Are you planning a trip to the Aloha state? If your vacation to Hawaii includes Honolulu, give yourself a full day for an Oahu scenic drive.
That's what I did upon returning to Oahu for the first time in 30 years. I'd previously visited as a 13-year-old with family.
I traveled with my girlfriend this time, and we made the most of our week on the island. What follows is our one-day itinerary for a self-guided scenic drive around Oahu.
At the end of the article, I'll share a few alternative ideas to swap in if you prefer. A word of warning, though, before we continue.
Rental Car Logistics
While we didn't have any trouble reserving a rental car a few days in advance, the pick-up times in Waikiki Beach were limited to 8 a.m. or later.
This was the case for all the companies. I would've preferred to hit the road an hour earlier.
However, it wouldn't have been worth our time to take an Uber to the airport to get a car there, only to backtrack through downtown Honolulu to reach the east side of Oahu.
Instead, we did our best to work with this limitation. Ultimately, we saw everything we wanted on our Oahu road trip and were quite tired when we returned to our Waikiki Beach hotel.
So, I don't think it would've made a big difference even if we did get the car earlier than 8 a.m.
Picking up the Rental Car
Our Ford Fusion rental car was both economical and comfortable. The cost for a 24-hour rental, including insurance, fees, and taxes, was about $150.
The 24-hour rental is important because Budget doesn't accept returned cars after 3 p.m., which is odd because they don't let you pick them up before 8 a.m.
Seven hours won't buy you much in the way of stops on a drive around Oahu.
To get the most out of your day and car rental, you need to return it to the garage whenever you get back to Waikiki, and then go back to the Budget kiosk to drop off the keys the next day before 8 a.m.
The cost would've been less had we booked the rental a few weeks in advance.
Direction of Travel
Everything I read about taking an Oahu scenic drive suggested traveling east out of Honolulu and going counter-clockwise around the island.
I suspect this is because it gives you a chance, if you're up early, to see the sunrise on the east coast and sunset on the west coast.
If this is your first time driving around Oahu, make sure to drive safely. There's no rush, you're on island time, and getting in an accident would be a surefire way to ruin the trip.
Related: Planning for Hawaii on a Budget
Top Oahu Attractions
Kona Coffee Purveyors / b Patissiere
Since the rental car wasn't available until 8 a.m., we got breakfast at Kona Coffee Purveyors, which opens at 7 a.m. daily.
We were in Waikiki Beach for a week and saw a line outside the cafe every morning.
I'm pretty sure it was for the pastries because they were incredible! My favorite was the chocolate banana almond croissant.
Kona Coffee is conveniently located in the International Market Place, the indoor/outdoor shopping mall where we picked up the rental car.
Once we'd eaten and gotten our car for the day, I drove us east out of Honolulu on Route 72 to Hanauma Bay, our first stop.
This stunning nature preserve with a sandy beach offers some of Oahu's best snorkeling. I remember swimming here as a teen.
The clarity of the water and quantity of colorful fish and coral set a high bar by which I judged all future snorkeling experiences.
Unfortunately, the bay and beach were closed to visitors *unless* you had booked a snorkeling tour.
While we hadn't planned to snorkel that day, we had at least wanted to get some photos from an observation deck above the beach.
Thankfully, we didn't have to wait long for a beautiful beach view.
Halona Beach Cove and Blowhole
Our Oahu scenic drive continued a few minutes east on Route 72, which led us to the lookout points for Halona Beach Cove and Blowhole on the side of Koko Crater.
The beach is not easily accessible. If you're willing to climb down steep volcanic terrain, you may have it to yourself.
We were satisfied with the view from above.
When a strong enough wave hits the rocks, the Halona Blowhole spouts water up like a geyser.
It was a bit anti-climatic but still worth a quick stop on your day trip around Oahu.
Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail
Driving another few minutes east on Route 72 will bring you to the Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail parking lot.
This trail is a relatively easy uphill walk on a paved path. It took about 30 minutes for us to reach the top, including a few stops for photos.
We saw one pair of parents carrying their baby in a harness and another pushing a stroller.
Once you reach the top, there are gorgeous views of Oahu's Windward Coast. On a clear day, look east, and you might be able to see Moloka'i, another of the Hawaiian islands.
They may have come early, but the views from Makapu'u Point were some of my favorite that day. The walk down was faster, about 15 minutes, and we were at this stop for about 75 minutes total.
Nu'uanu Pali Lookout
Our next photo-op on the Oahu scenic drive was the stunning Nu'uanu Pali lookout, a 30-minute drive from the lighthouse trail. (Take Route 71 North to 61 South, the Pali Highway).
The winding road takes you 1,200 feet up into the Ko'olau Range, you'll get a different perspective on the lush vegetation of Oahu's windward side.
To the northeast, you can see the azure waters off Kailua Beach. Equally pretty, Lanikai Beach, south of Kailua, is hidden by green hills. Give yourself 10-15 minutes in this great place to take it all in.
Tropical Farms Macadamia Nuts
My girlfriend, Kel, was keen to stop at a macadamia nut farm, and I'm glad we did. Tropical Farms is 30 minutes up the coast from the Nu'uanu Pali lookout. Take Route 61 North to 83 North (part of the Kamehameha Highway).
While they weren't offering tours when we visited, free samples of their nuts and macadamia nut coffee were available. My favorite was the onion and garlic.
Go a few minutes further north on Route 83, and you'll see the dramatic entrance to Kualoa Ranch.
This Hawaiian ranch is world-famous for being the site where scenes from Hollywood films such as Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and 50 First Dates were shot.
Tours are costly and sell out well in advance. For example, the 2.5-hour Jurassic Adventure tour, which takes guests to the Hakipu'u and Ka'a'awa Valleys, is $140.
If you want to incorporate a tour at Kualoa Ranch during your scenic drive around Oahu, you may need to book weeks ahead. Given the time required, I suggest going on a standalone day trip.
The Ranch offers roundtrip transportation from Waikiki hotels for $30 per person, so you don't need a rental car to get there.
Speaking of 50 First Dates, a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, many scenes are shot in a fictional Hukilau Cafe.
There's a cafe by the same name in the town of Laie, a 25-minute drive north of Kualoa Ranch (on Route 83 North). However, this isn't the location where the scenes were filmed.
Despite that fact, or regardless of it, former Go Backpacking contributor and food blogger superstar Mark Wiens (and I) still went in the hopes of enjoying a typical Hawaiian meal.
You can read about Mark's experience at Hukilau Cafe here.
On my drive around Oahu, the restaurant happened to be closed for lunch that day, so I missed out on trying their food.
Giovanni's Shrimp Truck
That was fine since I also had eyes on Giovanni's Shrimp Truck a few minutes north on Route 83.
Giovanni's was one of the first shrimp food trucks on Oahu's North Shore to make a name for itself.
There's a lunch line every day, year after year, and that was certainly the case when we stopped by around noon.
It took about 15-20 minutes to get our food. I ordered shrimp with butter and lemon while Kel got their signature shrimp scampi (i.e., garlic shrimp).
A third option is the hot and spicy shrimp plate. All three are the same size, come with white rice, and cost $15.
I felt hungry by this point in the trip, so I quickly worked on the dozen medium-sized shrimp.
Related: Best Places to Eat in Oahu
One of the places I remember best from visiting Oahu as a teen was the Dole Plantation. Tasting the fresh-picked pineapple was unforgettable.
I can also remember seeing the inside of a canning facility and the shape of machines used to remove pineapple cores.
Thirty years later, the Dole Plantation had developed into quite a tourist attraction. There's a train you can ride around the plantation to learn about pineapples and a giant maze to navigate on foot.
We were more interested in dessert. The Dole pineapple whip dessert, to be specific.
A Dole whip is pineapple-flavored soft-serve ice cream, and we paid one dollar extra for fresh pineapple chunks to be added.
Behind the gift shop, where you can buy the dessert and all forms of pineapple paraphernalia, there's a patio and small garden that are free to enjoy.
Waimea Valley and Waterfall
By mid-afternoon, our daylight hours were running out, and we desperately wanted to go for a swim under Waimea Falls.
The Falls are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and it was about 3 p.m. when we left the Dole Plantation.
We backtracked along Route 99 and Route 83 North to Waimea Bay, where we turned right on Waimea Valley Road, which provides access to Waimea Valley.
From there, it was an easy 30-minute walk on paved paths through the botanical garden to reach Oahu's best-known waterfall.
There are some rustic changing rooms and bathrooms and a small hut where a gentleman was handing out life jackets required to swim there.
He said we'd arrived at this beautiful place at the best time of day; most visitors had already come and gone.
Kel and I enjoyed a 15-minute swim in the freshwater pool before drying off, changing, and walking back to the car for another North Shore food experience.
Matsumoto Shave Ice
Heading south on Route 83 for a few minutes brought us to the town of Haleiwa, still on Oahu's North Shore.
Here, you'll find lots of cute shops and restaurants and the historic Matsumoto Shave Ice.
Matsumoto has been serving their refreshing dessert since 1951. On a typical day, they'll make 1,000 for customers.
President Obama has been seen getting shave ice here, so you know it's good!
They have special machines to shave the ice and dozens of housemade flavored syrups to choose from.
There are many places to buy shave ice on Oahu, but Matsumoto's is one of the best.
Related: 5 Hawaiian Fusion Foods
Sunset at Hale'iwa Beach Park
I'd initially planned to watch the sun go down at the aptly-named Sunset Beach Park on the North Shore.
This beach is just a minute or two up the road from the Banzai Pipeline beach, a mecca for surfers worldwide.
However, upon arrival, we found parking at both beaches was extremely limited, and there were already a lot of cars occupying the spots.
Instead, we left the shave ice shop for nearby Haleiwa Beach Park, where there was plenty of parking.
A whole rainbow appeared inland, to the west while we watched the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
Stand-up paddleboarders could be seen gently floating on the water in the distance.
Once the sun went down over the horizon, we hopped in the car and drove back to Waikiki Beach.
It was about a one-hour drive, despite an unexpected torrential downpour along the way.
Altogether, the day made for one of the best scenic drives I've experienced in the United States.
Related: Beauty of Oahu Island
Alternative Places to Go
Hopefully, our Oahu scenic drive gave you some ideas to make your one-day tour of the island a reality.
There are tons more points of interest on the island than one day will allow; however, I thought I'd share a few alternatives to what we did.
For breakfast, if you prefer to try malasadas, a popular Portuguese doughnut, then head to Leonard's Bakery instead of Kona Coffee Purveyors. Leonard's is open from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
If you came to Honolulu from the east, such as the mainland United States, Canada, or Europe, then jetlag may have you waking up very early.
Consider taking advantage of this by doing a sunrise hike at Diamond Head crater. We did this on a different day than our drive around Oahu and used Uber.
It was a 30-minute hike to the top of the crater, and the views were gorgeous. Allow 15-20 minutes to get back down. Check the official website for travel advisories and hours.
I recommend leaving Pearl Harbor for another day, as you'll be required to reserve a time slot for the USS Arizona. And visiting the USS Missouri battleship alone can take an additional hour or two.