Seeing Oahu Over A Weekend

What can you see and do on Oahu over a weekend? Loads of great things! Check out this impressive Oahu weekend travelogue by Mike Sellers who runs a small software company in Austin, Texas and blogs at Online Alchemy.

Birds of Paradise at Punchbowl
Bird of Paradise

I recently had a day of work-related meetings on Oahu, so my wife and I took the opportunity to spend the weekend there. We wanted to get out of Honolulu and see more of the island and we didn’t have a lot of time, so I contacted an old friend who lives on Maui for pointers. He gave us a few, the chief of which was this site – he said that while Sheila doesn’t live in the islands, hers is one of the only sites he trusts. That was good enough for me. I researched a lot on this site – especially the free and low-cost activities – and as a result we had a wonderful and very full weekend on Oahu.

Before we left home, I scoured this site and a few others, found some activities in our price range and meeting our interests, and mapped them out on Google to see what a good order would be – but also in a way that allowed us flexibility in case we decided to skip something. I made a couple of reservations, and probably should have made more, especially if we had been visiting in the summer vacation season. This may sound like a lot of planning, but with little time to waste, it was necessary. At the same time, my wife and I have long since learned to roll with how things go – a good easy-going aloha attitude really helps when you’re in a new place.

We flew in from Texas on Thursday evening. I had reserved a rental car with GPS to help us around the island but – surprise – the rental agency was out of them. We were reduced to using planning and maps, and ended up having a good time doing so.

It wasn’t too late when we got to our hotel, so we decided to go to Hiroshi’s in Honolulu, which had been recommended to us. Being a weeknight we had no trouble getting a table, and this was a fantastic meal. Hiroshi’s specializes in fresh seafood done mostly as Eurasian tapas, and both the food and the presentation were just incredible. Of course, the restaurant is on the expensive side, but it was well worth it.

The next day after my meetings we spent some time around the hotel pool, and I made a reservation for the Makani catamaran Friday night fireworks cruise. There are a lot of places online that will sell you tickets to this (and other cruises), and I noticed that a couple of them said this one was sold out while others didn’t. I was able to get tickets online no problem, and the cruise turned out not only to be a lot of fun, but was far from sold out (they also take walk-up customers at the pier). The boat is very well maintained, the crew friendly, and the other passengers – ranging from a couple of families with small kids to a group of senior citizens – were all laid-back and friendly too.

Each person on the cruise gets two drink tickets, good for one drink (alcoholic or not) each, and after that you can buy your own. I had read online about some of these being “booze cruises,” and they did make a big point of the drinks they serve on board. Since my wife and I are non-drinkers I was a little concerned about this, but it wasn’t a big deal. Everyone had a good time and it was pretty casual. They also serve a light buffet dinner of chicken wraps, potatoes, and cookies. The food was good, if nothing special.

We were out on the boat for a couple of hours, mostly under sail. We went out a couple of miles (too late in the year to see any whales, unfortunately), and then came back in to see the Friday night fireworks over Waikiki (note: our second plan was to watch them for free from the pier as Sheila recommends). Overall we had a really good time on this sunset and fireworks cruise, and I would definitely recommend it.

Saturday was our big day. We got up early (still being on mainland time and trying to use our jet lag to our benefit) with plans to make it up to the Makapuu lighthouse for the sunrise. We didn’t quite make that, but we did get up there shortly after 7am for a beautiful early morning walk with a great view looking east from the island. The whole way up is paved, but it is definitely uphill, so it’s more than a stroll. (By the way, at each stop we were careful to leave things only in the trunk of our car – and to switch things around only when we were leaving, not arriving at a place – but despite many warnings we also saw no signs of any trouble or places where it seemed all that likely that our car would be broken into.)

After the lighthouse we went down to nearby Hanauma Bay, which is a beautiful underwater nature preserve. I was told by an Oahu resident that this was “a tourist place, but a really well-run tourist place,” and I have to agree. It’s not free to get in, but it’s not too expensive ($1 to park and $7.50 per person to get in). They have you watch a well done and informative video about the area and preserving the wildlife (central message that I wish more people heeded: do not sit or stand on the coral!), and then you can head down to the really beautiful beach (there’s a tram that will take you down for 75c and back up for a dollar, but it’s not a long walk).

We arrived about 8:30am and there were only a few people there, but it was already warm enough to go snorkeling (though the water was “refreshing” at first!). We rented snorkeling equipment and put our camera in a locker, and spent the next hour or so in the water. The main attraction is the fish; the rocks and coral are okay and fun if you haven’t done a lot of snorkeling or scuba diving in the past. But there are a lot of really colorful fish there too. We didn’t buy an underwater disposable camera but it would have been worth it to do so. We were told that green sea turtles also come into the bay sometimes, but we didn’t see any while we were there. We left Hanauma at about 10:30am, and the place was really starting to fill up. Lesson: come early when it’s not yet crowded!

Manoa Falls
Manoa Falls

Our next stop was Manoa Falls up above Honolulu. We parked (attended parking, so again I felt less concerned than I thought I might have to) and started up the trail. This is a beautiful walk through the forest/jungle – but it’s definitely a hike! It’s about a mile up, and is very steep with lots of tree roots and rocks, and can be muddy and slippery in spots. There’s no way you could take a stroller up this trail, and you definitely want to wear good hiking shoes. And mosquito repellant (they sell mosquito wipes at the parking lot too). It’s cooler but still humid as you climb, which offsets the huffing and puffing you may be doing. The waterfall is beautiful, but the whole hike with the jungle, banyan trees, flowers, and birds is worth the hike.

We were going to go to the Pali Lookout, but decided to skip it and head on up to Laie on the north shore, grabbing lunch on the way. There are several attractions up here including Laie Point, but the main attraction is the Polynesian Cultural Center with its Polynesian villages, luau, and evening show. There are several different packages you can buy for this, and all were frankly expensive enough to really give me pause. But several locals we talked to had strongly recommended this, so we bought a mid-priced package over the phone on our way to Manoa Falls. We asked the cheerful young woman on the phone when we should plan on arriving, and she said, “now would be good!” We didn’t actually arrive until later in the afternoon, and I’m sorry we weren’t there earlier. There are seven separate Polynesian villages to explore (with lots of activities and shows that would be great for kids), canoe rides, shops, and other sights to see – we could have easily spent two or three hours there before the 5pm luau.

The luau itself was great: authentic and friendly Hawaiian entertainment, all professionally done (and mostly by college students), and they do indeed cook a pig for the meal. The food was very good, featuring both “safe” and unusual foods (including poi, which they talk about, and which you don’t have to eat if you don’t want to!). Oh, they do push their $10 smoothies pretty hard – and I went ahead and got one. These come in a hollowed out pineapple, and were very good (note that they do not serve alcohol at the luau).

After the meal we had some time to walk around before the main show (“HA – the Breath of Life”). We were then seated (by price level – but I don’t think there are any bad seats in the house) and the show began. This was an amazing show, probably worth the price of admission on its own. It’s a celebration of Polynesian life and culture with a good family theme and lots of different sorts of dancing, including some serious fire dancing. To give you a comparison, the quality of the show would make it right at home with any of the shows at places like Walt Disney World; it was extremely polished and professional – also exciting and moving.

From there we drove back to our hotel in Honolulu, a bit exhausted but having had a great day.

On Sunday our flight back to Texas was leaving late in the afternoon, so we decided to try to do a few things that were maybe a bit more restful. We started though with a visit to the Liliha Bakery as recommended by Sheila. This place was hopping and clearly full of locals – a great sign. They have a full counter service for breakfast and a wide range of bakery items. I went straight for the half-dozen box of cocopuffs though, and they were as good as we’d hoped.

We ate these on our way to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Arizona, Missouri, and other memorials (we were going to save some for later, but then decided they would do much better in our tummies than in the car). We were able to park easily, and went to see about available times. We were there a little before 10am, but unfortunately the earliest time they had available was 1pm. We decided to go see the Missouri first, which was interesting and informative. The guide did an excellent job of helping everyone understand the magnitude of the events that happened on this ship to end the war with Japan, and to give some feeling of respect for all those who served on this ship. We spent a full two hours on this ship, which surprised me – we could have spent longer too.

We were going to go back to the Arizona, but the timing was a bit off, so we opted to go to the Pacific Aviation Museum instead. I love airplanes, so this was informative and fun, but it was also fairly brief (though we may have missed some of the other parts of the museum that weren’t in the main building). We then went back to see if we could still see the Arizona, but by this point – shortly after 1pm – they had already given out all the spots for the day!

We still had a couple of hours before we needed to be at the airport, so we decided to drive up toward Haleiwa and “Turtle Beach” to see if we could see any sea turtles. This proved to be a beautiful drive up the interior of Oahu – providing yet another view in addition to the desert, jungle, city, and north shore that we’d already seen. We found Turtle Beach just as Sheila wrote (see #7 on the list) and parked with little trouble. The beach had a lot of people on it but wasn’t crowded. And sure enough it wasn’t long before we saw flippers and the occasional head of a sea turtle poking above the surf. A few turtles were in the shallows looking very much like mobile rocks, and one had come up on shore to digest its food (though it sure looked like it as napping in the sun as any of us might!). We were there for only a few minutes, but it was great to see these animals in their own environment, and fortunately when we were there people were being respectful of them.

We drove back to the airport from there (note: the traffic by Turtle Beach is very congested, and turning around is no easy feat). The last thing of course was to look for a gas station to fill up the rental car before we turned it in. And miraculously, there’s a Union 76 station right after you take the “Rental Car Return” exit from the highway. It’s literally right beside the Hertz and Avis lot, so it couldn’t be more convenient to those lots in particular. From there it was an easy shot into the airport and onto our plane – a redeye back to Texas.

This was a quick trip for us – Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon – but thanks to planning, flexibility, and the amazing number of things you can do on Oahu we had a great time with a lot of varied experiences that showed us a lot more than just Waikiki and a few expensive shops (well, we saw those too). We feel like we were definitely able to make the most of our time on the island, and can’t wait for our next trip out there.


What a weekend on Oahu, eh? A big mahalo to Mike Sellers for sharing all these great details of his trip!

  1. Mike, I love that you saw so much in a weekend — this is just the way my husband and I like to travel! (And, we love Go Visit Hawaii for advice on Hawaii, too!)

    We have a little nephew on the way in Honolulu, so a return trip to Oahu can’t be far off. We can’t wait to follow in your footsteps and hike to Manoa Falls — sounds gorgeous.

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