Hawaii was never a place I had thought seriously about visiting. That changed when Sarah’s sister, Alex, was stationed on Oahu for a few years during her time in the Navy. Sarah’s desire to visit her sister, coupled with the advantage of free lodging during our stay (which is a big deal because Hawaii is expensive!), suddenly shot the Aloha State to the top of our list.
The flight from the East Coast of the US to Hawaii is no joke. We took off from Boston in the morning and headed to our first stop in Dallas. That flight was approximately 5 hours long. After a short layover, we got another plane for the longer part of our trip – an 8 hour flight into Honolulu.
The flight into Hawaii was easily the longest that Sarah or I had ever taken, but it went by surprisingly quickly. Before we knew it, we had landed in Honolulu and were being picked up at the airport by Alex and her fiancée, Beau. They presented us with traditional flower leis to welcome us to Hawaii and we headed off.
Even though we had been flying all day, the time difference meant that it was just about dinner time in Hawaii (the islands are 6 hours behind our home in Rhode Island). Although tired and a bit thrown off by the time change, we forced ourselves to stay awake and get onto Hawaii-time so we could hit the ground running the next day and enjoy our stay in Hawaii.
Note - any travel website will give you this tip - once you arrive in a destination that has a time difference, do everything you can to get onto that new schedule. The quicker you adjust to the time difference, the better your stay in that location will be.
Day 1 – Diamond Head and Waikīkī
Our trip to Hawaii was only 5 full days long, something that we regretted later. We really should’ve booked a longer trip, but with the lengthy travel time needed to get to and from the Hawaiian Islands (each travel day really is a full day affair), this was still a week-long vacation for us. This being saidm if you are planning a trip to Hawaii, give yourself some extra time. 5 days i much too short to fully enjoy your stay, even if you are sticking to only 1 of the islands (which is what we did).
After a delicious breakfast that Alex and Beau prepared for us (complete with some fresh ground Hawaiian Kona coffee), we headed towards the Diamond Head State Monument. Named for a volcanic tuff cone on the island, Diamond Head is one of the area’s most popular landmarks. The .8 mile hike to the top of Diamond Head is one that many people make each day, and the path was certainly crowded as we made our way to the top for what promised to be a spectacular view.
The signs at the start of the Diamond Head trail warns that it is not a casual hike, but it really is not very challenging if you do any kind of elevation hiking. The trek to the top takes about an hour, in part because of the crowds. You gain 560 ft. of elevation on this hike and the top stands at 762 ft. The most challenging part of the hike is the stairs that you have to ascend, starting with 72 steps. You then make your way through a small tunnel before being presented with another 99 steps to the top. Definitely not a walk in the park, but certainly doable for anyone in halfway decent shape.
The view from the top of Diamond Head was, indeed, spectacular. Seeing the coast of Waikīkī and the Pacific Ocean beyond was wonderful, and the only thing that tore us away was the swell of the crowds who were still coming up the trail to get a glimpse of that view. As I already mentioned, this is a popular tourist stop, so you will find big crowds at Diamond Head. After snapping a few photos, we made our way back down the trail and headed over to Waikīkī beach next.
Waikīkī is a bustling area filled with both wonderful beaches and an array of shops. Our first mission was to find a Hawaiian shirt for me and a dress for Sarah so we would have something to wear for the luau that Alex and Beau were taking us to the next night.
As we made our way through the shops of Waikīkī, we came across an art gallery that stopped us in our tracks. The Wyland Gallery had a display which immediately caught our eye, featuring work from a Hawaiian artist named Heather Brown. Her art featured scenes of Hawaiian landscapes and surfers done in brilliant colors and a wonderfully unique style. Even though we left that gallery without making a purchase, both Sarah and I kept thinking about Heather Brown’s artwork – and thankfully we would have a chance to see more of it later in our trip.
We ended our time in Waikīkī with a trip to the beach and some time to enjoy the surf and the sand and a wonderful end to our first full day in paradise.
Day 2 – Pearl Harbor and A Luau
Our second day in Hawaii started with a somber visit to World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, better known as Pearl Harbor.
This memorial marks the events of the morning of December 7, 1941 when Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. In the battle, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2,403 Americans were killed, and another 1,178 were wounded. This tragic day led to America’s declaration of war on Japan and our country’s entrance into World War II.
Today, the area is maintained by the National Parks Service. Your visit starts with a movie that details the events that led up to the attack, the attack itself, and the aftermath of that horrific day. You then make your way to the USS Arizona Memorial. You can look into the water and see The USS Arizona, which is the only ship that was sunk during the attack that was never raised. It still contains the bodies of many of the sailors who lost their lives that day, making this an active gravesite.
Pearl Harbor is an unusual place to visit. It’s a popular tourist attraction, which means that people are smiling and snapping pictures. That activity stands in stark contrast to what you are witnessing, however. Seeing people taking selfies in front of the wall bearing the names of the men who lost their lives that day just seems odd and inappropriate in some way – or at least it did to me.
This day ended with a fun Hawaiian luau. Donning our newly purchased Hawaiian shirt and dress, we made our way to enjoy dinner and festivities at Paradise Cove. Alex and Beau had actually surprised us with these tickets, which began with a few drinks and some “games of skill” that we all enjoyed playing.
During the evening, the luau’s performers put on various shows and displays, culminating with an imu ceremony. An imu is an underground oven where they cook the kalua pork to be served at the luau. The entire crowd gathered to see them remove the pork from the over and bring it to the kitchens so it could be prepared to be served.
The view of the water from Paradise Cove, and the setting sun over that water, was absolutely wonderful. If we had any doubts about whether or not we were in paradise, that view absolutely dispelled them!
Following the imu ceremony, we took our seats to enjoy dinner and a Hawaiian revue show. Yes, attending a luau in Hawaii is super touristy, but it is also lots of fun. The food was excellent and the atmosphere of the event, as well as the company, made this a very special and memorable night for us. Sometimes these super touristy activities, as cheesy as they may be, are really worth doing. If you’re going to go to Hawaii, do yourself a favor and book a luau. You won’t regret it.
Day 3 – Hiking to Maunawili Falls
For our third day in Hawaii, we decided to get away from the tourist traps and the crowds and do some hiking. Our destination was the Maunawili Falls Trail.
This was not a super strenuous hike. The round trip distance is only about 3 miles, but the hike ends with a view of a waterfall and access to a swimming hole. This makes it a very popular hike and I’ve read reports of the trail being pretty busy on weekends, but since our hike was mid-week, so we missed the crowds and only saw a few other people the entire time we were on the trail.
If you read any reviews of the hike to Maunawili Falls, you will find one thing that they all share in common – references to the mud. This trail is very muddy, especially if there has been any recent rains. There are also a few times along the trail where you will need to cross small rivers, so your feet will get very muddy and wet on this hike. Thankfully, we had some waterproof hiking shoes, so while our shoes got caked with mud, our feet remained dry.
The Maunawili Falls trail ends at its namesake – a wonderful waterfall that also includes a small swimming hole area. There were a few other people here when we arrived and we watched as they jumped off of the rocks into the pool below. There are actually 3 spots here where people can jump. The first is directly across from the pool. This is the smallest jump and it is the one we eventually did ourselves. Even that small jump was very nerve-wracking, and I cannot imagine trying either of the two higher jumps. We watched as one of the people who were at the swimming hole made his way up to the highest jump and plummeted into the pool below. The spot is so high that it is obscured by the trees and you can’t even see someone make this jump. All you hear is their scream as they start to fall, followed by their splash into the water a moment later.
After jumping into the pool ourselves and swimming for a few minutes, we made our way back onto the trail and headed back to our car. It was on this drive that we saw an interesting sight – a set of stairs that seemed to climb up the side of a mountain. Alex explained to us that these were known as the Haiku Stairs, also called the Stairway to Heaven.
The Haiku Stairs is a trail consisting of 3,922 steps that scale part of Oahu’s Ko’olau mountain range. These steps lead to an old radio station that was once used by the US Navy. A series of wooden ladders, and later steps, led up to the station.
The radio station was decommissioned in 1943 and the wooden steps were eventually replaced with metal ones, making for a unique and interesting hiking trail. Unfortunately, the hike is also illegal. Land usage disputes and liability fears have kept this trail closed to the public since 1987. While hiking the trail is considered trespassing, many people make their way into the Haiku Stairs each morning to experience this incredible hike. After looking up some photos and videos of this hike, Sarah and I were sold. We wanted to climb the Stairway to Heaven!
Neither Alex or Beau had even done this hike, but they both knew people who had made the trek. They explained to us that the area is actually protected by a security guard who prevents hikers from taking the trail. The trick is that you need to get to the stairs before being caught by that guard. This means you have to wake up very early in the morning, park a distance away from the stairs, and hike to the area in the dark. We were absolutely prepared to do this. We even went out and purchased some head lamps to wear on our hike.
Unfortunately, our trek up the Haiku Stairs was not to be. The illegal nature of this hike made everyone hesitant to give it a go, and with our time in Hawaii winding down, we ended up deciding not to even try to make the journey – something that both Sarah and I now greatly regret. We may not have been able to make it past the guard or all the way to the top before being stopped, but to not have even tried is something I know I will always wonder about and wish we had made a different decision.
Note - on Valentines Day weekend 2015, a storm damaged the Haiku Stairs, making what was already a risky hike even more dangerous. While the stairs have long been closed the public, this storm has reportedly rendered them unusable. This news was a blow to us, because it all but guaranteed that we had missed our one chance to experience this trail.
Day 4 – The Dole Plantation A Visit to the North Shore
Our destination for Day 4 was the North Shore of the island and a day of snorkeling and kayaking. First, we would visit the Dole Pineapple Plantation to see how Hawaii’s most iconic crop is grown.
The Dole Plantation is a fun experience. We took the “Pineapple Express” train for a tour around the plantation and also spent some time in the garden maze. One thing we loved about this area was the incredibly colorful trees we saw outside of the Plantation. Known as the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree, the colorful bark of these trees made them a wonderful sight to see. Apparently these colors come from the tree shedding its bark. According to Wikipedia, “patches of outer bark are shed annually at different times, showing a bright green inner bark. This then darkens and matures to give blue, purple, orange and then maroon tones. The previous season’s bark peels off in strips to reveal a brightly colored new bark below. The peeling process results in vertical streaks of red, orange, green, blue and gray.”
We considered eating some lunch at the Plantation Grille, but this place was packed and we decided to wait and eat at a quieter, less tourist-filled location later in the day. This is an interesting thing to know about Oahu. There are plenty of areas that are incredibly popular and busy, but just a short ways away you can find beautiful spots that are all but deserted. There is something to be said for both of these experience, and if you are in Oahu, or anywhere else on your travels, plan trips that take you both into the popular area and off the beaten path a bit.
Leaving the Dole Plantation, we made our way to a beach on the North Shore of Oahu so we could try to get in some snorkeling. We were amazed when we pulled up to this beautiful beach to find only 2 other cars in the parking lot and the beach all but deserted.
I am used to beaches back in Rhode Island, all of which are jam-packed on every sunny day during the summer months. Alex explained to us that this particular beach was one that was used by locals as opposed to tourists. Because they lived in Hawaii, Alex and Beau knew where to find these local spots (lesson learned - having a local resource in an area is invaluable if you want to break away from the touristy spots and want to see the area the way locals do). Since it was a weekday shortly after lunchtime, the locals who would normally use this beach were at work, meaning that we pretty much had our run of the place.
Donning our snorkeling gear, we headed into the crystal blue water and were immediately greeted by an abundance of beautiful fish swimming below us. After swimming out a short distance, we also saw some sea turtles calming making their way through the waves. It was a very cool experience, but unfortunately one that I was unable to enjoy for long.
After only fifteen minutes or so in the water, I began to get very nervous. I started to get worried about the coral below where I was swimming. I did not want to accidentally touch it for fear of hurting the reef and myself. I was also worried about Sarah, who was swimming a fair distance away from me at this point. Even though she is a decent swimmer (and honestly a better one than I am), I worried that if she got into trouble, I would be unable to help her. Ultimately, my fears were unnecessary, as most fears usually are. Still, those fears affected me and I felt like I needed to get to shore.
I started to make my way towards the beach, but I felt like I was not making any progress, so I began to swim harder. Water made its way into my snorkel and my panic grew, causing me to swim even harder. At this point, my travel companions noticed that I was in distress and they started to swim in as well. I eventually made it back to the beach and tried to catch my breath and calm my heart, which was absolutely racing at this point. Sarah came to see if I was OK, and knowing that my fears were silly, I told her to head back into the water to enjoy the experience. I, however, was done with snorkeling.
After leaving the beach a short time later, we headed to Lanikai Beach for some kayaking. We rented a pair of 2-person kayaks and made our way out to a bird sanctuary that was a small distance off the beach. As we struggled through the waves in our kayak, I realized something – I am not a water person. My panic attack during our snorkeling excursion, coupled with my struggles with the kayak, was clear evidence to me that I am better suited to hiking trails and mountains than I am to any activities in the water.
After returning our kayaks, it was time to enjoy a popular Hawaiian treat – shave ice. I had seen a number of places selling shave ice and I had assumed it was basically a snow cone. Not even close. Unlike a snow cone, which uses small chunks of ice, this shave ice was so fine that it was almost like snow. Mine was flavored with pineapple and orange and it was absolutely delicious. My only regret was that I waited so deep into my trip to try this cool Hawaiian treat!
Day 5 – Our Final Day in Hawaii
For our final day in Hawaii, we decided to do a little shopping and just relax a bit before the long travel day ahead of us. We returned to Waikīkī and eventually made our way back to the art of Heather Brown. Sarah and I had continued to talk about her artwork since we had seen it on our first day in Hawaii. After spending close to an hour in the gallery, we decided to purchase a few prints (we bought one called Sakura and another titled Diamond Head) as well as a limited edition Giclée of Morning Glass. This piece, which shows three little birds “watching the day begin from their perch on tropical trees” reminded me of one of my favorite songs – Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. We knew it would be a perfect addition to our home. It is now hanging in our bedroom. It greets us each morning as we wake, putting a smile on our faces as we open our eyes to the new day before us.
We spent the rest of our day enjoying some quiet time on the beach before Alex drove us to the airport for our late flight. We would be in the air overnight as we made our way to Seattle and then eventually back to Boston. In the end, between flight times, layovers, and the time difference, we walked back into our house 23 hours after we had taken off from the Honolulu airport. It was certainly an ardous day of travel, but memories of our time in paradise made it all worth it.
Some final thoughts and tips…
- I’ve mentioned this a few times already, but it bears repeating – we should’ve booked a longer trip in Hawaii. If you plan on visiting, give yourself at least a 7 full days in Hawaii, not counting travel days. Ideally, if you can take 2 full weeks of vacation, you can have 2 travel days sandwiched around 10 full days on the islands. That would still leave you with a few days back home to recuperate before heading back to reality.
- During our visit to Oahu, we looked into hopping on a flight to visit the big island (which is actually named Hawaii) to perhaps see a volcano or go for a hike in Volcano National park. Once again, if we had more time, we could’ve made this happen, but with only 5 days we just couldn’t work it out.
- All of the Hawaiian Islands are unique, so if you want to add some variety to your trip, spending a few days in Hawaii or Maui will really add to your Hawaiian experience. Of course, these island-jumps are not cheap, nor is anything Hawaii.
- Saying that Hawaii is expensive is a dramatic understatement. Everything in Hawaii is pricey, so whatever you think your budget should be for this trip – increase it. The cost of food alone will shock you.
- Hawaii is filled with touristy things to do, and we did a number of them during our visit (the luau, Pearl Harbor, the Dole Pineapple Plantation). Don’t shy away from these activities, but also try to spend some time away from the crowds. My favorite day of our trip was easily the one we spent on a hike, essentially alone in the jungle. When we go back to Hawaii, I expect that we will focus much more of our time on these off-the-beaten path activities.