For as long as I can remember, the islands of Hawaii have been calling me, practically begging me to visit. I dreamed of hiking through the verdant mountains, swimming in cerulean waters, and seeking out incredible wildlife like sea turtles and seals, while a Ukulele soundtrack plays in the background.
But, I wrote Hawaii off as a place I’d visit one day, far in the future, when I could actually afford it. While Hawaii is renowned for tropical beauty, it’s also infamous for being extraordinarily expensive.
Luckily, we caught a break: two different sets of friends moved to Hawaii (I know, rough life, right?!) and offered us free places to stay. One couple lives on Oahu while the other was stationed in Kauai. This sealed the deal: we HAD to make Hawaii happen.
My husband and I spent several months hoarding credit card points (we love our Chase Freedom Unlimited card!) until we could cash in on free flights from Tampa to Honolulu. In May 2017, we made our dream a reality and spent 10 beautiful, adventure-filled days in Hawaii. If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, I hope this itinerary will help you narrow down things to do because there are so many wonderful ways to spend your days.
10-DAY HAWAII ITINERARY: OVERVIEW AND MAP
Day 1: Travel Day
We booked our flights using points from our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. It’s a long travel day to get to Honolulu from the East Coast, but it was nice to arrive in the middle of the day so we could get settled. I also suggest watching Disney’s Moana to help pass the time and get you in the Hawaiian spirit.
That night, we kicked off our trip to the Rainbow State with a BBQ in Kapiolani Park where we could watch the sunset over the ocean while listening to a nearby luau.
Day 2: Race Packet Pick-up & Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay
Every year, our friends participate in the Honolulu Ekiden, a Japanese style marathon relay where teams of runners tackle legs of various distances ranging from 3 to 7 miles until the team finishes 26.2 miles. Since the race would take place while we were visiting, we excitedly joined our friends’ team. I love tackling races while traveling to new places!
On our way to pick up our race packets in downtown Honolulu, we stumbled into the Honolulu Coffee Experience which serves authentic and delicious Kona coffee. I enjoyed my first Macadamia Nut Latte of the trip (many more would be had). I’ve also heard good things about nearby Hiking Hawaii Cafe if you’re a sucker for local coffee shops like I am!
Hanauma Bay is a very popular, very beautiful place to snorkel. You’ll read a lot about having to get here super early to avoid crowds, but we had no trouble finding parking about two hours before closing. Although the views make you want to rush down and jump in the water, you have to watch a short video about protecting the reefs and wildlife, which I think is a great way to inspire more people to be conscientious tourists.
Day 3: Honolulu Ekiden Marathon Relay & Bellows Field Beach Park
RACE DAY! We woke up incredibly early, which wasn’t bad thanks to jet lag, to meet the rest of our team near the start line in Kapiolani Park. For the Ekiden, our team decided on a bumblebee theme for easy costumes, but other teams went ALL OUT.
I ended up with a long leg that started near the base of Diamond Head at around 9 AM with the sun shining brightly. Running in Hawaii is very similar to Florida with the heat, humidity, and lots of sweat.
While I didn’t run my fastest, I enjoyed taking in the beautiful scenery. I highly recommend running a race in Hawaii; if an Ekiden relay isn’t your style, you could try the Honolulu Marathon that happens every December.
After the race, we had brunch at a forgettable spot near Waikiki Beach. If you’re looking for delicious and quintessential Hawaiian breakfast, you have to get an Açaí bowl from Banán. We ate there three times!
Later that afternoon, we took our friends’ advice to visit Bellows Field Beach Park, a secluded paradise near an Air Force station. This is pretty close to the popular Waimanalo Beach but with more parking and fewer people. Win-win!
Day 4: Oahu North Shore
I loved, loved, loved the North Shore of Oahu. When we venture back to Hawaii, I want to spend a couple of days here.
We did the whole “rent a convertible and drive with the top down” thing, which might seem super cheesy, but was 100% worth it. There’s nothing quite like cruising past iconic surf spots and beach shacks with your hair blowing in the salty air while Jack Johnson is playing. Ah, take me back!
Here’s where we went:
- Haleiwa, a cute town where we grabbed Açaí bowls from Haleiwa Bowls and macadamia nut coffee from the adorable Island Vintage Coffee
- North Shore Macadamia Nut Farm for free samples of nuts & coffee
- Waimea Valley to hike through lush botanical gardens to a refreshing pool at the base of Waimea Falls
- Laniakea Beach to spot sea turtles basking in the sun
- Three Tables Beach, Pupukea Beach, and Shark’s Cove for snorkeling (bring water shoes!)
- Bonzai Pipeline Beach to see the surfers and mind-blowingly massive waves
- Ted’s Bakery for haupia pie aka what dreams are made of…
- Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (I had reservations about going here due to mixed reviews online, but my husband and I loved it: it was the perfect, filling meal after a long day!)
Day 5: Disney’s Aulani & Kualoa Ranch
Being huge Disney Nerds, we HAD to visit Disney’s Aulani Resort even if we weren’t staying there. Instead of splurging for a hotel room when we had a free place to stay, we had breakfast at Makahiki, which I highly recommend. The characters dress in cute tropical attire and the food is delicious. Just know that reservations are required.
After our breakfast, we spent a few hours relaxing at the calm, lagoon-like Ko’Olina Beach behind the resort.
Then, we drove about 30 minutes to Kualoa Ranch for a Jungle Expedition Tour. This was such a fun way to explore the ranch where a lot of famous movies and TV shows have been filmed. There are a lot of different tours available, including zip-lining and driving ATVs.
To give you an idea of timing for this day, we had a 9:30 AM breakfast reservation at Aulani and booked the 3 PM Jungle Expedition Tour. We had time to linger over breakfast, relax at the beach, and drive all the way to Kualoa.
The nearby Kualoa Regional Park offers picturesque views of the ocean and is worth even a quick stop.
Day 6: Fly to Kauai and Explore the Waimea Canyon
We took the earliest flight possible from Honolulu to Lihue, Kauai to maximize our time on the Garden Isle. The airports are efficient for inter-island travel, and it’s only a 45-minute flight (if that!) so island-hopping between Oahu and Kauai on a 10-day trip is no problem.
From the airport, we immediately drove to the stunning Waimea Canyon. This place is gorgeous: the colors are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. There are several hiking trails ranging in difficulty, but we didn’t get to do any because of inclement weather.
Our friends live on the naval base at the far western side of the Kauai, which wasn’t convenient to many of the tourist activities but gave us a quiet retreat to return to every day. You can’t beat a free place to stay with views like the one below!
Day 7: Boat Tour Along the Nā Pali Coast
One of our must-do activities while in Hawaii was seeing the Nā Pali Coast. We figured we wouldn’t have enough time for the lengthy, multi-day hike and I have a total fear of helicopters, so that left us with only one mode of transportation: a boat.
I spent so much time researching which boat tour to take, where to leave from, and the time of day we should go for optimal water conditions (read: less chance of sea sickness) and ideal lighting. Finally, I settled on an afternoon Zodiac tour with Go Blue Ocean Adventures, which ended up being a great choice despite the weather.
The ride to Nā Pali in a Zodiac is an adventure, and the tour also included two snorkeling stops. While making our way to Nā Pali, we saw several pods of spinner dolphins and countless sea turtles. The coastal scenery is jaw-dropping; I felt like I’d stepped right into Jurassic Park.
But, this is not a relaxing cruise by any means: we were holding on for dear life as the boat navigated choppy waters, darted inside sea caves, and raced impending storms. While neither my husband nor I actually got sick, we felt queasy at times.
That said, we never felt unsafe: the guides working for Go Blue Ocean are incredible and know what they’re doing. They aren’t afraid to cancel tours if the conditions are poor, which is exactly what happened to the tours the day before ours.
If you want to experience Nā Pali and have an adventurous side, I suggest going with Blue Ocean Adventures. Just don’t forget to take some Dramamine, especially if there were storms recently.
Day 8: Kauai’s East Side & North Shore
What is it with the Hawaiian Islands and amazing North Shores? Just like on Oahu, the North Shore of Kauai ended up being one of my favorite places. I’d have loved to spend more time on this side of the Island, especially trying all the restaurants in Hanalei.
Our day started off in the Kapaʻa, a small town on the East Shore that would be a great place to stay, especially if you’re a runner. The Ke Ala Hele Makalae paved trail runs parallel to the ocean and goes for several miles. It took all my effort not to ditch the group and head out for a long, long run!
After some delicious fish tacos from the Mermaid Cafe and shave ice from Ono Ono in Kapaa, our friends received alerts from the head of a local Hawaiian Monk Seal conservation group: some endangered seals with newborn pups were hanging out on nearby Larsens Beach. The group desperately needed volunteers to put up barriers that would keep away humans and predators.
We eagerly agreed to give up some of our sightseeing for good. Our hard work paid off: not only did we help the seals, but we were rewarded with stunning views and a practically deserted beach. These are the moments that make traveling so enriching.
Once we built the barriers and cooled off in the ocean, we continued on to the North Shore where we visited Tunnels Beach, Hanalei Pier, Queen’s Bath, and the Hanalei Valley Lookout.
Day 9: Hike Kauai’s Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail + Return to Oahu
We took an 8:30 PM flight back to Honolulu so we could enjoy a last, full day in Kauai. In the morning, we explored more of the the national park near Waimea Canyon. Our friends wanted us to see Nā Pali one last time from the Kalalau Lookout, but the fog wouldn’t lift. They kept apologizing for the “bad weather.” I kept reassuring them they had nothing to worry about: it’s hard to be disappointed in the natural beauty on Kauai.
Instead, we hiked the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. This is a gorgeous hike that’s fairly flat and very easy with ocean views almost the entire way. I’ve heard that you can spot whales cruising along the coast during certain times of the year.
Once we arrived back in Honolulu, we checked into the very Instagrammable Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club. Because we’re spoiled and could crash with our friends most of the trip, this is the only hotel we stayed in while in Hawaii.
I loved this hotel and hope we can stay here again one day! Even though it’s not right on the beach, the Surfjack is centrally located in Waikiki and within easy walking distance to the beach. Plus, you can borrow bikes which make it even easier to get around.
Day 10: Waikiki Beach & Fly Back Home
Sadly, our island time had come to an end: we booked a red-eye flight back to the mainland so we could enjoy one final day on a beach in Hawaii. We posted up on Waikiki, which was the most crowded beach we visited our whole trip.
It seems like a lot of people who travel to Oahu spend most of their time in this popular area, but I recommend finding other places on the island to explore, even if it means renting a car or staying near the North Shore. While beautiful, Oahu has much more to offer than Waikiki’s crowded beaches and syrupy, overpriced piña coladas.
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