Lifestyles in Retirement: Hawaii Vacation

The Mainland weather is getting warmer and most of you seem to be thawing out. I wouldn’t torture you with this post in January, but now that spring has sprung it seems to be a good time to answer the urgent financial independence question that I get several times a month:

“Hey, Nords: what should we see & do in Hawaii next week?”

That’s a tough answer because Hawaii has so many different visitor experiences.  If you were a surfer then you wouldn’t even ask me that question– we’d be deciding whether to meet at White Plains or at Queens. If you enjoy nature then you’d be all over the hiking trails and diving/snorkeling sites. If you’re a hardcore shopper then you’ll be spending more time in the malls & stores than on the beach. A surprising number of servicemembers & veterans want to visit all the military museums and memorials. Some of you want to know where to find the best local food & drink while everyone is seeking cheap hotels with frugal entertainment. A few of you have seen enough of Waikiki and want to visit a neighbor island. Others are contemplating military transfers here, and you’re wondering how to make Hawaii your home. I even know a couple of Reservists who visited for a military exercise and then moved back here for full-time active-duty orders.

If you have no idea what you want to do here, then my default answer is the “101 Things To Do in Hawaii” website. Once you’ve wandered through its lists for a few hours you’ll come back with more questions, and then we’ll know what kind of visitor you are.

But last month I found another way to describe this: my daughter made her last visit to Hawaii for the next few years. (She graduates from college in a couple of weeks and starts paying back her Navy ROTC scholarship by “seeing the world”. But that’s a subject for another post.) She brought several friends with her for the blowout spring break that they’ve planned since 2011. Their interests cover the whole bell curve, and during one week they saw and did most of Oahu’s visitor attractions on a college student’s budget. I’ll share their itinerary and the logistics.

You won’t accomplish much during your first day in the islands. The shortest flight to Hawaii is five hours, and if you fly nonstop from Houston then it’s over eight hours. If there are any delays for repairs or connecting flights then you’re going to lose the rest of the first Hawaii afternoon, and in any case you’ll be too worn out to party. Your best bet is dinner, a walk around Waikiki or the beach, and an early bedtime. Your body is still adjusting to Hawaii time so you’ll be up at the crack of dawn anyway.

A couple of popular Hawaii attractions have limited hours. Hanauma Bay is closed on Tuesdays, and the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is only open on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. (If you’re staying in Waikiki, check your hotel’s reservations desk or see if they have a free “Aloha Oahu” continental breakfast with tour & activity presentations.) Our group’s first full day on Oahu happened to be Sunday, so they planned it around the Swap Meet. After breakfast they went to the USS ARIZONA Memorial (right across the street from Aloha Stadium) and picked up tickets to the (free) shuttle boat. (If you’re setting up your itinerary in advance, you can also reserve tickets from the National Park Service website.) They had their choice of times in the early afternoon, so they spent the next few hours at the Swap Meet stocking up on cheap souvenirs, local snack foods for their dorm, and lunch. They reloaded on sunscreen and spent the afternoon at the Memorial along with the (free) Visitor Center museums and other displays. If they’d wanted to spend 2-3 days on military museums they could have also visited the USS BOWFIN Submarine Museum, the USS MISSOURI Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum— all of them are right next to the Arizona Memorial or close by with free shuttles. Down in Waikiki there’s also the Fort DeRussy U.S. Army of Museum of Hawaii, and a local entrepreneur offers Home Of The Brave military-theme tours all over the island.

The next day was a little busier: Waikiki. Rush-hour traffic was gone by 8:30 AM so they started with the morning hike up the inside of Diamond Head Crater for panoramic views of Oahu– and on a clear day you can see Moloka’i. There are literally dozens of places to lunch around Waikiki, but a local frugal favorite is the Wailana Coffee House and its kitschy 1970s decor. (It’s also open 24/7.) They spent the rest of the day shopping around Waikiki and over at Ala Moana Shopping Center. (They’d already scored cheap souvenirs at the Swap Meet, so this was mostly window shopping.) They stayed in town to avoid the afternoon rush hour, and by 5 PM they were at the Hale Koa Hotel to pick up their luau tickets. The Hale Koa is a military resort requiring a military (or DoD civilian) ID card. The island’s other popular luau are at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Paradise Cove, Germaine’s, or the Hilton Hawaiian Village. (No, it’s not really a state law to enjoy a luau before you can fly home, but it’s worth the price.) Be aware that hula and fire-knife dancing are professional cultural activities in the Pacific Islands, and you’re likely to encounter champions at these events.

Tuesday was an outdoors day: hiking Maunawili Falls and hanging out at Kailua Beach Park. (More sunscreen.) We’d had several inches of rain the day before so the Maunawili Falls trail was a mosh pit and the waterfall pool was icy cold, but everyone had a great time. There had been talk of kayaking around Kailua Bay and visiting the Mokulua Islands, but that turned out to be just talk. They spent the rest of the day watching the windsurfers and standup paddle surfers and walking around downtown Kailua. We barbecued at home that night: teriyaki chicken, ahi filets, mahi mahi, burgers, and all of the trimmings. After all the calories burned that day, there was a pack of starving wolverines swarming through the diningroom & back lanai.

Wednesday was another trip to the east side for Hanauma Bay snorkeling and Makapu’u Point. (Bring extra sunscreen.) A couple of the women needed snorkel masks (Wal-Mart) but they still arrived early enough to find a parking spot. Hanauma Bay is one of the island’s most heavily used nature preserves and has seen extensive human damage over the years, so visitors watch a conservation video at its Marine Education Center before being allowed down the steep slope to the beach. Makapu’u Point went especially well because several whales were still cavorting close to shore. They usually hang out in the islands from November through February but by March they head back north to colder Alaska waters for the food. I’m referring to the whales, not the college students.

On Thursday the women finally got down to business: surfing White Plains Beach at Kalaeloa. I’d stocked up on used longboards from Craigslist so all five were in the water for a mass surfing lesson. Or at least that’s what eventually happened– along the way half of our group diverted to the parking lot of the Waikele Shopping Center to catch an early batch of Leonard’s Malasadas (at the “MalasadaMobile”) for beach snacks. (My daughter loves Houston dining, but she really misses local food.) By the time the malasadas straggled on to White Plains I had the first group in the water learning how to paddle in to the knee-high surf. Waikiki is a great spot to learn surfing, too, and there are plenty of beach concessions with boards and instructors, but White Plains is a quiet local beach with very wide & safe breaks right offshore. It’s much less crowded than Waikiki, too, so it’s an easy day of surfing just a few miles from Kapolei and Disney’s Aulani resort. I thought everyone would run out of steam in a couple of hours and head over to Kapolei Shopping Center for lunch at L&L or Zippy’s, but instead we stayed out all day. (It was my daughter’s last surf session for a while. In a few months she could be literally halfway around the world, so she won’t be surfing a Hawaii beach again until at least 2016.) Everyone straggled home tired, sore, and happy.

A word of advice: when you’re planning your trip, put the surfing early in the schedule. A couple of the women turned out to be surf monsters, and they regretted not having more time for it. If you’re not a surfer (or a competitive swimmer) then you’ll need an extra day between sessions for your muscles to recover.

Five hours in the water left me desperately seeking ibuprofen and a recliner, but these women are college experts. After cleaning up the gear they went down to Waikiki for drinks & sunset at the Halekulani Bar. I knew better than to wait up for their return, and I was down hard by 8:30 PM after this particular day of retirement. “Whaddya DO all day?” indeed.

Friday was their final day so they kept it short & sweet: North Shore and seven miles of surf breaks. They stopped at Dole Plantation on the way up but eventually worked their way through the pineapple fields to Haleiwa. After the mandatory pilgrimage to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice they drove a couple of miles further out to Laniakea Beach to see the honu. The island’s population is slowly recovering so there are usually several near the shore and out at the reefs in the surf. (This time I’m referring to the sea turtles but I guess this would apply to the visitors, too.) After learning to handle White Plains’ two-footers, everyone had a new appreciation for the 20-foot winter surf– by watching it from the beach.

And then it was back home for one last meal. After a few hours of frenzied packing and social media updates, we hauled everyone back down to the airport for the Houston redeye. Mission complete.

During the week they made heavy use of a classic local resource and three newer ones. Their driving navigation was mainly by mobile phone apps, but they also used a hardcopy Franko’s Oahu Guide Map. They’re printed in full color on water-resistant paper and they show what to see & do at a glance. (I’ve kept a copy of the Franko’s Oahu Surfing Map in the car for nearly a decade.) You can get around the islands with typical street maps or a mobile device, but the Franko Maps of Hawaii are one of the cheapest vacation-planning tools you’ll ever find.

The women also downloaded HulaCopter and other last-minute-bargain apps.  Both offer breaking deals and online discounts. HulaCopter is especially good for last-minute visitor attractions like luau tickets or sunset cruises or fishing trips– the vendors want to fill the last few seats and they’ll offer a 75% discount if you can make it in 30 minutes. You download the app, sign up for the alerts that you’re interested in, and see what’s available. You will get great discounts, and the only question is where you want to go.

Happy Hour Pal helps you find the island’s best dining & drinking attractions, along with navigating local events like First Friday or live music. You may think it’s a new way to get hammered cheap drinks in Waikiki, and it does a fine job. However, it also offers plenty of detailed menus and last-minute meal deals. You can check in or share your experience for extra loyalty points and discounts. You’ll be seeing this app at Mainland restaurants & bars in a few months.

Before you visit the islands, make your plans with the help of 3D Hawaii. It’s another vacation-planning tool based on Google Earth and augmented reality. Instead of the typical two-dimensional Google Map, 3D Hawaii has built a realistic model of the islands using imagery from Google and visitor attractions. You can literally fly around a hotel to check out the grounds and the balcony view from your room, or find additional things to see & do in the area. They even label the surf breaks and the streets to help you navigate the unfamiliar territory.

After your first trip to Waikiki, it’s time to plan a neighbor island vacation. Check the links below for a couple of starting points.

Share your Hawaii “after action report” in the comments below, or ask me a question!

Disclosure: I’m a tiny little investor in Franko Maps and 3D Hawaii. They’re great products and a part of my life that I share with all of our guests.


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Related articles:
Lifestyles in early retirement: Hawaii long-term travel
Lifestyles in military retirement: learning to surf in Hawaii
Lifestyles in military retirement: surfing photos
Lifestyles in military retirement: surfing
Lifestyles in military retirement: Living in Hawaii
Good reasons NOT to live in Hawaii
Lifestyles in military retirement: Haleakala Crater
Lifestyles in military retirement: Haleakala Crater redux
Lifestyles in Hawaii: Hawaii Island (the Big Island)
Lifestyles in Hawaii: “Naked on the beach”

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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6 Responses to Lifestyles in Retirement: Hawaii Vacation

  1. Louise says:

    I have heard a lot of good feedback about Hawaii and I have seen photos that created an impression that the place is close to being paradise on earth. One of my future plans is to be able to be with my loved ones and relax in a breathtaking place like Hawaii.

  2. vanguard23 says:

    Looks like everyone had a great time…and you hit pretty much all the major attractions on Oahu in such a short time. I would add, however, the COMPACFLT Admiral’s Boathouse/Barge Tour of the USS Arizona Memorial as an alternative to the regular tour. Could be a “better” experience than the regular tour…something not available to everyone. You need to have DoD “connections” and need to reserve about a month in advance.

    I know you mentioned Kailua Beach Park, but we really like Lanikai Beach just past Kailua Beach. Lanikai Beach is consistently ranked as one of the top ten beaches in the world. Parking is a challenge, however.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Mel, I haven’t been on the CPF Barge in years! Glad to know it’s still available.

      I appreciate the info on Lanikai, too. I haven’t spent much time up there– too many good beaches on the island…

  3. Mike says:

    Nords, congratulations to you and your daughter on her graduation and commissioning! And thanks to both of you for serving! Though, as always, Beat Navy!

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