With all of the extra precautions the state of Hawaii has made to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the 50th state is likely one of the safest places to travel to during the pandemic. My in-laws, who live in Anchorage and are in their 80s, are wintering in west Oahu, so my husband and I decided to check in on them for 10 days in February. It was an incredible week of sun, relaxation and fun, and a much-needed break from the snow in Alaska. Everyone has their own tolerance for travel (or not traveling) during the pandemic, but I felt that if we had to go somewhere, the protocols made Hawaii a good bet.
Prior to Departure
It is some work and expense to get ready to go to Hawaii. Alaska Airlines requires that all travelers to Hawaii have a negative test within 72 hours of departure or you have to quarantine for 10 days. You are required to set up the State of Hawaii’s Safe Travels profile with trip details and must complete a health questionnaire within 24 hours of your departure.
Negative test results from a trusted testing partner are then uploaded as a PDF into your Safe Travels profile. When you do all of this, Alaska Air will double-check you at the airport and give you a Pre-Clear wristband that waives the requirement for further screening when you arrive in Hawaii. If for some reason you don’t have the negative test results yet, or fail to get tested, you are required to self-quarantine for 10 days, and vacation rentals are not permitted as a quarantine location. Hawaii will follow up with you daily either by phone or a personal visit, to make sure you are in quarantine.
We tested at Capstone Clinic’s drive-through location at 301 Calista Court in south Anchorage (make sure you get tested at an approved testing partner like Capstone) and had to pay $95 per test (some insurance companies will reimburse this expense, but most won’t). We got our results back in less than 24 hours. Capstone also has testing sites in Kenai, Wasilla, Palmer, Fairbanks and Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.
Arrival to Oahu
There is no doubt that Hawaii is taking the pandemic seriously. Most restaurants are closed but have take-out and/or delivery available. The couple of restaurants that we dined at had outdoor seating, checked your temperature upon arrival, and had you fill out a card with your contact information for contact tracing. We never saw anyone in a shop or grocery store who was not wearing a mask.
We stayed at a condo, and they limited the number of tables and chairs around the pool to ensure social distancing. A couple of friends who have traveled to resorts on Oahu and Maui shared that they even had to wear a mask at the pool unless they were swimming, but that was not the case at our private accommodations. Many hotels are closed, and it was apparent that the availability of fishing, whale watching, and snorkeling boats that typically run out of Waikiki was limited. We did walk the Waikiki Beach and saw lots of people not wearing masks and sitting close on the beach. We just chose to keep our masks on and to keep walking!
My advice for anyone heading to Oahu while pandemic restrictions are still in place is to plan on self-entertaining. That means, find a hike or bring/rent your own snorkel gear and explore different beaches. Don’t expect to be able to go on a sunset cruise or whale watching boat, as they’re hard to find and most were booked way in advance. The zoo in Waikiki is open. So was the Visitor Center at Diamond Head Crater. We also drove to Waimea Falls one day, and the falls, botanical gardens, and café were open. Check before you go, as almost every attraction has limited days and hours during the pandemic.
We brought a cooler with pre-prepared dinners from Alaska Dinner Factory and either barbecued by the pool or put our meal in the oven at the condo. Food is really expensive in Oahu and while I don’t mind cooking, I hate to have to make decisions while I’m trying to relax on vacation. We shopped for fruit and salads, and made sure to stock up on Mai Tai mix. We only ate out one night, at the Beach House by 604 in Waianae, which was near where we stayed on the west shore and offered outdoor seating. Two of us had Mahi Mahi, another had Ahi Tuna and my husband had a steak and all of our meals were fantastic.
Experience the Locals: Some of the best parts of our trip were quite unexpected. Every morning and every night, we sat on the deck and watched whales spouting in the distance. I always think of Maui as being the place to go see Humpback whales, but I have never seen as many whales as we did in February on the west shore. The park right next to our condo was filled with local Hawaiians on the weekends and holidays. They bring bouncy houses and tents and really make a day of it. We got to witness several weddings and watched the bride and groom get photos taken in the surf!
Ka’ena Point: Many people don’t know it, but there was a 70-mile railway built in 1899 that transported sugar cane from Honolulu to Kahuku along the western shore of Oahu. Most of the tracks were destroyed by a tsunami in 1946. For many years, you also could drive out to Ka’ena Point. My husband remembers his family driving the then treacherous road in 1967, when he was just six-years-old. Today, the road is impassable due to parts falling into the ocean, and you can only access Ka’ena Point State Park (the westernmost tip of land on Oahu) by parking at the end of the Farrington Highway on the west side, or from the North Shore/Mokule’ia. We tackled the hike from the west side, It was a 3.5 mile (each way) hiking/biking path of dirt and stones following the old railroad bed.
The coastal scenery was fantastic. At Mile 2 there is a blowhole. Right as you get to Kaena Point, there is a predator proof fence that was built in 2011 to keep predators such as mongoose, dogs, and cats out. The area has since become a popular nesting area for Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Laysan Albatross. We saw several nesting sites, just off the hiking path. Who knew Albatross was so huge? They are as big as bald eagles! We also were lucky enough to see two Hawaiian Monk Seals pulled out in a water pool on Kaena Point. Seeing a Monk Seal is rare! The entire point is covered with broken and bleached coral, which makes for tricky walking, but is incredibly beautiful. Everywhere we looked from the point, there were whales spouting and flipping their tails as they sounded. It was a hot and challenging hike, but one of the best days my husband and I experienced on this trip. Wear a hat, bring lots of water and make a day of this incredible hike.
Diamond Head: The hike up to the top of Diamond Head Crater is a must for anyone visiting Oahu. You have to drive through a short tunnel to get to the visitor’s center and then pay $5 for parking. The moderate hike is 1.6 miles round-trip and takes about two hours. It’s a lot easier to go down than up! Masks are required along the trail. Diamond Head was named by 19th-century British sailors, who thought they had discovered diamonds on the crater, but they were actually shiny calcite crystals. Diamond Head volcano has been dormant for 150,000 years and geologists believe it will never erupt again. The view from the 761-foot elevation at the top of Diamond Head is worth the hike.
Waimea Falls is 45 feet high, with a pool that is about 30 feet deep. The falls is part of the Kamananui Stream, a tributary of the Waimea River that begins in the Ko’oloa range, one of Oahu’s wetter locations. The short walk to Waimea Falls on a paved path includes a 150-acre botanical collection with more than 5,000 kinds of tropical plants including native and endangered Hawaiian plants. Waimea Valley, “The Valley of the Priests” is considered a sacred place. Admission into the park is $20 for adults and $12 for children and includes the chance to swim at the base of Waimea Falls.
Snorkeling: Our favorite spot on the west shore to snorkel was Pokai Bay Beach Park, near where we stayed in Waianae. Pokai Bay is sheltered yet, offers the chance to see several types of fish and sea turtles. This is also a great place for beginning surfers or for paddleboarders. All of the parks we stopped at had restroom facilities and outdoor faucets to rinse off the sand. It’s obvious that Oahu has a sizeable homeless issue, and many people were camping and hanging out in the parks, but they kept to themselves.
We were able to secure a spot on a boat with Diamond Head Cruises to go snorkeling. We met the boat at Ala Moana Park and it was limited to just six passengers (COVID-19 masks required). They paired us with a lovely family from Virginia. The boat only traveled a few miles away to a mooring off of Waikiki Beach, but there were tons of fish to see and dozens of sea turtles to swim with. We got to spend nearly two hours in the water, and the $79/person fee included snorkel gear and fins, as well as cookies and fruit on the way out and a sandwich and water on the way back.
Our guide, Ally, stayed in the water with us the whole time and was great at pointing out when a turtle was coming up to the surface. We also were able to catch the Saturday morning farmer’s market that is across the street from Ala Moana Harbor. It was well worth the trip for local fruits and vegetables as well as everything from crepes and breads to local honey, lotions, and jewelry.
If you are hankering to go somewhere, Hawaii is a good bet. Book the direct flight from Anchorage if you can, so you are spending minimal time in airports. Be ready to follow COVID-19 protocols and self entertain and you will be so glad you went.