We started dreaming up this trip 10 years ago when we were newlyweds and couldn't quite make it to the Aloha State. It came true just a few months ago when we stumbled on some flights deals that were reasonably priced to work with our school break. We quickly jumped on the opportunity and made the decision to visit two islands on this trip, since we wanted a taste of adventure - so we started with Oahu!
Home to Honolulu and famed Waikiki Beach, a trip to Hawaii isn't complete without visiting the most populated island. There's so much to do, it's hard even to say where to start! But you do need a least a whole week to see it all. And we say this after having tried to visit in 6 short days.
Planning a trip to Hawaii and need a road map? Here's our suggested itinerary for a perfect week in paradise - based off things we did, and how we would have planned it for things we didn't get to do!
Day 1 - Day at the Beach
This is what you came for, isn't it? Time for R&R and adventure. What's more perfect that using your arrival day to get some rest & relaxation. It'll also give you a mix of fun on the beach and a chance for you to slowly adjust to the new time zone (without wearing yourself out all in one shot)!
This is also perfect if you decide to book one of those once in a lifetime resorts, like Disney's Aulani or Hilton Hawaiian Village. We detailed our time at both and how we felt it was worth staying put on property for Aulani to take in all the amenities (and get your money's worth). So if you have a day to spare in your itinerary and you want to option to visit a resort that is otherwise too costly, a one night stay is the perfect way to get the best of both worlds!
Day 2 - North Shore
Visit famed North Shore to hit up a few spots for their renowned attraction - the beaches. Though be warned, if you're scouting out colossal waves (even to just look), you're not going to find them over the summer. The waters are calm here seasonally, so you'd be better off visiting over the winter to see surfers hanging ten on some legendary surf.
If you're looking for more than just a spectator sport, and you come when the tide is calm, get up-close and personal with their wildlife! Shark's Cove is a great beach off Highway 83 with tide pools and plenty of reason to snorkel to see schools of reef fish. Laniakea Beach is home to sea turtles, where you can get near (10 feet to be exact) and see these giant beauties in their home. And then head a little further north to Turtle Bay, where you can find accessible parking, great beach access and perfect conditions to do some more snorkeling! This beach is also perfect for little ones to enjoy while the big ones explore.
And a visit to the North Shore isn't complete without a reason to eat! Skip a restaurant though and stop at the food truck park - we had Garlic Shrimp at the famed Giovanni's Shrimp Truck and it was as good as they said it would be! Just be prepared to dine with jungle fowl, as they eagerly await any scraps that fall from picnic tables (or even join you at the table). We opted to eat in the car.
Next head over to Haleiwa and visit the strip of shops and restaurants in this little town. If you're craving something sweet, finish off lunch with dessert at Matsumoto Shave Ice in North Shore Marketplace - claimed to be the best on the island and certainly with a reasonable price to match!
If you want to shop a little while you're up here, stop by Kahuku Farms for farm tours and local treats!
Day 3 - Windward Side
If you're up for it, get up early enough to go chase a sunrise on the eastern shore. We weren't able to, but from the day time views, we can promise it won't disappoint.
We did spend our time here driving through the sacred Valley of the Temples to get to the Byodo-In Temple. A beautiful Buddhist temple, it was the furthest point through the valley, situated at the base of a mountain. It was peaceful and serene, and a little way to introduce the Eastern culture that influences these islands to the kids.
Afterwards, make time for some hikes - there's several here worth noting. Lanikai Pillbox Hike is a little more strenuous and made for the adventurous, but gives you gorgeous views of Lanikai Beach and the surrounding areas. If you want to keep it a little tamer, the paved Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail will take you to some fabulous views in an easier hike. Celebrate either hike with a dip in nearby Waimanalo Beach afterwards!
If hiking is not your thing but you're looking for adventure, visit Kualoa Ranch for a few different experiences - you can take an ATV tour through this reserve, trail through on horseback or get aerial view of it while you zipline through. If neither of the above is your speed, you can tour this movie set by bus - and see where the Jurassic Park movies came to life!
If you want to take in more culture while you're on the east coast of the island, make plans to spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Here you can learn about all the island nations that make up the cultural background of Hawaiians. It is recommended to spend a day touring, as each island has a different village full of activities to participate in. And if you're in it for the long haul, they even offer a luau in the evening (with booking) - for a chance to experience all you have learned through dance!
Day 4 - Pearl Harbor & Diamond Head
Next up, spend a day visiting two icons in Honolulu - Diamond Head & Pearl Harbor.
Wake up early to make the hike up Diamond Head - you'll get a chance to beat the crowds and the heat. The hike up is easy but long, about a mile from base to top, but you get some fantastic views of Honolulu and mountains of Oahu. Before or after your hike, treat yourself to a pineapple smoothie at the starting point - courtesy of Dole Plantation. Served in a pineapple, it tastes as good as it looks and is definitely works the price after the work you put in!
Afterwards, make your way to Pearl Harbor to pay tribute to the lives lost on that infamous day. Reservations are needed to get in, so visit the National Park Services site before you travel to book a time slot! If you rather not make plans and wait, day of tickets can be available, but they're handed out in time increments and based on availability. It is free to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, but there is a small reservation fee made to secure your ticket online before visiting.
Both of these activities shouldn't take up a day, so while you're in the area, stop by Aloha Stadium for their Swap and Meet. Here you can find a place to buy deeply discounted souvenirs and from local artisans. It is not open daily though, so make plans to come on a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday until 3pm!
... and if you still have time to spare, then revisit an area to finish up anything you didn’t get to do!
Day 5 - Dole Plantation & Waimea Valley
Visit these two gems heading back up towards the North Shore - except devote your day to just seeing these two. You can choose how you want to plan out your day, but you'll have to face crowds either way.
The Dole Plantation opens up daily at 930 and gives you a chance to visit home to their famed pineapples. Take a tour of the farm via train, tour the gardens on a walk, or try out the pineapple shaped maze - all individually priced for admission. Once you've worked up an appetite, visit the grill for a bite to eat before heading out to the rest of your day.
A little further north and you've reached Waimea Valley, a sanctuary of beautiful botanical gardens and exotic animals, accented by Waimea Fall. Your admission here allows you to walk through this peaceful site and take in Hawaiian flora segmented by locale; you'll likely run into the peacocks or wild birds that call this home while you're touring. Once you've reached the end, about a half a mile walk, you're at Waimea Falls. You're welcome and encouraged to take a dip, but not get too close because of its intensity. We skipped as we had days of rain which caused the falls to be even rougher, but it was a site to see!
If you're looking for more to fill your day here, make a stop at Green World Coffee Farm on your way back, visit Wahiawā Botantical Garden or reclaim any part of the island you need a little more time!
Day 6 - Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
You want the spot to snorkel while also focusing on conservation? Visit Hanauma Bay!
The drive to this spot is absolutely gorgeous, accented by mountains and the treacherous hike of Koko Crater Railway Trail. This is not for the faint of heart, so one look at the railway lining the side of the mountain will give you a chance to decide if this hike is for you! You can also stop to see the Halona Blowhole while you're headed to the bay, a beautiful site to see nature's creation.
Hanauma Bay should be enjoyed should as a half-full day activity. If you can, arrive earlyas parking is hard to find. Also be prepared to either walk a little to the bay or patiently wait until the lot has an opening (as we lucked out and found). Once at the entrance, you pay a nominal fee to see this conservatory operational for years to come. You're assigned an entrance time to view a brief presentation about the bay - how to stay safe while using it and how to keep its inhabitants protected. There is a downward hike to the shore, so if you don't want to walk you can wait and pay for the shuttle - but the walk itself if minimal and easy.
The bay encourages you to use safe sunscreen to not damage the water with toxins while swimming, but you are welcome to otherwise go out and enjoy. You can rent equipment at the base if you did not bring your own snorkel gear, AND snorkel gear is a must while here! The abundance and beauty of fish you will see is absolutely amazing! Make a day of it here as you won't get a experience like this again!
And after you've worked up an appetite and are ready for dinner, head over to Kono's, voted best of Oahu (and to which we agree)! Have the Pork Plate Lunch with an order of P.O.G to drink - the combo was perfectly Hawaiian!
Day 7 - Honolulu & Waikiki Beach
Save the best for last! This is why you came, right? If you're not already staying on Waikiki then here's an opportunity to visit it in a little more depth.
Get up early and start your day with the Malasadas from Leonard's Bakery. If there's a line, wait in it - we promise its worth every bit of your time to have these warm deliciously fresh sugarcoated donut goodness. Spend the rest of the morning exploring downtown Waikiki and walking streets lined with shops. Visit the International Marketplace or Royal Hawaiian Center to pick up a souvenir or two, and if its around lunch, definitely stop to grab a burger from Mahaloha (we highly recommend the Loco Moco or Banzai BBQ).
Finish off your lunch with a walk down the historic trail to read up on Waikiki and get a prime view of the hotel landscape as it changes by the water. Once you're done, make your way back to famed Waikiki Beach to enjoy all its known for. If you have a chance, head to the lagoon at Hilton Hawaiian Village and enjoy a chance to relax in this manmade haven. The beaches and lagoon are all public access so feel free to utilize any of these while you're on vacation!
Looking for eats in and around Honolulu? Here's more of what we enjoyed!
... and there's so much more! Our short 6 days there did not allow us to experience it all, but we got a good portion of this done! We were also itching to see another Hawaiian island, so ventured over to Maui for a few days.
If we had a few extra days, this is how we would have written up our itinerary, and maybe added a few more days in to explore a few more treasures this island had to offer - and hope it can help to plan you trip out there too!