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Ko Olina is a high end resort area on Oahu’s west side that’s honestly kind of known for not having too much to do. But in a good way. This is miles and miles away from Waikiki and frankly, more in line with what a lot of people are looking for in a Hawaiian vacation than the hustle and bustle of the city.
But there’s not NOTHING to do. There’s plenty to keep you busy when you want a little break from book.
Things to Do in Ko Olina
This is why everyone comes to Hawaii, right? Crowds (well that’s a relative term compared to Waikiki) are drawn to sleepy Ko Olina because it has some of the island’s best swimmable beaches.
Yes, these are man made beaches, but they don’t feel like little rinky dink sandboxes. The four protected lagoons are wide and spacious and give you all the pros of the beach without any of the cons: soft sand and gentle lapping waves without dangerous swimming conditions and unwelcome critters.
Lagoon number one (closest to the marina) has the most public parking and there’s no resort on it so it may be less crowded, however crowds pick up on the weekends. The family friendly conditions at the lagoons make them popular with locals. FYI no umbrellas or sunshades are allowed on the beaches, but there are usually plenty of shady spots to be found on the lawns that fringe the beaches.
Look for Turtles at Paradise Cove
While the four main lagoons in Ko Olina are manmade and built in a way that protects them from the open ocean, the cove in front of the Paradise Cove Luau (just north of the Four Seasons) is a natural cove/reef/beach and so it’s your best bet to find turtles and do a little snorkeling.
Its westward facing location makes Ko Olina one of the best places on Oahu to watch the sunset. Find a spot on one of the lawns near the lagoons or at one of the oceanfront resort restaurants to see if you can catch the famous green flash.
5 Mile Walking Trail
I love a good walking trail, and the one that winds through Ko Olina is a GREAT spot to get your morning exercise. It’s also the most scenic path to take if you’re walking from one resort to another for dinner.
Ko Olina Star Gazing Experience
I haven’t done this here yet, but I’ve star at other places in Hawaii and it’s always amazing. You can sign up for this tour to do some stargazing near the Four Seasons. If you’re staying at Aulani, they usually have a complimentary star gazing session set up for resort guests (ask about it in the Pau Hana room).
Paradise Cove Luau
Usually rated as the number one luau on Oahu, the Paradise Cove Luau is within easy walking distance if you’re staying in Ko zolina. It’s a great luau for kids, it’s right on the beach, and they put on a great show. Make reservations in advance. Read my full review here. Plus my post breaking down the best (and worst) luaus in Oahu here.
Ka Wa’a Luau
This newer luau at Aulani doesn’t draw the crowds that Paradise Cove Luau does so it feels a bit more intimate. It’s not on the beach, but there are numerous cultural activities to enjoy before the show starts. It’s targeted more towards younger children and families (Moana, Mickey, and Minnie all make short appearances throughout the night), but it’s also the best luau food I’ve ever had and honestly, probably my favorite overall luau experience. Read my full review here.
The course at the Ko Olina Golf Club has been named in the top 75 resort courses in the US by Golf Digest, so if you’re a golfer, you definitely don’t want to miss this one!
The Four Seasons has a phenomenal rooftop tennis facility that’s open to non resort guests. It’s actually the only tennis facility in the area. Book a lesson with a pro, attend a daily clinic, or just reserve a court for a friendly match.
Book a snorkeling trip out of the Ko Olina Marina where you’re almost guaranteed to spot dolphins and even whales in season. In addition to the dolphins, the boat will also make stops at known natural turtle cleaning stations (the algae eating fish clean the turtle’s shells).
Each resort in Ko Olina has rentals for paddle boards, kayaks, snorkel gear, etc. so you can get out and enjoy life on and under the water in the lagoons.
Ride the Sugar Cane Train
The Hawaiian Railway Society Cane Train runs right through Ko’olina, but you’ll have to drive over to Ewa to catch it. The 90-minute ride takes you from Ewa to Kahe Beach Park and back on Saturday and Sunday for $15. You’ll hear stories about the old sugar cane trains and plantations as well as see points of interest along the west side of the island.
Things to Do in Waianae and West Oahu
Located on the west side of Oahu, the Ko Olina Resort is really close to an area of Oahu that most visitors don’t get around to exploring. Read on for some fun things to do in Waianae and West Oahu (just north of Ko Olina). Note: you will need a car to get around the west side.
Snorkeling with Turtles at Makua Beach and Electric Beach
These are two of the best spots for spotting turtles in the wild. Makua Beach is lovely with a beautiful background of lush green mountains.
Electric Beach (officially called Kahe Point) isn’t so lovely above the surface. It’s called Electric Beach because it’s located next to a power plant. But the snorkeling/sea life is phenomenal here. Take your own gear and monitor conditions before you get in the water. If it looks rough, don’t go out.
You’ll come to Electric Beach (Kahe Beach Park) first, just a short ways from Ko Olina. Continuing north from the Mermaid Caves you’ll come to Makua Beach.
These beaches are less frequented by tourists than other beaches. The entire west side is less frequented actually. These are “local” beaches and while it’s perfectly safe and starting to attract more “adventurous tourists,” just be mindful of your surroundings and be extra respectful.
In between Makua Beach and Electric Beach is where you’ll find the famous Mermaid Caves. They’re becoming a popular spot for a lot of adventurers, but I don’t necessarily recommend going down into the cave. If you’re there at low tide on a calm day and there are plenty of other people around, you might be tempted. But it makes me nervous going down into a wet cave (i.e. at high tide it’s underwater). You’ll find it at Nanakuli Beach Park.
You’ll want water shoes as you have to cross lava rock to get to the opening. Once you find the opening, you jump down into the sand below. The trick is getting back out. You have to be able to pull yourself back up through the opening. Like I said, only attempt if the conditions are just right and there are others around that could help out in case of an emergency. It’s quite a site to see though.
Kaena Point Trail
If you’re a real adventurer, keep on going until you come to the end of the road. The Kaena Point Trail is dry, rugged, and pretty isolated. There just aren’t too many people that make it out there. It’s mostly because the road doesn’t connect around the island.
The trail goes about 2.5 miles out and it offers great views of the coast, but it’s very arid so bring plenty of water. The tide pools below may look enticing, but it’s just so isolated that I recommend staying out of the water. If anything should happen, there’s just no one around to help.
Maili Pillbox Hike
There are several other popular pillbox hikes around the island (my favorite is the Lanikai one), but this one on the west side is home to the insta-famous PINK pillbox.
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Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani.
If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center.
If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki.
And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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