48 Hours on Oahu: Island Adventure and Relaxation

Get up early.

That’s my best advice for a two-day stay on my beautiful island of Oahu — though it would be the same if you were here for two weeks or two months. Not only is there so much to do that every hour counts, but some of the sweetest experiences can be savored only at dawn.

Want to sleep in? Do it at home.

Day One

Watch the sun rise.

Makapu'u sunrise 

Makapu'u sunrise 

Find out when the sun rises and set your alarm for 45 minutes earlier. You’ll want to be on your lanai (balcony) with hot, rich Kona coffee during the entire 20 minutes or so before sunrise, a time known as civil twilight. Exquisite!

At sunrise, hit the beach.

Waikiki Beach is actually a series of seven beaches. Strolling the entire expanse takes about an hour, and we want you to end up on the Diamond Head side, down by the Waikiki Aquarium. You can don your bathing suit for the walk, but pack a shirt, shorts and slippers for breakfast. The freestanding Barefoot Beach Café or the Hau Tree Lanai in the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel are highly recommended – the eggs Benedict at both are superb! If you opt for the Hau Tree Lanai, you’ll be sitting where King David Kalakaua and Robert Louis Stevenson imbibed quite merrily.

Next, a Doors-Off Helicopter Ride

Hop an Uber back to your hotel and pack some casual wear and a sweater or jacket. Better yet, have these in your rental car already for your 30-minute drive to Magnum Helicopters, on the periphery of the Honolulu International Airport. Check-in time for your 50-minute doors-off helicopter tour is 9:30 a.m.

The thrill of the world’s highest roller coaster, the perspective of a soaring seabird, the awe of unimagined discoveries, the “I can’t believe I’m doing this” of life’s great adventures - that’s what a doors-off helicopter flight is all about.

Picture this…

You’re in a VW Bug doing 100 miles an hour. You’re not scared, because you’re buckled in tightly and the professional driver has a spotless safety record. The Bug doesn’t have any doors. It’s also up in the sky — way up in the sky — and the wind is strong.

Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, the famous surfing beaches and more are all below you; and the Ko‘olau Mountains? They’re right beside you as you round a jagged jade ridge and emerge into sprawling Ka‘a‘awa Valley and fly on to isolated Sacred Falls, knifing and tumbling down a path it has carved patiently for thousands of years.

Doors-off view of Ka'a'awa Valley (©Magnum Helicopters)

Doors-off view of Ka'a'awa Valley (©Magnum Helicopters)

It’s chilly up there, which is where your jacket/sweater comes in. Just gotta do it!

Time for some ahi poke pizza!

If you leave Magnum at 11:00 a.m. and head west on busy H1, you’ll make it to Ko Olina by noon, just in time for fresh ahi poke pizza at Pizza Corner. This award-winning local dish is to die for, and you won't find it anywhere else!

Let’s go snorkeling.

Your dolphin snorkel with Ko Olina Adventures departs from a marina three minutes away. Oahu’s leeward coast is grandly beautiful and rich in marine life. For four hours you’ll be keeping company with vibrant tropical fish, wild spinner dolphins, Hawaiian green sea turtles (honu) and, in winter months, humpback whales. The Hololeakai, a 53-ft teak-finished catamaran, provides a smooth, comfortable post-pizza ride, and the crew is a delight.

End the day with a definitive Hawaiian party, a luau. Right down the road from Ko Olina, Germaine’s is your best bet. It’s one of the many fun things to do in Oahu as a family, where multiple generations of performers have entertained for decades. Today’s hula dancer’s mom, and even her tutu (grandmother), might very well have taken the stage before her. Dunk your kalua pork in the poi, as we do, and don’t miss the lomilomi salmon and haupia pudding.

Fire-knife dancer at Germaine’s Luau (©Germaine's Luau)

Fire-knife dancer at Germaine’s Luau (©Germaine's Luau)

If you’re asked up on stage, don’t hesitate, go for it!

Day Two

Yes, another sunrise!

Leave for Kailua an hour before sunrise. Drive via Kalanianaole Highway along the south and east coasts, where the island of Molokai is silhouetted on the skyline during nautical twilight. Ideally, you’ll reach Kailua Beach Park during civil twilight and be shoulder-deep in the ocean as the sun’s first rays splash on the sea. Swim, walk, swim, walk, then head to Cinnamon’s for a local favorite, macadamia nut pancakes!

Twogood Kayaks is only five minutes away.

During all but the gnarliest weather, you’ll be OK renting a kayak on your own, even if you’ve never paddled. Your destination is the offshore Mokulua Islands, a seabird sanctuary. Paddling the Mokes is a bucket-list item, and as you return in late morning, you’ll begin to think of moving to Oahu. Your drive northward on the picturesque coast will only feed that urge, and then you can feed yourself delicious, super-messy garlic shrimp at one of the ubiquitous white plate-lunch trucks along the way.

After you pick up lunch to-go drive along the North Shore.

North Shore tide pool (©Milton Wheeler)

North Shore tide pool (©Milton Wheeler)

Pipeline, Sunset, Waimea Bay, Haleiwa: Oahu’s North Shore beaches comprise a veritable Beach Boys’ music playlist. During winter months, watch only. In summertime, feel free to take another dip or four.

Time to return to Waikiki.

Head south from Haleiwa through sprawling pineapple fields and past Schofield Barracks. Use H2 and H1 to get to Honolulu, where a 30-minute stop at Ward Warehouse’s Nohea Gallery will let you check everyone off your shopping list. With a heavenly selection of local, handmade creations ranging from unique wooden bowls and boxes to paintings and prints to one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces, Nohea is our go-to place for family, friends…and ourselves.

Nohea Gallery (©Peter Gellatly)

Nohea Gallery (©Peter Gellatly)

Next, a sunset cruise.

Star of Honolulu recommends a 4:45 p.m. check-in for your sunset dinner cruise. A variety of dinner choices includes a classy surf-and-turf option, but go for the less-pricey prime rib buffet. It’s the cruise that matters. Out on the blue Pacific, a Hawaiian sunset is its most glorious. Now’s your best chance to witness the “green flash,” a lime-green pinpoint glow on the horizon just as the sun says “aloha” for the day. Some never see it and doubt its existence, but it is very real, and very special. Don’t blink!

Sunset cruise (©Star of Honolulu)

Sunset cruise (©Star of Honolulu)

Offshore, your perspective of Oahu is altogether different, and the awakening of Honolulu city lights is magical. If you do this on Friday evening, the cruise is an hour longer and includes fireworks!

Finally, off to The Pink Palace.

Your final stop on our whirlwind 48-hour Oahu tour is the venerable Mai Tai Bar in Waikiki’s equally venerable Royal Hawaiian Hotel, The Pink Palace.

Grand old hotels anchor many cities — The Peninsula in Hong Kong and Raffles in Singapore come to mind — and there’s always something quite marvelous about strolling through their lobbies, even if you can’t afford to stay there. Our beloved Royal is like that. At the seaside Mai Tai, open till midnight with Hawaiian music till 9:30 p.m., order the namesake drink if you dare, then sit back and sift through the events of the past two days.

Mahalo for visiting … and a hui hou!   

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Through his publications, TV channels and website, Oahu Today, Peter Gellatly has been sharing Oahu with visitors since 1980. He lives in Honolulu’s Palolo Valley with his wife, Rebecca, and their five-year-old daughter, Louisa.