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We have explored Oahu many times but always with a rental car.
Oahu is a lot easier to get around with a car, but Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, wants to share his tips on getting Oahu without a car. That’s probably the only island that is really doable without a car. Here are his tips.
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You can find plenty of ideas online for what to do on Oahu. What makes this report different is that we did everything described below without a rental car. We took this angle for a few reasons. Weekly airport (where most cars are picked up) rentals, while not prohibitive, range from a low of $230/week in shoulder season to a minimum of $320/week in peak season for a mid-size vehicle. Parking in Waikiki, however, is expensive; expect at least $25/day (hard to find!) to $50/day or more for overnight parking unless you stay at one of the few condos that include parking in the rental. Expect to pay more to fuel your rental vehicle than anywhere else in the U.S.; the average cost for a gallon of regular gas was $3.34/gallon in January 2018. So driving a mid-size rental 500 miles and parking it overnight in Waikiki for a week will cost more than $620. Contrast this to the cost of using “The Bus,” one of the better public transit systems in the U.S., which ran us just $4.00/day (reflecting our senior discount; $5.50/per person per day is the regular adult daily pass).
Tips: Should you decide to use “The Bus,” experiment ahead of time with the “Get transit directions” widget on its website. Sometimes you need to enter a destination’s address (e.g., 900 S. Beretania Street instead of “Honolulu Museum of Art”) and, other times, a location’s description (e.g., “Hyatt Regency Waikiki” instead of 2424 Kalakaua Avenue) to get the best results. And take the resulting timeline with a grain of salt; buses are highly dependent on traffic conditions, etc.
How we got from HNL to Waikiki
Since we weren’t renting a car, I needed to research options for getting from the Honolulu airport to Waikiki. Our hotel offered “a special one-way $45 flat rate to the hotel.” The estimate for an UberX fare was $34-$45. Some taxi companies offer a flat rate of $29. Tip: Booking a flat rate will almost always save you money as your fare won’t change if the traffic on H1 is bad (which it often is). Last time we needed this same transfer, we used King Airport Shuttle, which charges $25 each way for up to 2 passengers. We were pleased with their service but decided to see if we could do still better. It is possible to ride “The Bus” from HNL to Waikiki. This would, by far, be the least expensive (and most adventurous!) costing just $1 – $2.75 but the trip would take a little over an hour and bags, which can’t be larger than 22”x14”x9”, must be held on one’s lap (there are no baggage racks). In the end, we booked our transfers with Hawaii23 Transportation for just $23 each way. Our shuttle driver texted me within minutes of landing and was waiting for us when we walked out of baggage claim!
Where we stayed
I had a Hyatt Globalist upgrade to burn and The Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa had space available for an upgrade to a junior oceanfront suite, so the decision about where to stay was not very difficult. The $251/night cost was offset by the hotel’s location, high speed WiFi, waived resort fee and amenities. Breakfast at a sit-down restaurant in Waikiki costs around $20/pp (including tip) so our suite, which included Regency Club access with complimentary hot and cold breakfast items from 6-10am daily, saved us more than $200. We timed our evening meals to take advantage of the Club’s daily offering of drinks and hors d’oeuvres before dinner. The Regency Club pours Canvas, a brand developed exclusively for Hyatt by the Michael Mondavi family for just $5/glass, less than half the cost of the lowest price glass in a restaurant. After dinner, we returned for the Club’s complimentary desserts from 7-9pm. Savings on drinks and dessert were at least another $200. This property is also home to the Waikiki Farmers’ Market on the ground floor from 4-8pm every Tuesday and Thursday; and “Aloha Friday” activities from 4:30-6pm, which include a 90 minute Polynesian show (pictured above), lei making, henna tattooing and a Samoan fire dancer.
Tips: Even if you stay elsewhere, the Waikiki Farmers’ Market and the “Aloha Friday” activities described above take place in the ground floor public space between the Hyatt’s twin towers and are open to the public at no charge.
Where we ate
There’s no shortage of good eating options on Oahu in general and in Waikiki in particular. Some Hawaiian foods you shouldn’t miss include shaved ice (think very finely ground snow cone) topped with homemade, all natural fruit juice syrup or Wailua chocolate, a plate lunch from Rainbow Drive-In (as seen on the Travel Channel’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) for an extremely filling meal for less than $10 and poke (marinated raw fish often served over rice). We especially enjoyed the meals we had at the restaurants below:
Five minutes away from the Hyatt, at 2310 Kuhio Avenue, is TripAdvisor’s #10 (out of 1,931) restaurant in Honolulu, Marukame Udon. In case you’re unfamiliar, udon is a “toothsome” al dente noodle made fresh throughout the day (you can watch the process while you stand in line) from Japanese-imported wheat flour. Despite the omnipresent line of eager diners, a table always seems to empty by the time you’ve paid for your meal; the efficiency is actually quite amazing! When you get to the front of the line, you order your choice of hot or cold udon noodles bathed in a variety of sauces/broths in 2 sizes (the small is more than enough for most appetites). You can also select from a variety of tempura items. My wife and I both ordered the hot curry udon, complemented by 2 pieces of tempura (shrimp and chicken); our total bill was $15.64!
Italian food in Waikiki? Don’t miss this classy restaurant in the heart of Waikiki on Lewers Street on the makai side (toward the ocean) side of Kalakaua Avenue! Named after a village in Sicily, Taormina pairs fresh pastas with high quality seafood. The wines here are chosen by one of only 2 Master Sommeliers in Hawaii so trust the recommended wine pairings. While we’re on the subject of wine pairing, the prix fixe menu at lunch with wine pairing is a very good value if you have a big appetite; $62 for 4 courses, 3 of them paired with wine. I ordered Chef Hiro’s lasagna ($21), which was probably the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten. My wife ordered the granchio (crab meat in a lightly spiced tomato cream sauce served over fettucini) for $17. For dessert, we had the tiramisu (pictured here).
Halekulani, which means “house befitting heaven,” celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, making it the second oldest property in Waikiki. It boasts the highest staff to guest ratio among Hawaiian resorts which seems to result in happy employees as well as pampered guests; more than 20% of Halekulani’s employees have been with the hotel for at least 25 years! Halekulani has 3 full service restaurants and 2 lounges. We celebrated Valentine’s Day by dining at House Without a Key, which takes its name from the title of the first Charlie Chan mystery novel said to have been conceived during its author’s stay at Halekulani in 1925. Each night, dinner at House Without a Key is accompanied by Hawaiian music and dancing featuring former Miss Hawaii winners (pictured here). The Cajun spiced ribeye appetizer was delicious, as was the yellow fin tuna poke. We both enjoyed the signature steamed onaga (ruby snapper) for our entrees followed by a key lime tart and coconut cake for dessert.
What we did:
Although we walked to all 3 dining experiences described above, we needed wheels (of some type) to reach the attractions we wanted to see. While high bacteria count at Hanauma Bay resulted in a last minute cancellation of our planned snorkeling excursion, I would suggest considering Fun Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay Snorkeling excursion. For just $12.50pp, they pick up from Waikiki hotels, drive you to and from Hanauma Bay in an air-conditioned van and provide sanitized, professional mask, snorkel and fins!
Note: Admission to the park is an additional $7.50pp whether you drive there yourself or use another tour operator (it may be “baked in” to their charges).
The iconic hike to the top of Diamond Head is TripAdvisor’s #2 (out of 601) outdoor activity on Oahu. Getting there via public transportation was a breeze; just take either the #2 or #23 bus to the end of the line at Kapi’olani Community College. When you get off the bus, the entrance to Diamond Head State Monument is about 200 yards to your left after you cross the street (Diamond Head Road) behind where the bus stops. If you go on a Saturday morning, the Kapi’olani Community College Farmer’s Market makes a great stop before and/or after your hike. This is a moderately strenuous hike but we are senior citizens and had no problems.
Tips: Carry water with you and stay hydrated. The sun can be intense so suntan lotion and a hat are also good ideas. The view from the top is incredible! Admission is $1.00/pp if you walk in or $5/car if you drive (but parking is very limited).
There are 5 public botanical gardens on Oahu. Foster Botanical Gardens, home to some of the oldest trees on the island traces its beginnings to 1853 when Queen Kalama leased a small plot of land to William Hillebrand, a German physician who was also a botanist. This oasis in the middle of downtown Honolulu includes within its 14 acres a butterfly garden, an orchid conservatory, the Lyon Orchid Garden, a “prehistoric glen” which features plants whose relatives would have co-habited the earth with dinosaurs and a collection of “exceptional trees” protected by state law. The quipo tree pictured here is fascinating. The “rings” used to calculate its age look like bands encircling its massive trunk!
Tips: If you visit here, be sure to make a reservation for the free guided tour beginning at 10:30 each day; we could have listened to our tour guide (Chuck) for hours! And if gardens are your thing, you can easily make a day of it by visiting both Foster Botanical Gardens and Lili’uokalani Botanical Garden (free entry) just 15 minutes away.
Although “touristy,” no trip to Oahu would be complete without a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). It would take more than 19 hours to see every show and participate in every hands-on activity in each of the 6 island “villages” of Polynesia represented here: Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Samoa. Dinner options include an outdoor (but covered) luau, an island buffet and prime dining (both indoors, the latter featuring prime rib and crab legs). Your day at the PCC concludes with “Ha: Breath of Life,” a spectacular multimedia show featuring over 100 performers in native garb. For less than the cost of a day’s car rental and parking, the PCC will provide roundtrip motorcoach transportation from Waikiki hotels.
Tip: We thought we saw more and had a better experience by booking an “Ambassador” package but you can keep expenses down with the PCC’s ala carte ticket options.
This attraction played right into our “no car rental” itinerary; the only way to get here is to take the Honolulu Museum of Art’s (HoMA) private shuttle bus. Admission to Shangri La ($26.50/pp when you book online) includes museum admission, which would otherwise cost $20/pp…so it’s like getting admission to HoMA for just $6.50! Shangri La is owned and operated by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Ms. Duke was the only daughter of and heiress to the fortune amassed by James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company and the Duke Energy Company. Shangri La is the architectural marriage of her love for Hawaii and her passion for the art of the Near East and India. Her bedroom suite was inspired by the Taj Mahal; the living room is pictured here.
- If like us, you decide to use “The Bus,” make sure you have correct change for bus fares. We watched someone who needed a $5.50 ticket deposit for a $10 bill in the meter because “operators are not permitted to…give change.”
- The Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa also offers a free walking tour led by Hawaii’s celebrated songstress Ku’uipo Kumukahi that is open to the public. Tours leave the Hawaiian Heritage & Cultural Center on the 2nd floor of the Hyatt’s Diamond Head tower every Wednesday at 10:00am
- The Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on a free fireworks display every Friday night (check start time with “Oahu Today”). We watched from the breaker at the beginning of the Fort DeRussy Boardwalk – a popular spot!
- Check the Royal Hawaiian Band performance schedule; they put on free concerts around town as many as 3 times/week.
About the Author:
I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.
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