I am not above being a tourist when conditions call for it. But, if there is any way that I can avoid those conditions, I do it. Which means that I have a well-tuned system of traveling to highly popular destinations during the lowest point of the off-season, during off-hours of the day, and if possible, during bad weather (a typical example: visiting the Vatican Museum in Rome during heavy rain, in the middle of winter).
When the system works, it is great. However, there are some destinations that never really have a significantly better time to visit, and yet are still totally worth seeing in the company of a thousand of your best anonymous friends.
Hanauma Bay on Oahu is one of these destinations. This former volcanic cauldron now partially filled in by the Pacific Ocean is home to a stellar reef full of tropical fish, gorgeous waters, and literally about a million tourists each year.
The parking fills in the early morning hours. By the time we arrived at 7:30am the lot was nearly filled. You are required to watch a 9 minute video about the importance of preserving the bay before being allowed to descend down the walls of the cauldron to the waters via a paved road. You can pay to ride a trolley to the bottom, but the walk is quite short and I cannot imagine it being worth the ride for the vast majority of people (and I was in the third trimester of pregnancy when walking back up and still managed with little difficulty).
The upside to being in a tourist destination is that there are amenities available at the beach, including overpriced drinks and snorkel rentals, as well as free bathrooms and freshwater showers, trashcans, and a nice expanse of green lawn to comfortably lay on and pass time. Like just about everywhere in Hawaii, the bay is eminently kid friendly and the toddler was happy splashing about in the water for hours.
What makes Hanauma Bay worth the hassles are the reef and the life that calls it home. The site itself is wonderfully easy, and both beginners and experienced snorkelers and divers will enjoy the bay. There are essentially no waves, the reef is large, and the animal life is flamboyant and abundant. Much of the rest of Hawaii has strong waves, strong currents, and deep waters, but Hanauma Bay is an exception that provides easy access to the joys of the Hawaiian water world without the difficulties found in many other locations. Yes, the bay is undeniably crowded, but the incomparable joy of the underwater world is enough to offset the touristy atmosphere.
There is just one caveat to bear in mind. For me, the hardest part of visiting Hanauma Bay was seeing hundreds of people standing on the reefs, all at the same time. It was actually so upsetting that I ended up leaving earlier than I would have otherwise. The glorious exhilaration of swimming in a school of hundreds of colorful tropical fish was quickly ruined by the appearance of human legs using the reef as a platform to stand on, or worse, as a surface to kick off while swimming. If this is the kind of thing that would potentially grate at you as well, then my advice is to arrive as close to the 6am opening as possible (or conversely, as close to closing as possible, as crowds thin out at the end of the day).
If you are heading to Hanauma Bay, it is worth taking the opportunity to continue further down the road afterwards. There are several spectacular nearby hikes, including one up the incredible Koko Crater. The drive along the cost is truly scenic, and in a short distance passes by several tourist sites like the Halona Blowhole, and ultimately passes the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse hike, and then leads you to Waimanalo Bay and onward to Kailua. The entire journey makes for an excellent day trip from Honolulu.