After my girlfriends all bailed on my birthday trip, I found myself on an unintentional solo trip to Oahu. However, I knew I'd still be met with great adventure and lots of sun, I mean it is Hawaii after all. I refused to let a sudden lack of companionship ruin my birthday trip, so I booked the flights and prepaid all of my activities. I made sure I wouldn't have time to be lonely because from boat rides around the island, trips to the spa for a massage, hiking and snorkeling — my itinerary was packed! I didn't rent a car and was apprehensive about how I was going to get around the island, I thought I'd spend a fortune on Uber and Lyft. Surprisingly I found that getting around the island wasn't as difficult as I thought and Honolulu actually has a very efficient transit system. The bus is cheap, and for $5.50 I got a day pass and explored the island.
Hawaii is made up of eight main islands — Hawai'i, Maui, Kaho'olawe, Lana'i, Moloka'i, O'hau, Kaua'i and Ni'hau. The island of O'ahu is widely considered the heartbeat of Hawaii. And when it comes to visiting O'ahu, most tourists flock to Waikiki Beach, the popular and crowded side of the island. What some travelers fail to realize is that the island of O'ahu is filled with many gems, and they're only a short ride away from Waikiki.
From lush mountainsides, colorful koi fish, swimming with wild sea turtles, and taking in spectacular views, you can explore the island without breaking the bank on costly excursions.
If you're in Honolulu for a few days, you should visit some of my favorite places on the island.
Hula Grill Waikiki
Enjoy the sounds of the waves crashing into the shore and the unbelievable view of Diamond Head at the Hula Grill Waikiki located inside of the Duke's hotel.
Hula Grill has something for any taste you're in the mood for and their menu is vegetarian-friendly. They source their ingredients straight from the island, the restaurant boasts of locally caught fish, all-natural meats and O'hau-grown produce. There is also live entertainment offered throughout the week — so catch a bite, grab a mimosa, and get a friendly waiter to take a picture of you.
The Valley of the Temples Memorial Park is nestled on the other side of the island, if you're staying in Waikiki. You can take the bus there for less than $6 for a day pass. The trip is about one-and-a-half hours but peaceful and beautiful. The bus will shuttle you up the mountain side, which allows you to see the island in a more authentic light, outside of the tourist-ridden Waikiki.
Unlike Waikiki Beach, this side of the island is misty, the rain can be sporadic on the wayward side of the island and the air smells sort of like burning wood. The temple is an honorary shrine built to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawai'i. The temple is a replica of the historic Byodo-in Temple of Uji in Kyoto, Japan. It might also be familiar to you if you've seen the Chris Brown video for "Autumn Leaves" featuring Karrueche Tran. For just $3 admission, you can leave an offering at the Buddhist shrine, ring the sacred bell, feed the koi fish, and marvel in the wonder of black swans.
Escape the crowds of Waikiki Beach and head over to the north side of the island where the locals tend to go. The views are surreal and the locals are very friendly. You'll get to see wildlife like turtles, sea lions and more. Go swimming with turtles on Laniakea Beach. Beware that turtles, or honu, are protected animals in Hawaii and considered well-revered by local Hawaiians. If you see one on the beach, do not touch it — the locals get really upset about this one. It's said you should give them at least 10 ft of space and not disturb them, which can be kind of hard when snorkeling or swimming but do your best to keep this in mind. The beaches are calmer than Waikiki as well, which due to boats can experience very large and choppy waves.
This beautiful hike up to Diamond Head is sure to yield spectacular views. If you're the type of person looking to get in some physical activity on your vacation, this hike is very easy to fit in to your schedule. Hike early in the morning to catch the sunrise and listen as the waves beat against the shore. If you're a non-experienced or intimidated first-time hiker, like me, then you can drive to Diamond Head lookout instead to experience all the views without the sore muscles.
Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden
Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden is one of the most popular wedding venues in Hawaii. The botanical gardens is also infamous for its beauty. Admission into the park is completely free but be prepared for a lot of walking around and wear good shoes! I took the bus from Waikiki Beach and then basically hiked all the way up to the park so I could get a shot of the famous entrance, unfortunately it was very foggy that day.
Note that if the guards at the front gate catch you trying to catch a picture, they will ask you to move, so be quick!
You can see plants from around the world, endangered plants, and native Hawaiian plants. You can feed the ducks, fish, and camp at Ho'omaluhia Lake. It's a beautiful place filled with tranquility. In fact, Ho'omaluhia means "peaceful refuge". Visit this botanical garden to enjoy a chill day away from the beach while learning more about Hawaii.
You must visit the home of some very popular movies like Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Jumanji, and 50 First Dates — Kualoa Ranch.
With the towering hills and mysterious valleys, this side of Oahu is very mystical. Travel a short 24 miles outside of Waikiki to one of Oahu's most sacred places. Kualoa Ranch even offers a roundtrip shuttle for $15. The ranch has many excursions and Instagram-worthy photo-ops, but be sure to schedule early and expect to pay a little more for the exciting activities. From ATV tours, horseback riding, zip lining, and jungle expeditions, this site is a one-stop-shop for adventure and fun.
Top of Waikiki: Revolving Restaurant
Want to see Waikiki beach from a different point of view? Climb the escalators to the Top of Waikiki and enjoy a meal as the floor below you slowly rotates.
It's unlike any restaurant I have ever been to. The upscale restaurant is a fantastic way to take it all in; you can sit in one spot all night and enjoy the 360-degree views of the island. The floor to ceiling glass panels and rotating floor is the highlight of the experience but the food and drinks are just as noteworthy. Enjoy a sunset here by yourself, or with a loved one because the ambiance is very romantic and posh. One things for sure, you won't be disappointed by the experience.
Nestled in an alleyway a few blocks from Waikiki Beach is an open air market, the only one left in the neighborhood. If you're looking for a souvenir to take home and want something that screams "I got this from Hawaii", visit Duke's Marketplace. If you're not looking closely, you could end up walking right past it and into the higher end stores. You can find almost anything at Duke's, from jewelry and ukulele to hand-crafted gifts and more. The marketplace is lit up and alive at night, running operations until 11:00 at night.
This historic pineapple plantation is located in Wahiawa and was owned by James Dole. If you're a fan of pineapples, you must try the infamous Dolewhip, hop aboard the Pineapple Express train ride, and enter the world's largest maze which stretches over three acres long. The Pineapple Maze is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records and is filled with secret stations to find along the way and flora native to the islands of Hawaii. There is something fun and interesting here for everyone, including families!
Fumi's Kahuku Shrimp Truck
In the mood for some seafood? The locals on the north side swear by Fumi's Kahuku Shrimp truck! It is one of the top contenders for the island's best shrimp and the Hawaiians don't play about their shrimp. Grab a plate and take a seat under the trees where the leaves are marked with names and dates of past visitors. The place gives a more authentic feel than the restaurants on Waikiki Beach, and the food is packed with flavor!
You don't want to visit Oahu without exploring the island and all of its hidden gems. One visit was not enough time to truly take it all in so be sure to put some of these places on the top of your bucket list. Whatever you do, don't spend your entire vacation on the beach with all the tourists because the island of Oahu and its people have so much to offer.
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Featured image via writer Tennelle Swan/Instagram