I fell in love with the idea of Hawaii when I was 14 years old, thanks to the short-lived TV show The Byrds of Paradise. I was in awe of how beautiful the place was, and think I had a crush on every Hawaiian male cast member/extra on the show (can all the men in one place possibly be that gorgeous?!). This fantasy became reality when I celebrated the end of law school (and pre-bar exam studying) with a trip to Maui and Kauai with a dear friend, Marie. I had never seen any place so beautiful in my life. And yes, Hawaiians really are that beautiful- physically, but also, the spirit of Aloha is real. I returned to the islands a second time in August 2015, this time with the fabulous Jodi, my EBC trekking buddy. We spent a couple of days in Honolulu, but reserved the majority of our time for Kauai. When you only have a short time in Honolulu, you inevitably stay in/near Waikiki, which is somewhat unfortunate. Don’t get me wrong- Waikiki beach is beautiful, and nearby is everything a tourist could want or need: surf/SUP/etc. lessons; beach chair rentals; white sand beaches and places to swim that have calm ocean currents; loads of restaurants, bars, and shops for anything you want, need, or forgot (reef-friendly SPF, water-proof bag so you can take valuable into the water with you, because theft is an issue). Waikiki is also super walkable, and it’s nice being on an island that doesn’t require a car to get around (the rest of Hawaii requires a rental car, and paying expensive gas prices). The downside is that apart from its proximity to the stunning ocean/beach, Waikiki (and downtown Honolulu for that matter), is actually pretty ugly (architecturally speaking) and lacks the charm and character that is so abundant on the other islands. So following the few days Jodi and I spent in Honolulu in 2015, I wasn’t exactly in love with the sliver of Honolulu I saw; I certainly did not plan on returning to this city, much less for an extended stay.
Fast forward to 2018, and after several months (and quite a few pounds), I decided I wanted to press pause on international travel for a bit of time, and give myself the time to get healthy- with a daily workout routine that was guaranteed to kick my ass, and a kitchen so I could cook for myself. When I discovered that a F45 gym had recently opened up in Honolulu, that sealed the deal! I decided at that moment: if I could find an affordable apartment to rent for a month, then I would just spend the month of November in Hawaii. (That should never have been “if”, but “when.” Because if one thing is becoming abundantly clear through my travels, just like it says in The Alchemist, when you really want something and when you follow your heart in pursuit of what you desire, the universe conspires to make it happen. When you take that first step, things really do fall into place to ensure everything else works out.) I knew that I did not want to pay to have a rental car for an entire month, so I focused my search on the part of the island near Kahala Mall, where F45 is located. I couldn’t find anything on Airbnb that was affordable (most places were close to $2000 for the month, which was much more than I wanted to spend), so turned to Craigslist… FOR THE WIN! I found an adorable, slightly quirky, studio apartment, fully furnished, for $1500 (all utilities and wifi included).
I had hoped to spend closer to $1000/month, but after all my searches realized this would be the best deal I’d find. Little did I know that this apartment was located in one of the best/most walkable neighborhoods in all of Honolulu. In fact, it’s my favorite neighborhood I’ve stayed in anywhere in Hawaii. Plus, my landlord (Tim) and his girlfriend (Jenny) are amazing humans who I am so excited to have met and spent a month with. My home for the month was in Kaimuki, which is just west/inland of Diamond Head, only 1.5 miles from Waikiki, and super accessible by bus to just about anywhere on Oahu. The perfect spot to call home.
Pro tip: the bus system here (“The Bus”) is awesome! I paid $70 for a 1 month pass. Otherwise, it’s $2.75/ride, or $5.50 for a 1-day pass. Skip the rental car and use the bus system here- you can traverse the entire island and don’t have to bother with parking or (very expensive) gas!
Kaimuki is overflowing with restaurants, shops, cafes, yoga studios, comic book stores, regular book stores, local veggie and fruit markets, nail salons, a post office, massage/day spas, a Goodwill (amazing place to get a yoga mat and swim goggles or snorkel gear, and spend just a couple bucks per item), all within a couple of blocks (!), and is a short walk to grocery stores and the Kahala Mall (which also has a Whole Foods!). Not only is the place super convenient to all of the things above, it’s also super quiet at night, and the restaurants here are AMAZING. Seriously, if you’re coming to Honolulu for more than a couple of days and want a more authentic experience (outside of Waikiki), I highly, highly recommend staying (or living) here if you can!
I’ve been fortunate enough to explore way more beaches, neighborhoods, bars, and restaurants than I expected when I first arrived. And managed to fit in two trips to check out the world famous north shore professional surfing competitions; first in Haleiwa (during the Hawaiian Pro-transit via The Bus!), and next to Sunset Beach (also for the VTC- this time by car, thanks to David, a wonderful Hawaiian who made sure I had a great time in Oahu). If you do rent a car for a day, driving along the north shore, especially the part from Haleiwa to Kahaluu, is a MUST. It’s just spectacularly beautiful.
In addition to watching pro surfing competitions, my time in Oahu consisted of: working out, enjoying restaurants/cafes/bars, exploring beaches throughout the island, and spending time with fabulous new friends. This is the first destination so far where I kept procrastinating when it came to planning “what’s next”; I didn’t want to leave. Because people are the highlight of everywhere I go, I have to take a moment and give a special thanks to a few folks (in addition to Tim & Jenny, noted above): (1) Paul Tanaka, Eli Schlam, Chris Kriva, and Heather Gaw, all of who introduced me to several wonderful people in Honolulu, (2) Jenny’s amazing crew of #bossgirl friends, especially Christy, who opened her home to me more than once (including Thanksgiving!); and, (3) all of the wonderful people here in Honolulu whom took time out of their busy schedules to provide me with recommendations and hang out with me, including: Shawn Steiman & family (for introducing me to Kaimana Beach and Friday night fireworks my first night in town); the Cades Schutte crew of Keoni Shultz, Mallory Martin, and Trever Asam (who treated me to a delightful lunch at The Pig & The Lady); Philip Miyoshi (who introduced me to SALT and the Kaka’ako area, and who generously treated me to lunch at The Vein, coupled with fantastic conversation). I have to especially thank: David Forman, head of UH Manoa Law School’s Environmental Law Program, and all around legal bad ass and fascinating gentleman, who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to play tour guide and teach me a bit about the beautiful culture on the island (oh, and loan me a car to use too!); Suevon Lee, who introduced me to “pau hana” = happy hour (and sooo glad to have added an awesome lady friend to this roster of men, haha); and, Casey Pinter, who I met at the gym (and immediately clicked with, due to his fabulous energy and bubbly personality) and who definitely became my BFF in Honolulu.
Now onto the part of the blog where I add in more pretty pictures and detail some of my favorite spots on Oahu.
Most of my recommendations are going to be neighborhood specific, as that seems to be the best way to organize this. But I will first highlight a few traditional, local foods that are worth a try when visiting the islands. First up: fruit! Local bananas are short and often look black/bruised, but they’re not. They come in soooo many delectable flavors, such as apple (sometimes: candy apple) and ice cream. Yum! Likewise, there are rainbow papayas and strawberry papayas. Finally, the lilikoi, Hawaii’s passionfruit. It’s a bit tart and a bit sweet, and so good. Especially in jams and fruit butters.
Then to some less healthy local favorites: malasadas. Just as the beignet is New Orleans’ twist on a donut, so too are malasadas in Hawaii. Imagine a savory batter, and a round, puffy, hole-less donut; like the beignet, the sweetness comes from the sugar on the outside. The classic version uses plain white sugar, though my favorite was “li hing”, which is a somewhat sweet and sour sugar mix. Delightful. If you look on Yelp or even Google, advice will route you to Leonard’s Bakery. But honestly, I didn’t think the malasadas there were any better than those at Pipeline (a bakery in Kaimuki). Also, AVOID the filled versions. Pipeline doesn’t sell any filled versions, but Leonard’s does, and they are DISGUSTING. Imagine you will pudding, then cut it with a lot of water so that it’s runny and flavorless; this is the filling in the puffs at Leonard’s. Stick to the regular, non-filled version friends.
There are sooooo many amazing places to eat in Oahu, so I’m listing everywhere I went (that I liked). But hands down my favorite places to eat/drink in all of Oahu (so if there’s a MUST VISIT list, this is it) include: Town, Leahi Health (Kaimuki), Ai Love Nalo (in Waimanalo), and Formaggio’s (wine bar, Market City). Now for the complete list, and breakdown by neighborhoods…
(1) Town (Kaimuki, locally owned, incredible farm-to-table food; I am still drooling over the roasted beet spread-bruschetta type dish topped with thinly sliced and marinated cucumbers and fresh herbs https://townkaimuki.com/); (2) Brew’d Craftpub (Kaimuki, owned by “Town” owners, have loads of beer choices and for those like me who don’t like beer, lots of great cider choices and a full bar; and the bar menu is YUM! I devoured the coconut curry hummus, served with the most perfect bite-sized hybrid between naan and pita bread you’ve ever tasted http://brewdcraftpub.com/); (3) Koa Pancake House (numerous locations, I went to Kaimuki; reminds me of a family owned diner, where you can get lots of fresh, yummy, good-for-your-soul food at super reasonable prices- I had a “short stack” = 3 massive, but so light, fluffy, and tasty, blueberry pancakes for $5.50 http://www.koapancakehouse.com/#home-section); (4) Via Gelato (Kaimuki, local, handmade gelato with flavors that change weekly http://www.viagelatohawaii.com/); (5) Leahi Health Kaimuki (small stand that features smoothies and “bowls” that top of the list of some of the best food I ate in all of Hawaii; the homemade hot sauce is especially yummy http://www.leahihealth.com/)
(6) Hale Vietnam offers yummy and affordable fare; (7) Mud Hen & (8) 12th Avenue Grill- both have great reputations for food, but I only had drinks (wonderful cocktails!!) so can’t comment on the food; (9) Vegan Hills (recommended to me by at least 3 meat eaters) has a DELISH brunch!! And seriously, some of the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten… EVER. Yummmmm!
In the battle of the coffee shops, three of the top cafes in Honolulu happen to be in Kaimuki: Coffee Talk, The Curb, and Bean About Town. They are all pretty pricey, though Coffee Talk is the probably the cheapest, if you stick with plain drop hot/iced coffee, and The Curb is the most expensive. Bean About Town was my favorite- they make a mean latte, and the rest of the menu looked good too.
Admittedly, I spent very little time hanging out in Waikiki this trip, so limited recommendations: Hideout bar at LayLow Hotel (Waikiki, great roof deck: http://www.hideoutwaikiki.com/).
Thanks to David, I was introduced to two more delightful restaurants, both of which are in McCully-Moiliili: (1) Peace Cafe (vegan, https://www.peacecafehawaii.com/); and (2) Da Spot (affordable, counter-style food ranging from meat to seafood to vegan! http://daspot.net/).
Olive Tree (near Kahala Mall, wonderful Greek restaurant that has a family restaurant feel, is very affordable, and you can BYOB- or grab a bottle of wine from the wine store located next door; loads of families with kids here).
While at the beach, I took a lunch break at Ai Love Nalo (www.ailovenalo.com), largely because of the awesome Yelp and Google reviews (mostly from meat eaters who were blown away by the food, which speaks volumes to me). AMAZING! I had the “medi bowl” and it is definitely right up at the top of list of best things I ate in Hawaii. Highly recommend!
Chinatown & Kaka’ako
Both of these neighborhoods are north of Waikiki, on either side of downtown, and offer some great options. Chinatown is about as authentic as it gets, and one restaurant located there, (1) The Pig & the Lady (Vietnamese-French, modern; https://thepigandthelady.com/) was recommended to me by everyone I met in Oahu. And it did not disappoint (plenty of meat options, but also, they had a super yummy vegan Pho!! Whaaaaaa?!). Kaka’ako has some cool developments going on, a lot of awesome street art you can walk around and see, and loads of places to eat at and shop in at SALT. I had lunch at (2) Vein (https://www.veinatkakaako.com/), which fuses some local, Hawaiian fare with Italian in a light, and delectable way. Finally, (3) Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar. I had a decent meal, but nowhere near as good as other restaurants on here. They have a decent selection of wines, though for wine bars I much preferred Formaggio (http://www.formaggiohonolulu.com/), located at the fringe of Waikiki in Market City. The owner and one of the servers were just amazing and treated me as though I was one of their favorite, regular customers. Good knowledge about wines and hard alcohol, and if you sit at the bar you’ll likely end up getting a few free shots of alcohol thrown your way because these guys (and regular customers who were at the bar) love their liquor (so, take that either as a bonus or a warning, haha). Oh, and I liked the food at Formaggio better than Vino too.
There are so many beaches in Oahu, I think I could go to a different beach/park daily for my entire month on the island and not see all of them. Below is a complete list of beaches I visited and enjoyed, and my attempt to classify them. But for a quick go-to guide: (1) best beaches for families- Hanauma and Turtle Bay (Waikiki as runner up); (2) best for white sand and clear water with limited crowds- Waimanalo, Lanikai, and Keawaula Beach; (3) short distance from Waikiki but more calm- Cromwell and Maunalua; and (4) best for breathtaking views- Hanauma, anything under #2 here, and Turtle Bay.
Proximity to Public Bathrooms, Restaurants, Bars, & Surfboard Rentals
Waikiki Beach (warning: do NOT leave valuables unattended for any period of time, theft is an issue)
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. This place is magic. But it isn’t free- unless you have a Hawaii driver’s license, you’ll have to pay $7.50 for entry and everyone is required to watch a 10 minute video (about safety and reef conservation) prior to going to the beach. You can also pay another $2.50 (per person) for a round-trip ticket on the trolley down to the beach; otherwise, it’s a few minutes’ walk down/up a big hill. There are no restaurants down at the beach, but up top there’s a snack shop, and anyone can buy food there (or bring it with you) and eat down at the beach. But this is a G-rated beach, so you gotta leave your favorite adult bev at home.
Turtle Bay. The north shore of Oahu is amazing for so many reasons. World famous surfing. Beautiful beaches, but far less crowded than those located at/near Waikiki. Turtle Bay is also famous on its own, most recognizable (to folks like me anyway) for being prominently featured in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (love that movie!). There is a bus (#55) that will take you here (yay!) or if you have a car, there are a number of “public beach access” parking spaces available in the hotel’s otherwise private parking lot; just get here early- by mid-afternoon all the spaces designated for public beach access were full. The bathrooms here are amazing! Only two, but they are hotel beach bathrooms (vs. public park bathrooms) so much nicer (= soap when you wash your hands, and something to dry hands with)! Then in the short walk to the beach you’ll find a beach stand that can provide gear or supplies, a “snack shop” (from famous Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi), a bar (same one in FSM, where Da’Vone McDonald played the bartender), and a restaurant. There are beach chairs, towels, and umbrellas you can rent, and my favorite ammenity: a fountain for your water bottles! So super convenient for families, but BYOB! Alcohol is a-ok here!
Small[er] Crowds, Few/No Services.
You want a beach all to yourself (or, at least, with significantly smaller crowds than those above)? The beaches below are where to go! They are peaceful and many back-up to beautiful homes; the solitude of these beaches means it’s much less risky to walk away from your towel and things and enjoy the water. If you’re looking to simply enjoy nature, and don’t mind packing your own snacks and water, these are some good spots.
Cromwell Beach. My landlord recommended this one; it’s a gem and very popular with locals. No services and you’re in a residential area, so come prepared. Rocky (but definitely plenty of sandy beach to lay out on). Great to watch surfing on this part of the island.
Kaimana Beach. Just south of Waikiki Beach, draws a local crowd, very safe, and still prime location to watch Friday night fireworks (set off every Friday night in Waikiki around 7:45pm).
Maunalua Bay Beach Park. This one offers nice, clean public bathrooms with toilet paper (however, no soap for washing hands), and is walkable distance to grocery stores and restaurants. But due to serene nature of the beach and lack of services immediately at the beach, I left it in this category. This seems to be a popular place to rent kayaks and launch boats; Hwy 72 is also immediately behind this beach. So if you carefully continue walking down 72, you’ll come to a residential neighborhood. In between every 5-10 of the beautiful beach homes there is a public access walkway out to the beaches on this side of the Kui Channel. While small, I shared my strip of beach with only 2 other people (locals) all day. And you’re far enough from any road that you don’t have to listen to cars.
Waimanalo Beach. Definitely one of my favorite beaches in Oahu. Stunning and almost no people there! There are public bathrooms available on either end of the beach, and with a relatively short walk you can be on the main street and find restaurants.
Lanikai Beach. Just up the road from Waimanalo, with a very similar feel, is Lanikai. You also walk through a residential neighborhood, and just beyond houses and trees: BOOM. Emerald green and various shades of blue water, with white sand beaches, and precious few people to spoil your view. Stunning.
Keawaula Beach (Kaena Point State Park). This is the most western point on Oahu and you can get in a hike (no shade so can get HOT in the sun, but it’s flat and easy otherwise) and then finish off on one of the most amazing beaches on the island. White sand all the way out (really nice not having to worry about rocks or the reef) and water gleaming emerald green and so clean and clear you can see down to the bottom yards off shore! There are bathrooms, but nowhere to buy food or water, so be sure to pack and bring with you. I had an amazing day exploring this area with David. If you’re visiting the island, it makes for a great day trip! And being the western most part of the island, it’s a special place to catch a sunset. One of my favorite days in Oahu.
I visited Kaneohe one day, and due to lots of rain and gray skies, ended up skipping most of my outdoor plans; though there are lots of hikes, beaches, and lookout points in this area, as well as the Kualoa Ranch, where you can choose from various activities, including a tour of the Jurassic Park and King Kong movie sets. Instead, I spent about 1.5 hours at The Byodo-In Temple (www.byodo-in.com).
I’ve been to countless holy sites around the world, many that, from the outside, seemed way more spiritual than this Temple. I mean, I didn’t see a single monk or hear any prayers. Nonetheless, I’ve never been to a more energetic and spiritual place in my life. You know that feeling when you’ve had a really great massage and your head is cloudy and fuzzy, your eyes are heavy, and your entire body feels good? That’s what I felt the moment I stepped across the bridge onto the Temple grounds. I walked around the site and found my way to the Meditation Pavilion, where I ended up sitting for ~45 minutes in meditation. I’ve never done that before in my life; at least, in an unguided meditation. Although I’m a few weeks into my meditation challenge, it’s still hard for me to still my mind, and I usually feel very proud if I can complete 15 minutes of unguided meditation in one sitting. So, yeah, there is something about this place. Definitely worth the $5 entry fee.
My last day on Oahu marked my 6th month anniversary of traveling. Leaving was bittersweet, because I grew to really love this island. When I arrived, I never imagined I’d grow so fond of Honolulu, but it is the perfect place for vacation- and thanks to the amazing public transit system, and availability of housing options, by far the most affordable of the islands to vacation on. Oahu officially makes the short list of places I could see myself moving to when I wrap up my travels! Aloha ❤