When I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Oahu, Hawaii, for professional reasons, I could hardly say no. Who else, I kept saying out loud, has ever been forced to take a vacation to Hawaii?
Me. That’s who.
Time and money were a concern. I didn’t want to take too many days off work and I didn’t want to spend too much money. Still, who goes to Hawaii from the East Coast and only stays two days?
So I planned for a week, Saturday to Saturday, with two days of professional meetings, and the rest of the time for leisure. The Saturdays were mostly travel. For the two days before my meetings, I was without a car, left to my own two feet in Honolulu. For the two and a half days after my meeting, I rented a car so that I could drive around the island to various points of interest. Al came with me for this trip.
Hawaii was never really on my list of places to see. I considered it out of my price range. It sounds like a great place, but how would I ever get there?
The flight was about $950 on American Airlines from Baltimore to Honolulu. I’ve seen some deals for less than that. Locals told us that January (when I went) is the low season after Christmas and New Year’s but before spring break.
I rented an Airbnb between Waikiki Beach and the convention center. It was, alas, very small, and very basic, and even a little dirty, but it was Hawaii, and I didn’t care because it cost one-third of what the hotels in the area cost. Anyway, I planned to spend very little time in the room. One good thing to be said about the rental is that it was located perfectly along Ala Moana Boulevard, which is a main thoroughfare between Waikiki and the rest of Honolulu. It was away from the crowds and clamor of Waikiki proper, but right en route to the rest of the city, which was very walkable.
I figure I could tell you about my itinerary and what I did on day one, day two, and day three, but what I think I’d rather do instead is tell you about what’s absolutely stunning and not to be missed.
This list is in alphabetical order. All of these places were centrally located and walkable from near the Convention Center.
Ala Moana Center: 1450 Ala Moana Boulevard
Here I am, suggesting that you spend your time in Hawaii in a mall. It feels like a travesty. But it wouldn’t hurt you to walk through this lovely outdoor space to soak up some sun and admire the beautiful design.
Ala Moana Park: 1201 Ala Moana Boulevard
Set away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki Beach, this is an excellent place to take a stroll, go for a run, fly a kite, have a picnic, or watch the sun set in the evening. There is a prominent peninsula and about two miles of paved trails, shade trees, and picnic tables. You might see a few interesting birds. I saw the red crested cardinal, which is not a cardinal at all, and the night heron.
Aloha Tower: 155 Ala Moana Boulevard
Since 1926, the Aloha Tower has been welcoming vessels to the port of Honolulu. You can walk right up to the tower during normal business hours and ask to go to the top. An elevator whisks you away, and at the top, you get beautiful views of Hawaii in all four directions.
ARS Cafe and Gelato: 3116 Monsarrat Avenue
This sweet little cafe was on the way to (or from) Diamond Head. The coffee and espresso were excellent.
Banan Bowls: 3212 Monsarrat Avenue
This was a food truck with the most delicious, most fragrant fruit bowls you can imagine. They take local bananas and puree and freeze them, then mix them with other fruits. I’m kind of sad that I’ll never find a banana as perfumey and fragrant as the ones I ate in Hawaii.
It was really amazing to just walk through Chinatown, pop into some of the open air markets and stores for a look at interesting foods, jewelry, and clothing.
Is it walkable from Waikiki? Sure, but it depends on how much you like to walk. It’s about three miles, one-way, up a long and gentle incline. You can also drive and park inside the bowl. Diamond Head is the remnant of a volcanic cone which gives Honolulu its iconic look. It is known to Hawaiians as Le’ahi, which refers to its resemblance to the shape of a tuna’s fin.
Iolani Palace: 364 S. King Street
I didn’t get a chance to go inside Iolani Palace, but I did stroll the grounds and watch an informational video about the residence of the last monarchs of Hawaii. I think it would have been worth seeing, but the timing just didn’t work out for me.
KCC Saturday Farmers Market: 4303 Diamond Head Road, Parking Lot C
Sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau, the KCC Farmers Market takes up the space at Kapiolani Community College every Saturday morning from 7:30 a.m – 11 a.m. You’ll find poke bowls, raw and roasted macademia nuts, honey, abalone, soaps, coffee, and just about everything edible that Hawaii is famous for.
Lucky Belly: 50 N. Hotel Street
It seemed that many of the food choices in Hawaii were Asian in nature, which was fine by me. Lucky Belly was a beautiful little ramen restaurant that I stopped at for lunch. I’m a mostly vegetarian, and I had the Fungi Bowl, which was out of this world.
Oahu Catamaran offers boat trips to Turtle Cove where you can snorkel for about an hour. The people are super friendly and in January, they had a very conversational and kind resident photographer who was happy just to be in Hawaii and to share his photos with us.
Omusubi Gaba Rice: 438 Hobron Lane, #107, Eaton Square
Omusubi Gaba is tucked away in a little place called Eaton Square. It can be difficult to find. They sell things made with their special germinated rice, like poke bowls and musubi, and little rice triangles filled with different flavors, like umeboshi (salted plum), salmon, and spicy tuna.
Teapresso Bar: 510 Pilikoi Street
I know what you’re thinking. “You went to Hawaii and you’re going to recommend a tea place?” Yes. I’m going to recommend a tea place. I frequented the one along Pilikoi Street. Their tea is unique because they make customized tea drinks in an espresso machine. Apparently, with special settings, an espresso machine can make a mean cup of tea. I don’t think tea like this exists anywhere else, unless you make it yourself. The fun thing about Teapresso, though, is that you have the option to make about a million (literally) variations with different (natural) flavorings, bubbles, milks, or nut juices. I became a frequent flier at this place in just a week.
Tropical Tribe: 1778 Ala Moana Blvd
Okay, so it’s dessert, right? It’s basically a bunch of fruit mixed with honey. But if you’re going to have dessert (for breakfast), it may as well have some nutritional benefit. This place was a little hard to find, located in the basement of the Discovery Bay Center on Ala Moana Boulevard.
I don’t think there’s an off-season for Waikiki Beach. There will always be people swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, and soaking up the rays. If it’s not too crowded, it’s a very pleasant place to be.
Wing Ice Cream Parlor: 1145 Maunakea Street
Somehow I had grown up hearing about Hawaiian Shave Ice, but living in Baltimore, I thought it was the same thing as a snowball. I was mistaken. Hawaiian Shave Ice is a magical thing, and not only does Wing have shave ice, which is finely shaved and flavored ice, but they also have a plethora of really interesting ice cream flavors, like Cheez It, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Calamansi Cardamom, and Thai Tea. It varies by the day, so you never know what you’re going to get to choose from.
Yoga Floats: 1201 Ala Moana Boulevard
If you like yoga, or simply trying new things when you travel, then this is the place for you. Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) classes are held near daily, and you can sign up online. The paddle boards are made especially for yoga, with a wide flat berth and a grippy surface. I managed to do a headstand, but it wasn’t even very hard. I did fall in a few times though, trying to do a balance pose on one foot. A recommendation to women who wear bathing suits, or men who favor Speedos: don’t. Not for this class. Go with leggings or shorts. I’d like to pretend I didn’t experience a wardrobe malfunction, but just consider yourself lucky that I’m not going to tell you about it.
Around and Outside Honolulu
This list is more or less in chronological order, first starting with Honolulu and going east, and then, starting with Costco, from Honolulu going west. These were the days that we rented a car, each day driving in a different direction. It’s not a large island.
China Walls: Hanapepe Place, Honolulu
China Walls is a lava rock outcropping on the south side of Oahu. It’s hidden away in a fancy beachside neighborhood, but Google Maps can help you get there. Be courteous about parking around people’s homes. Once you reach the end of the cul-de-sac, a short trail takes you down to the rocks. The first look just took my breath away. There were a few people out for a day of swimming and sun. I like the water and consider myself an experienced swimmer, but I probably wouldn’t jump in here without exercising a little bit of caution. It’s about a 10-foot jump into the crystal clear water, but once you’re in, you have to contend with waves that could potentially bash you against the rocks. Accounts I read said the rocks were growing algae at sea level and were therefore very slippery when you have to climb back up. I was tempted to jump in, and if I had more time, I’d probably return and give it a go. There were a few other people in the water at the time. This was a lovely hidden spot that I’m really glad I found.
In this state park, you can swim or snorkel. There is an admission fee, and it’s also a nature preserve, so it’s important that you stay on the trails and leave the sea life untouched. I went in to see the views, but did not stay for the swimming or the snorkeling. It’s a very popular place, so an early arrival is recommended.
This trail is on the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline. On a clear day, you can see a few other Hawaiian islands, as well as offshore wildlife sanctuaries. The day I was here, I saw whale activity in the deep blue ocean. This area of the island is hot and desert-like so don’t go without a bottle of water, at least one for each person. This trail climbs up a ridge and is exposed and sunny. From the top, you can see the Makapu’u Lighthouse and 360-degree vistas of the whole island. When we were there, the lighthouse was wrapped in plastic for a reno or a repaint. But that’s okay, the views were still worth it.
Keneke’s: 41-685 Kalanianaole Hwy
You’ll find Keneke’s roadside stand in Waimanalo, HI. It’s a small affair with breakfast, Hawaii plate lunches, and shave ice. This was the first time I ever tasted it, and it was delicious.
The Banzai Pipeline is off Ehukai Beach Park in Pupukea on Oahu’s North Shore. It seems that winter is the time to see it. Here, you’ll see huge waves breaking in shallow water, and many surfers trying to catch a ride. I was lucky to get there at sunset to see the remaining surfers. The waves were ominous and scary to a non-surfer like me. There were drones, photographers, and experienced surfers and bodyboarders going in and out of the water. It was pretty amazing to imagine, if just for a second, what it would be like to ride one of those waves.
Costco: 2 locations
An odd place to recommend, for sure. The downside of Costco is that you have to be a member. The upside of Costco is that they have every imaginable Hawaiian edible for half the price of the gift shops. Here you’ll find macademia nut gifts, coffee, honey, chocolate, and more. They also sold ready-made poke bowls and bulk bags of furikake, which is pretty much one of my favorite things in the world. I put it on everything from avocados to eggs to rice and salads, and in the mainland U.S. at least, I haven’t been able to find it in bulk.
Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial: 1 Arizona Memorial Place
Don’t be tricked by expensive advertised tours, although you can take them if you want to. Touring the USS Arizona Memorial is free. You can make your reservations in advance on the NPS site. Additionally, 1,300 tickets are held for walk-ups every day. The site opens at 7. Go early and see this moving tribute to the people who lost their lives at the point of the US entry into the second World War. You’ll need to drive or take alternative transportation since it is not walkable from Honolulu proper. Parking is available.
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific: 2177 Puowaina Drive
Also known as the “Punchbowl” because it is inside a cinder cone, or “Puowaina,” its Hawaiian name. The cemetery houses the remains of thousands of World War II servicemen. Visitors can drive through during certain hours. It is on the way to Tantalus Mountain.
Tantalus overlooks Honolulu from the north. We drove to the top, but I understand you can also hike or cycle to the top, though it was quite a climb. Signs noted that the area was once famous for its macademia nut trees, which don’t grow there in such great numbers any more. The view was phenomenal.
This might be my favorite place. Ka’ena Point is the westernmost point on the island of Oahu. It felt very remote to me, and on a sunset-timed hike, we met only a few other people. Along the trail, you’ll see rocky coast and a few blowholes. Unfortunately, the sun went down before we could make it to the point. We made it most of the way and then decided to turn around. The coolest thing about this place was that the stars came out immediately after the sun went down. It was only a matter of minutes. I suppose when you’re out in the middle of the Pacific, there isn’t too much light pollution.
A word of caution. I heard stories about cars being broken into at parking lots around Oahu. Thankfully, it never happened to us, but as we were hanging out after dark and photographing the stars, two or three cars full of young adults drove in to case out the parking lot. After they saw us, they left. It made me wonder if they were looking for cars to break in to. At any rate, make sure you have your travel documents and valuables with you or in a safe place. Ka’ena Point was very remote and it seemed like a good target. Reviews on Yelp and a general search on the web tell me that car break ins are a definite problem here. Which makes me want to note that as beautiful as Hawaii is, poverty is a problem in Honolulu like in any large city, so it serves the traveler to be cautious and compassionate.
That just about sums up my trip to the island of Oahu. I didn’t do everything the guidebooks recommended, and in some cases I did things the guidebooks didn’t recommend at all. Hawaii is a very special place. I felt fortunate to have visited, and I can’t wait to return.