If I could sum up our trip to Oahu, Hawai’i in one word, it would be “Paradise Found”. Maybe it was because I literally had just finished taking the GMAT and Tina had an over-complicated flight detour she had to take to get there, but as soon as we landed in Oahu, we both felt an overwhelming sense of serenity. The slow, relaxed pace of the island, unique culture and history, combined with amazing seafood, kona coffee, and natural wonders, makes this trip one of our absolute favs!
Below are our must-dos on the island – we were there for 7 days and rented a car so it was really easy to get around!
It’s obvious that Hawai’i is known for its white sand, pristine beaches so when Tina and I started planning for this trip, we knew we had to get a hotel walking distance to one.
Since it was our first time in Oahu, we opted to stay at the most popular beach in Honolulu – Waikiki Beach (fun fact – it used to be a retreat destination for Hawaiian royalty!). The beach itself is beautiful as it sits near the famous Diamond Head crater, but a fair warning – it is pretty crowded and filled with tourists. In hindsight, if we were to go back, we would probably opt to stay half our time in Waikiki, so we can enjoy the restaurants and shopping, and half in the quieter beaches of North Shore.
We were in Oahu in December, so we were lucky enough to see the world’s top surfers in Billabong Pipe Masters competition in North Shore. It was amazing watching these pro surfers ride the monstrous waves, while making it look so easy! If you happen to be there around December, we highly recommend you to go and watch, especially since it’s completely free! A side note – there are a lack of accessible bathrooms in the area so please don’t drink a bunch of coffee right before the event (oops!). Shoutout to the lady that was nice enough to let me pee on her yard – lol!
If you are more interested in snorkeling, Hanauma Bay is the place to be. It is a nature preserve that contains more than 400 species of fish and makes for a perfect afternoon to see a lot of different marine life, including turtles. We spent a whole afternoon here and loved every moment of it. Just be careful to not touch the coral reefs while you’re swimming!
Honestly the main reason we visited Kailua was because we were testing our stalking skills – the Obamas were in town and they were staying at their winter white house on this beach. Unfortunately we didn’t come across the first family but we were greeted with silky white sand and gorgeous calm, blue water. It was a perfect spot to pull up a novel and read.
A trip to Oahu would not be complete without some hiking! Lucky for us, we hiked in three different spots of the island (one was definitely more brutal than the others).
The morning after we landed in Honolulu, we woke up at 4am and because of the time difference, couldn’t go back to sleep. So what better way to kill time than to start a hike to the top of Diamond head and catch the sunrise? We walked up the steps to Diamond Head while it was still dark (it can be easily done since the pathways are so well maintained) and managed to see the sky light up in gorgeous shades of pink, orange, and yellow. The view from the top of Diamond Head was incredible and we were lucky to enjoy it without a huge crowd (another perk for being early!).
Koko Crater Trail
The second hike we decided to conquer was Koko Crater Trail – aka Koko Head Stairs of Doom (you see why from the pictures). This old World War II railway track has turned into a popular hike of 1,048 stairs vertically up a crater (imagine your gym stairmaster on steroids). This trail is pretty difficult so please bring along some water and wear tennis shoes! And don’t get discouraged if you need to take frequent breaks to get to the top – we definitely did (although, we did feel really out of shape when a local passed us up 3 times as he was running up and down these stairs in ease). Once you reach the summit, you’ll be greeted with sweeping views of the island and will definitely forget the effort it took for you to get up there.
The last hike we did was to Manoa Falls – where parts of Jurassic Park were filmed! The movie wasn’t lying – it seriously felt like we were going to come across a T-Rex from behind a hill. This hiking trail goes through a beautiful rainforest and leads to the infamous 150 foot waterfall. While we were at the waterfall, we ran into a native Hawaiian who was gathering a few natural plants to help his father with an illness. He ended up walking with us and explained the history of the island (both the good and the bad). He also described his hopes for the future of Hawai’i and how he is helping preserve the Polynesian culture for the generations to come.
Shark Cage Diving
Call us crazy but this has always been a part of our bucket list! Because Tina and I both support wildlife conservation, we didn’t want to use a company that uses chum to bait the sharks (this is irresponsible and hurts their natural behavior). So after some research, we decided to go with North Shore Shark Adventures. They ensured us that they do not use bait – instead they go to areas where sharks are naturally prevalent because of nearby local fishing. And so we boarded a small boat and sailed an hour out towards the deep blue. The waves were really rough and our tiny boat was swaying back and forth – we had to take a few motion-sickness pills to avoid throwing up (highly recommended if you’re doing this!). Once we got to the area where there were sharks, we put on our snorkeling masks and lowered ourselves into the metal cage. I won’t lie, it was pretty daunting but we were in awe as soon as we saw these majestic creatures gliding in the water. They didn’t seem real – they all felt like a hologram. There were over 25 Galapagos Sharks (each around 10 feet long) swimming around us and it was honestly one of the best experiences of our lives. It really made us appreciate and respect these beautiful predators even more.
Swimming with wild dolphins
You would think that shark cage diving was the scariest thing we did on this trip – but no, let me tell you about our experience swimming with wild dolphins! What seemed like an innocent fun excursion proved to be somewhat of a nightmare. The day started off with a short bus ride to the docks where we boarded a boat along with 30 other folks. The plan was to sail miles out into the ocean and when the crew located pods of dolphins, we were to jump off the boat and see them in their natural habitat. Seemed like a fool proof plan…except it wasn’t. When the crew located a few pods of dolphins, we did as we were told and jumped off the boat with our masks and life jackets. Our expectation was to swim alongside these playful mammals but what we ended up getting was a bunch of scared tourists who didn’t know how to swim clinging onto us and almost drowning us in the water. It honestly felt like a scene from Titanic!!! The whole scene was chaotic and we really didn’t understand why people that didn’t know how to swim would opt for an excursion like this! At the end, we finally did see a pod of dolphins wayyyyy down below the deep blue ocean (which by the way was freaky since the water was so dark blue and all we could really see was flickering white light). Needless to say we were quite happy when the tour ended and we got back to shore.
Polynesian Cultural Center
If you want to explore the rich heritage of Polynesian history and food, look no further than Polynesian Cultural Center. This huge park showcases each of the Polynesian cultures (Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa, and the Marquesas Islands) with traditional dances and performances. We also attended a luau and ended our evening with their main dance performance, Hā–Breath of Life.
Pearl Harbor is a must do for everyone as it reminds us of our past history of conflicts and wars.
This is also the place where, where I (Shreya) realized that I was claustrophobic – how do people survive in submarines for months??? I couldn’t even last a couple of minutes inside this terribly cramped vessel. Seriously, major props to these soldiers.
Located in the heart of downtown Honolulu, it is the only official royal residence in the United States and it once was the home to Queen Liliuokalani. It was both inspiring and saddening to learn about the history of Hawaii’s first Queen and last monarch. This is a must do for everyone that wants to learn a bit more on the history of the island.
If you’ve been to Oahu and have some other tips or suggestions, please feel free to let us know in the comments below 🙂
-Shreya and Tina