While we were living on the Big Island of Hawai’i, some family came to visit us. They flew to O’ahu for a week, and we met them there for part of their stay. (They also ended up island-hopping to the Big Island to check out our home and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.)

O’ahu has a lot going on in a very small space, which was quite a shift for us coming from the more laid-back Big Island. It’s difficult to get away from all the tourists of Waikiki to enjoy the natural wonders O’ahu has to offer. But, if you’re willing to arrange your schedule to do things during off-peak hours, you’ll be able to have more space to explore. 

Photo collage of Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head
Left: Hanauma Bay at sunrise. Right: Diamond Head hiking trail in the afternoon.

In one day, you can hit two popular tourist hotspots — snorkeling in Hanauma Bay and hiking at Diamond Head — without enduring the worst of the crowds. The key is to get the timing right: You have to do snorkeling in the morning and hiking in the afternoon. We’ve also got a few other tips to help you minimize your expenses and maximize fun during your trip.

Start Your Day Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay State Park (also known as Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve) has literally the best snorkeling on O’ahu. It’s a short, 25-minute drive just outside of Honolulu. The only problem is that it’s not exactly a secret spot, so you MUST go in the morning before other snorkelers show up, crowd the waters (and parking lot), and ruin your underwater visibility by kicking up sand.

Photo of rainbow over Hanauma Bay
We were at Hanauma Bay early enough that it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. But by the time we came up for air to see this double rainbow overhead, crowds had already started to form.

One of our biggest travel hacks is to avoid doing what most other travelers do, and this strategy is especially important to follow when visiting Hanauma Bay (or any place on O’ahu, if I’m being honest). Most people don’t arrive when the park opens at 6 am, and that’s when you need to get there to have the best experience. We got there 30 minutes before opening, were first in line, and got to have the whole place to ourselves. But it didn’t last long. By the time we decided to leave just a few hours later, hordes of tourists had already been shuttled right to the ocean shore and were making it difficult to get out.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to arrive before everyone else, so the best way to get to Hanauma Bay is to drive the 25 minutes there from Honolulu yourself. Whether you drive a rental car or a friend’s car, take the local bus, or use a ride sharing or taxi service, they’ll all get you there before it opens. If you use the park’s shuttle service, which runs to and from Waikiki hotels, the earliest you’ll get there is still too late (pickup begins at 7:15 am). The fact that such a service even exists should tell you how popular an attraction Hanauma Bay is.

The entry and parking fees for Hanauma Bay are pretty cheap, but it’s important to note the fancy shuttle service costs quite a bit more. Even though the service includes a mask and snorkel rental, you’ll still pay the entry fee on top of that, and it’ll get you there later along with all the tourists.

Photo underwater at Hanauma Bay

If you already own a mask and snorkel, make sure you bring it with you to Hawaii. If you forget to pack it, just buy a set at Walmart for $10-20 and reuse it during your stay. There’s no good reason to rent one, especially every day, since the cost to buy is so low. We always try to find creative ways to cut little expenses when we travel, and it can really add up.

Anyway, hopefully I didn’t scare you away with the prospect of a 6 am alarm clock. Hanauma Bay is a magical place that’s worth visiting. Because it’s a nature preserve and a protected area, you’ll be able to get up close and personal with tropical fish, sea turtles, and living coral in the calm, shallow waters of the bay. We even saw the ridiculously-named state fish of Hawai’i, the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (also known as a reef triggerfish), when we snorkeled there. If you go out far enough, you might even see spinner dolphins or a small reef shark!

Next, Spend the Afternoon Hiking Diamond Head

After your morning in the water, grab some lunch and swap your swimsuit for some sneakers for a casual hike at Diamond Head State Monument. While there is some elevation gain (about 560 ft, or 170 m worth), the trail itself is pretty easy to walk (only 1.6 miles, or 2.6 km, round trip).

Leʻahi, the Hawaiian name for Diamond Head Crater, is part of the Ko’olau Range of dormant volcanoes along the east coast of O’ahu. Diamond Head lies just east of Waikiki. When you get to the summit, you’ll take in sweeping 360-degree views of Honolulu, the ocean, and the rest of the island.

Photo of us at Diamond Head

The trail itself is a mix of pavement and packed dirt, although there may be areas with loose rocks. Some parts of the trail meander through a tunnel and up stairs. It’s not super difficult or anything, but if you’re with older family members, it’s good to know that there are benches regularly spaced out along the trail for breaks, which makes the Diamond Head hike doable for almost anyone. Even if you don’t get all the way up the stairs to the very top, you’ll be treated to some choice views along the way. You’ll also enjoy a nice sea breeze during your hike that makes the afternoon heat bearable (just make sure you bring water and sunscreen).

Because it’s a state monument, there’s a visitor center, a parking lot, and unfortunately, enforced park hours. While the park is open from 6 am to 6 pm, you’re not allowed to begin a hike after 4:30 pm, so plan accordingly. There’s a ridiculously tiny entrance fee to get into the park and hike, so make sure you check what’s cheaper for you (walking up as an individual or driving and parking with your family).

Make It a Full Day with These Things to Do in Honolulu

While we tend to prefer a slower form of travel, spending months instead of weeks exploring a new place, we only stayed in O’ahu for a short time. There was a ton we didn’t get to do, but we felt like we made the most of our time there. These two activities — hiking Diamond Head and snorkeling Hanauma Bay — were some of our favorite things to do while we were visiting Honolulu.

You’ll likely only spend a few hours snorkeling and another few hiking, so stacking these two activities into a single day can really help you maximize your time on the island. For us, nothing’s better than spending a whole day outside, taking it all in. Aloha!

— Lauren

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