Sun-soaked Honolulu rests and plays on the island of Oahu, also known as "The Heart of Hawaii" and "The Gathering Isle." With its history and the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, it has both heart and a reason to gather.
But this part of our island state also offers trade winds that stir a tropical climate and sunshine that glitters on white-sand beaches. Visitors flock from around the world to play, surf, dine and shop, and while you can't completely ignore the shopping, you'll have an entire island to explore.
Here, GET.com looks at flights, lodging, food and fun to help you get more Honolulu sunshine for your money.
When scheduling a flight itinerary for Hawaii, forget some of the things you think you know. We were looking for our best round-trip basic economy deal leaving from New York City and allowing ourselves a full week.
Using flexible dates, overall, we found our best day for traveling was Sunday or Friday, with fares from $774. Thursdays started at $844. Wednesdays were $896 and up, and Monday and Tuesday started at $905. Saturday was the most expensive, starting at $1,001.
Suspicious of layovers, we checked the $774 fare's details. It was an American Airlines flight with a single 1-hour plane change in LAX, keeping flight times to 13 hours going and 12 returning. Checking other fares, Choice cost up to $1,163, Business nearly $4,000 and first class a little over $3,000.
To travel nonstop from New York, Wednesdays started at $896 versus $1,280 on Saturdays. The $896 fare was on United Airlines out of Newark, and Hawaiian Airlines followed with $931 out of JFK, each reducing airtime to 11 hours going and 10 returning.
Most fares on United ran about $900; flexible economy tickets were closer to $2,700, and first class averaged about $3,000. On Hawaiian, our fare on the other nonstop flight was $50 more. Extra Comfort was about $1,200, and first class was $3,045 on the 1 p.m. flight but $3,760 on the 10 a.m.
If you're hoping for nonstop flights to Oahu from middle America or the East Coast, Hawaiian Airlines or United Airlines are your best bets. If you have the luxury of flying from the West Coast, you just might be able to pick up a budget Allegiant Air or Virgin America fare for as little as $435 out of Vegas, for example – less if you catch a special.
Check out our GET.com guide to finding cheap flights for more ideas.
When considering where to stay on Oahu, 2 factors raise prices. First, the overall cost of living doubles in Honolulu. Housing costs are easily 3 times the U.S. average while groceries and utilities are 60 to 65 percent above average.
Second, hotels are concentrated in the Honolulu area. Some beaches do allow camping, and renting property from individuals is an option. However, lodging in the area is pricey.
Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu's North Shore is famous because it's the only major resort in that part of the island. When we checked, they were offering a 20-percent discount and daily breakfast through June. While the advertising banner said rooms started at $264 a night, our availability for 2 people started at $350 a night for a "Deluxe Ocean View King" with balcony available on floors 2 through 5; family suites started at $500 a night.
For comparison, we checked out The Royal Hawaiian Resort Waikiki, the iconic 5-star "Pink Palace of the Pacific" fronting Waikiki Beach. Our least expensive option was a 2-person "Historic Room (VIP) (Double) (Family)" for $343 a night. A "Historic Ocean Room" started at $514 a night while "Sun Mailani Tower Premier Ocean Front" rooms started at $663. Everything, including Wi-Fi and parking, had a surcharge except for the airport shuttle.
For a more affordable option, Hyatt Place Waikiki Beach had excellent reviews and was one of the very few hotels providing a "free buffet breakfast" and free in-room Wi-Fi. On Hotwire, we could book a king room with a sofa bed or a double-queen room with a city view for $229 a night. Mountain view rooms were $10 a night more, and ocean views cost $260. Making a booking refundable added another $10, so our ocean view refundable double-queen room cost $2,146 for the week. We couldn't forget, however, that self-parking was $25 a night, and we were on our own for airport transportation.
If you're up for Airbnb, you expand your options exponentially, as individuals are renting rooms, condos and homes all across the island. In Honolulu, we found a fully equipped condo with plate-glass ocean views, a king bed and a sleeper sofa for $199 a night, $1,613 for the week; parking remained an issue, however.
On the northeast end of the island, apartments and bungalows on the beach went for around $100 or so a night. North Shore prices were a bit more in line with Honolulu; interestingly, a fully equipped vintage pop-up surf bus was $130 a day.
In the mountains, we found simple bungalows for $100 or so a night and rooms for less than $70. In contrast, some gated Ko Olina resort condos on the western coast approached $600 a night; however, they also had 3 bedrooms, 3 baths and access to resort perks.
You can get more tips for hotel savings in our GET.com guide to getting cheap hotel stays.
Much of the island's clientele travels from Japan, so Asian cuisine is plentiful. High-end restaurants are, too, but Oahu has some inexpensive options that you might well prefer. Pack some loose cash and a restaurant credit card before delving into Honolulu's relaxed dining culture:
- On East Manoa Road, Andy's Sandwiches & Smoothies has you covered for healthy breakfasts, brunches and lunch. You can easily go vegetarian with an avocado, tomato and cucumber sandwich or indulge in a hot turkey mushroom big sandwich. They serve assorted soups, salads in small and large, and extensive smoothie variations. They have all the breakfast standards, too, including omelets and blueberry pancakes.
- On South King Street, Mana Bu's claims to be Hawaii's musubi headquarters, pledging no monosodium glutamate and listing each ingredient's sourcing and pedigree; everything is organic and scratch-made. Assemble your musubi, veggie okazu or dessert choices from items that rarely cross the $2 mark.
- In Waikiki on Kuhio Avenue and in the Fort Street Mall, Marukame Udon & Tempura is Japanese noodle heaven, their pledge "the perfect bowl of udon." Noodles are freshly handmade, and soups are "prepared daily in small batches." To order, pick your udon, add a tempura or musubi, and select the perfect garnishes.
- Also in Waikiki on Kuhio Avenue – and several other locations – Musubi & Bento Café Iyasume has regular and mini portions. Choose between chicken, pork, beef and a wide assortment of seafood, or opt for a plate of avocado bacon SPAM musubi, a curry bowl or miso soup.
- If you don't know what a poke is, Ono Seafood on Kapahulu Avenue will quickly educate you about what a poke should be. The local favorite serves ahi poke in all its flavors – from spicy to sesame ginger or Hawaiian tako – as well as ahi jerky, octopus and combination bowls of its seafood specialties.
- If sea and salt makes you crave Italian, Amina Pizzeria on Kapahulu Avenue turns out signature and French bread pizzas, calzones and pasta. Try an order of spinach garlic bread with lasagna, ravioli or penne that's bubbly, cheesy and comes in large enough portions for leftovers.
- ShAloha Pita on Waialae Avenue starts with housemade pita bread and has Mediterranean and Middle Eastern specialties like shawarma, shakhuka, falafel and hummus. Order a lemonana and some pita chips for a quick snack.
- E.A.R.L.: A Sandwich Experience is on 11th Avenue, crafting gourmet sandwiches like French dips, beer-braised brisket, the "Turkey Jam Sam," Cubanos and pesto salads. For something lighter, try the avocado toast or spicy caprese.
Things To Do
Waikiki is known for its white-sand beaches, luxury urban high rises and opportunities to sip rum poolside. The tourist buzz during high seasons has a luster all its own, but if you prefer something calmer and less populous, head off to one of Waikiki's beautiful beaches:
- Fort DeRussy, Kuhio and Queen Surf Beaches. To the west, Ala Moana Beach Park is actually a shallow lagoon thanks to reefs and Magic Island. On Oahu's southern tip, between 2 dormant volcanic craters, Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is also perfect for snorkeling. Sandy Beach is near the Halona Blowhole and a great place to watch the locals handle the shore break's rough surf.
- If you have transportation, the North Shore has Turtle Bay for snorkeling, Sunset Beach for professional-level surfing and Ehukai Beach's Banzai Pipeline. Waimea Bay has the famous jumping cliff as well as summer snorkeling and winter surfing.
- The western shore has Ko Olina Resort and Marina's man-made lagoons; Makaha Beach for surfing; and Yokohama Bay for sunbathing, dolphin watching and hiking to Kaena Point to spot sea birds and monk seals.
- On Oahu's east coast, Makapu'u Beach offers tide pools, lava rocks, body-surfing and the Makapu'u Lighthouse. Waimanalo Beach is also calm and a popular picnic spot while Lanikai Beach has clear water, snow-sand beach and Nā Mokulua (2 mini-isles). Kailua Beach Park is nearby, with full amenities, including sailboard, kayak and canoe rentals. Finally, Kualoa Regional Park offers fantastic views of Mokoli'i (the Chinaman's Hat).
For hikers in search of some serious bird's-eye views and journey's end treasures, Oahu has no shortage of trails. Check the Nā Ala Hele website for maps, trailhead locations and complete information. Meanwhile, here are a few venues to get you started:
- Climb the Diamond Head Summit Trail's 560 feet, and follow the tunnel to the fire control station at the top; the crater is 300,000 years old, and in winter, coastal views may include humpback whales. Cost is $5 per car or $1 per pedestrian.
- Hike the forested trail to the breathtaking 150-foot-tall Manoa Falls. Parking at the Paradise Park lot costs $5, but the Manoa Falls parking lot is closed. Check the website for native-pig control dates and limitations, too.
- For a scary-strenuous workout, scale 1,106 abandoned rail ties complete with a trestle section straight up the crater at the Koko Crater Railway Trail. The reward at the top is a panoramic view accompanied by a sense of accomplishment. To relax, stop by Koko Crater Botanical Garden for an easy 2-mile hike through the crater garden. Bring plenty of water for both activities; amenities are limited.
- Note that authorities have closed the popular Stairway to Heaven, or Haiku Stairs; police patrol the area, and entry may result in arrest.
- For a climb sans stairs or exertion, Aloha Tower and its elevator wait at Honolulu Harbor's Pier 9. The clock tower is now the landmark for Aloha Tower Marketplace, but you can still enjoy the 10th floor observation deck and views of the city and harbor.
We love pineapple, and we appreciate that admission to the Dole Plantation grounds is free. However, once there, the Pineapple Express Train Tour, Pineapple Garden Maze and Plantation Garden Tour are all extra. You can buy combination tours for all 3 at $20 per adult, $16 per child and $18 for active military – a small savings of $2.50 per adult, $2.25 for military and $1.75 per child versus paying full price for each.
If you decide to dine at the Plantation Grille, figure on $8 kid's meals (grilled cheese, chicken nuggets or a hot dog), $11 burgers and $12 entrees. For a family of 4, that's at least $120, but you're not done yet. 1 Dole Whip each adds $24 plus tax and tip, and don't forget the onsite store. Still, should your budget allow for it, watching tropical fruit grow in a lush setting can be a very enjoyable experience for botany buffs young and old.
One thing you should know is that sun-soaked Hawaii becomes rain-soaked Hawaii during the winter months. So if you are planning a winter getaway, check weather forecasts and consider getting refundable airline tickets.
Honolulu is a shopping mecca, offering limitless retail therapy to the tune of a mere 4-percent sales tax. The silent dip of credit-laden plastic, however, is not the end-all or be-all to happiness and contentment when on the beautiful isle of Oahu. Aloha is more than a simple greeting; delve deeper, and you'll find it's a way of life.