Each island in Hawaii has its own distinct personality and specialty, but most of us can’t take a month off work to spend a week on each major island. However, when flying to destinations such as Kauai or Hawaii (The Big Island), airlines will often stop first at a larger hub like OGG on Maui or HNL on Oahu. While you could easily spend your entire trip on Oahu, Honolulu makes for a great stopover on your way to another island.
You definitely don’t need to know Hawaiian for your time on the islands, but familiarizing yourself with the lingo (beyond aloha for “hello”/“goodbye” and mahalo for “thank you”) will save you many a “Come again?”
The North Shore would normally be where you go to get away from it all, but with just a day or two on the island, you’ll get more out of your microtrip by staying in or near Waikiki on the south shore. For the full-blown classic experience, stay at The Royal Hawaiian, known to locals as the Pink Palace. The hotel, built way back in 1927, was a Waikiki centerpiece long before Hawaii was a hoppin’ vacation spot. To go a little easier on your wallet, try the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel. Located on Waikiki Beach at the end closest to Diamond Head State Monument, this recently updated hotel provides easy access to hot spots without unbearably dense crowds. If you stay here, be sure to spend some time at Hau Tree Lanai, the hotel’s peaceful, beachfront restaurant.
As long as you avoid the 9-to-5’er rush hour, driving around Oahu is fairly easy. You can even skip the car rental if you plan on sticking exclusively to the south shore. Whether on foot or in a car, prepare yourself for some unconventional navigation—locals trade north/south/east/west for relative directions such as makai (toward the ocean), mauka (toward the mountains), ewa (leeward), windward, and Diamond Head (toward the crater).
Local Kine Grindz
Tackle lunch like a local by hitting up Ono Hawaiian Foods on Kapahulu Avenue. This hole-in-the-wall is a must for anyone seeking luau cuisine in the middle of the day, and if you tell your server you’ve never had poi before, s/he is likely to hook you up with a sampling of different styles. Craving a burger but still want it island style? Check out Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, where you can order your patty with pineapple and teriyaki sauce, or drenched in Sriracha aioli and sprinkled with furikake.
For more dinner-like fare, splurge at Alan Wong’s and indulge in the seared mahi mahi with wasabi garlic sauce, then conclude your meal with the restaurant’s signature dessert, The Coconut: haupia (coconut cream) sorbet in a chocolate shell, topped with lilikoi (passion fruit) sauce. If you prefer local brews with your meal, head to the east shore and dine at Kona Brewing Company in Hawaii Kai, where you can combine your love of beer with your hankering for Kona coffee by ordering the Pipeline Porter with your Paniolo pizza.
Beachy Resting Face
You have time for at least one awesome beach during your stopover. Waikiki Beach is easily accessible and has a good combination of soft sand and gentle waves, but it gets extremely crowded. A 30-minute drive from Waikiki, you’ll find Hanauma Bay, which has no waves and exceptional snorkeling—the water is so clear that you can often spot schools of fish when standing knee-deep in the water. Just 10 minutes further up the east coast of Oahu is Waimanalo Beach Park, which sees only a fraction of the Waikiki crowd. This is the place to go if you like to alternate between tanning on the sand and bodysurfing two to three–foot waves.
If you (a) like to watch adventurous people or (b) are more adventurous yourself, check out Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, or Waimea Bay on the North Shore. These famous beauties are home to tons of surf competitions and for good reason: Waves get up to 20 feet high and are accompanied by gnarly breaks and vicious undertows. For similar thrills with half the drive, make your way to Makapu’u Beach on the east side. The surf isn’t quite as steep, but the jagged lava rocks enclosing this white-sand beach set the scene for pro-level bodysurfing.
At some point, you’re going to want something cold and sweet; that’s just what happens when you’re on a tropical island. You’ll see shave ice everywhere, but very few purveyors can turn frozen water and flavored syrup into a treat you long for in even the coldest of winters. The two standouts are Matsumoto’s Shave Ice in Haleiwa (North Shore) and Waiola Shave Ice (south shore). The former uses incredibly vibrant flavors that have you wishing you had a bigger spoon, whereas the latter uses a special machine to grind out impossibly fluffy ice that lends a unique texture to this dessert. Another local favorite is Bubbie’s Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts, but its only remaining brick-and-mortar location is in Hawaii Kai, near Kona Brewing Co. When in doubt, ask a local for directions to his or her favorite sweets stop—just make sure you know mauka from makai!