A colleague recently asked for my advice on planning a special trip to Hawaii for her 40th wedding anniversary next year. The couple considers this a “once in a lifetime trip” and they don’t want to miss any “must sees.” What a wonderful place to celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary! I’ve visited all of the major islands over the years and a trip to Hawaii can be done on a budget. All of the islands have their own personality. Today, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on Oahu.
Oahu is called the “gathering island” for a reason. It is the most populous island in the chain and it receives the most visitors. Honolulu International Airport brings people from around the world to the island each and every day of the year. Although you could easily spend several days exploring the Honolulu/Waikiki area and get by using the public bus system, taxis, or Ubers, I recommend renting a car and traveling outside of the Honolulu/Waikiki at least 1 day, 2 if you have the time and money.
These are some of my favorite things to see and do when visiting Oahu.
The following are located in the Honolulu/Waikiki area and are easily reached by TheBus, the Waikiki Trolley or Uber:
The Bishop Museum houses the largest collection of Hawaiian artifacts in the state. The museum is considered a premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific and I believe anyone who wants to understand Hawaii should spend several hours here. There are self-guided and guided tours available throughout the day. General admission for adults is $24.95. If you purchase tickets on the museum website, there is often a $2.00 discount code available for online purchases. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. https://www.bishopmuseum.org/
Hawaii was once a sovereign nation, and Iolani Palace was home to its king and queen. The monarchy was overthrown by sugar plantation owners in 1893, an action that eventually led to statehood. A visit and guided tour of the palace gives visitors a deeper understanding of Hawaii beyond its image of sand and sun and explains some of the tensions that still exist in Hawaii today. Iolani Palace offers two tour options: a guided tour with a palace docent and a self-led tour. Plan on at least 60-90 minutes for either tour. Iolani Palace is a sacred place, so guests are expected to dress in a manner respectful of its cultural and historical significance so bathing suits, beachwear, flip flops and the like are not allowed on tours. Check the website for more specific information under the “Things to Know Before Your Visit” section. https://www.iolanipalace.org/history/
Diamond Head State Monument
The most popular hike on Oahu and one of the most popular things to do on Oahu aside from visit Waikiki Beach is to hike up Diamond Head. It takes about 30-minutes to reach the old war bunkers at the top where you will have amazing views of Waikiki and the ocean. The entire hike is scenic but it isn’t until you reach the top that you have stunning views in all directions. The entrance fee is just $2 but if you prefer to join a guided tour to show you the way and share stories and history with you, those are available as well. It is generally hot and sunny – take plenty of water and wear appropriate shoes. Yes, the trail is paved but you are climbing a volcano and there are many steps to get to the top of the monument. Take sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water.
Foster Botanical Garden
This historic garden is an urban oasis amid the high-rises of busy downtown Honolulu. This 14-acre public garden is a living museum of rare and endangered plants collected from tropical regions around the world. You can tour the garden on your own or take a guided tour (reservations required). I would recommend combining a visit to the garden with a trip to Chinatown which is just across the street.
USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor
As the generation that still remembers and fought in World War II wanes, it feels even more pressing to visit the USS Arizona Memorial now. From the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, a Navy boat shuttles you to the offshore memorial dedicated to the sailors who went down with the USS Arizona in the surprise Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Oil still seeps to the surface from the wreckage below, a haunting reminder of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who lost their lives that day. The USS Arizona Memorial, USS Bowfin and Submarine Museum, USS Missouri Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum are all accessed via the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Entry to the USS Arizona Memorial is free but all visitors must have a ticket.
Many visitors to Honolulu end up staying in a hotel or condo near Waikiki Beach and really why shouldn’t you! This two mile stretch of sand is a popular tourist destination on its own due to its convenient location and beautiful scenery. It’s an ideal place to swim, snorkel, canoe, surf, or just soak up the sun on the sand and people watch. Facilities include showers, lifeguards, restrooms, and plenty of places to rent watersports equipment and surfing lessons. I personally recommend an outrigger canoe ride. My husband and I still talk about how much fun this was – I will never try surfing but almost anyone can do an outrigger canoe ride.
Manoa Falls Trail
After the Diamond Head hike, Manoa Falls is the second most popular hike on Oahu. This .75 mile (one-way) hike is easy for most family members. It takes most people less than an hour to reach the falls. The trailhead is at the end of Manoa Road, past Lyon Arboretum. Only minutes from the busy streets of Waikiki, this jungle trail leads you to a large waterfall. Jurassic Park and Lost filmed scenes in this lush green area. The hike is free but you will need to pay for parking at the mouth of the trail. This trail is very popular and can become crowded. I prefer to start hikes in the morning and beat the crowds and some of the heat. You can do the hike on your own or take a guided tour. Expect to get wet and muddy regardless of how the weather looks when you start your hike. Also plan for mosquitoes. If the trail is muddy (which it often is), stay on the trail and be careful.
The arboretum dates from 1918. In 1953, it became part of the University of Hawaii and this 194-acre park now contains an extensive collection of tropical plants from around the world. The suggested donation of $5.00 per person is more than reasonable to have the opportunity to view over 5,000 tropical plants full of singing birds in this beautiful spot at the head of Manoa Valley. Parking is limited. As with many attractions on Oahu, I would recommend calling first to make sure there are no road closures due to rain or flooding in this area before making the trip.
The following attractions are located outside of the Honolulu/Waikiki area. Although the bus system can take you to all of these locations (I’ve done it), I’d recommend renting a car. The bus system (TheBus) is very efficient but time matters when you travel and you will see more if you have your own wheels.
Polynesian Cultural Center
You can learn about the Polynesian cultures and lifestyles of many islands all in one place at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. The center offers realistic versions of Polynesian villages from six different Pacific island cultures, including Hawaiian natives. Take in a luau show at the cultural center, shop at the marketplace or even ride in a canoe; different package options offer as many things as you’d possibly want to pack into one outing. Visit the villages, eat at a luau buffet, and take in the stunning show called “Ha: Breath of Life,” featuring more than 100 Polynesian performers dancing and twirling torches. This 42-acre park is easily a full-day excursion. There are a variety of packages available from about $60-$200.00 for adults. I purchased the cheapest full-day ticket when I went and had a great time – budget travelers don’t need to spend a fortune to have a good time here. If you sign up online before you travel, you may be able to get some good discounts on tickets. https://www.polynesia.com/ You can drive to the center on your own or purchase a package tour that includes transportation from many of the hotels in Waikiki.
Valley of the Temples/Byodo-In Temple
Located near Kaneohe on the beautiful windward coast, this park is dominated by a majestic Byodo-In Temple. The temple is a replica of the 900-year-old Byodo-In Temple of Equality in Japan. The Oahu replica was built in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to Hawaii. The temple is graced by two acres of ponds stocked with several hundred Japanese carp, brightly feathered peacocks, black swans and other wildlife. Ring the 3-ton temple bell for good luck. General admission (cash only) is $4.00 for each adult, $2.00 for children. Check the website for more information: https://www.byodo-in.com/
Waimea Valley is located on the beautiful North Shore of Oahu across from Waimea Bay. For over 30 years, this 1,875 acre park has attracted visitors with a variety of activities including cliff diving, hula performances, and guided tours. In 2008, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs took over the park and formed a nonprofit corporation with an emphasis on sharing the living history of Hawaiian culture. The valley is packed with historical sites and botanical treasures. A walk through the gardens on either paved paths or dirt trails takes you to the 45-foot-high Waimea Falls. Bring your bathing suit and dive in or just sit back and enjoy the beauty. Before making a trip to Waimea Valley, call first or check their website – this area of the island sometimes has road closures due to flooding. General admission for adults is $18.00.
Getting Around the Island
Although you can get some good deals on rental cars, parking and gas are both expensive in Honolulu and Waikiki. When you factor in the price of the rental car, taxes, insurance, gas, and parking fees, you may decide that bargain rental car isn’t really a bargain after all. Again, it depends on what you want to do. If you really only need a rental car for 1 or 2 days, you can easily rent one at most major hotels in Waikiki.
The Waikiki Trolley is great way to get an overview of the Honolulu/Waikiki area along with transportation. They operate of a number of lines that will take you to all of the major attractions, shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, etc. throughout the city. Check out their website for current pricing and like many attractions throughout the Hawaiian Islands, you will often find discounts if your visit their website. The trolley company offers 1-Day, 4-Day and 7-Day Passes which are a great alternative to renting a car if you are planning to spend the majority of your time in the Honolulu/Waikiki area. For the money and stress, I’d recommend the Waikiki Trolley and TheBus over renting a car if you’re not planning to venture outside of the metropolitan area. https://waikikitrolley.com/
TheBus operated by the city and county of Honolulu is a true bargain. http://thebus.org/ A one-day bus adult bus pass costs $5.50 per person and you can literally ride around the entire island on that one-day pass. One-way fares are $2.75 for an adult.