3 Days on Oahu: 5 Honolulu Highlights

After several visits to Kauai, Maui, Molokai and the Big Island of Hawaii, I finally had a chance to visit Oahu, the most populated of the Hawaiian Islands and home to the state capital of Honolulu. My travel opportunity came with an invitation to Honolulu to attend the launch of the new Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard issued by Barclaycard. Although primarily a business trip, I got a wonderful taste of what Honolulu has to offer leisure visitors as well.

With just three days to discover a bit of Honolulu, I’ve come back with an appreciation of the places and activities I got to experience and the knowledge that there’s more to see and do – hopefully, next time including Mr. TWS, too. We’ve made connecting flights in Honolulu over the years and each time have said that we really want to actually leave the airport and see what’s happening in Honolulu and on the island of Oahu.

Honolulu highlights

Beaches, balmy weather, palm trees …

Of course! That’s what comes to mind when dreaming about a Hawaiian vacation, and I enjoyed every sandy footstep and warm breeze that swayed the palms during my Honolulu visit.

"Duke Kahanamoku Beach at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu"

White sand and palms of Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki, Hilton Hawaiian Village

While so many parts of the United States were experiencing record cold and snow this winter, I almost felt guilty putting on sunscreen and sandals. Almost. In fact, I was relishing every moment. Although the San Francisco Bay Area is not exactly a frozen tundra in the winter, it’s not a tropical island. Sitting outside or in open air dining areas for breakfast, lunch and dinner is a big treat for me. I also love sleeping with the sliding doors open to feel the balmy breezes and listen to the surf gently lapping along the shore. I think you get the idea – it’s Paradise.

I stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village which has the widest stretch of white sand beach in Waikiki. It’s named in honor of Hawaii’s much loved native son — a great water sportsman and Olympic champion, Duke Kahanamoku who trained on this beach in the 1920s. He is called the “Ambassador of Aloha” for spreading the friendly Hawaiian spirit to the world and he is also known as the “Father of modern surfing”.

"Lights of Waikiki Beach and the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu"

Enjoying the balmy evening breezes walking along the lagoon at Hilton Hawaiian Village

A nighttime walk along the shore creates a tropical sexy and romantic ambiance with the lights of the village and the promenade reflecting on the waters. You might even hear a ukulele playing in the distance.

Water activities and a Mai Tai

Yes, they’re related. Those who know me well will confirm that I’m not really a person comfortable in the water. I’m much more at home on the beach or poolside with a Mai Tai. But with the encouragement of my colleagues and hotel staff, I tried some new water activities at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Although I didn’t actually end up in the water (a good thing), I thoroughly enjoyed some time on the water.

"Diamond Head seen from a canoe, Honolulu, Hawaii"

Diamond Head, imposing, majestic and dramatic beneath overcast skies

I had the most fun sitting in the front of a double-hulled canoe accompanied by 6 others, each of us rowing in harmony (mostly) as our guide steered the canoe. Although we were not too far from shore as we paddled on the ocean parallel to the beach with Diamond Head in our sights, there was a feeling of adventure and exploration about the experience and the time went by too quickly. As we glided along the smooth waters and occasionally rested our paddles, our guide told stories about the importance of these canoes in Hawaiian history and culture as well as his own deep connections with traditions. The cultural pride and respect of ancestors, traditions and spirituality is something that I’ve seen and admired throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

"Crewmates on the double-hulled canoe"

Crewmates on the double-hulled canoe

On Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, there are several water activities and lessons available. I gathered my courage and tried a standing paddleboard. I kept my balance and maneuvered around the edges of the lagoon rather nicely, although cautiously. Perhaps too conservative, I ran aground once because I was keeping too close to shore; however, I managed to free the board with a little effort. Other paddlers sensibly kept a safe distance as I came near, so there were no collisions. Off the board and into a paddle boat, I spent a little more time on the lagoon enjoying the sunshine and somewhat strenuous exercise involved in getting around in one of those boats without a partner.

Finally, I was ready for a well-deserved Mai Tai at the Ali’i Tower private pool. Fun fact: The Hilton Hawaiian Village serves about 136,540 Mai Tais each year. That’s a lot of rum and orchids.

"Water activities and tasty Mai Tai by the pool, Hilton Hawaiian Village"

Water activities at the Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon and tasty Mai Tai by the pool

In addition to the Ali’i Tower small private pool, there are five other pools that make the resort a real water-lover’s destination, including the 5,000 square foot Paradise Pool with a 77 foot slide and the 10,000 square foot Super Pool.

Room with a view at Hilton Hawaiian Village

"View from a room on the 11th floor of the Ali'i Tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu"

Views from my room at the Ali’i Tower, Hilton Hawaiian Village

I was pleased to have a deluxe room with a spectacular view in the Ali’i Tower of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The pool with the Bird of Paradise design is the tower’s private private pool on the 2nd floor.

"Flora, Fauna and Louis Vuitton shop at Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu"

Flora, fauna and shops of Hilton Hawaiian Village

In the village, spread across the resort’s 22 acres there are over 90 shops ranging from designers stores like Louis Vuitton, small shops with local handcrafts and clothing, and gift shops. On two sides of the Rainbow Tower, there are ceramic tile murals designed by artist Millard Sheets consisting of more than 16,000 hand-painted tiles. In the photo above you can see a portion of the 286 foot high design that rises 31 floors. Parrots (top right) and penguins (bottom left) were amusing sights on the grounds of the village.

With 18 restaurants, there’s something for all taste buds, simple to gourmet and covering diverse styles and flavors. There’s even the Ocean Crystal Chapel, a pretty structure set in the lush landscape with waterfalls and a gazebo. It’s a lovely place to say “I do.”, renew vows or just reflect for a while.

"Ocean Crystal Chapel at Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu"

Ocean Crystal Chapel

Downtown Honolulu

As the major business center of the Hawaiian islands, Honolulu has a skyline of modern office buildings accommodating many corporations. The architecture is eye-catching with skyscrapers and artistic touches in the courtyards and building entrances as you see in many cities, and not anywhere else in the Hawaiian Islands.But the business district has a distinctive aloha feel about it.

Skyscrapers and palm trees in downtown Honolulu"

Downtown Honolulu

Walking along the busy streets, you see corporate professionals going about business, in between meetings, heading to lunch and talking to associates; but there’s a friendly, more laid-back ambiance that you certainly don’t pick up on in other big cities.

In the heart of downtown, there is also history. On an informal walking tour, our group stopped to appreciate two significant historical sites.

Iolani Palace, a national historic landmark, was the official residence of the former Hawaiian monarchy from 1882 to 1893 — King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani. It was interesting to learn that electricity was installed in the palace several years before the White House. In 1886, it became the first royal residence in the world to have electricity. Today, the palace is a museum and guided tours are available. On our walking tour, we just admired the outside from the beautiful grounds.

"Iolani Palace in Honolulu"

Iolani Palace, Honolulu

Across the street from the palace is the Aliiolani Hale (Hawaii State Supreme Court) where one of the four statues of King Kamehameha I in Hawaii is located.  Created by Thomas Gould in Florence, this 18-foot bronze statue  is one of Oahu’s most recognized and photographed landmarks. Each year on Kamehameha Day (June 11th), the statue is adorned with wreaths of leis to celebrate the king. He is considered to be Hawaii’s greatest king as he united the Hawaiian Islands into one royal kingdom in 1810 after years of conflict.

" Statue of King Kamehameha I, Hawaii’s first king in downtown Honolulu"

King Kamehameha I

Our group also walked through Honolulu’s Chinatown which presented another side to the city that I hadn’t previously known about. I’ve visited Chinatown neighborhoods in New York, Toronto, Chicago and of course, San Francisco. There are similarities in the sights, sounds and smells, but this was the first I’d seen with palm trees and beautiful blossoms on a broad, tree-lined pedestrian street.

"Pedestrian street in Chinatown, downtown Honolulu"

Pedestrian street in Chinatown, downtown Honolulu

"Wo Fat Chop Sui, Sun Chong Company market and durian, Honolulu"

From top left: Wo Fat Chop Sui, Sun Chong Company market, very smelly durian fruit


You may have been wondering when I’d get around to food. I was treated to exceptional dining experiences, some simple and some elegant. Here’s a taste.

In my experience, Trump hotels really know how to create a dining experience. At BLT Steak in the Trump Hotel Waikiki we were served as a group with several items to share. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos, but picture in your mind a few of my favorite dishes: Roasted Beets with walnuts and goat Cheese, New York Strip Steak in a green peppercorn sauce, Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb with Bernaise sauce and a creative side dish of Jalapeno Mashed Potatoes — smooth, green, delicious. Can you picture these desserts? Peanut Butter Chocolate Mousse, Warm Chocolate Tart? A special appetizer that I’d highly recommend is the beer-battered blue cheese-stuffed olives.

Bali Steak and Seafood is indeed a dining room with a view located in the Rainbow Tower of the Hilton Hawaiian Village right on the beach. My mouth is watering just thinking about (and looking at the photo below) of my Filet Mignon accompanied with Bernaise sauce, the second time on the trip I indulged on that wonderful sauce. And the desserts were delectable, my favorite of those we shared being the Waialua Estates Chocolate Bar with Vanilla Cream. I think I ate more than my fair share of that one.

"Bali Steak and Seafood at the Hilton Hawaiian Village"

Bali Steak and Seafood at the Hilton Hawaiian Village

For a simply delicious lunch, we had burgers at Honolulu Hamburger Company. There were many burger selections, including unusual ones such as the Aloha Elvis Burger (with peanut butter, bacon, and guava jam), but I keep things simple with my burgers. I ordered and was perfectly happy with a cheddar cheeseburger, but I got it on a toasted taro roll to be a little different. That and the truffle fries were absolutely delicious.

"Honolulu Burger Company and Shimazu Store"

Tasty cheddar burger at Honolulu Burger Company and Shimazu Store

I think everyone I’ve known who has visited Hawaii has eaten shave ice (not “shaved” in Hawaii), right? Not me. During all of those previous visits, I never tried it. So this time, I tagged along with a few of my colleagues and headed to Shimazu, a small store in a Honolulu residential neighborhood. We arrived just before it opened and a line quickly formed when the doors were opened. It’s a fun place to visit not just for the shave ice (which although similar to a snow cone has a much different consistency since it is shaved from a block of ice rather than made with crushed ice), but the shop has a lot of character. It also has posted on the wall a surprisingly detailed ordering procedure that ends with this statement: “Please do not refer to us as being shave ice Nazi’s or there will be no shave ice for you!”  Next to this list is a sign that warns, “No photographs” inside. Did I take a photo? No comment.

Bonus highlight

It was a special experience to actually climb aboard two voyaging canoes of the Polynesian Voyaging Society at the Marine Education Training Center where a crew is preparing for their  Worldwide Voyage beginning in May. Sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, the Hokule’a and its sister support vessel, the Hikianalia, will travel around the world navigating by star patterns, ocean movement, marine life and other traditional methods. The society has many cultural, environmental, educational and scientific goals for this epic voyage.

"Polynesian Voyaging Society crew and boat in Honolulu"

Polynesian Voyaging Society crew and canoe

We got to meet two of the crew members and get a first-hand account of life at sea on the canoes. It’s clear that it takes many skills, strength, discipline, and mental and spiritual readiness to make such a journey. It’s fascinating to think about the exciting voyage ahead for them and their crewmates.

Reasons to return

"Diamond Head from the promenade along Waikiki Beach, Honolulu"

Diamond Head from the promenade along Waikiki Beach

Before long, I was being whisked away on Hawaiian Airlines with a super friendly crew heading back home. I know there’s more to see in Honolulu itself and I’d like go a bit further afield to hike on Diamond Head, visit Pearl Harbor & the USS Arizona Memorial,  and explore the North Shore. Most importantly, I want to come back with Mr. TWS — the beach and water sports are right up his alley, and I just might get more adventurous, too.

For information about the new Hawaiian Airlines card issued by Barclaycard: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard. You can apply at Hawaiian Airlines or by visiting any Bank of Hawaii branch.

Disclosure: My inaugural trip to Oahu was made possible by Hawaiian Airlines, Hilton Hawaiian Village and Barclaycard. My opinions and perspectives are totally my own — as always.

I’m contributing this post to Nancie McKinnon’s Budget Traveler’s Sandbox Travel Photo Thursday. Enjoy other links to photos and stories on her site, too.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

42 thoughts on “3 Days on Oahu: 5 Honolulu Highlights

  1. Suzanne Fluhr

    Wow! You certainly made the most of your three days in Paradise. I appreciate that you managed to squeeze me in for a breakfast! We’ve been living across the street from the Hilton Hawaiian Village for 4 weeks now and have yet to try a water sport. Mr. Excitement and I have decided to try stand up paddle boarding on the HHV lagoon this weekend. I’ll be the one following in your, um, footsteps and grounding myself.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      So how did it go? Did you try the paddleboards? There are plenty of activities over there — or you can just sit under an umbrella on the beach …

  2. Jeff Titelius

    What a wonderful journey my friend!! I believe I recognized Mr. Johnny Jet in the photo above!! Such tropical splendor followed by delicious meals…what more could you ask for in Paradise!! The explorer canoes sound fascinating and are quite large, I would love to brave the waters in one of those!! Fabulous photos as usual my friend!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I was actually surprised that I enjoyed the double hull canoe so much. I’m not sure I’d want to be out in rough waters in it, though. Not brave enough for that.

  3. Doreen Pendgracs

    Great post, Catherine! As Suzanne said, you really saw a lot during your short time in Waikiki. I just had my 3rd (or 4th) visit, and so I didn’t need to revisit the touristy things, and instead, focused on the chocolate and cacao on the island. I agree, Waialula Estate makes some pretty fine chocolate!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I’ll have to make it to Waialulu Estate sometime. The cake at Bali’s was really delicioius — and memorable. I’m wishing had it right now.

  4. Jackie Smith

    Next time you get to O’ahu you’ll have to go around the island – it is a magical place to the west and the northeast. Looks like you had a great time during the time you were there and made the most of Waikiki and downtown! Great photos.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Thanks, Jackie. Yes, it would be nice to rent a car and really explore the whole island. Honolulu was an excellent start.

  5. Leigh

    Sounds like you were kept hopping on this trip though everything you did looked glorious. I have done some outrigger paddling in Vancouver – not a double hulled affair and what fun that was. I would actually love to do it on bigger waves in the ocean — maybe one day.
    Three days of warmth and all that good food in a hotel with a view is a great intro to Honolulu.Have you booked a return yet with Mr. TWS?

  6. Linda ~ Journey Jottings

    Wow! What a trip and a fabulous write up covering everything you’d want to know about Oahu –
    Such a paradise and I loved the boating you got to do – Nothing beats just looking at a view of water than actually getting out on it! 🙂

  7. jenny@atasteoftravel

    You certainly were kept very busy. Standup paddling is something which appeals to me but only if I don’t end up in the water! Hawaii was often a tempting stop between Australia and the States but these days Qantas does not stop there so it’s a bit tricky

  8. Sophie

    Gosh, I haven’t even been to Hawaii, yet. This looks like a fab itinerary. Somehow, I had pictured Honolulu more busy, but this all seems quite relaxed and cheerful.

  9. Freya

    I have been to Maui, Big Island and Kauai but would love to return one day and also discover Oahu. Looks like you had a great time and the Hilton Hawaiian Village definitely looks like the right place to stay.

  10. Pola (Jetting Around)

    I was on Oahu a few years ago for a work conference (and stayed at the same hotel!). I remember having to get up at 5am to go to work, but there was always this beautiful flowery scent in the air, I didn’t mind… The best part came after the conference, when hubs and I rented a car and drove around the whole island. Unforgettable…

  11. Lucy

    I would love to get out to Hawaii sometime – pity it such a huge distance from the UK! Looks fabulous though and one day I will definitely make it out there.

  12. Marcia

    This looks and sounds like an exciting trip, Cathy. I don’t blame you, I wouldn’t feel badly about basking poolside with a mai tai, dining on delicious foods or taking a turn in a canoe either. Hope you get to return soon with Mr. TWS.

  13. Lisa Goodmurphy

    What an action-packed three days you had! We stayed in the same tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village when we were there several years ago and I loved having that view of the beach and the ocean!

  14. Nancie

    Hi Cathy! What a fantastic few days you had. I want to try some of those stuffed olives 🙂 I was in Honolulu in 1980, and have always wanted to go back. It’s a popular destination from Korea, so getting a flight is not an issue! Thanks for linking up this week.

  15. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    Lucky you for having a short and sweet Hawaiian getaway. We stayed at the same tower in Hilton Hawaiian. I’m glad you had a wonderful stay. Oahu is the island I’ve visited the most and still have a lot to see. Glad you got to try some island flavors. I hope you and Mr. TWS return soon but be sure to head to the North Shore area.

  16. Agata

    Great and sunny experience! Such a nice reading in this still cold weather. THX Catherine for sharing some clever tips. perhaps next time I will enjoy Hawaii!

  17. Lauren | JustinPlusLauren

    It looks like you had an amazing time in such a tropical paradise! I’d love to try the standing paddleboard one day. I know when I go to Hawaii, I’d love to snorkel and try surfing too! The ocean looks beautiful and those pools look great, too! Thanks for sharing your travel tips!

  18. Patti

    Abi and I were married in Honolulu – we were living there at the time in the late 70’s. We didn’t get to say “I do” in such a lovely chapel though, just your standard civil ceremony in a judge’s office, but it worked! Glad you enjoyed your 3-day jaunt to the land of Aloha!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      That would be a totally fun thing to do next time, Mary. This trip had a pretty tight itinerary, so time didn’t allow for it. Just another reason to return.

  19. Clare

    What a fabulous trip! I’d love to visit Honolulu. You packed so much in that reading your post really does give great insight as to what there is to do. Obviously one activity I’d love to partake in is the drinking of many Mai Tais!

  20. Nathan Nehmer

    Your blog may help me change my mind about visiting Oahu. I don’t get all excited when i hear about Ohau but if I could do a short stay on the island I think I could handle it. Of course I’d rather stay outside the city and maybe only make one day in Honolulu itself. I’m just not a city type of person.

  21. Johanna

    What a lot you packed in! But I can see why. What a beautiful place, those beaches and then Honolulu looks fabulous. I’ve never been to Hawaii but I’d love to get there one day too.

  22. Jennifer

    You did quite a lot with just three days in Oahu! We spent a week there in 2007 and did enjoy some of the more off-the-beaten-path beaches we visited. I have no idea if it’s still there, but there was a restaurant called Buzz’s that had the best pasta salad that totally hit the spot after a morning of snorkeling. We went twice – it was that good! We also spread Tim’s mom’s ashes there. It was her dream to always visit Hawaii, but she sadly never made it.

  23. Agness

    Wow, it’s an amazing place to explore. I would go kayaking and I wish I could walk through the local market to buy some fresh fruits and veggies. The night scenery is breath-taking. Night walk must be so romantic there!

  24. Annie

    The sky there always seems to be picture perfect !! I heard to get use to durian fruit, put it in freezer, and it will taste like ice cream ~ (I am still to scared of the smell to try it that way though XD )

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