First Timer’s Guide to Oahu
If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that Hawaii is my happy place. In fact, all I wanted for my birthday this year was a trip to Hawaii. Of course, my husband happily obliged. This makes it our third annual trip to the islands and I couldn’t be more happier! What I love the most about Oahu is that there’s a little bit of everything. Out of the three we’ve visited (Kauai and Big Island), Oahu is the only island that gives you the best of both worlds – city life and nature. I admit, it wasn’t love at first sight. But after experiencing the island as a whole, I’ve come to appreciate everything about Oahu. And yes, that includes the overcrowded Waikiki beach.
Things to know before you go:
- Weather: Average temperature is around 75-85F.
- Best time to go: May, August, September or October.
- Population: The third largest Hawaiian island and the most populous.
- Language: English and Hawaiian.
- Currency: US Dollars.
- Transportation: Rental car or Public Transportation – buses, trolleys, taxis or shuttles. (I recommend renting a car to make it easier for you to get around the island.)
We usually stay at resorts whenever we visit Hawaii. But this time we stayed at an Airbnb, located a few miles away from Waikiki. The main reason why was because of the ridiculous fees the hotels are charging. Aside from the unavoidable resort fees around $25-40 per day, they have a separate parking fee for $25-$30 per day. I just couldn’t justify paying for all those fees when we can use it for something else like food or activities. But if that’s not an issue for you then by all means go ahead and splurge! You’re on vacation after all. Here are some hotels that almost made the cut:
- The Modern Honolulu $$$
- The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club $$
- The Royal Hawaiian $$$
- Turtle Bay Resort $$$
I love this place! Next time we visit Oahu, we’re definitely staying here even for just a day or two.
- Sheraton Waikiki $$$
- Waikiki Beach
Our first stop was Waikiki Beach for sunset. I just had to see what the fuss is all about. I must say it’s definitely the busiest beach I’ve been to in Hawaii. Since it was too crowded to go for a swim, we just took a stroll down the beach walk and enjoyed the view of Diamond Head from afar.
I know some people (including myself) may judge Oahu hastily based on Waikiki. My advice to you is rent a car and drive around the island. Don’t spend all of your time here. You have to explore the other parts of Oahu!
Tip: Parking can be a bit difficult if you’re not staying at one of the hotels in the area. Your best bet would be parking at the Royal Hawaiian Center located on Royal Hawaiian Avenue. Parking is free for the first hour with validation. After that, it’s $2/hour for the next two hours.
- Lanikai Beach
Nestled in a residential neighborhood in Kailua, you’ll find the serene Lanikai Beach. When I think of the ideal beach, Lanikai definitely comes to mind. I can see why its regarded as one of the best beaches in Hawaii. The sand is white and powdery. The water is calm and crystal clear with a vibrant shade of blue and green. Plus you get a striking view of the Mokes/Molokua Islands that houses bird sanctuaries. We spent an afternoon here relaxing and watching a few kite surfers having a great time in the water.
Tips: Two things to remember: 1. Finding the entrance to the beach can be a bit tricky since there are no signs. We found access via an alleyway between the residential houses. 2. Parking is a challenge. You can street park but make sure you read the signs to avoid getting a ticket.
- Sunset Beach
One of my favorite memories from our trip was watching the sunset at Sunset Beach in the North Shore. It definitely lived up to its name! We spent 2 hours here just basking in the sun, watching surfers from a distance and soaking in the breathtaking views of the ocean, all the while waiting for the sun to set.
- Laniakea Beach/Turtle Beach
If you’re like us and love seeing sea turtles then this is the surest place to see them. Of course you may spot one or two while snorkeling at one of Oahu’s amazing beaches but from what I was told, its not uncommon to find sea turtles here. Hence the name, Turtle Beach.
Reminder: Pls be respectful and don’t harass or touch the sea turtles.
- Hanauma Bay State Park
Home to a plethora of fish and marine life, this protected conservation area is the best place in Oahu for snorkeling! We saw so many fishes that we’ve never seen before! The beach can be crowded but there’s plenty of space to snorkel without bumping into someone. Make sure you arrive early to get a parking space. We got there around 7:20 am and it was almost full.
Tips and Fees:
- Entrance fee is $7.50. CASH ONLY.
- Parking lot fee is $1.
- Tram ride (down) $1, Tram ride (up) $1.25.
- Parking lot only has 300 stalls so make sure you arrive early.
- Park hours are 6am-7pm daily.
- The park is closed every TUESDAY.
- Kailua Beach
- Electric Beach
- Makapuu Beach
- Ko’olina Beach
- Sandy Beach
- Waimanalo Beach
- Waimea Bay
- Diamond Head Trail
One of the most rewarding hikes in Oahu, the Diamond Head trail boasts panoramic views of Waikiki. Is it just me or was this hike a bit strenuous? I’ve heard people say it’s fairly easy but that wasn’t the case for me at all. Maybe I’m just really out of shape? I had to stop a few times to catch my breath after climbing several flights of stairs. My calves were burning after doing this hike! The best time to hike this trail is early morning to avoid crowds. It was way too crowded when we hiked before sunset.
- Entrance fee is $5 per car or $1 per person. CASH ONLY.
- Park is open from 6am-6pm daily.
- Trail entrance closes at 4:30 pm. Which means you have to be out of the parking lot by 6 or you’ll get locked in. If you’re doing a sunset hike, make sure you park outside.
- Make sure you wear a hat and sunscreen because it can get really hot.
- Don’t forget to bring water.
- Manoa Falls
The trek to Manoa Falls was my least favorite but I still included it anyway just because you need to see at least one waterfall when you visit Hawaii. We hiked the day after it rained so the the trail was very muddy. Surprisingly, the waterfall was running a little low despite the rain the previous day which made it not worth the hike for us. Overall, an okay hike for a mediocre waterfall. The only part that I liked was the lush tropical rain forest that looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park.
- Parking costs $5. No entrance fee.
- Make sure you wear proper footwear because the trail can get really muddy.
- Don’t forget to apply insect repellent.
- Lanikai Pillboxes
We hiked this trail during my birthday and it gave me sweeping views of Lanikai and Kailua beaches down below. The trail can be intimidating at first since it starts with an uphill climb on loose gravel and dirt but after you get past that, the trail opens up and rewards you with stunning ocean views. If there’s one hike that you should do in Oahu, I definitely recommend this!
- Parking is scarce. You can park your car in the neighborhood but just make sure you read the parking signs to avoid getting a ticket.
- The trailhead entrance is located across the golf course .
- Wear proper footwear as the trail is unpaved.
- Maunawili Falls
- Makapuu Lighthouse
- Crouching Lion
- Koko Crater Trail/Koko Head Stairs
- Haiku Stairs
Horseback Riding or ATV:
- Kualoa Ranch
One of the highlights of our trip was horseback riding at Kualoa Ranch. It was me and my husband’s first time and we loved every minute of it! I was definitely scared at first but after getting a feel for it and ultimately bonding with my horse Frodo, I was riding like a “pro” in no time. We crossed creeks and rode through forests while savoring the fresh, crisp air.
Kualoa Ranch is breathtaking! I found myself oohing and aahing a couple of times. I can see why Hollywood is so enamored by this place. The stunning mountain ridge amidst the lush valley created the perfect backdrop for some of my favorite movies such as 50 First Dates, Jurrasic Park and Jurassic World.
- Pearl Harbor
Your trip won’t be complete without visiting this historical site. The National Park Service hands out 1,300 free walk-in tickets daily on a first come, first served basis. So make sure you arrive early. We arrived there shortly after it opened and was able to get an 8:30 am tour. We walked around and explored some of the museums and exhibits before watching a 23-minute documentary about the the attack. Afterwards, we took a short boat ride to the memorial where we saw the remains of the USS Arizona below and a shrine for the 1,177 sailors and marines that perished during the attack.
- Bags are not allowed inside. However, cameras, water bottles and wallets can be brought inside. Lockers are available for $3.
- Parking is free on site.
- Be mindful that this is an active gravesite for the fallen so please be respectful. No obnoxious selfies and no loud talking while at the memorial.
- Dole Plantation
If you love pineapples as much as I do then you have to add this to your list! It’s one of the popular tourist spots in the island so it can be packed but there’s plenty of activities for everyone that you won’t notice it as much. Can you believe it’s my first time trying the famous DoleWhip? I’ve never tried it at Disneyland! It was very creamy and yummy with just the right amount of sweetness. Some of the activities they have are the Pineapple Express train tour ($10.50 for adults), Plantation Garden tour ($7 for adults) and the Pineapple Garden maze ($8 for adults).
- Byodo-In Temple
I’m a little obsessed with Japan so visiting this replica was a no-brainer. Located at the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, this temple was built to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. Walking the grounds of Byodo-In made me feel like I was transported to Japan. It was under renovation when we visited but it was still beautiful nonetheless. The Ko’olau mountains, barely visible through the fog, provided the perfect backdrop to this peaceful setting. I highly suggest visiting this temple on your next trip to Oahu.
- Admission to the temple grounds is $3 Adults and $1 Child. CASH only.
- Temple grounds are open 9am-5pm daily.
- Iolani Palace State Monument
- Fresh Catch
- KCC Farmer’s Market (every Saturday)
- Ono Seafood
- Da Hawaiian Poke Co.
- Matsumoto Shaved Ice
- Maui Mikes Fire Roasted Chicken
- Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp
- Ted’s Bakery
- Rainbow Drive-In
- Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck
- Leonard’s Bakery
- Dat Cajun Guy
- Fresh Ahi Off the Boat
- Roy’s Hawaii
- Matcha Cafe Maiko
- Hula Grill Waikiki
BONUS: Travel Video!
Did I miss anything? What’s your favorite thing to do in Oahu?
Let me know in the comment section below.
If you’re looking for additional posts about Hawaii, then check these out:
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First Timer’s Guide to Oahu
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