Hawaiian Travel Highlights: Oahu

5 years ago

When my daughter and son-in-law moved to Hawaii, we thought for sure we'd go visit because... Hawaii! But no. Something, or a lot of somethings, came up and we never managed to plan a trip. I had pretty much decided we wouldn't be able to go before they got orders to another duty station -- and then Jenn told me she was pregnant. Well that changed everything because no matter what might come up -- I was going to be there when my grandchild was born. No. Doubt. About. It.

Image: smiely via Flickr


TW had been to Hawaii before and tossed out long lists of things she thought I should see and a short list of things she would like to see. I checked out a ton of Oahu travel guides and made a list of possibilities in my head but to tell you the truth, there wasn't anything really compelling that I had to see. I just wanted to cuddle my grandson and spend time with my daughter.

Which was all well and good until my plane landed and we started to drive toward Kailua -- then everything changed. I think one of the first things I said to TW was, "It feels like home." Because it did. Not home as in Chicagoland (obviously) or home as in anywhere in the southern US. It felt like the Philippines and Panama and the southern US all rolled into the perfect place for me to live.

At first, I assumed it was the jet lag, the huge change in weather from Chicagoland and seeing my daughter that made me so happy to be there. But after a few days I realized, I just plain loved it there. Julie Godar teased me before I went on vacation, saying I might decide to never come back. She was closer to the truth than she realized. If it wasn't for the five kids living on the mainland and the fact that JMP would be moving back to the mainland relatively soon, I'd still be there right now.

For the first two weeks of my visit, I stayed with my daughter and son-in-law in their little house in Kailua, on the windward side of the island. Waking up in the morning, I'd take a cup of coffee to the back patio and at 7am the neighbors would begin playing ukulele music and singing. What a perfect way to start the day. (Here in Chicagoland -- my neighbors do not play the ukulele, to put it mildly.)

While I was planning our trip and looking for places to stay, I came very close to just grabbing a room in some big fancy hotel in Waikiki. Boy am I glad I didn't do that. Not just because I'd have been a half hour drive from JMP but because being on the windward side of the island is so much more restful than being in the bustle of Waikiki or Honolulu. I never really understood why they chose to live in Kailua when they both worked on the other side of the island -- after visiting, I understand completely.

We stayed in this Aloha Studio, in Kailua and I highly recommend it, or the cottage, to anyone visiting Oahu -- particularly if you want to stay someplace outside of the bustling noise and traffic of Honolulu and Waikiki. Our studio had everything we needed for our stay and it was super-clean. While it's not beachfront, it's a five minute walk (and a nice five minute walk at that since you can stop at the Kalapawai Market and grab a great cup of coffee to take with you) to Kailua Beach Park and less than a mile to Kailua town.

In Kailua, Cinnamon's, Boots & Kimo's and Moke's Bread & Breakfast all serve really amazing breakfasts. At Cinnamon's, the corn and blueberry pancakes were terrific and their cinnamon rolls are to die for. At Moke's, you must order the Lilikoi Pancakes. Boots & Kimo's serves an awesome Macadamia Nut Pancake -- and I don't even LIKE macadamia nuts.

Agnes's Portuguese Bake Shop makes awesome Macao Manapua. I'm disappointed that I never had a chance to try the Malassadas from this shop or from Leonard's. I kept thinking I'd see a Leonard's truck when it was convenient to stop and that just never happened. The Morning Brew serves a nice breakfast and their coffee is good. The breakfast pizza was too much for me to eat and my daughter gave it two thumbs up when I took half to her. We went early and it was almost empty, which made for a nice change from all of the other restaurants we visited for breakfast.

Boston's North end Pizza is excellent and so is Los Garcia's, if you want Mexican food. Maui Taco and Teddy's Bigger Burgers are pretty darn good, too. (At Teddy's, consider peanut butter on your burger. TW says it's fabulous!)

Enough about Kailua, we visited lots of other places that you shouldn't miss if you have a chance to visit Oahu.

On the leeward side of the island, head toward the north shore and check out these spots:

The Royal Birthing Stones are amazing. When I told my daughter and son-in-law about this spot, they didn't believe it existed. Or that it was a tourist destination. It's in every tour guide I read but it's probably easily overlooked because it's a little quirky. I'm glad we went -- and sacrificed a onesie to the gods.

Close by is the Dole Plantation -- we went for the Dole Whip, though you can find it in other locations around Oahu. (In Kailua, I recommend the YogurtMama -- get the Dole Whip and add popping balls - you won't be disappointed.) I think this is the best place to try it for the first time (for those of you who are like me and have never tried it at Disney theme parks on the mainland.) People love the pineapple maze but we didn't take the time for that -- maybe on our next trip, we will.

Once you reach the North Shore, visit a shrimp truck in Haleiwa. I recommend Giovanni's and prefer the hot & spicy but you might want to take the advice of others and order the scampi with the hot sauce on the side. Then, stop at Matsumoto's for Shave Ice, the line will be long but it moves quickly and it's yummy. (There's free parking behind the North Shore Marketplace, near the CVS and the walk is easy -- much easier than trying to find parking at or right next to Matsumoto's, particularly on a weekend or a holiday.)

The Polynesian Cultural Center is fascinating, in part because it's run by volunteers from BYU. TW and I had the Ambassador package and a BYU student named Kelsey showed us around the park. She was very sweet and I'm glad my first visit to the park included my very own guide. The park isn't big but shows about each island run about thirty minutes long. Since we arrived around 90 minutes after it opened, we only saw a few shows before it was time to for our luau and the evening show, Ha: Breath of Life. Fire dancing, hula, a creation story -- it was a great show and I'm really glad we spent the day here. It was worth the very expensive tickets.

Also on north shore, is the Turtle Bay resort. This is gorgeous beach and a nice place to stop for a bite to eat. My son-in-law took me and my daughter there for brunch on Mother's Day - the food was excellent. We sat right on the beach and watched the paddle boarders. It was a great way to spend our Mother's Day.

The Donkey Ball Chocolate outlet on the way back from the PCC and Turtle Bay is worth a stop, too. Get the fire balls or the blue balls, skip the salty balls -- everyone was disappointed with those.

Since you visited the North Shore, you should drive around the coast at the south end. From Kailua, make your first stop Sweet Home Waimanalo for lunch or dinner. It is easy to overlook this little cafe and I'm glad I checked it out online after we'd driven past it a few times. They have a rooftop garden, serve locally grown produce and meats, and strive to be a zero-waste restaurant. And the food - oh my goodness. We ordered everything from fish tacos to Kalua pork to Portuguese sweet potatoes to cornbread and it was all excellent.

Stop at Ka Iwi and hike to the Makaapu lighthouse. We didn't make it all of the way -- too hot, no water, I'm old and Jenn was very very pregnant. We got about halfway and turned around but the views were beautiful and I'd love to go all of the way on our next visit.


Next stop -- the Blowhole for some amazing photos.

I highly recommend snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. I was a little worried about the mixed reviews on Yelp but I have nothing but great things to say about our experience. We arrived early, otherwise the parking is full and you can't access the park, and had a great time. Neither the beach or the water were too crowded and we saw a ton of fish. We brought my daughter's friend Steph, who is not a fan of snorkeling or fish or coral reefs, and she loved it, too.

Don't skip the hike to the top of Diamond Head It's not an easy hike and you should carry at least one bottle of water per person but it's worth the climb -- and I do mean climb. TW was very grouchy with me for making her go to the top -- but she loved going down and was ready to do it all over again. I wasn't. Thankfully, she was happy eating a shave ice and bird watching in the park.

We had a great time exploring the Bishop Museum. The only thing we missed here was the Planetarium and I'm very sorry we didn't have time for that. All of their other buildings and exhibits were fabulous. Johnny Mac Pippin enjoyed the Sesame Street exhibit a lot. Really, he did!

Need souvenirs? Try the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet on Wednesday or weekends. 7 t-shirts for $20 and lots of ukuleles to strum. Hilo Hattie's is interesting but expensive. Go but only so you can say you've been there. Bailey's is a fascinating shop - dusty and full of old stuff, mostly old Hawaiian shirts. I loved it.

The Rainbow Drive-in is said to be one of President Obama's favorite places to eat. Their plate lunch was good but I didn't find it any better than plate lunches at other restaurants around the island. Don't overlook Zippy's -- the Hawaiian plate lunch chain. TW and I stopped in for a late dinner and were very pleased with everything we ordered.

As you're driving down the Pali Highway, because at some point you will drive down the Pali Highway, don't forget to stop at the Pali Lookout -- take a jacket because it's freezing here. The winds, I cannot over-emphasize this, the winds are STRONG. I shivered all three times I stopped there but it was worth it. The views are amazing.

Last but not least, a not-very-touristy suggestion. If you're a DIY or environmentalist type of person, then you really should drop by Re-use Hawaii and take a look around. I heard about it from Xoelle who is building an art studio in her backyard with materials she purchased there. This was one of my favorite places in Oahu -- seriously.

Oahu really is my new favorite place in the world. Why does air travel have to be so darn expensive? I can't wait to go back.

Have you been to Oahu? What are your favorite places? Could you see yourself living there?

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