As many of you travelers out there know, Southwest Airlines recently made waves in the domestic market by launching it’s multi-island service from the west coast to Hawaii. Their much-anticipated entry caused other carriers to slash prices, so much so that finding fares under $300 round-trip was commonplace for a solid two week period. Since we haven’t been to Hawaii in quite a while, and since our only attention to the islands came with our round-trip SF and LA cruise promotions, we decided to take advantage of the improbable airfare and booked ourselves a week-long stay. We would familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land and get to know Oahu in ways that you, our clients, would enjoy.
First, let’s start out with what airline to take to Hawaii. In complete honesty, all are decent options. And when you see low fares such as what we found across the board, the decision ultimately comes down to which airline’s loyalty program you have and with marginal consideration, the quality of service for each. At the time, we found Alaska Airlines to be the best choice, as fares were at their lowest (Alaska Saver fare for a very modest $293 round-trip, taxes and other fees included) and Alaska’s service has been highly rated for many years now.
From SFO, you’ll have 4 choices of airlines flying to Hawaii’s main hub in Honolulu. United, Hawaiian, Alaska, and the little-known Sun Country Airlines are all options. Hawaiian Airlines offers the most premium product out of the four, but their price tag doesn’t quite justify spending an additional few hundred dollars if affordability is the name of your game. Alaska Airlines also offers round-trip fights from SFO to Kahului, Maui, as well as round-trip flights from San Jose to Kauai, Maui, and Kailua (Kona). So options are abound in the greater Bay Area when you book with them!
The flight itself was overall a pleasant experience - nothing out of the ordinary for a typical domestic flight. Alaska doesn’t have seatback entertainment systems on their Boeing 737’s, but they do provide a robust entertainment selection via their in-flight app - necessary for a 5 hour flight. If you’re unable to download the in-flight entertainment app, Alaska provides a touch pad for a small rental fee.
Alaska doesn’t provide meal service for their flights to Hawaii aside from the snack and drink services. However, they do provide a bevy of local west coast inspired fare available for purchase at reasonable prices. Not to mention a solid selection of wines!
The focal point of the Alaska Airlines experience is its service. Ever since the merger between Alaska and Virgin America a couple of years ago, passengers were worried that the level of care from the staff would take a hit. At least from what we experienced during our two flights to Honolulu and back, the service seemed excellent at worst.
Where to Stay in Honolulu
Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach is the quintessential island vacation destination, with resorts and high-end shopping districts lining one of the world’s most picturesque beaches. Staying at Waikiki is certainly not friendly to your wallet (expect to spend at least $200 a night on a 3 to 4-star hotel), but it comes with the benefit of being at the center of culinary and cultural experiences that you just can’t find anywhere else in the world. Because of this, we recommend that travelers reserve at least one vacation in Hawaii at Waikiki.
During our week-long stay here, we stayed at two exceptional hotels, one located at the edge of the Waikiki strip and the other in the center of it all. The first hotel, The Modern Honolulu of Diamond Resorts, was a surprising gem. Close enough to the hustle and bustle of Waikiki Beach and just a few blocks away from the up-and-coming Kaka’ako arts district, the Modern is truly in the perfect place for travelers visiting Honolulu for the first time and especially for those who are turned off by the tourist crowds of Waikiki.
It radiates a modern boutique luxury ambiance yet it doesn’t feel forced. Instead, the Modern seems to reflect exactly what its name implies - that this is Honolulu in its modern form. The rooms, with most boasting large private balconies, are studies in accents created by the color white. So it feels sleek and spa-like, and natural light flows through the interior effortlessly whether you’re facing the ocean or not.
The best part about the Modern, however, is what’s on site. When you enter the lobby, you’ll notice immediately the wall of the check-in area adorned with a collage of real surfboards. The lobby area is quite cramped, but just to the back you’ll notice a larger than life bookcase which happens to open up into a spacious bar/lounge area. But the fun doesn’t end there. Just next door to the bar is a nightclub that stays open until 3am. Take the escalator to the 2nd floor and you enter the swank pool area with delectable food service and beachy bar - a home run in our books. Take the stairs up another floor, and you enter the adults-only pool area, the romantic “sunset pool.”
All in all, the Modern Honolulu is a necessary change of scenery for the typical tourist hotel of Waikiki Beach.
For the second half of our trip, we stayed at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, the aforementioned hotel chain’s flagship property. This type of hotel is more in line with your traditional Waikiki experience for a few reasons. For one, it’s situated directly in the center of Waikiki Beach with direct access to it. The decor inside the hotel, from the lobby to its rooms and restaurants illustrate the quintessential Hawaiian culture, a little tired-looking to some discerning travelers, but certainly charming to others. The aloha spirit seems a bit more prominent here than is does at the Modern, perhaps because of it’s conscious themes that call on the beauty of O’ahu’s cultural past.
The best thing about staying at the Outrigger Waikiki, besides the absolutely best views of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head in the distance, is it’s vicinity to everything. Walk right out to Kalakaua Avenue and you are right in the middle of all the shopping centers and restaurants in Honolulu. Just across the street is the now revamped International Marketplace, a combination of upscale shops and dining venues centered around a large banyan tree.
Not too long ago, Outrigger unveiled their club room concept. Club rooms are located on the top 3 floors of the Waikiki property and while providing the best view of the beach and surrounding landscape, they are the same size and have the same amenities as the rooms below. However, when you book one of these club rooms, you get to enjoy the added benefit of daily breakfast and evening cocktail receptions with exclusive access to the Voyager 47 Club (video below). We had the fortune of staying in one of the ocean view rooms and let us tell you that it was spectacular.
What to do in O’ahu
Because of its unique blend of resort and city life, its abundance of nature and beaches, O’ahu is a vacationer’s dream. Admittedly, it’s hard to do everything that O’ahu has to offer in a 7 day period, but we can at least share with you some of the things we thought were worthwhile during our stay there.
Beaches, Beaches, Beaches!
The beaches of O’ahu are some of the most beautiful in the world, and we’re having a hard time getting over the sheer magnificence of its coastline. Though there is no unworthy beach, there were three in particular that we thought stood out from the rest. Lanikai Beach beckons Instagramers with its light blue waters and pristine white sands. On O’ahu’s north shore, Sunset Beach, while very picturesque, showcases the power of the currents as big waves crash close in on the beach. The sand is soft and pristine like Lanikai’s, but if you’re into a little bodyboarding, this is the place for you. Just be very careful because those undercurrents are very strong! During the winter, this spot becomes an advanced surfer’s paradise, but during the spring/summer/fall months, casual beach goers can brave the relatively calm waters. And finally, our surprising find of the week - Yokohama Bay. It’s a spot for locals with sizable waves for the advanced types, but nestled in the middle is a large tide pool with ample space for loungers to relax. It’s on the far west side of O’ahu and quite a drive from Waikiki (up to 75 minutes) so it’s a great spot to watch the sunset.
One little tidbit: if you drive around the island, often times you’ll find stretches of beach that look secluded. Don’t be afraid to park on the side of the road and explore! Some of the most serene spots are found when you’re driving along the island’s coastal road.
Book a UTV or ATV Tour at Kualoa Ranch
One of the highlights of our trip was the 2-hour UTV experience at the Kualoa Private Nature Reserve. The popular film location for many well-known movies such as Jurassic Park is an awe-inspiring landscape of lush mountains and valleys - the perfect setting for an off-road style adventure. And that’s exactly what we did! Nothing beats the thrill of driving your own vehicle on rough dirt roads while taking in breathtaking sights. Just look at these pictures we took!
If there’s one thing you need to do in O’ahu, it’s to enjoy the foods of the island. From poke to all the different variations of loco mocos to shave ice, O’ahu has the perfect blend of East and West culinary treats. Shrimp trucks on the North Shore like Ono Steaks and Shrimp Shack, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck and Honos Shrimp Truck will all make your mouth water. After eating one serving of their big garlic shrimp and kalbi plates, you’ll probably be wanting to order more!
Poke in Hawaii is absolutely out of this world. Though we only had it once on the island at Fresh Catch in Koneohe, we can confidently state that poke in California is no match. It’s not even close! The quality of fish is superb - when you bite through your first mouthful of poke, you’ll immediately appreciate the buttery smoothness of the fresh tuna.
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail
We recommend taking the relatively easy hike to the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse, but be sure to make this hike early in the morning on a weekday as it commonly gets crowded. It’s a completely paved path that offers incredible views of southeast tip of O’ahu once you get to the top of the peak.
Hotel Bars in Waikiki!