While my friends and family in Vermont were bundled up against Round 2 of the Polar Vortex and its brutal subzero temperatures last month, I was wandering around in shorts and sandals on Oahu, watching surfers, enjoying tropical cocktails, and getting sand in my luggage. Oh, the difficult life of a solo traveler.
Yes, Hawaii is worth the long, exhausting flying day required to get there from the East Coast of the U.S. My second trip to Honolulu was even better than the first, and I’m excited to share the details with you all. (More details than “I saw whales! Squee!” which you already know if you follow me on Facebook.)
But this week, I wanted to share some travel tips and random observations from Honolulu. Because you have to start somewhere, right? First up, the tips. . . .
On Hotel Views
Everyone who visits Hawaii dreams of a room with a balcony (lanai) overlooking the ocean. Sadly, not all of us can afford that view. But who wants their lanai overlooking an alley or a rooftop full of a/c vents? For a gorgeous view that’s cheaper than the ocean, book a room with a view of Diamond Head Crater or the Ala Wai Canal. I got to look at this every day, and believe me, it never got old:
If you really crave a water view, try the Ala Wai Canal. You wouldn’t want to swim in it (trust me on that), but it’s pretty to look at:
Riding the Bus
Oahu has one of the best public bus systems I’ve ever encountered. Remember after my last trip to Honolulu, I raved about how awesome it was for newbies like me because every stop is announced (both verbally and on a ticker)? Turns out that’s not true on all the buses.
I took the #2 School Street bus one day to the Bishop Museum and it didn’t take long for me to realize they were only announcing major stops (like transfer points) ahead of time. They would only announce minor stops after someone rang the bell for the stop. I knew the intersection where I needed to get off the bus, but how was I to know when we’d reach it? (The Museum is not visible from the street.)
Don’t worry, it all worked out just fine (another couple on the bus got off at the same stop). But if you’re riding the bus on Oahu, I’d recommend asking the driver when you board the bus to give you a heads up when it’s your stop and/or asking locals sitting near you. If your smartphone has a better GPS than mine, you might even be able to track your current location during the ride.
And with that advice, I highly recommend using the bus to get around.
Solo travelers often wonder what’s the best way to get between the airport and their hotel. The city bus is cheap, but don’t even think about bringing a big suitcase on board. Cabs are expensive when there’s no one to share the cost. An airport shuttle is the best option–cheaper than a cab, quicker than the bus, and you can pack as much as you want.
I’ve used Speedi Shuttle on both of my trips. The drivers are courteous and they were prompt to pick me up for the return trip. Yes, you may be the last person dropped off, but it’s a good way to get the lay of the land when you first arrive. Roundtrip cost: $30.
That’s it for the tips. Now, for the random stuff:
Just Call Me ‘Ahinahina
A girl at the Dole Plantation was trying to sell tourists leather bracelets with their Hawaiian name etched on them. She asked me what my name was. I laughed and said “You are never going to find it there.” But I told her anyway, and she looked up the word “gray” in a Hawaiian dictionary. Then she told me that my Hawaiian name is ‘ahinahina (also the name of the silversword plant).
I thought that was kind of cool. Further research shows it can also be hinahina or just hina (which is the name of a moon goddess–I like that even better!). She offered to have ‘Ahinahina engraved on a bracelet for me, but I declined. Where would I wear something like that?
When people think of food on Hawaii, they probably think of exotic tropical fruits and seafood, seafood, seafood. It’s true, you’ll find both of those here in abundance. But what struck me is that Hawaii is the only place in the US I’ve been to where you find more pork dishes on a restaurant menu than beef or chicken. For good reason: Hawaiians know how to cook pork in so many delicious ways. I probably ate half my weight in pork in a week. (Sorry, vegetarians. I’m a guilty carnivore, but a carnivore.)
The Waves on the North Shore
The size of the waves on the North Shore was the talk of the island while I was there. At the beginning of the week, the waves were about 20 feet high. Everyone hoped that they might be able to hold the Eddie Aikau Surfing Competition later in the week. If that happened, surfers from around the world would jump on a plane to Oahu to participate.
By the end of the week, waves were 50 feet high—which was actually too high and too dangerous, especially with the winds. Not only could they not hold the Eddie, but the waves were threatening properties on the North Shore. People were being warned to stay well back from the beaches, because it’s easy to think you’re far enough away from the water, only to have a monster wave sweep you out to sea. Just another reminder of Mother Nature’s power.
The Waikiki Street Scene
Kalakaua is starting to resemble the Las Vegas Strip when it comes to buskers–but without the horrid costumed characters, thank God. I saw a spray paint artist here, human statues, a group of young men singing and dancing nightly, some solo musicians—even a violin-playing Santa. (Okay, that one was weird.)
I’m used to seeing homeless people in city centers where I travel, and even here at home. But I was startled by the sheer numbers I saw in Waikiki. They were panhandling on Kalakaua, sleeping on the beach, on sidewalks, on benches. One group set up an encampment of sorts at the bus stop across from my hotel. Another huddled on the leeward side of a public restroom building at a nearby beach park to get out of the wind. Some displayed cardboard signs saying things like “Why lie? I need beer” and “People with smartphones shouldn’t be stupid.” A few were openly hostile to passing tourists. But most were solitary figures, lost in their own thoughts.
That may not be the idyllic image of Hawaii that vacationers have in their heads when they come here, but get used to it, because it’s reality.
The Pro Bowl Block Party
My last night in Honolulu was also the night before the Pro Bowl, when the city threw a block party on Kalakaua, which was cordoned off to traffic. I haven’t seen crowds like that since New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas—minus the drunken shenanigans. There were stages set up on each block featuring different entertainment. I saw a native Hawaiian singer, a military rock band, and a hard rock band. People lined up at booths to buy hot food fresh off the grill, football memorabilia, and Hawaiian souvenirs like jewelry, handcrafted wood products, and tee shirts.
I didn’t stay long. The crowds were thick, and I was claustrophobic. On my way back to my hotel, I saw some Hare Krishnas dancing, singing and shaking their tambourines and a fabulous youth percussion band playing in the street in front of the Hyatt Regency. They were all so young and all amazingly good drummers.
I shot some video of them, but I hesitate to post it here; in front of me the entire time was a guy wearing his shirt on his head and showing off his butt crack because his pants were falling down on his hips. Somebody buy that man a belt, please.
Why visit Hawaii? You can probably find beaches and palm trees–even an ocean–a lot closer to home. That’s not it.
Hawaii is the best of both worlds: It’s within the U.S. but offers the opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture for awhile, if you so choose. It’s the opportunity to slow down and appreciate nature more. It’s the warmth, generosity and friendliness of people who have more of a “live and let live” philosophy than you get in many cities on the mainland.
In the weeks to come, I’ll bring you the highlights of my travels around the island of Oahu, my exposure to the Hawaiian culture, new experiences right in Honolulu, interactions with locals and fellow travelers–and yes, even how to make a trip to Hawaii more affordable. Hopefully, those posts will inspire you to start planning your own trip to Hawaii.
If you have any specific questions for me about visiting Honolulu as a solo traveler, email me or ask in the comments below. I’ll try to address all your questions one way or another.