Originally published August 24, 2013
I was recently able to visit my family in O’ahu, and doing what I do in my day job (concierge in Las Vegas), I planned my whole trip within hours. I used Google and Reddit and tried to stick to things that were near the house so I wouldn’t have to go far. If I was going to go far, I made sure a shuttle was provided.
This post is going to be my itinerary, along with photos and any tips I may have to offer. When I go on vacation, I like to do things, not sit around and get trashed. So if you like museums, want to get some beach time in, then, by all means, let my itinerary be a good base for you.
The following information is current as of August 2013, provided in USD with any taxes and applicable fees included. I make no guarantees about pricing or anything beyond this time frame. Always check the official website for each of the excursions for the most current pricing and availability. I hope it is of some use to you. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share below.
Day 1: Arrive in Hawai’i, pick up a rental car
You need to hail the shuttle for your car company as it goes by when you are leaving the airport to go to the car rental area, otherwise it will not stop for you. They’re all clearly marked with the official logo of the company. The shuttles run every 7-10 minutes, and it’s a short ride away. The driver assists with loading and unloading your luggage. At least they did with Enterprise.
Day 2: Free day
I hung out with my family, which was fine since I needed to catch my breath and get used to the time change!
Day 3: ‘Iolani Palace
- Hours: 1030a-4p
- Cost: $14.75 self-guided audio tour (credit card & cash accepted), includes access to the basement gallery exhibits
- Location: 364 South King Street, Honolulu, HI 96813
The grounds are open to the public, so visit the Coronation Pavilion while you’re there. There is limited parking at Iolani Palace. It is $1/hr. There is fee-based parking across the street. However, it closes at 330p and they will tow your vehicle if you leave it past that time.
I happened to park in the garage near Pacific Honda on Beretania; they also have a fee-based parking structure ($10 for all day). I didn’t plan this part very well, otherwise, I would’ve parked much closer. I had to walk several blocks to get to the Palace. I was running late and didn’t want to miss a moment.
They offer both docent and audio tours depending on the day of the week; I happened to be there on a day where it was audio tours only. The audio tour is comprehensive and covers everything. I was easily done with the audio portion in 1.5 hours. P.S. Across the street is the statue of King Kamehameha; kill two birds with one stone and go there first.
With every paid tour (docent or self-guided), you get access to the exhibits in the basement which combines a little more history on Iolani not on the tour, as well as historical pieces collected over the years from the royal family. Most of the pieces in the palace were sold off after Hawai’i was annexed, so the museum team has spent the better part of the 20th century tracking everything down, based on ledgers and photographs and things of that sort. They’re still on the hunt for the things that were lost, and it’s fascinating some of the places they ended up. Some were found as far away as Europe!
Day 4: Polynesian Cultural Center
- Hours: 8A-630p
- Cost: $101.15 Circle Island Tour/Day Experience prepaid online, prior reservation recommended
- Location: 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie, HI
- Shuttle pickup: Complimentary, must choose a location based on your hotel. I recommend choosing the Hawaii Convention Center option if you are staying with family (like I did). If you do this, park at the nearby Ala Moana Center for free all day.
You can customize your package online for PCC, and they currently have a special where if you book far enough in advance, you get a 10% discount. I chose the tour and day experience. What the circle island tour entails is a guided tour of Waikiki, and you hit a bunch of tourist spots: Diamond Head, Dole Plantation, Sandy Beach, Hanauma Bay, Pali Lookout, Sunset Beach, etc. It’s quite a whirlwind, so be prepared to get on and get off the shuttle frequently with very short stops to take photos and take everything in briefly.
Lunch was Fumi’s, a shrimp shack on the highway to PCC. It’s not free, but my meal cost about $15 including a drink. So not too bad.
My driver was a Samoan lady named Esther, and when she saw that I was solo, she made it a point to make sure I was taken care of. She’d be all breathless and say “is my sister here?” just to make sure she didn’t leave me behind. I saw her one last time before I left for the day. I’ll never forget the kindness she showed me. I’m not sure if you can make requests for drivers, but if you can, ask for Esther. She was funny and helpful and looks out for you.
The day experience at PCC is a lot of fun. It’s run by the LDS church, so you do have the option to visit the nearby BYU-Hawaii campus as well as the LDS temple’s outer grounds, and visitor’s center via a complimentary shuttle. Out of respect for their faith, they do not let non-church members into their worship space. I was aware of that already, as I have immediate family who is active LDS. Anyways there are lands, kind of like Disneyland, themed for the Polynesian people. Everything is represented: Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, etc. They are interactive exhibits as well, so you can participate in all sorts of things.
Wear comfortable shoes! There’s a ton of walking, and you’re welcome to linger in all the exhibits as long as you’d like. There’s also plenty of food and drink options. I had a burger and fries on the way out, just to hold me over. I did the temple tour and canoe tour last, just to close out my day. There is also a luau option, which I skipped because I didn’t want to be out too late. Maybe I’ll go next time…
Day 5: Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
- Hours: 6A-7P
- Cost: $7.50 admission (credit card or cash); $1 parking (cash only); $20 for a complete set of goggles, flippers & breathing apparatus (cash only), $7 for a locker (cash only)
- Location: 7455 Kalaniana’ole Hwy, Honolulu, HI 96815
As has been said in other reviews, they have limited parking available. I don’t think there’s a trick to it, other than to risk it and go when you want. People don’t stay long, so if you’re patient, you can swing back and go in. I went to nearby Sandy Beach for a bit to kill some time. I recommend taking enough cash to get you through the day, because the parking hut is cash only, and the rental hut is cash only. They take credit cards at the admission booth. There is a mandatory short video about respecting the reef, as well as providing safety tips. There are a lot of opportunities to take photos. They have paved walkways all around so you get a good view. I was advised to go over the reef but I was too tired to make it very far. It was fun nonetheless.
- Hours: 10am-4:30pm
- Cost: $26.50, prior reservation recommended
- Location: 900 S. Beretania Street
- Parking: Honolulu Museum of Art School ($3 for 4 hours; cash only)
You are not allowed to drive to Shangri La on your own. For one, there’s no parking because it’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood. Secondly, the gate is guarded, and they only allow tour shuttles in. Shangri La is down the street from Diamond Head, if that gives you an idea of its location.
My one complaint is the signage to get into the parking lot for the art school isn’t clearly marked. Wasted a few minutes trying to find the right entrance. Since I’m a lingerer, and love museums, I ended up paying well over the $3 even with the validation because I stayed so long! You can get your parking validated at the gift shop on your way out.
The tour itself is fascinating. They don’t make women like Doris Duke anymore. She knew that her house would long outlive her. Rather than be a recluse like Hugette Clark, she donated her house to the Honolulu Museum of Art. She did a lot to it, and they’ve maintained it wonderfully. I want to go back and see the bedroom suite. They were remodeling it when I went, and our tour guide said it’s typically open.
Day 7: Free day
I was so exhausted by everything I did up until this point, I had to take this day off! I planned to take in the Foster Botanical Garden but I figured I would skip it. I might catch it next time I’m out there.
Day 8: Pearl Harbor Historic Sites
- Hours: 8a-530p
- Cost: $56.50 prepaid online; includes USS Arizona Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor; $3 bag check (cash only)
- Location: 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, HI 96818
- Parking: Complimentary, but tends to fill up fast
Be prepared to spend the whole day if you want to enjoy everything. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. If you can live without a jacket, do so. You don’t wanna haul that around all day. You are not allowed to bring purses or bags past the gates. If you buy things at the gift shop, that is allowed. They make you check any bags you bring at a kiosk outside of the entrance for $3 a bag. You’re allowed cameras, wallets, and cell phones.
I also HIGHLY recommend booking online if you’re going to go. You can take the chance and show up on the day you wanna go, and see what’s available, but why risk it? It’s very easy to book online, and you can customize what you want if you don’t want to do all 4 sites.
My entrance onto the USS Arizona memorial was extremely early, so I did that first. I got there an hour early, and that was enough time to walk through the exhibits as well as the Circle of Remembrance. It was nice not to have to haul things around. But when your camera battery dies on the USS Missouri, you’re gonna have a bad time. Yeah, that happened to me. Oops.
There is a short film they make you watch before taking the boat to the memorial. It’s a very spiritual and humbling experience seeing everything. The exhibits don’t pull punches, and they lay bare what the Japanese did to Pearl Harbor, the martial law they were exposed to after the bombing, and so on. Just when you think you know the whole story, you don’t. The Pearl Harbor Historic Sites bring you closer to the event, as well as America’s entrance into the war.
The USS Bowfin Museum has a walk-through self-guided audio tour about the Silent Service through the years, as well as a separate audio tour for the submarine itself. There are also displays – some of which you can sit on and play with – around the museum and gift shop. There’s a hot dog stand in that area too.
I took the complimentary shuttle to the Battleship Missouri memorial. There’s an audio tour of varying lengths that you can take, or you can do a guided tour. Obviously, these individual things cost money, but if you have the day passport as I did, all that stuff is included! There’s something called Fleet Week in the Navy, where they open up aircraft carriers and stuff to the public. I even have a picture of me and my little brother on one when we were little ones. So I have memories of being on aircraft carriers. I wasn’t so much impressed with the ship itself. It’s rather boring, realizing that all those men crammed themselves into tiny spaces and got on with their day-to-day lives. Nothing but respect, but to a civilian like me, kinda boring. But the historical significance is what makes it fascinating. Mighty Mo is important because that’s where the Japanese formally surrendered and where they ended WWII. There’s a choice view of Battleship Row from on deck too.
From there you can get on the next shuttle, which continues on to the Pacific Aviation Museum or brings you back to the main hub. There is a complimentary video to watch, and afterward, you walk through the hangars. There are actors around the exhibits, that you can talk to about the historical significance of their particular exhibit. Being a socially awkward penguin, I demurred, haha.
There was a flight simulation area, as well as Amelia Earhart and Tom Gunn exhibits. Amelia Earhart is one of my heroes, so it was awesome to see a little hat tip to her time in Hawai’i. There was a memorial to the USS Oklahoma, but it was more of a drive-by look-see, and nothing more. Hangar 79 is interesting because it combines aircraft from all over the years. It’s also an operating hangar, so it can get quite noisy. I didn’t have a problem. Sounded like normal noise to me. Ford Island is 1 of the many places the Japanese hit, and there are bullet holes in Hangar 79 from the bombings still. Very surreal. The shuttle from the Pacific Aviation Museum goes straight back to the main hub.
Day 9: Goodbye Hawai’i
The only bump in the road was my flight back on Allegiant. It was 3 hours late, due to mechanical issues. The seats don’t recline. The cheap price of the ticket and the chance to go 1 way from HNL to LAS isn’t worth being nickel & dimed for a tiny can of soda. Also, what 1 of my siblings call “the element” was extremely high for such a tiny space. Not impressed, and 0/10 would not fly again.
I had an unforgettable time in O’ahu, and I would never have been able to go, if not for the generosity of my family. I’m blessed to have them in my life. I could not ask for a better family to be born in. People say you don’t choose your family, you choose your friends. But if I had to choose, I’d choose mine over and over again.
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