Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact, not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. – J.M. Barrie
Does your bucket list suggest a desire to see all fifty states? Well, you can’t reach that goal without visiting Hawaii – and let’s be honest, isn’t that the one you actually mean? Don’t make Hawaii an impossible destination in your mind. Oahu isn’t Neverland because you’ll “never get to go,” but it is a delectable island, crammed with adventures and awaiting your arrival.
We had big plans for Oahu when we went in 2011. There are major tourist destinations. Sarah wanted to see waterfalls. I mapped out where all of the lighthouses were. There had to be plenty of time for relaxing on secluded beaches, and we were looking forward to some unique island eats. After all was said and done, the trip did not disappoint. So many people told us that Oahu was too built up and that we wouldn’t have a good time since we were looking for a unique destination. They were wrong on every count!
My favorite part about the beaches in Hawaii is that the shoreline 100% free and public: there is no such thing as a private beach. This is true even to the extent that if a person’s house runs against the water, then their backyard is a public park. Knowing this, we felt comfortable adventuring around the island and trying to find new and different beaches.
We kept hearing that Waikiki Beach would be crowded. Coming from New Jersey where a packed day means a guy can’t stretch his arms without poking a stranger, we were prepared for the worst. I don’t know if it was just the off season, or if those we spoke to don’t know what crowded means, but we never experienced too many people. Waikiki certainly wasn’t empty, but it might as well have been. There was plenty of sand and water for everyone.
We could have stayed there every day, but that’s not our style. Renting a car was the best thing we did. The island is navigable, especially with GPS, and having the car allowed us to branch out to the different ends of the island and really get to explore. Here’s a tip: rent a truck with four wheel drive so you can access off-road areas.
One lucky find was the Barber’s Point Beach Park. Tucked away behind an industrial neighborhood, there was actually no one there when we arrived. Beneath a great white lighthouse along the rocks, we jumped in the big tropical waves and sat in the sun to dry off. Nearby, we could see Germaine’s Luau setting up for that night. We would visit that island buffet later on in the trip.
Another day we discovered the Puaena Point Beach Park in Haleiwa, the laid back surfer town on the north end of the island. Families were barbequing and people were kayaking in the lagoon like water. This was our favorite park: big turtles came up on the sand and sat next to us! The more popular “turtle beach” is about a mile and a half up the road, but we saw more turtles at Puaena Point. And tucked away in the woods behind the signs that said Do Not Enter (whoops!) there was a large paved area that I knew from my research to be an abandoned World War II landing strip. How cool! The military history of Oahu is never too far away.
Breakfast is the best meal on the island, just ahead of lunch and dinner. There were plenty of great pancake spots within walking distance of our hotel. After loading up on Portuguese sausage, fresh eggs and flapjacks with coconut syrup at the Eggs n’ Things, we’d hit the road.
If you’re like me, then you’re into street food. On Oahu, the mobile eatery that reigns supreme is Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. Covered from top to bottom with countless scrawled signatures of its satisfied customers, this place serves up amazing fresh shrimp. I had the garlic and Sarah tried the spicy, but we ended up switching halfway through. The Hawaiians definitely know how to do hot!
We sprung for a couple of expensive dinners, too. The most memorable was at the Top of Waikiki, the rotating restaurant with views of downtown Honolulu. The food was fine, but it was the experience we paid for. Worth it!
Just as memorable was the Rainbow Drive-In. The local tuna was in short supply, so Sarah ended up with a less memorable fish. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget my spaghetti with hot dogs! I wish I’d snapped a picture…
Because you can’t go to Hawaii without a luau, despite the fact that I generally can’t stand people singing and dancing, Germaine’s was exactly the kitschy experience we were looking for. Dinner, drinks, a Hawaiian sunset and a great show all come together for the price of a night out. And as the hostess says, in Hawaii, you don’t eat until you’re full – you eat until you’re tired!
You can always be one of the tourists at the USS Arizona or the ancient volcanic crater at Diamond Head, but here are some places you might not have heard of yet.
One of the first spots you should check out is the Aloha Tower marketplace. Right by the water in the historical downtown Honolulu, you can take a rickety elevator to the top of this lighthouse and catch some amazing views. Down on the ground, you can see fish flitting through the harbor and check out the maritime museum.
Waimea Valley is a botanical garden, nature and wildlife preserve, and waterfall swimming hole. We spent half a day here walking through the tropical plants, and the waterfall at the end was splendid.
If you can take a boat out to Electric Bay and snorkel, you’re in for a treat. The nearby electric plant uses the seawater to cool down the hot spots inside and then spits the water back into the bay. The result is that tropical fish and even dolphins flock to the warmer water – more so than in other parts of Oahu. Just don’t get sucked into the sea!
Pali Lookout is the site of one of the bloodiest battles in Hawaiian history – King Kamehameha drove the opposing Oahu army off the sheer cliff and thus conquered the Hawaiian Islands, finally unifying them all under one rule. Today, the Pali Lookout has a beautiful view of the windward side of the island. It is aptly named – the wind was intense! There was a plaque on the rock which noted that a man had stayed afloat in a glider for over 20 hours, launched from that spot, and set the world record.
We used an excellent guidebook called Oahu Revealed (3rd edition). Tucked at the end of its waterfall section, it mentions Waihe’e Falls. This place was amazing. Once you get past the signs that forbid entrance (apparently not real), there is a lonely hike up a mountain that ends with an incredible waterfall. We were the ONLY people there that day, and the payoff was unbelievable. This was the most memorable moment of the trip.
Don’t listen to the people who say Oahu is crowded and built up. It’s a great destination for quiet beaches, island food, and nearly secret spots just waiting to be found. There are plenty of hidden stories waiting to be discovered if you’ve got the desire to find them. Getting there is easy enough: second star to the right, straight on ‘til morning.
What’s the best Hawaiian island?
Where else is on your bucket list?