Asphalt Pie). I also heard Leonard’s Bakery is a must, but we never had a chance to try it. Apparently they have some of the best malasadas (pastries). Everywhere we went in Waikiki people had boxes of pastries from Leonard’s Bakery!
On our second day in Oahu, we got up early to hike Diamond Head, which is an extinct volcano crater near Waikiki. It was AWESOME!! It’s a 760-foot summit, but it only takes about an hour to get to the top. There is a trail to follow, and we saw people of all ages and abilities hiking to the top. We actually wore flip flops and it was okay, but I would recommend wearing tennis shoes. The trail was made by the US Army in the early 1900s as they used Diamond Head for part of their military base. The above picture shows the view from inside a bunker near the summit. The views are totally worth the hike! We then drove up the eastern coast of Oahu, stopping along the way at various beaches and landmarks. You can purchase tickets to do a bus tour, but I just made a list of all the stops these tours make and we drove the same route ourselves in our rental car, picking and choosing when and where we wanted to stop. We were planning to snorkel at Hanauma Bay, a nature preserve that has amazing snorkeling, not far from Diamond Head. But the parking lot only has 300 parking stalls, and it was already full by the time we got there. If you get there earlier in the day you are more likely to find a parking spot. There are also shuttles you can pay to take you there. There is a $7.50 entry fee per person (kids 12 and under are free), which is not typical of most beaches in Hawaii. And snorkel gear is $20 to rent, so again, it’s better to have your own. Keep in mind the park is closed on Tuesdays to give the bay and marine life a break from all the visitors.
We drove up to Laie on the northern part of the island where the Polynesian Cultural Center, BYU-Hawaii, and the LDS Laie Temple are located. The temple is beautiful, and the visitor’s center is open to the public. The Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is so much fun! It opens at noon, and you definitely want to get there by then and plan to spend the rest of the day. There are activities, music, history, and more from six different Pacific cultures. I would also strongly recommend attending a luau; we did the Ali’i Luau Buffet at the PCC. The food was INCREDIBLE and the entertainment was so much fun! There is also an amazing evening show at the PCC called Ha: Breath of Life that’s worth watching, and there’s really not a bad seat in the house. Another restaurant that I am told is a MUST EAT in Laie is Seven Brothers Burgers. There are two locations in Laie. We didn’t eat there because we had the luau planned. But before we went to Hawaii I was seeing it all over the place when I was doing my research, and since our trip, I’ve heard more about it! So I’m kind of sad we didn’t get to try it, and next time we go to Oahu, that is at the top of my list!!
On day three we drove to the Dole Plantation, which is in the center of the island. If you have the time and if you’re headed to the North Shore, I think it’s worth the visit! We were only there for about an hour and a half, but it was interesting to hear about the pineapple and other crops, and you can take a short train ride around the plantation. The gift shop has THE BEST Dole Whips–they don’t even come close to the ones at Disneyland! Then we headed to the North Shore where the beaches are known for surfing. Some of the most well-known surfing competitions are held there in the winter months when the waves are really large. You also need to check out the town of Haleiwa, which is considered to be the surfing capital of the North Shore. There are lots of cute shops, yummy food trucks, and probably Oahu’s most famous shave ice location, Matsumoto’s Shave Ice! The shave ice in Hawaii is unique; you can get a scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt underneath the ice (even black beans if you want, I never tried that one) and the syrups are super yummy. You can also get them snow-capped with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk on top!
We also stopped at Waimea Valley, a historical nature park with botanical gardens. The scenery is beautiful! There is an entrance fee, but I thought it was well worth it. There’s a walking path that leads to the 45-foot Waihi Waterfall where you can swim. The water is pretty cool though; it’s not like the warm ocean water! The walk to the waterfall is 3/4 of a mile from the ticket booth, so the total walking distance is a mile and a half. I was expecting it to be a bit more of a hike, but it really is just a nice, leisurely walk. There is a lot of lush vegetation and several different kinds of birds.
A very popular North Shore beach that is often home to many turtles is Laniakea Beach, nicknamed Turtle Beach. We were only there briefly and didn’t actually see any turtles, but they are very commonly seen in the water or the sand.
Along the North Shore we snorkeled in Shark’s Cove, part of Pupukea Beach. We saw LOTS of fish! There are also some tide pools you can wade in and explore. The current can be strong in that area, especially during certain times of the year. The downside of Shark’s Cove is that it’s not a sandy beach, so the entrance is rocky. Further along the North Shore is Kuilima Cove that is supposed to be great for beginning snorkelers and kids. It is sheltered from many of the waves and is a nice sandy beach. We didn’t have a chance to go because we ran out of daylight. Another location that I’ve heard has great snorkeling and very clear water is Kahe Point Beach Park (nicknamed Electric Beach), which is on the western side of the island. That’s the only part of the island we didn’t spend any time on, so it’s on my list for the next Oahu trip!
The next morning we flew to Maui. If you’re planning to island hop, you HAVE to try Mokulele Airlines! I have to admit that I booked our flight from Oahu to Maui with Mokulele thinking they were just another airline. I didn’t read up on it any further. So when we got to the Mokulele Airlines gate, we were surprised when they asked us if we wanted to take the earlier flight, which was scheduled to take off in 20 minutes! We said, sure, if there’s time! They needed our body weights (which we have never had to provide for a flight before) and passing through security was so minimal, I wouldn’t even call it security. As we walked over to our gate, we looked out the window and there was a very small nine-passenger plane that said Mokulele Airlines on it. We kept thinking it had to be time to board because we were scheduled to leave any minute, but it wasn’t until right before our scheduled departure that we were walked out to the small plane where our luggage was then loaded and we hopped on. Chad was SO nervous flying over the ocean on such a small plane! At that point he was thinking, if we survived, he was never going to let me book a trip again!! There were two pilots and four other passengers on the plane besides Chad and myself. As we took off, it was INCREDIBLE! We felt like we were on a private charter! The flight to Maui was very pleasant with amazing views. We were able to fly into Maui’s smaller airport on West Maui, just a few minutes from our hotel. Maui’s other airport was nearly an hour’s drive to our hotel, so this was a very convenient option. Mokulele’s flights are also inexpensive. I HIGHLY recommend them!
Those are the highlights from Oahu! I will be covering our time in MAUI in another post soon, so stay tuned!! If you have any questions, leave a comment! OR if there’s something I need to make sure I do next time I’m in Oahu, let me know!