What to do in Hawaii: Visiting Oahu in a Day

Despite being the most isolated islands in the world I recently discovered that the Hawaiian archipelago has an overwhelming amount of places and outdoor activities to enjoy, keeping you busy for days on end. Even Oahu, which is the most urbanized of them all (which is still not much) is full of opportunities that allow interaction between people and nature. But with all these things to do what should you visit if you’re only going to be in the island for a day or two? What is the best (and cheapest) way to get from one place to the next?
waimea bay beach

Most visitors usually spend most of the time in Waikiki and maybe rent a car to visit Diamond Head and snorkel in Hanauma Bay. While these being two of the highlights in Oahu, I frankly believe you will miss way too much if this is what you do, even if you’re only in Oahu for a day. In fact if this is what you’re here for don’t waste your money renting a car: the public bus system is rather efficient and Hanauma Bay is only 25 minutes away from downtown Waikiki. However, if you prefer to see much more and have little time your best bet is to join one of the Grand Circle Island tours available, which will show most of what there is to see in a single day.

turtle in sharks cove

During our stay in Oahu we were invited by Polynesian Adventure Tours to join their Grand Circle Island tour, an opportunity I was not going to miss depite I not being a big fan of these kinds of tours. In fact I usually despise them. But I had checked reviews on Trip Advisor and every single one praised the tour and perhaps most importantly, the drivers/guides. We had already been in the island for a few days and had seen some of the places the tour would stop at, but maybe we’d learn more about them and discover that others we were going to miss have more to offer than expected?

Oahu Grand Circle Island Tour

The tour begins at about 8 am, the bus picking you up from wherever you’re staying at then head east towards Diamond Head (without stopping: the walk to the top and back will take over an hour and is close enough to Waikiki to be done independently). No sooner are you on the way that the amusing driver (“cousin” Coco was ours) begins to explaig things that you would certainly not learn any other way. The first stop is at Hanauma Bay, where you have 15 minutes to get off the bus and take a few pictures before hopping back on and making it to the next stop, a blowwhole set in a beautiful location. Right besides it is Sandy Beach, a famouse beach among bodyboarders because of the powerful waves that break right on the shore (caution if you decide to swim here on your own later on- necks do snap quite often).

The bus then continues heading north and going inland towards Nu’uanu Pali  lookout, up in the mountains. We had not been here and found out that it can be quite chilly up here- be warned! The views are impressive as are the mountains, steep and high, cut by the constant trade winds that hit the island.

nuuanu pali lookout

The next stop is Byodo-In temple, a replica of a 900 year old temple in Kyoto (Japan) built to commemorate the 100 anniversary of the first Japanese settlers. This was one of the most interesting new places we visited in the tour. Set in a beautiful location and surrounded by ponds it immediately reminded me of my visit to Japan, bringing back fond memories and reminding me how traditional Japanese culture can bring me (and maybe you) to a state of harmony and peace in the blink of an eye.

byodo in temple

Lunch break comes shortly after, at Kualoa ranch. You can choose from a simple but assorted buffet (13 USD p/p with discount given by the tour)or eat at will. Right after you are taken on a train-car to a lookout where you can enjoy some views of the bay. Kualoa ranch is, by the way, an area that deserves some time in its own if possible: it is here that movies and TV shows like LOST or Jurassic Park were filmed because of the dramatic landscapes and lush vegetation. A shout to Dave from the Philippines/ USA  and his sister who we met there and were celebrating his birthday…aloha!

Coming from the mountains you are then taken to the North Shore and have a brief stop at Sunset Beach where you can take some pictures. The bus does not stop at Turtle Bay before it or Waimea Bay after, yet these are beaches I highly recommend you visit on your own too, as well as Shark’s Cove (despite the name there are no sharks but there is great snorkeling!).

kualoa ranch view

Before heading back to Waikiki there is a final stop at Dole pineapple plantation. Pineapples used to be Hawaii’s main export, and Dole plantation was the largest in the islands. The company now grows them elsewhere in the world, but the history explained by the driver and the slicing techniques explained on location might deserve a stops as there is no entrance fee.

dole plantation

From here there is a 30+ minute drive to Waikiki (depending on traffic) and the tour comes to an end. I was admired by the wealth of information and entertainment provided by cousin Coco (our driver) and he certainly deserved the tips given by every passenger as we were being dropped near our hotels. In fact I have to say I have never encountered a guide during all my years of traveling that was able and knowledgeable enough to be able to share information for a good part of a 15 hour tour without boring passengers or sounding tired.


At 68 usd/ passenger the 12 hour tour takes you to most of the interesting spots to be visited in Oahu. It is a great way of getting an overview of what there is to see and then head back independently -Hanauma Bay, Turtle Bay, Waimea Bay to name a few – and a comfortable trip for the elderly. It can be a bit expensive if traveling with several children, but there are occasional promotions that can save a good chunk of money. We did get to see places that we had not visited on our own and probably would not have seen otherwise, and this was refreshing. Lastly I do want to mention that, for once, Trip Advisor was right: the tour is very good and the drivers/ guides are among the best I have encountered anywhere- and this comes from somebody who doesn’t like guided tours.

Remember to click on photos to view in best quality!

Do you generally join day tours when traveling? After reading this overview, would you join one of these? What highlights in Oahu would you recommend travelers do not miss?  Please share your thoughts below, and this post too if you think others might find it useful!

We were invited by Polynesian Adventures to participate in this tour at no cost, but this has not affected the opinions mentioned here in any way. If on a short time or want to visit the island comfortably this Oahu tour is a great way of seeing most of it, but if you’re going to spend a couple of weeks or more you can dedicate more time to each place on your own (it will get more expensive though).

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