My name is Jennifer Scott and I’ve lived in Hawai’i for ten years. I’ve lived on O’ahu the whole time, so I’m afraid I’m not much help for the other islands, except to say they are all unique and interesting and you can’t possibly go wrong visiting any one of them!
Must go in Hawaii
This is probably the place people are going to ask you about when you get home, so you may as well take a day and soak it all in. This is what I like to call “postcard” Hawai’i, with the Diamond Head views, the shallow, swimmable beaches, and the famous landmarks.
It’s a really expensive area, but it’s a beautiful place to just walk around when the weather is nice (which is often). Bring a towel—when you get bored of walking, just chill on the beach for a while!
The North Shore is famous for being a sleepy surf town, and it’s definitely where some of the best waves are on the island if you want to give surfing a try!*
Haleiwa and nearby Waialua are lousy with fun things to do: great beaches, tasty shrimp trucks and restaurants, shave ice stands, and funky little surf shops. This is also where the Polynesian Cultural Center and Waimea Valley Adventure Park are located, which are both pretty great, if a little bit touristy.
*Note: if you’re going in the winter, waves on the North Shore can easily get to be 20-25ft high, so if you’re a beginner (or even intermediate), stick to the south!
To be fair, you’ll probably be here anyway, but Honolulu is still an interesting place to spend some time. In a mere ten minutes, you can drive from the very urban Hawai’i Maritime Museum at the harbor (right next to the famous Aloha Tower Marketplace) to the Hawai’i Nature Center. The center is a remote way station renowned for its excellent hiking trails. And that’s if you don’t swing through Chinatown on your way there!
Everything is pretty densely packed in Honolulu, so you’ll have no problems finding and transporting yourself to all sorts of interesting places. Go nuts!
Must Do in Hawaii
Climb Le’ahi a.k.a. Diamond Head
Even if you’re not a hiker, the Diamond Head hike will take you maybe two hours to do, costs under $10 for admission and parking, and the view of the coast from the top can’t be beat.
It can get a little slippery in some parts, since it’s surprisingly dusty and dry, so don’t wear your beach shoes, and make sure to bring a light for the dark, tunnely parts. If you go in the winter, keep an eye out for humpback whales!
Seriously, walk everywhere you can, especially in the cities. Undoubtedly, you’ll find some neat new shop or restaurant, or you’ll find a cute forgotten little beach or park, or (worst case) you’ll just have a nice little walk in the sunshine.
Maybe you’ll get too close to Manoa and end up in the woods, which are also beautiful and lack any large predators. Don’t look at your watch; you’re on aloha time now.
Go Snorkeling (or Parasailing, or Surfing, or…)
Hawai’i is an ocean lover’s paradise, so get out on that water! Hanauma Bay is the single best place to snorkel, hands down, but you need to get there early.
Surfing is tough, but fun, and parasailing will get you a great view of the coast. You can also boogieboard, kiteboard, or just splash around in the shallows. Point is: you’re on a tiny little island—get wet!
Must Eat in Hawaii
I don’t mean “go to a luau” because they’re usually kind of hokey. But luau foods are all uniquely Hawaiian grinds* and are worth a nosh.
Find a plate lunch place (they’re everywhere) that does kalua pork and cabbage, chicken long rice, lomi lomi salmon, poi, and haupia and chow WAY down. So ono**! Warning: poi is an acquired taste, so don’t be alarmed if you totally hate it.
I’m going to pause so you can get all of your “ewww’s” out of the way. Better? Good! On the mainland, most people think of Spam as this scary, salty mystery meat.
In Hawai’i it’s a staple of the beloved Spam musubi, which consists of a slice of fried Spam over rice and wrapped in seaweed. If you’re feeling brave, try it–you will NOT be disappointed, and it might just change your outlook on Spam.
Hawai’i has a very diverse population, and this is definitely reflected in the food establishments available. One of the best ways to get a wide variety local food options for cheap is by getting a plate lunch.
There are all sorts of flavors (popular ones are chicken katsu, curry beef, kalbi short ribs, and the loco moco), but they all come with two scoops rice, one mac salad (or vice versa), and they cost only a couple bucks a pop.
Li Hing Mui
Li Hing Mui is a sweetly tart reddish-brown powder made out of dried, pickled plums. And when applied to your favorite chewy candies like Sour Patch Kids or gummy bears, it instantly makes them even better.
You can also buy the dried plums themselves and chew the red, leathery fruit skin off the pit, which sounds awful, but I swear it’s the absolute best.
Cheap Travel Tips For Hawaii
The heaviest traffic to Hawai’i is over summer and winter holidays, so if you can plan your trip there any other time of the year, the airfare will be significantly cheaper.
Renting a car can get pricey, and traffic is pretty awful, but luckily the bus is a fine and relatively cheap way to get around the island.
If you want more flexibility and don’t mind getting drizzled on by a freak rain (and there are always freak rains—those rainbows don’t just come out of thin air!), renting a moped or bicycle is also a great, scenic way to get around the city, and cheaper than a car.
There are basically zero budget hotels on O’ahu, but there are a growing number of hostels and couch-surfing opportunities available in Honolulu and BONUS you get to meet locals who can show you all the fun haunts. Definitely a great way to save money and experience the local flavor, if that’s up your alley!
If you want cheaper souvenirs, mosey on up to the Pearl Harbor area and check out the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet on the weekend (or Wednesday) for all sorts of neat stuff ranging from cheapo shell leis all the way up to beautiful koa wood carvings, as well as all the beach towels, sarongs, novelty t-shirts, and slippahs you could ever want.