All photography by @studioist.
Hawaii! Nothing quite rolls off the tongue like the “Hawaii”…
The mere mention of it conjures images of laying on gorgeous soft sand beaches surrounded by palm trees rustling in the breeze and waves gently washing up on the sand. A drink is handed to you—maybe it’s a coconut with an umbrella and straw or a vibrant daiquiri. In the evening, it’s time to break out the hula skirts and coconut shell bras. Wherever your imagination takes you, Hawaii is synonymous with total relaxation. Care-free island life.
Now that’s something everyone can get behind.
The islands may be small geographically-speaking compared to the mainland, but they are busting with rich in tradition, culture, and beauty.
Polynesian culture is alive and well on the islands despite the large non-native population. Stores sell local culinary favorites like poke, spam musubi, loco moco, and kalua pork. There are radio stations strictly planning traditional music. Local children learn traditional dances, stories, and the history of their heritage in school.
All contribute to the experience that is Hawaii.
Honolulu, the capital, is located on the island of Oahu. Not to be confused with the big island whose name is actually Hawaii.
I’d previously visited Oahu on a family vacation when I was in high school so it was great to be back on the island getting to re-explore everything with my new HUBBY! In fact last time I was there, LeBraun and I had just started dating. Whew…now that seems like a lifetime ago.
We flew to Oahu without a real plan, which is incredibly unlike me. I usually have trips planned months in advance. I don’t plan every minute, and do make sure the major sites and/or places we definitely want to see are accounted for, making sure to leave time for aimless exploring or shopping. But this time, no plan.
LeBraun had been working double-time at work before we left for Hawaii, and Maui was great but with the wedding and entertaining guests it wasn’t as relaxing as we had hoped. Luckily Oahu was waiting for us. I wanted LeBraun to make sure he felt recharged before getting back to the grindstone on the mainland.
Turns out sometimes having no plan is a great plan. Try living on island time!
We travel often and personally my favorite part of exploring a new place is experiencing what makes it unique and wonderful. That includes everything from the lifestyle, the culture, the food, and the history.
We wanted to share some recommendations to experience all of these on Oahu, and since we have a feeling we won’t be able to stay away from Hawaii for long, if you have any recommendations or hidden gems, we’d love to hear them. Mahalo!
Also check out our Travel Itinerary: 5 Days on Oahu for a day-by-day plan to make the most of your time on the island.
Surfing at Waikiki Beach
Let’s go surfin’ now…everybody’s learning how…come on and safari with me!
What’s a trip to Hawaii without trying surfing?
If you’re a beginner, Waikiki Beach is the perfect place to start. The waves are much milder than the North Shore and there are board rentals + surf instructors galore.
Catching a wave is not as easy as the pros make it look so if you are just learning I highly recommend an instructor. They can help push you to “catch a wave,” otherwise you’ll be floating up and down aimlessly for the duration of your board rental.
NOTE: Annually between November - February, big wave surfers from around the world converge on Oahu to surf the giants on the North Shore. If you happen to be on the island during the winter months, don’t miss the chance to see these athletes in action.
Walk from Queen’s Beach to Kahanamoku Beach + Watch the Sunset
Most people find themselves at Waikiki Bay simply because of the name-sake and proximity to hotels, but you can actually walk along the beach and boardwalk from the zoo to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. It’s a perfect late afternoon activity as you’ll be walking along as the sun is setting, which is towards the Hilton.
If it’s Friday, all the better as the Hilton shoots fireworks off from their lagoon weekly. Bring a blanket and relax on the beach while the fireworks go off ahead.
There are 125 beaches on Oahu so around every corner there is a new one to explore. Don’t spend all your time at one. Some are long and sandy, some are narrow and rocky, some are great for snorkeling, while others are popular for camping. Once you get out of Honolulu, the beaches are less crowded and busy.
Oahu has plenty to do, but spending time at the beach everyday should be top of the list.
Polynesian Cultural Center
@polynesianculturalctr | Address: 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie, HI 96762
The Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is essentially a living museum with eight simulated tropical villages with performers demonstrating various arts and crafts throughout Polynesia. The majority of PCC employees are also students at BYU-Hawaii studying and preserving the traditions and cultures of of their heritages in Polynesia. It was a huge highlight of our trip!
The Polynesian belief that the water doesn’t divide people, but connects people is a true example of Ohana. Each village delivers an educational cultural presentation and provides several activities related to their culture—get a temporary Polynesian tattoo, learn to make coconut oil, easily open a coconut, wayfinding, dancing, weaving, sailing, and taste island cooking.
Book a combo ticket in advance that includes general admission, the luau and dinner show, and evening performance to make the most of your time at PCC.
While at PCC don’t miss out on walking around the Hukilau Marketplace (no ticket needed). Does the name sound familiar? Adam Sandler and Drew Berrymore met for breakfast at the Hukilau Cafe in the adorable romantic comedy 50 First Dates. The cafe from the movie was constructed on the nearby Kualoa Ranch, though there is a cafe of the same name in Laie. :)
Did you try the Tahitian Coconut Bread while at the Polynesian Cultural Center?
Well they shared their already vegan recipe and we adapted it to be gluten-free.
It's very simple to make, and is just as dense and sweet as the original. Check out the recipe here.
@visitpearlharbor | Address: 1 Arizona Memorial Pl, Honolulu, HI 96818
On December 7th, 1941, 353 Japanese bombers attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, destroying 19 ships, 188 aircraft and killing over 2,000 Americans. This act drove the United States into World War II and ultimately united the nation.
Parking and admission is free to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, but reserving tickets is required. There are a limited number of first-come, first-serve tickets available daily; however, a line will form prior to 6 a.m. for their 7 a.m. release and employees hand out the tickets as quickly as possible. Because of this, you may find that your tour time may not be till 3 p.m. or that your group is spread out on different tours throughout the day so if you want to tour together, book tickets online at least 3 weeks in advance.
Sites include USS Arizona and Oklahoma Memorials, the Battleship Missouri, Bowfin Submarine Museum, Battleship Row, and Punchbowl National Cemetery (the Arlington Cemetery of the Pacific).
@iolanipalacehi | Address: 364 S King St, Honolulu, HI 96813
The beautifully restored palace was the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchs and remains the only royal residence on US soil. The self-guided audio tour offers insightful information into the royal families of the islands and the overthrow and forced abdication of Queen Liliuokalani by American-backed businessmen in 1893.
Also walk by the architecturally beautiful state supreme court house across the street and King Kamehameha statue, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Captain Cook's arrival.
@doleplantation | Address: 64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy, Wahiawa, HI 96786
As the largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world, Dole was founded and set up it’s first plantation on the island of Oahu. Now you can explore their large marketplace of local goodies, learn about pineapple production, and the history of the plantation.
Save time by purchasing a combo ticket online and spend a few hours riding the train (aka the Pineapple Express), walking around the gardens, and traverse the world’s largest hedge maze.
The train is first-come, first-serve so be prepared to wait though they have three trains on the tracks so it moves quite quick. No food or drink is allowed on the train.
Collecting all the hidden stencils in the maze is super fun for kids (or adults who identify as kids).
And no trip to the Dole Plantation would be complete without purchasing a bowl (or cone) of DOLE WHIP! The perfect creamy, sweet dairy-free dessert!
@kualoaranch | Address: 49-560 Kamehameha Hwy, Kaneohe, HI 96744
This nature reserve and working cattle ranch is a popular filming location for Hollywood. More than 50 movies and shows have been filmed at the ranch over the years including Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Windtalkers, Lost, Pearl Harbor, Kong: Skull Island, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Today the ranch offers tons of guided activities throughout the 4,000-acre property including ATV, horseback, jeep, and e-bike tours as well as a Hollywood Movie Site Tour, Ocean Voyage Adventure, and Kayak Adventure Tour.
Our guide was very knowledgeable, funny, and personable. He had even worked as an extra and set hand on several of the movies while they were filming on the property. As Kualoa Ranch is a popular tourist activity, booking tickets in advance is a must!
Address: 7455 Kalanianaole Hwy, Hon, Hawaii
Formed within a volcanic cone, Hanauma Bay is a excellent for snorkelers of all experience levels as the cove protects snorkelers from the ocean waves and currents.
Since it’s a marine life conservation area, visitors must watch a short video about wildlife and preservation and protection of the ecocsystem. Basics—Look but don’t touch, the wildlife or the reef as it’s a living organism as well. Unfortunately people don’t pay attention and are ultimately ruining the reef.
If you want better snorkeling several companies offer boat tours with snorkeling stops. If you get sea sick like me, Hanauma Bay provides a place to enjoy snorkeling close to shore.
Address: 2310 Kūhiō Ave #124, Honolulu, HI 96815
Looking for the perfect bowl of udon? Marukame Udon is dedicated to creating classic Sanuki-style noodles, which they make continuously daily in the shop’s window. OH MY GOSH, it’s ahh-mazing!
They’ve got their service down to a science so don’t be discouraged by the line that forms outside the shop. If it’s hot outside, it’s best to go during an off time—early lunch, late lunch, early dinner, or late dinner. Once inside, order a bowl of udon, grab some tempura, then find a seat in their small dining area.
What to order: The Kake Udon (with all the fixings) and Sweet Potato Tempura
@hideoutwaikiki| Address: 2299 Kūhiō Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
Located on the lanai (porch) of the Laylow Hotel, above the busting street of Kuhio Avenue, this gem is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. They have nightly live music, a friendly staff, and delicious (+ quite strong) drinks.
The menu is a fabulous collection of reimagined Pacific Rim Cuisine with something for everyone. Since we were staying on-site, we had the pleasure of eating at Hideout several times during our trip and it always delivered.
What to order: For breakfast—Buckwheat pancakes or acai bowl from the > coffee counter; For lunch/dinner: Edamame, Chicken Satay, Rice Bowls and Hawaiian BBQ Chicken Tacos; My fave: Huli Huli Chicken
The Beet Box Cafe
@thebeetboxcafe | Address: 66-437 Kamehameha Hwy Ste.104, Haleiwa, Hawaii 96712
I’m always on the hunt for the best vegetarian restaurants and The Beet Box Cafe makes the cut. Their 100% vegetarian menu also has vegan and gluten-free adjustments, and the menu is more than salad. PRAISE!
Plus they serve breakfast all day. What’s better than that?!
They also have a location in Kailua.
_What to order:_Acai bowl (you’re in Hawaii, duh!), 3 Little Birds sandwich, Beirut Burger and assorted gf/v freshly baked pastries
Waikiki Yokocho Gourmet Alley
Address: 2250 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
Located in the basement of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza (sign on building reads “Japanese Food Hall”), it’s basically Japanese food court heaven. Seriously heaven for my stomach looks like this—ramen, sushi, tempura, hot pot, matcha desserts, etc—all the most delicious Japanese goodies in one place.
@modohawaii | Address: 2330 Kalakaua Ave, Ste 250, Honolulu, HI 96815
Located inside Mitsuwa Marketplace on the second floor of the International Marketplace, this small shop serves up heavenly treats known as mochi donuts! The dough is not overly sweet and the glaze is which dictates the flavor, and there are several to choose from. We couldn’t decide so ended up with 8 different ones! :) The perfect afternoon pick me up of light after dinner dessert.
Our faves: Cookies n’ Creme, Key Lime, Lilikoi, White Chocolate