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Say Aloha to Oahu’s Top Attractions

Follow our experts’ guide to the best sites and activities for planning your vacation to this popular Hawaiian island.

 

Sunburned tourists in matching Hawaiian shirts. Tacky souvenirs, crowded beaches and overpriced luaus. Tell friends that you’re headed to Oahu, and these are just some of the images they’ll conjure up in their heads. However, look beyond the stereotypes, and you’ll find an island as deep and diverse as the people who call it home.

Whether you’re looking for water sports, family activities, cultural experiences, relaxation or some fun in the sun, Oahu delivers it all with a welcoming sense of aloha. Take the time to embrace the unique spirit this island has to offer on your Oahu vacation—you won’t be disappointed.

Honolulu

Despite being the state capital and the largest city in Hawaii, Honolulu is primarily known for Waikiki Beach. Delve a little deeper into what the city has to offer however, and you’ll discover a range of attractions from art and culture to hikes and beach activities.

Waikiki Beach

Probably the most well-known attraction on Oahu, Waikiki’s reputation for being overrun by tourists is true—you’ll probably find the highest concentration of visitors (and hotels) on the island here. Despite that fact, we still have a good time in Waikiki (shh, don’t tell anyone we said that!). Whether it’s the infectious smiles of new surfers, the laughter of kids on the beach or the multitude of food and shopping options, Waikiki has an intangible allure that keeps visitors returning. Relax and join the ongoing party on the sand and in the water, and you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll enjoy yourself. [Read about Oahu’s other great beaches.]

Bishop Museum

The Bishop Museum houses more than 24 million artifacts, documents and photographs about Hawaii and other Pacific Island cultures. Wander through the Polynesian and Hawaiian Halls to learn about Polynesian culture and the origins of Hawaii. Note: The Hawaiian Hall is currently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen in August 2009.

1525 Bernice St. Tel. 808-847-3511. Admission: $15.95 for adults; $12.95 for seniors (65 & older) and children (ages 4-12); children 3 and under are free. Discounts are available for kama’aina (locals), military visitors and visitors accompanied by local residents and military personnel. www.bishopmuseum.org

‘Iolani Palace

Oahu is host to the only palace in the United States that was used as an official residence by a reigning monarch. The ‘Iolani Palace is the former home of Hawaii’s last two reigning monarchs—King David Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Lili`uokalani. Visitors can tour the palace, barracks and grounds on their own or through a docent-guided tour.

364 S. King St. Tel. 808-522-0822. Admission: varies depending on the type of tour (docent-guided, audio or self-guided) you choose to do. Note: Visitors are not allowed to wear bathing suits into the palace. www.iolanipalace.org

Diamond Head

Diamond Head (also known as Le’ahi, “brow of the tuna”) is an old volcanic crater and an iconic feature of the Waikiki skyline. Having made the trek to the crater annually on New Year’s Day since 2002, we can vouch for the stunning view of Waikiki and the south shore of Oahu. The trail to the rim is an easy to moderate hike and includes two flights of stairs.

Off Diamond Head Road between Makapu’u Avenue and 18th Avenue. Tel. 808-587-0300. Newly added admission to the park is $1 for walk-ins and $5 for cars. www.hawaiistateparks.org

Manoa Valley

For a change of pace, head to Manoa Valley, a residential area in the north end of the city. Enjoy the lush scenery and old Hawaiian charm of the neighborhood as you make your way to the trailhead of Manoa Falls. Hike through a rain forest of trees, giant ferns and bamboo to reach the 150-foot waterfall. After your hike before leaving the area, join the locals at the Wai’oli Tea Room (2950 Manoa Road; tel. 808-988-5800) for an English-style tea service. Drive through the University of Hawaii campus and turn right on Manoa Road; the road dead-ends at the trailhead.

Chinatown

Go to Honolulu’s Chinatown for great dim sum and serene temples, but we also recommend that you stay and explore the art galleries in the neighborhood. Rub elbows with local artists on the first Friday of every month (“First Fridays”), when galleries are open late and offer entertainment, drinks and snacks to visitors. [Read more in the Honolulu Chinatown article.]

Many who come to Oahu never venture beyond Waikiki Beach. But going holoholo (“going out”) is the best way to discover or, in some cases, rediscover all that the island has to offer.

South Shore Attractions

In addition to Honolulu and Waikiki, the southern part of Oahu also features a few of the most popular attractions on the island—Hanauma Bay and Pearl Harbor—which are “must-sees” for most visitors to Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor comprises several historic sites, including the USS Arizona Memorial, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the Pacific Aviation Museum and the USS Oklahoma Memorial.

Tours of the main attraction, the USS Arizona Memorial, start on shore at the visitor center and end with a ferry trip out to the Memorial, which sits offshore in Pearl Harbor. The tour is free and extremely popular so wait times can be up to two hours long—arrive early to ensure a space on the tour. Note: A new Pearl Harbor Memorial Visitor Center and Museum is currently being constructed with completion targeted for December 2010.

USS Arizona Memorial, 1 Arizona Memorial Place. Tel. 808-422-0561. Admission to the USS Arizona Memorial is free; admission fees vary for other Pearl Harbor sites.

Punchbowl (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific)

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is located just north of Honolulu in the center of the Punchbowl volcanic crater. The cemetery offers panoramic views of Honolulu and serves as the final resting place for more than 33,000 soldiers. The names of more than 28,000 military personnel missing in action or buried at sea are also memorialized here.

2177 Puowaina Drive. Tel. 808-532-3720. Admission is free. www.cem.va.gov

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is the probably the most popular snorkeling spot on the island. The preserve, which means “shelter bay,” has calm waters, a multitude of colorful fish and a nice sandy beach making it ideal for snorkelers of all ages and skill levels. [Read more about Hanauma Bay in the Oahu Beaches article].

Off Kalaniana’ole Highway, Route 72. Tel. 808-396-4229. www.honolulu.gov

Next: Central Oahu Attractions: Plantations, Botanical Gardens

Central Oahu

Take a drive through central Oahu for a glimpse into Oahu’s plantation past, a view of the Leilehua Plateau, which according to legends is the where Oahu’s rainbows were born. On the way, indulge your palate at Sunnyside bakery, a not-to-be-missed stop for pie lovers. (Note: pies, including chocolate haupia, at Sunnyside draw locals from all over the island and sell out quickly. Get your orders in or arrive early in the day. Plate lunches there are also ono.)

1017 Kilani Ave, Wahiawa. Tel. 808-621-7188.

Hawaii Plantation Village

Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu chronicles the story of sugar plantation workers in Oahu. The village features original and replica structures of the immigrant groups who arrived to Hawaii in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work on the sugar plantations.

94-695 Waipahu St, Waipahu. Tel. 808-677-0110. Admission: is $13 for adults, $10 for seniors 62 and over, $7 for kama’aina and military personnel, $5 for children, 4 to 11. Children 3 and under are free. www.hawaiiplantationvillage.org

Dole Plantation

The best way to describe the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa is that it’s like an amusement park celebrating “all things” pineapple. There is a giant pineapple-shaped, outdoor maze (the largest in the world as of 2007) and a train tour on the “Pineapple Express,” which takes visitors through a 20-minute tour of the history of the pineapple on the island. You can also wander through eight different gardens, featuring pineapple plants and information about plantation life, and even order a box of pineapples to be shipped to your home.

64-1550 Kamehameha Highway, Wahiawa. Tel. 808-621-8408. Admission to the plantation is free, but you have buy tickets for each of the attractions (costs vary for each attraction). www.dole-plantation.com

Wahiawā Botanical Gardens

Central Oahu is also home to the Wahiawā Botanical Gardens, which cover 27 acres on a plateau between the Waianae and Koolau mountain ranges. The gardens feature tropical plants that thrive in cool, humid climates with an emphasis on native Hawaiian plants.

1396 California Ave., Wahiawa. Tel. 808-522-7060. www.honolulu.gov

North Shore Attractions

Probably most famous for the giant surf that happens in the winter, the North Shore has a laid-back outlook and old Hawaiian charm unique to this part of the island.

Surf

Home to the Triple Crown of Surfing, Oahu’s North Shore welcomes big waves in winter and more calm waters conducive to swimming, diving and snorkeling in the summer.  During the months of December through February, top professional surfers can be found charging monster waves at Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline (Ehukai Beach). [Read more about surf beaches in our Oahu Beaches article, as well as in our Family Surf Camp article.]

Haleiwa

The town of Haleiwa is reminiscent of old Hawaii—attitudes are casual, flip-flops (slippas) are the footwear of choice, and everything feels like it moves at a slower pace. Wander through the town’s art galleries and shops, or stop into one of the local eateries for a drink and snack after a day at the beach. Make sure to stop at Matsumoto’s for some shave ice, Hawaii’s much tastier version of a snow cone.

Polynesian Cultural Center

While the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) may seem like an obvious tourist trap, it’s actually an entertaining way to spend a few hours with the family and learn about Polynesian culture. If you have a family and it’s your first time on the island, it’s worth going at least once to the PCC, which remains one of Oahu’s top attractions.

Visitors can wander (and even float past) eight villages, each representing a different South Pacific Nation—Aotearoa/New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Marquesas, Rapa Nui, Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti. Within each village, you are encouraged to try your hand at activities found in the various regions, such as fire-making or hula.

Personally, we were captivated by the talents of the youthful, fearless climbers who scaled to the tops of palm trees bare-handed with tea leaves wrapped round their feet. The PCC offers lush greenery, waterfalls (think: picturesque photo background), a water parade of nations on double-hulled canoes each afternoon daily at 2:30 p.m. (“Rainbows of Paradise”), a luau (read more about the PCC luau), an IMAX theater and a recreated volcano, which erupts!

55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie. Tel. 800-367-7060 (U.S. mainland), 808-293-3333 (on Oahu). An array of package levels, from Adult Super Ambassador ($225 for 16 years of age and up) to general admission ($45 for adults, $35 for children 5 to 15) are available, as well as a variety of deals and discounts (for kama’aina and military). www.polynesia.com 

Next: Food, Beaches, Shopping, Sea Life 

Food

Food is always center stage on Oahu. From restaurants and luaus to plate lunch stops and casual backyard kanikapila (“gathering together informally to sing and play”), food plays a big role in the lives of the local population across the island.

Oahu’s history brings together a mixed plate of cultures and cuisines. Common local fare includes poke (sushi-grade tuna mixed with sweet chili pepper water, sesame oil, soy sauce and green onions); kalua pig (slow-smoked, pulled pork with marinated, steamed cabbage); saimin (noodle soup) and even Spam musubi (fried, teriyaki spam sushi). And of course, there’s poi—mashed (sometimes fermented or “day old”) taro root, a staple food of native Hawaiians.

Luaus

Like the Polynesian Cultural Center, if this is your first trip to Oahu (or perhaps you’ve come for a destination wedding), a luau feast is among the attractions you’ll want to attend. They can range from formal, sit-down affairs to casual, somewhat kitschy buffets where you can enjoy traditional dishes, drinks and entertainment. For our top luau event picks, read Oahu Luaus.

Shrimp Trucks

No drive on the North Shore would be complete without a stop at one of the many shrimp trucks. The Kahuku area is home to shrimp farming, and many shrimp trucks and shacks have appeared along the roadside. We personally like the garlic shrimp and spicy hot sauce shrimp at Macky’s Kahuku Sweet Shrimp (66-632 Kamehameha Highway; tel 808-780-1071) and Giovanni’s White Shrimp Truck (83 Kamehameha Highway).

Kapahulu

To try some of the local fare without going to a luau, take a drive through Honolulu's Kapahulu neighborhood and try a broad sampling of dishes at Ono Hawaiian Foods. Or, have a plate lunch from Rainbow Drive-In, which features an entree, two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. For a sweet, deep-fried ending, have a malasada (Portugese doughnut) from Leonard's Bakery.

[Read more about great placed to eat on Oahu in Cheap Eats in Honolulu.]

Beaches Beyond Waikiki 

Kailua and Lanikai Beaches

Kailua and Lanikai beaches are two of the most magnificent beaches on Oahu—Kailua was voted by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Both offer fine, white sand beaches and calm, clear waters, perfect for swimming. Kailua is also a great kite surfing beach and has full facilities, making it ideal for families. President Obama and his family stayed in Kailua during the 2008 holidays.

Waimanalo Beach Park

Located south of Kailua and Lanikai, Waimanalo Beach Park is frequented by tourists and locals alike and features a broad stretch of sand great for family barbecues and evening sunsets. The shore break is gentle and fun to play in for kids and adults—but watch out for stinging jellyfish that sometimes appear in the water seven to 11 days after the full moon. There are full facilities available as well as nearby places to buy food and drinks.

Shopping

It may be another “tourist” attraction, but there’s something retro and entertaining about strolling through the International Market Place, in the heart of Waikiki, and shopping for souvenirs. For those who prefer Hermès over hula skirts, Waikiki and the nearby Ala Moana Center feature high-end designer boutiques and retail shops. You can also find local brands, including Honolua Surf Co., Crazy Shirts and Cinnamon Girl. The ABC Store, Hawaii’s ubiquitous convenience store located throughout all the islands, is packed with everything from first aid materials and souvenirs to beach gear and snacks. Prices are reasonable.

Sea Life Park

For a chance to interact directly with sea life without going snorkeling, go to Sea Life Park on the east side of Oahu. In addition to sea life exhibits, dolphin shows, penguin feedings and educational programs and videos, you can also swim with dolphins and sea lions, feed turtles and interact with (snorkel, feed, pet) Hawaiian rays. You can even dive into the park’s Hawaiian Reef Tank for an up close encounter with the sea life that surrounds the island.

41-202 Kalanianaole Highway #7, Waimanalo. Tel. 866-393-5158. Admission: $29 for adults and $19 for children ages 3 to 11. Interactive sea life encounters (swimming with dolphins, diving into the reef tank, etc.) are an additional cost—you can make reservations in advance. www.sealifeparkhawaii.com 

Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve

For rugged scenery, head to Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve on the western tip of the island. You can hike through the reserve—about 5.5 miles roundtrip—which is home to many native birds and plants. Whales frequently pass by the point during the winter months. 


Destinations: Hawaii, Honolulu, Oahu

Themes: Beach Vacations

Activities: Museums, Shopping, Sightseeing, Snorkeling, Surfing


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