But lo and behold, I found myself exploring every nook and cranny that I possibly could in my short time there. What amazed me the most was how much the island has to offer — not only amazing beaches (and trust me, there’s scores of them), but an amazing and diverse dining scene, cultural and historical activities, and just mind-boggling beauty literally at every twist and turn.
My trip inspired me to write this #WilsonsGuide Top 10 List of Honolulu. I couldn’t pack in everything and there are still so many places I want to visit — like Diamond Head, the Dole Plantation and Manoa Waterfalls — but it's definitely a start. So, in the meantime, check out my suggestions below and feel free to leave your favorite Oahu destinations in the comments section!
10) Where to Eat: Helena’s Hawaiian Food @ Honolulu
Right off the bat, one of the first places you absolutely have to visit is Helena’s. This inter-generational, family-owned restaurant is located in a more residential area of Honolulu, not too far from the main Waikiki drag. It’s super casual, super low-key, and serves up traditional Hawaiian fare accompanied by outstanding customer service. Try items like Kalua Pig (pictured above, top left corner) — flavorful shredded pork cooked with cabbage; Fried Butterfish Collar (pictured above, bottom right corner) — a simple white fish that’s softly fried; or my favorite, the Pipikaula Shortribs (pictured above, bottom left corner) — grilled short ribs with incredible flavor. You can also order Poi, a purple, soupy-like side dish made from the taro plant that’s a popular Hawaiian staple (pictured above, top middle photo; not my cup of tea, but hey, go for it). Best part, Helena’s prices are very reasonable and portions are substantial. Last thing to note: Reservations aren’t accepted and it’s cash only.
9) Where to be Merry: Waikiki Beach @ Honolulu
Yes, it’s touristy and yes, it’s crowded, but you can’t go to Oahu without visiting one of the most famous beaches in Hawaii, in the U.S., if not in the world. Located on the South Shore, Waikiki Beach is on the smaller side (two-miles long in total) but that doesn’t stop it from boasting incredible eye-catching attractions at every turn. Diamond Head, the colossal volcanic crater, looms to the east, the famous status of Duke Kahanamoku is nearby and scores of posh, upscale resort high-rises are inches away from the sand. Hordes of tourists frolic in the water, cruise along the boardwalk or simply bask in the sun. If you’re looking for R&R, this is not the beach to go to, but it’s still super fun to take in all of the stimulating sights.
8) Where to Eat: Duke’s Waikiki @ Honolulu
And while you’re on Waikiki Beach, you might as well stop by Duke’s Waikiki, a beachfront restaurant and bar that has killer cocktails and a pretty impressive menu. It’s standard bar fare, but with a few tropical twists and higher quality ingredients. The Waikiki hot wings feature free-range chicken and Duke’s special sauce. If you’re looking to keep it light and healthy, go with the caramelized beet salad, pictured below. It’s a delightful blend of beets, arugula, goat cheese and candied macadamia nuts. There’s also not a shortage of libations, made with tropical ingredients like coconut cream, passion fruit juice and pineapple bitters. And when you go, IMO, there’s only one place you need to sit; right on the outdoor patio to get the best view of all of the action happening on the beach (pictured above). Allow yourself a couple of hours to kick up your feet, kick back a few cold ones and truly enjoy Duke’s!
7) Where to be Merry: The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument @ Pearl Harbor
I’m not a history buff and I’m a lover, not a fighter, so I assumed that visiting a war memorial wouldn’t move me that much. Boy, I was wrong. Incredibly wrong. The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which comprises museums, the sunken USS Arizona Memorial battleship and a handful of other outdoor exhibits, eloquently and honorably pieces together the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the historic events and cultural atmosphere that led up to it. It’s sobering and humbling to walk through the grounds, and to consider all of the men and women who bravely died fighting until their last breaths. Most of the monument’s points of interest are free, like visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, pictured below, a sunken battleship that remains the final resting place for 1,000+ sailors and marines. For additional fees, you can visit a museum located on the USS Bowfin Submarine or the Pacific Aviation Museum. Tip: The Monument gives away 1,300 free tickets daily, which go pretty quickly. Whether you go on your own or with a tour company (speaking from experience, I highly recommended not going this route — at all), you’ll have to stand in an exorbitantly long line that starts to form very early in the morning — I’m talking like 6, 7 a.m. — to ensure you get a ticket to enter.
6) Where to be Merry: The Devil’s Den Tour @ Chinatown
I often associate Hawaii with beautiful beaches, much-needed relaxation and happy-go-lucky charm — not with the Bubonic plague, disastrous fires and leprosy. But lo and behold, these unpleasant occurrences are a significant part of Honolulu’s history, and more specifically, its Chinatown’s past. Honolulu Exposed runs the Devil’s Den Tour, a nighttime tour that highlights some of the most significant and also some pretty dismal happenings of this neighborhood, in a little over an hour. While the modern day Chinatown looks somewhat lackluster, it’s interesting to imagine what it must have been like during the turn of the 20th century, as you listen to incredulous tales and view old black-and-white photos.
5) Where to Eat: Dinner @ Chinatown
Speaking of Chinatown, it’s also the location for a burgeoning urban dining scene, with trendy bars and upscale restaurants popping up everywhere. There’s places like The Pig & the Lady, Lucky Belly and Grondin French-Latin Kitchen. One top contender I stopped by was Fete Hawaii. This corner restaurant has a laid-back vibe and curious menu — with items like the Mexican Lasagna, pictured below, with goat cheese, roasted poblanos, black beans and Mexican rice (soooo good!). And, they know how to throw down with the drinks. My Ma’I’i Tai — also pictured below and made with fancy ingredients like Creole Shrubb, Poha Berry Shrub, Orgeat and two types of rum — is seriously one of the most potent drinks I’ve had in my life. Lastly, I also love the neighborhood vibes. The owner routinely walked around to check in on guests, and after their shifts finished, wait staff sat at the bar to relax and chop it up with the bartender.
4) Where to Drink: Night Caps @ TR Fire Grill
Housed in the Hilton Garden Inn in Waikiki, TR Fire Grill officially opened its doors in December 2016 (random fun fact: it's the second TR Fire Grill to open; the first debuted in Winter Park, Florida back in 2015). A sleek white bar runs down almost the entire length of the unassuming, modern space, and, it’s also where all the magic happens. Bartenders make a mean Maui Daiquiri (pictured above), complete with limes, house made simple syrup and wood-grilled, pineapple-infused rum. But better yet, we had a bartender who was able to make delicious specialty cocktails based on flavors we liked. Now that calls for an A+ for effort, creativity and the ability to think quickly on the spot. They also serve American fare that’s easy on the palate. The Chocolate Mayhem pictured below — chocolate ice cream, coffee ice cream and a molten lava chocolate cake — were definitely worth all the miles I’m going to have to now run to burn off all these calories.
3) Where to be Merry: Sandy Beach
A 30-minute drive heading east from Waikiki will take you to Hanauma Bay, one of the most frequently recommended beaches to visit on the island. However, should you find yourself unable to enter this beautiful beach like us (if you’re not there literally by 7a.m. or 7:30 a.m., the parking lot fills up and staff will not let anyone enter to park) or just want to perhaps see another beach in the area after checking out the bay, Sandy Beach is nearby. It's a brief one-mile drive heading northeast up a windy, one-lane road that hugs cliffs jetting out into the sea (pictured below). Sandy Beach was pretty deserted when we went, save for the few brave souls facing the massive waves and a few locals walking their dogs or chilling on the sand. Apparently, it’s nicknamed “break-neck” beach for the amount of injuries that happen every year, so just be careful should you choose to swim here. Regardless if you swim or not, there’s still so much to see…like the powerful 10-feet waves pounding the sand or the 50-feet waves that soar high into the sky and then violently crash against the cliffs, that are to the south of the beach.
2) Where to be Merry: Lanikai & Kailua Beaches @ Kailua
There’s a duo of beaches on the eastern side of Oahu, about 45-minutes from Waikiki, in the town of Kailua: Lanikai and Kailua Beaches. Less than a mile apart, they’re very similar. They’re both located in residential areas, both boast picturesque views and both have sweeping stretches of pristine sand and deep blue-green seas. While you’ll definitely see people out and about, these beaches are way less crowded than Waikiki. They’re great to visit if you want to get in the water — the currents aren’t as strong as say Sandy Beach — and you don’t want to deal with the whole touristy or commercialized scene. Since they are located in more residential areas, though, there aren’t a lot of restaurants or stores around; so, pack a picnic and all necessary supplies to take with you. Kalapawai Market is a nearby local health food store and deli that serves up great sandwiches and burgers to carry out, and has a wide variety of beverages, including fresh coffee, beer and wines.
1) Where to be Merry: Beaches @ North Shore
Hands down without any hesitation, my favorite place (for now) in Oahu is the North Shore. This seven-mile stretch of coastal land is wildly untamed, with vehemently powerful waves and a breath-taking, feral beauty. The area features 10+ distinctly different beaches. Three beaches I checked out while there:
Waimea Bay Beach Park – It’s more of a beach to watch experienced surfers riding along waves that swell up to 30 feet, rather than swimming and frolicking in the waters. In fact, when I went, lifeguards were barking orders at people to get completely out the water unless they had fins on and were very experienced surfers. The lifeguards even ended up having to rescue two people out of riptides. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop hordes of people from gathering on the sand to watch the surfers in awe or to simply enjoy being beachside.
Shark’s Cove – At this small stretch of beach, rocks stand in formation close to the shoreline, creating a natural barrier to the aggressive ocean. They make a pool of water where you can swim in and get up close and personal with schools of fish. Giant 10-foot waves still come crashing against the rocks, raising the water levels in the pool, so definitely still swim here with caution.
Sunset Beach Park – Sunset Beach was recommended to go to — you guessed it — watch the sunset. Here, long stretches of sand melt into the beautiful blue ocean, which in turn melts into the beautiful blue skies. Definitely a great place to sit and contemplate life!