Trip Planning Intro
We have been lucky enough to travel to Hawaii once before, but we had only spent a couple days in Waikiki. Our best travel buds joining us had never been and were really looking us to lead the planning. The thing with Hawaii is it's quite far, and quite expensive, so in a way you feel a bit of pressure to make every minute count since who knows if/when you will be back. We wanted to cover big highlights for first timers but also explore things we hadn't done before. We carefully crafted an itinerary that would balance a range of activities and sightseeing mixed with plenty of time to just relax and enjoy Disney's Aulani Resort. (You can read our review of the resort and 10 first time tips here.) We also mapped the most efficient way to travel the island by car and took into consideration our energy levels on certain days.
Day One: Aloha & Welcome to Hawaii
Our flight arrived into Oahu International in the early afternoon. We grabbed our luggage and went to get our rental car. We decided that since we wanted to do a lot of sight seeing on our own and the freedom to leave the resort a car was a must. Being Disney Vacation Club members we did get free parking at the resort and splitting the rental cost of a Jeep Wrangler between two couples wasn't bad. We checked in to the resort and once we had access to our rooms we headed back out to do some shopping for food and drinks to keep in the room. If we were to do it again it would have probably been best to get the groceries on the way in and have them taken up with the luggage, but being the first time it was hard to know what to expect.
After settling in and unpacking we spent the rest of the evening exploring the resort and getting our bearings. For dinner we grabbed some apps and drinks at the Off the Hook bar. We were disappointed in the quality of the food, especially for the cost and decided for the rest of the trip we would look at some more options off property. The pricey bill also reinforced that we had made a smart move by getting groceries to save on some food costs. With jet lag setting in and a long early day ahead of us we went to bed shortly after dinner.
Day Two: The Eastern Oahu Loop
It sounds like a crazy idea to plan an early start the first day waking up in paradise, but it is actually really smart. You will naturally wake up earlier due to the time change and it is the perfect opportunity to see a gorgeous sunrise!
Diamond Head Sunrise Hike
Cost: $5 per car/$1 per pedestrian
Since the sunrise time was shortly after 7:00 and we were on the opposite side of the island we decided to leave the resort around 5:30. (Another great reason to have groceries was being able to take our breakfast to go and not have to worry about the restaurants still being closed this early.) When you arrive at Diamond Head State Monument there is a booth to pay your entry fee and then a parking lot. Complete darkness was starting to fade as we began our climb to the top. The hike starts off as an easy paved path but as you get higher up the path gets a little steeper with switchbacks and some uneven footing.
We then went through a fairly long and tight tunnel. There is room for two way traffic and there are lights along the way. After exiting the tunnel, you can go right up the stairs which is quicker (but so many stairs!) or you can go left for an alternate route. Then there are a few more flights of stairs including a spiral staircase. Before you reach the top, visitors are directed down a tunnel to a WWII gun placement that you must maneuver through to get to the final portion of the trail. The hike is about .7 miles each way and we made it up in about 30-40 minutes.
Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Cost: $7.50/person to enter (Plus rental fees if necessary)
We continued another twenty-five minutes to Hanauma Bay State Park. This is also a popular spot and it is best to arrive as early as possible to obtain parking. The lot is above the bay, which is also where the ticket booth, shops, and some restrooms are. When checking in you receive a ticket that indicates a time for you to attend a safety video viewing and briefing by some guides. After the 15 minute presentation, we walked down to the beach below. There was also a tram available for a small fee.
The beach seemed a bit quieter the further down we walked so we ended up camping out just past the final lifeguard tower near some restrooms. The snorkel rental, showers, and multiple bathrooms were all located next to the beach. We were asked not to use any products when showering as the runoff goes straight into the bay. The showers were for rinsing off only. We also used some reef safe sunscreen to protect the wildlife.
We spent about 30 minutes or so snorkeling. The great thing about snorkeling in this bay is that it is shallow and you don't have to look very far to see fish. The snorkeling is pretty good (especially if a newbie) and you will see a wide variety of fish and maybe some eels. There is a chance to see turtles but we did not see any unfortunately. The tough thing about snorkeling here is also because of the fact that it is shallow. It is hard to find sandy spots between the coral to take a break and isn't really open for swimming, more just floating. After everyone had their fill of snorkeling, we ate a picnic lunch on the beach, then showered and changed to head back up to the parking lot. It is a fairly steep incline back up to the car but a slow and steady walk was totally fine with us.
We jumped back in the jeep and took a leisurely drive along the east side of Oahu on Kalanianaole Highway. There are plenty of scenic areas and amazing beaches along the way. The great thing is as you go you can pick and choose what you want to see. Here are some of the things you can stop and enjoy:
Sandy Beach Park
Kailua Beach Park
Nu‘Uanu Pali Lookout
When in Hawaii, one of the things that everyone should try is shaved ice. We stopped at a highly recommended place in Kailua called The Local Hawaii. We actually walked past it the first time because all we saw were clothes in the window. While they do sell clothing, they also have an amazing shaved ice counter. They use all natural syrups and eco friendly serve ware. The flavor was amazing and the best shaved ice we have ever had.
On the way back to Aualuni, we wanted to stop by the overlook just above the tunnels on Pali Highway. Andrew, thinking he knew where he was going, accidentally took us through the H3 tunnel, which was still a beautiful drive, it just didn’t have the same view.
If heading back through on 61 (as we had planned) you will head back towards Waikiki. That is always an option if you want to grab dinner or see some sights. We were pretty wiped from a fairly active day so we headed back to the resort for some bonus pool time before having dinner. One of the cast members recommended a restaurant across the street called "Just Tacos". It was very affordable and nachos and margaritas really hit the spot!
Keep reading our travel journal: PART TWO Or scroll below to view more posts about Hawaii.