A Hawaiian Airlines Flight Attendant Shares Her Favorite Local Spots on O‘ahu

O‘ahu native Heather Sanchez knows the island’s quieter spots—and was willing to share them with us.

Ala Moana Beach Park O’ahu

When Heather Sanchez returns home from a flight, she heads to Ala Moana Beach Park for a dip in the ocean.

Photo by Shutterstock

The islands of Hawai‘i have arguably become too popular for their own good, and the beauty of the destination has unfortunately suffered because of it with overtourism taking its toll on the environmental, cultural, and economic well-being of Hawai‘i’s people and places. But more recently, Native and local Hawaiians are pushing for change. The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority has launched the Mālama Hawai‘i initiative aimed at encouraging visitors to travel more responsibly throughout the state, and local citizens and businesses are speaking out on the issue.

Among them is the state’s largest and longest serving carrier, Hawaiian Airlines. In 2021, the airline pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2050. And this spring, the company launched a carbon calculator on its booking page so customers can easily offset their trip by purchasing carbon credits that protect forests and support local communities. In June, the airline joined with Par Hawaii, Hawaiʻi’s largest supplier of energy products, to study the commercial viability of locally produced sustainable aviation fuels to replace all or a percentage of traditional kerosene-based jet fuel with fuel made with sustainable feedstocks.

“We all have a shared kuleana, or responsibility, when it comes to caring for our island home. When we say kuleana, we’re describing a reciprocal relationship rather than a duty or obligation. For centuries, the concept of kuleana has helped maintain the balance within society and within the natural environment,” says Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, director of community and cultural relations for Hawaiian Airlines.

Nakanelua-Richards notes that as the official airline of Hawai‘i, the carrier wants to do its part to help build a more sustainable tourism economy and to help educate guests on what it means to travel pono, or responsibly.

Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant and O’ahu native Heather Sanchez

When Heather Sanchez isn’t jetting around the globe with Hawaiian, she has some go-to spots on O‘ahu.

Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

There is definitely more we can do as visitors once we arrive. One strategy is to visit less-touristed sites so that the more popular ones can have a chance at rejuvenating. Unsurprisingly, Hawaiian locals know how to get off the beaten path best, so we spoke with a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant who was born on O‘ahu and still lives there today about some of her favorite hidden-gem spots. These are the places Heather Sanchez, who has been a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant for 23 years, likes to go on the island of O‘ahu when she’s not jetting across the globe for work.

Japanese barbecue

For all-you-can-eat specials, Sanchez heads to Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ.

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What are some of your favorite restaurants in O‘ahu and why?

Stripsteak Waikiki has an impressive wine list, unique steak dishes, and exceptional service. I love Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ because it’s intimate, and they have the best all-you-can-eat specials. Mahi‘ai Table at Foodland Farms uses fresh ingredients that are locally sourced. And most tourists don’t know about Mitsu-Ken, a take-out spot in Kalihi, but locals love it for their local-style breakfast and garlic chicken.

Moanalua Gardens O’ahu

You can find solitude—and a giant monkeypod tree—at Moanalua Gardens.

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If someone is overwhelmed by the bustle of Honolulu, where might they go for a quiet escape on the island?

Moanalua Gardens. It has a nice koi pond and acres of lush green grass with shaded areas. (Editor’s note: The gardens are currently temporarily closed, but visitors can check the website for reopening developments.)

What are some lesser-known beaches beyond Waikiki that you love?

Mālaekahana Beach is such a beautiful spot on the North Shore. Its long white-sand beach is picturesque, in the early mornings especially.

Mākua Beach O'ahu

Mākua Beach is ideal for viewing underwater life responsibly.

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Where is an uncrowded spot to snorkel and spot turtles?

Mākua Beach is a place where you’ll see more turtles and dolphins than humans from the beach. Experiencing sea life so up close is fascinating, but I always like to remind visitors to travel pono [responsibly] by snorkeling and swimming without touching. Most species are endangered so we must all work together to care for our beaches and wildlife.

What’s your favorite off-the-beaten-path hike?

I enjoy Waimano Falls for a moderate workout and being rewarded at the end with a waterfall.

What tourist spot is overrated and where should someone go instead?

Although iconic, the Diamond Head hike can get very crowded. I would prefer any ridge hike along the east side of the island, such as Kuliouou Ridge. There are some spectacular views to be seen.

Kuliouou Ridge O'ahu

Instead of the more crowded Diamond Head, Sanchez recommends hiking Kuliouou Ridge for great views.

Photo by Shutterstock

What’s a favorite locally owned place to shop for a gift and what do you like to buy there?

Many of the shops in Kaimukī are unique and locally owned. I especially like Surf ‘n Hula Hawaii for their showcase of Hawaiʻi nostalgia.

When you get home from a long flight, where’s the first place you go—besides home?

I enjoy coming home to the ocean. If I head into town after a flight, I’ll normally take a dip at Ala Moana Beach Park. There’s something healing about the ocean, and it immediately rejuvenates me.

Any other favorite spots you can share?

Aside from my Aunty’s backyard? If you make friends while visiting Hawaiʻi, you may find yourself at a local barbecue at a beach, park, or backyard. Those are the best kinds of hidden gems.

Devorah Lev-Tov is a Brooklyn-based food and travel journalist who has been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Vogue, Bon Appetit, and more.
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