A Circle Island Tour of Oahu

by Gray Cargill on September 3, 2014

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Because I tend not to rent a car when I travel, day tours are a great way for me to get outside a city and see more of a region, as well as interact with other human beings. (As a solo traveler, it’s nice to have that built-in social time.) On Oahu, you can book what they call a “Circle Island Tour” that will take you all over the island. Each tour may focus on different things. For instance, on my most recent trip to Hawaii, I booked Discover Hawaii’s Eco-Adventure Tour, which had a different itinerary than their Circle Island Tour I’d booked in 2012 (the North Shore Polynesian Tour).

Secret Island Beach

Secret Island Beach

However, calling it an “eco-adventure” tour turned out to be a misnomer. As best I could tell from the itinerary on their website, the “eco” and “adventure” portions of the tour were covered by two stops:

  • A stop at Laniakea Beach (aka. “Turtle Beach”), where you can see the sea turtles lounging around on the beach; and
  • A hike to Waimea Falls waterfall.

We did neither of those things. Instead, other stops were substituted. I was disappointed about missing out on the sea turtles. But it was my only disappointment of the trip. Otherwise, it was an outstanding day, and I enjoyed all the stops we made, so I can’t really complain. I only mention it because if someone were to book this tour specifically for the turtles and the waterfall, they might be disappointed.

Farming field

The diversity of landscapes around Oahu can be surprising.

In the “small world” department, I got the same tour guide I had on my last Circle Island tour, “Cousin Kevin”. I recognized him right away and told him that I’d been on his first circle island tour two years before, when he was the FNG (“fricking new guy”). It took him a little while, but eventually, he did seem to remember me (or kindly pretended to). Besides us, there was a pretty diverse group of guests on this tour: a solo woman from Paris and one from Virginia; a couple of guys from Vancouver; a Russian mother and daughter; and couples from India, New Zealand, South Carolina, Iowa, and Michigan.

Mokolil Island

I finally got to see Mokolil Island (aka the “Chinaman’s Hat”) on a clear day

You may recall that on my last circle island tour, I spent the day soaking wet due to torrential rains, and was disappointed that my photos of some spectacular spots around the island were lackluster thanks to the rain. Not this time. We were blessed with a beautiful day all over the island. By the end of the day, I had taken 440 pictures, most of which turned out very well. I have terrific memories of the day, of all the beautiful places we saw around the island, and of Cousin Kevin’s corny jokes.

Here is a virtual Circle Island Tour for you of Oahu, in some of my favorite photos from that day. Enjoy!

Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” was filmed here.

Beautiful, isn’t it? We didn’t have time to do more than look, but if you love snorkeling, I understand this is the best place to do it on Oahu.

Eternity Bay

Eternity Bay

This is the beach where “From Here to Eternity” was filmed.

For the record, the films “Blue Hawaii” and “From Here to Eternity” were before my time, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you have no idea what they are.

 

Sherwood Forest

Sherwood Forest

Trees. Hence the name.

No, we’re not in England, we’re on Oahu! The proper name for this place is Waimanalo Bay Recreation Area, but the locals call it Sherwood Forest. It’s surrounded by tall trees and reminded me of a state park here in Vermont.

Waimanalo Bay Recreation Area

Beautiful, uncrowded beach on Waimanalo Bay.

If you’re looking for the exact opposite of crowded Waikiki Beach, this is the place to check out. (You’ll need a car.) There are lifeguard stations and bathrooms on site (but no soap or hand dryers, so bring Purel!).

The Dole Plantation

We did make a quick stop at the Dole Plantation, which actually does smell like pineapple. This visit was more interesting than the first, because i learned what my Hawaiian name is. (You can read that story here.) But I didn’t take any pictures this time around.

Sunset Beach

Surfing

Look at those waves! They were twice as high by the end of the week.

We drove past all of the North Shore beaches except Sunset Beach, where we stopped for about 10 minutes. The waves here were incredibly high that time of year, about 20 feet. (Later in the week, they were even higher, around 40-50 feet!) I got some great shots of surfers.

Roadside Market

Deep fried banana

Deep fried banana

While up at the North Shore beaches, we stopped at a roadside market for five minutes where we all had time to buy some kind of snack. I went with Kevin’s suggestion of the deep fried banana. Some people bought grilled meat skewers, and one woman bought a coconut with a straw in it–fresh coconut juice! I’m not a fan of bananas as a rule, but the deep-fried banana was very good; the outside was crunchy like an egg roll wrapper and the inside was sweet. I’m glad I tried it.

La’ie Point

La'ie Point

The hole in that rock was made by a tsunami.

La’ie Point is a popular tourist stop on Oahu for its dramatically beautiful views of the shoreline along the coast and the famous rock formation with a hole in the middle, which was apparently punched through it during a tsunami. It’s a beautiful spot for photos.

La'ie Point

Kids were jumping off this cliff into the water.

Kualoa Ranch and Secret Island

Kualoa Ranch

Kualoa Ranch

Our next stop brought us to the famous Kualoa Ranch, where many, many Hollywood TV shows and movies (like Lost, Fantasy Island, and Jurassic Park) have been filmed. We got to use the restrooms here and pick up our box lunches to take with us to the “Secret Island,” also located on the Ranch property.

Secret Island

The beach at Secret Island

Without a doubt, this was my favorite stop of the whole trip. In order to get to the Secret Island, you drive down to a fish pond and catch a shuttle boat over to the island. From the dock on the island, which faces a gorgeous mountain landscape back on the mainland, you walk a path through the forest, which has these incredibly gnarly trees that look like something out of a sci-fi or fantasy landscape to the other side of the island (a very short walk). It felt a little like walking in an upside-down wicker bowl, because the branches were all twisted together overhead.

Gnarly trees

Gnarly trees

At the end of the path, we walked out onto a beach with a covered picnic area, outrigger canoes, and views out over the ocean. It was beautiful and peaceful, because aside from us, there was hardly anyone there.

Secret Island

The beach at Secret Island

We had the whole place to ourselves. We were here maybe 30 minutes, during which we ate lunch and had time for a swim (or to wander around taking photos as the case may be). From the beach, we had a great view of the island of Mokolil (otherwise known as the “Chinaman’s Hat” because of its shape).

Byodo-In Temple

Byodo-In Temple

Byodo-In Temple

This was a repeat stop for me, but I didn’t mind. It’s one of the most beautiful locales on Oahu. I actually saw a young woman doing what you’re supposed to do at a Buddhist Temple: Meditate. Imagine that.

Nuuanu Pali Lookout

Hiker

Hiker at Pali Lookout. I get winded just looking at this.

On my first Circle Island tour, the view here was marred by low-hanging rainclouds and a cold wind drove me shivering back to the bus. This time, the conditions were perfect for photos and much more comfortable. We also spotted some adorable feral cats, gnarly tree roots, and hikers who are obviously in much better shape than I am.

Cats

Feral kitties. I wanted to smuggle them home with me.

But the star of the show is the amazing views across the valley of the windward coast. Pali Lookout is just 5 miles outside downtown Honolulu, but you’d never guess you were that close to the city when you’re standing there. This spot is where King Kamehameha won the Battle of Nuuanu and became ruler of Oahu.

View from Pali Lookout

The view from Pali Lookout

Tantalus Lookout, Puu Ualaka State Park

Honolulu

View of Honolulu from Tantalus Park

This was our final stop of the day, and the perfect way to cap off our circle island tour. Kevin drove our little shuttle van up a series of windy, narrow streets, and finally we arrived. The views of Honolulu are amazing from here! (Better, actually, than the views you get from the Punchbowl, because it’s higher than the Punchbowl–which you can see down below from the park). As far as I can tell, if you want to enjoy this view, there is no way to get there by bus.

Mountains

Hawaii: 100% billboard-free

Like Vermont, there are no billboards in Hawaii, which makes for incredible, natural views as you drive around the island. Believe me, you don’t want advertisements cluttering up this landscape. There are also no snakes, which makes Hawaii pretty much my favorite place EVER.

BarbC December 4, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Over the years, I have been to Hawaii numerous times and to all the islands for a week or two. If you are traveling solo, Oahu is the best because of its public transportation and so many options for meals and things to do… many things to do that are free or for a minimal charge. If you don’t mind renting a car or having more private time, Maui and the big island of Hawaii are great. Kauai is a very quiet island and more of a “honey-mooners” paradise. I prefer a day tour to Kauai and you have someone to do the driving. You can book day tours to Maui and Hawaii as well as Kauai. You get picked up at your hotel for an early flight to whatever island you select and usually back at your hotel by 7 or 8PM. If you live in the western part of the U.S., flying to Hawaii is an easy trip. The last time I went to Hawaii, I flew nonstop from PHX; however, I have not checked lately so don’t know if we still have nonstop service.

Gray Cargill December 4, 2014 at 7:18 pm

BarbC – Thanks for commenting! I almost booked a day trip off Oahu to the Big Island during this trip, but when I thought about all the time I would spend in an airport and how early I’d have to get up, I decided to skip it. The flights to and from Hawaii from the East Coast are brutal enough, I couldn’t bring myself to spend yet another day in transit on top of those two. But I do think next time I go to Hawaii, I’ll either go to the Big Island or Maui. It’s time to check out what the other islands have to offer.

BarbC December 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm

You do have to get up pretty early when you take the day trip to the Big Island but very little time is spent in the airport… they get their tours loaded and underway pretty fast or they always have when I have taken them. I have always been in a van and never a bus on these trips. The Big Island is worth a look see if only for a day. I liked having the car on Maui because we drove to Hana (which is very curvy and a waterfall around every curve that makes you want to stop for a photo or to take a swim) and we also got up at 3A to drive up to Haleakala Crater (over ten thousand feet at the top and very cold early in the morning even in the summer) to watch the sun come up. You can’t do both of those in a one day tour of Maui but the big island and Kauai are easy one day trips. The volcanoes on the Big Island were smoking with a bit of steam when I was there… it was really fascinating to me and you cold feel the heat under where we walked. I enjoyed being able to compare Kauai’s “grand canyon” – Waimea Canyon – with the one here in Arizona… it has a lot of color like our Grand Canyon. Yes, it is a long haul from the east coast to Honolulu – like my flying from here to London… As long as I am roaming, I am happy though.

Gray Cargill December 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm

That’s good to know, that the airport time isn’t long, BarbC. That was my biggest concern. I have heard the Road to Hana is beautiful; I’d definitely like to experience it some day. Also the volcanoes on the Big Island and Waimea Canyon. Obviously, I need to take a longer trip to Hawaii than one week! 🙂

Racheal Morgan October 1, 2014 at 5:32 am

I hate it when people knock tours, because they can be excellent! On the one hand, this looks like a good one, including the secret island and Pali lookout. On the other hand, I would have been more than just a little upset about the turtles.

Gray Cargill October 1, 2014 at 10:06 am

Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt about it, Racheal–I just decided to focus on the positives of the tour rather than what I missed.

Mev September 4, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Wow! I had no idea that any of the mainland states had banned billboards. You are so fortunate Gray! I’m in Seattle…such a beautiful city but would be soooo much more beautiful without those eye sores.

I love reading your posts, especially the ones on Hawaii. My husband and I have recently made going there an annual tradition and it’s become an obsession of mine. When we are not there I’m planning the next trip or reading about its history, people and culture.

Anyway my husband has had some recent health issues so my mind can’t help but go to that dark place of whether or not I would have the courage to go to Hawaii solo so your posts have been very encouraging. Thank you!

I’m curious if you’ve ever been or thought of going to any of the other islands. If I were going solo Oahu would definitely be my first pick but was just curious.

Gray Cargill September 5, 2014 at 5:22 am

Mev – Yes, and having no billboards makes driving through Vermont very pretty. I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s health issues. I hope you don’t have to find out, but I’m sure you’d find the courage to go alone if you had to. There’s something about our favorite places that soothe the soul. I have thought of going to the other islands, and I may on a future trip, but I really don’t like renting cars when I travel, and unfortunately, I’d have to do that on any of the other islands to get around. They don’t have the same great public transportation system that Oahu does. I’m also pretty much a city girl, so I like the variety of activities available in a city like Oahu.

Lisa @chickybus September 4, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Wow–looks lovely there!! I think I’d be very happy at Eternity Bay. 🙂

Gray Cargill September 5, 2014 at 5:18 am

It was interesting, a cozy little beach, Lisa.

Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren September 3, 2014 at 5:42 pm

I am in LOVE with that photo of Hanauma Bay! Great post, as always. Thanks for sharing!

Happy travels 🙂

Gray Cargill September 5, 2014 at 5:17 am

Hanauma Bay is so beautiful, Lauren. I’m sure it doesn’t know how to take a bad photo. 🙂

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