I love my home, as most people do. Home, no matter where that is, has a certain power over people. It brings comfort, it brings joy, it brings peace. I’m fortunate enough to call home a place many people only dream about: Hawaii.
Having lived in Hawaii for most of my life, I naturally know a lot about the place, and seeing as how it’s a big destination for many people, I thought I could share some advice and tips. Starting with my home island of O’ahu, this post will be the first of three about Hawaii and will cover places to go, things to do, and where to stay — all from a local’s perspective.
O’ahu is by far the most populous island in Hawaii. It where the state capital and biggest city, Honolulu, is. About 1 million of Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents live on O’ahu. If you’re looking for less crowds, stay away from O’ahu. If you don’t mind crowds and are looking for some of the most beautiful scenery you could ever imagine, keep reading.
O’ahu’s north shore is most famous for the massive ocean swells that come in during the winter months. The swells bring in the world’s greatest surfers who make the north shore their home for a few months, some of the world’s most prestigious surf contents, and the massive amounts of tourists who want to see it all. The two lane highway along the northeast coastline basically becomes a parking lot around famous beaches like Sunset, Pipeline, and Waimea.
I don’t like massive amounts of people or traffic, but I still love the north shore. The crowds are slightly less in spring, summer, and fall (although those words don’t really mean anything in Hawaii, more on this later), and these are months where I get the most enjoyment out of this coast.
I grew up surfing, but I was never good enough to surf massive, 40-foot waves that hit the north shore in winter, so I generally had no use for this coast during the winter other than to be a spectator just like everyone else. The rest of the year though, especially during the summer, the north shore is completely flat, which makes it perfect for diving at Sharks Cove and jumping off the rock at Waimea Bay.
Snorkelers, free divers, and scuba divers will all love Sharks Cove. Don’t let the name scare you away, this place is great for underwater exploring. There are a ton of fish and turtles to see, as well as caves to explore.
Waimea Bay is a huge beach, so despite the fact it’s always crowded and parking can be a nightmare, there will always be enough room on the beach. It’s a great beach to just play around in the water when there’s no waves, and jumping off the big rock is a must.
Old Haleiwa town is also a classic north shore spot. The historic town is filled with surf shops, boutiques, and restaurants. It’s all very walkable and fun to hang around for an afternoon. Make sure to get some shave ice (not shaved ice or snow cones) from Matsumoto’s. At Surf ‘n Sea, you can also rent stand up paddle boards and paddle in the bay or down the river that runs through Haleiwa town. Hawaii is not known for great Mexican food, but Cholos in Haleiwa is one of the island’s better places if you’re craving a burrito.
I’ve never done this myself, but a touristy thing I’ve always wanted to do was visit the Dole Plantation. They have, according to their website, the world’s largest maze that covers more than three acres. Even if you don’t stop at the plantation, driving through the pineapple fields on the north shore is always fun.
Insider’s Tip: To go surfing at Turtle Bay, simply ask the gate attendant for a beach parking pass as you drive in. After your surf session is over, you can stash your board in the bushes and walk up the ramp from the beach to the resort’s pool. As long as you look relatively caucasian, the resort staff will assume you’re a hotel guest. For example, my little brother has repeatedly gotten, and will continue to get, kicked out of the pool, but I never will:
Having a classic hotel-white towel with you will also help since that’s the color Turtle Bay uses. A colorful, clearly-from-home beach towel will do you no favors.
Good Eats: In addition to Cholos and Matsumoto’s, make sure to check out Ted’s Bakery and One Love Surf Shop in Pupukea. Ted’s has amazing pies, their chocolate haupia one is especially good. One Love Surf Shop sells acai bowls around back. They’re amazing — a cold blend of acai berries, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, apple juice, and soy milk topped with chopped bananas, granola, and honey — perfect for an after-beach treat.
Ahh, the east side. My home. From Waimanalo in the southeast corner to Kahuku in the northeast, O’ahu’s east coast is wet, green, engulfed in the massive Ko’olau mountains, and filled with great beaches.
Each end of the east coast, the aforementioned Waimanalo and Kahuku, are probably the most “local” spots on the east side. The entire area in between — especially Kailua, just north of Waimanalo, and Laie, just south of Kahuku — is where you’ll probably see the most caucasian people on O’ahu.
Kailua has gotten the nickname of “Kailuafornia” in recent years as the rapid development has only caused more caucasians to settle into an area that was already known for being very white. Lanikai is a subdivision of Kailua that is filled with rich white folk. Despite Kailua’s rapid development and ensuing influx in population, I love the place. Some of the best beaches in all of Hawaii, and most likely the world, are in Kailua. Look up any list of “Best Beaches in the World” and Lanikai will be on there.
If you couldn’t get enough of the shave ice from Matsumoto’s, make sure to visit Island Snow in Kailua. My order: A large shave ice with ice cream on the bottom, flavors: strawberry, banana, and coconut, and a snow cap on top.
Just north of Kailua is Kane’ohe, my home town. Not much to do in terms of tourism, but enjoy the beautiful scenery as you drive through continuing along the two lane Kamehameha Highway up towards the north shore. One place you might want to check out is the Byodo-In Temple. It costs a couple dollars to get in, but walking around the grounds, admiring the temple, ringing the massive bell, and feeding the fish is a nice way to spend a couple of hours.
The drive along Kamehameha Highway is an activity amongst itself. I guarantee you’ll be pulling over every five minutes to take a picture or jump into the ocean. The road goes along the coastline almost the entire way and you can pull over at almost any point and go for a dip in the water. I’m getting too nostalgic writing this, so let’s move on.
About 30 minutes north of Kane’ohe is the Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie, one of the O’ahu’s most popular tourist destinations. I’ve been a couple of times for field trips in elementary school and I remember thinking it was pretty cool. They have “villages” for all the Polynesian nations in which you’ll see how they design houses, what they eat, what their traditional songs and dances are, etc. Then of course there are the lu’aus with hula dancers and all that stuff you saw in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I would absolutely recommend visitors to check it out.
For hiking and outdoor enthusiasts, make sure to add these activities to your itinerary:
- Stairway to Heaven. Warning: this hike is technically illegal and the issue of hikers accessing the trail has reignited recently, so make sure to be aware of the current status of the hike when you get to O’ahu. For years, no one was actually arrested or even cited by police who turned a blind eye; there was just a guard that sat at the bottom of the stairs every day and turned people away. You just needed to get there before he shows up at 6am to make the climb. Recently, though, neighborhood residents have started to complain more about hikers trouncing through their backyards in the middle of the night trying to avoid the guard, so the police have been forced to take a greater interest in stopping hikers. It’s an amazing hike, but certainly not worth getting yourself in trouble over, but if you do happen to make it up, you’ll be up in the clouds looking down on beautiful Kane’ohe below.
- Lanikai Pill Boxes. This hike has gotten really popular and crowded in the past few years, which makes it slightly less appealing, but the views are still worth it. This site gives a really good visual tour of the hike.
- Kayak out to the Mokulua Islands. In the same parking lot as Island Snow, there is a place to rent kayaks for the day. Rent one and use it to paddle out the Mokulua Islands, which are the two islands you’ll see when you hike up to the Lanikai Pill Boxes. This site again gives a fun visual tour of the experience.
- Maunawili Falls. Maunawili is another subdivision of Kailua. This is a relatively easy 45 minute hike each way with a nice waterfall to jump off of and pools to swim in.
- Likeke Falls. This hike is even easier than Maunawili. It only takes about 10-15 minutes to get to the waterfall. It’s not nearly as big as Maunawili, but if you’re looking for a short hike to a waterfall, this is your best bet. Access to the trailhead is simple — just park at the back of the Ko’olau Golf Course parking lot.
- Pali Lookout. Located just off the Pali Highway, which takes you from the east side of the island, through the Ko’olaus and into Honolulu, the Pali Lookout is a great place to see some amazing views of the east side of O’ahu.
- Jackass Ginger. Also located just off the Pali Highway is Jackass Ginger, a fun swimming pond surrounded by a bamboo forest. There are small rocks to jump off of, a smooth rock that acts as a natural water slide, and a rope swing into the pond. This site provides good directions and pictures.
- Kualoa Ranch. About 15 minutes north of Kane’ohe is Kaʻaʻawa, where Kualoa Ranch is. Visitors should definitely make a stop here, where they offer horseback riding and ATV tours through Kualoa Valley. This is also where almost all of the movies set in Hawaii are filmed. Carved into the mountains is an old WWII bunker that the ranch has converted into a movie museum with posters of all the famous movies that were filmed there.
Good Eats: In Kailua, skip Boots & Kimo’s which has gone downhill in recent years after appearing on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Instead, head to Cinnamon’s for a great breakfast/brunch.
Kahuku is also famous for the shrimp trucks that line the side of the road. Giovanni’s is one of the more famous ones. You can’t miss them as you drive by.
O’ahu’s south coast is by far the most populated. Both downtown Honolulu and Waikiki are on the south coast, as well as the must-see tourist destination, Pearl Harbor. Let’s talk about Waikiki first since it’s the most identifiable area of Hawaii.
Personally, I really don’t like Waikiki. It’s too crowded, it’s filled with ridiculously expensive stores, the beach isn’t all that great (relatively speaking, of course), and everything is way overpriced because vendors know they can charge whatever they want. As much as I hate using this phrase, it’s not “real” Hawaii. As a tourist, I can definitely see the appeal though. There’s tons of places to shop and right across the street is a beach without huge waves that’s pretty family friendly, etc, etc. I get it. But I will never recommend anyone to stay in Waikiki. There’s just so much more O’ahu has to offer than the contrived “island style” of Waikiki.
I will say this about Waikiki: It’s one of the best places to learn how to surf if that’s your primary objective on O’ahu. The water will be crowded and kind of dangerous, as it’s filled with tons of other people learning how to surf, but you won’t find the accessibility or convenience you’d have in Waikiki anywhere else. You can walk two feet in any direction and there will be surf boards to rent complete with a teacher who will take you out into the water. The waves are usually the perfect size to learn on all year round, and you won’t feel intimidated by anyone else in the water because they all suck just as bad as you. You’ll all look goofy together and it will be a lovely bonding experience.
Another reason why Waikiki is so convenient is because that’s where almost all the hotels and resorts on the island are. If you want to stay in a hotel when you come to O’ahu, the only other options you have outside of Waikiki are Turtle Bay on the north shore (which, if you can afford it, would be the resort I would recommend over all others), and Ko Olina and Disney’s Aulani on the west side of the island.
Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend a hotel or a resort at all. The locations are too limiting. To have many more options on where you’ll be staying and to have a more authentic experience, find a house or an apartment on Airbnb. When our friends from the mainland and Alexis’ family came to Hawaii for our wedding, they all found houses or studios in Kailua through Airbnb. The prices will be the same, if not cheaper, than a hotel room, it will feel more cozy and welcoming than a hotel would, and you’ll have way more options in terms of location.
Activities that you’ll want to do on the south side of the island include:
- Visit Peal Harbor. There are a number of different tours you can take, but the one that most people want to do is the USS Arizona Memorial. You’ll need to get there before 11am to secure tickets for this tour though as they sell out quickly.
- Hike Diamond Head. Diamond Head is an old volcano that blew it’s top leaving a giant crater. You’ll most likely see it if you’re flying into O’ahu during the day time out the right side of the plane. It’s a relatively easy hike — maybe 30 minutes each way — but it’s also really crowded as most popular tourist destinations and activities will be.
- Shop at Ala Moana. If shopping is your thing, then Ala Moana is the place to get your fix on O’ahu. It’s by far the island’s biggest and best mall.
- For Hawaii trinkets and souvenirs, make a trip to the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. This is your classic outdoor market where vendors pitch canopy tents and sell miniature ukuleles, Hawaii-branded t-shirts, dancing hula girl bobble heads, local snacks and treats, etc. It’s a great place to placate those friends who demand you return with presents.
Good Eats: Eggs ‘n Things in Waikiki is always really crowded, but it’s delicious. While you wait the inevitable 30-45 minutes for a table, do not get a coffee from the cafe below where most people wait unless you want to shell out $5 for a simple iced coffee.
The west side of O’ahu is dry and arid. Weather patterns in Hawaii work in this way the vast majority of the time: The wind and clouds move from east to west, these are called “trade winds.” The clouds cross the east side of the island, but then get stuck on the Ko’olau mountain range that spans the entire island north to south. The clouds hang there and eventually rain falls from them making the east side of the island nice and green, but leaving the west side dry and barren.
Outside of Kapolei and Ewa Beach, you probably won’t be spending much time on the west side of the island. Homelessness is a big issue on O’ahu, and the beaches on the west side of the island are where most of the homeless live. Every once in a while the police will do a big sweep and kick them all out, but they all just go back a couple days later because they have no where else to go. This by and large makes the west side of the island not very visitor-friendly.
Kaplolei and Ewa Beach are the exception though. Development in these two cities has been booming over the past decade. There was more space on the west side of the island, largely because it was less desirable due to it’s dry and arid landscape, so as these things go, where’s there’s space, development happens.
I honestly have never spend much time on the west side, so I don’t have a lot of suggestions. The resorts I mentioned earlier, Ko Olina and Aulani, are both in Kapolei. Families visiting O’ahu might enjoy Aulani to get the Disney experience with an island twist. It’s a new resort, only opening in 2011.
There’s also a water park Kapolei, Wet ‘N’ Wild Hawaii. I haven’t been there since high school, but I remember it being fun.
This is definitely an area to consider for families since you have big attractions that don’t really exist on other places of the island, but I would still recommend the east or north sides for your visit.
Good Eats: I don’t have food recommendations for the west side, so I’ll use this space to give you a general food tip about all of Hawaii. The most popular style of food is called plate lunch. There are an endless number of plate lunch restaurants in Hawaii, but L&L is by far the biggest chain. The basic meal is: one scoop of rice, one scoop of macaroni salad (just called mac salad), and a meat. Some of my favorite meat choices are chicken katsu, BBQ chicken, kalbi, and garlic chicken.
There is a public bus system throughout O’ahu that’s pretty decent, but you’ll definitely want to rent a car during your stay. A simple sedan will work fine on O’ahu, as all the roads are well paved making 4WD unnecessary.
Please feel free to ask any specific questions or for other recommendations! I will have a post about the Big Island out to you within the week, so stay tuned for that.