Few domestic destinations conjure up smiles like Hawaii, and the island state’s capital, on Oahu, easily tops many a traveler’s wish list. Demand, after all, is what keeps Honolulu hotel prices among the highest in the country. In so many ways, the Honolulu experience can be quintessentially touristy. But history, charm and enchantment still manage to reign supreme here, even in many of the most popular things to do and see. Here are some of our favorites, including a few that are a bit off the beaten path.
Skip the Boat, Take the Sub Honolulu is awash in memorable water adventures. But the folks at Island Water Sports Hawaii feature a unique contraption: an electric submarine scooter, which allows you to wade underwater while your head stays inside a viewing bubble. Tours typically begin with a brief catamaran cruise to a spot teeming with tropical fish, turtles and coral reefs, before you submerge for a colorful underwater show. Kids have to be at least 10 to enjoy this eco-friendly activity, but no previous diving experience is required.
Skip the Charter, Take the Paddle If you prefer staying above water, look for a boat experience that makes you do the work. Paddling a canoe can double as your dose of exercise for the day, and it links you to a traditional Hawaiian sport that goes back thousands of years. The team at Hawaiian Surf Adventures gets high marks for its double-hull canoe tours that begin with 30 minutes of land instruction before you hit the ocean for two hours or more. Picture paddling past striking areas, like affluent Hawaii Kai and beautiful Maunalua Bay, while spotting dolphins and whales. Along the way, instructors talk about local history and geography, and you won’t even notice that you’re breaking a sweat.
Skip the Hotel Buffet, Eat Like a Local “Helena’s has the best Hawaiian food, in my humble opinion,” says Suzannah Polivka, a mother of two who’s married to an Oahu native and who’s lived in Honolulu for the last six years. ‘I’m all about breakfast,” she adds, recommending spots like Cinnamon's for Guava Chiffon Pancakes, Koko Head Café for Cornflake-Battered French Toast, and Jack's – “a little hole in the wall” -- for biscuits and fried rice. When it’s time for dessert, “shave Ice is absolutely necessary,” she says, and “Uncle Clay's is the place to go. He makes his own syrups, all natural – no electric blue vanilla flavor will be found there. The Mango and Strawberry with the organic vanilla bean ice cream is so yum, and Uncle Clay is always there with a very welcoming hug and tons of aloha!”
Skip Waikiki, ‘Nuff Said If you want to be in the heart of all the sandy action, and among many fellow tourists, you can’t go wrong with Waikiki Beach. But don’t forget that wandering other golden sands often yields spectacular beaches that give you more elbow room. Polivka agrees. “Please skip the beaches in Waikiki,” she insists. “So many tourists come to our beautiful island and complain about it because they never leave Waiks. Instead, venture to Kailua, a beautiful sleepy beach town with tons of restaurants and two amazing beaches.”
Skip the Water, Take to the Skies Taking flight can give you a sweeping take on the beauty of Oahu. At Honolulu Soaring, a mainstay on Oahu’s North Shore, you soar in piloted motorless gliders, which seat one or two people. Flights can reach 3000 feet, offering sweeping views of Waimea Bay, the Waianae Mountains, Diamond Head and even Pearl Harbor and Honolulu itself. Enhance your flight with acrobatic loops or take a hands-on flying lesson. They’ll even install a GoPro camera to capture the views (and even your commentary) along the way. Honolulu Soaring operates out of Dilligham Airfield.
Skip the Whales, Spot the Sharks Sure, whale watching is a favorite pastime here, and they certainly are a spectacular sight. But while you’re visiting the North Shore, get up and close and personal with Galapagos and Sandbar sharks, instead. The experience takes you some three miles off shore before putting you inside a protective cage surrounded by Poly Glass windows. And the video and pictures you take when you’re coming face to face with these magnificent creatures will thrill for years to come. Check out Hawaii Shark Encounters, which focuses on shark conservation, based in the town of Haleiwa.
After Ala Moana, Visit Chinatown Even the locals rave about the Ala Moana Shopping center, a shopper’s paradise. But downtown is also home to Honolulu’s own Chinatown, where a variety of South Asian cultures that have played major roles in Hawaiian history converge. The 15-block area draws many locals daily to shop for unique wares and fresh meats and produce, and to savor authentic cuisine. This is also where you can visit a Buddhist temple, shop for jade and visit one-on-one with a Chinese herbalist.
Skip the Luau, Go Cultural Okay, play the archetypal tourist and do a luau once. But for a more enlightening alternative, visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. Here, the focus – aside from a great show and a big meal – is a vivacious lesson on a variety of Polynesian cultures.
Ships Ahoy, Visit a Lighthouse A handful of lighthouses near Honolulu can make for a memorable visit. The views of the water and surrounding islands are spectacular from historic Makapuu Point Lighthouse on Oahu’s southeastern coastline, as well as from the two-mile path that leads you there; jutting 400 feet above the water, it’s known for having the largest lens in the country. And when you go hiking in Diamond Head, look out for the Cliffside lighthouse that dates back 100 years.
Skip the Tour, Join the Hunt If you’re visiting Honolulu with a large group, the Great Ohana Hunt can be a neat alternative to your average guided tour. Here, you’re leading your own way on a scavenger hunt of sorts that has your team – at least 12 people have to participate – following maps, collecting clues and solving riddles. All the while, you learn history and trivia about Honolulu, Waikiki Beach and Hawaii, and you collect points that are cashed in for prizes at the end. This unique tourist option is customizable and makes for a great team-building exercise, too.
Skip the Beach, Visit a Museum Just a reminder: Honolulu is home to some of Hawaii’s best museums – well worth exploring between stints on the sand. When you visit Pearl Harbor (a must), check out the Pacific Aviation Museum, occupying two hangars; thousands of free walk-in tickets are also made available daily to tour the USS Arizona Memorial. The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum houses ancient artifacts, the Iolani Palace commemorates Hawaii’s last monarchs and the exhibits at the Honolulu Museum of Art are world-class.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of Honolulu hotel specials, as well as local deals at http://www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/hawaii/deals.