Things to do in Hawaii

I lived in Hawaii for almost 8 years. Here are some things I like to do when I visit.

I lived on the most populous island in Hawaii, Oahu and in the capital city of Honolulu. The entire island is less than 600 square miles and can probably be driven in a complete circle in less than 2 hours which is why I eventually had to leave, but it’s a beautiful vacation place and I love going back to visit.

The most popular places to visit (at least according to me) are Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, Waikiki, Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) and the North Shore. Pearl Harbor, Waikiki and Diamond head are on roughly the same side of the island and the North Shore and the PCC are roughly on the same side.

Pearl Harbor can be an all day event, depending on how big you’re into war memorials. Diamond Head is a great sunrise hike, but if you decide to do the sunrise thing you must time it properly with the season and the time it opens. Waikiki is fun to just walk, but it’s big and can take all day if you’re a serious shopper. PCC can also be an entire day and can be capped off by a nice luau so you can do two things in one!

If you only have a few days on the island I would spend one day in Waikiki, 1/2 a day at Pearl Harbor (stopping in downtown and Chinatown for the other 1/2) and one at PCC. You can stop at the North Shore on the way to PCC. Personally, I’d skip Diamond Head if I was strapped for time.

Having a car is not a necessity (I lived there for almost 4 years without one) but taking the bus will limit how much you can do with your time and your ability to stop and do what you want along the way, especially when going to PCC. PCC is pretty isolated, but BYU Hawaii and the Mormon Temple are very near if that interests you.

No hotel is convenient if you want to see it all (except that you can drive the entire island in two hours… so it depends on your definition of convenient). If you want cheap, check Waikiki. Because there is more competition the room rates are lower. If you want to stay right next to PCC for a good price, there is only one hotel (well motel) there called The Laie Inn. It was fine… but again… it’s been 15 years! My favorite place to say was the Manoa Valley Inn. If you want big and away from Waikiki you can try Turtle Bay Resort (North Shore) or the Ko Olina Beach Club (closer to Pearl Harbor). 

My favorite sweets on the island are 1) shave ice on the north shore at Matsumoto Shave Ice 2) Mochi Ice cream at Bubbies (I’ve been known to fly it in) 3) Malasada’s at Leonard’s Bakery 4) plain Mochi (a traditional Japanese candy) at Moili’ili Mochi (which I’m sorry to say is now closed).

How about the best pizza you’ve ever had (yes, the best) at Boston’s North End Pizza Bakery? The Chicken Gyros and Baba Ghannouge are just wonderful at the Greek Corner (assuming they still have the same owners).

For most of the time I lived in Hawaii I lived in Moiili’ili (between Waikiki and Manoa Valley where US is located). A favorite night out while I was in college was a movie at the Varsity Theater, dinner at the Greek Corner and Desert at Bubbies. All right next to each other and walking distance from home. The school (UH) is just up the street from there.

No great cullinary restaurants in this list – can you tell I went to college there?

Okay, so maybe you don’t want to just eat. How about shop? You should go to Waikiki beach and walk up and down the streets. Eat at Duke’s Canoe Club Waikiki and walk through the historic hotels.

One place some tourists miss is Downtown. You could start at Aloha Tower Marketplace which is a couple of miles from Waikiki near downtown. Next stop at Indigo to eat and head into Chinatown. If you find a place that has baked char-su (barbeque) pork buns (they’re dome shaped bread with a red stamp on top) you should try one. They usually have chicken and veggie also, but trust me… char-su is the best. Steamed buns are more traditional and are almost totally white, but I think baked is better.  Chinatown is the best place to buy a lei, so if you see one you like, grab it! There is also a really nice botanical garden downtown called Foster’s Garden. You should also see Iolani Palace which is in the neighborhood.

There is no way you could fit everything in that paragraph into one day, so either plan on a couple of days, or choose wisely.

Speaking of botanical gardens, there is one in Manoa Valley (up the street from Bubbies and UH) called Lyons Arboretum. It’s gone through many transformations over the years up there. At one point they tried to make a run at a theme park, but it fell through because it’s so far off the beaten path. It would be interesting to go and see what’s up there. I think there was a state run botanical garden behind Lyons but I can’t find it online at this time. Heck, maybe Lyons is the state run gardens… it’s been a while.

If you want to do an easy hike to a water fall you should do Manoa Falls. You could do breakfast at Beau Soleil on the way up (except I heard they closed too… sorry… time is the enemy here). Double YUM!

If it were up to me, I’d always stay at the Manoa Valley Inn. It’s the antithesis of tourist, but not cheap.

North Shore
On the north shore you could check out the Turtle Bay Resort even if you don’t stay there. They have very nice grounds and beach there… if you’re strapped for time skip it. You could check out the Crouching Lion on the way up to PCC. I’ve never eaten there, but there’s a cool rock that looks like a crouching lion! I’ve heard it’s a nice restaurant. If you don’t do anything else on the North Shore, stop and get a shave-ice. You won’t regret it.

One more thing people love to go to is the Byodo-in Temple. It is set in a beautiful botanical type garden that is actually a cemetary. We went when Ferdinand Marcos was buried there.

If beaches are your thing then you should go to Waikiki, Pipeline, and/or snorkel at Haunama Bay

Big Island
I have only been to the Big Island once, but I do have a couple of things I really enjoyed when I was there. Of course you have to see the volcanoes and at least one black sand beach. There is also an awesome GREEN sand beach which I HIGHLY recommend taking time out to see. It’s worth the short and relatively easy beach hike. I’m a hiking wimp, but I was only about 25 when I did it… do your research before you head out on the hike to see if you’re up to it.

My favorite outer island excursion was Lana’i. It’s very old style, probably very much like Oahu was back in the day. Only a couple of big, expensive hotels and the beach.

This is where Bill Gates had his wedding. He booked every hotel room on the island (not hard to do if you’re the richest guy in the world) so he could have some privacy. I think he also tried to book every plane ticket so no one could get over there and rented every helicopter. The press was furious. I thought it was fabulous and I’m sure his wife agrees.

I went to Maui on a day trip to visit a friend of my boyfriend’s on their honeymoon. I didn’t particularly care for the couple and spending the day driving 90% of the way to Hana and then deciding to drive back didn’t make my attitued about them any better. If you ever do it, you’ll know why. The trip is a long LONG windy road that takes hours to travel. I can really laugh looking back at it, especially since the couple is long divorced and I’m still with my boyfriend.

One thing I really wished I had done while I was in Maui is visit Haleakala. I’ve heard it’s incredible. There is also a red sand beach near Hana. Many people have taken the trek there, but it’s a bit secluded so supposedly not too crowded. If I ever go back it will be one of the top things on my list of things to do.

Well, I hope you enjoy your trip to Hawaii! I know I do every time.