Oahu: What’s Worth It? (And What does Tall Mom Recommend Skipping?)

IIf you’ve been researching a trip to Oahu then you know that paradise has a price and because of that hefty price tag many of us East Coasters see Hawaii as a one-time affair and want to do it right when we make the long plane journey. Tall Family’s Trip was painstakingly put together after extensive reading and planning and now I’m sharing the “real” about what we thought about the “must sees”. Money is hard earned and vacation time is a commodity so what’s worth it? I’ll tell you what we thought and before you comment and tell me I’ve got it all wrong, please remember, it’s opinion only – though I’ve also shared some valid reasons.


Pearl Harbor – The museum itself was having some structural issues during our visit so we didn’t get to step foot in the monument. Instead we were escorted via Navy vessel over to the monument after viewing an informative video. The experience is both sobering and breath-taking and even if you’re not into American history being in that spot leaves its mark.
Make the effort to get online and get tickets in advance so you’ll be guaranteed a spot. The best time I was able to land on the date that we wanted to visit was at noon, and that was not ideal given our schedule for the day. We showed up early and the guy at the ticket booth gave us a pass for 11 a.m. which was helpful. The cost of going online and ordering in advance was $1.50 per person – the absolute best deal to be found for your Hawaiian trip. The Pearl Harbor museum is surrounded by three other museums which may or may not be “worth it”. More information on that below!



Captain Bob’s Snorkel Picnic – Repeatedly over the weeks ahead of our trip I regretted paying in advance for the snorkel picnic. Images of an entire day “wasted” on a boat made me upset with my decision. But I had this all wrong. The snorkel picnic, though expensive, was the most relaxing part of our trip. Perhaps this was because we were fortunate enough to hit a beautiful June day. We were picked up at a hotel within quick walking distance of the Outrigger Beachcomber and driven on a small bus with about a half dozen other people. The drive was roughly an hour in length so there was the opportunity to take in all of the little towns along the way. Once our small bus arrived shortly after a much larger and full bus arrived and groups were divided on to two catamarans.
During the cruise we saw giant turtles and played volleyball on the sandbar at Kanehoe Bay. Later all of the equipment was provided for snorkeling around reefs. The crew was attentive and while I had worried that this might be a drunk boat party, groups were respectful and family-oriented. And the real surprise? The hamburger lunch was actually good and plentiful!

Waikiki Connection – Waikiki Connection was another “sleeper” surprise. To be clear, I hate a resort fee and think it’s a total rip off. For goodness sake, just give me the real price of a night’s stay! One of the (few, in my opinion) “amenities” offered by the Outrigger hotel chain in Oahu is the Waikiki Connection trolley which is included as part of the daily resort fee. (And to be entirely honest, I avoided that fee by landing a great rate for our hotel through Travel Zoo.) While the trolley did not stop right outside our door, a quick walk a few blocks over took us to the statue where the trolley made stops. To be fair, other buses and trolleys ran more frequently through the area so initially it was frustrating when everyone around us was picked up and we were left waiting. But I learned to relax a bit about that and wait in a park bench overlooking the picturesque beach and ocean. The trolley offers stops throughout the Waikiki area at high interest locations. The breezy ride through town was informative and a good way to unwind after a busy day of touring.
Driver personality on the Connection varied greatly – and this is not to say that any of them were bad. On our first trip, however, the driver had learned all of the tricks of the trade and made great efforts to keep tourists entertained. He stopped at various locations for picture taking and even took couple, family, and group photos with beautiful backdrops. He pointed out particular eating establishments and threw in a bit of culture and history here and there. I noticed he earned quite a few tips as riders exited because he made the “Figure 8” tour so enjoyable.

Lomi Lomi massage at the Outrigger Beachcomber – Prior to visiting Oahu I researched extensively with the intent to get a great massage between grueling plane rides. Imagine my surprise when the best place to accomplish that was within my own hotel at the Outrigger Beachcomber! Setting an appointment was not the easiest task and a lot of Spa La Cure’s website is in Japanese, but the effort I put into getting an appointment was well worth it. The therapist who worked on me had worked in that location about twenty years. The spa itself is on the second floor of the hotel and I was a bit taken back that it is simply in a hotel room with some slight conversions. The experience, however, was incredible and the Hawaiian Lomi Lomi outstanding. Cherry on top? I received a discount because I was staying at the hotel.



Hanauma Bay State Park – Tall Family was surprised by the twenty minute orientation video that was required for entry and that we had to wait fifteen minutes to move into the theater but it was worth the delay. Simply put I cannot imagine a more beautiful scene. The state park is well maintained and the entry fee is a steal of a deal for snorkel practice. Snorkel equipment is available for rent if you do not bring your own.



Aloha Swap Meet – If you are only into high end purses and expensive shoes, the Aloha Swap Meet probably isn’t for you. Stay over in Waikiki! But if you can appreciate a good deal it’s worth a few bucks of entry fee to head over the Hawaiian flea market and check out the goods. You’ll likely meet some nice folks and can try out a variety of fruits. You can even get a massage there! Don’t be afraid to negotiate and you will find some good deals. We arrived early, before the heat of the day set in, for our shopping and so we left before 10 a.m. After 10 a.m., however, your family has the opportunity to be photographed within Aloha Stadium.
Side Note: Duke’s Marketplace in Waikiki is similar to the swap meet simply on a much smaller scale.

Waikiki Sport Fishing – For folks who enjoy fishing, Capt. Nick at Waikiki Sport Fishing is easy to set up a date and charter with and is accessible and responsive as questions arrive prior to the charter trip.



Dole Plantation – One afternoon Tall Family made the drive over to the plantation which is positioned away from Waikiki in another part of Oahu. (You will need a car or a special tour to get there from most locations.) We took a quick look around (but didn’t participate in the train ride, maze, etc.) and enjoyed delectable pineapple ice cream. This stop wouldn’t be for everyone and was more of a “when in Rome” activity for us.

The other museums at Pearl Harbor (such as the Pacific Aviation Museum)
While Pearl Harbor was certainly worth the visit unless you are history-minded the other museums at the same location may not be worth your time (and particularly if you have visited other aviation and submarine museums as Tall Family has). If this is on your agenda, buy the Hawaii Entertainment book as we were able to use coupons there to get a better price than the “bundle deal” offered at the ticket booth.


Let the controversy begin!

Diamond Head State Monument (above, right) – We arrived very early to climb Diamond Head and by the time the task was complete, we were all absolutely saturated in sweat. Based on the reviews of others, this was an absolute “must” on our trip, and I may be the first person to ever report that it was rather a let down in the sense that similar beautiful views such as those found at the top of Diamond Head are available in lots of other places. The walking path up was surprisingly rocky (I guess I assumed with thousands of feet trampling on it annually the pathway would have been smoother) and there was a cavernous area that made for challenging breathing for this mom with a touch of asthma. After the journey up then down we met a local in the parking lot who mentioned that on the previous day multiple people were rescued out of the path.
Here’s what I’d say is worth it: Drive (or ride the Waikiki Connection) out to the entrance and parking lot and take a good look around at the cone area which is indeed impressive. But spending an hour or so climbing up, then down Diamond Head with a few hundred others for the view? Nope. Not worth it.



Chief’s Luau- Here’s another opinion that may draw some controversy. When in Hawaii, luau, right? I studied the reviews about the different luaus and skipped over the Polynesian Cultural Center’s offering because it was widely noted that Chief’s Luau was quite entertaining and I was especially interested because it was often described as “funny”. I thought this would be more to the liking of my family than something more serious.
Driving from Waikiki to the location of the luau took much longer than anticipated. We could have been picked up by a bus but that would have cost $18 per person on top of the already extravagant fee for the activity, but there is a Tall Family budget, so we trekked it over in the rental car. There is one highway in Hawaii and we quickly learned on this journey that it was best to avoid it. In fact, some items were marked right off the itinerary as we drove to the luau.
Upon arrival at a less than impressive parking situation Tall Dad asked, “You made me dress up for Wet ‘n Wild?” (In case you don’t have one in your area, Wet ‘n Wild is a water park.) I had high hopes at that moment of arrival but in my mind that became the summary for the evening. All dressed up. No place to go.  In addition to the cost of the luau there was a fee for parking.  Salt in the wound.
Contrary to many other reviews of the luau, we felt that the food – particularly the pork – was quite good. I appreciated the opportunity to stretch myself by trying some items I wouldn’t have normally selected, such as the purple Okinawan sweet potato.
In the end the luau just didn’t meet our expectations and we left early to make the drive back to Waikiki. We are people who are easily entertained, and we collectively didn’t find the entertainment funny or even interesting. The “Chief” was trying to carry a heavy load but couldn’t carry the show solo. I looked around and saw some folks in the mix who seemed to be really into it but we were profoundly disengaged with the scenes about Polynesian Islands. It’s not that we didn’t want to learn from the performances it was just so disjointed in its presentation that we couldn’t stick with it.
A few nights later while at the (free, public) torch lighting at Kuhio Beach Park I felt like a fool while a similar show was performed and folks ate their sandwiches and salads purchased from the ABC Store. “This,” I thought, “is what the seasoned Oahu travelers do instead of the luau”. Ahhh, lesson learned.

And a few notes about the food:
Maui Brewing – Tall Family ate there twice for the sake of convenience. “Eh.” Nothing special.

49er Diner (above) – Tall Family ate at this location near the swap meet and Pearl Harbor. If you don’t like rice with your breakfast, be sure to ask for the hashbrowns! (Recommend!)
Cheesecake Factory – If you’re looking for some basic All-American fare the wait was never long at this establishment along the main strip in Waikiki.  Service was consistently solid.

Mac 24/7 @ the Hilton Waikiki Beach (above) – This restaurant was recommended by the locals and we found it to be average in taste and high in price. Though not beachfront, the view outside is beautiful.

Lulu’s Waikiki – On our hottest day in Hawaii we hoofed it several blocks one evening to try out Lulu’s at the Park Shore hotel.  We were seated promptly, reviewed the menu front to back, looked at the beautiful beach, then the zoo and … fifteen minutes later got up and left because at that point not even our drink order had been taken.  The place wasn’t crowded so I am not sure how we were overlooked.

Koa Pancake House (above) – This location in a strip mall provided a plentiful breakfast for a long day of touring.

Eggs ‘n Things (above) – This small restaurant must have the best view in Waikiki and prices are reasonable. The line is long in the morning if you don’t get there at opening and the potatoes taste like pork. Otherwise, this would certainly be a recommended spot to start the day!


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