O'ahu Guide (2018)
We visited O'ahu in early 2018. We came looking for a place to settle in after leaving India. Surprise! (or not) We quite liked it and plan to make that our next home. This guide summarizes our on the ground experience to help you plan your visit. Aloha!
The Hawaiian Islands
People often say they're going to Hawaii. This may be true colloquially, but it's not strictly true. The US state of Hawaii refers to Hawaiian island chain. The most visited islands are: O'ahu (where Honolulu is), Maui, Kaua'i, and Hawai'i island. Bear in mind which island (or islands) you're visiting.
O'ahu is the most populated and biggest tourist destination. You'll likely fly into Honolulu (HNL) then onward via domestic flight to other islands. Kaua'i is the oldest island and generally regarded as the most beautiful. Maui is more upscale. Hawai'i island is more rugged and features active volcanos. There's plenty to do on all the islands. Moloka'i and Lana'i are options as well, but likely not primary destinations.
All clear that "Hawaii" is a US state and island chain, where "Hawaii" is an island? Good since this guide covers O'Ahu.
Many countries may visit the US via ESTA (electronic travel authorization) for stays up to 90 days.
Indian nationals must apply for a visa in India. The application process requires visiting the US consulate twice (yes I know): one for fingerprinting and another for an interview. These must be separate appointments as well. We were living in Bangalore when Faiza applied. This meant two visit to Chennai. However, when it's all said and done the visa allows stays up to 180 days and is valid for 10 years. It's a shockingly good tourist visa!
Picking a Place to Stay
My general advice on this topic is don't book accommodation sight unseen. This is impractical given you likely cannot visit O'ahu before making a decision. Instead you need to rely on personal recommendations, ratings on online sites like Booking.com or AirBNB, and gut feeling.
First and foremost: book in advance. O'ahu (Honolulu) fills up fast. Honolulu and it's suburb Pearl City are common destinations for hotels and apartments. Going on a whim will be problematic. There will be less options and they will be more expensive. Kanoehe has a great vibe if the Honolulu area is booked out or too pricey. Your budget is the prime concern here. We were happy to find studio apartments in Honolulu on AirBNB for under 40 USD a night (which isn't bad but paying 100-150 USD adds up).
Your car needs accommodation too. This is how "cheap" accommodation surprises you. Cheap place? Need to park? That will be 20 (or even 40!) USD a night. If your accommodation advertises parking then check the cost. You're more likely to find free parking on a monopoly board then in Honolulu.
I highly recommend renting a car. O'ahu may be an island but it's still the United States, which means you're in a car first culture. It's possible to take public transport around, but it will be slower and less convenient. Uber and Lyft are available in the Waikiki area, but not much where else on the island.
Renting a car costs anywhere from 50-100 USD a day depending on the model, insurance, and whatever else you opt for. Get the smallest car possible. Parking and maneuvering in the city is tight, so the smaller the better. We reserved a compact car and were "upgraded" to a 4 door Dodge Charger. I wasn't happy driving that boat through the city or in really tight parking garages. My 12 point turn game did improve though.
Solo travelers may consider renting a scooter. The Honolulu area is small enough that a scooter well here. You could get by on longer trips as well.
Waikiki provides pay-per-use city bikes. They are a cost effective way to get around the urban center. Biking is (in my opinion) the best way to experience these types of cities.
In summary: if you can afford a car and want to explore then get one. Otherwise plan a trip where your activities are more accessible by other means such as foot, bicycle, or public transport.
O'ahu (like all the Hawaiian islands) is outdoor orientated. The best things to do are honestly just go outside and enjoy nature. That's what we did and couldn't have been happier. We ended up doing a hike, swim, or beach everyday. If you'd like to sit inside and read, then this isn't the place for you. Here are some of our favorites:
Our culinary experience on O'ahu was different than other places. We found a great Japanese place the first day and it became our staple.
The restaurant list is short because our daily routine was: go to Marukame Udon for breakfast and take some onigiris for lunch snacks, grab more onigiris from the ABC shops as needed, then eat whatever at the rest of the day. The prevalence of Japanese food surprised us, so given we really enjoy it we just went with it. I'll leave you with some final tips:
- Try the street food in Waikiki. There are plenty of parked food trucks throughout the area. We checked a few and they're almost entirely non-vegan and non-vegetarian except for pineapple. I have to give a shoutout to one wood fired pizza place. The pizza was god damn good and perfectly charred. I gave the owner a complement about it. He was surprised that someone actually new what char is and that it should be there. It's rare that somewhere gets the "Adam approved pizza" stamp. This pizza stall is near Hula Dog so try to find it.
- Get 50% Japanese food at the end of the day. There are a few Japanese supermarkets that mark down their prices towards the end of the day. We discovered this on the last few days of our trip. We found inari, onigiri, and wakame salad for great prices. The same goes for sushi. This is a great way to save a few bucks.
- Hawaii is a US state, so check out known US establishments. There's a Whole Foods in Waikiki if you want to stock up on groceries or just buy snacks.
- This isn't vegan but it's worth sharing for non-americas. Costco sells pizza and hot dogs for under 2 USD. My personal recommendation is two slices of pepperoni pizza. Costco requires a membership card to shop there, but their food courts are occasionally outside and accessible to anyone. Check on google maps for food court access before heading over. Cash only.
- Try a Vegan Buffet at Down to Earth. We came across this place looking for an organic super market. This place is like a vegan/organic Trader Joes for you Americans. There's a Whole Foods style vegan buffet though! There's options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are multiple locations on O'ahu.