OAHU TRAVEL GUIDE
OAHU! Our second trip to Hawaii took us to this most frequently visited tourist destination of all the Hawaiian Islands, and just about 6 months after our first trip to Maui in October of last year. I had never been to this island, either, and Alex hadn't been since he was about 10 years old, so it was essentially a new experience for us both. We loved Maui so much but knew we wanted to explore other islands before heading beck to Maui again - and next time we'll hit Kauai, still on our list of must see places!
We left LAX early, landed in Honolulu after about a 5.5 hour flight, and immediately picked up our rental car (a jeep - it's a must have on the island for adventuring!) and headed out to find food. We were starving and had a couple hours until check-in at our AirBNB, so we drove to the nearby - and highly recommended - Uncle's Fish Market + Grill. A friend of ours' actual Uncle owns it, and it came highly recommended. They even claim to have the 'freshest fish on the island' and I gotta say - they made the best fish tacos I had all week long. Great quick stop with tons of menu items not far from the airport!
After we ate it was off to the literal other side of the island in Waialua, near the North Shore, to check in to our rental for the week. As always, we found the best deals on AirBNB and love to use the site to find private spaces that feel more like a local, intimate spot rather than a tourist-driven hotel vibe. The space we rented was a private upstairs bungalow style room with bathroom and kitchen on a private house property on the greater private Dole Plantation property. To access our home for the weekend you had to drive through two gated and code-locked entrances. Not overly fancy, more for Plantation land protection. But it was still super cool and SUPER quiet and gorgeously serene! If you're interested in the exact spot we stayed, you can check it out here. We had a great stay, enjoyed the easy communication with the hosts (who weren't on the property at all when we stayed), and enjoyed their extra amenities and island recommendations. In fact, the female host was also a yoga instructor and included mat and yoga DVD for the guests. It was a cute space - I wish I'd taken more photos inside!
After we dropped off our things it was early evening, and we were hoping to grab a snack and maybe catch the sunset so we drove the jeep over to Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa, not far from where we were staying at our AirBNB. Alex has been telling me about this place for YEARS. Seriously - it's one of the things he remembers best from his first trip years ago and after seeing how much he loved shave ice in Maui, I was super excited to try it. It's been around since the '60s and can easily be considered one of the first, if not the longest lasting shave ice spot on the island. And it was great! But if I'm being honest, I think Ululani's (which I talk a lot about in our Maui Travel Guide) has truly perfected shave ice and especially the mochi topping! I did love it though, and we came back several times throughout the week to try different flavors. My favorite? Passion Fruit, Mango + Guava with mochi on the side!
After we grabbed our shave ice, we parked just off of Pipeline, the famous section of the North Shore known for killer waves and crushing swells, and made our way to the beach for sunset snuggles. I cannot say enough about a North Shore sunset - it's unlike anything else in the world and so gorgeously cotton candy pink and blue every single night. Oh yeah - and on that first night on the beach, Jack Johnson ran by with his dog. I am not fucking kidding. It was like being in the perfect place on earth watching the most beautiful sunset with the love of my life wasn't enough - the universe gave us an extra little gift that night and a fun memory to hold onto for the future. Also his dog was very cute. ☺️
The next day was all about exploring so we started with a trip up the road to The Sunrise Shack in Haleiwa, which quickly become our morning go-to. Started by a few local, famous surfers this spot was like a shining gem of literal bright yellow clapboard buildings and tables with a small but satisfying morning menu. Mostly chia puddings, acai and pitaya bowls, and simple but clever coffee creations that had us coming back morning after morning. We loved the menu and people there so much we purposely searched out their second, bigger location in Waikiki later in the week and grabbed sandwiches. Also delicious, but the location inside a large windowed strip mall opposite the busiest street in Waikiki is slightly less ideal - though probably more lucrative! Either way - we loved it there and highly recommend checking it out!
We headed to the beach overlooking the famous Chinaman's Hat (yes, absolutely feels racist saying that and also that is what it's called so I wish I had a better answer but here we are), named for the way it is shaped but hopefully renamed soon. UPDATE! It's also traditionally called 'Mokolii' which feels better so from here on out, that's how we'll refer to it, too. We heard from some locals who had kayaked/ paddle boarded out to explore the island but it's also a well known shark breeding ground and so fuck that. I've seen enough shark week's on TV to know that is not something I even need to mess with - thank you and goodbye!
Kualoa Ranch was gorgeous and just a short drive from our view of Mokolii Island at Kuala Regional Park. They had tons of beautiful, friendly horses to hand out with which Alex LOVED. The ranch has been used as a film set for a TON of movies, most notably Jurassic Park and more recently, Jurassic World. You can take all sorts of tours around the 4000-acre nature preserve and working ranch, including a bus and ATV version, but we opted out because it was super busy and kind of expensive for an activity that wasn't super interesting to us. Awesome hour spent with the horses and enjoying the views, though. And a great gift shop!
One of our favorite spots quickly became the Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden, another Jurassic World filming location and a totally free attraction open every day of the year except Christmas and New Year's Day. We actually went two separate times, once early in the week and again right before we left for a few final photos. It's gorgeous, serenely quiet, and a well known photo location for getting the dreamiest, foggy IG shots. Be respectful of the parking rules - there is PLENTY of parking that won't harm the grass and yet we still saw so many people disobeying the signage. There are tons of tables for picnicking and bathrooms, too. Oh and those fish above? That's in one of the garden's ponds. And we hear (from some local friends) that you can fish on Sundays in the ponds, which seems like a guaranteed success. It's so worth the visit and again - TOTALLY FREE Y'ALL!
While your on the east side of the island, head over to Waimanalo and the beach below the Makai Research Pier. Great for swimming, seeing sea wildlife, and basically your own private beach at the right time of day! Another place we stopped multiple times because it was just so pretty and so empty.
If you're continuing down the south side of the island or find yourself looking to escape Waikiki for the day, doing the famous Diamond Head Crater Hike is a great way to spend a few hours! We loved the ease of the hike with the stairs and hand rails, but if tons of step aren't your thing, there are plenty of layers to this hike that are accessible depending on your needs. If you can get all the way to the top, you'll be treated with gorgeous views of Waikiki and Honolulu along the shore to your right and sweeping open views to your left. A fun hike but one that left us hungry and with plenty of sun - definitely bring extra sunscreen or a hat for this one.
We ate a ton of great food on the island. While the above-pictured tacos were pretty good, I maintain that the BEST tacos were at Uncle's on our first day in town. We loved the food at Nalu Health Bar though, and made it back twice in one week for the fresh salads and hydrating smoothies after long hot days in the sun.
If you're going to eat at all on the island, you have to try the famous Leonard's Bakery, serving up the best Malasadas this side of Portugal (or thats my guess - they're like REALLY good). Get 'em fresh and eat 'em hot - and you will not be disappointed. You can get the deep fried dough balls served up a number of ways (see below for another photo inside the box) but my favorite way is just traditional, coated in a layer of sweet white sugar. YUM. There are other places that serve up Malasadas, but these were the best I've ever had and they have a number of trucks doing the late night thing, too, if you prefer your donuts after a few drinks.
Haleiwa Bowls was another wonderful breakfast + bowl spot, bit was a little more expensive than the Sunrise Shack and honestly lacked some of the flair. Still delicious! But we only went one time.
My striped suit is from Albion Fit, and it fits like a dream. I hadn't tried their swimwear before but had heard lots of good things and I'll definitely be ordering again! I would say fits TTS, but I'm just kind of between sizes and I maybe should've sized down rather than up. The cups were a little too large for my ladies. 🙈
Alex found a great farmers market at in Pupukea at Waimea Valley and we loved strolling through and trying some local goods. My faves were the raw vegan beet brownies and the local honey lilikoi slush, which we noshed before walking into the botanical garden part of Waimea Valley and enjoying the short walk to the waterfall. You can swim at the waterfall, but it was packed and you had to wear a flotation vest to do so, so we just hiked back and enjoyed more time in the gardens. You do have to pay a small fee to walk the gardens, but we thought it was worth it.
No pictures to show from the Makapu'u Point Tide Pools because we left our phones in bags on the beach while we explored, but so fun and deserted when we went. Saw a ton of cool fish and crabs in the tide pools and found a little outcropping of rocks that made a warm, deep pool to swim in, which was a cool find. A short hike off the beaten path - stay right on the rocks rather than going left up the paved walkway to the top to get to the bottom.
We also were lucky enough to have a couple local friends to take us on a short, slightly dangerous, and totally breathtaking Crouching Lion Hike. Technically, this hike is closed. And as people who truly want to respect and conserve the environment, we normally would just respect that and walk away. BUT our friends are locals and we trusted their judgement. Plus, there were lots of other people there so it seemed like something doable. Yes, the hike is a little dangerous - I actually slipped and slid coming down and scraped up my thigh pretty badly - but there plenty of ropes and spots to hang on and stay safe if you're paying attention. It's a steep climb but is so worth it at the top. If you choose to try it, you need to be careful. You are solely responsible for yourself and have a responsibility to respect nature and leave it as unharmed as possible. But you knew that, right? The hike leads you to a summit overlooking Kahana Bay, and has several different routes to different pillboxes along the top.
One evening we made our way to Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku because I had to see where they filmed one of my favorite movies ever, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It was pretty rad to see in person and afterward we watched the sunset and ate dinner at one of the oceanside restaurants at the resort. I had some of the best carnitas tacos - with pineapple! - ever, and got to enjoy some musical entertainment while we ate. We don't like staying in resorts; too expensive for people who don't drink and have food allergies and thus can't take advantage of the all-inclusiveness. That said, it was really fun to hang there for a few hours and get a taste of that resort life!
Speaking of resorts...I've got a little secret. Don't judge me guys - but one day I decided we needed to at least go inside and SEE the Aulani Resort, a Disney spot located on the southwest side of the island. I'd heard about it for years and we live so close to Disneyland I knew it would be magical. So - we snuck in! Easy to do, friends. We walked in with confidence, then walked straight to the pool, to the lazy river, grabbed a tube and hopped in. We hung and swam for about 20 minutes before a suspicious looking lazy river pool guard asked about our wristbands (or lack thereof) and we made our way out pretending we'd just left them in our newly checked-into room. It was fun! And naughty! I can't recommend doing it per say (I'd feel terrible if you got caught!) but it was super cool and the resort is next-level. If we have kids, I'd totally take them.
After we snuck back out, we walked across the street to Monkeypod Kitchen where we fell in love with the local kombucha on tap and the coconut corn chowder. I need to learn to re-create the soup - one of the best I've ever had!
The coolest place we went all week was to see the mythical sounding Mermaid Caves, which are a natural rock and coral formation created by the volcanoes that formed the islands so many years ago. At low tide you can hop down into the caves to explore and take photos, but be careful of the tide coming in and deep water inside pulling you out to the deeper ocean. Also highly recommend wearing shoes if you go down inside, but otherwise I loved it! Getting in and out might be tricky for kids, but had a blast and I felt like a literal mermaid for a minute. Dreams do come true.
Right down the street from the caves is a long stretch of beach called Electric Beach, so named for the electric power plant next door that currents warm channels off water due to the electric activity. Great for snorkeling, but I ended up cutting my foot at the beach on a sharp piece of coral so we left soon after arriving and bailed on snorkeling here.
If you're hanging on the leeward side of the island, you should definitely swing by Island Shave Ice and Creamery (pictured below). One of our other fave places to stop, just ignore the Jesus messaging and enjoy the natural lilikoi syrup.
One of our friends also staying on the island while we were there was camping along the Kamehameha Highway at a pay-to-stay beach park, and every time we went to or from his place, we ended up eating at the Kahuku District Park food trucks long the highway. A collection of anywhere from 6-15 trucks and semi-permanent food truck structures along the road, this place brings together some of the best local fare and cheap, easy, on-the-go food on the island. Food trucks are everywhere, but this place always had a bunch of the best ones hanging out and we tried everything from local pork bowls to the famous Giovanni's Shrimp Truck to homemade banana bread to waffles on a stick - and nothing disappointed. Plus nearby is the Polynesian Cultural Center, which was actually kind of cool and worth a stop if you've got time.
Eating is obviously my favorite activity, especially finding and trying new things on vacation, so I loved all the great food on the island. There were farmers markets and fruit stands everywhere where we stocked up on local pineapple, guava, and bananas; there was tons of local, island-brewed kombucha, but our favorite brand is from Maui: Valley Isle Kombucha. We had donuts, malasadas, rice bowls, and two very fancy meals at the Haleiwa Beach House. Highly recommend for a nice night out with fantastic seafood!
The Dole Plantation (not where we stayed; they have a separate, tourist-friendly attraction with a pineapple maze for the kiddos and a huge gift shop) was a fun visit, a great way to see pineapples being grown, and perfect for stocking up on cheap gifts for friends and family. We even saw some new, fancy, totally GMO but totally PINK pineapples production with the introduction of lycopene to the fruit for color. Weird but cool! Should be seeing them in markets in a few years, they said.
On our last day on the island we made our way to the China Walls, a stretch of lava-rock formations and popular jumping and swimming spot past a quiet neighborhood where tons of locals hang out. The formations are gorgeous and super unique, and offer not only sweeping ocean views but some pretty great views of the million dollar mansions along the rocky coast, too. We saw sea turtles, dolphins, and even a whale swimming way out at sea while we were there! Neighborhood parking was tricky but not impossible and there were at least 50 teenagers jumping and swimming when we arrived.
We finished the night in Kailua with one last shave ice - and one of the better ones - at Island Snow. Different than Island Shave Ice, and honestly - better! Its tucked inside a surf shop and super cool. Get it.
We LOVED Oahu, and we cannot wait toe get back to Hawaii. If you're looking to go, ticket prices right now are pretty affordable since SouthWest just started flying there. We're hoping to get back in April of next year again - that and October are always are favorite months to travel and seem to give us the best travel deals consistently. If you're going to be headed to Maui, make sure you check out my Maui Travel Guide as well!
Things that didn't make the list but are still worth check ing out? The Beetbox Cafe, Lani Kai Beach for swimming, Kokohead Crater Hike, Sharks Cove, Sunset Beach, Ala Moana Park, and Kahuku Farms. Aloha, friends!
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