Green canopies, island attitude, sunshine and warm, clear water… Hawaii has long been a destination on my bucket list. I spent most of last year talking to my friends about going and finally, in the last week of 2016 I told myself my goal for 2017 would be to visit Hawaii.
Funnily enough, not even a day after I had told myself this, a message from a friend popped up asking if I wanted to go to Hawaii. Air New Zealand was having a sale and the dates worked out perfectly. Later that night, our flights were booked, we were giddy with excitement and in just 6 months, we were off to Hawaii.
Being the organisational freak lover that I am, I threw myself into planning. After scouring a few Hawaiian tourism websites for information, I knew that 2 weeks gave us time to do multiple islands and still be able to get plenty in. The main website I used was GoHawaii – it’s clear, concise and packed with information.
I settled on visiting Oahu – the main island – and Big Island (actually called Hawaii Island but to stop confusion it’s referred to as Big Island). Oahu was filled with plenty activities and sights, but having seen that I could visit the National Volcano Park and swim with Manta Rays on Big Island, I was sold.
Overlooking the Volcanic Crater in the National Volcanic Park
Since we would be spending the Fourth of July in Hawaii, I knew that this was peak season for tourists nationwide. This meant booking our accommodation over that week was top priority to ensure we didn’t pay too much. We had decided we would spend our Fourth in Waikiki as we figured that would be where the biggest celebrations were.
Anyone who has been to Hawaii will know how incredibly expensive accommodation in Hawaii is. I would have loved to have been able to afford to stay in one of the beachfront hotels (Moana Surfrider anyone!?), however having already spent half of my Hawaii budget on an unexpected trip to Bali I knew this wasn’t an option. I’m also always one for a bargain and this lead me to Airbnb (follow this link and sign up for $50NZD credit on your first booking and I get $30NZD when people sign up too!). We booked almost all of our accommodation via Airbnb and ended up paying $2300 NZD in total for both of us. We certainly could have paid less, as some of the accommodation was booked last minute however I was incredibly happy with what we spent.
As mentioned, we split our time between two different islands so our itinerary went somewhat like this:
Day 1-3: Arrive in Oahu, Hawaii and spend 2 nights in Waikiki
Day 3: Fly to Hilo, Big Island
Day 3-4: Explore Hilo
Day 5: Drive north from Hilo – stopped at Waikoloa for the night
Day 6: Drive to Kailua Kona
Day 6-9: Explore Kailua Kona
Day 9: Return to Oahu
Day 9-14: Explore Oahu
Day 15: Fly home
In this blog post, I plan to break down Hawaii into destinations visited and then cover the accommodation, activities and food spots in each place. There are still plenty of things I would love to do in Hawaii – it truly is a mecca of activities, good food and excellent shopping.
WAIKIKI – OAHU
Waikiki has the best of both worlds – plenty of shopping, great food and relaxed beaches. I think Waikiki is a fantastic destination that is well worth visiting, however I would definitely recommend hiring a car for your time there as exploring the rest of Oahu is a must – just be prepared to pay a hefty parking fee at your accommodation! Waikiki is a great spot to base yourself from with plenty of local attractions nearby.
We stayed in two different places in Waikiki, simply because we were there for an additional two nights before we flew to another island. We chose to stay at a low cost hotel for those first two nights and an Airbnb for our last 5 nights.
Firstly, we stayed at White Sands Honolulu for our first couple of nights – which was great! Around a block from the beach and the main strip of Waikiki, clean, tidy and also had a pool. It was opposite the international market too which was a huge bonus. Our first two days were just spent walking around and browsing, but White Sands was a great, budget accommodation.
Incredible Banyan Tree right in the middle of the International Market
Secondly, we stayed in a beautiful Airbnb condo in the Luana Suites which was probably the most perfect accommodation we could have picked. Right on the strip, but still nice and quiet and located within a hotel complex so we had access to all of the amenities including a pool and gym. It also had an incredible view of the Ocean as well as the mountains. We had two large, queen beds and it was also equipped with a kitchenette so we could prepare our own meals too.
One thing about Hawaii is that there is no shortage of activities to amuse yourself with. In fact, I was worried that 2 weeks there wasn’t long enough! We didn’t manage to get through everything since we wanted to ensure we had enough time to relax too.
Before I went to Hawaii, I spent forever stalking social media to find activities. One non-negotiable activity for me was ziplining at Kualoa Ranch. You might recognise the scenery from movies such as Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbour, Lost, 50 First Dates and Hawaii Five-O. It was $160 USD (plus tax) for an incredible 2.5 hour zip tour and I had an awesome time. I actually ended up going by myself to this but felt totally relaxed and comfortable. Their guides provide good entertainment and plenty of laughs when you’re not zipping! They also talk a lot about Hawaiian history which is cool too. I learned a lot about Kualoa as well as Hawaii during my tour. I wish I spent more time doing other tours there as it was such an incredible location with so many amazing things to do. Their tours include movie set tours, horse treks, ATV tours and more.
I recommend booking in advance, and booking a morning spot if you don’t have a rental car as they have a $15USD return courtesty shuttle from Waikiki. I didn’t realise that I couldn’t get their shuttle in the afternoon so ended up spending a hefty sum in taxis (the bus is super cheap however would have taken me over 2 hours versus a 30 minute taxi drive!).
You can see their dates and availability here. This is high on my list of highlights – but I think the picture above speaks for itself.
We ended up hiring a car overnight for our first couple of days back in Waikiki so that we could head out to a some locations further afield. Our day trip the next day was heading up north and one of the stops was the Dole Plantation. We weren’t there for too long as we were pretty keen to get to the North Shore, but we stopped for around 30 minutes to check out their shop as well as grab some pineapple foodie treats. There’s definitely plenty to do there, from plantation tours to mazes and their food is pretty incredible too. I ended up getting a dark chocolate covered pineapple (one of my fav treats from Disneyland) and as expected, it was amazing.
We saw plenty of cute baby pineapples (did you know they take 2 years to grow and mature!?) and it was also a great souvenir spot.
When telling people I was heading to Hawaii, I was always met with “oh, the shopping there is fantastic!” so I had high hopes for my travels there. Even though I’m not much of a shopper when I’m overseas (Honestly, I’d rather spend money on good food and cool activities), I did have a few things on my list to grab for my return. There are several excellent spots around Waikiki and greater Oahu.
Ala Moana is Hawaii’s biggest shopping mall, and the 7th largest mall in the United States. It’s an open air mall with over 340 shops and restaurants which means it’s got something for everyone. I didn’t actually spend too much time here since I ended up running out of time, but I did see a few stores. Macy’s is an all time US favourite, as well as Bloomingdales and of course it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t recommend chocolate covered strawberries from Godiva too.
Located in the heart of the Kalakaua Ave strip, the International Market is a funky shopping destination with a few upmarket shops and some local ones too. I liked it here because it was a little more low key, smaller and had that incredible banyan tree I showed earlier in the article. They also have an Anthropologie store which always has cute trinkets and homewares. I got my sister some beautiful Agate Crystal Coasters.
Speaking of the Waikiki Strip on Kalakaua Ave, there are plenty of great shops there too. They have a mini-Macy’s as well as Sephora, Victoria’s Secret and Footlocker just to name a few. I loved all the local shops mainly as they were really boutiquey and fun – but I couldn’t tell you their names! They also have street artists selling really cool unique pieces. I saw one guy selling mini surfboards which were super simply decorated but unfortunately he wasn’t back the next night for me to buy one.
The place I did the most damage had to be the Waikele Outlets. Let me start by saying that outlet shopping in America is always incredible. Designer goods at 70% off? Don’t mind if I do. If you go around a holiday season, there are often even better discounts. My favourite shops here were Michael Kors (always my favourite), Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger. I made purchases from all three. I got a new leather handbag for $90USD down from $400USD at Michael Kors, Adidas training shoes for $30USD and a cool sweater from Tommy Hilfiger for around $30USD. Bargain! Plus they had an amazing taco food truck in the car park which had the best tacos I had over my whole trip – and I ate a lot of tacos. I have since found out that this amazing taco truck is called El Jalisciense.
Surprisingly I didn’t spend that much time at the beach during my trip to Hawaii. I was generally too busy exploring or doing an activity. The ones we did see though were pretty incredible and it’s so nice to be able to walk into warm water – unlike our chilly beaches in NZ! One word of advice however – the sun in Hawaii is just as, if not more intense, than it is in NZ. Ensure you either cover up or reapply sunblock twice as often as you usually would. If you do get sunburned, we discovered an incredible after sun gel called Maui Vera at a local health food store. This stuff is incredible and we stocked up on it before heading back to NZ – our skin healed way faster and the ingredients are impeccable.
This was our first beach visit during our trip and the one I spent the most time at. There are plenty of beach chairs and umbrellas for hire along the beach if you don’t have your own. I can’t quite remember how much we paid, however we hired a pair of loungers and umbrella for 2 hours and it was well worth it. The beach is crowded but you still have space to breathe, the water is warm and the sun is shining! The views are pretty magical too; you can see Diamond Head from the water!
North Shore beaches are breathtaking. If you’re going there from the western most side, I recommend continuing around east as the beaches get a lot prettier around there. We didn’t really stop to swim as it was getting late in the afternoon and we needed to get our rental back and there wasn’t loads of parking due to their popularity but if I had a do-over, I definitely would!
Hanauma Bay is a nature reserve renowned for its epic snorkelling. Unfortunately we didn’t get our timing right and missed out on heading here. It’s closed on Tuesdays to allow the fish a day for feeding without interruption. Unless you plan to drive out super early, I would recommend paying $2.50 USD to catch the bus as parking is pretty scarce. This is a must do and I was so gutted I missed out. It averages 3000 visitors a day – and with good reason!
I feel like if you’re going to Hawaii, you can’t miss out on visiting Pearl Harbour. Having not really known what to expect and also not really having much knowledge about Pearl Harbour, I knew it would be an interesting experience for me. I personally enjoy learning about history and especially events in time which shape a nation.
We ended up taking a guided tour that I found online for $50USD per person. They picked us up from our accommodation and then we were taken on a tour of Honolulu which was super cool and informative. We then headed off to Pearl Harbour where we spent a half day. This included the USS Arizona tour as well as the movie and all of the museums. I could’ve spent longer there, and would’ve liked to have done the large ship tour too. Highly recommend!
Food in Oahu
I had loads of excellent food in Hawaii, and there was certainly many more places I wanted to try. Hawaii has such great, fresh food.
My Oahu Foodie Highlights:
- Whole Foods Market – DUH! There’s two on Oahu (and thats it for Hawaii) and both were excellent. I’m such a sucker for a salad bar but you also must try their smokehouse meats. Beef short rib is my favourite. Also their Valley Isle Kombucha is the best kombucha I had during my time there; strawberry was my favourite flavour. I spent a lot of time here – going most days since it was a $2.50 return bus trip and I knew the food was good. If you’re a paleo geek like me, you have to try the Siete Lime flavoured Tortilla Chips – they’re grain and gluten free and delicious. I have dreams about those.
- Cheesecake Factory. Yup – it’s pretty generic but man do I love the Cheesecake Factory. We ended up there 3 times, and ate far too much food every time. Their sweet corn tamales are a must eat (gluten free!), but their sweet potato fries, burgers (lettuce wrapped) and salads are also delicious. They take really great care in making everything gluten free. I still dream of the sweet corn tamales. The line gets HUGE but for two of us, the longest wait was 30 minutes to get in – bigger groups take longer however. They don’t do bookings but there’s a reason people wait so long. Their portions are also massive – below are the sweet corn tamales and an appetiser sized salad (they call their starters ‘appetisers’ in America and their mains are called entrees – just to confuse you!).
- Food trucks. Hawaii is famous for it’s food trucks! There are plenty up around the North Shore; in fact it’s somewhat famous for them up there. I stopped at one called Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken where they were cooking chickens over charcoal and it was incredible. I think it was $10USD for an entire chicken which they also portion for you. The lines there were huge too – and the chicken was incredible. I also had the BEST tacos of my life from a food truck (totally my taco Tuesday inspiration) that was over in the Waikele Outlets carpark. I can’t remember the name of it for the life of me, but their chicken tacos were insanely good.
Those were my top 3 eats during my time in the Waikiki area. Since I went to Whole Foods so often, I would mostly grab lunch there and take food home to have for dinner too which is why I don’t have loads of suggestions. But other notable mentions were Hula Grill; their breakfast hash was pretty delicious, and also Heavenly. I only went to Heavenly once and it was pretty tasty too!
If you want to go somewhere to get more familiar with the real Hawaii, step away from Waikiki and head to another island. Big Island was the real highlight of my trip for me and I couldn’t be happier with my choice to head there. It’s no secret that Hawaii is packed full of adventure activities and Big Island was no exception. When visiting Big Island, I recommend flying into one side and flying out of the other. It cost around $300NZD for return flights from Waikiki to Big Island, which at the time I thought was reasonable and then thinking about it – for flights that were less than an hour in length, it was pretty pricey. I put this down to it being peak season, but it was definitely worth it.
We also hired a car for the entire length of our stay on Big Island which is essential. Rental car prices are super reasonable – being under 25 I was charged a young drivers fee which is fairly standard, and a total pain in the ass since it pushes the price up. We may have also paid a fee for a one way rental as we dropped it off in Kona. In total I think we paid around $600 NZD for a week with Budget. Shop around and see what specials you can get – I just booked it online!
As mentioned, we stayed on two different sides when on Big Island. We flew into Hilo where we stayed for two nights then drove north, staying one night in the resort town of Waikoloa and then the remaining nights were in Kailua Kona, where we flew out on. We booked mostly Airbnbs for this part of the trip too.
Our first place was a lovely studio in Hilo called the Mai’a Suite. This was a perfect place to stay as it was around 15 or so minutes drive out of Hilo township and we wouldn’t have seen how locals live if we had of stayed in a hotel. It was definitely a cool location, and since it was halfway between Volcano and the township, it was just what we needed.
We left a night free since we knew we were driving to the other side of the island as we thought we may want to stop somewhere else for a look. We settled on staying in Waikoloa for a night of luxury. It was our most expensive hotel but it’s nice to treat yourself for a night! We stay at Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and it was glorious. It’s nestled right in the middle of a shopping area in Waikoloa and there are plenty of beautiful boutiques. It included snorkelling and had 2 pools as well as poolside bar service.
Finally we spent four nights in Kona. We booked an Airbnb apartment called Palm Cottage right beside Ali’i Drive which is the main strip in Kona. It was a perfect location for walking around Kona, had a pool, full kitchen and had everything we needed. Plus the bed was super comfy! It was also just a 5 minute drive to Target – which for anyone who’s ever been to Target in USA, you’ll know how excited I was.
Our stay on Big Island was pretty cruisy and mostly scenic activities, but we did a fair amount of walking during our time there. I always laugh at what American’s call hiking – it could be a 5 minute walk from the parking lot but it’s still called a hike! If you’re into waterfalls, volcanoes and secluded beaches then Big Island should be on your list.
We visited two different waterfalls during our time on Big Island and they were on Hilo side. We went to Rainbow Falls which is right beside the town and it’s super easily accessible. You can walk right up to the top of it too which is fun, and if you’re brave enough you can climb right onto the rocks at the top of it. We did this and it was loads of fun. I did it wearing jandals (flip flops for you non-kiwis) and probably wouldn’t recommend that for a choice of footwear, but we had fun checking out the view from so high up. We also went to Akaka Falls State Park which is north of Hilo. We went there on our drive north. There’s just something so incredible about waterfalls!
My main motivation for going to Big Island was the National Volcano Park. There is loads to do there and it fills up a good day. One morning we got up at 4am so we could watch the sunrise as the lava flowed into the ocean. Most people go at sunset, but I’m so glad we went at sunrise because it meant there were only a couple of people there and we didn’t have to deal with the heat of the sun. We hired bikes and cycled around 20 minutes or so out to the lava flow. Because it gets so hot during the day, I would definitely recommend doing the sunrise hike. The only disappointing thing was that you couldn’t really get very close to the lava flow and it was pretty far away! Check out this guide on viewing the lava flow. We entered from the Kalapana side – which is technically ‘closed’ until around 3pm however there are people there to rent bikes out from 4.30am and it’s common to head out there. Don’t forget water!
We also went to the Thurston Lava Tube which was pretty incredible, and saw the sunrise from the Crater Rim. The early mornings were SO worth it! There’s definitely more to view there as we could have spent ages in the National Park. Here is a full list of the attractions there. There’s usually an entrance fee which I think is $20USD per vehicle, however since we got there well before any of the rangers, we didn’t have to pay this!
Sunrise at Crater Rim
Entrance to the Thurston Lava Tube
Green Sand Beach
I had seen Green Sand Beach online, however wasn’t sure if we were going to make it. This had to be another one of the highlights of our trip.
We ended up going here from the Kona Side of the Island which was around a 2 hour or so drive south. You end up at the southern most point of Hawaii which is pretty cool.
We had met some other travellers who mentioned that you needed a 4WD to get there, otherwise there were locals who would take you down for a fee. Nothing could have prepared us for our arrival. This was the most hilarious and fun experience. Moments after arriving, a local tapped on our window and said it was $15USD per person return, and he would take us down to the beach, leave us for an hour and then bring us back. Since we had poorly timed our adventure with little knowledge on what was going to happen at the beach, we had a time frame and weren’t sure we would make it. However, we ended up agreeing. We were herded onto the ute tray of an old, rusty Chevy and after the drivers 9 year old son and his friend pushed us to start, we were off. After 45 minutes of intense 4WDing, sore muscles from holding on, we arrived at the beach. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Olive green sand and warm, crystal clear water. This was an experience I won’t forget! So much fun and an incredible beach.
Driving from Hilo to Kona
Big Island, despite its name, still isn’t that big. In fact, it’s only a couple of hours drive from Hilo to Kona. You can take the saddle road in the middle which is much faster, however we drove up around the north and it was great. There’s a lot more to see this way as opposed to going through the saddle road or south. Stunning views of the volcanoes (there are 4 active volcanoes on Big Island!) and experiencing all of the different spots on the way. This was a real highlight of the trip for me! We took all of the scenic routes suggested too.
Snorkelling is a must do on any tropical getaway! We did it a couple of times and it was so much fun, as always. Unfortunately we didn’t see any turtles (which you usually do!) but we saw plenty of beautiful fish. The first place we did it was at our resort in Waikoloa, and then again at Kahalu’u beach park which is a short drive from Kona, off of Ali’i Drive. You pay a small rental fee for a snorkel and flippers and get given instructions about how you can best preserve the beach park. This service is run by volunteers year round who are passionate about the conservation of the reef which I think is awesome. You also can only use particular sunscreen – so make sure you don’t wear one containing Oxybenzone. There is a carpark, but it can fill up pretty quick so early morning is best.
Swimming with the Mantarays
This has to be THE single most incredible part of my trip to Hawaii. This was something I was excited about for a long while before the trip and wouldn’t shut up about. It was everything! We booked through Big Island Divers and they were awesome from start to finish. I just booked it online and we also opted to hire wetsuits – worth it! I think it was $105USD (plus tax) for the snorkel and $10USD for the wetsuit. You don’t have to get a wetsuit but I think its better. The mantarays feed at night, so after a short boat ride out to the campfire (the ring of lights set up by divers to attract the mantas), we all hopped into the water and held on to a surfboard type thing, which had been fitted with lights and handles. It was a waiting game from then. We saw plenty of fish and it wasn’t long until the mantarays were flipping and twisting beautifully in the water below us. Mantarays are HUGE. Like as in, the women can be the same size as a car. But they don’t have teeth or stingers so they’re essentially giant fish. They come super close to you sometimes, but you’re not allowed to touch them as it can harm them. It’s pretty rare for them to touch you – they usually just get millimeters from you since they have strong sensors. I could blab all day about this, but the fact is I loved it so much I tried to book it again for the following night. Unfortunately it was sold out but I had the time of my life. My next plan is to get my dive license sometime and go back and do it with the divers!
Food on Big Island
I had some incredible local eats during my time on Big Island. We did go to the supermarket quite often and buy food there and at Target since it’s a bit cheaper than eating out all the time, but I managed to find health food stores on both sides of the Island which made life easy too!
- Natural Abundance – Hilo. This was the first place we stopped when we got to Hilo. It’s in their main strip facing the ocean and they have loads of health food products, delicious smoothies and lots more. I was a huge fan of their peanut butter and banana smoothie – so good! I got rid of the dates from it, so it wasn’t too sweet. They also have loads of Kombucha for sale too. I got my Grain Free Tortilla chips here and this is where we discovered Maui Vera.
- Pineapples Island Fresh Cuisine – Hilo. This is where my love affair with fish tacos began. They had loads of gluten free options on their menu and they also had homemade macadamia nut milk! I got this incredible banana, macadamia nut and caramel drink there and it was so delish! They also had great service.
- Hawaiian Style Cafe – Hilo. Hands down the best breakfasts in Hilo. We went here twice and it was cheap and delicious. I got their kalua pork hash one morning, and their corned beef hash the next. It’s essentially meat and potato with poached eggs on top. They also give you fried rice which is pretty tasty. It was carb heavy for sure, but gluten free and delicious. I don’t really count carbs on holiday but I do make sure everything is gluten free!
- Island Naturals Market – Kona. This was another health food store where I went to regularly. I got a lot of salads and snack foods here, as well as an avocado that was the size of my head. I’m not kidding – it was huge! They had a hot food bar and kombucha on tap. It was a little pricy but worth it.
- Killer Tacos – Kona. More tacos! I often got these as you could either get a gluten free corn tortilla or you could get it on a salad. This place was super cheap, delicious and a local favourite. Their chicken tacos were great and their taco salad is tasty too.Other notable mentions go to Conscious Culture Cafe – a place that served exactly the food I needed but was closed for renovations during my time there. Also, A-Bays Island Grill in Waikoloa is great too.
All in all, I had an incredible time in Hawaii. We had the most fun when we were driving around, exploring without a plan. Hiring a car is definitely an essential on Big Island, and very handy on Oahu. The rates are pretty good and petrol is cheap. Airbnb was my lifesaver when it came to booking accommodation. I definitely plan to go back one day, I have way more foodie opportunities to explore and I also really want to go to Maui – I am looking at potentially hosting a retreat over there late next year!
I know this is a super long blog, but well it wouldn’t be a guide if I didn’t give you as much info as possible, would it? 😉
Thanks for reading as always!