All the signs were there… the family of four with their matching island print attire sitting in the next row, the flight attendant greeting me with a hearty “aloha”, and the mid-flight snack of pineapple slices and macadamia nuts. This plane was clearly on its way to Hawaii. [Ok, there were no pineapple or macadamia snacks, but think about it, United Airlines, you could use some good press and I’m trying to paint a mood here!]
“Hawaii is paradise.” That’s what they tell you.
Hawaii is where you can help your high school sweetheart save her grandpa’s hotel. Hawaii is where you can hit a cow, lose your memory, and fall in love 50 times. Hawaii is where you go to forget your ex-girlfriend and fall in love with the hostess at your resort. Ok, so everything I knew about Hawaii may or may not have come from television shows or movies. [Ok, for those of you playing along, that would be “Saved By The Bell: Hawaiian Style”, “50 First Dates” and last but not least, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”.]
For ten days I lived the island vacation dream, eating and thrill-seeking my way across Oahu. I swam through the crystal clear waters of the Pacific Ocean, I rumbled through a valley where dinosaurs once roamed, and I ate an inordinate amount of pineapple. There’s a lot to love about Oahu, here are eight of my favourites (in no particular order).
1. The North Shore
I love the North Shore of Oahu. In fact, I could write this entire article about my love affair with the easy-going, beach-combing vibe of Oahu’s northern coast. Heading north is the perfect escape from the tourist-driven chaos of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach.
Imagine yourself in Hawaii; sitting on the beach, a coconut drink in your hand, toes buried in the sand. A sea breeze sweeps in off the shore, chilling the sweat beading across your newly bronzed shoulders. The sun disappearing on the horizon, saturating the sky in a breathtaking array of colours. Off in the distance, a few local surfers are navigating the crashing waves of the rising tide.
That’s what most people envision when they think about Hawaii. They’re thinking about the North Shore of Oahu.
From picturesque beaches to quaint surf towns like Haleiwa, the North Shore has a little bit of everything for your beach vacation. The next time I travel to Oahu, I am heading directly to the North Shore.
Hawaii Travel Tip #1: If you’re headed to the North Shore from Honolulu, be sure to take the scenic route by driving up Highway 83 (Kamehameha Hwy) along the coast instead of Highway 99, which runs up the center of the island. The views driving along the northern Oahu coast are reminiscent of California’s famed Pacific Coast Highway and are more than worth the extra time on the road.
Take your time. You’re in Hawaii!
2. Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
If you only have time to do one excursion while visiting the island of Oahu, you should go snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.
Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay was by far the most memorable and awe-inspiring experience I had while in Hawaii. Located 30 minutes east of Honolulu, Hanauma Bay provides the perfect combination of calm, crystal clear water and abundant sea life. Most of the bay is relatively shallow and is protected by a line of rocks so even the least experienced swimmers can feel safe jumping in and exploring the beautiful ecosystem below the waves.
We opted to book a shuttle package for our trip to Hanauma Bay since the package included roundtrip transportation from a Honolulu hotel of our choosing and all of the snorkeling gear we would need for $25 a person. Although you can drive yourself out to the bay and rent snorkeling gear on the beach, parking can be challenging due to the bay’s popularity. Fair warning, only 3000 visitors are allowed in to the park each day. Save yourself the disappointment of being turned away and book a shuttle!
Hawaii Travel Tip #2: To get down to the beach, you have to walk down a fairly steep road from the visitor center atop the cliffs. There is a shuttle that you can pay to ride but I recommend bypassing the shuttle ride down and wait to ride the shuttle back up instead. There is a booth at the bottom of the road where you can pay for a one-way trip back up to the top.
3. ATV Tour at Kualoa Ranch
There’s a reason why Kualoa Ranch and the Ka’a’awa Valley is known as Hollywood’s “Hawaii Backlot”. Scenes from Jurassic Park, Godzilla, 50 First Dates, Lost and many, many more have been filmed all over the valley’s lush landscape. The best way to see these landmarks of film and TV? From the seat of an ATV!
The ATV tour kicks off with a brief safety video and a short test course. Honestly, I’m not sure where the test course ended and the real course started because before I knew it we were speeding up the side of the mountain and down in to the valley! The views riding into the valley were amazing as rolling fields of emerald transitioned into rocky mountain faces that disappeared into the low hanging clouds.
The route back to base camp was ridiculously fun, with our guide purposely taking us on the wildest and muddiest trails he could find. We had an idea what was coming when our guide looked back and yelled, “You’re good with a bumpy ride, right?”.
We finished the tour covered in mud and completely satisfied!
4. CLIMB Works Zipline Tour at Keana Farms
Snorkeling may have been my most memorable experience in Oahu but flying down a half-mile long zipline going 50mph while surrounded by breathtaking views of the North Shore coastline was definitely the most exhilarating.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie or just looking for an unique way to explore a part of Oahu’s North Shore, the zipline tour hosted by CLIMB Works at Keana Farms is a can’t-miss excursion. You will be flying down 8 side-by-side heart pumping ziplines that vary in height, length and speed. Nothing compares to the brief moment of freefall before you feel the harness tighten under your body after stepping off a 5 story high platform. It’s a shot of adrenaline that you want over and over again!
Hawaii Travel Tip #3: The road to turn in to Keana Farms is a small dirt road with an orange CLIMB Works sign beside it. It’s really easy to miss, so be on the lookout. Travelling north, if you pass the high school, you’ve gone too far.
5. The Food
Hawaii is paradise for a foodie. [Well, “foodie” is a strong word… I really consider myself more of a food enthusiast.]
I ate a lot, and I mean A LOT, of mouthwatering food while exploring Oahu but here are a few highlights that stood out.
Fresh Pineapple – Anywhere
Pineapple just tastes better in Hawaii.
It was sweeter. It was juicier. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe I was swayed by the island vibes. All I know is that I like pineapple on the Mainland, but I LOVE pineapple in Hawaii.
LFC (Laotian Fried Chicken) – The Pig and the Lady
Twice fried and covered in a light citrus sauce, these chicken wings were BOMB. There’s a lot of deliciousness on the various Pig and the Lady menus but I would be perfectly happy with just getting these wings over and over again. Perfectly happy.
Chicken and Char Siu Pork Plate – Mike’s Huli Chicken
Like garlic shrimp plates, huli chicken plates seem to be a dime-a-dozen in Oahu, but what a pleasant surprise it was to find legit char siu pork at a food truck on the way to Kualua Ranch! The chicken was pretty good too, especially dipped in the sweet and spicy Mike’s sauce.
From kalua pork to spam musubi to loco moco, the melting pot of cultures in Hawaii provides for the perfect fusion of ridiculously delicious food.
6. Malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery
The hype is real people (I mean, I gave them their own section after all!).
They’re fried to order, filled with delicious “made-in-house” fillings (The custard filling is the best!) and dusted with sugar.
Go to Leonard’s Bakery. Order more than you think you can eat.
Thank me later.
Hawaii Travel Tip #4: The bakery sells “hot” bags that can keep your malasadas hot. That means you can bring all that deliciousness back home with you!
7. KCC Farmers Market
In Honolulu, the place to be on a Saturday morning is the Kapi’olani Community College Farmers’ Market.
Wake up early (the market opens at 7:30am), skip breakfast (you’ll be eating plenty there), and immerse yourself in to the beautiful chaos of the KCC Farmer’s Market.
Start your visit off by grabbing a cup of coffee brewed from locally sourced beans at any of the several coffee stands and a cheese bread breakfast slider from the Eat Pao de Queijo stand. Take your breakfast with you as you peruse stand after stand of locally grown fruits and vegetables such as pineapples, dragon fruit, and longan. Make sure you pick up some locally made snacks like roasted macadamia nuts and freshly fried shrimp chips while you walk through the market. Finish off your visit with a lunch of fried green tomatoes from Two Hot Tomatoes, kim chi fried rice from Grandma G’s, and a bowl of Mama Le’s Pho Ga Tron from The Pig and The Lady.
It’s ok. Get it all. There are no calories while on vacation. [We’ve seen conflicting studies, check with your doctor before accepting this as medical advice!]
Hawaii Travel Tip #5: If you can’t make it to the KCC Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning, the KCC also hosts a farmer’s market, albeit a much smaller one, Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 7pm. You can find out exactly which vendors will be at the market each day by checking the tip sheets at https://www.kapiolani.hawaii.edu/project/farmers-market/.
Another alternative is the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. Located in the parking lots that circle Aloha Stadium, this outdoor market is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8am to 3pm and on Sundays from 6:30am to 3pm. If you are looking for cheap Hawaii souvenirs definitely shop here first before shopping at any of the pricier establishments off Waikiki Beach. Be ready to negotiate!
8. Manoa Falls Hike
Hiking is a great way for me to justify all the food I will inevitably be stuffing in my face when trying to sample all of the local cuisine while travelling. If there is a waterfall at the end of the hike for me to photograph, even better!
The island of Oahu is full of hikes, ranging from easy to very difficult, that allow you to discover many of the island’s greatest natural wonders. Since I was traveling with inexperienced hikers that were determined to see a waterfall, we decided to hike the Manoa Falls Trail, a 1.5 mile well-maintained trail that ends at the 100ft Manoa Falls.
You only have to walk a few feet on to the trail before feeling like you’ve been transported to a completely different world. The rainforests that populate the mountainous areas of Oahu are a drastically different ecosystem from the beaches on the coast. It’s easy to forget you are still in Hawaii. As you continue up the trail, you will eventually cross in to a clearing that looks like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. Once you make your way through the bamboo forest, the base of the waterfall is just ahead.
Manoa Falls is a great reward for making it all the way to end of the trail at the falls’ base. If you’re willing to overlook the warning signs and climb over a few boulders, you can even take a dip in the shallow pool beneath the falls. [Warning signs exist for your safety, we would never suggest you ignore them. I know, buzzkill.]
Hawaii Travel Tip #6: This is more of a PSA than a tip. Wear proper shoes when hiking. I’ve seen too many instances of hikers struggling to maintain their footing because they are wearing flip flops on the trail. What’s worse, there are parents who have their kids on the trail in flip flops as well. I’m not suggesting that every hike requires hiking boots, but at least wear sneakers.
Like any good vacation destination, Hawaii left me wanting more. Oahu, after all, is only one of the eight major islands that make up the Hawaiian Islands. Looks like I have seven very compelling reasons to start planning my next trip to Hawaii!
Have you visited any of the Hawaiian islands yet? What are your favorite aspects of each island?