When I told my husband we should spend a long weekend in Hawaii, he laughed in my face and said, “Absolutely not. If we are going to be on a plane for eight hours to get there, we have to spend at least a week there to make it worth my time!” Listen, I would love to spend a week in a tropical paradise too, but we have a seven month old who can’t be away from us for that long, plus I’d be pumping while we were away and I didn’t. want. to. pump. for. a. week.
I am a pro when it comes to seeing a lot (read: everything there is to see) in a short amount of time, but my husband prefers a lengthy-stay vacation to the impromptu weekend excursion. My number one goal in life is to convince him to join the dark side and find the joy in short spans of travel, so when he agreed to spend three days on O’ahu with me, I felt myself taking a giant leap towards achieving that goal. We were already in Denver for a previous engagement, so we listed for the direct from DEN-HNL as it had 108 open seats and was a sure-fire way to get to the island without a worry or hassle.
The agents began clearing standbys and wouldn’t you know, that plane went out full. Half of the passengers being paying passengers and the other half being non-revenue standby passengers. Ian was ecstatic to learn that the movie Austin Powers was available to watch in-flight and since he had agreed to the long weekend with me, I agreed to watch the movie with him. I had forgotten how outrageous and ridiculous that movie was and I found myself in tears over the awful jokes. Austin Powers and two-and-a-half movies later, we looked out the window to see blue waters and bright green, luscious land. We made it.
By the time we had landed and picked up our rental car, the afternoon was half over, but that didn’t stop us from seeking out sunshine, beaches, and booze. This was our first baby-free vacation, and since we never took a honeymoon or a “baby- moon”, we were more than ready to celebrate our milestones from the last 18 months. We got married, we had a baby, and we figured out what works best for our relationship in juggling all of the roles involved in being spouses and parents. Cheers to that!
We headed to Waikiki Beach, the most tourist-filled beach on the island, because it was closest to the airport and I hadn’t a destination in mind when I pulled out of the airport rental car lot. Good news though, the beach had plenty of food and beverage options and cheap enough parking that we didn’t regret this decision at all. We donned our greatest beach apparel and walked in the water, dunked each other in the ocean, and indulged in Long Island Iced Teas and Mai Thais. Ian commented that I looked “so tropical” in my sunglasses and swimsuit, which was obviously quite a stark contrast to the hoodies and sweatpants he was used to seeing me wearing back home in Montana where winter lasts half the year. I can’t even begin to explain how luxurious that warm sunshine felt on my skin.
We checked in to our AirBNB, Studio in Paradise, which was in a perfect location. We had a beautiful view of Waikiki Beach coupled with the seclusion of the mountains of Ko’olau Range, so we felt right at home. The host, Neil, was incredibly friendly and accommodating. Bonus: he’s a professional tour guide on the island and had plenty of insider tips for places to experience. He recommended we see the Hilton’s beach fireworks show from Mount Tantalus, an extinct volcano that provides stellar views of the cityscape and beach below. The free fireworks show happens every Friday night around 7:45 P.M. and is a great way to kick off any weekend on the island. We recommend finding some delicious Korean BBQ afterwards to enjoy on the beach. Or you could watch the fireworks while you eat Korean BBQ on the beach. Either way, you won’t be disappointed or let down!
The island of O’ahu is 597 square miles, which means you can drive the perimeter of the island in just a couple of hours depending on traffic. We got an early start to our day so we could drive around the island and have the freedom to stop and see the sights along the way. We were on the road by 6 A.M. and enjoyed watching the sunrise transform the landscape as we made our way north. We pulled off at Waimea Beach to dip our toes in the sand and watch surfers and paddle boarders make their morning runs. One glance at my husband was all the confirmation I needed to know that he was in his happy place. I have never seen him look so peaceful and relaxed as he grazed the beach and played in the water.
We continued beach hopping around the North Shore all morning, making pitstops at Turtle Beach and Turtle Bay. We meandered around Turtle Bay, which is a hotel resort with public beach access and free parking. Fun fact: the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall (one of our favorite comedies) was filmed at this hotel. The water was warm if you bit the bullet and went under the water really quickly, which I did… Because I knew if I didn’t, Ian had every intention of dunking me under the water against my will. We noticed a rental stand with snorkel gear, but didn’t wanna break the bank for half a day of snorkeling in this one spot. We had a better idea. We hopped back in the car and headed toward town.
We stopped in a grocery store in hopes of finding snorkel gear and we were not disappointed. For $35.00/set, we each got our own flippers and snorkel masks. Then we grabbed a quick lunch and headed towards Electric Beach, best known for its abundant varieties of marine wildlife that visit the area thanks to the warm water being disposed from the nearby power plant. We stopped along the route at Laie Beach Park because the view and the waves were too incredible to pass up. With green rolling hills and mountains in the distance, and coastal cliffs with crashing waves right in front of us, we were beckoned to watch without distraction the miraculous powers of nature. Within a few minutes, the water was beckoning too. I am cautious with ocean waves because I’ve been caught in a tide before. Not fun. Ian, however, knows no fear and he dove (quite literally) into the water and played in the waves. He. Was. Stoked.
We jumped and splashed in the waves for about an hour when Ian mentioned a genius/terrifying idea. “Let’s rent a jet ski!” This exclamation coming from the man who got in a dirt biking accident only six days after bringing our preemie baby home from the hospital after my emergency c-section, so you can imagine all the alarms and whistles going off in my brain when he suggested such an adrenaline-inducing activity. I had never been on a jet ski and was absolutely petrified. But I love that man… so I agreed.
I was anxious and nervous when we pulled up to The Watercraft Connection in Haleiwa, meanwhile Ian couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. We decided to share one jet ski, signed the waivers, zipped up our life jackets, and strapped on our Chacos real tight. The wind was ripping through the staging area, which should’ve been my first clue that the ocean waters would be extremely choppy. We followed our guide to the open ocean, where he pointed out the landmarks that would be our perimeter for exploring before waving us on and letting us loose. Before I could remind Ian to take it slow, we were off. Fast.
I was screaming, I was terrified, and I held on for dear life. I vividly remember hitting a wave just right, at just the right speed, and we went airborne. I’m not talking a little skip over the waves. I’m talking AIR. BORNE. The ski leaned right and I was tossed off that thing like an amateur cowboy riding a bull for the first time. My face smacked the ocean, but not before catching a glimpse of Ian also hitting the water. This lessened the blow of salt water turning my cheek red. When I broke the surface of the water Ian was laughing hysterically, like the adrenaline had turned him into Mr. Hyde. I was hysterical, but to the other extreme. We had to swim hard and fast to get back on the jet ski because the waves were taking it faster than we could swim. “I can swim in the ocean for free, why did we pay for this?!” I jabbed.
As we were hopping back in the saddle and gearing up for another run, the guide rode by to make sure we were okay. “You guys went flying. I mean, literally, flying!” I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed, proud, or both. We zipped around the ocean with little caution, succumbing to the waves by way of flying off the ski and into the ocean three more times. I was beginning to wonder if we would win some sort of prize for the most wipeouts in 45 minutes. All in all, now that I am mostly unscathed and healed from the emotional trauma, I can say that the experience was well worth it. Would I do it again? Absolutely not.
I was beyond thrilled to have survived and be back in the car en route to Electric Beach. Ian talked for most of the drive about how much he enjoyed the jet ski, laced with intermittent apologies for my unfortunate faceplant in the ocean. Pulling up to the beach, we noticed there was plenty of free parking. We approached the cliff’s edge and saw a ton of bobbing people pretty far out in the water. I wondered if a boat had dropped them out that far, but once Ian and I were in the water ourselves, I knew that those people had swam that distance themselves from shore. Getting through the crashing waves was the only challenge because of the narrow beach and plethora of sharp rocks, but after we got a couple good strokes in, we were met with crystal clear and calm water.
We floated on the surface for literal hours, gazing at the wildlife below us in reverent awe. If water-camping without a boat was a thing, we definitely would have participated. I have never seen so many vibrant colors in one place and the water temperature was absolutely perfect. Entire schools of fish glided through the water as the sunlight danced across their slick scales and made their colors pop. From bright pink to neon green, we encountered a rainbow’s worth of colors beneath the surface. I couldn’t tell how deep the ocean was at this point, but I did try (ahem, and fail) to dive to the floor for a closer look. With the water being so clear, you really couldn’t tell how near or far you were from anything under the water. I held out my hand as fish swam around my fingers like they didn’t even notice I was there. Time truly stood still that afternoon. The experience was all-encompassing and one I will never forget.
Feeling sunburnt and starving, we headed for shore. O’ahu has no shortage of delightful eateries and we wanted a place with killer food, boozy drinks, and an awesome view for sunset. Enter stage right, Restaurant 604. Coincidence that its our Montana area code backwards? I think not. The wait for a table was long so we bellied up to the bar while we waited. We scored happy hour Blue Moon for $10/pitcher as we recounted our favorite parts of the day and salivated over the menu options. Guys, this place did not disappoint. Halfway through our pitcher of beer, we were seated at a table overlooking the dock. The sun was just beginning to set, so we felt really lucky to have such a stellar view. A Hawaiian sunset shared over ice cold beers with my husband? Doesn’t get much better than that.
I’m no history buff, but I was definitely excited to see Pearl Harbor in real life. When I was in fourth grade, I had to interview a veteran about their memories and experiences of war, so I called my maternal grandfather. I remember asking him about Pearl Harbor, although that had happened after his years of service, but he was still able to recount the details because he knew people who had been there when the attack happened. Hearing and reading about the attack as a child, then being able to comprehend it as an adult, and now having experienced where it all happened, is more than humbling. It’s powerful.
Rather than taking a tour with an actual guide, we saved some dough and opted for the self-guided tour, Passport to Pearl Harbor. At first glance the price seems steep, but admission to each attraction on Pearl Harbor, audio tours, and shuttle bus transportation are all included in the price. We recommend booking the tour at least 24 hours in advance because they sell out quickly. Case and point: we tried to do this tour on Day Two of our trip, but they were sold out.
The morning of our tour was simply delightful with blue skies and warm island air. We arrived and started a portion of the audio tour before we were shuffled into a movie theatre for a short film about Pearl Harbor and the events that took place on the very ground that we were standing. Then we were guided to a small boat that would take us to a viewing of Battleship Row and the USS Arizona Memorial, which unfortunately was closed for repairs (NOTE: if you are planning a trip here, the repairs are expected to be complete by Fall 2019 – check the NPS website for updates). As we floated by the USS Arizona, I could see parts of the battleship that were standing above the water. I felt goosebumps rising on my skin as I thought about the more than 900 sailors and Marines who remain entombed on the battleship. Then I thought about the survivors of the USS Arizona and the 43 of them who have been interred with the ship. The goosebumps continued to rise. I felt like I was back at the 9/11 Memorial, a place of silent remembrance and overwhelming grief.
After we returned to the docks to continue the tour, I could feel the sadness, humbleness, and gratitude emanating from the other tourists around me. Here we were, people from different places all over the world, some of them Japanese, coming together as one to share in what was once the deadliest attack on U.S. soil. I could feel my heart growing tender when I saw Japanese people immersed in the artifacts, personal accounts, and photographs throughout the exhibits. I wondered what they were thinking and feeling as they perused the grounds of Pearl Harbor, where the United States’ involvement in World War II began and where the war eventually ended.
We continued the tour by boarding the USS Missouri, the last battleship in the U.S. to be commissioned, and the site of the Japanese surrender in World War II. The battleship was a monster, coming in at 887 feet long and weighing almost 41 tons, and much of the ship is open to the public for exploring. We climbed up and down the ladders, sat in the mess halls, and stood with our jaws dropped as we took in the sheer size and magnitude of this battleship. I don’t get super excited about history when I’m reading it from a book, but I love being able to see these tangible parts of our nation’s past firsthand with experiences like this one.
The Pearl Harbor Aviation museum was definitely high on our list of priorities to see since we are both passionate about this industry, but we actually ended up feeling sort of disappointed by it. Our day was already more than half over by the time we arrived there, so I’m going to chalk it up to our emotional and physical fatigue. We skipped the USS Bowfin tour in lieu of seeing the aviation museum, but I wonder if we would’ve enjoyed the submarine tour more than the aviation museum. Oh well!
Since we were starving at this point, we headed down the dock to our favorite local place, Restaurant 604, for a deja-vu meal. You can order anything from the menu and be absolutely delighted by your selection, I promise. We had a couple of drinks, indulged in lunch, and enjoyed the island air swimming around us before the late afternoon sun began to swallow us whole. We headed straight for Hanauma Bay State Park so we could squeeze out every ounce of daylight to explore the reefs just below the surface. Admission is normally $7.50 per person, in addition to a $1.00 parking fee, but the computer systems were down when we arrived and we weren’t charged admission. Woo! Upon entering the park, you are required to watch a short film about how to care for and respect the wildlife in the area. When the movie concluded, we had about two hours of time to explore before the park closed, so we jetted as fast as we could to the beach.
Electric Beach was our absolute favorite place to snorkel, but this came in a close second. We saw a greater variety of fish at this location, but the reefs were so tall that I could barely squeak my body over them without breaking the surface of the water. Still, I recommend this park to anyone visiting the area. Expect large crowds in the peak season, but know that the experience will be worth your efforts. We snorkeled until the lifeguards called everyone back to the beach for closing time.
The sun was setting, so we headed for the coastline to view the sunset from an epic locale. I can tell you, we were not disappointed in the least bit. We parked the car at a scenic pullout adjacent to the highway and studied the waters, becoming pleasantly surprised when we saw whales’ tails break the surface. The crowd gaped at these creatures with wonder. We didn’t stay long before continuing along the coast to see more breathtaking views of the island from Kailua Bay.
We were totally wiped out by the end of the day, but we wanted to make the most of our baby-free vacation. So we showered, got dressed, and took an Uber into downtown Waikiki to try out their bar scene. The first one reminded us of a frat party gone wrong, so we took one shot and headed swiftly for the exit. We happened upon a place called Moose McGillycuddy’s. The place has a restaurant downstairs and a bar upstairs where drinks were cheap and the bartender was outstanding. We got there just as they were closing the restaurant and opening the bar, so we had the entire place to ourselves. As I’m not a big fan of nightlife crowds, I thoroughly enjoyed this place. Plus it had “moose” in the name, so it was a win-win. We walked the streets of Waikiki, passing all of the boujee boutiques full of overpriced socks, stilettos, and scarves, before seeing one of our favorite joints along the strip: The Yard House. This place is especially stellar for Happy Hour with half-price appetizers and almost-cheaper-than-water drinks. We partook in both. I honestly don’t remember getting back to the AirBNB, but I do remember sleeping like a rock. Hallelujah.
Our flight home was in the evening, so we had half a day to burn on the island. We pretty much drove around for photo ops and drove by an area where Jurassic Park was filmed before stopping in Kahuku, best known for its giant marketplace of food trucks. You want Korean food? They’ve got it. Tacos? Vegan? Hawaiian? BBQ? Pizza?! You name it, they have it. If you know me at all then you know I chose pizza. While the pizza food truck itself smelled incredible, it was the name that sealed the deal, Cheesus Crust. In addition to food trucks, I scored souvenirs to the tune of matching Hawaiian outfits for Gavin and I. Score.
We couldn’t fly all the way to the Hawaiian Islands without seeing at least one sea turtle, so we headed to Laniakea Beach to see exactly that. One sea turtle. Juuuust one.
We waited on the beach awhile, hoping for another sea turtle to swim ashore. No luck. So we hopped back in the car to drive a bit further south to watch surfers catching waves. The air was cooler by then and dark clouds loomed ominously in the distance, with winds picking up speed and creating giant swells. I’m no surfer, but those waves were gnarly. Ian wanted so badly to get into the water, but I urged him to hang back with me on shore. I don’t trust an angry ocean. The surfers made gliding across crashing waves with perfect balance seem easy, meanwhile I can barely walk without tripping over my own feet. We were nearing our departure time, so we headed back to Yard House to check flight loads and grab one last drink.
If you prefer to remain blissfully ignorant about our tribulation-filled return trip home, then you can stop reading here (and thank you for reading!). Ohhh youuu guysss. If we had known the crapshoot we were going to encounter at the airport, we would’ve stayed an extra night at our AirBNB. Le sigh. As it turned out, the morning San Francisco flight had a maintenance cancellation. Translation? The 160 passengers who were originally booked on that flight were rebooked to the later flight. The one we were trying to standby on that originally had 40 open seats and was a “sure thing” for getting home. Face palm. We headed for the airport, sorted through and organized our bags, went through security, and anxiously checked all of the other routes to get us home. I knew getting home would be a doozy, but the ever-optimistic side of me held out hope that we would make it on.
That hope didn’t last long. As final boarding announcements were made, I knew we weren’t getting seats. I listed us for the next available flight, due for departure in the next 45 minutes, and we headed for the gate. Pandemonium ensued for us and the other non-revenue standby passengers. The airline had a system glitch that wouldn’t permit passengers to check-in or the agents working the flight to check-in passengers. The problem that posed for us was that we had only listed for the flight, but had yet to check-in. Great. I refreshed my screen every 60 seconds to try checking in, to no avail. Boarding commenced as agents tried to fix the computer system’s errors. Also to no avail. When they started clearing standbys, they apologized to those of us who were unable to check-in and started assigning seats to those standby passengers who were checked-in prior to the glitch. Had the system not glitched, I think we would’ve made that flight despite the standby list of 97 passengers.
Working for an airline and flying for free is absolutely glorious… until stuff like this happens. In my experience, this happens about once per year to non-revenue passengers, where you end up stuck somewhere for more than 12 hours. We ended up sleeping in the airport because the nearest hotels within walking distance or with shuttles were nearly $200.00/night. Nope, I’m not in to that kind of price tag. Ian is definitely the more high-maintenance between the two of us when it comes to traveling (sorry, dear! love you!). I don’t know if he had ever slept in an airport overnight prior to this day, but being a standby passenger, I had done so many times. We shared the airport accommodations with other standby passengers and with passengers who were on a 15-hour maintenance delay from a different flight. Yuck.
The biggest hurdle was pumping and then finding ice to keep my breastmilk chilled, but we learned the airport had a 24-hour Starbucks. Score. I became friends with the baristas since I was coming by every few hours for fresh ice. The staff were all incredibly kind and understanding. At one point I brought back hot coffee and breakfast sandwiches for Ian and I because getting comfortable was nearly impossible so I was wide awake, exhausted, starving, and freezing. Hot food and beverages helped ease my non-revenue-woes.
Okay, listen, I know the title of this post is Three Days on O’ahu, yet here we are embarking on Day Five. The fun stuff took place over two half-days and two full-days, with the ugly aftermath being the full day of traveling home. So hello, Day Five. The hustle and bustle of the airport started to come alive as Ian and I were continuing to feel dead. We barely spoke a single word to each other because we were so sleep-deprived. Our first flight attempt was at 7:00 A.M.
We were pretty far down on the standby list with very few seats available, but we had nothing to lose at this point. I was irritated when I noticed the agent awarded a standby seat to a woman wearing leggings with a t-shirt (which violates our dress code when flying), but this would eventually end up working in our favor. With only one seat remaining on the flight, the two passengers listed ahead of us were traveling together, but didn’t want to split. That meant if Ian and I were willing to split, he could get a seat and I could hang back for the next flight. He wasn’t super thrilled with the idea, but being that he had to be back for work I didn’t let him get in more than a word before pushing him through the jet bridge door to take his seat. Had the agent noticed the dress code violation, two seats would have become available. Which would have meant that the two women ahead of us on the list would’ve taken the two remaining seats and we’d both still be stuck in Honolulu.
The next flight attempt for me was at 11:10 A.M., so I walked through the airport for a couple hours and did some window shopping. I found a stuffed pineapple souvenir for Gavin that was too cute to resist. Pretty sure I love it more than he does, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, the closer the flight’s departure became, the brighter my light of hope that I would actually get a seat. I was watching the numbers like a hawk and feeling confident I would get a seat. And. I. Did. I felt like I had won the Powerball for goodness sake.
I met up with Ian in Los Angeles, where we were hoping to make a connection through Salt Lake and into Kalispell, but the Salt Lake flight went out full. That was our last option that would get us home the same day. Insert tears here. We made the next connection to Salt Lake City, where we stayed the night at a cheap airport hotel. And I mean cheeeeap. Our bathroom didn’t have a mirror and our coffee maker was only half-assembled, but it had a mini-fridge to store my breastmilk, so I suppose it could’ve been way worse.
We listed for the direct flight to Kalispell on Day SIX of our trip (having only spent four actual days on O’ahu), and landed safely just after 1:00 P.M. I have never in my life been so ecstatic to land at my home destination than I was on this day. Ian echoed the same sentiment. We rushed to Ian’s mom’s house to pick up Gavin, anxious to see our little dude. This was the second time he had ever been away from us overnight, and definitely the first time he had ever been away from us for multiple nights. This kid is definitely mine, because he thrived in the change of scenery.
Although our return trip was full of havoc and stress, I have to remind myself that what would have cost us nearly $2,000.00 in roundtrip flights didn’t cost us a dime. Just our sanity. But even with having to pay for a hotel one night and the meals in between our missed flights, we saved money flying as standby employees. Ian continues to talk about Hawaii and how badly he wants to go back, so clearly he hasn’t been too scarred by the experience. Good thing, because I plan on showing him a whole lot more of our beautiful planet.