I was lucky enough to grow up in Kaneohe and Kailua on the island of Oahu—my parents had visited for their honeymoon in the 1980s and fallen in love with the island, vowing to move there someday and raise a family, which they eventually did. After leaving our home in Kailua 14 years ago, my mother and I finally had a chance to go back and visit Oahu this year, stopping by our old haunts along the Windward coast and North Shore, and checking out new restaurants and nightlife in Honolulu and Waikiki now that I was actually old enough to enjoy them.
Hawaii will always have a place in my heart and if you're in the process of planning your own island adventure, I want you to help you have the most amazing trip possible. Here are my best tips for visiting Oahu, Hawaii's Gathering Place, whether it's your first trip or you're a veteran visitor.
Always look for travel deals
First things first, always check for flight specials on Hawaiian Airlines, especially if you're flying from the West coast or from JFK in New York. If you don't see anything you like there, browse through Budget Travel's Hawaii travel deals to find air and hotel packages to the islands.
If you want to see Pearl Harbor, reserve your tickets ahead of time online.
Nothing ruins a trip more than not planning ahead and getting locked out of a major attraction you came all the way to see. Anyone interested in World War II history will want to visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, a moving reminder of the attack that launched the United States into World War II in the Pacific. Click here to reserve your tickets ahead of time (you'll have to pay a $1.50 convenience fee per ticket but other than that, it's free.) Each historic tour is about an hour and 15 minutes long, and includes a boat ride to the site of the USS Arizona Memorial, where you can see the remains of the battleship just below the water's surface.
Make time to venture out of Waikiki and Honolulu
Some of the island's best attractions are located out of the main tourist zone of Waikiki Beach and Honolulu, but are still worth checking out. The Bus, Hawaii's main form of public transportation, offers a variety of options for as low as $2.50 a ride with two free transfers, or you could even hop on one of the Circle Island Tours, which last anywhere from 2.5 to 4.5 hours depending on where you board. A four-day bus pass is also available for $35 per person. Of course, the other option is to rent a car and travel around the island at your own pace. My favorite drive? Up the windward coast from Waikiki to Waimanalo along Kalanianaole (pronounced "ka-la-nee-ah-nah-oh-lee") Highway, where you'll have Koko Head, a dormant yet impressive-looking volcano on one side, and sharp cliffs leading into the bluest ocean you've ever seen on the other.
Step into your favorite films at Kualoa Ranch
Are you a fan of Jurassic Park, George of the Jungle, or LOST? Don't miss the "Hollywood's Hawaii Backlot" Tour at Kualoa Ranch, where you can take a 90-minute trip through Ka'a'wa Valley onboard a vintage school bus and visit Godzilla's footprints, Hurley's golf course from LOST, and take a silly photo with the fallen tree from the infamous raptor-chase scene in Jurassic Park. There's also a chance to walk through a legit WWII bunker and check out some historical artifacts from the 1940s. Kualoa Ranch also offers a number of tours and day-trips—my favorite is the trip to "Secret Island," where you can chill out on the beach, play volleyball, or go kayaking around Kaneohe Bay for 2.5 hours (each tour mentioned here starts at $35 for adults, $25 for children ages 3-12).
Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
Spend a day snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, a protected nature preserve on Oahu's southeast coast that rents out snorkel gear and a supply of fish food guaranteed to work the wildlife into a tizzy you'll never forget. Tickets start at $7.50 per person, free for children under 3 and Hawaii residents and it costs $1 to park. Open daily except Tuesday.
Get to know Polynesian culture
Visit Oahu's North Shore and spend a day exploring the Polynesian Cultural Center, where locals from Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Aotearoa (New Zealand), and other islands showcase their cultural dances, food, music, and other traditions (tickets start at $59.95 for adults, $47.96 for kids ages 5-11). For a real treat, opt for the Ali'i Luau Package, which gives you daytime admission, entry to the Ali'i Luau and dinner show, and great seats at Ha: The Breath of Life, an incredible show and the perfect way to end your day in paradise (from $99.95 for adults, from $79.96 for children ages 5-11).
Taste shrimp scampi and shave ice on Oahu's North Shore
If you're venturing up to see the sights of Oahu's North Shore, make sure you stop by Giovanni's Shrimp Truck in Kahuku just outside the town of Laie—their shrimp scampi is still something I think about, even though it's been 14 years since we moved. The North Shore is also home to Oahu's legendary shaved ice spot, Matsumoto Shave Ice, in the historic town of Haleiwa. They're known all over the island for having a unique variety of flavors like tangerine, green tea, and creamsicle among others, so choose wisely.
Stay in the middle of the Waikiki—for less!
Waikiki is home to family-friendly beaches and great nightlife. Stay in the center of all the action at The Shoreline Hotel Waikiki, located just a few blocks from Waikiki Beach near the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center (a Joie de Vivre hotel, rates from $170 per night in January). For that iconic Diamond Head view, stay at the Park Shore Waikiki, a beautiful beachfront hotel that's just steps from Waikiki Beach and located next to Kapiolani Park, home of the Honolulu Zoo, (rates from $153 per night thanks to their Rock A Shaka special).
For more information and to plan your Hawaii adventure, visit GoHawaii.com.