Updated: Mar 22, 2022
It seems that Oahu and Honolulu get a bit of dissing from travellers for several reasons - sometimes it is an anti-city sentiment, and others it is the crass commercialization that is Waikiki. We cannot really disagree, except to say we really, really like Oahu and Waikiki. Yep, we are one of those - folks who do not mind the kitsch, and crass. However, that being said - our first trip to Hawaii was in 2010 and at that time there was the essence of 1950s Hawaii - the hotels, most of them, still had 1950s or 1960s motifs and furniture. Makes sense because to renovate anything - or build anything for that matter - everything must come across the ocean in a freighter, making it quite expensive. In 2010 there was still that kitschy charm not to mention the International Marketplace was cool. Our first breakfast in Waikiki on that first day was in the "Treehouse Café" up in the banyan tree in the International Marketplace. Since 2010 there has been a rapid gentrification of the area - all the little family stores along Kalakaua Avenue and in Kings Cross have been replaced - as of our last visit in 2018 - by high-end retailers. Sadly, the International Marketplace was flattened and replaced with a Saks Fifth Avenue and other expensive retail outlets - it has completely lost any charm it once had. Now it is just a big collection of departments stores with a banyan tree in the middle. The hotels were dated, but fun and affordable - many have been renovated at great cost to the environment we are sure - and are no longer that affordable. All but one or two that is.
Now, as mentioned in other parts of this site we do prefer staying in hostels - we've checked out the hostels in Waikiki/Oahu, and these are the exception to the rule where being older is not as welcome here as it is in Europe and Canada (and likely the United States continent). We checked in with the hostels in Waikiki and were met with rude, impertinent staff who were making it painfully obvious we were not welcome. Maybe it was the grey beard or the black ankle socks with my sandals - we're not sure but suffice to say we didn't stay long. In our quest to find somewhere to stay in Waikiki that is not a large chain hotel we came across the ‘Royal Grove Hotel’ at 151 Uluniu Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815. The first time we stayed here we were taken with the sense of community and incredibly cool kitsch. This place hasn’t been updated since the late 1960s and that is one of its many strengths. That and the price – most times we’ve been able to secure a large room with a kitchen for around $120 per night Canadian. The Royal Grove has a great sense of community and with the lobby as the focal point, it has a hostel-like quality where meeting people becomes just one of the activities.
The lobby of the Royal Grove Hotel - my 18-year-old nephew was with us and thought this place a lot of fun. There is ukulele night and during holidays everyone pitches in for a potluck. Post-COVID we're sure this will be the norm again. Super fun decor - dated and delightful. My partner (right), her mom (middle) and our friend Jean (left).
The pool at the Royal Grove - you are two blocks from Waikiki Beach; this area is great in the evenings for chatting and getting to know fellow travellers. While the Royal Grove isn't a hostel, though it has all the great aspects of hostels - great common area that encourages people to gather and meet; a sense of community and cooking facilities in most of the rooms.
Laundry room on the main level and this is also where ukulele nights and potlucks happen.
In Waikiki and the immediate area we have found a number of eating establishments that we are very fond of. We have a video on Waikiki that can be viewed here. One of the places featured in that video is 'Leonard's Bakery' - it is outside of Waikiki up on Montserrat Avenue heading up alongside of Diamond Crater. 'Leonard's' has been around for 70 years now - a family from Portugal immigrated to Hawaii and set up a malasada bakery. Check out our review of 'Leonard's Bakery' on Trip Advisor here. Another favourite place to go in Waikiki is 'Island Vintage Coffee' - the coffee is the best (in our opinion) on the island, and in addition they make the tastiest and healthiest breakfasts and lunches of anywhere. We have a review you can find here. We are always amazed at the amount of food and coffee the staff pump out every day and maintain such high quality with everything. They are also way nicer than anyone would be dealing with thousands of tourists every minute of every day. You have to admit - as tourists we sometimes leave our good manners at home, which is something we all need to do better at. There are two other eating establishments that have been our staples over the past ten years of travelling to Hawaii (we are very fortunate). The first is 'Diamond Head Cove Health Bar' - also up the side of Diamond Head Crater - it is in a little plaza with our other favourite, 'Bogart's Cafe'. Bogart's moved a few years back in the same plaza to a bigger space. This was a good move - the old location was quite small and no toilet facilities. The new space is larger; more seating and most importantly, there is a toilet to use if you need it. Below are some photos of our favourite stops in/around Waikiki for food and coffee. All would be considered low/mid range cost.
Diamondhead Cove Health Bar - seriously, best Acai bowls of anywhere.
Diamondhead Cove Health Bar - also has a cool interior décor. No toilets though for some reason. Odd little plaza.
Diamondhead Cove Health Bar - did we not say THE BEST acai bowls? Local blueberries, bananas and strawberries - grown in that volcanic soil they just taste amazing.
Leonard's Bakery - established in 1952
Leonard's Bakery - it is worth walking up here a couple of times during a trip to enjoy one or two of these amazing malasadas.
Leonard's Bakery - we bought six once, but that was too much. The next day they are not quite the same. Better to go as needed (or PRN malasadas for those of you in the health field).
Island Vintage Coffee - they have a few locations around the Hawaiian Islands. There is another one on the North Shore in Hale 'iwa.
Island Vintage Coffee
Island Vintage Coffee - that is a bagel breakfast; really healthy menu, and great for vegetarians.
The West side of the island is quite different from the rest of Oahu - we drove out here once to check it out - there are some beautiful areas of the coastline and some large parks by the ocean. The West side of the island is where more of the locals live - the people who work in the hotels and businesses in Honolulu and Waikiki. The power plant is out here, too - 65% of Oahu's electricity is from petroleum and coal. There are small percentages from solar, wind and geothermal - on a volcanic island chain we would have hoped for a larger portion to be geothermal as they use in Iceland, but seems non-renewables are still the primary energy source. There is a shift toward renewable energy sources, and finally recycling is becoming part of the zeitgeist in Hawaii. For years everything was just thrown out - now at least plastic bags and cups are finding a way to be reused.
Near the end of the road on the West coast of Oahu. Kaneana Cave is across the road from this stop.
Kaneana Cave is a mysterious site on Oahu's leeward (west) coast, almost as far away as you can get on the island near where the road ends. That's why the cave is called Kaneana (Cave of Kane), named after Kane, the god of creation.
Another town we enjoy visiting each visit is Hale iwa (pronounced 'hall-E-eva' - W is a 'v' sound when in the middle of a word, and a 'w' sound at the beginning). Hale 'iwa is known for the big pipeline surfing competitions (and is where you will find "Pipeline Beach"). It is a cute artist-style community with a number of small cafes and coffee shops. Again, like most of Oahu, it is slowly gentrifying, though not as fast as around Honolulu - there is resistance to be found among the local citizens to 'keep the country, country' - no more big resort developments, which we are also supportive of. Once you lose the small businesses and local artisans you lose the culture and uniqueness of a place. There is lots to see and do around here. As the crow flies it isn't very far to Hale 'iwa, but keep in mind around the ocean the speed limit averages 40km/h (25mph), so it takes a while. Plus, there is often road work going on, and in the busier stretches where people are crossing the street between their vehicles and the beaches it is slower still. The highway up the middle of the island is quick - however it is far less scenic than along the coast.
Apologies for the blur of the photo - the middle of the island is gorgeous - pineapple and coffee farms - however, no place to pull over. We did once and got so many angry locals honking at us that we haven't bothered since. Also, there are no real shoulders to pull over on and it is dangerous to do so, so we don't recommend stopping along the roadside.
The Dole Plantation (yes, it is a big corporation - though a Dole Whip is refreshing on a hot day) is not far from Hale 'iwa - on the property are painted junipers - gorgeous trees with bark that looks like it is painted with watercolours.
One of the shopping areas in Hale 'iwa
One of our favourite coffee stops on Oahu - located in Hale 'iwa. Curiously, they use Irish Kerry butter on their croissants. It's cool - and curious.
Spaghettini in Hale 'iwa - affordable Italian fare. Not bad in a pinch.
One of the shops in Hale 'iwa
Shave ice is a mainstay on the island, and in Hale 'iwa are two of the most well-known. Matsumotos (large lineup) and Aoki's. Really, with shave ice you can't go too wrong whichever place you choose.
Sadly, this house and yard is no longer in existence - demolished for a higher-end retail outlet. The new place isn't worth photographing - very plain.
The Big Island of Hawaii
Kona and Hilo
We've also been to the big island - the first time we went we did stay in a hotel; hostel searches since that stay haven't yielded many options. It just may be that Hawaii isn't a great hostel destination, but places like the Royal Grove make it special. We have only been here once so far and hope to go back again as soon as the pandemic will allow. The Big Island comes by its name honestly. We were there for 8 days and put on over 1400 kilometres (or 900 miles), and that wasn't doing anything more than checking out the island once. You do need a car here - the transit is pretty much non-existent, and the open-air trolley car only goes to the department stores up the hill; it doesn't give you a tour around at all. Not worth the cost in Kona (don't believe they have one in Hilo).
Kailua-Kona (or just 'Kona') is the more touristy of the two main centres on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is cute and has many cafes, restaurants and shops. There are a few shops that sell locally made clothing that are very nice, and the cafes are quite good - our favourite coffee and food stop is "Island Lava Java". They have the best coffee (our opinion) and food options for breakfast, lunch and dinner - just checking their website (https://islandlavajava.com/) and it appears they have moved to a larger location that looks fun. There is really good pizza at "Humpty's Bar" at the South end of town. The spinach and shrimp pizza was especially tasty. One drawback to Kona's food scene is that much of it is deep fried - seems everywhere has a significant portion of the menu dedicated to deep fried items, which might be fine on the stomach when one is in their 20s, but a little less palatable when one is in their 50s and beyond. However, there are a few decent food options to choose from. And, if you tire of the restaurants there is the farmer's market held twice weekly here that is worth checking out. We are from Canada, and to find local avocados that are the size of a small melon is a treat. Making our own guacamole at the room with fresh ingredients for a salsa make a delicious meal with some chips.
Island Lava Java
View from the lanai of Island Lava Java in Kailua-Kona. That's the 'Royal Kona Resort' in the distance.
Walks and Hikes
The Big Island is great for those of us who love different geography and scenery. Hawaii is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world where you can find climate zones such as tropical monsoon, tundra and desert within an hour drive; in fact Hawaii (The Big Island) has 8 of the world's 13 climate zones (I think it's 13 - numbers vary by information source) making it a fascinating island to hike around. On our second day the rented car we had broke down on the top of a mountain pass near Waimea. We were dressed for Hawaii in board shorts, flip-flops and tank tops - well, it snowed. We were freezing. By the time help arrived (some 7 hours later at 01:45 in the morning) we were not able to stop shivering for a good hour after - heater on full blast for the 90 minute drive back to Kona. Something you don't think about going to Hawaii (at least the Big Island) is that you need to pack layers with you if you are driving around the island, because you never know what weather you might be stuck in for a time.
This island has great hikes - from tropical mountain paths to barren volcanic craters. We did a hike through what to me seemed like a scrub forest in the Mediterranean. Dry and bristly is the best description. Some photos to follow from some of the hikes we did:
This is where we broke down on the road from the Kohala Coast towards Waimea. That is the Mauna Loa Observatory on Mauna Kea - the drive up Mauna Kea recommends you stop half-way to climatize. People with heart conditions are encouraged to skip this trip as the altitude change can be very hard on a bad heart. Deadly, even.
Road (hike) down (and back up) to Waipio Valley - the road is 1.6 kilometres down with much of the road at a 30% grade, and a few spots dipping to a 39% grade. It is a great workout both down and up. If your knees are bad or give you problems you might want to consider taking the pickup down or one of the tours.
Waterfall in Waipio Valley (you may recognize it from different television shows and movies)
Vegetation in the bottom of Waipio Valley - it is seriously gorgeous here.
Kailua Iki Crater in Volcano National Park - this was molten in 1959 and as you walk wisps of smoke still rise up from below; very cool. You can get a selfie with volcanic smoke!
Kailua Iki Crater - you can just (barely) make out the people walking on the trail in the middle of the photo; the whole walk along the bottom is nearly 5 kilometres (or just over 3 miles). Make sure you pack water and wear good walking shoes - I would recommend hikers, but lots of people wear sneakers. This is fine if your knees are wobbly. Mostly flat.
Kailua Iki Crater
This photo is taken about 1 kilometre inside Kaumana Lava tube above Hilo. It is a little hard to find, but well worth the trouble. You do have to do some hands and knees crawling, or if you are agile you can do this on your feet. I had to go through the opening on all fours - a little hard on the knees. However, once you are inside the tube it is really cool. I recommend really good headlamps and flashlights, and not a bad idea to bring a lite zip-up hoodie or something; it is cooler in the tube. We didn't have great flashlights, and something you don't think about is when everything is black there is not much to reflect light. It was creepy, but so cool. I'm a movie fan, and this reminded me of something from the movie 'Alien'. Lots of fun, and something you don't do every day.
The main opening to Kaumana Lava Tube located at: 1492 Kaumana Dr, Hilo, HI 96720 - just to know - this may not be an entirely safe adventure; there is always the chance of chunks of rock breaking off from above, and even something the size of a baseball can do serious damage. Just FYI.
This is the trail in Manuka State Park. This is a dry, prickly and scrubby landscape - very different from the tropical forests and volcanos.
This is not so much a hike as just a really cool place to go. This is South Point on the Big Island - the southern-most point of the United States. The person you see sitting on that wooden contraption jumped off shortly after I took this photo. Then climbed up a rickety metal ladder and jumped off again. I think they're nuts - the waves are smashing in to the sides of that cliff, and they have to wait for the incoming wave to get them high enough to grab the ladder before getting slammed in the rock. Not sure that is what I call fun, but certainly would be exciting. This is about 2 hours South of Kailua-Kona. Really pretty drive along the side of the volcano - we ran in to Vog - the name given to volcanic fog. It stings the eyes.
The town of Hilo is our favourite town on the Big Island. This side of the island sees a lot more rain than Kailua-Kona. If you are looking for sun and sand you will want to stay in Kona. However, if you want to hang out with locals and get away from souvenir shops and tourist kitsch, then Hilo is the place for you. They have a great farmers' market in Hilo - fairly well-known nationally as we discovered. Great locally made items and produce. Our favourite thing in Hawaii is to buy our own produce and make our own salsa and guacamole; sandwiches, salads - it tastes so much different, and delicious with fruits and vegetables grown in Hawaii. Something about the volcanic, red soil that adds flavour to the food. Really delicious.
Downtown Hilo - it has a definite old west/colonial appearance. Once a hub of sugar cane production.
The old movie theatre in downtown Hilo.
Hilo has really fun little coffee shops and cafe hidden around the town.
The Hilo Farmers' Market
This is a sign we quite like from a little town closer to Waipio Valley. Sums up the pace and lifestyle of the islands.
Hostels in Hilo
We didn't find too much in Hilo - there is/was the Hilo Bay Hostel, however as of this writing it is being used for housing individuals on low income. Hawaii is suffering the same challenges as most cities around the world - gentrification. Makes it unaffordable for local people to afford rent let alone purchase something. More and more people are landing on the streets. There is a good documentary called, "No Room in Paradise" about people who are homeless in Oahu. It is worth checking out: https://www.kanopy.com/product/no-room-paradise
We haven't had the opportunity to do a huge amount of snorkeling, but we have snorkeled most every trip to Hawaii. Primarily on Oahu, and our two favourites so far are Kaneohe Bay with Holokai Snorkel and Kayak, and at Hanauma Bay. Holokai Snorkel and Kayak is our personal favourite - we've been out with them three times and the crew each time has been great. A lot of fun, and we always see a different area of the bay each time we go out. The best part is 100% of the proceeds benefit both Kama’aina Kids, an organization dedicated to serving local children and their families through a wide variety of quality childcare programs, as well as He’eia State Park. Highly recommended and a great morning or afternoon outing. You don't have to be a strong swimmer to do this - I'm a terrible swimmer, but they had me thinking I'm Jacque Cousteau when I go out. My partner and I have an underwater camera and we turn in to 'fish paparazzi' - out of the 100 or so photos we usually get 3 or 4 really cool photos of colourful fish. Oh, and one other thing - to preserve the world's coral, don't wear sunscreen in to the water. It washes off, and the majority of sunscreen is toxic, which contributes to bleaching, and dying off, of the coral reefs. Buy yourself a water shirt - makes a cool souvenir and you can wear it as sports wear later when you are home. Hanauma Bay is relatively shallow - this is a good learning bay if you haven't snorkeled before, or only a few times. Most places you can stand up if you need to. Please don't stand on the coral - that will kill it. Find sand to stand on. Sadly, the sand is dead coral, but damage is already done. Kaneohe Bay we enjoy more - it is much deeper and we almost always see turtles there. However, you are doing more swimming and it is a really good workout as it goes down well over 10 metres in areas. Our snorkel video is available here.
Hanauma Bay - get there early; after 10:00am you are unlikely to find parking
You can rent lockers and snorkel gear here - however, if you lose the key it is $50 to get your lock cut off. Not the best quality snorkel gear - better to rent at Snorkel Bob's in Honolulu before you head out in the morning - or rent the night before. About $30 per day for fins, mask and snorkel. Better quality gear and you will absolutely fall in love with snorkeling (most likely). It took us the first time with good gear to really fall in love with it. Our very first snorkel outing in 2010 was with really low quality snorkel gear and we thought we'd never bother with snorkeling again. Happy we gave it another go with good gear.
Cool pic, eh? It literally took us about 50 photos to catch this one. More difficult than you might think to photograph a fish underwater. This was with a fairly cheap ($150) underwater camera. Very basic. Taken in Hanauma Bay.
Also a Hanauma Bay fish photo. Again, had to go through quite a few fish photos to get this one.
This only took one shot. We're easier to photograph than fish. Taken in Hanauma Bay with Snorkel Bob gear.
Kaneohe Bay with Holokai Snorkel and Kayak
Holokai Snorkel and Kayak bring you out to the middle of the bay where you base off of a sand bar. At low tide the sand bar is only a few centimeters below the water - and in some spots it is above the water. The boat you see in the photo is where you can leave your glasses, flip flops, etc. If you wear glasses be sure to rent prescription goggles. I wear glasses and having prescription goggles is super cool - I've snorkeled with regular goggles and it is almost pointless because you can't see a thing if your eyesight is not good. My nephew, Conor, and sister, Eirinn, in the middle of this photo.
The coral is still thriving in Kaneohe Bay, but there are signs of it fading (i.e. bleaching). A good website and documentary about the world's coral reefs is here at: www.chasingcoral.com - you can watch the documentary on Netflix. It is powerful - fantastic photography.
Me thinking I'm a deep sea diver now. Holokai Snorkel and Kayak will do that for you. Way too much fun snorkeling here.
Angela being a 'fish paparazzi'. Notice the water shirt versus sunscreen.
A Kaneohe Bay fish beside the coral.
The coral shelf in Kaneohe Bay - it drops off to the right and goes down a good 10 metres or more.