For many, the first visit to the Hawaiian Islands means a trip to Oahu where famous Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor are located. This island offers more resorts and restaurants at all different price points and because you can walk or take the great open air transit system they have there your vacation will cost less than visiting the other Hawaiian Islands where a rental car will be required to get around.
Sometimes called “The Gathering Place,” Oahu certainly lives up to its name. It is the third largest Hawaiian island and is home to the majority of Hawaii’s diverse population, a fusion of east and western cultures rooted in the values and traditions of the Native Hawaiian people. It’s this fundamental contrast between the ancient and the modern that makes discovering Oahu so enjoyable. Whether you’re hiking atop iconic Leahi (Diamond Head), enjoying some of Hawaii’s best shopping, or simply unwinding on the sands of the island’s beautiful beaches, you’ll find variety at every turn on Oahu.
This small island has 5 distinct regions and each offers you a different aspect of the Hawaiian culture, scenery, weather, activities and cuisine. We have a brief description of each for you below.
Home to the State Capitol, Honolulu is the vibrant epicenter of Hawaii. Here you’ll find everything from historic landmarks and treasured monuments to world-class shopping and a flourishing arts and cultural scene. Home to the majority of Oahu’s population, the sprawling city of Honolulu spreads throughout the southeastern shores of Oahu, from Pearl Harbor to Makapuu Point, encompassing world famous Waikiki Beach.
On the eastern tip of east Honolulu is Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, one of Oahu’s most popular snorkeling destinations. With clear waters rich with ocean life, this is the perfect spot for first time snorkelers. But come early, the parking lot can fill up quickly.
Honolulu has it all. This is the home of some of Hawaii’s most historic places from Iolani Palace, the Kawaiahao Church, the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archive and the treasured artifacts of the Bishop Museum to iconic landmarks like the Aloha Tower, the King Kamehameha I Statue, the Duke Kahanamoku Statue. Honolulu is also Hawaii’s hot spot for arts, culture and entertainment. There are countless nightspots offering live music, fine dining in Waikiki and the art galleries and underground bars of the Chinatown arts district. Whether you’re looking for Hawaii’s finest museums, or Hawaii’s finest Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs, the best resorts, festivals, and events, or just some fun things to do, you’ll find it all in Honolulu.
Located on the legendary North Shore, Waimea Bay became an influential surf spot during the dawn of big wave surfing in the 1950’s. Adventurous surfers began to challenge the powerful winter waves of Waimea (as well as Makaha Beach on the west side) giving birth to the big wave-riding phenomenon.
Big wave season runs from November through February attracting the best men and women surfers in the world. Waimea Bay, along with other famous spots including Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline), Sunset Beach and Haleiwa Beach host world-renowned surf competitions. The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, known as the Super Bowl of Surfing, happens every year between November and December on Oahu.
At the foot of the 4000 foot Waianae mountain range and less than 30 miles from Waikiki lies the Leeward Coast. Dryer than the lush Windward Coast, this local area is home to rural towns, off-the-beaten-path beaches and one luxurious resort area.
Most visitors to the Leeward Coast will be coming to visit the beautiful Ko Olina resort area. Home to the Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, this 43-acre marina offers stretches of beautiful shoreline, ample opportunities for water sports and championship golf. Other attractions in the area include the Paradise Cove Luau and the Wet n’ Wild Hawaii water park. Local beaches include Makaha Beach, one of the first spots where surfers began big wave surfing, and Yokohama Bay. At the end of the road you can take a hike to Oahu’s western most point at sacred Kaena Point
Take a short drive from Waikiki and Honolulu over the mountainous Pali Highway to the lush country landscape and white sand beaches of Oahu’s Windward Coast. On the way, be sure to stop at the historic Nu’uanu Pali Lookout for a breathtaking preview of the beauty yet to come. As you exit the tunnels on the other side of the Koolau Mountain Range, it feels as if you’re leaving one world and entering another. A turquoise ocean shimmers in the distance calling you to Kailua, a thriving beach town where you’ll find a host of eats, trendy local shops and a crescent beach that looks like it belongs in a magazine.
From Kailua town, you can head in two directions. Go clockwise around the island to Sea Life Park, Makapuu Lighthouse, Hanauma Nature Preserve and eventually Diamond Head and Waikiki. Or you might want to spend a day exploring the Windward Coast in a counter clockwise direction as it winds lazily around the island toward the North Shore, offering interesting stops along the way. The serene Valley of the Temples is home to an breathtaking Japanese Buddhist temple, while the café at nearby Heeia Kea Pier is known for a farm to table menu that’s literally “fresh off the boat.”
Driving along the two-lane highway you can’t miss Mokolii, fondly known as “Chinaman’s Hat.” Stop at the park and stretch your legs or have a picnic. Just across the highway you’ll find one of Hawaii’s most seen but least recognized locations: Kualoa Ranch. A generations-old family-owned ranch, its scenic valley has provided the backdrop for countless movies and TV shows, including LOST and Hawaii Five-0. Fortunately, it’s not just for the stars. Visitors and locals alike enjoy horseback riding, ATV tours and host of other activities.
From here, Kamehameha Highway meanders past Kaaawa (“Ka-ah-ah-vah”) gentle Kahana Bay, Laie with the Polynesian Cultural Center, the old plantation town of Kahuku and around the northernmost tip of the island to Oahu’s North Shore, home of the best surf spots in Hawaii—and some say—the world.
The fertile central valley between the Waianae Mountains and Koolau range offers a peek into Oahu’s history. On your way from Honolulu to the North Shore, you’ll pass residential areas as well the Leilehua Plateau in Wahiawa, where you can see sprawling fields that are reminders of Oahu’s sugar cane and pineapple plantation past.
Attractions in Central Oahu include the Dole Plantation, famous for its Guinness Book of World Records worthy shrub maze, the Hawaii Plantation Village, where you can learn about Oahu’s plantation past, and Aloha Stadium, site of University of Hawaii football games and annual site of the NFL Pro Bowl.
But the most important landmark in Central Oahu sits to the south in historic Pearl Harbor, the largest natural harbor in Hawaii. This active naval base is home to 5 Pearl Harbor Historic Sites: The Pacific Historic Parks, the USS Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the Pacific Aviation Museum and the USS Oklahoma Memorial. These special monuments commemorate the historic events that changed world history during World War II.
Looking for something off the beaten path to do while in Oahu? Then some of the ideas below might fill the bill. Located on Oahu’s North Shore, Kahuku’s shrimp trucks don’t look like much. But watching the blissful customers walk away from these humble road-side restaurants with heaping plates of fresh, garlic shrimp scampi and your mouth can’t help but water. The locally raised, jumbo prawns sold at about a half dozen shrimp trucks in Kahuku are just one example of the hidden gems Oahu has to offer beyond the bright lights of Waikiki.
Or you can travel to the eastern tip of Oahu and hike the Makapuu Lighthouse trail for breathtaking ocean views. You will eat like a local in small neighborhoods like Kapahulu or have a picnic at Oahu beaches beyond Waikiki like Kailua Beach. Discover local artists at the First Friday celebration in Downtown Honolulu Chinatown. Or transport yourself to another world at beautiful spots like the Valley of the Temples. With a little exploration, you’ll discover Waikiki is just the beginning of your travels on Oahu.
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