If you’ve vacationed to Hawaii, chances are you spent $3000 for a week for overpriced water, expensive ocean front hotels in Waikiki and mediocre food at fine dining costs and inflated spa rates. While this is the experience Hawaii wants to sell you to maximize the profits of the tourism industry Hawaii relies on, this is no representation of Hawaii.
Make a local friend or have a local tour guide. I mean don’t hire one from a tour agency. Find a genuine local friend who will show you the sites.
Don’t stay in once place. IF you plan on staying in Waikiki, try just to go for 2 or 3 days on the weekend so that you are close to nightlife, beaches and shopping. Seeing Koolina, the North Shore and Kailua are all beautiful options. Check Airbnb for houses to rent instead of expensive hotels. I generally would avoid waikiki but it doesn’t hurt to stay a couple days.
Avoid touristy stuff that street hustlers sell you like luaus, parasailing, pub crawls, canoe rides, etc.
You can rent a car which is convenient, but if you are on a budget, the bus system is efficient to get everywhere you need to. Renting cars in Hawaii is more expensive than other states.
bucket list things to do
Eat Hawaiian food. “Ono’s” is rated as one of the top places to eat at, but I prefer the Lava Rock Special at “People’s Cafe” downtown, and you can order side orders ala carte. The curry and squid luau is also particularly really good (luau leaf cooked with coconut milk) and if you want something a little more local try “Highway Inn.”
Go snorkeling. At 6 am at Electric Beach there are always dolphins here every morning and it is one of my favorite snorkeling spots. Get passed the shore break and you’ll find a surplus of marine life among the water pipe exiting out into the ocean. But be sure not to swim in front of the pipe where the water exits, as it will push you out to sea. People will warn you there are reef sharks but I have never seen any and there have never been attacks. Besides, reef sharks are generally harmless. It’s great whites and tigers you have to watch out for. I say avoid Sharks Cove as it is touristy. I’ve enjoyed snorkeling Waimea Bay but have been told it’s a dangerous spot. It had really beautiful reef life when I went. Just stay away from deeper waters and past pinballs (the surf spot.) Although Hanauma Bay is a tourist spot as well, it isn’t too bad of a snorkel spot. Try to go at 10 am when the sun is nice before the crowd on a less busy day like a Tuesday and go outside the reef with an experienced diver. The insides have been damaged over the years by mass tourism. The outside of the reef is untouched. I’ve seen turtles and seals and sharks here. Because sealife is so abundant, I believe it attracts sharks. Just stay close to the rock wall and you will be fine. If you go on a day when there is waves, it will be too murky to see anything, as the dusty sand is fine at Hanauma Bay and clouds the water.
Experience Hawaiian fine dining. I recommend Hokus for Sunday Brunch. The whole fried fish for dinner is also one of my favorites and for $150 can feed 4 people with all the sides. Although it is a bit pricey, all brunch’s in Honolulu are generally expensive and this is one of the best apart from Orchids at the Halekulani, so budget for a nice ocean front Sunday experience. Alan Wong’s is a MUST HAVE and also one of my favorite restaurants. A new restaurant I especially love is the Vintage Cafe at Alamoana Mall. It is a “secret society” themed restaurant I would budget $300 per guest for dinner. Inside the restaurant are millions of dollars of priceless art work, including 18 original Piccasso’s.
Do the local hikes. Some popular local hikes are Aiea Loop Trail, Pill Box, Koko Head, Ice Ponds, Olomana, Maunawili Wili and the Hawaii Loa Ridge Hike. I also recommend driving Tantalus drive as it is beautiful drive and don’t forget to take a drive around the island to the North Shore to hike the Boy Scout trail in Pupukea. Koko Head is appx 30-60 minutes of non-stop uphill track. This is popular among fitness enthusiasts. If you have time for an all day I hike I would to the Hawaii Loa Ridge Hike. Often I hike 1-2 hours upwards and turn around as it is a 6 hour hike. But if you have all day it’s a beautiful ridge that starts on one end and you finish by peaking the ridge and following the trail down to the other end of the mountain. Aiea Loop trail is appx. 4 miles but easy enough for small children. Olomana can be vigorous, as you have to climb to get to the first peak. I haven’t done all 3 peaks because my friends always slow me down unfortunately. 😦 Ice Ponds is a great hike for kids. It’s only 15 minutes on a paved trail then another 10 minutes climbing through mud with ropes down into a valley where the waterfall is located. Check out “Island Trails” for some secret advanced trails on YouTube.
Go to the sandbar. Make some local friends and make your way out to Kaneohe for drinking on the water. If you are military you can rent boats for $50 a day.
Hit shore break for some body boarding or some body surfing. The 2 best shore break spots are Waimea on the North Shore and Sandys on the East side. If you’re not an experienced swimmer please be cautious, these waves are unforgivable. The first time I did shore break I was with my 7 and 8 year old nephews. If they can rush overhead shore break, I guess so can I. ;/
Experience the local cafes. Some of my favorite cafes are Yogurstory on Keeaumoku. Some of the best dishes are their specialty waffles, but I especially love their adobo big fat pig fried rice, and their prime rib loco moco. Bogarts Cafe in Diamond Head, always has a line outside, and has a large menu from bagel breakfast sandwiches to specialty waffles and pancakes to shrimp plates and strawberry salads and acai bowls. Something for everyone. Fresh Cafe on Queen St. is a great healthy spot with a wide variety or teas and salad and bagel sandwiches. My favorite is the pesto pasta with a pesto turkey bagel sandwhich. Kalapawai in Kailua is amazing if you’re going for breakfast deli style or the evening for dinner specials and wine tasting. My favorite is the crab cakes with spiced marmalade and the ricotta spinach stuffed chicken. If you’re bugging for Korean plate lunches I would go to Dong Yang all the way in Wahiawa, perhaps on a drive home from the North Shore. For $6 the giant plates are enough to feed 2 and this place is a local favorite spot for most.
Grab some Japanese Food and sushi. Hawaii has some of the best Japanese influences and it shows in the variety and quality of restaurants available. 3 of my favorite spots are Naru Izakaya, Morio’s and Nobu if you are willing to spend the buck. Nobu is higher in quality in Honolulu compared to their sister restaurants in San Diego, LA and Las Vegas. For late night quality sushi, Evergreen Korean Hostess bar offers bomb sashimi plates + they have karaoke (:
Hit the ramen bars. 3 best ramen spots are Agu if you like tonkotsu rich broths, Nakamura if you are in for oxtail, and one of my favorite late night spots is Korean fusion Taiyo. Kai use to be my favorite until they shut down. The owner and cooks were all from Japan. I think poor marketing and location did them in. Don’t forget to get some ramen nabe @ Ichirki one of my favorite restaurants around. They have 3 locations in Alamoana, Pearlridge and now Kaneohe.
Nakamura Ramen oxtail fried rice and gyoza combo
Taiyo gyoza ramen combo and kimchee fried rice
Hit the LOCAL bars. NOT the tourist bars. There is a beer brewery owned by the former bartender at Nobu’s called Pint and Jigger. It’s over in Makiki and has a cool hipster crowd, delicious culinary appetizer bites and an amazing selection of beer. Hideaway Bar is one of my favorite dive quiet spots if you are looking for rock music, pool, tattoo’d and bearded men and pin up and rocker chicks, and cheap beers. Kelly Oneil’s is open late and is one of the few bars that has live rock bands. You can smoke in here as well, and they serve really great pulled pork sandwiches outside late night. A local favorite is Mai Tai bar at Alamoana if you want to hear live music in an open rooftop atmosphere.
Get a polynesian tribal tattoo… from Q @ House of Ink