The Oahu Bucketlist
A little while ago, Louise and I took a little jaunt to the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii – home to the well-known Honolulu and Waikiki beach. The great thing about Oahu is that there is so much to do and you don’t have to just limit yourself to those beautiful beaches. As long as you have transport (renting a car is pretty straightforward), there is an abundance of awesome stuff to do all over the island. Here is our Oahu Bucketlist…
Exploring the Island:
In terms of things to do on Oahu, we can broadly split the activities we came across into 4 categories:
So let’s explore these one by one:
1. Land based hiking
Oahu, like the rest of the Hawaiian islands, is visually spectacular. The volcanic island has some of the most striking scenery I’ve ever seen, if you haven’t been here before it’s going to leave you breathless over and over again. Here are some of the incredible things we came across during our short time there:
Koko Crater Arch:
This one starts right by the side of the road and is one of the shorter hikes you’ll find on Oahu, if you can call it a hike. Drive the Route 72 highway around the east coast and park near the Halona Blowhole lookout. The arch isn’t very obvious as you’re driving but it’s pretty easy to figure out once you’re on foot. A bit of googling will turn up some more specific instructions but it’s literally on the side of the Koko Crater and right by the side of the road.
Koko Crater Railway Trail:
Once a railway to the top of Koko Crater, now it’s become a popular hike for locals, fitness enthusiasts and tourists. The hike starts at Koko Head Park, and leads directly up the side of the Koko Crater. It’s basically one giant slippery staircase. You’ll probably need a shower when you reach the top but the views don’t get much better! I recommend starting early in the morning or just after it’s rained.
Dead Man’s Catwalk:
This was an incredible/illegal feature with stunning views of the coast. Sadly it was removed recently so we’ve included it only to warn you that it no longer exists. Sad face 🙁
Stairway to Heaven (Haiku Stairs):
This is another illegal hike in Oahu, but it’s famous for having incredible views of the whole island. Many people do it anyway, despite the risk of fines, but there’s actually a back route that’s totally legal. In fact, the only illegal part of the Stairway to heaven is physically being on the staircase. Many people opt to take the hiking back route (the legal route), and then descend a little down the stairs from the top.. The back route is very weather dependent and can get very muddy. It’s definitely not recommended if it’s rained in the past couple of days (and please remember to pick up your litter if you go!).
The back route can take some figuring out, but a friend of ours offers paid guided tours if anyone is looking to get there with some help. Get in touch if you need more details.
Makua Cave: West Coast
Sadly we didn’t have a chance to do this but it’ll be the first thing we check out if we have another chance to get back to Oahu.
I think this is possibly the most touristy hike on Oahu. Huge crowds but appealing if you’re looking for a very straightforward hike to a summit.
2. Coastal Things to do/Beaches:
Pelée’s Chair, Makapu’u Tide Pools and the Diving Board
This is a great little hidden gem with possibly the best view in the house . It’s a little sketchy to climb, but great views if you can make it. Park in the Parking lot on Makapu’u Lighthouse Road and take the unpaved trail down towards the sea (off to the right of the road – Kaiwi Shoreline Trail). The path forks when you get to the sea.. take the left fork.
We’d heard the Makapu’u tide pools were around the coast, so we made the rogue decision to walk around the shoreline and kind of ‘bushwhack’ until we found them. Probably not the best route..
Instead, take the paved pathway from the same parking lot (on Makapu’u Lighthouse Road). Keep walking along the path, look down towards the ocean on your right as you go along. At some point you will see a very obvious path downwards, that zigzags down to the pools below.
If you’re going to the pools, watch out for massive waves! And also watch out for seriously sharp rocks…I definitely recommend wearing footwear in the water. We went to a Walmart and bought some water shoes for about 10 bucks.
If you’re worried about finding any of these places, I recommend looking on google earth and acquainting yourself with the lay of the land before you get there. Knowing a few landmarks in advance has always helped us find places a lot faster.
This is one is super touristy. Hanauma Bay is a protected marine area that is incredibly popular for snorkelling and diving. We got there before it opened and walked right in. If you get there after opening, look forward to enormous lines and a packed parking lot.
Honestly, I felt that the snorkelling at Hanauma Bay was a little overrated. It might be the best snorkelling in Oahu as the bay is one of the few places that is protected from the elements, but if you’ve done any scuba or snorkelling in South East Asia it doesn’t really compare. Still, it’s nice to paddle around.
If you can’t fit snorkelling gear in your bag, I recommend taking an hour at the start of the trip and raiding Walmart for snorkelling supplies. I think it was 35 bucks for a snorkelling set/flippers and it saved us so much money and time in the long run.
If you’re looking for a good sunrise, Lanikai Beach gets our vote. It’s east facing and is also in a fairly residential area, so it’s not too crowded (at least when we went at sunrise).
As you get further up the coast you’ll notice the weather might start to deteriorate and the water will get choppier. There are some awesome surfing and body boarding beaches up the coast as you go (if that’s your thing) but we didn’t explore these waters too much as the waves were way out of our league. The North shore has become famous as a surfing Mecca, especially when the waves get bigger in winter.
Once we got to the North Shore, the three beach/sea spots that were on our list were Laniakea Beach (aka Turtle Beach), Kalewa Bay and Shark Cove.
You’ll know you’re at Laniakea Beach because you’ll see dozens of cars lined up along the shoulder. It’s kind of sad because the turtles have obviously been desensitised to humans and kind of get jostled by tourists as they bob around in the sea (don’t be one of those tourists; keep at least 3m back and never touch them), but at the same time…you get to see these awesome guys! Worth stopping in anyway if you haven’t seen turtles before.
Kalewa Bay was a really nice and quiet stretch of beach slightly around from Turtle Bay Resort. Staff at the hotel told us it was a great spot for seeing turtles (we saw a couple), but it was a really nice place to hang out without seeing a single other tourist.
Shark Cove was another spot that was supposed to have mind blowing snorkelling. Again, we were kind of underwhelmed by it but I think it needed a calm day to really shine..When we went, the water was fairly murky and choppy, and we immediately cut our feet on the volcanic rocks as the waves bumped us into them. A site that’s probably better when the water is absolutely calm.
Lastly, we couldn’t write a post on Oahu without mentioning the famous Waikiki Beach… Not a bad place to hang out.
This is always our favourite part of any trip. Our friend @tiffpenguin was kind enough to send us a ton of great food recommendations, and we spent a good chunk of every day seeking them out and checking them off our list. The food in Hawaii is SO GOOD and has a really interesting mix of cultural influences.
If you haven’t tried poke yet, it’s is an Oahu speciality. It’s basically seasoned sashimi in a rice bowl and it is SO good. It was the first time we’d tried it and I don’t think anywhere has rivalled it since. If you can find Ono Seafood in Honolulu (it’s a hole in the wall), you’ll have found one of Oahu’s most amazing hidden culinary gems.
One thing that stood out above others in Oahu was the dole whip (pineapple soft serve) from the Dole Plantation. Seeing as we were driving through the area, we couldn’t help making a quick pit stop. It is AMAZING! My advice is to eat it indoors though because it turns into a puddle the second you step outside.
Pastry and desserts seem to be another speciality in Oahu. If you haven’t tried Choco Haupia pie before, make sure you stop at Ted’s bakery on the North shore and grab some (think banana cream pie but it’s chocolate and coconut instead of banana). It might be the best pie on Earth.
Liliha bakery has amazing green tea cream puffs. It was a little out of the way but well worth the detour!
The little town of Haleiwa on the North Shore is another quaint spot that is mostly famous for its incredible shaved ice store, Matsumoto’s. There’s a huge line and believe us when we say it’s worth it if you’ve never tried it before.
Hawaii has had a very strong Japanese influence, and as a result the Japanese food is out of this world. Back in Honolulu, the best katsu curry I’ve every had (apart from maybe Tokyo 😀 ) is at a place called “Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin”. It’s hard to find and fairly expensive, but seriously worth it.
The North Shore has become legendary for its fish tacos. “North Shore Tacos” was one place we’d heard great things about and it definitely stood up to the hype when we eventually managed to check it out. It’s one of many taco eateries in that area but this is one we can definitely vouch for.
Other notable mentions go to Sushi Izakaya Gaku, and Alan Wong’s restaurant.
I have to be honest, we spent so much time gorging ourselves and hiking that we didn’t do an awful lot of cultural activities.
There’s the Pearl Harbour memorial for some historical background, and the Polynesian Cultural Centre for some more traditional culture and festivities. Due to Hawaii’s past as a military base there is a great deal of focus on military museums and memorials, but there are also a few interesting historical museums that explore the fascinating cultural history of the islands.
Where to Stay in Oahu:
The North Shore – Our experience
Our original plan was to camp on the North Shore (at Malaekahana point). Great idea in principal, but here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know about Oahu.. it has VERY localised weather systems that are VERY consistent. In a nutshell, Honolulu is the popular beach destination because it’s ALWAYS sunny, and the North Shore isn’t because it rains a lot more. Of course, everywhere gets rain on the island, but as you can see in the precipitation map below, some parts are significantly wetter! That’s right, parts of the North shore get between 20 and 40ft of precipitation per year…vs 3ft in Honolulu.
So after a night of camping on the torrential North Shore (could just be the time of year), all aspirations of a cheap trip went out the window. Instead, we went from zero to 100 and checked in at the Turtle Bay Resort (you may have seen it in the movie – “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”). This has got to be the best hotel on the North shore and is about as far from camping as possible. The hotel has huge grounds that you can wander for hours, a large golf course, horse rides, deserted beaches and lots of sea life to spot in the sea and swim with.
If you’re going to try camping, the best advice I can give you is to make sure that you compare your campsite against the map above OR make sure you have a really, really good tarp for your tent (Try Walmart)…or a caravan.
Honolulu is where you want to be staying if you’re looking for the beach/city experience, and there are tons of options for hotels, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the obscene if you want to be along the waterfront.
So there you have it, our brief guide on some of the amazing experiences that can be had in Oahu. Get in touch if you have any questions!