Hawaii is a dream vacation for many people, often saved for honeymoons, family reunions, or other major lifetime events. Most people spend at least a week in Hawaii and according to USA Today Travel, the average cost of a seven day trip to the islands is close to $3500 PER PERSON.
A big portion of that cost is the airfare, typically running $500 – $1000 just to get from the mainland of North America to the islands. Once you’ve dropped that much on a plane ticket, you’d naturally want to spend a little time there to get your money’s worth.
But this past weekend, I spent a grand total of only 48 hours on Hawaii’s most visited island, Oahu, home to Pearl Harbor, the fabled North Shore, and the capital city of Honolulu.
A couple months ago, the airlines were all running ridiculous fare sales to Hawaii for end of the year trips, so I jumped on it. Thanks to my work’s generous policy with flex trips and my new nomadic lifestyle, flying out to Hawaii seemed like a good way to spend a weekend.
During my visit, I talked to many other travelers and discovered that I wasn’t the only one staying for just a few days. I was surprised to learn that many other travelers in my hostel were bouncing around the Hawaiian Islands – three days on the Big Island, two in Kauai, two on Oahu, etc. While it may be uncommon for someone to only spend 48 hours in Hawaii, I found that it’s not uncommon for visitors to only spend a few days on each island.
With that in mind, I figured I’d start a new mini-series here at Travel Rinse Repeat all about making the most of short stays on each Hawaiian island. In this edition, I’m sharing my tips for making the most of a short trip to Hawaii’s most populous and most visited island, Oahu.
Forget Staying At Waikiki
For most visitors to Oahu, Waikiki is the place to be. All of the big hotels, hostels, vacation rentals, and more are located along this strip of iconic beach. Add to those the luxury car rental services, high end restaurants, and major tour operators and you have one of the largest hubs of American tourism, comparable to the Las Vegas Strip or Disney World.
There’s no doubt that Waikiki is a sight to behold, but for those with only a limited time on the island, it’s not a good place to stay. Traffic is terrible, parking is scarce, and the crowds are oppressive. Just getting in and out of Waikiki will eat up too much precious time when hours are limited. Instead, opt for the smaller guest houses, inns, or out of the way resorts along the leeward coast.
These accomodations allow guests to be more agile and nimble when getting around the island, not hung up by all the obstacles present in Waikiki. As an added benefit, the accommodations on the leeward coast offer closer proximity to the natural beauty Oahu has to offer, away from the concrete and glass that make up Waikiki and Honolulu.
Learn to Love Quick Service Food
It’s easy to spend a lot of time (and a lot of money) dining in Hawaii. Top notch sea food joints and high end fine dining abound in Honolulu and around the island. But with limited time, forego these sit down restaurants for Oahu’s abundant and delicious quick food service.
Shrimp trucks, cafes, and even grocery stores can offer meals on the go while still providing a taste of the islands. Roadside vendors serving up fresh shrimp or ahi skewers can be found parked near the beaches while local Hawaiian breakfast cafes can provide a taste of the traditional Hawaiian diet – spam and eggs, Portuguese sausage, etc.
Grocery stores dish up another local Hawaiian favorite – Poke (raw, marinated chunks of ahi) served by the quarter pound. Stop in to the numerous Foodlands on Oahu to pick up fresh, local Poke on the cheap to fill up quickly.
Take In the Views
Hawaii is a fantastic place to hike but with limited time, forego the half day treks to remote waterfalls and focus on the quick wins – the spectacular views that can be visited by car or short hike. Marvel at fertile green valleys from the Pali lookout, watch spearfishermen diving below the jagged cliffs of Makapuu Point lookout, or make the short trek to the Lanikai Pillboxes, a set of World War II ruins that provide sweeping vistas of the coastline.
Best of all, each of these lookouts can be accessed via car or in the case of the Lanikai pill boxes, a brief 20 minute hike. Sure there are other beautiful views on the island that can be had with a little more time, but for visitors who are short on time, these sites will provide enough jaw dropping views.
Soak In Some History
Oahu is first and foremost a sun and surf destination, but the history of the island is unrivaled in the vast Pacific Ocean. Honolulu has served as an important civic and cultural center since King Kamehameha made it his royal court of the newly united Hawaiian islands in 1804.
Not only is Iolani Palace in downtown Hawaii an excellent place to learn about the history of the island, but it is also the only Royal Palace on United States soil, once home to Queen Liliʻuokalani who was the last Royal Hawaiian Monarch.
Oahu also served crucial role in world history as the island’s primary harbor (and US Naval Base) Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan in 1941 drawing the United States into World War II. A visit to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Sites is a somber way to reconnect and reflect on this period in American history.
Picking up advance tickets online to visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor can eliminate waiting in the famously long lines that choke the historical site each day. A short boat ride out to the Arizona provides quiet time for reflection before arriving on the memorial built across the deck of the sunken American battleship. 70 years after its sinking, oil still seeps from the hull of the mighty battleship, giving the water a rainbow film. 1,177 sailors went down with the ship and are still entombed within.
Don’t Miss The Essentials
Oahu is a world famous destination, and it would be a shame to miss the sites and attractions that propelled it to superstar status in the travel world.
Take a morning to stroll the beach along the Banzai Pipeline, the legendary surf break on the North Shore that attracts surfers from all over the world. Surfing emanates from the Hawaiian islands and this is one of the best spots in the world to drop into a monster wave – or stand on the side and watch in amazement.
Step away from the huge waves of the North Shore and explore some of the calmer beaches of the island where snorkeling, kayaking, and soaking in the sun are on the agenda. Beaches such as Kailua and Bellows Field Beach Park (a secluded, pristine beach located on a military base open to the general public) provide relaxing strands and calm, clear waters while on Laniakea Beach it’s not uncommon to witness sea turtles hauling out on the sand to rest. Hawaii’s beaches should not be missed, even if taking a whole day to enjoy them is out of the question.
And even though it might not make sense to seek accommodations in Waikiki, the iconic resort area is still a great place to explore. Sure, it’s full of mega resorts and over-priced restaurants, but the scenery is hard to beat - especially on the northern half of the beach, away from the majority of the development.
An evening stroll along the golden strand with the Diamondhead crater straight ahead and the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean can be the perfect way to cap a visit to the storied Hawaiian island.