While we spent the majority of our time on Oahu at the lovely Aulani in Ko’Olina, we couldn’t pass up the chance to see more of the island.
It was our first visit to Oahu and we absolutely loved it—especially the diversity of experiences it offered. You could no doubt pass an entire week around Waikiki alone, though we left it for another time. Instead, we took one daytrip to the east side of the island to go snorkeling at Hanuma Bay and see a bit of that coastline, and then spent three nights in an apartment near Sunset Beach on the North Shore.
Here are some highlights…
Having seen photos of Hanauma Bay, I was keen on checking it out. We decided to make it a daytrip from the Aulani (above, where we stayed)—it’s about an hour’s drive.
A volanic crater that formed tens of thousands of years ago has since filled with water, one of its walls exposed and lost to the sea, to form a beautiful bay full of marine life. However, it’s also filled with people! Close to Waikiki, the bay is a major tourist destination and the parking lot at the rim of the crater does get full early in the day. I’m always grateful that Aron is able to carry so much at these times—we relied on him to park far away and basically perform sherpa duties for me and the kids. If you make the trip out there, be sure to go early.
Once you’re inside the park, you wait in line to buy day-passes and watch a short video about the history and protection of the reef. Then you can choose to walk or take a shuttle down to the bay.
Though the crowds were discouraging, the beach is still wide enough that you can easily find some space to spread out. The snorkeling was good in spots and disappointing in others (so many people still stand on the coral—it’s horrifying!), but if you’re confident in the water and can get away from the shore you’ll be rewarded. I think we saw three turtles along with a variety of tropical fish. We stopped at the information hut in the middle of the beach and asked about the topography there—it was a great help.
It rained while we were on the beach; I tucked our things under a tree and we continued to play in the sand. It quickly passed and we had another chance to admire the view down into the crater on the way out. And if you do decide to stick it out, the crowds seem to thin considerably after the rain. There are limited services there, but you’re best off bringing a lunch if you plan to stay.
We didn’t, so afterward, we drove up the coast in search of lunch. We decided on a shrimp truck parked beside Sandy Beach or “break-neck” beach, and took our meal to the sand to watch the bodysurfers in the violent waves. At one point Hudson started walked down the beach the tiniest bit and a lifeguard quickly darted out to warn us that he should always be within an arm’s reach on that beach. He pointed to the firetruck and ambulance stationed there as a precaution and mentioned that they routinely have broken necks there—thus the nickname.
The sights all along the coast were gorgeous. The water was rougher on this side of the island (it’s calmer in the winter), and there were storm clouds in the air.
We stopped for shave ice at Island Snow—oddly enough our first time on this trip—and then drove back toward Kapolei by way of the tunnels through the Ko’Olau mountains. The views of the green slopes and verdant valley were beautiful! The topography on this side of the island reminded us of the Hawaii of Jurassic Park—so green and dramatic.
That daytrip was early in our stay, but after we wrapped up our time at the Aulani, we hit the road again.
My camera had actually stopped working (awful!), so we started by renting a camera from a spot in Honolulu before picking up some food.
First stop: Mitsu Ken’s. Our guide book did not steer us wrong when it said that we would be left dreaming about the sweet, sticky fried garlic chicken from there once we tried it: it was amazing! And so cheap! It ended up being Aron’s favorite thing he ate on the island.
And of course we also stopped at Leonard’s. This bakery, famous for its malasadas (fried Portughese doughnuts) is a must for any visit to the island. Golden brown on the outside and light & fluffy on the inside, each malasada is made to order with a choice of toppings (plain sugar, cinnamon sugar, or li hing—salty dried plum) or fillings (custard, chocolate, a seasonal flavor, or haipua—coconut).
They’re fresh, hot, and wonderful. I think we both particularly liked the cinnamon sugar and I loved the haipua.
It was a heavy dose of fried fare, so it was probably well-timed that our next stop was for a hike: there’s a well-traveled 1-1/2-mile trail through beyond the University’s botanical garden that leads into Manoa Valley to Manoa Falls.
Our car was once broken into during a trip to Europe—while we took a quick dip in the Meditteranean—so we are always very cautious about stopping between destinations with all of our suitcases in the trunk. We were frankly relieved that the parking lot at the start of the trail was paid and had an attendant—especially when we had to open the trunk to get out the bug spray (a must if you do the trail). There was a small store and a restaurant, so we stocked up on water before hitting the trail.
It was well marked and fairly easy to follow—4-year-old Hudson was able to walk the whole way, but it definitely took some encouragement at the end. A game to see who could spot the falls first was a big help.
A large group of people were leaving just as we arrived which meant that for a brief moment we had the falls to ourselves. The ascent to the pool (a scramble over rocks) was a bit tricky, so Aron and I took turns holding Skyler while Hudson came with me into the pool. The cool water felt wonderful—it was humid and steamy on that hike.
After we got back in the car, Skyler took a short nap as we drove up the highway toward the Dole Pineapple Factory—just under an hour beyond Waikiki.
We only stopped briefly to walk the grounds and get cones of Dole Whip (we didn’t even tell the kids about the possibility of riding the Pineapple Express train, although I’m sure they would have loved it). Basically, this is a nice stop for sweet treats and gifts (its main function) and some history of the pineapple on the island.
It also lends some context to the rest of the drive North. We passed through field after field of pineapples. We stopped by the side of the road to take some pictures at one point and I spotted tons of these giant snails!
We had made our reservations through AirBnB about a week before leaving for Oahu, so I feel so lucky that we got such a nice spot. There was only one surprise: Aron walked in first and came back downstairs with a bit of a panicked look before saying, in almost a whisper—there are fans all over. I don’t think there’s a/c. And there wasn’t.
It was a bit sticky at times and we felt a little sorry for Skyler who had to sleep in the middle of the day, but we were usually in wet bathingsuits, sitting outside anyway (though Hudson would get to watch a show). For my part, I kind of liked it.
The North Shore is famous for its huge winter-time swells (like the Bonzai Pipeline), but the ocean grows calm in the summer and the pace is perfect. We arrived just before sunset so we quickly headed back out to catch the day’s last light at Shark’s Cove. Beautiful in its own right, the rocky cove is inaccessible outside of summer and so held extra appeal.
Once the sun had dipped below the horizon, we walked across the street to a group of shrimp trucks—one had just opened. We loved the informality of the setting, eating under strung-up lights at picnic benches. (Shrimp trucks—and food trucks are a major part of the North Shore culture. We found it hard not to stop whenever we passed an appealing looking one.)
I feel like I have to add, however, that my main gripe about the wonderful food truck and plate lunch culture is all the waste: I felt so bad about how much paper and styrofoam and disposable ware we were served on throughout this trip—even at the resort!
Our apartment host had kids herself and it put us at ease about everyone being up early. She also had a baby gate for the stairs, a pack-and-play for Skyler, and some sand toys for the beach. And she made a suggestion that we head back to Shark’s cove to take turns snorkeling.
To the right of the cover were some small pools where the kids could play, look for hermit crabs and small fish, while we each went out separately. Aron took Hudson with him and they had a great time! (Poor Skyler wanted to go, too.)
The water here was so clear it made it much easier to see fish at depth—which was good because although the edges of the cove had lots of life, there was also enough surge that we kept him away from the walls (most confident swimmers would be fine and the vertical walls make this a great dive spot). Once Aron was done, I went out and Hudson stayed with Skyler in the shallow pools—it was one of the kids’ and our favorite spots.
We had passed by the main town on the North Shore, Haleiwa, on our way in but hadn’t stopped. It’s a nice mix of eateries and shops, however, so we drove back to take more of a look around and consider waiting in line for shave ice at the legendary Matsumoto’s. But we couldn’t stomach the idea—it was so long. It looks like they’ve closed the original 1910-site and are expanding into a new space next door.
Another place we stopped but ultimately decided to pass by was Waimea Bay. It’s a gorgeous curve of sand famous for big-wave surf in the winter (waves have reached heights of 30-50 feet as recently as 2009), but swimmable in the summer. There’s a rock that’s—clearly—very popular for jumping off. Across the road, you can also explore Waimea Valley park: 1800 acres of gardens with over 5000 species of tropical flora, and a waterfall with a lifeguard-maintained swimming hole.
Instead we found our way to Acaį bowls at a food truck and shared a Chocolate Haupia pie at Ted’s roadside eatery and then spent an absolutely perfect evening at Sunset Beach.
The waves were a little stronger than expected, but we walked down the shore a way to find a calmer spot where the bay curved. There were surfers on the breaks off-shore—including an impressive number of women and even some small kids. Such a great scene.
It was one of those sunsets where you can’t imagine the light getting any prettier, except it does… over and over.
The next morning we decided to drive further east to check out Turtle Bay. I admit I was especially curious after recalling that Forgetting Sarah Marshall was, in part, set there.
We were the first customers of the day at an incredible fruit stand—three vendors set-up under the banner of Kuhuku Farm just before Turtle Bay. There was tropical fruit of nearly every variety (and, for a somewhat steep price, it could all be yours).
Turtle bay was also mentioned as a good spot for snorkeling, and while the bay was shallow and very protected, the water clarity suffered—as did the coral. The shade structures are supposed to be only for guests, but the beach attendants seemed to have sympathy for us and let us set up camp there. We got the kids some food from the bar, and drinks for ourselves, before packing out our stuff to check out one other recommended shrimp truck and shaved ice spot.
I actually liked this spot more than Island Snow—and there were toys for kids!
That evening we paid one more visit to Shark’s Cove for what seemed like the ideal way to spend an evening with kids: swimming in the cove and an end-of-day snorkel, before crossing the street for low-key fish tacos, and crossing back once more for sunset on the rocks.
I could have played those days on repeat for a while more.
On the way back, we drove through Waikiki and took a quick look, but agreed we’d just have to come back! There’s so much more to see and do!
Have you been? What were your favorite stops?
P.S. Part one about our stay at Disney’s Aulani. Also, be sure to check out other recommendations from readers in the comments on this post. We were sorry to miss stopping at the Polynesian Cultural Center, for example. And we have hikes and boat rides and a visit to Pearl Harbor to put on the list as well.