Terry Hueneke, 68, and his partner, Michael Ross, 47, were awakened around 3:15 a.m. local time by a relative on the mainland who was calling to alert them that Hawaii was under a tsunami warning.
The pair, who live on 30th Street in Manhattan and are spending a month in Hawaii, turned on the television and monitored local broadcasts.
As Coast Guard helicopters buzzed overhead with spotlights, warning people away from beaches, authorities swept the streets cautioning everyone to get above the third floor. Six-foot tsunami waves were expected there.
Hueneke said he and Ross, who are staying on the eighth floor of a resort in Oahu, weren't frightened.
"We didn't feel we were in harm's way," he said.
They moved their rental car to higher ground, filled up bottles and pots with water in case the drinking supply was contaminated, and charged up their electronics.
"And then we waited," Hueneke said.
The surge, when it did arrive, was not as large as predicted, he said.
Hueneke said the couple was not bothered by the brief episode in their vacation, which ends next week.
"The most pressing feeling is more emotional as it relates to Japan and the fact that there are so many Japanese here on vacation, worried about their families," he said. "What we experienced is nothing compared to that."
Authorities sounded the all-clear by 8 a.m. local time, and the tsunami warning was downgraded to an advisory. People were still being advised to stay out of the water.
Hueneke and his partner planned to spend the day on a hike up Diamond Head -- on high ground.