Hawaii, Part III: 3-Day O’ahu Itinerary

We topped off our holiday in Hawaii with three days on O’ahu. By far the most popular island, Honolulu’s hordes of tourists still took us by surprise. But O’ahu is as stunning and unique as any other Hawaiian island, offering plenty of natural beauty away from Honolulu’s crowds.

Day 1 – Windward Coast & Ridges

Upon arrival in O’ahu, we started with our regular travel routine: pick up the rental car, stock up on camping food and try our first poke. We had barely set foot on the island and were already in awe: the inland road from Honolulu to the eastern coast took us through impressive green mountain ridges. Having just rained, small waterfalls were flowing off the ridges.

We soon learned the meaning of Windward. On every Hawaiian island, the wind and rain typically come in from the east, making the eastern side the Windward side. This means lush scenery, tropical rain and strong winds on the east coast. We were not aware of this climate curiosity when booking a stunning oceanfront campsite at Bellows Field Beach Park, on O’ahu’s Windward side.

When arriving to Bellows Field, we could barely get out of the car because of strong wind gusts. We didn’t even try setting up camp at our oceanfront site: the few tent campers around were well-prepared locals and camping inland. However, the large majority of spots were taken up by camper vans. Bellows Field is a military base that opens up for public camping in the weekends. Campsites can be reserved two weeks in advance and fill up within minutes, but not everyone knows what they’re getting into. Windward vs Us: 1-0.

If you can brave the winds, the entire eastern coastline of O’ahu is absolutely stunning. Kailua Beach Park has powdery sands and turquoise waters. We took in the beautiful scenery for a little bit, but small sand storms on the beach chased us inland again. Windward vs Us: 2-0.

On the way back to Honolulu, we visited Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden. Admission is free and the backdrop is spectacular. We picked up a delicious poke from Foodland and enjoyed lunch in the middle of this green oasis.

Day 2 – Hanauma Bay & Koko Crater

Following our failed camping stay at Bellow Fields, we found ourselves cooking breakfast amidst Honolulu’s high-rises. We had stocked up on groceries before arriving to the campsite and realizing we’d have to look for a hotel. Luckily, our Marriott points and a spacious balcony came to the rescue.

We started our day with a unique but arduous hike. The Koko Crater Trail climbs an old railroad track to panoramic 360° views of southeast O’ahu. With 1048 railroad ties to overcome and close to 1000 ft elevation gain, this 1.6 mile hike qualifies as a strenuous morning workout.

For me, the stunning views at the top more than made up for the burning legs. My other half was convinced torture did not belong on a holiday in Hawaii, and couldn’t get back down fast enough.

Hanauma Bay is visible from the Koko Crater and just minutes away from the trailhead. The state park is home to a pristine marine ecosystem that suffered under years of mass-tourism. As of April 2021, the park is limiting access to 1400 tourists a day with mandatory reservations. The slots can be reserved two days in advance and usually fill up within minutes.

The coral reefs close to the shore make Hanauma Bay an extraordinary place for snorkeling. We saw a large variety of tropical fish, although it didn’t top our snorkeling experience at Two Step on the Big Island. Despite the diverse marine life, the fish are less abundant and the shallow waters can make it tricky to navigate above the sharp coral.

The bay provided a stunning setting for a picnic, before heading back to Honolulu.

Day 3 – Diamond Head & Waikiki Beach

Another day in O’ahu meant another morning hike with gorgeous views. This time around, I picked one that was gentler on the legs and the morning mood. The Diamond Head Summit Trail goes up the interior wall of Honolulu’s Diamond Head crater, the iconic backdrop of Waikiki Beach.

Parking at Diamond Head State Park is limited. We waited about half an hour in an organized line before it was our turn to park. This was followed by another line to buy entry tickets to the park. The trail is only 1.6 miles round-trip, but packs a lot of stunning views in this short distance. Being less strenuous than the Koko Crater Trail, it is also much more crowded.

We spend our last afternoon in O’ahu on Waikiki Beach. The surfer’s heaven is flanked by upscale hotels and restaurants, including the pink Royal Hawaiian Resort.

After two weeks of mostly camping in Hawaii and losing out to the weather gods more than once, we splurged a little on our final stay. The Sheraton Waikiki Beach has stunning ocean views and a unique infinity pool overlooking Waikiki Beach.

It was the perfect end to an unforgettable trip, but made leaving even harder. Hawaii truly is a destination like no other.

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