About a month prior to my departure, I was catching up with an old friend at a restaurant in Santa Barbara. At the time, she was working for a travel company that organized trips for recent high school graduates to various tropical destinations. Every summer they send their employees along for three weeks to help execute the program. Pretty amazing gig, right? It’s technically considered volunteering, therefore the chaperones aren’t paid hourly – but the flight, the hotel, and activities are covered on top of a generous weekly stipend. It seemed like the perfect situation while I was in between jobs and I grew evermore envious as she continued explaining the perks. I needed to know how I could get on board (literally). When she informed me that they still needed additional staff, I immediately leaped on the opportunity. Before I knew it, I was booking my trip back to the islands. Luckily the company was extremely flexible with the flights. As long as I was available on the day they needed me and the cost of my flight was comparable to what they anticipated paying, they didn’t mind when or where I departed to. Therefore, I managed to squeeze a vacation back to Kaua’i before working in O’ahu. All I had to pay for was my connecting flight between the two islands.
It’s impossible to summarize the days leading up to the program, the three weeks of “work”, and the final days before departing back home. There’s just way too many adventures and stories to tell. I hiked breathtaking trails, laid on every beach I could, splurged on amazing food, and I never stopped exploring. To try and simplify everything wouldn’t give proper justice to O’ahu. So rather than explaining the trip in it’s entirety, I’m going to highlight my favorite parts by category and leave the rest to your imagination.
Although some of these hikes I did are now illegal, there are still many beautiful hikes that you can do legally! If you do choose an illegal trail, please be cautious and do your due diligence before exploring. For instance, The Haʻikū Stairs (Stairway to Heaven) and Sacred Falls are the two most popular illegal hikes, both of which are illegal because of multiple fatal incidents. While some hikes are illegal for safety reasons, many are illegal for preservation purposes and are actually legal for locals. Again, I don’t suggest breaking the law, but below are the hikes that I did:
The Kalihi Ice Ponds are located within a small neighborhood off of the Likelike Hwy and the trail head is fairly difficult to find, but it’s a quick hike and worth every moment. After a short partially paved trail is a narrow muddy pathway down to the ice ponds. Grab hold onto the supported rope as you navigate your way down the slippery path. At the bottom of the pathway are multiple layers of ponds and waterfalls with massive cliffs and bone-chilling, cold water. Ok, it’s not that cold, but in comparison to how warm the ocean is, these ponds were really, really cold. Take a refreshing dip in the ponds and explore the various paths through the jungle, it’s nice to find a hidden gem not overrun with tourists.
Makapu’u Tom Tom Trail, where to even begin? So this hike was one of the hardest and most emotional hikes I have ever been on. We got lost, I almost slipped off a three-thousand foot cliff, I got a second-degree sunburn, I was dehydrated, I had multiple cuts and bruises, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. With that said, it was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever witnessed and I learned some amazing life lessons during my eight-hour trek. Do note, this hike is highly illegal for safety reasons, hence why I nearly died when I slipped at the cliff edge and held onto nothing but the mountain for dear life.
Lulumahu Falls, the neat thing about this hike is the amount of diversity it has to offer. You begin your voyage through a bamboo forest until you reach an open valley, within the valley are graffitied cement walls radiating an almost abandoned and untouched vibe. Just a little further is a muddy pathway along a narrow stream, surrounded by lush vegetation and massive rocks, and finally ending at a beautiful waterfall. It’s always rewarding to hike a long trail to a destination rather than just a loop. In my opinion, standing under the waterfall and letting the chilly water cool you down after climbing up a muddy trail is the best feeling ever.
Maunawili Valley, similar to the Lulumahu trail, Maunawili is a lush hike to a beautiful waterfall, but Maunawili also has breathtaking views of the valley from up above. It has a very Jurassic Park-esque vibe to it. Maunawili is also a much smaller waterfall and thus is one you can safely jump off of and into the cool water. I feel like this hike is pretty underrated for how amazing it is – I highly recommend this hike! Easy to access the trail head and tons of free neighborhood parking.
Waikiki, the most obnoxiously touristy part of the island, but a must. The beach itself is overly populated and very small, but the shops, restaurants, and people watching along the boardwalk are worth checking out. Waikiki is also rich in history, rent a long board and ride the waves just like Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku.
Waimea Bay, located up in the North Shore is a very popular, fairly crowded cove. Waimea is well known for the huge rocks to dive off of and plenty of room to bbq and make an entire day trip out of it.
Banzai Pipeline, most people know of this beach simply because of the annual surf competition, but during the off months, it’s actually a rather quiet and very beautiful beach. Plus, the beachside mansions are pretty neat to look at too, #goals.
Lanikai, hands down one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. There’s something magical about this place that I cannot explain, the sand is soft like cashmere and the ocean is crystal clear. Lanikai is located on the East Side of the island directly across from the Mokulua Islands or “Mokes.” Watching the sunrise over the islands is one of the most captivating, therapeutic, and potentially romantic sights ever. Gentleman, take note, a proposal here is basically a guaranteed yes.
Papa’iloa Beach, tucked away behind some luxurious homes is the best spot for spotting sea turtles. They are everywhere. Extremely skittish, but they can be seen surfing all over the place. Palm trees lined the beach creating the perfect amount of shade to cool off under between swimming and tanning.
With the exception of the occasional Ramen Bowl at the infamous Ramen Nakamura, my diet consisted mainly of fish and fruit. O’ahu is well known for their Food Trucks and understandably so – some of my best meals were served from a rusty old truck parked off the side of the highway. Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp and The Elephant Truck are my absolute favorites.
Of course, there’s the touristy musts of the Hawaiian Islands. If it’s your first time in Hawaii, I highly recommend going to a Luau. They’re a bit expensive, but it’s totally worth it for the amazing dinner, talented performers, and the entire experience. Germaine’s Luau serves up a traditional Kalua Pig slow roasted in the ground with hot rocks until cooked to perfection. There’s a full buffet with traditional Hawaiian dishes if pork isn’t your thing or if you just want to eat everything like me. Now, if you’re a pineapple fiend like myself, you’ll have to check out the Dole Plantation or at least find a store that serves Dole Whips, aka the greatest pineapple soft serve in the world. As tasty as Hawaiian Shaved Ice is, it’s got nothing on a Dole Whip.
If you’re on the go and looking to grab something cheap and fast, stop by an ABC Store (they’re practically on every corner) for anything from sandwiches to drinks to fruit and all your basic convenient store needs. While you’re checking out the local markets, be sure to stop by Foodland and get some fresh poké! Also, a bit harder to find, but Honey Cream Pineapple is sometimes at the Whole Foods in Kailua near Lanikai. Honey Cream Pineapple from Frankie’s Nursery is one of the most amazingly sweet and juicy trademarked fruits that I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. I even brought a few back to the mainland for my friends and family to try.
While you can easily drive around the entire island in just a few hours, there’s a few places that you need to make sure you don’t just pass through. Obviously if I haven’t stressed enough how amazing the North Shore is, you must spend as much time as possible up there. Haleiwa is a small historic town within the North Shore, check out the Old Town and bring cash! I’m not much of a souvenir shopper but there’s some really neat shopping and tasty food over there. Plus, it’s a really cute town to see even if you don’t want to spend any money. The Westside of the island is unfortunately a bit too industrial for my liking; With the exception of Aulani, the Disney Hotel, there isn’t much to see over there. As I said before, Waikiki is a touristy must. There’s so much history in Waikiki and tons to do and see, although my favorite part of the island is the nature, it’s still fun to check out the city. The Eastside is where most of the locals live, it’s stunningly beautiful and very cozy. You’ll definitely get that small town vibe when you’re driving around the east. Last, but not least, you must check out the center of the island. Some of the best hikes are just off of the Likelike Hwy. The views alone as you cruise along the highway are worth the detour.
It’s an obvious must to rent a surfboard or snorkel gear and get out in the crystal clear ocean, but there are so many other water activities worth checking out too. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, check out H2O Water Sports, a few of my coworkers and I went parasailing and conquered the banana boat. Parasailing is as epic as I imagined, being up in the air and looking over the island with a birds-eye-view was really breathtaking. I could not stop smiling the entire time I was up there.
On the other hand, the banana boat was the exact opposite of what I expected. I cannot even put in to words how much f**king fun that was. A large inflatable raft pulled by a high-speed jet ski seems like it could be a good time, but when Tony drove up with a cigar in his mouth and a huge smirk across his face, I immediately knew that we were in deep shit. Of course, I mean that in the best way possible. The goal as a rider is to hold on as tight as possible and to not fall off, but good ol’ Tony’s goal was to make sure we didn’t see the light of day. Usually the drivers are playful, drive safely, and will take the occasional sharp turn to knock off a rider, everyone laughs, the rider hops back on, and the fun continues. Instead it was a vicious high-speed battle of Tony whipping back and forth until each and every one of us eventually launched off into the water. Now, if you’re looking for something a bit more mellow than that, check out the sunset catamaran rides in Waikiki. The picturesque views and Friday Firework shows are worth every penny.
With that said – I must wrap this up. If you have any questions or want to hear more about anything above, please feel free to comment below! As always, have fun and happy traveling!
1 June 2015 – 23 June 2015