Our first full day in Hawaii was PACKED with activities, so it’s good that we slept really well in our pillow fort in Aulani’s high, high bed. Well, except for the time I bolted outta bed with a leg cramp. And when I jolted awake at 4:30am thinking it was time to get up. And when I jolted awake again 15 minutes before the alarm was set to go off. Other than that, I slept GREAT!
Being on LA time for most of the trip turned out to be a huge advantage. We found that most of the historic sites, museums, etc. closed around 5pm, so the earlier you could start your day, the better. We also got to experience several beautiful sunrises (but not at Aulani—more on that later), not to mention the smug sense of superiority early risers feel just by being awake before the rest of the world.
Patrick grabbed these as we left Aulani that morning…
As we walked toward the parking garage, we saw these two critters dash into the bushes and couldn’t figure out what they were. They looked like oversized squirrels with tails that pointed down instead of up. Turns out they’re MONGEESE! And apparently they’re about as common as raccoons and possums are where we live! So awesome….
Planning the Itinerary
Like most people, when I approach the planning of a trip, I start with a list of all the things we want to see and do and try to distribute them over the course of the vacation. But on Oahu, it was like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, where lining up one activity on one day would push another activity off the schedule. It seemed like half of the sights were closed on Sunday and the other half were closed on Tuesday—not great when you’re only there from a Saturday to a Wednesday and Monday is completely given over to your vow renewal.
For example, the Polynesian Cultural Center, ‘Iolani Palace and Shangri-La were closed on Sundays. Hanauma Bay and Shangri-La were closed on Tuesdays. The USS Arizona Memorial and Hanauma Bay had to be done first thing in the morning to avoid crowds. But we couldn’t go to the memorial on Sunday because we had a site walkthrough with our planner. And we couldn’t go to the Hanauma Bay on Wednesday because it was 10 days after the full moon, which meant an influx of stinging jellyfish!
Somehow, in the end, the only thing I wasn’t able to work in was a stop at the Bishop Museum to see the limited engagement of an exhibit on Alfred Shaheen and his fabulous Hawaiian-print shirts and dresses of the ‘40s through the ‘80s.
I should probably break this to you now so you aren’t disappointed later: We did not attend a luau in Hawaii—sacrilege, I know. We did attend Disney’s sort-of luau, the Starlit Hui, and I’ll have more on that later. But the more research I did on Oahu’s luaus, the less I wanted to attend one.
For one thing, there are only about two on the whole island that take place on the beach like you’d think a luau would. The rest are held in amphitheaters, in hotel ballrooms, on parking garage roofs, etc. For another thing, they are almost all HUGE—like, “750 people bussed in from all corners of the island” huge. The one that was recommended as being the most intimate holds 250 people! They are multi-hour productions that involve waiting in line to check in, waiting in line for your overpriced souvenir photo, waiting in line for the buffet, waiting in line for pre-show activities, and then watching the show from the nosebleed section because you couldn’t afford to pay $150/person for the good seats.
Here’s a little info on the three I was most seriously considering, in case you’re interested.
HA: Breath of Life: This is the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center, and apparently it’s quite good. You can tack it onto your admission to the PCC, and since it’s pretty much on the opposite side of the island from Aulani, you’ll probably want to spend the whole day out there anyway. Like the other big luaus, it has tiered pricing based on how good your seats are. $70/person gets you admission to the PCC and cheap seats (admission to the PCC without the luau is $50). It’s $95 for closer seating and $127 for the closest seats. Because the PCC is run by the Mormon Church, no alcohol is served at the luau, which means that it gets bad reviews from all the barely literate twentysomethings who post on Yelp.
Paradise Cove Luau: This is one of the few luaus that’s actually on a beach, and it’s the one that all the barely literate twentysomethings on Yelp go to for the booze. It also processes 750 guests per night, shuttling them in from Waikiki hotels on motorcoaches. Prices are $88/person for the cheap seats, $119 for better seats and $153 for the best seats and table service instead of having to stand in the huge buffet line. I got exhausted just reading people’s reviews of this show (even the good ones). But it’s within walking distance of Aulani, so you might want to check it out.
Fia Fia Luau: This is the one we would have gone to, because it’s the smallest and gets great reviews. It’s also close to Aulani, down at Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club at the other end of the four man-made coves of Ko Olina. It’s only held on Tuesdays, so they encourage you to book ahead of time, especially if you want seats toward the front (all seats cost $90).
In general, I’m just not that into stage shows of any variety, and paying for a mediocre dinner when we could be trying one of the island’s top-notch restaurants seemed like a big waste. As it turned out, that night we had an AMAZING meal—probably one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere—at Alan Wong’s restaurant in Honolulu for about what we would have paid for one person’s deluxe admission to Paradise Cove, and that made me very happy.
But let’s start at the beginning…. Pearl Harbor, here we come!
We made good time at that hour—I think it took us about half an hour to get there from Aulani.
The main draw and Oahu’s biggest tourist attraction is the USS Arizona Memorial, which floats over the battleship’s remains. You can also walk over to the USS Bowfin Submarine and tour it, or take a shuttle to the Battleship Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Each has separate admission (the USS Arizona is free, but its audio tours cost $7.50), or you can buy one ticket that gets you into multiple sites.
We decided we’d see the place where WWII started for the U.S. (the Arizona) and the place where it ended (the Missouri, on whose decks the peace treaty with Japan was signed).
Everything I’d read told me over and over to get to the USS Arizona EARLY, because tour times sell out or you get a ticket but you have to wait 2 hours before you can use it. They also told me to make my reservation online instead of waiting til I got there (for a $1.50/ticket fee). So I reserved our tickets online AND we got up super early to be at Pearl Harbor in time for the first tour, at 8am. However, now I’m pretty sure that by getting our tour ticket online, we could have just showed up at whatever time was on our tickets and not had to wait.
If you do get tickets for the 8am tour and also purchase the (excellent) audio tour, I recommend getting there at 7am so you have time to listen to the portions of the audio tour that apply to the visitor’s center area and view the exhibits there before starting the guided tour. Plus, you’ll need time to check any bags—no purses, hip packs, backpacks, camera bags etc. are allowed inside the memorial, which is kind of a drag. You have to check everything at this portable outside the main entrance.
We arrived about 20 minutes before our tour, so we only had time to listen to the introduction before we dashed off to join the line for our 8am tour. The way it works is, your group is ushered inside a theater to watch the introductory film, then escorted to the dock to catch the water launch out to the memorial. Here’s the part I didn’t understand that really disappointed me: They say that transport to and from the memorial occurs every 15 minutes, but what they don’t make clear is you only get to STAY 15 minutes out at the memorial—you can’t stay longer and wait for the next boat. And unfortunately, the way they’ve done the audio tour, 15 minutes is not enough time to hear all 3 segments and listen to whatever the live tour guide is telling the rest of the group before you leave. I felt really rushed, and we ended up having to play catch-up once we got back to shore. But let me back up a bit…
I’m not sure what I expected, but the film they show you first is fantastic. For one thing it contains actual footage of the attack, including the explosion that sank the USS Arizona. The film does an excellent job of explaining the historical context of the attack on Pearl Harbor while humanizing everyone involved so that you feel the loss acutely—these are not just numbers of dead and wounded or even names on a wall. They were real people. I was already sobbing by the end of the film, and that was just the beginning.
Next, the group is escorted aboard a U.S. Navy water launch for transport to the Memorial.
Out in the water are markers that show the positions of all the battleships in the harbor on Dec. 6, 1941. Amazingly, only three of the ships were permanently lost—the Arizona, the Oklahoma and the target-practice ship Utah. Four others that sank were later returned to active duty.
The memorial structure floats over the sunken Arizona. Much of the battleship was salvaged to use for repairing the other ships, but you can still see a few parts above the surface.
Initially, crews began retrieving the bodies of the men killed when the ship exploded and sank, but eventually they came to feel that it was more appropriate to leave the dead interred with their shipmates, the Arizona serving as their tomb. The Navy offers a service whereby any surviving member of the crew may choose to be interred in the ship at his passing, and families can have crew members who were buried elsewhere reinterred in the Arizona. All their names are listed on the memorial.
On the way back to shore, if you sit in the back of the water launch, you can get some great shots of the memorial.
The tour ends when you reach the shore, but we took a few moments to sit on a bench and absorb this moving experience. We finished listening to the parts of the audio tour we’d run out of time for and took some photos before heading off to the USS Missouri.
From the Visitor’s Center you can catch a motorcoach over to the “Mighty Mo” and the Pacific Aviation Museum. It stops at the museum first and the trip takes at least 10 minutes, which is when I started to be aware that I had not really left enough time for everything we wanted to see and do.
The problem was that Doris Duke’s Shangri-La only offered one tour that day (usually there are three) and it met at 11:45am. That meant we had less than 3 hours at Pearl Harbor if we wanted to have time for lunch, and most of that was taken up by the USS Arizona tour. If I were doing it over I’d have budgeted at least 5 hours, and if you wanted to also see the submarine and the Pacific Aviation Museum, I’d say to budget a whole day.
The USS Missouri is fascinating not only as the site of the signing of the peace treaty with Japan, but also because it was in service until fairly recently. The Navy retrofitted the ship in the ‘80s and it took part in the Gulf War. It has been a museum ship since 1998. It’s also cool because you get to explore virtually every nook and cranny on your own. I wish we’d had more time!
The $22/adult admission price includes your choice of tour. We took the basic Mighty Mo Tour, which lasts 35 minutes and departs about every 10 minutes. However, because we only had about an hour to spend, we were kinda antsy just standing around listening to facts and figures, so we bugged out early to do a running tour of the lower decks before we had to leave.
Our tour started directly beneath three of the nine 16-inch guns, which could fire 2,700 lb armor-piercing shells 20 miles!
Unfortunately we ran out of time for Patrick to run up to the top and take a bazillion photos of the view. Sorry about that!
We had to wait for the shuttle to come get us, wait for it to stop again at the Pacific Aviation museum, and then go get my bag out of hock at the bag check. Lunch was supposed to be at Nico’s, a place in Honolulu that I’d researched on Chowhound. Instead we wolfed down a couple of sandwiches Patrick grabbed at the Visitor’s Center snack counter as we raced across town to the Honolulu Art Museum. Well, we didn’t really race cuz there was too much traffic—on a Saturday!