My daughter and I decided to visit O’ahu, Hawaii, over Thanksgiving, right after it reopened following the height of the COVID pandemic. After overcoming so many obstacles, including remote classes, Mia finally got her master’s degree in education. She and I have been traveling together since she was little, and her high school graduation gift was a trip to Jamaica. But she has dreamed of visiting Hawaii since she was tiny.
Of course, it’s expensive. And far. I’d been saving airline miles for two decades by the time we booked this, and I still only got one-way tickets for each of us. But you only get your master’s once, right?
Even better, she got a JOB. It was time to celebrate in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Maybe it was just me, but before I started planning our trip, I only had a vague grasp of which island was what. Hawaii is the state, comprising eight main islands and more than 130 in total. Honolulu is on the island of O’ahu. If you want to visit the other islands that make up Hawaii, you’ll likely need to fly through Honolulu on O’ahu or through Hilo on the Big Island, and then take another flight or ferry to one of the others.
Our Hawaii Trip: The Details
- The weather was perfect.
- The aloha spirit in Hawaii is truly lovely.
- We had a fantastic view of the ocean from our room, and our location on Waikiki Beach was killer.
- We had excellent recommendations from a friend who grew up on O’ahu.
- My phone slipped out of my pocket for a moment into a tide pool, frying it and toasting all of my vacation photos. See my blog on Hard-Won Lessons for Backing Up Your Travel Photos for details on how to not let this happen to you.
What I’d Do Differently
- Not drop my iPhone in the water.
- Plan out dinners better. Packing in a lot every day meant that when we were ready to eat, we were ready to eat now. We weren’t in the right place at the right time for the restaurants that we wanted to visit when i planned our trip to Hawaii. And even with limited tourism during COVID, it was tricky to get into some restaurants.
Transportation and Accommodations
An early (7 a.m.) Monday flight on Alaska Airlines, the cheapest I could find on Google Flights. We had a short (41-minute) layover in Seattle. Yes, Seattle is out of the way when you’re flying from Denver to Hawaii…but did I mention cheap? Fortunately, our gate for flight 2 was right next to our arrival gate for flight 1. We got to O’ahu at around 2 p.m. Hawaii time.
I used almost all of my United Airlines miles to get us home. I found a red-eye that departed at 10:45 p.m., which in essence gave us another full day on O’ahu. We had a 52-minute layover in Los Angeles, arriving in Denver at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Be careful when booking flights — look at not just the times, but also the dates and the total travel hours. Many flights to Hawaii require sleeping in an airport.
Accommodations in Oahu
We stayed at the Aston Waikiki Beach. Rooms are a little tired, but service was great. I found a fully refundable deal on Travelzoo during the pandemic good for anytime in 2021 (depending on availability) that offered:
- Four nights’ accommodations for two people in a Premier Oceanfront Room with one king or two double beds
- Discounted daily resort fee ($25, regularly $42)
- One-day car rental with four-night voucher (We had to call Avis directly to book the car rental.)
We parked in the Pikes Peak long-term shuttle parking at Denver International Airport. We took a Lyft in O’ahu from the airport to the hotel; it was cheaper than the recommended shuttle there. (And our driver, a lovely young woman, was from our small hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. What a small world!) Some of our activities in O’ahu included transportation (sometimes for an extra fee—see details later). We had a car for one day; otherwise, we took the bus or walked.
Day 1 — Waikiki
Tiki’s Bar and Grill
After we got settled in our room, we wandered down to the hotel’s restaurant on the second floor for a well-timed happy hour. Sunset happens early enough at this time of year in Hawaii that you can watch it from the cheap seats. We ordered the basic Mai Tai and all the things on the happy hour appetizer menu, plus a slice of crepe layer cake.
This is the main drag in Waikiki, named for King David Kalakaua. It’s hopping at all times of day, but at night it really comes alive, with street performers as well as people experiencing homelessness. You’ll find shops such as Tesla and Fendi along this one-mile strip running parallel to the beach, as well as the ubiquitous ABC Stores, with literally one on every block. We strolled and marveled at the beauty of the ocean, until by 8 p.m. or so we could barely keep our eyes open. (That was 11 p.m. Mountain Time, and we’d been up since 3:30 a.m.) We went back to the hotel to shower and unpack and slept hard.
If you want a cocktail to enjoy by the hotel pool, a banana for a snack, a diet soda, a cheap souvenir, a body board, etc., the ABC Store is your go-to. We resisted the corporate man for a few days, then realized that we could have saved money and steps by picking up snacks right next door.
The resort fee allegedly covers use of a GoPro for a day, water bottles, beach chair and towels, Wi-Fi, afternoon activities including lei making, discounts at shops and restaurants, and more. We didn’t find the beach chairs until it was time to leave. There didn’t seem to be any activities or discounts. COVID? And we heard them tell another guest that water beyond the first two bottles cost extra. They did provide lots of towels and reef-safe sunscreen at the desk.
Day 2 — The North Shore
A cute surf town with fun shops—this was the first of many great recommendations from my friend Jenn, who grew up on O’ahu. Fair warning: The town gets more congested as the day goes on. This is where we did most of our souvenir shopping and got shave ice at Matsumoto’s.
It’s made on the spot and delicious — a true Hawaii classic. Get it with the sweetened red beans, and ice cream inside—trust me. And go early; the line gets long, though it moves fast.
Our first glimpse of the wild North Shore. We hoped to spot sea turtles at this popular spot. We slogged through some incredible traffic backed up all along Kamehameha Highway and snagged a parking spot. Alas, no sea turtles, though beautiful waves and sea birds. We proceeded to Waimea Beach.
A classic North Shore beach, great for families, though the waves were powerful. We inched along in traffic on Kamehameha Highway to the lot, but it was full. We circled like vultures fruitlessly and finally left…
…pulling into the Waimea Valley botanical gardens drive down the road. We found parking along the drive advertised for $10 in a shady yard with a little rustic house, lots of little outbuildings, many chickens and several cheerful men drinking beer in chairs. We grabbed our gear and crossed the busy highway, making our way back to the beach changing room by foot. But we should have gone the opposite way—walked on down the drive to the gardens to park and change, saving us a trip down the road and across the highway twice.
It was 2:30 by the time we changed, and we still wanted to swim in the falls, which sounded like they were at the end of a little hike, according to the literature. They’re actually a part of the Waimea Valley botanical gardens, which was the opposite direction from the beach and our parking. And the gardens closed at 4.
So after we changed into our suits, we walked back down the highway, down the drive past the car and further down the road to the gardens, where there was free parking but a $20 per person admission to get to the falls. We hustled through the gardens, clambered down the slick rocks into the crowded, murky pool and swam to the refreshing falls, then enjoyed the lush forest a bit as we made our way back down through the gardens, past the car again, down the highway and to the beach for the start of the early sunset.
After just a short spell on Waimea, we hiked back to the car, drove up the highway amid sunset, and lucked into parking at this legendary beach a few miles up the road. This is where the big surf competitions happen — the ones you see on TV. I was pretty stoked to be there. Lots of surfers were still out at dusk popping tricks.
We drove back to Haleiwa in the pitch dark desperate for our first real meal of the day. It was nice except for the jerks revving cars, blasting stereos and setting off fireworks in the parking lot right across the road.
Our Travelzoo deal included a one-day car rental. Avis (based at the hotel) was out of Kia Souls, so they upgraded us to a convertible Camaro. Excellent!
Beware the parking ogre in the lot behind Matsumoto’s. We followed the painted arrows to leave, only to be told we were idiots by a furious little man in a lawn chair who pointed to a sign way out near the road directing cars the other way.
Day 3 — Honolulu and the Leeward Coast
Pearl Harbor & Honolulu City Tour
We started with a tour purchased from pearlharbor.org, though the operator was actually Fly Shuttle Tours. Unfortunately, a movie and introduction are no longer a part of the experience (COVID?) at Pearl Harbor, so there was little buildup to the boat trip to the memorial. It was moving nonetheless to see where all the boys (they were my daughter’s age, so boys) remained entombed. The city tour was a bit meh (that could have been our driver), but we were glad to see some of the stops along the way, and the transportation from our hotel made it worthwhile.
Paradise Cove Luau
I paid extra for the bus transportation, which was a good call because not only did we avoid a long drive or Lyft during rush hour to the western side of the island, but we were also entertained to and from by Cousin Louie, a wonderful woman with solid stand-up comedian potential and the aloha spirit. The food was plentiful and delicious, and the dancing and singing were phenomenal, though the floodlights during dinner and the long drink lines were a buzzkill. I thought it would be slightly more intimate—there were hundreds of people there. The location, however, is killer, on the west side of the island for a stunning sunset.
You can’t carry anything bigger than a wallet into Pearl Harbor, nor leave it on the shuttle. Put what you need into your pockets and leave the rest at your hotel. There is a tiny snack shop, where we got some crackers to serve as breakfast and lunch, and a tiny gift shop.
Day 4 — Windward Oahu
What better way to spend Thanksgiving than hiking a volcanic crater? According to the website, they were open. We bought a Hop-On Hop-Off bus pass to get there and hopped off at the appropriate spot, only to discover midway up the hill that the park had suddenly closed for the holiday. About 1,000 other people discovered the same at the same time, to the dismay of the poor lone guard.
I’ve blogged about my love of Hop-On Hop-Off buses. After the Diamond Head fail, we waited for the next bus and took the blue line to Windward Oahu. Our driver gave a great tour: We saw the studio where all Hawaii TV/film productions are made; gawked at the Halona Blowhole, which only sputters in the fall; and hopped off to spend a blissful hour on the stunning but quiet Kaupo Beach Park. We took lots of fabulous photos…right until my iPhone slid out of my pocket and plopped into a saltwater pond for a minute. (See our blog on backing up your travel photos.) The hour on Kaupo was one of my most magical.
Two beers and a very expensive shared poke: $48. But a good vibe as we contemplated my phone.
Apple Store Waikiki, Oahu Mexican Grill
Not the way you want to spend an evening in Oahu. Can I suggest a fanny pack/waist bag? After a frustrating trip to the store, we settled for meh fast-food Mexican in a loud upper-story grill.
Day 5 — Waikiki Beach, Travel
Hawaii is a long flight. Faced with an early morning departure or a red-eye when booking our return trip, I chose the latter. We spent the morning snorkeling and body surfing right in front of our hotel, hoping that the admin on my Verizon family plan was having some luck connecting my new phone to service.
Aston Waikiki Beach poolside
If you’re going to spend several hours fruitlessly texting Verizon customer service from your daughter’s phone while she grades papers, there are worse places to do so.
Hop-On Hop-Off, Verizon Honolulu
The pink line is just $5 per person, so we took it over to the Verizon store near the mall in Honolulu for a new SIM card. Not the way to spend two hours on your last day in Hawaii.
One of those signature things, but I wouldn’t do it again. I would have preferred a more flavorful and less pricey poke bowl downstairs.
Body boards are as cheap to buy at ABC stores as they are to rent — about $15. You can take one home if you want to check it; otherwise, give it to a local.
Flights: This was the cost for both of us, but I used United Airlines miles for our return trip. I paid for checked bags for both of us on our way there, and one bag on the way back (we ate the snacks we took — see below), totaling $130.
Hotel: As mentioned previously, our room was part of a Travelzoo package with reduced resort fees and an oceanview room. It had two double beds.
Food/Drink: Buying meals and cocktails for two adds up fast. We could have done better with more planning — finding happy hours, getting to the restaurants we’d preplanned instead of being so hungry we needed to eat immediately. We mostly ate snacks for breakfast and lunch. This total doesn’t include the meal we at the luau — that’s included in activities.
Souvenirs: I need to stop buying art. But I found this very cool B-W matted photo by a local photographer of a famous local surfer hanging 10 in an astronaut suit for $45 (the sign said $35, but when I took it to the counter at Hawaiian Aroma Coffee, they said it was $45 because of the mat…yet they were all matted). I also got a hula dude for my car dashboard. He makes me happy!
Car: $5.75 plus $16.74 in fuel
Car: The one-day rental was included in our Travelzoo deal; this was for tax. My credit card and AAA membership covered insurance. I photographed all dings before I left. I filled it up at a nearby gas station before returning it.
Parking: We drove to and from Denver International Airport and left our car in the Pikes Peak lot, taking the shuttle to and from. I also paid $10 cash to the guys in the yard at Waimea Valley in Hawaii—we could have parked free at the gardens.
Other Transportation: $125.75
Transportation: Lyft to and from the airport in Oahu was about $33 each way for two, including tip. I added the trolley/Hop-On Hop-Off costs here.
Activities: This included the transportation that was a part of our two tours, and the food that was a part of our luau, so there was some overlap.
Total: $3,089.06 for two travelers
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