My partner and I just won a free trip to Oahu. What should we see or do?
August 4, 2015 6:09 PM   Subscribe

No, it's not a time-share scam. Yes, it's legitimate. I've been to Hawaii once as pre-teen and my partner has never been. Assume for the sake of this question that you have 4-5 days in Hawaii and want to see/do all the best things. What would you recommend?
posted by Xavier Xavier to Travel & Transportation around Hawaii (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't been to Oahu, but the "Hawaii Revealed" guidebooks have been indispensable for our trips to other islands. I'd be really surprised if the Oahu one wasn't excellent.
posted by Kriesa at 6:28 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Go to Polynesian Cultural Center. Lots of different options in terms of price and transportation. I think it's a great place to spend a day, topped off with the main show at night.
posted by Slap Factory at 6:37 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm exceedingly fond of Oahu. My favorite thing to do is drive from Hololulu up the windward coast, stopping at Waimanalo beach park. It's one of the prettiest beaches anywhere, to me. There are more popular beaches just a little bit up the coast and they are fine too.

I asked this food-centric question and the answers were very helpful.
posted by BibiRose at 6:40 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Dole pineapple factory/plantation/whatever has a museum-y tour that's educational. You can learn about the history of migrant labor to Oahu.
posted by univac at 6:59 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

A footnote: I discovered Kathy YL Chan's blog through an answer to that question of mine; her archives are organized by region. I would definitely look through the Hawaii section for ideas.
posted by BibiRose at 7:05 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you rent a car (and enjoy driving), the drive up to Tantalus/Round Top is gorgeous.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:06 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Go to one of the shrimp trucks on the North Shore.
posted by wsquared at 7:34 PM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I JUST got back from 10 days in Oahu, like, last night. So it's fresh on my mind, and YAY, I'm excited for you! We went with a 3-year old this time, so our itinerary might have been a little different from yours. I second the recommendation for the Polynesian Cultural Center. It's easily a whole day there, between visiting the different villages, seeing the shows, then staying for a luau and the fire show at night.

I also recommend snorkeling at Haunama Bay--it's a tourist magnet at this point, and transportation is kind of annoying unless you take the shuttle or a cab, but still excellent snorkeling and tons of fish and coral to see.

Look into getting a Go Oahu card--they sell them for different lengths of time, from 1 day to 7 days, and it gets you into all kinds of stuff for free. Costco has a deeply discounted 4-day card if you have a Costco membership. We got them and although we only used it for 3 attractions, they were expensive ones so it paid for itself. It's also helpful to see the kinds of things available on the island and might help you draw up an itinerary.

Waikiki is ridiculous and not even a great beach to swim at, but you might want to go just for the experience and people watching (and your hotel might be near there anyhow.) We spent a morning on Kualoa Ranch, at the Secret Island, and that was pretty fun. The ranch also does horseback riding, catamaran rides, Jeep tours of popular nearby movie destinations, etc.

One of my favorite things we did was a helicopter tour of the island from Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. It's pricey so it may be out of your budget, but it was SO fun to ride in a copter and see the island from a whole new perspective. The pilot kept up a running commentary, pointing out all the different sites, and I learned a lot about the different areas of the island.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 7:43 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you were a fan of Lost, self guided tour of film sites around the island is a fun day. I found my favorite beach in Waikiki (it feels like it's miles away from typical Waikiki) at a resort during my drive, and I appreciated seeing some not so typical views of the island on the trip. At this point that idea is probably approaching retro!

The drive from Waikiki to the North Shore, stopping at the pineapple plantation if you haven't been, then back along the eastern and southern coastlines is a must for me on each trip. Plenty of places to stop along the way and such different topography.
posted by icaicaer at 7:50 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I appreciate all the feedback and insider info.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 7:53 PM on August 4, 2015

I worked at a bike rental and tour shop in Portland whose owner recently decided that Hawaii needed one, too. People generally come back in love with the tours in Portland, so presumably the bike tours in Hawaii are equally engaging.

Biking is a great way to get outside and explore a new place; I recommend it.
posted by aniola at 8:00 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get a plate lunch at some point. I recommend Soon's Special.

Have a drink on the patio at the Royal Hawaiian.

The Arizona memorial museum is much more interesting than it sounds like it would be even if you're not into museums. So is the Bowfin, nearby. Absolutely do not skip the Bishop Museum, you can spend all day there.

Waikiki is a fun place to walk up and down shopping, and Lanikai is picturesque, but for actual going to the beach to play, I like Bellows. (Can be breezy sometimes) But it's more "Hawaii" to get a surf lesson at Waikiki.

You can drive to North Shore to see the bigger waves, but unless you plan to spend time at the beach it's more of "going for a scenic drive" than a destination. Do stop in Haleiwa and get a shave ice. (There's some amusement park thing up there but I went once and it was just meh.)

It takes longer to drive around the North end of the island from Kaneohe to Haleiwa than you would think, and there's not much out there. Just sayin.
posted by ctmf at 9:29 PM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Willows is a nice buffet-style dinner.
posted by ctmf at 9:43 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I always wanted to do the sandbar, but never got around to it. Might be a bit of a logistics challenge, though, if you're staying in a hotel without a cooler/chairs/sun umbrella/etc. It's completely DIY beach party.
posted by ctmf at 9:58 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a recent-ish transplant, let me second the recommendations to drive up the windward coast. There are some scenic overlooks to stop at (including the Halona Blowhole, which I quite like), and if you're doing this drive on the weekend, stopping at Bellows Field Beach Park. Otherwise stop at Waimanalo Beach Park which is just before it. You can then continue up the coast to the North Shore, or you can cut over to the Pali Highway and back to Honolulu proper.

The Dole Plantation is worthwhile, particularly if you like Pineapple and/or history, and is pretty reasonably priced for a tourist attraction. Skip the maze, do the Pineapple Express and Garden tours, and make sure to have some Dole Whip (pineapple soft serve, it's delicious).

If you're going to the Dole Plantation, stop at Green World Coffee Farm, which is on Kamehameha Hwy not far before you get to the Dole Plantation. Free coffee samples, a coffee garden where you can see coffee bushes laden with cherries, and tons of coffee for sale.

I find Pearl Harbor pretty exhausting emotionally, but worthwhile - if you're going to go, go EARLY (seriously, you cannot get there early enough), and reserve your spot for the Arizona Memorial immediately, then tour the grounds and museum until your time to go out to the memorial.

Waikiki Beach is jam packed asses-to-elbows with tourists - drive a few miles down the road to Ala Moana Beach Park instead.

If you like museums, I can second the Bishop Museum as a must-stop.

Take a tour of the only royal palace in the United States, Iolani Palace. After you've finished, jump across the street and see the King Kamehameha statue.

The Honolulu Zoo isn't very large, but has some interesting primate habitats, and they have two resident Hawaiian Monk Seals which are critically endangered. It's located in pretty easy walking distance of Waikiki.

If hiking is your thing, you could easily spend your entire trip doing nothing else - but I would definitely make time for the Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trail and Diamond Head. Parking for Makapu'u can be tough, you might have to walk a bit before you walk a bit, if you follow me.
Manoa Falls is often recommended, though my wife and I haven't tackled that one yet.

Eat sushi while you're here! My wife and I love this place, as it is both quite good and very inexpensive. Seating is at a premium though, and it's in Aiea, which is a bit outside downtown/Waikiki.

Get Malasadas while you are here! Leonard's is the gold standard for these. Made to order and delicious.

Finally, if shopping is your thing, then just outside Waikiki is Ala Moana Center, the world's largest open air shopping center (already, and it's currently expanding!). They have hourly hula demonstrations in the center court. Warning - as you might guess from it's size, it can be a bit overwhelming.

This got a bit long, so I'll stop here, but I'm happy to field any questions via memail.
posted by namewithoutwords at 1:48 AM on August 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

Congratulations! When is the trip? Where are you staying? I'm assuming somewhere in Waikiki?

Please note that all beaches in Hawaii are public property so technically there is no alcohol on the beach (be discreet & you probably won't have a problem). Unfortunately, no one can bring you a cocktail to your chair on the sand, unlike other beach destinations in the Caribbean/Mexico/etc. You will find ABC Store (convenience stores) everywhere that sell alcohol in smaller bottles. Just saying.

There is limited commercial activity on the beach. Some hotels do have outside vendors who rent beach chairs & umbrellas for a fee (like $40-50 for two very nice cushioned chairs and sturdy umbrella for the day). You might find yourself at a hotel that doesn't provide complimentary beach chairs, and you have to pay a fee. You can also buy a cheap folding chair or two at an ABC Store, and gift it to someone on your way home. Bamboo roll up mats are also good and tend not to get sandy. Though I'm hoping that since this trip was a "prize" the resort fees, chair fees, parking fees, etc. will be taken care of by someone else?

The water in Hawaiian is not bathwater-like warm or super bright blue & clear like it is elsewhere. You may want to bring a wet suit or a shorty wet suit. Conditions tend to be best in the morning; given the time change from the Mainland, you may be up and at 'em early anyway! Waves can be very, very strong since it’s in the middle of the deep Pacific, so never turn your back on the ocean. The beaches on Hawaiian tend to be golden brown with slightly coarse sand, not always powdery sugar white (you can find some powdery white beach on Oahu's windward shore like at Lanikai). Pools are less of a big deal in Hawaii because of proximity to the ocean. And places with elaborate pools do tend to attract kids--not sure if that's going to be a big deal to you. Very few swim up bars either in Hawaii.

Much of the wildlife is endemic and cannot be found elsewhere. Hawaiian monk seals and turtles (honu) are protected, so don’t get too close. Swimming with wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii also disturbs their daytime resting/sleeping period. So if you see someone advertising a swim-with-dolphins trip, don't do it!

I would definitely rent a car for at least part of the trip. It will make your life much easier because there is so much to do on Oahu without waiting for a taxi or the bus.

Rent your car EARLY and not at the last minute as Hawaii can and does run out of rental cars--it's difficult to just "ship" more cars in. Last minute car rentals can also be very expensive. There's no penalty to book early and then cancel later if you don't prepay. Your credit card company may provide car insurance that is much less expensive than the rental agency’s. See what they offer before you get up-sold at the rental car counter! Get the smallest rental car that can fit your party and your luggage. Compact/economy will be fine. Parking spaces can be very small on Hawaiian islands as well.

These TripAdvisor self-driving tours are very helpful. As is this blog, written by a women who used to live on Oahu. Lots of pretty photos.

Driving Tour #1: Diamond Head (best hiked in the morning), Hanauma Bay (parking fills up quickly, get there early, closed Tuesdays), Lanai Lookout, Halona Blowhole, Sandy Beach, Makapuu Lighthouse/Makapuu Point Lookout, Waimanalo Bay Recreation Area.

Driving Tour #2: Part A, Part B. Includes Pali Lookout, Haiku Gardens, Byodo-in Temple/Valley of the Temples, Kualoa Regional Park/Chinaman's Hat, Laie Pt, Hukilau Beach, the North Shore shrimp trucks, Turtle Bay, Sunset Park, Ehukai Beach Park (Banzai Pipeline, famous surfing spot in the winter when the waves are big), Pupukea Beach Park (Shark's Cove), Waimea Bay/Waimea Falls, Laniakea Beach (famous for turtle spotting), and the Dole Pineapple Center (Dole Whip available here).

Driving Tour #3: Start at Pearl Harbor in the morning (make reservations in advance, gets warm in the afternoon), then move onto National Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl), Roundtop Drive/Tantalus Drive, etc.

Are you interested in Pearl Harbor? The ticketing process for the USS Arizona can be confusing because you must take a ferry to visit the memorial... But you really do want to get tickets ASAP. Advance tickets can be acquired one of two ways:

1. Up to two months in advance: 25 tickets can be reserved in advance for each of these tours; 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am, 12n, 1pm and 2pm. 75 tickets can be reserved for each of the 2:30pm and 2:45pm tours. These tickets are made available at 7:00am HST (1:00pm EDT or 12:00pm (noon) EST). Earlier is better before it gets too hot.

2. One day in advance for the next day's tours: 75 tickets will be available for reservations at 7:00am Hawaii Standard Time (HST) for tours the next day for each of these tours; 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am, 12n, 1pm and 2pm.

Tickets are free, but there is a $1.50 service fee for each ticket reserved in advance. Tickets for many of the tour times are reserved very quickly. So be ready to make reservations as soon as they are made available. You should only get them from the site; the "tour" operators are really only providing pick up and drop off from your accommodations, not an actual tour. Everything is actually run by the National Park Service.

NOTE: Tickets reserved in advance must be picked up at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center at least an hour before your scheduled tour. So do account for that when figuring out travel time/logistics.

If it appears to be sold out, don't worry. They also give out 1,300 tickets to walk-ups on a first-come, first-served basis at the Visitors Center. Arrive as early as possible, on the morning of, especially during times of peak demand.

During your trip, you may wish to devote more time to the windward shore, visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center (full day) or Kualoa Ranch, where things like Lost and Jurassic Park were filmed.

Or more time snorkeling, dependent upon the season and water conditions (the north shore gets high surf starting around November).

Another popular activity is hiking/walking to waterfalls, like Manoa Falls or Waimea Falls. Do note that swimming in waterfalls is typically not advised due to risk of leptospirosis and heavy objects falling from above.

End one day with appetizers and drinks at House Without a Key. Quintessential Hawaii experience with sunset view, live music, hula, by the beach. Then follow it up with dinner at one of the giants of Hawaii Regional Cuisine: Roy's, Chef Mavro, or Alan Wong's.

Another popular thing is a sunset cruise on a catamaran from Waikiki beach. These are usually pretty low key, not really "booze cruises." It's fun to get out on the water and see the island from that perspective.

Make sure you try some plate lunch (Helena's is the most famous but has limited hours, as it is open only Tues-Fri; see also Ono Hawaiian and Haili's Hawaiian), ahi tuna poke (Ono Seafood, Tamura's, Fresh Catch, Hibachi, Kahuku Superette, etc.), malasadas (Leonard's is closest to Waikiki), and shave ice (Uncle Clay's, Shimazu Store, Waiola, Matsumoto's are all well known). A car will make this much easier.

If you're into Japanese food, and have the coin, definitely splurge on some of the top notch places on Oahu. Very high quality due to the number of visitors from Japan. Look into doing omakase or tasting menus at Sushi Izakaya Gaku, Sushi ii, Sushi Ginza Onodera, Nanzan Giro Giro, etc. Plus the ramen, soba, yakiniku, shabu shabu, etc. spots.

Here is my enormous list of places to eat, organized somewhat by region.

People generally come back in love with the tours in Portland, so presumably the bike tours in Hawaii are equally engaging.

Well... Hawaii is filled with tourists from the suburbs/rural areas, driving in unfamiliar rental cars, driving w/ GPS on roads they are also not familiar with, and they are likely not used to sharing the road with bikes. I haven't seen a lot of bike lanes either when we have visited. So do be careful.

if you're doing this drive on the weekend, stopping at Bellows Field Beach Park

Important to note! Bellows Beach Park is closed to the public on weekdays.
posted by kathryn at 6:37 AM on August 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

Are you interested in reading material? I took Julia Flynn Siler's book for the plane ride and was excited to discover Queen Lili'uokalani's memoir, on which much of that book is based. I am currently reading Susanna Moore's Paradise of the Pacific, due out this month I gather, and would recommend that too.
posted by BibiRose at 7:06 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Moore has a blog related to her new book too.
posted by BibiRose at 7:08 AM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Let me reiterate some things said above.

The House without a Key is fantastic for drinks at sunset and was pretty damn good for brunch as well.

The Royal Hawaiian had some rooms inside that contained a lot of old photographs that were interesting. When we were there that was some rocking chairs on on a porch on the second level that was quiet, shaded and made for good people watching in the distance. The back side of the hotel is another great place to get a drink and take in the views of their giant old Banyan tree.

A tour of the Royal Palace was very interesting and educational. The tour of Pearl Harbor was very well done and far more powerful than I was expecting.

Lastly the blue XXX Revealed books are some of the best guides I've ever read that cover a place. They are worth every penny. You'll find honest reviews of dining and attractions as well as quite a bit of things that are off the beaten path(or at least as far off the beaten path as anything can be on an island that has a million people on it).
posted by mmascolino at 7:38 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Iolani Palace. Go to the Royal Hawaiian to check it out and to have drinks on the beach. There are often performances of hula at hotels or on the beach. Hawaii is a special place, make time to talk to Hawaiians and enjoy the Aloha Spirit, which is a real thing; slow down, enjoy the natural beauty and perfect weather. get shave ice at every opportunity.
posted by theora55 at 9:27 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Be very careful with the Hawaii Revealed series of books aka the "blue books."

The Oahu Revealed guidebook has great maps and driving directions that take you through all of the scenic routes all around Oahu (they re-drive and them regularly to verify accuracy). Of special note are any attractions marked as a "gem" or "don't miss." They also have smartphone apps that take advantage of your phone's GPS.

But, Hawaii Revealed has also come under severe criticism for including activities that trespass on private property, encouraging visitors to traipse on land sacred to Hawaiians, recommending tourists do things that are actually dangerous, giving incorrect names and history for places, and similar. This is across multiple Hawaiian islands. Some of that material has been removed or toned down but not all of it (some in a "wink wink" please don't go here, we told you not to go here fashion). They've also added a "CYA" disclaimer to the front. BUT the books still recommend some dangerous activities like driving the back of the West Maui Mountains, going to the Queen's Bath on Kauai, etc. A friend nearly got stranded on a kayak trip on the Big Island after following their directions. Take anything they say with a huge block of salt.

Many locals also do not look fondly upon these guidebooks, so try not to have it out in public, leave it visible on a car seat, etc.

Also their food recs are often terrible (ex: Cheesecake Factory, Dave & Buster's, Coldstone Creamery, etc).

We love the GySPy smartphone app as a supplement to a guidebook -- it narrates as you drive. There's one for Oahu. Much easier than trying to read a guidebook on the road.
posted by kathryn at 9:29 AM on August 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

I like to go to botanical gardens wherever I happen to find myself. There are some really nice ones on Oahu. Admission to my favourite, Lili`uokalani Botanical Garden, is free. Enjoy your trip!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:50 AM on August 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone. I haven't marked a best answer because I appreciate everyone's help. We will likely be there in early September. It's actually a great story how we won the tickets, but I'm waiting until everything is finalized before telling that one. Would happily update here with the backstory if anyone's interested. Thanks again.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 10:03 AM on August 5, 2015

Some great ones covered here already. I'll add my recs.

If you're staying in Honolulu, you can get around the city with the bus just fine. Get plenty of quarters. You can even go to Hanauma Bay by bus. Beyond that though, car is best.

Eat poké! (god I miss this stuff so much I want some now ooogh) Perhaps the best known place for it is Ono Seafood, and great price too. And even though it's super-popular, there are no ridiculous long lines (at least, not that I ever encountered).

I highly recommend Diamond Head and Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail. They're fairly easy hikes too. Just remember the sunscreen; both places have very little shade, though Diamond Head has a small "indoor" section.

Spitting Caves is a neat stop. It's very tucked away, and a great sight to behold. Wear comfortable shoes because the path down to the spot can be slippery.

Kahe Point Beach Park, aka Electric Beach, is an interesting spot. It's my favorite snorkeling spot in Oahu, though it takes some strong swimming to get to the good stuff.

Re: car rentals. I've used Discount Hawaii Car Rental and this site in the past with great results. They basically get steep discounts from the major car rental brands, with the condition that they can't explicitly name them, but they're really not hard to figure out ;) Reservations are free and can be cancelled anytime beforehand.
posted by curagea at 11:20 AM on August 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Honolulu resident here. I have to provide some counterpoints to recommendations above:

The bus (technically, Da Bus) SUCKS. It's rarely on time and the routes are not useful if you come from a place where public transit is a Good Way to Get Around. Rent a car instead. If you must use it, you need Da Bus App because Google Maps doesn't provide accurate arrival times.

Polynesian Cultural Center is kind of a cultural zoo run by the Mormon church, and it is an all-day affair that's not really near much else. Unless you feel like you have a day to burn not near any of the beautiful beaches, skip it.

Aside from the excellent cocktail lanais at Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider (as mentioned upthread), and the cocktail catamarans, most of Waikiki is overcrowded and not that impressive. If you've rented a car, you can drive the coastal road (Rt 72, Kalanianaole Hwy) out east past Diamond Head, Halona Blowhole, all the way round to Makapu'u and Waiamanalo, and then drive into Kailua or Lanikai for the white sand/aqua water.

If you're into time warps, La Mariana is THE waterfront tiki bar. Ensure you have a ride home and order a Zombie.

There are a few excellent shave ice spots and a whole mess of mediocre ones. Shimazu Store is the best in Honolulu, and Aoki's will be open in Haleiwa by the time you visit. Matsumoto is good also, but it's often crowded. Lemona is new in Waikiki and is off the main track, but their syrups and toppings are seasonally homemade and excellent.

If you plan to hike, bring or buy trail shoes that can get wet. Lava rocks are sharp and sea urchins like to hide in the same tide pools you want to swim in.
posted by a halcyon day at 2:46 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you'll be driving in Honolulu at all you should familiarize yourself with the one-way streets and especially the contra-flow lanes at rush hour. Left turns are restricted too, and we got stuck driving in a loop for a really long time the first evening coming back to the hotel. Keep an eye on the gas tank, too; there were fewer gas stations than I expected.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:27 PM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Backstory: Well, we just received confirmation of our airfare and hotel, so I guess I'm allowed to explain myself now. We won this trip as part of a contest sponsored by Organizing for Action (formerly Obama for America, during the 2008 campaign). I worked as a poll-watcher for OFA in both 2008 and 2012, and they recently sponsored a contest with a grand prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii.

Thanks, Obama.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 5:26 PM on August 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

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