Oahu, Hawaii Travel Guide
I was positively giddy as I caught sight of those volcanic islands erupting from the expanse of blue out my airplane window. It was only my second time to Hawaii, my first trip being to Maui a few months earlier, and now I was going to be making Honolulu my home for one week. As I was traveling solo, I did a lot of research and created a pretty packed itinerary. I wanted to see, eat, hike, swim and explore as much as I possibly could.
Working with the Oahu Tourism Board definitely gave me a leg up on awesome activities and standout restaurants. But I dove in even deeper, reading blog posts from my travel blogger friends, watching videos from travel vlogger buds (thanks Cailin!) reaching out to those that I know visit Oahu often (looking at you Captain & Clark) and profiling all the Yelp and Tripadvisor reviews that I could find.
WHAT TO DO:
Explore the North Shore
For me, renting a car and being able to explore was paramount to my whole trip. I found the driving to be relatively easy, though there is more traffic than expected and by the way, the island is big! It especially came in handy when I set off for a day of exploring the famous North Shore. A good hour drive from Honolulu, I took in some incredible mountain scenery and had the freedom to stop and take photos along the way.
Definitely head into Haleiwa to check out the cute shopping and great restaurants of this cowboy-meets-hippie surf town. I also stopped at beautiful beaches, saw the famous Banzai pipeline, hiked, swam in waterfalls and basically had one of my favorite days!
Swim under the Waterfall in Waimea Valley
For that waterfall I was talking about, head to Waimea Valley. This is not the hidden, off the beaten path waterfall that I was expecting. It actually is very much on the beaten path, but as I arrived early (around 10am) the crowds were pretty light. The valley spans 1800 acres and is a sacred site in Hawaiian culture. There is an admission to get in ($16 USD), but you also get to walk through a beautiful botanical garden and see ancient archaeological sites.
However, most people go here for the waterfall. An easy walk on a paved path takes you to a 45 foot waterfall, Waihī. With lifeguards and mandatory life jackets, this is not the rugged waterfall in the woods that I had hoped for, but jumping into the cool water and swimming under the falling water made me forget about all the other tourists, at least for a few moments.
Hike Lanikai Pillbox Trail
Diamond Head gets all the fame but I much prefer the Lanikai Pillbox trail. The dusty trail starts steep but once get to the top of the ridge, all you have are 365 degree views. The Pacific and postcard worthy Mokulua Islands are on one side, and the lush Oahu interior on the other. And of course, you have to check the colorfully graffitied pillbox. These WWII bunkers have been given a facelift by local street artists, and I personally think that the graffiti added to their charm. You can climb inside of them, climb on top or just snap a photo, but they definitely added to the magic of this hike.
Go to a Luau
Hawaii is known for luaus and having never done one, I was excited to start at the top. With the Royal Hawaiian being one of Oahu’s most famous, historical hotels, I was so excited to get to experience my first luau here. Oh, and did I mention this luau is oceanfront! The hotel has a special grass lawn that rolls out onto the beach for this Hawaiian feast and performance.
I suggest paying up for the premier seating so you can have full view of the fantastic dancing and performances. This show is called “Aha Aina” and it actually tells a story of the Helumoa, the ancient playground of Hawaiian royalty on the ground where the show takes place! In addition to the talented performers, there was a lovely live band and an entertaining emcee. Not only that, nature puts on a show as well when the setting sun turns the sky a beautiful shade of pink over the ocean–not unlike the iconic pink of the Royal Hawaiian Resort itself.
This certainly is a feast too. The buffet spread was impressive in size and in quality. It included fresh, Hawaiian dishes like locally caught fish, poke and kalua pork. I felt that each offering was just as delicious and well presented as a made to order restaurant and the dessert spread was the cherry on top. All the drinks were great too–I loved the mai tais but was glad to see top shelf wines and spirits available too.
I attended a Monday evening show, but they also now have Thursday night shows. I highly suggest you book early and show up early to guarantee that you’ll get the best spot!
Experience the luau with me in my video below!
WHAT BEACHES TO VISIT:
You know when you look around you and literally gasp at how beautiful some place is? That place is Sunset Beach. It was hot and I had just hiked so I was in desperate need of a dip in the ocean. Using my Google maps, I pulled off on what said Sunset Beach, having no expectations. I was simply blown away by this magical slice of paradise. Crystalline, white sand, turquoise gentle waters and very few people scattered around–I couldn’t believe what I’d found! Needless to say, I stayed on this beach for hours. I didn’t have time to stay for the sunset, but I know I’ll be returning to this beach some day.
This was my go-to beach–I came here twice during my week on Oahu and found it to be just right both times. I loved that it is mostly populated with locals and travelers “in the know” as it the entrance is somewhat hidden. On the beach, I saw a high school girls outrigger team practicing, which I decided is the coolest high school sport around. The main attraction though was the clean, white sand, the crystal waters and lack of waves. It was very calm and the water is so clear you can see the fish darting by your toes. I also have to mention that the view of the two islands from the beach really adds to that remote tropical paradise feel. Parking on the residential streets near the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance is free and usually pretty easy to find.
Of course you will see Waikiki Beach and you should. The sunset there is simply stunning. However, it is a crowded beach in the water and on the sand. Hotels and restaurants line it so it can be tricky to walk the whole thing without being blocked by a hotel. However, if you need a quick dip and some refreshing sun, it does the trick. I also was told the waves there are a great for beginner surfers.
WHERE TO EAT:
Mahina & Suns
Located in the trendy, impeccably decorated Surfjack Hotel, Mahina & Suns is the type of place you want to go to every week. I felt like I was in a living room of a really cool, stylish friend. Located just off the pool, the restaurant was busy, mostly with locals and outside guests. The word about their food is out! I’d love to try their breakfast and lunch next, but I was blown away by their dinner. This is a casual restaurant with serious food. The menu focuses on “elevated home-cooking,” which basically means the type of stuff Hawaiian mamas make, but even better.
Having a hard time choosing between Kauai Shrimp & Grits, the Kuahiwi Ranch burger or the Naked Pig Pizza, I caved and ordered the Mahina family feast. This feast starts with kualoa oysters, then moves on to a whole snapper, either steamed or fried, plus a slew of local sides like delicious roasted roots. I opted for the steamed preparation, which had an Asian flair in it’s soy dressing.This snapper was a beauty to behold and even more delicious to eat. It was more than enough food for two people–I had to take some home in a doggie bag. I didn’t even get to the second best part, the dessert! The macadamia nut pavlova with fruit and cream was like eating a heavenly cloud. The only frustrating part was at this point, I was already quite full.
Their cocktails were the best I had on the island. Do yourself a favor and order the Unkle’s Rum Punch. If you need any more convincing, they also have live music every night!
After my hike up Diamond Head, I was looking for a nearby restaurant that offered the signature Hawaii Plate Lunch. I wanted something fast, fresh and casual. Step in: Pioneer Salon. From the start, I loved this place. Maybe because of the quirky taxidermy and laidback, tongue-in-cheek vibe of the interior or maybe it was because half the menu is scrawled on scraps of paper and slapped on the wall. But I could see that this was a local favorite and for a Tuesday lunch, it was quite busy.
You order at the counter and there are an overwhelming number of options. As the menu skews Japanese, I went with a local Miso Black Cod plate, which came with rice and a side. You can pay extra for brown rice, which I’d recommend as it had delicious little beans in them. I found the fish to be fresh and flavorful and the portion was a good size. Note that since it’s all made to order, it is not the quickest lunch around but it is definitely high quality. Though it was expensive, I felt like it was worth the money.
I still think about this kalua pork on a regular basis. There are several Kono’s on Oahu but I checked out the one in Kailua. Known for their surfer atmosphere and 12 hour slow roasted kalua pork, I stopped in for a lunch to-go. Though the “Breakfast Bombers” looked tempting, I had the “Pig on Grass,” which was a mesclun salad with a pile of kalua pork on top. I brought this to the beach and enjoyed every last bite on the sand.
The Local Shave Ice
Nearby in Kailua is The Local shave ice shop. I actually entered a surf shop to find that The Local shared a space next door. Attracted by their cute logo, I walked over and I’m very glad I did. I was told by the friendly staff that The Local uses only fruits grown on the island and all their syrups are homemade and natural. I have to say, I was previously turned off by the brightly colored, artificially flavored shave ices I had tried around Hawaii and this one was a breath of fresh air. Getting to choose three flavors, I tried Kula Strawberry, Pineapple and Ginger. It was extremely refreshing and not too sweet. Thank you for changing my mind about shave ice, The Local!
Friends told me I had to go to Leonard’s to try their malasadas. What is a malasada? Good question. This doughy, sugar covered dessert is a Portuguese specialty and basically, a really good, large donut. I waited in line at the retro, pink and white striped bakery for a chance to taste these treats. I chose three flavors out of their many–chocolate, coconut and cinnamon. Still warm, I tried each one in my car and got sugar everywhere, but it was worth it. The cinnamon was classic and delicious but the rich chocolate filled one was my favorite. I didn’t like the coconut because it had an artificial taste to it. Overall, these were good but knowing that they weren’t very natural with their flavors definitely made me dock a point.
WHERE TO DRINK:
Maui Brewing Company
An upper level, huge restaurant right on the strip in Waikiki, the Maui Brewing Company was popping on a Wednesday night. I had been to their Maui location and had enjoyed the calm, dark bar scene and a flight of beers. This restaurant was a whole different animal. Huge, modern and jam-packed, I couldn’t believe this was the same chain. However, busy usually means good and in this case, it definitely did.
The only seat I could get was at the bar, but as I was dining solo, this was perfect. As I am not a huge beer fan, I was attracted by the coral colored martinis the bartender was pouring. When I inquired, I found out that they were spicy watermelon martinis called “The Street Fighter.” Yes please! These were so good, I had to order a second one.
The food was also incredible. They have a more robust menu than the previous pub menu I experience on Maui and I was impressed with all the options. Wanting something lighter, I opted for the Fresh Mahi Tacos. I could taste how local the fish was and it was only elevated by being on homemade, soft corn tortillas, with a healthy dollop of guacamole. And they give you 4! Overall, I had a great experience with the food and would come back with friends for a rowdy, tasty night.
It’s touristy, it’s crowded but it IS right on the beach and the mai tais are incredible. I’ve been to three Duke’s at this point: Duke’s Malibu, Duke’s Maui and now, Duke’s Waikiki. I was pleasantly surprised with the nice service and the mai tais are the best here. My fish tacos were a little lacking but did the job. The ambiance is fun and happy–people seem ready to party here!
The Point, Turtle Bay Resort
I made a point (pun intended) to check out this resort around sunset when I was on the North Shore. I have to say, the resort itself was a bit underwhelming, but the location of the outdoor bar, The Point, was spot-on. I had front row views of this perfect surf break and took in an expensive cocktail as the surfers caught wave after wave in front of me. The location alone gets this on the list.
WHERE TO STAY:
I can’t say enough good things about the budget friendly, brand new Holiday Inn Express Waikiki. Just a few blocks back from Waikiki Beach, the location is close enough to the action for easy walking but removed enough for a less hectic feel. The open air lobby is inviting and well designed and the rooms were simple but great. I loved the clean, plush bed and the water views. The coffee maker, mini fridge and modern, all white bathroom were definite standouts.
Daily included breakfast was consistently solid, with fried eggs, make your own pancakes, cereals, yogurts, fruit and more. Plus, the dining area featured a lovely, lush patio.
Definitely the highlight of this hotel is the 5th floor skydeck. A large swimming pool, whirlpool, deck chairs and cabanas await you and make it easy to lounge here for the day. The kid in me also loved the miniature golf and shuffleboard set up. On this level, there is access to a very well-equipped, spacious fitness center as well.
Overall, I think you get a lot of bang for your buck by staying here when you visit Honolulu.
This pretty much sums up my favorite things on Oahu. That was quite the week!
If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’d be happy to give my personal opinion and more tips. Just writing this has made me start to wonder how soon I can get back to that island…