Hawaii is quite far from the east coast, so you don’t often hear about east coasters visiting outside of a honeymoon. But I turned 40 this year and YOLO - so we took the kids and did it. I’m so very glad we did. Hawaii is pure magic and is NOT “just like the Caribbean but farther.”
Some folks will tell you to skip Oahu - that it’s crowded and urban and not as pretty as the other islands. Ignore those people. In Oahu, you get Honolulu, a crazy fun and exciting city, and its infamous Waikiki Beach neighborhood, you get beaches and lush greenery that will take your breath away and you even get a surfer culture nothing like you’ve ever seen before, at least on the east coast.
Read on for all that we loved and did in Oahu. And then check Part Two detailing our time in Maui.
Oahu is by far the most populous and developed of the Hawaiian islands and Waikiki Beach in the capital city of Honolulu is the epicenter of the island’s excitement. Here you will find world class shopping, a delicious mix of Hawaiian and Japanese dining, and all kinds of tiki and Don Ho vibes. What’s so bad about a bustling tropical city on the beach?
We decided to stay at the Surfjack Hotel and Swim Club, located a few blocks from the beach on Lewers Street in Waikiki. This retro-chic boutique hotel was positively dreamy and a zen-like oasis in the middle of the city.
The Surfjack staff is amazing, the pool area is stylish, and there might not be anything better in the world than grabbing morning coffee at their onsite artisanal coffee and sundry shop, Olive and Oliver- hello adorable clothing shopping! - and enjoying it in the Surfjack’s open air lobby.
The luxury shops of Waikiki and beach access are all just a few blocks from the Surfjack. And FYI the hotel rates are crazy reasonable. Highly recommend.
What to Do in Waikiki + Honolulu
While in Honolulu, check out Waikiki Beach, of course, but note that it gets very crowded and there are far better beaches in Oahu. Shopping options are plentiful in Waikiki and the Royal Hawaiian Center is a particularly nice open air shopping complex to visit. It also offers free weekly Hawaiian entertainment.
The most well known “To Do” in Honolulu is surely a visit to Pearl Harbor. You could spend all day at this historical site, but since we were with young kids, we did just the free one hour tour that includes a documentary movie and boat ride out to the USS Arizona Memorial. Get your tickets about a month in advance here or you might be in for a long wait on arrival.
The coolest “To Do” in Honolulu, however, is a hike up to the Diamond Head State Monument. This roughly 0.80 mile hike up a rugged path that includes several hundred stairs is doable for all ages, but it will feel like a bit of a work out for some (and it gets hot mid day, so bring water). The views from the top of Diamond Head Crater are beautiful, and you’ll get many equally great shots as you make your way up. Don’t forget to treat yourself with a fresh pineapple smoothie post-hike.
The Food in Honolulu is Top Notch
As a city, Honolulu offers really great and varied food options, and with its strong Japanese influences, Honolulu can even feel like a mini-Tokyo. We ate VERY well in Honolulu.
Honolulu is a great place to sample delicious authentic Hawaiian fare like Loco Moco (a hamburger patty over rice and slathered in an over easy egg and brown gravy), Laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaf) and Ahi Poke. We had a great first meal of the trip at Helena’s Hawaiian Food, known for its Pipikaula style ribs, and one of the best meals of our trip was at Ethel’s Grill, a delightful cash-only hole in the wall gem offering a cross section of Hawaiian and Japanese dishes. Another night, my husband brought back insanely fresh poke from the take out window of Maguro Brothers in Waikiki.
Hawaii’s two most famous desserts - Shave Ice and Malasadas (Portuguese style doughnuts) - are also well represented in Honolulu. Do not miss the incredibly smooth shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice and what may be the best malasadas in all of Hawaii at Leonard’s. For folks who are wondering, shave ice is WAY better and smoother than the snow cones back home.
Elevated cuisine also has its place in Honolulu. Of all that we tried, I recommend checking out one of Chef Andrew Le’s spots. We visited his newer restaurant, Piggy Smalls, in the Ward Village Shops, and it was stellar Vietnamese inspired dining.
When in Waikiki, you must also have evening drinks at House Without a Key, a beautiful beach-front cocktail patio located at the ultra luxurious Halekulani Hotel. Their famous Mai Tai cocktails are wonderful, and they have Hawaiian entertainment nightly.
You’ll Need a Car in Oahu Because the Island Beyond Honolulu is Stunning and Must Do. Exhibit A: Lanikai Beach
About 45 minutes from Waikiki, driving east on a stunningly beautiful highway is what is known as the “windward” side of Oahu. This area feels much more residential than Waikiki - but tourists visit because the beaches on this part of the island are outstanding.
Just past Kailua Beach is Lanikai Beach, consistently thought of as one of the best beaches in the world. The waves here are calm and clear blue, the sand is fine and white and there are these two picturesque islands in the background. There are no bathrooms or showers at Lanikai Beach and the entrance is not even visible from the main road, but don’t let any of that deter you. Consider visiting early and on a weekday to avoid crowds, especially since parking near the beach is limited. Nearby Kailua Beach does have bathrooms and showers and it is not so shabby itself.
The Coolest, Can’t Miss Part of Oahu is the North Shore
I LOVED the North Shore of Oahu. It is super awesome and makes for a wonderful day trip from Waikiki. Two of the most famous surfing beaches in the world are found on the North Shore, and a visit to Haleiwa town, a historic surfing village, is an Oahu must. The whole thing is just about an hour from the excitement of Waikiki, which really solidifies Oahu as a crazy cool place to visit.
Driving up the shore from Waikiki, the first stop that I would recommend hitting is Waimea Bay, one of two popular surfing beaches on the North Shore. Winter brings the largest waves to Hawaii, so we were visiting just past prime surf season, but the waves still came in rather strong and fierce. And more so than back home, the lifeguards at Waimea Bay WORK. They constantly get on a loudspeaker to warn beach-goers of incoming strong waves. This is not a child’s play beach.
Just up the road from Waimea Bay, I suggest making a touristy, but very fun little stop in the Waimea Valley. There is an entrance fee to enter the park, but it is worth the visit. The grounds are lush and well kept and about a mile into the trail, you get to a beautiful waterfall and swimming area. It was a ton of fun to swim here and I appreciated that all swimmers are required to wear life jackets. Throughout the trails, you can also find vendors selling Hawaiian goods and some crafts and games included in your admission fee.
After spending the morning at Waimea Valley, we headed slightly back down the shore to spend some time checking out the local shops and eats in the cool artsy surf town, Haleiwa.
When you have had enough to eat and finished your shopping, continue back up the shore. Popular stops include Laniakea Beach, also known as Turtle Beach, due to its honu (green sea turtle) population, and the famous Banzai Pipeline -the location of the Triple Crown of Surfing and the Billabong Pipeline Masters and a whole bunch of 50 foot waves! Even off-season, it was really cool watching the surfers here.
Another great North Shore stop if visiting during the spring or summer months is Shark’s Cove, a lava rock beach perfect for snorkeling when waves are calm. Even without having any snorkel gear on us, we saw some pretty beautiful fish just as we strutted around the cove. A really fun stop. Note waves can get more rough during winter months.
Oahu is “Oa-some”
Oahu offers so much - from breathtaking beaches to world renowned surfing to luxury shopping and fantastic dining and entertainment. We absolutely loved our visit and hope to come back one day soon. Mahalo, Oahu!