I’ve always wanted to visit the Hawaiian islands, and I finally got my chance to explore Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island (the Big Island) for a beautiful fourteen days last June.  One of my friends met me in Oahu, and we were able to fit quite a bit into our three days on Oahu island before flying to Maui.  Our lazy hours on the beach along with some wicked jet lag hindered us from jamming too much into our itinerary, but the list for a revisit to Hawaii has to have something on it, doesn’t it?

For now, here are my top five (mostly free) must-do’s in Oahu, Hawaii

1. Enjoy a pretty drink and a gorgeous sunset at Waikiki Beach:

Waikiki Beach boasts white sands and blue seas.

Waikiki Beach boasts white sands and blue seas.

Not going to lie here. Waikiki beach is beautiful, but wayyy overbuilt and just…plain…crowded. I didn’t like that I was constantly running into people or stepping on small children while gazing at the ocean. I prefer to have my ocean gazing uninterrupted.  Therefore, try a walk along the shores or a skip in the Waikiki waves for one afternoon, and then move on to lesser known, far more extraordinary beaches in Oahu. (hint: see number 3 below)

Enjoy yummy fruity drinks along Waikiki Beach

Enjoy yummy fruity drinks along Waikiki Beach

We enjoyed many a cocktail along Waikiki’s stretch of supercilious sandy shores. There’s no shortage of bars serving colorful, umbrella-and-fruit-garnished drinks. Take your pick and prepare to pay two to three times what you normally do. (I heard they use magical pineapples in the garnishes.) Then, dig your toes in the sand, and watch one of the most glorious sunsets you will probably ever feast your overworked, nature-starved eyes upon. Until the following evening that is.

Stunning sunset at Waikiki beach.

Stunning sunset at Waikiki beach.

Cost: $20 – $30 depending on your palette of drinks of course!

2. See fantastic views of Waikiki from the top of Diamond Head:

Diamond Head looms over Waikiki Beach, and the summit offers a 365-degree view of Oahu in all it’s glory.  The 1.4 mile trail to the top of Diamond Head  takes just over an hour at a leisurely pace…not running like some of the idiots that passed us.  Apparently, Diamond Head is also a training ground for some of Hawaii’s more serious gym junkies.  I don’t have time for that ridiculousness.

We easily caught a Waikiki bus heading towards Diamond Head, spent about thirty minutes stuck in rush hour traffic, and were dropped off at the base of the trail without too much fuss.  Some people actually walk to the trail entrance from Waikiki beach, but it was already god-awful hot by 10 a.m….and I was on vacation…..so we didn’t.

The trail is clearly marked, and except for one long, claustrophobic tunnel, very simple to navigate.  Bring a camera, take plenty of water, wear tennis shoes, and please don’t climb too close to the edge like some of the daredevil clowns at the summit.  I advise simply gawking at views like this…

…nice, right?

Diamond Head offers fantastic views of Waikiki Beach.

Diamond Head offers fantastic views of Waikiki Beach.

Cost: $1 to enter park
How to get there: The walk to the base of the trail from Waikiki Beach takes about an hour. Diamond Head is accessible via the 22, 23 and 24 buses from Waikiki.

3. Snorkel at Hanauma Bay:

Hanauma Bay is one of the most popular snorkeling destinations in Oahu and is an easy day trip from the Waikiki area.  The protective curved walls of Hanauma Bay are sanctuary to clear blue waters and reefs boasting thousands of tropical fish, sea turtles, and plenty of out-of-the-way beach nap-alicious shady spots. If you’re a snorkeler, this is your place. A small piece of heaven on earth to fill your soul with smiles and restart your vitality button.

Hanauma Bay is one of the best snorkeling spots in Oahu.

Hanauma Bay is one of the best snorkeling spots in Oahu.

I was left to my own giddy delight for a few hours so I could float eye-to-eye with parrot fish and talk to the sea turtles. As always, I found some new friends to investigate and become enamored with an especially curious few sea turtles.

Though Hanauma Bay is a Nature Preserve and a Marine Life Conservation District (i.e. visitors are required to refrain from mistreating marine animals or from touching, walking, or having any contact with coral), I watched in horror as inexperienced (or ignorant) snorkelers stood on the coral or reached out to touch the sea turtles and fish. It’s hard to yell with a snorkel in your mouth, but I found myself playing Marine Park Deputy on more than one occasion.

Rule violators aside, Hanauma Bay is a gorgeous, idyllic haven to get up close and personal with nature’s bounty. I recommend packing a lunch and spending the afternoon if you have the time.

Cost: $7.50 Entrance fee + $12 rental of full snorkeling gear if you don’t have your own.

How to get there: Bus 22 from Waikiki heads to Hanauma Bay. 1 hour. Alternatively, a taxi will cost approximately $30 each way. During the summer, Hanauma Bay is open daily from 6am-7pm. Cosed on Tuesdays.

4. Pay your Respects at Pearl Harbor: 

Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial are absolute musts during a visit to Oahu, Hawaii.  1,500,000 visitors annually visit the USS Arizona Memorial and stand over the grave-site where 1177 men lost their lives. It’s a solemn experience and a phenomenal piece of American history not to be missed.

Pearl Harbor and the Arizona memorial.

Pearl Harbor and the Arizona memorial.

The immediate Pearl Harbor grounds and exhibits are free for visitors. We arrived early and simply waited in line for a time-allotted pass.  Tour groups usually grab the first few hours of USS Arizona Memorial tours, and the first available was at 11:00 a.m.  No complaints here.  We were able to fully enjoy Pearl Harbor’s peaceful grounds and learn more about the events that took place on that historic day.  Two of the more engaging exhibits, “Road to War” and “Attack”, featured personal memorabilia, photographs, recorded interviews from civilian and child survivors, and interactive displays.

As 11 a.m. rolled around, our group was hustled into an auditorium to watch a twenty-five minute documentary. I sat next to an ex-marine, and he reached out to touch my hand when the bombs started falling.  Afterwards, a boat shuttled us over to the USS Arizona where we were free to wander and pay our respects to our lost heroes.

Cost: There is no fee to see the USS Arizona Memorial. There are charges for the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, the USS Missouri, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.  

How to get there: The 20, 40, 40A, 42 and 62 buses from Waikiki.  About 1 hour.

5. Gawk at Priceless Art and Shop: 

Oahu is a virtual shopping paradise.  Everything from chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and loud Hawaiian shirts to local crafts and incredible paintings are available on Oahu.  We bought some souvenir t-shirts at the International Market Place and inspected oil paintings on the Waikiki Beach Walk.  I couldn’t possibly afford many of the ones that I wanted, but wishing on them is always nice.

We quickly found out that the ABC stores offered the same, and often cheaper, souvenirs that we were finding at the local markets.  ABC stands for “All Blocks Covered” because there is literally an ABC store on every block or corner.  You’ll find t-shirts galore, hula skirts, coconut bras, monkey banks, mumus, and more.  China-made goodies aside, we opted for locally produced soaps and lotions.  You can never go wrong with helping someone smell like coconuts and honey.

And there you have it!  As much fun as we had exploring Ohau, there was much more shopping, cocktail drinking, and sunset-enjoying fun to be had on Maui and Hawaii Island.  Up next: Maui bound!