If you only have a short time on the island or looking for a low cost activity, then I recommend doing something both locals and tourists enjoy….the great Circle Island Tour. This is exactly what it sounds like… you pack everyone in the car and drive along the highway, circling the perimeter of the island and stopping at tourist points along the way. It’s a great way to sample the many things Hawaii has to offer in one day, which means it is also an Instagrammer’s dream. I did a couple of Circle Islands with my high school friends, which was so long ago that I’m 100% sure that I mix the two trips up in my head. So long ago that my pictures from this trip are on actual film. We were broke (naturally), so we didn’t go to any of the big ticket attractions that a tourist would normally go to but we still had the MOST AMAZING TIME. And I will do my very best to dig around in my dusty brain to tell you how to enjoy an inexpensive day exploring the island of Oahu.
This road trip will take up an entire day. Pack some snacks, because you never know where you’ll be when you get hungry. I’ve listed places that are right off the highway and can be enjoyed in an hour or so. Pick your starting point (I’m assuming for most of you, this starting point is Waikiki) and drive counter clockwise. This will give you the best view as you drive, since you’ll be closest to the ocean. You’ll want to start as early as you can to get the most out of your day. I recommend getting on the road by 5:30 to avoid crazy Honolulu traffic and maybe even catch the sun rise over the ocean.
Speaking of sunrises, I’ll share a little known spot for watching it… Portlock. Head southeast from Waikiki and make your way to the upscale city of Hawaii Kai. Here you’ll find an off the beaten path location called Spitting Caves… and spectacular views of the sunrise. It’s a bit of a steep hike down small pathways between million dollar homes, and you will literally be standing on rocky cliffs so it’s best to skip this if you have children with you. You may also see some people cliff diving off the rocks, but I STRONGLY recommend you stay on dry land. It’s a dangerous area, and people have died on their first and only jump. Not to mention trying to avoid stepping on sea urchins as you try to climb back on to the rocks. That sunrise though. Beautiful. (For directions on how to get there click here.)
Continue south and you’ll reach famous Hanauma Bay. Visiting the bay and enjoying its vibrant marine life will take a considerable amount of time, so we just stopped at the lookout points to take our pictures instead of going in. If you want to visit the bay, please do! It’s wonderful! Just know that it will take up your entire morning, so you probably won’t make it around the island.
Keep driving and you’ll find Sandy Beach and Makapu’u Beach. Sandy Beach is a popular beach for body surfing and body boarding, so it can get a little crowded. The breaks on the shore are pretty strong, so it’s not the best beach for swimming. I’ve been caught in the break and got spun around in the waves (aka: the dreaded washing machine) more than once, and it’s not pleasant. But if you’re into body boarding, this is probably your beach.
Makapu’u Beach has a lighthouse you can hike up to, and there are also tidepools to explore. Like Sandy Beach, the waves are more suited for body boarding than swimming. But the rocky lava rock shoreline and the view of Rabbit Island offshore makes for some wonderful photo opportunities. Just exercise caution and don’t get too close to the crashing waves on the edge of the cliffs.
Head north and you’ll pass through Waimanalo and Kailua. (I’ll just note that Kailua has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but it’s too far out of the way on a circle island trip. It’s better to go on a different day so that you can spend more time there.) Keep driving into Kaneohe until you see the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park on the left side. Turn left into the cemetery, go straight, and you’ll find yourself transported to Japan! This is Byodo-In Temple, a smaller scale replica of a temple in Japan. For $3, you can spend some time exploring this gorgeous place. Go Insta-crazy.
When you’re done, keep driving towards the famous North Shore. On your way there you’ll pass through Kualoa where the Jurassic Park movies were filmed and see Chinaman’s Hat (Mokoli’i Island) to your right…. past beautiful Kahana Bay…. then into Laie, where the Polynesian Cultural Center is located. Soak in that view, people. It’s beautiful!
When you reach Kahuku, keep an eye out for Giovanni’s Aloha Shrimp Truck. The famous white truck covered in crude graffiti isn’t the only truck shelling out that irresistible garlic shrimp, but it’s the most iconic. Stop by for plate, relax under the covered picnic area, and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!
You’ll want to stretch out on the sand after pigging out on shrimp, so continue travelling north and you’ll find three well-known beaches to choose from: Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline (Ehukai Beach), and Waimea Bay. In winter, the waves here reach a staggering 15-30 feet high and attract world-class surfers and crowds. If you’re lucky enough to visit during surf competition season, spend some time watching them before moving on. The waves calm down in the summer, treating you to pristine views and smaller crowds. Please pay attention to the lifeguards and heed their warnings, no matter what time you visit. Even if the water looks safe enough to swim in, there may be strong riptides that you can’t see until too late.
Waimea Bay is my favorite among the three. My friends and I stopped here one summer and had an absolute blast swimming in crystal clear waters and watching braver people jump off the rocks into the water below. We had a photo session on the rocky shore and rolled around on the sand… but the most magical moment was swimming in the bay, opening my eyes underwater, and seeing a sea turtle swimming ahead of me. Unforgettable.
Moving along now! Next stop is the charming city of Haleiwa. Browse through the many little shops and pick up an authentic Hawaiian-made souvenir of your trip. Then make your way to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice which should be easy to find because there’s usually a huge line in front. Don’t be intimidated; The line moves fairly quickly. Need flavor suggestions? Lilikoi, guava, and pina colada are my faves, but go ahead and try the li hing mui if you’re feel like being a foodie. Li hing is salty dried plum; a favorite of the locals for it’s sweet and sour flavor. Don’t forget to add the vanilla ice cream! Shave Ice places usually don’t have much seating, and you’ll see a lot of locals enjoying their treats in the back of their vehicles, tailgate style. All part of the experience, my friends!
If you have kids with you, keep an eye out for the yellow grab bags in the shop. My parents used to buy them for me and my siblings every time we were on the North Shore, and I have many fond memories of tearing into them to find out what kind of mystery toy I’d be getting. Same concept as all those blind bag toys that kids today are into! The bags are a cheap way to spoil your kids a little.
If you don’t feel like waiting in line, then don’t. There are many shave ice places on the island closer to Waikiki. I’m a huge fan of Shimazu’s and their haupia topping (OMG drool). Not to mention an insane flavor selection. A friend of mine swears by Waiola Shave Ice. Both tiny hole in the wall shops located in Honolulu. I’m sure you’ll be satisfied wherever you go! The shave ice in Hawaii is wonderfully smooth (no crunchy ice bits at all!), and the fine powdery ice soaks up all the syrup for maximum flavor. No wonder it’s one of Hawaii’s iconic treats!
Continuing your trek down the highway will take you to Wahiawa where another iconic treat awaits…. pineapple! Here lies Dole Plantation, the complete pineapple experience. Full disclosure: we didn’t do the Plantation tour when we did our trip, but I wanted to mention it because it’s a fun place to visit. There are three main attractions there: the train tour, garden tour, and the world’s largest maze. All three are affordably priced… the train tour is the most expensive at just $10.50 per person. They also have an onsite café serving up local favorites and the famous Dole whip soft serve ice cream. Yup, the same one that Disneyland has! You might not have time for this if you’re doing the full circle island trip, but it’s doable if you are just visiting the North Shore.
We concluded our trip in Waikiki, exhausted and energized at the same time. I think we scraped the last of our money up and got Jack-in-the-Box before settling on the dark beach to talk. Oahu may be an island, but this road trip packs a lot of activity into one day. You might not get to do everything listed on this blog, so just pick and choose what looks good to you. We’d spent a couple hours at one location, but then just 10 minutes at another. Pace yourself, keep track of the time, and just enjoy yourself!
You can purchase the art featured on this page at my Studio Battleaxe Etsy Shop.