I recently had the opportunity to travel to Hawaii with my sweet husband. It was a bucket-list-level trip for us that required a good bit of planning and preparation. If you find yourself planning a trip to Oahu or if you’re just curious about what that would look like, please read on!
We knew we had two main goals for our trip:
- Keep an eye on our budget.
- Experience as much as humanly possible during our time on the Island.
You’ll notice as you research things to do in Hawaii that the possibilities are truly limitless. From helicopter tours to water-sliding through the jungle, if you can imagine it, it’s probably available. To give yours truly some planning boundaries we decided that:
- We would not spend more than $100 per person on any kind of excursion.
- We wanted to spend the majority of our time outdoors.
- We wanted to see the entire island of Oahu.
With this framework in mind, here’s a handy list of must-do attractions gathered from our trip:
- Pearl Harbor [cost: free]
The USS Arizona Memorial is a must-visit site. Tickets for this are free but are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis. We opted to arrive first thing in the morning and wait in line for the Memorial to open. We were glad we did this because the boat to the Memorial filled up quickly. Click here for more info. on getting free tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
- Downtown Waikiki [cost: up to you]
Downtown Waikiki has a lot to offer (think International Market and Ala Moana Center). It sometimes gets a bad rap as a bit of a tourist trap but if you like food, shopping, nightlife, and beautiful sights (and who doesn’t?!) then it’s worth your time. And, bonus: no admission – you choose how much you want to spend!
- Hilton Hawaiian Village Fireworks Show [cost: free]
Every Friday the Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on a firework show that is free and open to the public. It was lovely and definitely worth a watch!
- Koko Head Hike [cost: free]
Folks, this hike is not for the fainthearted. I’m in moderate to decent shape and it fully kicked my arse. However, the view from the top and the sense of accomplishment we felt put this experience right near the top of the favorites list. Definitely a highlight of our trip.
- Hanauma Bay [cost: $7.50 per person]
The snorkeling here is excellent. The marine education center puts significant effort into maintaining these reefs. In fact, visitors are not even supposed to touch the reefs (i.e. ground) with their hands or feet while snorkeling. My husband particularly loved this place and we spent a couple of hours in the water snorkeling. Two things to keep in mind: 1. Be prepared to tread water. 2. This attraction generally reaches capacity by noon to early afternoon so get there early-ish.
- Bellows Air Force Station Beach [cost: military ID required]
I need to confess, I was not super excited about this stop but my husband heard great things about it so off we went. With that being said, this beach had the. softest. sand. I. have. ever. felt. Honestly, it felt like velvet. Add to that perfect body-boarding waves and it was definitely worth the visit.
- Lanikai Beach [cost: free]
This beach is nestled behind a neighborhood and is actually rather difficult to find. Despite this, it is pretty well known for the Mokulua islands that are visible from the shore. We watched the sunrise here and it was truly lovely. Plan to park and walk to find this beach.
- Diamond Head Hike [cost: $5 per car]
Difficulty-wise this hike falls somewhere between Waimea Falls and Koko Head. I was definitely sweating by the time I reached the top but I didn’t feel like death was eminent. Again, try to get here early. This place fills up quickly and stays packed all day long. Getting there earlier will allow you some space to hike at your own pace and enjoy the views at the top. Click here for more information about Diamond Head State Park.
- Luau: [cost varies; we paid $65.00 per person]
These were the most expensive attraction tickets we bought but they were completely worth it. The ceremony and performances were fantastic. The food wasn’t exceptional but it was reflective of Polynesian culture and we thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of it. Overall, this is a must do.
- North Shore [cost: free]
The North Shore is about a 45 minute drive from Waikiki. If you want to experience the wild freedom that the idea of Hawaii evokes, the North Shore is for you. Continue reading for my top picks on the North Shore.
Shark’s Cove [cost: free]
Shark’s Cove is one of the best snorkeling spots on the North Shore. This was one of my absolute favorite parts of our trip. The water was calm and the sights to see were abundant. A couple of tips about this place:
- Bring water shoes – it’s rocky.
- Bring your own snorkel gear. This is not a requirement (they do offer rentals) but we enjoyed the freedom of having our own.
- There are no lockers – a.k.a. nowhere to put car keys, wallet, etc. We put ours in a waterproof bag, set the bag on the rocks at the side of the cove, and watched it like a hawk. That probably wouldn’t have been sufficient during a more crowded time.
- If you’re feeling gutsy, it’s completely worth it to climb up the rocks at the edge of the cove and look over into the ocean. Watching the waves crash into the wall of the cove is just spectacular. This was one of the most profoundly beautiful moments of the trip for me.
Waimea Falls Park (Waimea Valley) [cost: $16 per person]
This hike is very mild and paved throughout. It leads to Waimea Falls and a wading pool. We spent about 2.5 to 3 hours here. Due to the weather, this experience was a little anticlimactic for us. The waterfall was barely trickling on the day we were there but we did enjoy learning more about Hawaiian culture from the signs and sights along the path to the Falls.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck [cost: ~$20 for 2 people]
Ok, so this place is Instagram and Pinterest famous, particularly the garlic shrimp and rice which we ordered. It was absolutely delicious and definitely lived up to its garlic namesake. Also, the lines reflected this place’s popularity (bring your patient pants).
Waimea Bay Rock [cost: free]
Another Instagram famous experience, this tourist spot is known for the giant boulder within swimming distance to shore. Locals and tourists alike boast about jumping off this thing. My husband and I were all about it but we were surprised to find that no one was allowed in the water when we arrived due to a shark sighting!! Still, a worthy (and free) experience.
The Dole Plantation [cost: free to walk in building; costs for tour; $5 for pineapple ice cream]
I’m not really a pineapple enthusiast. In fact, I’m not really a fan at all but I did try a free sample of pineapple here and it wasn’t bad. The famous pineapple ice cream was intense. They don’t hold back on the pineapple flavor so if you make this stop, be ready. If you like pineapple you will love this place.
A few final tips:
- Rent a car or moped for at least one day during your stay. If you are renting a car for the entire visit, invest in a parking spot for that car at your hotel. (This is often an added expense but so worth it after a long day of exploring). If you are renting a moped near Waikiki, book it in advance. We unfortunately tried to rent mopeds spur of the moment and found that the reputable rental dealers were sold out.
- Pencil in jet-lag. Upon arriving in Hawaii we were both exhausted, to the point of feeling physically ill. I was so grateful that we hadn’t booked any excursions or activities that first evening. We were able to sleep and let our body clocks adjust.
- Go ahead and slow down. This was actually a challenge for us. My husband and I are both pretty fast-paced people. We work hard and planned to vacation hard but you’ll find that life on the island moves at a slower pace. It took us a couple of days to let our bodies and minds embrace that but once we did it was refreshing.
- Lastly, wear sunscreen all day, every day. This one seems obvious and I swore to myself that I would slather it on every four hours but life happens. So, fair warning, that nice base tan you’ve built by the third day probably won’t protect you from the Hawaiian sun.
Well, that’s it, folks! I hope you enjoyed this post!