In 2017, my corporate work brought me to San Francisco – which was already nearly halfway to Hawaii for me. So, after the conference, I jumped on a flight and made my way to Oahu. I had a fraternity brother from college who lived there with his girlfriend and their two dogs – and they helped me have the adventure of a lifetime on a tight budget. My buddy, Mike, previously worked as a dive master, and was also an avid explorer of the island. If you’re thinking of a trip to Oahu and would like some help – I’ll have Mike’s contact info at the bottom of this page!
Overall, the trip was incredibly affordable thanks to my friend’s connections around Honolulu and all of Oahu, a low cost AirBnB on the windward side of the island in a less tourist area, and the fact that aside from diving, gear and kayak rental, most activities were free or a negligible cost (<$10). Below were twelve highlights from my trip that I would recommend to anyone spending time on Oahu. Many travelers only spend a few days in Oahu before heading out around the other Hawaiian Islands, but I was there for an entire week and still left wishing I had more time!
1. Scuba dive on a sunken shipwreck
There are several shipwrecks in Oahu, Hawaii that are accessible for divers – and the Sea Tiger is one of the most visited – for good reason, as its still incredibly well intact. It was intentionally sank in 1999 as a marine and coral rehabilitation project. The ship rests in about 120′ of water, but the decks and structures are at about 90-100′. There are even a few areas to swim through the hull – below you can see me popping out from inside of the cargo hold. Make sure to consult with your dive leader about conditions and safety to penetrate any part of the wreckage, and only do so if you have the proper training and experience.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some of the abundant sea life that thrives around the wreckage – from massive schools of fish, to large sea turtles (we unfortunately witnessed two turtles working to, ahem, further the population), eagle rays, moray eels and even white tipped sharks. While there is not a whole lot of coral growth on the wreckage – don’t let that deter you. This was my first true wreck dive – and it was exhilarating to say the least. If you’re a SCUBA Diver, this should be at or the near the top of your list for your trip to Oahu.
2. Get (Safely) Up Close and Personal with Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles
These gentle giants, known as Honu, can grow to up to four feet and tip the scales at close to 300lbs. On nearly any dive in or around Oahu, you’ll likely get to see some of these majestic creatures floating by or resting along the sandy bottom. We were lucky enough to have sightings on both our wreck and reef dives. If you do get close – make sure not to touch or disturb the turtles – but if they bump into you, thats alright!
This dive was our second dive with the Waikiki Dive Center, and they made the trip safe, professional and a total blast. I even dropped my GoPro on one of the dives, and one of the Dive Masters was able to catch it before it fell to the bottom and out of reach. Overall – definitely a solid choice for your diving trip. The second dive was in a much more shallow area – only about 30 feet – so it wasn’t as intense as our previous dive to the wreck.
3. Or just enjoy the shallow reefs snorkeling
If you’re not SCUBA certified or the concept of breathing underwater just isn’t for you – don’t worry. There are no shortage of opportunities for world-class snorkeling around Oahu, and you shouldn’t have to look too far no matter where you are for some gear rentals. With abundant shallow reefs teeming with life and crystal clear water – you don’t have to dive deep to enjoy the underwater beauty.
We snorkeled at Electric Beach – a beach near the hydrothermal vent from a powerplant that results in warmer waters – and even more abundant sealife. And – if you know what you’re doing, you can swim down in front of the outlet just off the beach, and ride a fast underwater current back up to the surface. Make sure to watch for riptides and currents, always snorkel with a buddy or group, and make sure not to overdo it when snorkeling in Oahu. Also, make sure to use coral-safe sunscreen to help protect the coral from the damaging effects of traditional sunscreen.
4. Explore caves on the west side of the island
Caves probably aren’t the first thing that come to mind when you think about Hawaii. The volcanic lava flows that formed the island left behind tunnels and tubes that were further eroded by wind and water – and some are absolutely massive. Kaneana Cave is nearly 100 feet tall and about 450 feet deep – and it feels absolutely massive once you’re inside. Bring a headlamp and venture all the way back to find the few small tunnels that lead further into the rock – as long as you’re not claustrophobic.
To find Kaneana Cave, you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled along the Farrington Highway headed towards Kaneana Point – the westernmost point of the island. There’s just a simple concrete barricade on the side of the road, so you might pass it on your first attempt.
5. Then Walk through Tunnels to Lanai Lookout
Some might mistake these ‘underground’ passages as lava tubes – but they’re actually created by water flowing through the rock. You kind of have to just pull over off the highway near Lanai – or park at the parking area then head back up to the roadEither way – its a great experience and leads to you a spot known as Lanai Lookout, where you can watch gigantic waves crash against the shore and create ‘blowholes’.
The view once you pop out the other side of the tube at Lanai Lookout. Watch for some epic wave action!
6. Hike the Makapu’u Ridge above the Aquarium Used in the Set of ’50 First Dates’
Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore’s hit ’50 First Dates’ was filmed all over Oahu – but one spot in particular, the Sea Life Aquarium, can be seen from an epic hike along the Makapu’u Ridge above. You’ll pick up over 3,000 feet in elevation on the moderately difficult hike if you continue the entire length of the trail (3.5 miles each way), but we turned back after going about a mile down the ridge.
The exact details are fuzzy nearly 3 years later – but AllTrails has more information about the hike here. During the hike, you’ll get wild views of the coast, Rabbit Island, and more. You might even catch paragliders catching the updrafts and soaring above.
7. Then Immerse Yourself in Greenery with a Hike through the Rainforest
Once you get a little bit off the coast, you’ll get into incredibly lush tropical rainforests – and fittingly, will likely get rained on at some point during your hike. One of the most popular hikes just minutes from Honolulu is the hike to Manoa Falls – which I ironically never took a picture of. BUT, having worked around waterfalls back home quite often, the green became more memorable over the two years between visiting and writing this article.
Be ready for some challenging sections as well – there are sections that require using tree roots (and even some rope in places) to get up the slick rock along the trail. Be ready to work up a sweat – then cool off with the frequent rain. The shade from the tree canopy was also a nice break from the relentless sunshine everywhere else on the island.
8. Dangle from the Edge of the Lanikai Pillboxes
Above Lanikai sit the fortifications known as ‘Pillboxes’, which were built in 1943 as observation stations during WWII. Now, they’re a perfect spot to catch the views, and of course grab a forced perspective photo to make it seem like you’re hanging off the edge of the world. If you zoomed this picture out, you would see the ground about a foot beneath my feet. Either way, watch your step up on the hike up the steeply graded ridge to get there, and be careful when taking any picture near the edge of something.
9. Rent a Kayak and Paddle to the Moke Islands
Na Mokulua, often referred to as ‘the Mokes’ are two islets (ie small islands) about 3/4 mile off the coast of Lanakai Beach. They’re a few million years old – and also home to seabird sanctuaries, so be sure to watch where you are walking, and avoid restricted areas. While its tempting to enjoy a sunset from the island’s beach, doing so would mean paddling back in the dark – so don’t give in!
With the currents and wind, the 1.5 mile roundtrip was tiresome – I recommend getting a double kayak as we did so that you can alternate taking short breaks and avoid getting pushed around (or out to sea). There are a lot of kayak rental places available in the town nearby – and they have foam rollers as well as straps so that you can transport the kayak to the beach. To my recollection, it was about ~$40-50 for a 24 hour rental of the two-person kayak.
10. Have an Iced Coffee on the Deserted Leeward Beaches
Oahu is commonly split up into a few different sections – the Windward Coast (east side), the North Shore (sort of the north cap of the island) and then the Leeward Coast (the west side) shown below. Often times, the windward and north shore beaches get more attention due to the bigger waves ad lusher scenery – but that means the leeward beaches can be near deserted. I actually rented an AirBnB on the leeward coast in the town of Waianae – which was in a room of a larger shared home, with other travelers, a knowledgeable host – and plenty of beach and snorkel gear to loan. The quick access to the empty beaches just minutes away was an awesome perk considering the room was around $40/night.
These iced coffees quickly became a staple of my trip, as they were available island-wide, less than $2, and pretty darn good. Enjoying one on the leeward Makaha or Waianae beaches should be a moment to put on everyone’s list of things to do in Oahu. Afterward, you can also make your way up to Kaena Point – the westernmost part of the island, where the Leeward Coast meets the North Shore.
11. Hike (and climb a little) to the Pirate Flag Above Makaha Beach
Once you’ve downed some coffee down on the beach, you can take a short but challenging hike (and/or climb) up to the flag pole on Turtle Rock along the beach. It rises 164 foot above the water – but getting up there is a nice challenge!
Once you’re there’ you’ll have panoramic views around up and down the beach, with the mountains in the background. And of course, the Pirate Flag.
12. Eat Poke. Lots of Poke.
Poke is a diced raw fish dish, usually over rice or vegetables, with a variety of different toppings and sauces available. I kid you not – I even had Poke with french fries. While it sounded like a good idea at the time – I’d recomend sticking with more traditional interpretations – like the one below we found at a food truck along the North Shore. I probably ate my weight in fish that week – and I don’t regret it.