My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

Many months ago when my husband and I were discussing where we wanted to go during our daughter’s school break the end of February/first part of March, Hawaii came up. As much as I’m dying to go to Portugal, I want to wait until the weather is more ideal than it would be the end of February. Hawaii, on the other hand, has perfect weather year-round. The last time we were in Hawaii, which was the second time for each of us, we went to Kauai and the big island and these had become our collective favorite islands. I think it was assumed we would return to the big island and Kauai this time as well.

At the time of our trip planning, the big island was having its most recent massive volcanic eruption. Sections of the island were closed and the air quality was poor. I knew of course things wouldn’t always be like that but I had no idea how long the lingering effects would go on. For example, would Volcanoes National Park or parts of it be closed when we wanted to go there? How long would the poor air quality linger? Not really wanting to take a chance and perhaps being overly-cautious, I suggested maybe we should skip the big island but go to another island instead, along with Kauai. Perhaps we should go to Oahu; after all, Oahu is the most-visited of the Hawaiian islands.

Although he didn’t say as much, I could tell my husband was highly doubtful of my suggestion to go to Oahu. He had been to Oahu many years ago with his mother and sister and had been less than impressed. He tells stories of having to step over body after body on Waikiki Beach and only having barely enough room to put his towel down. Pretty much all he remembers doing on that vacation is going to Waikiki Beach multiple days, driving to the North Shore for the day, and taking a day trip to the big island.

Nonetheless, I began researching Oahu and talking to some co-workers who I knew had been to Oahu several times. I decided we would go to Kauai for a week and Oahu for four days. However, I was adamant that we wouldn’t stay in the Waikiki or Honolulu areas. When I found this gem of a place on Airbnb, I was sold. Since it’s actually part of Paradise Bay Resort, you get resort amenities (more on that later) and free breakfast through Airbnb. We would be staying on the east side of Oahu in a bay, close enough to drive to plenty of good places to hike and pretty much anywhere else on the island we wanted but far enough from the massive crowds to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Flying into Oahu, I immediately noticed the colors of the water seemed somehow prettier than the other islands. The turquoise was more vivid and there was more variation in colors. Then I saw the sprawl of Honolulu and all of the buildings, homes, and hotels crammed together and I was glad I had found the resort in Kaneohe Bay. After we landed and collected our rental car, we drove to the Crazy Shirts outlet and got some lunch nearby. Then we went up to the top of the Diamond Head State Monument and the fun really started.

Diamond Head State Monument is undoubtedly one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been to but absolutely worth it for the views. From the trailhead to the summit of Diamond Head Crater is 0.8 miles one way with 560 feet increase in elevation from the crater floor. There are hundreds of stairs and you go through a couple of tunnels. If you don’t like crowds or small spaces, I wouldn’t advise going here. However, if you don’t mind pushing your way through hordes of people (sometimes you literally have to do this), you’ll be rewarded with amazing views like this:

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View from top of Diamond Head State Monument
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Another view from Diamond Head showing the masses of people around but amazing views

For the rest of our time in Oahu, we mostly spent our time hiking but we also went to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). One thing we discovered about the PCC is that you don’t in fact have to buy a ticket to walk around the grounds if you get there after 6 pm. General admission ticket prices (which are the cheapest offered) are $64.95 for adults and this includes a visitor’s center tour, self-guided tour through six different themed areas (like New Zealand), hands-on activities, a canoe ride, a brief movie, and a canoe show. However, if you’re content to walk through the themed areas on your own for a couple of hours in the evening, you can do so for free. There are also options that you can add on things like a luau, reserved seating, an evening show, and on and on with the most-inclusive package priced at $242.95.

Another non-hiking activity we did in Oahu was visit the Byodo-In Temple in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. The Byodo-In Temple is a non-practicing Buddhist temple often used for weddings, funerals, and cremation services. I found the temple and grounds to be beautiful and peaceful. There is also a small gift shop on-site.

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Byodo-In Temple

Some of our favorite hiking spots were Waimea Valley and Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park. Waimea Valley also has a botanical garden with thousands of different types of plants from around the world and a waterfall that you can swim in. This valley has historically been home to kings, chiefs, and high priests. You can see many archaeological sites throughout the valley. Admission for visiting adults is $16.95 and you can arrange for complimentary tours and activities depending on the day and time (check the website).

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A Looking Glass Tree at Waimea Valley (as Alice in Wonderland fans, my daughter and I loved seeing this)
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Waterfall at Waimea Valley

Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park was established to nurture and foster native Hawaiian cultural traditions and the cultural landscape of rural windward Oʻahu. Established as a “living park”, there are thirty-one families living in the ahupuaʻa of Kahana. These families assist with interpretive programs that share the Hawaiian values and lifestyle. There are two hiking trails available to the public, Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail is a one mile long loop trail that begins at the Orientation Center and takes about one hour. The trail passes two cultural sites and offers stunning views of Kahana Bay. Nakoa Trail is named for the koa trees found along this 2.5 mile loop trail through a tropical rain forest. The loop hike takes about 2 hours. The total length of the hike is 5 miles from the Orientation Center.

My family and I are all about trails with views, so we chose the Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail. As per our former experience with hiking trails in Hawaii, this one was extremely muddy and slippery in parts. The trail wasn’t too difficult other than navigating through the mud until we reached one of the viewpoints of the bay. At this point, the trail became what I would call pretty dangerous, with sharp drop-offs on both sides of a thin walkway. My husband went up that section to take some photos but I chose to stay behind until he came back and we went back the way we came. Also, if you go on this trail, wear bug-spray because we didn’t and got eaten alive by mosquitoes.

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View from Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park

The final thing we did in Oahu that was a ton of fun was to go standup paddleboarding for the first time. Remember that awesome Airbnb we stayed at- well, Paradise Bay Resort offers free standup paddleboarding and kayaking lessons once a day on certain days. After a quick lesson of what to do (it’s pretty simple, honestly) we began paddleboarding around the small body of water (I guess you’d call it an inlet) directly behind the resort. Once I felt confident on my knees, I stood and pretty quickly felt like I had the hang of it. However, the winds were really strong that day and every time I tried to go out into the bay, the wind would push me backwards. Finally, I decided to just stay in the inlet. There were mangroves and I could still see into the bay so it was still scenic.

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Standup paddleboarding!

On our final day in Oahu, we tried to go to the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout but unfortunately the Pali Highway was closed when we were there. All was not lost, though. We made our way to Leonard’s Bakery to try some famous malasadas, which are Portuguese donuts without the hole. For the three of us, we ordered two each with Li Hing, cinnamon sugar, and original coating but when I opened the box in the car, I discovered they had given us several extras. We also got some of the custard-filled ones and extra ones of the others as well- bonus!

We decided to walk along the harbor area of Honolulu before heading to the airport and it was a nice way to end our time in Oahu. I know I for one was very glad I decided to take a chance and come to Oahu and I feel pretty sure my family would agree! Since we’re not really ones to go where the crowds are (with some exceptions like Diamond Head in this case) but we prefer to go a bit off the beaten path, the windward side was perfect for us.

Have you been to Oahu? Did you stay in popular Waikiki or somewhere else? Tell me about your experience in Hawaii.

Happy travels!

Donna

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My Top 5 Favorite Places Outside the United States and Why I Love Them

Similar to my list of top 10 favorite places in the United States and Why I Love Them, I decided to write up a list of my favorite places outside the United States. Since I’ve traveled more extensively inside the US than outside, I limited it to my top 5 international places, only I felt the need for an honorable mention since I couldn’t limit it to just 5 places. I wanted to choose one city for each pick, but was unable to in most cases, so I limited the choices to a region or small area. I hope you enjoy my list! It was a lot of fun to make the list and reminisce about places I’ve been to over the years.

Honorable Mention:  Rethymno, Crete, Greece. As I’ve said many times on my blog, when my family and I travel, we often veer off the beaten path a bit. We don’t always go where the crowds go. So when we went to Greece, while we did go to the popular destination of Athens, we skipped the tourist-flooded islands of Santorini and Mykonos and opted for Crete instead. We may eventually go to some of the aforementioned islands, but we’re in no rush. Crete was absolutely everything we love in a vacation spot- there were beautiful hiking areas and some of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I especially enjoyed the Venetian harbor and fortress in Rethymno. Within driving distance are ruins (such as Knossos), caves, gorges, and many quaint small villages to keep you busy and in awe. My favorite beach on Crete is Elafonisi, with its pink sand and clear water, but there are many other beautiful beaches in Crete as well.

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Number 5:  St. Kitts and Nevis. These tiny islands in the Caribbean are only about 65 and 36 square miles each, respectively. My husband and I got married on the island of St. Kitts and took a ferry to Nevis for our honeymoon. We stayed at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis and it is still to this day one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. It is the Caribbean’s only historic plantation on the beach. The service at Nisbet Plantation is unparalleled, the food top-notch, and the accommodations amazing. While there isn’t a ton to do on the island, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all and just relax and be pampered. St. Kitts has a bit more to do on the island than Nevis, and there are many options for outdoor enthusiasts. The day before our wedding, my fiancé and I climbed up to the top of one of the volcanic peaks on St. Kitts, even though our tour guide thought we were crazy given the timing. Other than our wedding, it was the highlight of our trip to St. Kitts so I was very glad we did it. St. Kitts and Nevis are both the perfect places to go if you enjoy outdoor activities and water sports.

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I loved the black volcanic rocks in St. Kitts
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One of many beautiful views in St. Kitts

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Number 4:  St. Johann im Pongau district, Austria. Two places are of mention here: Bad Gastein and Werfen. When I read an article about Austria and saw a photo of Bad Gasteiner Wasserfall (waterfall) I immediately wanted to go. You could say the whole reason I went to Austria at all was because of that photo of a waterfall and the travel article written about the area.

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I finally got to take my own photo of Gasteiner Wasserfall!

We went to Austria in the spring and there were more waterfalls here than anywhere else I have ever been. Bad Gastein is a spa town in the district of St. Johann im Pongau, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the state of Salzburg. Other than the city of Salzburg, this area is full of tiny towns great for hiking and exploring. I found the people here very friendly, the food good, and the scenery outstanding. Werfen is famous for the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave, one of the highlights of our vacation in Austria. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the cave, but here are a couple of photos from their website.

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Also in Werfen is the Burg Hohenwerfen, a castle that’s over 900 years old. There are extensive weaponry displays and an impressive falconry flight display. The castle is surrounded by the Salzachtal Valley so it’s beautiful just to walk the grounds.

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Number 3:  Banff, Canada. A few years ago we went to Missoula, Montana where I ran a half marathon and we followed up the race with a visit to Glacier National Park, which I thought was pretty amazing, but then we went to Banff, Canada and the scenery just kept getting better the further north we went. As majestic as the Rocky Mountains are in the United States, I think the Canadian Rocky Mountains are even more so. The glacier-fed waters in the area are such a beautiful hue of greenish-blue and the mountains are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Banff National Park, about 70 miles west of Calgary, is the oldest national park in Canada. I found the town of Banff to be pretty touristy but it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and art galleries so you can find plenty to do here when you’re not hiking. There are many, many tours including glacier tours, boat tours, and general sightseeing tours if that interests you. We took a boat tour on Lake Minnewanka, the only lake in Banff National Park open to public motorized boating, and it was definitely a highlight of our time there.

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Number 2:  Florence, Italy. Since I wanted to limit my choices to one city whenever possible, this one was tough to choose just one city we went to in Italy. I loved Rome almost as much as Florence, but in the end I’d have to say Florence may have the edge, but just slightly. I was surprised I loved Florence as much as I did, honestly. Before I went to Italy, I expected Venice or Rome to be my favorites (we also went to Naples and Pompeii), but Florence won my heart. I think it must have been the art that did it. While I was in Florence, I felt like I was immersed in art. You could go to just an ordinary little shop and there would be the most beautiful mosaic, or at a small cafe and find gorgeous statues or paintings just kind of tucked away, obviously not for ostentatious display but just part of the cafe. There are of course the famous museums such as Uffizi Gallery, Accademia Gallery, and the small but still stunning Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Then there are the many beautiful piazzas, cathedrals, and other archeological sites. All of these places are so out of this world beautiful just one place alone would make for an incredible visit to the city, but the fact that there are so many stunningly beautiful places in one city make it almost surreal. With some of the best food and wine in the world on top of the artwork everywhere, what more could you ask for?

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Number 1:  Whitianga, New Zealand. This one was also a tough one. I knew somewhere in New Zealand would be my top choice, but to limit it to just one place was really difficult. The North Island of New Zealand is so diverse with its Redwood Forests, sandy beaches, geysers, wine country, and rolling hills. I loved touring Hobbiton and found the countryside there beautiful. Seeing the glow worms of Waitomo Caves was incredible. Walking around the geysers and thermal mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua was like being on another planet. Walking through the redwoods forest was so quiet and serene. But our boat ride through the sea caves in Whitianga was something impossible to ever top. The water was such a gorgeous color of blue-green and being able to go inside some of the caves was so much fun. I felt like I had a smile plastered across my face from beginning to end of the tour. This is a place that has seriously ruined other boat tours for me because nothing will ever be able to compare. Besides the boat tour here, the beaches are also some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Whitianga also has wineries, a fun museum, and hiking trails, all things I love. I almost didn’t include this area as part of our North Island tour because I didn’t think we’d have time. I’m so glad that didn’t happen because we would have missed the best part!

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Being in this small boat made it easy to go in the caves and explore

Has anyone else been to these places? Does anyone want to go now?