A trip to Hawai’i is not a cheap adventure. You are going to be paying for everything and let’s face it – nothing is cheap. Your hotel is expensive, your rental car, your food, your drinks, your sunscreen…and if you live here…well, you already know…every day is expensive.
Isn’t anything in Hawai’i cheap? Isn’t anything in Hawai’i free?
Well, as a matter of fact, the answer is yes. In fact, if you know where to look, there are lots and lots and lots of free attractions, events, and activities in the beautiful state of Hawai’i and nowhere is that more true than in my hometown of Honolulu.
Check out the following…how much would you expect to pay to see this?
$30, $40, $100? That’s what I would think. And then add into it that you can explore a private beach, a beautiful waterfall, pools filled with tropical fish, a sting wray and even sea turtles…and the price is $0, nothing, nada, zip, zero, zilch.
So here is a great secret I’m going to share with you. If you want to swim with dolphins, you are going to pay $800 to $1500 for the experience at the Kahala Hotel and about half of that if you want to do it at Sea Life Park… but if you want to watch a dolphin show, you can go to the Kahala Hotel on the south side of Oahu and you can park at the beach park nearby, then walk down the beach to the Kahala. A beautiful beach, a swimming float, and everything mentioned above.
Are you suppossed to be there? I can’t really answer that. I suppose the hotel would prefer that only their guests are there – but as long as you aren’t making problems, the chances are you will be able to stay and enjoy the show…
My wife works during the week and rarely gets to have time by herself at home on the weekends – so I’ve taken to giving her a few hours each weekend in which she can luxuriate in a bath, catch up on her favorite series, or chat with her friends on the phone. It makes her happy and one of the best pieces of advice I was given before marriage was the simple “Happy wife, happy life”. It’s not just me that needs to find something to do though, we have an intelligent and active 7-year-old that usually wants to get involved in whatever her mama is doing – so the two of us will frequently head out on adventures together to give Mama a break. It’s a win-win-win. My wife gets some much-needed time to herself, my daughter gets to get outside of the house on her weekend and I get to spend time with my daughter having fun on Oahu.
Back in February, I decided it was time that Sophia learn how to golf. I had fond memories of mini-golfing with my father when I was a kid in the 1970’s, so I was almost as excited as she was when I told her my plans. Oahu has four putt-putt courses. Tiki’s Family Fun Center in the Dole Cannery offers a small glow putt course; there is another small glow-putt in the Windward Mall; Bay View in Kaneohe has a standard outdoor miniature golf course; and then there is Tropics Miniature Golf near Pearl Ridge Mall in Aiea which offers 9-holes in the great outdoors. We opted to go to Tropics because it was rainy on the Windward side and sunny in Pearl City.
There are a couple things you should know before you go. 1) This is an old course and while it is fun, it’s not a fancy-pants working windmill or flashy designed course. Many of the holes are falling apart and some of the trick shots (for example, the challenging hole on the volcano) don’t give you any advantage if you hit them. 2) There is a lot of foliage around the course and we got bit by a few mosquitos, so bug spray is a good idea. 3) Most of Tropics is shaded but it can still get pretty hot because of the lack of a breeze – make sure you bring water or go in the evening.
The facility is clean and all the people who work there are very friendly. This is cheap family fun with admission at $9.50 for adults and $6.50 for kids 3-7 years old. Kama’aina and military save a buck off the general admission and kids under three play for free. Admission is good for unlimited play on the day you go – so this is really one of the best bargains going on Oahu. The food at Tropics is good and fairly priced but nothing to rave about – still, it’s nice to be able to get a hot dog, slider and tater tots, or a variety of snacks on site. There are bathrooms on site, located right behind the food/ticket booth.
As I mentioned before, it’s an old course and not everything works exactly like it is supposed to but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. We played two rounds for a total of 18-holes. Par is either two or three but we both managed to hit a hole in one at least once and both dogged it on the challenging 6th hole to end up well over par (our house rule is five is the maximum you can score). We lost one bright pink ball somewhere in the jungle rough but the girl in the booth gave us a new ball with a smile and no problems. Since my wife wasn’t with us, we were able to have hot dogs, chips and a soft drink for lunch (Mama doesn’t let us get away with that kind of junk food when she is with us!)
When we got home, my wife was happy to see us and insisted that next time we bring her along when she heard how much fun we’d had. We have been back many times since…and Mama enjoyed it too.
Not long ago, I took my wife and daughter to the Ice Palace and we skated. We had some falls, we used the cheater carts, and we had fun. It was surprisingly hard physical work and it was cool inside on a particularly hot day in Hawaii. We had a blast until a particularly hard fall took my wife down. At that point the fun was over and we headed on to do something else. But not before I had the chance to introduce my daughter to the Zamboni! Everyone should meet a Zamboni at least once…
When I was working as a guide in the early 2000s, I passed the Ice Palace hundreds of times and never went in – I made jokes about it during the ice (crystal meth) epidemic back in the noughts, and I always wondered how it would be to ice skate in Hawai’i.
Bizarre Personal Remembrances that Having Nothing to Do With Hawaii But Something to do with Ice Skating
I grew up in Big Bear Lake, a ski resort in the mountains of Southern California – we had skiing, but even though the lake froze over every winter – people never seemed to ice skate on it – if they did, I never saw them do it. We had a roller rink and as an adult I had ice skated once in Memphis (which is another strange place to ice skate) and once in New York City which was pretty iconic. In neither place did I acheive anything resembling proficiency. The truth is, ice skating is difficult! It looks easy but it’s not. At least not for me.
I once lived in a squat with a strange 40-year-old virgin who drove an Iowa cab with Indiana plates (and we were in Bellingham, Washington) – he dreamed of being a figure skater and one early morning he forgot to take out the garbage and chased after the truck in his pink tights…it was surreal, but that’s another story too.
Location and Hours
The Ice Palace is located at 4510 Salt Lake Blvd and to get there from Waikiki you just head West on the H-1 and follow the signs for the stadium. Admission is $10.50 per person regardless of age and the hours are posted here.. And, if you are interested in actually learning how to skate – there are pretty reasonably priced classes available.
When I first moved to Hawai’i back in 2001, I lived in Waikiki where I was managing a hostel. It was a good life, but when you live in a hostel, you have to find places where you can get away from the backpackers. For me, it was the Honolulu Zoo. I used to grab a book, pay my kama’aina admission and go sit in front of the chimpanzees (and yes, I found it funny that I’d leave the monkeyhouse of the hostel to go hang out in the monkeyhouse at the zoo).
I’d wander the paths of the zoo, sit in the grass, try to psychicly link up with Rusty the Orangutan (who was in a much smaller enclosure by himself in those days) or see if I could spot the lions, wild African dogs, or other shy predators in their world class enclosures. The Honolulu Zoo was magnificent.
I was excited to go back and visit old friends – in particular, I wondered if Rusty would still be alive. The good news is that he is. The bad news is that he was hiding in his enclosure and wouldn’t come out. The other bad news was that the zoo is sadly a bit dilapidated. There were still crowds of people in the zoo – attendance isn’t the problem.
I doubt that those crowds will be going back though. The chimp enclosure has closed several times in the past few years. Once, because a wily chimp named Pu’iwa managed to put holes in the concrete, scale the wall, and jump over the two electric wires back in May of 2017.
Rusty’s newer, more expensive, bigger enclosure has sort of slipped into being about the same as his old enclosure and his much fan-fared mate, Violet, who was brought so that he wouldn’t be alone – she was on one side of the enclosure and Rusty was all the way on the other – not nubial bliss – that’s for sure – more like ten years of unhappy marriage in a cage.
Granted, we were there on a hot day and after about 10 a.m. most of the animals were hiding – but it wasn’t just that. The grounds appear to be less well kept, the grass less watered, the overall feeling of the zoo was kind of – let go. The aviary was far from the spectacular exhibit it once was, the reptile house was closed along with the chimp cage and other exhibits (a new ectotherm outdoor reptile exhibit has since been opened, but I haven’t seen it yet).
Louise the Hippo was alone and seemed depressed which isn’t surprising after her friend Rosie died suddenly amidst complications arising from construction of a new enclosure – hint – new enclosures shouldn’t kill the animals they are built for. The petting zoo had been updated and the zoo probably spent a lot of money to do that – but there were fewer animals and frankly, it wasn’t as good as before. In short, the Honolulu Zoo is a bit of a mess and to compound things – they actually raised the price of admission ($19 general admission/ $12 kama’aina or military) while closing exhibits – I felt a tiny bit cheated. That’s not a good thing. My daughter – who is six – had a great time – but honestly, she has a good time anywhere we can buy her Dippin Dots and see some animals. My wife couldn’t wait to leave – she found it depressing – and couldn’t understand why I had talked about it so fondly.
Sadly, not only did the Honolulu Zoo not live up to my stories, but it lagged behind smaller, less well funded, less interesting (well, less interesting before) zoos. A look at Trip Advisor reviews shows that it wasn’t just us feeling the dilapidation…words and phrases like ‘disappointed’ ‘eh’ ‘small’ ‘didn’t see any animals’ ‘too expensive for what we got’ pop up again and again.
It doesn’t make me feel good to write this, but I can’t recommend the Honolulu Zoo as a place to visit any longer. The price just isn’t worth what you get for it. I hope that changes. I hope that the city and the zoo administration can figure out how to solve the problems. Here’s a good start – water the grass as much as your average golf course on Oahu and maybe hire a golf course grounds keeper, post the feeding times of the animals, lower the admission price by three dollars until all the exhibits are reopened, reopen the exhibits, get more baby goats and other baby animals in the petting zoo, put out a call for volunteers to help with feeding, groundskeeping, animal care, and more. And probably this is the biggest piece of advice I can offer – stop trying to earn more money and instead try to give more value – that’s the biggest issue with the zoo right now – there seems to be no one trying to give value and unless that happens – attendance and revenue will continue to plummet, enclosures will continue to degrade, accredidations will continue to be taken away, and eventually the zoo will just be another natatorium waiting for a developer to turn it into a resort.
If you decide to go to the Honolulu Zoo anyway…here are some tips 1) Go early or catch one of the concerts in the zoo or twilight specials 2) Set your expectations low 3) Don’t go on a rainy day as it often floods and visitors are forced to leave and 4) If you have military or Hawai’i ID, be sure to bring them since the discount is worth it. 4) Go to the zoo first and then go to the Waikiki Aquarium – the fish don’t care about the time of the day or the heat!
First let’s look at that title. I can’t stress this enough because I hear it all the time. You are never IN an island unless you have crawled into a cave ON an island. Just like you would never say “We stayed ON Waikiki” or “We stayed ON Honolulu” (because you don’t stay ON districts or ON cities, you stay IN them) – so the same thing with islands – If you are talking about the STATE OF HAWAII then you can say you stayed IN Hawaii, but if you are talking about the ISLAND OF HAWAII (aka Big Island) then you stayed ON Hawaii. So, it’s possible to stay ON Hawaii and IN Hawaii at the same time but as far as I know, it’s never possible to stay IN Oahu because it’s the name of the island and not a town, city, county or state. So – hopefully that makes sense – it’s one of those things that really can get under your skin if you live here…which I do…but – now that the lecture is over – let’s look back to the first day I returned to Oahu with my family back in 2017. We played tourist for a couple of days and we stayed at the beautiful Hilton Hawaiian Village.
I knew we were going to need a hotel the first few nights because even though we had an apartment – it was empty – so I booked us a room far above the crowds in the Kalia Tower at Hilton Hawaiian Village – Waikiki’s most well known tourist resort. Yes, I could have booked longer in a room a bit farther from the beach and I could have gotten us a full week in a hostel private room – but I wanted my wife and daughter to know what it’s like to be a tourist and to stay in a big, nice, well appointed hotel room in a luxury resort with waterslides, five pools, and no need to go anywhere else. You never get to come to Hawaii again for the first time.
About a month before moving I’d gotten three new credit cards – a Hilton Honors American Express, a Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard, and an Alaska Airlines Visa. I knew that moving would be expensive and each of these cards offered generous sign up bonuses if you spent a certain amount in the first few months.
WARNING: TRAVEL HAWAII PRO-TIPS AHEAD!!!
Using the Hilton Honors American Express, I got a discount but then using the interenet. I found a cheaper rate than Hilton had sold me and I was given that price and a 25% discount as part of Hilton’s price guarantee. When we checked in, they had a Hilton Honors express check-in – so I was able to zip us right past the massive crowds lined up to check in at 3pm and get us settled right away – at the express check-in, I asked for any available free upgrade (part of the card benefit) and was upgraded from a partial view on a mid-floor to a full ocean view on a top floor. So, all told, I got the room for less than a third of the rack rate which was right aroung $625 – our room rate was $176 – which almost made me regret not booking more nights – except that $176 is still a lot of money to pay for a hotel room – at least for my income level.
The lines of people checking in were horrifying and I was incredibly grateful for the express check-in. Our room was absolutely lovely. The view was wonderful, the wi-fi was complimentary (again part of Hilton Honors). From this point forward we didn’t leave the resort until we checked out.
We swam in three of the five pools, ate Japanese breakfast at the little Japanese restaurant downstairs, and explored the grounds which had a water slide pool, lots of beautiful Hawaiian plant landscaping, koi, tropical fish, tropical birds and more. I’d been telling Sophia about the penguins that lived there and she didn’t believe me and it turned out that she was right, the penguins had been moved to a mainland zoo. But they used to be there – it’s probably best for the penguins that they are not there any longer.
We swam and played in the lagoon, had ice cream, went to the beach, paid way too much for sunscreen, swam in the waterslide pool, enjoyed the sun and heat with rain and rainbows while swimming in a different pool, and finally went back up to our beautiful room and enjoyed the view from the balcony before sleeping wonderfully in the big plush beds with big fluffy pillows in a perfect climate controlled room.
It felt wonderful to be back in Waikiki and it felt even better to have my family back here with me.
Right off the bat, let’s get it straight – The Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu is not Fishtanbul or even The Oregon Coast Aquarium – it’s not Monterey or the San Francisco Aquarium. It’s small, it’s a little bit dated, and it’s a great way to pass an hour or two when the weather isn’t great or you just want to escape from the beaches and the shops in Waikiki. A combo trip to the Honolulu Zoo on the same day works really well.
The Waikiki Aquarium is open from 9am to 5pm daily and adult admission is $12. It’s located at 2777 Kalakaua Ave in Waikiki. Just get on the road next to the beach and walk towards Diamond Head. Walk past the zoo, past the bandstand, past the statue of Queen Kapiolani and then you will see it on the water side (makai side).
My favorite exhibits are the sea horses and sea dragons and also the jellyfish but there are good exhibits about aquaculture, coral reefs, corals, clams, and even Hawaiian Monk Seals. The kids always love the touch parts where they can hold a hermit crab or touch a sea anenome. The sustainable fish farming exhibit is pretty awesome and if you are just looking for a break from the beach, there are plenty of places to set up with a laptop and enjoy the free wifi. Enjoy the Waikiki Aquarium!
Aloha Stadium, near the Salt Lake Neighborhood, is a well known Honolulu landmark, not only is it where the Pro-Bowl used to get played but it is also the stadium where UH football games happen and more importantly for many – where the three-times-a-week Aloha Stadium Swapmeet happens. On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays – for a dollar per person locals and tourists alike wander through hundreds of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to aloha shirts and shave ice to just good old fashioned junk – along the circular route you will find those and everything in between – antiques, coins, clothing, ukuleles, tools, fishing gear, surfboards, video games – this is truly where the locals come to do their shopping – or selling.
I’ve loaded up my junk and treasures on dozens of mornings and set out hopefully for the swap meet – and so far – at the end of the day, I’m not any closer to being rich than I was at the start. It’s hard to get even good garage sale prices from the shrewd bargainers who haunt the junk sections – but with a stall price of just $15 and tent rentals at only $20 – you don’t have to sell a lot to make a profit and a big part of going is the fun of interacting with tourists and locals. There are a whole host of colorful characters who are regulars there – homeless guys who use their meager earnings to buy things to sell at thrift shops, professional garage salers, hoarders, people who are trying to make their social security checks stretch, junk addicted hustlers, video game junkies, displaced otaku, retired policemen, crusty fishermen, treasure hunting aunties, and local farmers and artisans. There is nowhere else in Hawaii where you can mingle with such a wide array of real Hawai’i folk.
The Stadium was originally built for Hawaii’s AAA baseball team, The Hawai’i Islanders, but that didn’t work out and the Islanders moved away. The stadium is still there though despite calls to tear it down and build another over the past twenty years. And the marketplace is still there – as far as I can tell, this is the last regular marketplace for low dollar vendors since the International Marketplace and Dukes Lane have been gentrified and turned into yet another Waikiki Beverley Hills. The Aloha Stadium Swapmeet is a place to find art by the artists, people selling the contents of storage locker auctions, farmers selling produce, people selling discount produce from wholesalers, and as mentioned above – nearly everything else. What you generally won’t find at Aloha Stadium Swapmeet are guns or knives or weapons of any kind, fireworks or flammables, pornography, drugs or vaping, alcohol, or anything else that doesn’t fit with a family atmosphere.
So, go ahead, buy expensive produce and souvenirs at other places – or head to the Aloha Stadium Swapmeet and get them for the kama’aina price. The swap meet happens Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday (unless there is a game scheduled). You can show up as early as 6am but if you show up later than 10am, don’t expect to find any treasure or good apple bananas – those go early.
An often missed but fascinating site on Oahu is the Ulupō Heiau on the Windward side of the island near the beach town of Kailua. It sits on the eastern edge of Kawai Nui Marsh which is off to your left as you come into Kailua down the Pali Highway. Stories say that it was created by the Menehune, an ancient race of leprechan-like pre-Hawaiians who inhabited the islands before Tahitian voyagers got here. There are many such large Menehune credited structures throughout the islands. The name Ulupo means ‘night inspiration’. I can only imagine what it is like at night.
As you drive by, you can see the huge stone platform through the mango trees just past the Windward YMCA – if you go to the YMCA, you can park and walk around the back to acces the heiau. A heiau is a Hawaiian temple site. The Ulupo Heiau measures 140 x 180 feet and is as high as 30 feet at some points. The stones were brought from all over the island and at one point – it was a very important cultural site for the Hawaiian people of Oahu.
The area it sits in was important for Hawaiian agriculture with the production of banana(maya), taro (kalo), sugarcane (ko), breadfruit (ulu) and many other fruits and vegetables. In addition there were ancient fishponds in the area. All of this has led archaeologists to suppose that it was an agricultural temple site that grew into a more important heiau luakini – which would have had much more power associated with it.
Kailua, though a laid back beach town today, was once an important seat of power. The kings of Oahu maintained their residences here – as did the later conquering kings of Maui and King Kamehameha the great who united all the islands under his rule. After the conversion of the Hawaiian people to Christianity and the missionary and territory periods – the site lost much of it’s importance and was part of a cattle ranch.
In the 1960s, the site was partially restored and a plaque was put up but the accumulated rubbish of nearly a century filled the site. In the early 2000’s, I worked with groups of other volunteers to clean out the rubbish, restore the lo’i (taro ponds), and clean the site. Until recently, there were members of the reinstated Hawaiian government living on the site – or maybe they were simply homeless Hawaiian guys living on the site and taking care of the aina. In any event, they were forced out and I don’t know the details. I know that it was nice to have them there in the mid 2000s but when I visited in 2017 there was a somewhat creepy and dangerous feel to the place.
Yesterday’s visit seemed to be an improvement over that.
The Pacific Aviation Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii is one of the top attractions on the island of Oahu. The entrance fee is $25, which is a little steep for a musuem, but if you are an aviation buff or a military history fan – this is a must-see. Two hangars filled with aircraft and exhibits as well as the iconic red and white control tower on Ford Island and outdoor aircraft displays.
There are some pretty cool displays including a Flying Tigers Exhibit and a Boeing Sternman Model 75 flown by former President George H. W. Bush. Exhibits include a focus on the attack at Pearl Harbor, a B-17 Bomber recovered from the swamps of New Guinea, and a wide range of military, civil, and civilian aircraft.
The Pacific Aviation Museum is an interesting stop and it should be since construction, maintenance, and acquisition costs most likely add up to $50 billion dollars or more.
We had a great day there. We found a day when admission was only $5 each (online only) because of a conference promoting careers in aviation for women and girls. There were special exhibits, information booths, and lots of fun to be had. There are frequently online deals like two admissions for the price of one, free aircraft simulator tours, and more on the museum website.
To get there from Honolulu, you take the H1 Freeway towards the Airport and Pearl Harbor. Since this is part of the Valor in the Pacific (Pearl Harbor) set of attractions -you will park at Pearl Harbor and go into the entrance of the main visitor center. Once inside head straight towards the ticket booth on the right side where you can purchase tickets to the Battleship Missouri, the USS Bowfin Submarine, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
Once you have your ticket you will catch a bus from inside the facility that will take you across the bridge to Ford Island – this is the same bus that will take you to the Battleship Missouri. Just like Pearl Harbor, you can’t bring backpacks, bags, purses, or fanny packs with you – there is bag storage before the entrance to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
There is a small tourist gift shop and a so-so canteen for sandwiches and snacks. Expect to spend 1-1.5 hours for a casual visit. Longer if you want to really dig into the museum and displays.
One of the top requests among my guests is to visit the Dole Plantation in the center of the island of Oahu. It’s easy to understand why people want to go there. For most American’s, Dole was the first pineapple they ever experienced. Straight from the can, usually, but sometimes it was an exotic and fresh pineapple with that colorful Dole logo on it. For other’s (like me) Dole is intimately connected with Disneyland or Disneyworld – I’ll never be able to disassociate Dole from that first Dolewhip ice cream cone I had outside the Enchanted Tiki Room with its animatronic birds and exotic tropical decor. But, equally, I’ll never forget being a little kid and my mom opening those cans of Dole Pineapple Juice or pulling out those magical donut rings of pineapple from a Dole can. And it’s not just me….so I never wonder why such an obvious tourist trap ranks so high on the lists of so many people when they come to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It makes sense to me.
The other reason people love to go to the Dole Plantation is because it’s just fun. It’s a great attraction that ticks all the boxes of a must-see. There’s a 20-minute train ride through the pineapple fields that appeals to youngsters and historians alike as the narration on board shares the rich plantation agricultural history of Oahu. There is the World’s Largest Pineapple Maze (it’s shaped like a pineapple, not made out of one). You can stroll through the free pineapple gardens or buy a ticket to explore the beautiful tropical gardens past the ticket booth. And then there is the visitor center where you can find thousands upon thousands of pineapple products as well as local coffee, soaps, textiles, ukuleles, tropical candy, koa wood carvings, and learn how to cut a pineapple, sample local macadamia nuts, and get pretty decent lunch. Oh, and don’t forget to get a Dole Whip or a Pineapple Float, or a Pineapple Split. The lines may be long, but they move pretty quickly.
Hours and Directions: To get there, just head towards the Central Oahu town of Wahiawa. If you’re coming from Honolulu, go past Wahiawa. If you’re coming from the North Shore don’t quite go to Wahiawa. You won’t miss it. The Dole Planation is open everyday except Christmas from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. There is no charge for admission but the train, the maze, and the garden tours all will require a paid ticket. Parking is free.