Mention Hawaii to most people and images of tropical island beaches with beautiful girls in grass skirts doing the hula dance comes to mind. Or you might suddenly recall the iconic music of Hawaii 5-O and surfers riding big waves. All these have been ingrained into the consumers’ mind through years of Hollywood and marketing campaigns. However, Hawaii is much more than these stereotypical images, so read on.
Recently, we made a trip to Hawaii in August this year. Partly it was to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, where we came to Hawaii as part of our honeymoon trip back then. And partly because we got a free apartment stay in Honolulu, so we couldn’t pass this one up. There are no direct flights from Singapore to Hawaii and you have to either, fly to Japan/HK/Korea/Taiwan and transit from there, or fly to continental USA (usually Los Angeles) and transit from there. We chose the first option flying with JAL (or ANA if you prefer), transiting in Tokyo with a total flight time of around 15 hours excluding transit.
Hawaii is the 50th state of the USA and actually consists of several islands formed from volcanic activity. The state capital Honolulu is located on the island of Oahu. Now Oahu is not the largest island, being roughly twice the size of Singapore. However, it is the most important island in terms of commercial activity and where most of the state’s 1.4 million people live. The other main islands are Niihau, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawee and the largest island, Hawaii, where the state gets it’s name from.
The public transport system outside of Honolulu is not very well developed, consisting of only public bus services. Taxis are an expensive option to travelling long distances. So the best option is to rent a car if you want to move around Oahu. Car rental is relatively straight forward, where you reserve a car online through any of the car rental companies or pick up a car without reservation at the car rental counters. I didn’t try Uber but the costs should be similar to taxis. A taxi ride to downtown Honolulu from the airport costs around US$30-40 excluding tips which is typically 15-20% of the fare. The taxi system at the airport is also inefficient. You basically go up to the guy at the taxi line and tell him you need a taxi, he will radio for a taxi to come (if available), otherwise you have to wait. There are also shuttle buses from the airport which stop at certain hotels and scheduled stops in Honolulu which cost less (around US$16/person depending on company).
Within Honolulu, it’s easy to get around with the many bus and trolley services. You can pay per trip or buy day passes. If you are just planning to stay in Honolulu most of the time, then you don’t really need to rent a car, as you can get around using the various bus services. There is the public bus which is called TheBus, and there is the Waikiki Trolley which caters mainly to tourists and serves Honolulu and east Oahu, stopping at most of the tourist attractions.
How can anyone not know about this city? It has been featured in movies, TV shows, and countless billboards. It’s as cosmopolitan as any city in USA or Asia. With it’s large Asian and native Hawaiian population, you won’t feel like you left Singapore. As the state’s capital, you will find most of the population living here, and with it all the amenities and services that you find in any big city. There are several attractions within Honolulu that you can visit.
Probably the most famous beach in the world is Waikiki Beach where you find most of the tourists and locals hanging out, surfing, sun tanning, picnicking and all manner of beach activities. Beside it is also Kalakaua Avenue where you find most of the luxury hotels and designer brand stores. Further in is Kuhio Avenue with many restaurants, cafes and clubs. Most of the tourists will stay at one of the hotels near Waikiki Beach since this is where all the action takes place. However, if you think that Waikiki = Hawaii, then you are missing out on a lot more.
Ala Moana Beach
Another beach park which is further up north from Waikiki is Ala Moana Beach. It’s not as crowded as Waikiki Beach, but it’s just as great. The water is almost always calm because the beach is protected by an outer reef. This makes it a good spot for long-distance swimmers, stand-up paddle boarding and small children. There is a 25-foot-deep (7.6 m) swimming channel and a former boat channel that was dredged out of the reef.
Did you know that Hawaii was a monarchy and had a king and queen? ‘Iolani Palace was the royal residence of the last queen of Hawaii before it was annexed by the USA in 1898. Today the palace is a museum where you can learn about the history of Hawaii and their royal family. More information on the palace can be found here.
Everywhere you go, there is a Chinatown in most of the big cities over the world. There isn’t anywhere on Earth that the Chinese haven’t been. This Chinatown in Honolulu is no exception, except that it has to be the most authentic Chinatown I’ve seen. There are no glitzy tourist makeovers like what you find in Singapore or London. This is as rough and gritty as you can find; streets filled with numerous mom and pop shops selling all kinds of stuff from food, housewares, to lei (traditional Hawaiian flower garlands), provision shops and wet markets like what you find in Singapore in the 1960’s-70’s, homeless people hanging around some streets and using it as their personal toilet. All the while, locals and tourists mixing along the streets.
Besides the brand name stores along Waikiki Beach, there is the world’s largest opened-air shopping mall called Ala Moana Center. If you are a shopaholic, this place would be paradise for you. Filled with shops from luxury to mid range brands, restaurants, and a huge food court, you can easily spend 1-2 full days here just shopping. Certain designer brands are much cheaper here in the USA compared to Asia, and if you shop carefully, you can score a huge discount.
Besides Honolulu, the rest of Oahu offers more sights and places to explore. Many people only know of Waikiki, but there are countless other beaches throughout the islands too where you can swim with the dolphins and turtles. In this section, I will introduce the sights outside of Honolulu. Most of them can be reached by TheBus, but it takes a long time, sometimes more than 1 hr of bus ride just to get to 1 spot, and the frequency of the buses are quite limited. Thus, you would be wasting a lot of time waiting and sitting in a bus, limiting the number of sights you can see in a day. Renting a car is the best option in terms of time and money. A compact car costs less than US$80 a day, and if you are travelling in a small group, the shared costs of the car and gas (the Americans don’t call it petrol like we do in Singapore, they call it gas) would be worth it. For parking charges, if you are within Honolulu, parking is not free unless it’s a Sunday where some areas are free parking. Outside of Honolulu it’s usually free.
This is the most popular attraction in Oahu with millions of visitors coming every year to pay their respects at the USS Arizona memorial and to learn about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor which pulled the USA into WW2. There are many buses from Waikiki and Honolulu which make scheduled trips here, so you don’t really need a car to visit this place.
Every day around 1,300 free tickets to the USS Arizona memorial tour are given out on a first-come first-serve basis starting at 7am when the visitors center opens. So make your way there early in the morning to get those tickets, especially if you have a group with you. Otherwise, it costs US$7.50 each. The other museums are all paid visits only, but you can buy package deals if you want to see all the sights. Pearl Harbor is still an active military base, and visitors are not allowed to bring any bags inside. You can bring your camera, but no camera bags, handbags, backpacks, sling bags, etc. The marines at the entrance will be checking and refusing entry to those with bags. You can store your bags at the locker room for US$3 and retrieve them after you finished your visit. More information on Pearl Harbor can be found here.
If you are looking for some nature walks/hikes, Diamond Head is the nearest to Honolulu, just further south from Waikiki Beach. This is a volcanic cone that was formed some 200,000 years ago and is inactive now. If you don’t drive, you can get to Diamond Head by taking TheBus #22 or Waikiki Trolley Green Line. The bus stop is outside the crater rim and you have to walk through a tunnel that cuts through the crater wall. If you drive, then follow the road through the tunnel and there is a carpark inside the crater. Admission is US$5 per car load, or US$1 per person if you walk in.
Diamond Head Park closes at 6pm and signs say that they will lock the gates in the tunnel at that time. 4.30pm is the last time that they will allow visitors and you have to complete your visit by 6pm. We arrived at 4pm and had to rush through our hike, so plan your visit earlier if you don’t want to get locked in. More information on the Diamond Head trail here.
This is a popular bay where visitors can enjoy snorkeling and swimming with the fishes. It can be reached by shuttle bus (US$25 round trip including snorkel gear), or the public bus #22 ($2.50 per trip), or Waikiki Trolley Blue Line. The park is closed every Tuesday, so make sure you don’t plan a trip there while it’s closed. If you are driving, then be there by 7am as the carpark gets full very fast and they won’t allow anymore cars to go in. We found this out the hard way when we went there at 10am and were not allowed to enter. Entrance fee to the park itself is $7.50 per person and you can rent snorkeling equipment on the beach itself.
Just next to Hanauma Bay is Koko Crater. We did not visit this place but looked at it from the lookout point just across the highway from Hanauma Bay. Koko Crater has a horse stables and botanic gardens inside it. However, it is more famous for it’s Koko Head Stairs, which is a trail consisting of railway ties and track running straight up the side of the crater wall. I read that it takes around 90 minutes to hike up the 1,050 stairs. Read more of it here if you are interested in tackling it.
Just further down from Hanauma Bay is Halona Blowhole. The public bus doesn’t stop here so driving would be the best way to get here, otherwise the Waikiki Trolley Blue line stops here. There is a small carpark and lookout point where you can watch the blowhole in action. You are not allowed to go down to the blowhole as it’s quite dangerous, and people have been killed doing it.
Driving further on from Halona Blowhole, you will reach Makapu’u Lighthouse trail. This is in my opinion one of the most scenic hiking trails in Oahu with breath taking views. Again, I don’t think the public bus stops here and driving is the best option. There is a small carpark where you can park your car and start your hike. The trail is around 5km round trip, but the forward trip is all uphill and is totally unshaded and there are no amenities along the route and it’s wise to bring sun protection, water, food and go to the toilet before starting your hike. More information can be found here.
Nu’uana Pali Lookout
This is section of cliffs that face the northeast shore of Oahu. They call this the windward side and the wind is really very strong here. Don’t wear any hats or they’ll get blown off. This mountain pass has been used since ancient times because it’s the lowest point of the cliffs. The Nuʻuanu Pali was also the site of the Battle of Nuʻuanu, one of the bloodiest battles in Hawaiian history, in which Kamehameha I conquered the island of Oahu, The pivotal battle for the island occurred in Nuʻuanu Valley,where the defenders of Oahu, led by Kalanikūpule, were driven back up into the valley where they were trapped above the cliff. More than 400 of Kalanikūpule’s soldiers were driven off the edge of the 1,000-foot cliff to their deaths. This really sounds like a battle scene from the movie 300.
The North Shore
Besides Waikiki Beach, the other more well known beaches are found on the North Shore area. This is a stretch of coastline on the north western side of Oahu where you can find beaches and coves. Not many tourists come here because it’s so far from Honolulu, and you really need a car to drive here. There is TheBus (#52, #55) that comes here from Waikiki, but it takes more than 2 hrs to get here. Well, if you want to get away from the tourist crowd and hangout where the locals are, this is the place for you. The North Shore is also active during the winter months when the high surf rolls in and surfing competitions are held here.
Driving further up north from Shark’s Cove is Turtle Bay, so named because you can see green turtles here, although we didn’t see any when we were there.
We only visited these 2 places along the North Shore due to time constraints, but if you have more time, you can visit the many small surfing towns like Haleiwa and the many small bays. There is also Waimea Valley where you can swim in a pool at the base of a waterfall. Food trucks are also common here and you can sample the local food. The North Shore is as close as you can get to being Hawaiian.
State Veteran’s Cemetery
We passed by this place on the way to the Valley of Temples. This is a memorial park dedicated to soldiers and uniformed personnel. With the steep cliff like mountains as a backdrop, the place is really peaceful and suits the resting of souls.
Valley of the Temples
This is a memorial park on the eastern side of Oahu. Most people come here to see the Byodo-In temple, which is a replica of an actual 900 year old Japanese Buddhist temple in Uji near Kyoto. This one was built in 1968 to commemorate the 100 years anniversary of the first Japanese immigrant to arrive in Hawaii. Located at the foot of the 2,000 ft high Ko’olau mountains, the scenery is stunning. This temple was also used as a set in the filming of the TV series Lost. Driving is the best way to get here as TheBus only stops on the highway outside and you still have to walk a long way to the temple.
The area around Byodo-in Temple is a cemetery actually, so don’t go running around and stepping over someone’s grave. There are other smaller churches and temples but they are not as impressive as this.
Polynesian Cultural Center
If you are interested in the Hawaiian culture and Polynesian cultures in general, then this place will be of interest. Owned by the Mormons, this Polynesian theme park also provides jobs and training stints for the students from the nearby Brigham Young University. It features various shows throughout the day that showcases the various Polynesian cultures. The highlight of the visit is the luau dinner and a really grand evening show called Ha – Breath of Life.
Overall, this place would be great to spend a full day for families with kids, but it may not be your cup of tea if you are not into cultural stuff. Tickets can be purchased online through their website. Do note that this place is really far from Honolulu and just driving there takes 1 hr. Although the center opens at 12pm, try to be there earlier like 11am and have lunch at the food trucks and restaurant outside first. Their various performances start at 12pm and continue throughout the day at scheduled timings. We arrived late and missed some of the performances. All shows end around 5.30pm and the luau dinner starts, followed by the evening show which ends at 9pm. After that it’s a another 1 hr drive back to Honolulu in the dark, as the roads don’t have street lamps. If all this driving at night sounds daunting then book your tickets with shuttle bus transport which picks up and drops off at Waikiki. It saves you the hassle of driving in dark, unfamiliar roads. The Polynesian Cultural Center is also closed on Sundays, so consider other days to go there.
Waikele Premium Outlets
If shopping is your thing, then shopping at the factory outlets would certainly make your day. Not far from Pearl Harbor is the Waikele Premium Outlets. While not as big and impressive as it’s counterparts on mainland USA, this is a great place if you are looking for premium brands at a huge discount. Don’t expect the latest designs though. What you find here are the older or discontinued models, as well as, factory over runs, but still good bargains. They have a website where you can check the latest bargains before going.
There is a private shuttle bus service (from Roberts Hawaii) that goes to Waikele Premium Outlets and charges US$15 for a round trip, with pickup points along Waikiki. Otherwise you can take TheBus, but you have to change buses it seems, and can be more troublesome. Again, the best way is to rent a car and drive there, since you need the space to carry all your shopping loot back. Personally, we found that Ala Moana Center offered more variety, as well as, the latest designs. Prices could be the same, or less compared to the outlets depending on if the shop had a special discount sale.
A few words on personal safety. Although we didn’t encounter any bad incidents, minor crime is prevalent especially car break-ins. From reading the travel guide books and talking to the locals, it seems that car break-ins are very common in Hawaii. We may be accustomed in Singapore to leaving bags, phones, GPS, or other small valuables in the car while we go off for lunch or shopping, but these are an easy target for petty theft. Very often the cars that are broken into are the rental cars driven by tourists because they left something valuable inside in plain view. The places that have the most car break-ins are the car parks at the many tourist areas, especially Chinatown after dark. It’s also advised that if you want to hide your stuff in the trunk, do it before you arrive at the destination parking area. The thieves will be watching who hides their stuff in the trunk and break into the car after you leave.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and it will be helpful if you are planning to visit Hawaii. However, Hawaii is not just Honolulu and Oahu alone. There are the other islands, and my next blog is on Hawaii Island, or as it’s usually called, the Big Island, where we would come face to face with the forces of our planet which created the Hawaiian islands.