1. Rent a car – Seriously, there is so much stuff to see and do on Oahu that you will need to be able to get around. And driving the beautiful roads is itself an experience – especially if you are like me, and live in a really flat part of the world! Being able to get around yourself is key to getting the most out of your Hawaii experience. There are enough tourists in shuttle buses to make you sick – don’t be one of them! (unless that is what you really want – having someone else tell you what to do and when you can or can’t do it) One note though, since many of the hikes start just off the road or in somewhat secluded areas, be sure to never leave anything valuable in your car while you are away. There are signs reminding you of this all over the place, and while we never had any problems, better safe than sorry.
2. Sleep outside Honolulu – This, along with #1, take care of one of the biggest problems I saw while on Oahu – most people travel all the way to Hawaii then never leave Honolulu/Waikiki. There are a ton of hotels NOT in Honolulu, as well as lots of people that run bed & breakfasts. If you are with a group and staying a few weeks, you can even look into renting a house. Ko Olina, the resort we snorkeled at, rents villas by the month, and split between a few people would be a great deal. Plus, this way you get a better feel of the people of Hawaii, which is really cool.
3. Shop outside Honolulu – At least not in the shops downtown. If you have to get the kitchy souvenirs (and even I got a few), check out the flea market/swap meet at the stadium. The stuff is the same cheap crap (I mean, cool souvenirs!) that you find everywhere else, except you can haggle a lot more. Also, don’t buy your Hawaiian shirts anywhere but the thrift store. You will get them a lot cheaper, and they will be much better quality. I got two silk Aloha shirts for four bucks each at the Kailua Salvation Army store. Helping out a good cause is a plus!
4. Do the ‘Tourist’ thing – Now, after telling you to try to not be the typical tourist, why say this? Well, because you are in Hawaii, for goodness sake! I would recommend setting aside a day and evening or two to go all out and be/do the most cliche tourist things you can think of. Have fun with it! Our goal when we were there was to drink something out of a pineapple or fishbowl. While we did not succeed in that exactly, we did have one night where we went out in the loudest shirts we could find at the thrift store. We went to dinner on Waikiki, then did karaoke at a bar on the beach. Heck yes! So have fun with it and be intentionally ridiculous, because there are so many other people that are (unintentionally) ridiculous that you will fit right in, and have a blast.
5. Take a Hike – The most popular hikes on the island are Diamond Head and the Manoa falls hike. They were okay, but if you are up to it (and willing to look), there are much better hikes to be had. I personally recommend doing Maunawili Falls, Pillbox (Ka’iwa Ridge), Kaena Point, Pali Highway, and the Makapu’u Lighthouse. And by no means did we do all of the good hikes on the island. We kept to the more “tame” hikes, with nothing terribly technical or difficult. And by this I mean we did a number of the hikes in sandals and were fine. If you want to really climb a mountain, check out some suggestions on this page or buy one of the many hiking guides to the island.
6. Hanauma Bay – This is the place to go for awesome (easily accessible) snorkeling. Unfortunately it is also the place to go for obnoxious tourists that don’t know how to take care of the reef (even after a 10 minute video about just that!). Check with the lifeguards and swim out past the first reef (they have the ‘channels’ marked with buoys) to get away from pretty much all of the tourists, and out into some deeper water. I could have stayed there all day. We didn’t do nearly as much snorkeling as I would have liked on the trip (and no diving), so there may be better low-key places, but I feel this is a can’t miss if you want to see tons of fish with minimal hassle. Just please take care of the reef and call out those that don’t! Also, be sure to have an underwater camera for this place – we didn’t and regretted it.
7. Kailua Beach – Of all of the beaches we saw, Kailua Beach owned them all. At this point, it is the prettiest beach I have ever been to. Not known for amazing surfing (but if you are in Hawaii for that, you already know of the famous places to go), but great for avoiding the crowds at Waikiki, and so much prettier. You can also get a kiteboarding class or rent a sea kayak most weekends.
8. Take a LOT of pictures – We took close to 1000 pictures while we were in Hawaii, and I wish we had taken more. There are lots of great opportunities for panorama shots, so either get a panorama head for your tripod, or practice taking the right kinds of freehand shots to stitch together. All of the panoramas we got were done freehand, and while there are a few with minor issues, I think they turned out really well. Bring your camera with you everywhere – and if you plan on doing some snorkeling, invest in at least a cheap disposable underwater camera – something we didn’t do but I wish we had.
9. Ask a local – Want to know the best place to get a killer burger?(The Shack) Want to know the best unknown hike to do?(I say Ka’iwa Ridge) Want to know where you can find a sweet waterfall to jump off of?(Maunawili Falls) Ask a local! Pretty much everyone we ran into was really friendly, and they know the best places on the island, so ask them for advice on things to do! Just remember to say “Mahalo!” (that’s Hawaiian for thank you)
10. Pack light – While this can be said for any trip, it is doubly true for Hawaii. If your intention is to do as much outdoor, laid back stuff as possible on your trip (i.e. little/no need for dressy clothes), you really only need a few items. Other than maybe one change of nicer, go-out-at-night clothes, a bathing suit and shirt will work for the whole trip. Bring sandals for walking around/hanging out at the beach, and sturdy shoes for hiking. That’s all you need. Nobody should ever wear jeans during the day in Hawaii. Maybe it is just me, but seriously people, this is freakin’ Hawaii. Socks too – unless you are hiking (and wearing shoes that require socks!).