Our Ultimate Guide to Oahu: The Gathering Place
When we booked our first trip to Hawaii, my plan was to avoid Oahu as much as possible.
My expectations of Oahu were very low. I always pictured it as Hawaii’s tourist-hub, over commercialised, full of high rise condos and tacky tourists attractions; and to be honest, this was also our opinion of Hawaii in general, and it stopped us from heading there for ages.
But the reality is very different. Yes, Oahu is the most populated Hawaiian Island. Yes, its capital Honolulu is just another big city. And yes, Waikiki Beach is so packed with people, that if you can find a spot to lay your towel down, you’re one of the lucky ones!
But if you think Oahu is just about Waikiki, then think again! Oahu has so much more to offer. Head out of that big city and you’ll find yourself surrounded by breathtaking scenery, waterfalls, world-class surf beaches, and friendly locals. You can totally avoid Waikiki if you want to! But you probably wouldn’t right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit one of the world’s most famous beaches?
Here are your must-do activities, while you’re on Oahu:
Drive around the Island
The first thing you need to do is rent a car and drive right around the island. The island itself is not huge, but because there are so many beautiful places to stop along the way, you’ll want to set aside a full day for it. On this drive, the island’s incredible scenery will be the main attraction!
You can drive around the perimeter of most of the island, before cutting through the middle. As you drive around the island you’ll be treated to stunning coastal and mountain views. You’ll also pass by plenty of pineapple plantations. Make sure you stop at the Dole Plantation for a refreshing Dole Whip!
Be sure to spend a few hours on the north shore, and don’t forget to stop at the quaint historic town of Haleiwa.
Pay your respects at the Pearl Harbor Memorial
Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial are the top tourist destinations in Oahu. They attract over 1,500,000 visitors every year. You can visit the harbor area and war museum first, before taking a short boat ride over to the Arizona Memorial. A visit to the Memorial is a sobering experience. After suffering a direct hit during the attack, the Arizona sank and is now the final resting place for 1,102 sailors.
The museum is a great resource for learning everything about the attack. Pearl Harbor should be on every Oahu itinerary.
Hike Diamond Head Crater
Head to the Diamond Head State Monument, and hike to the top of the iconic Diamond Head. The hike to the top is only 0.8 miles and offers the best panoramic views over Honolulu and Waikiki. Just make sure you get up early to avoid both the crowds and the heat. We didn’t find the hike overly difficult; there are a few steps but people from all ages were doing it.
Click here to read our detailed post about this hike.
Hike Koko Head Crater
This hike’s a tough one. If you struggled with Diamond Head then you might want to give this one a miss! The Koko Head Crater hike consists of 1,048 steps, or to be more specific, railroad sleepers. The steps are quite steep and for short people like me, that makes it even tougher. But all the sweat and tears are worth it when you get to the top, as you are rewarded with incredible panoramic views, all the way from Diamond Head to Makapu’u Pt. It’s a great way to burn some calories, which means you can reward yourself with a few more Lava Flow cocktails in the evening!
Click here to read our detailed post about this hike.
Visit the Byodo-In Temple
The Byodo-In Temple is located at the base of the Ko’olau Mountains, which provides it with an amazing backdrop. When you first see it, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Japan. This non-practicing Buddhist temple was built to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the first Japanese arrivals in Hawaii. It’s a great place to visit during your drive around the island.
Go Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and Shark’s Cove
We love to snorkel, especially in Hawaii. So whenever we get a chance, we’re straight into the water with our snorkels on! Our two favourite spots to snorkel on Oahu are Hanauma Bay and Shark Cove.
Hanauma Bay is a nature preserve just thirty minutes drive from Waikiki, and it offers the best snorkeling on Oahu, with an estimated four hundred species of friendly fish. The only drawback is that it’s extremely popular. Plan to arrive there first thing in the morning, to fit in a couple of hours of snorkeling before the crowd arrives. The park opens at 6 am. You will also get the best visibility in the morning.
Shark Cove is on the North Shore and is another great snorkeling spot. In this little cove, you’ll see friendly turtles and many kinds of fish while you’re snorkeling. Be sure to note when high tide is, as it’s better for snorkeling.
Visit Lanikai Beach
Lanikai beach has been rated many times as the best beach in Oahu, and it’s easy to see why. Lanikai is located on the windward side, and it’s just gorgeous! Because it has an offshore reef, the water is calm all year round, making it perfect for swimming, and stand-up paddle boarding. You can even kayak to the nearby islands if you’re feeling up for it.
Enjoy a Hawaiian sunset
After a full day spent exploring the island, there is nothing better to do than sit down with a Mai Tai, while watching an incredible Hawaiian sunset. That’s one of my favourite things to do while in the Hawaiian islands. Every sunset is an incredible spectacle. Our favourite places to watch the sunset on Oahu were Waikiki Beach, Magic Island, Sunset beach on the North Shore, and from the pool deck at the Turtle Bay resort.
Watch some big wave surfing on the North Shore
If you happen to visit Oahu during the Hawaiian Winter, you really should spend some time checking out the surf on the North Shore. We had never seen such big waves before, crashing so close to shore. We stood there for a while just admiring the surfers out there battling the waves. They seemed to be having a real blast. Banzai-Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach are some popular North shore surf beaches. If you are an experienced surfer you should have a go yourself! If not, learning to surf is a popular activity on Oahu. Note however, the calmer Waikiki is a much better place for beginners!
Sign up for an ATV tour at the Kualoa Ranch
The Kualoa Ranch is home to four thousand acres of incredible terrain, and offers an array of activities for the entire family. You can choose from zip-lining, a movie tour, horse riding, ATV tours, and more. We took a tour on their new raptor ATVs, and it was heaps of fun! The scenery was incredible, and we drove past several parts of the ranch that had been featured in movies, such as Jurassic Park, Lost, and Godzilla to name a few.
Relax at the world famous Waikiki Beach
The iconic Waikiki Beach is a must see when you’re on Oahu. Yes it’s crowded, but it is the world’s most famous beach; so it’s worth finding out why that is! Even if you aren’t one for crowds, Waikiki’s lively atmosphere is still fun to experience for a few hours. Kick back and relax on the sand, take a swim in the crystal clear water, and grab a Mai Tai at one of the popular beach bars; and do all of this while you enjoy the breathtaking views of Diamond Head in the distance. It’s not all that bad in the end!
Check out the Ala Moana Beach Park
While most of the tourists head to Waikiki, the locals prefer the Ala Moana Beach Park, where they catch up with each other over a charcoal BBQ. This beautiful beach park is a much less busy than Waikiki, the water is beautiful, and you’ll be able to mix with the locals. A walk to Magic Island next-door provides a great view back towards Waikiki beach and the Diamond Head crater.
Shop until you drop at the Ala Moana Centre
The Ala Moana Centre is the world’s largest open-air shopping centre. If you’re a shopaholic, then this is the place for you. You can find anything at the Ala Moana centre, from expensive designers, smaller boutiques, and international and local brands. Just make sure you bring an extra suitcase!
Where to stay on Oahu
Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort or Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort
We’ve stayed at both Outriggers, and they both provided us with outstanding service. They are both located right on the beach and have been recently upgraded. They have great restaurants and bars, and Waikiki’s shopping strip is just a short walk away.
If you prefer a quieter part of the beach, then choose the Outrigger Reef. But if you like to be where the action is, book the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort.
Book your stay at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort here.
Book your stay at the Outrigger Reef here.
Turtle Bay Resort
If you prefer to avoid the bustle of Waikiki, then the quieter North Shore is the place for you. The Turtle Bay Resort is the best accommodation on the legendary North Shore, with every room offering an ocean view. If you’re into golf, the resort offers the best golf courses on the North Shore. Plus during the summer, you can snorkel right in front of the resort for your chance to see one of the famous Hawaiian Honus (turtles).
Book your stay at the Turtle Bay Resort here.
Where to eat and drink
You’ll find Dukes in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort; it’s right on the beach. With live music, incredible views, lovely island food, and delicious cocktails, this quickly became our favourite place to hang out.
Tiki’s Grill and Bar
Tiki’s Grill and bar is another great restaurant with a Hawaiian flare, a relaxed atmosphere, and pleasant beach views. Try the Hawaiian Ahi Poke!
Also found in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach resort, the Hula grill offers beautiful views of Waikiki beach and Diamond Head. We especially loved having breakfast at the Hula Grill. Their breakfast burritos were the best ever!
There are two Haleiwa Joe’s, one in historic Haleiwa town on the North Shore, and one nestled beneath the majestic Ko‘olau Mountains in Haiku Gardens. Both offer incredible views, great food, and lovely cocktails.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck
Food trucks are a thing on the North Shore of Oahu, and Giovanni’s has the best shrimps around. Lemon shrimp, garlic shrimp, or spicy shrimp; the choice is yours.
So as you can see, along with the famous Waikiki, there are many other wonderful things to experience on Oahu. We’ve spent nowhere near as long as we should have there, and we’d love to return someday.
So If you’ve visited Oahu, please write and let us know your favourite experience, so we can add them to our list for next time. Mahalo for reading!