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What to Do in Oahu, Hawaii: Beach, Mountains and More

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Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book come to life, the Hawaiian island of O’ahu blends a varied sweep of wild, technicolor landscapes with a thousand-year history to form an exciting gateway to the most exotic state in America. From soft, pale sands and pockmarked volcanic shores to jagged peaks and jungly gardens carpeted in lush greens, and a melted-turquoise ocean tossed by gravity-defying waves, the natural beauty of the island will invite you to fan out from the capital city of Honolulu and go exploring. A five-hour flight from its closest mainland neighbor, Los Angeles, it would be ideal to spend a week or more on O’ahu, but even with just a few summer days to spare, it’s possible to wander your way around this jewel-toned gem.

Honolulu's Waikiki Beach
Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, with a view of craggy Diamond Head in the distance

Oahu’s capital, Honolulu, is a quirky mix of a bustling metropolis, a laid-back beach town, and the Las Vegas strip. A few graceful, late 19th-century buildings survive amidst soaring, modern high-rises and crowded streets that never fail to surprise on a tropical island, but bronze statues of revered Polynesians and the craggy, green peak of Diamond Head will remind you that you’re definitely in Hawaii.

View of Waikiki's downtown from the 37th floor of the Hilton Waikiki
View of Waikiki’s downtown from the 37th floor of the Hilton Waikiki

The city’s parks and medians are peppered with trees you’ll rarely see outside a botanical garden: wide umbrella monkeypods, vine-tangled banyans, and fluffy rainbow showers that, June through August, bloom in a riot of colorful blossoms. These reprieves of green space provide a welcome, striking contrast to Honolulu’s miles of concrete.

Surf, Sand… and Full Couture

The city’s nerve center and main attraction is Waikiki Beach, a teal blue bay and a one and a half-mile-long ribbon of soft white sand that unfurls beside a parade of resort hotels, where poolside lounging could well be an Olympic sport. You’ll rarely be alone on the shore, but your neighbors will be relaxed and happy, even the Japanese tourists who often choose to stroll the sands in full couture, shoes and all. (You should still feel free to pack your flip-flops.) 

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Waikiki will pull you in with its soft sand and gentle surf, but that’s just the beginning of an O’ahu adventure

The breezes are mild and the surf is gentle enough to navigate a stand-up paddleboard or a modern version of the outrigger canoes used by ancient Polynesians to travel the Pacific. Waikiki sunrises are opalescent and sunsets fiery and dramatic, bookending bright, clear and sunny summer days. 

Hike Above the Clouds

If you want a quick escape from Waikiki’s crowds, head into the hills way above town and visit Pu’u Ualakaa State Wayside (pronounced “poo-ooh you-ah-lah-ah-kaa-ah”), a public park where the view stretches all along Waikiki Beach, from Diamond Head to the Punchbowl. In addition to shaded picnic facilities and bathrooms here, there’s a short, sometimes-muddy walk to the lookout deck.

Panoramic view from Puu Ulaaka State Park
Panoramic view of Honolulu and Waikiki from P’uu Ualakaa State Wayside

Back at the main entrance to the Wayside, a tree-shaded parking lot serves as the trailhead for a soothing one-mile hike from ‘Ualaaka’a to the Makiki Valley. Before you set off, be sure to wipe your feet so as not to contaminate the sacred ground here, which is used as a tree preserve. While you’re in the rainforest, you’ll be all but alone: marvel at huge banyan trees and listen for birdsong.

banyan-tree-makiki-valley hike
Banyan tree along the ‘Ualaaka’a to the Makiki Valley hike

For a much closer, yet still breathtaking view of the ocean and the city, consider an exhilarating climb to the top of Diamond Head, Honolulu’s iconic peak. For a roughly two-hour roundtrip along well-packed switchback trails, a dark, narrow and brief tunnel, and steep spiral stairs, you’ll be surrounded by smiling hikers who’ll be just as proud of themselves as you are for scaling this 760-foot-high volcanic crater. To avoid the biggest crowds, try to go on a weekday and arrive when the park opens at 6 a.m.; if you walk quickly, you just might just catch a stunning sunrise.

A view of the Pacific from the top of Diamond Head
A view of the Pacific from the top of Diamond Head

Discoveries at Sea Level

For a more sea level adventure, head east and then north along the island’s wild, remote Leeward Side, edged by low, sharp mountains and small towns where many of O’ahu’s Polynesians live. While out this way, if you want to meet some ocean wildlife at a respectful distance, schedule a snorkeling excursion out of Wai’ane Beach Harbor. You might just see a humpback whale, or have a chance to peek below the water’s surface to quietly observe a pod of sleeping dolphins, who spin in a collective, slow circle as they snooze.

Pushing off from
Pushing off from Wai’ane Beach Harbor on a snorkeling tour

Dramatic, windswept and largely empty, Leeward beaches have a mix of volcanic rocks, pale sand, fiercely turquoise water and powerful surf. Where the seaside Farrington Highway ends, Ka’ena Point State Park has the coast’s most beautiful white sand beach, Makua (which has decent bathroom facilities but no food or water), and the most accessible hiking trail. The dirt-packed Ka’ena Point Trail meanders between the ocean and mountains, with nary a tree in sight. The entire hike is six miles round-trip, but even if you want to venture only a portion of it , arrive in the early morning or late afternoon and be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat and plenty of water.

Ka'ena Point on the Leeward Side
Ka’ena Point on the Leeward Side

A (Gorgeous) View into the Past

For a lush, green and cloud-cooled change of pace, head five miles northeast of Honolulu on the Pali Highway (the 61) to the Nu’Unanu Pali Lookout. At this windy and gorgeous spot, bring a sweater or a hoodie to comfortably delight in the breathtaking vista, a plunging drop from jungly, jagged mountain foothills to a yawning spread of marshland and three separate, sparkling bays. Nu’Unanu Pali isn’t merely eye candy, though: in 1795, it’s where King Kamehameha secured the unification of Oahu by forcing an entire army over these cliffs.

Nu'una Pali Lookout
The view from the Nu’Unanu Pali Lookout

Let the Big Waves Roll 

At the very top of the island, the North Shore is a surfer’s heaven with wind-carved trees, turquoise water and a powerful undertow. A magnet for the world’s most lauded (and well-sponsored) watermen and women, traffic on the North Shore can be unexpectedly endless during the windy late fall and winter surf competition season.

Sunset Beach, on the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of O'ahu
Sunset Beach, on the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of O’ahu

However, in summer the surf is relatively calm at Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline, both known for thick, pale-mocha sand, impossibly teal water and enormous waves. At anytime, you could spot the next Kelly Slater or Bethany Hamilton shredding their way to stardom, and it’s exciting to simply take a seat on the sand and gape open-mouthed at the death-defying surfer action.

A Hawaiian Version of Eden

If your eyes need a break from watching all that wave riding, visit the nearby  Waimea Valley Audubon Center to take a deep breath amidst the most fascinating of Oahu’s plants and trees, all in one place. Look way up at the huge, squiggly nawa trees, keep your eyes peeled for native birds like the red-headed ‘apapane (ah-pah-pahn-ay), and seek out a rainbow of hibiscus, freakishly large ferns, and bright orchids clinging to tree trunks. Be sure to bring along your bathing suit, because if you make it all the way to the back of the park, you can reward yourself with a swim in a cool waterfall.

Nawa tree at the Waimea Valley Audubon Center
Nawa tree at O’ahu’s peaceful Waimea Valley Audubon Center

Getting There and Around

O’ahu is home to Hawaii’s hub airport (HNL) and direct flights from many U.S. cities (including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Houston, Chicago, Newark and Washington-Dulles) are operated by Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United and US Airways.

The technicolor beauty of O'ahu begins well before your flight has landed (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)
The technicolor beauty of O’ahu begins well before your flight has landed (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Parking at Honolulu hotels tends to be expensive, but renting a car is still an ideal option if you want to explore the island at a leisurely pace or even visit outskirts attractions like Pu’u Ualakaa State Wayside or Diamond Head. Taxis and Uber are also available, as are a wide variety of island/attraction tour operators.

Hotels

Almost every major American hotel chain has a presence in Waikiki, including Hilton (e.g., Hilton Waikiki Beach and Hilton Hawaiian Village) and Starwood (e.g., Sheraton Waikiki, Westin’s Moana Surfrider, and The Royal Hawaiian). Visa Signature properties include The Modern Honolulu, Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts include the Trump International Waikiki and Ali’i Tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and five-star resorts Halekulani and The Kahala are members of both programs. Local Hawaiian chains include Outrigger and Aqua.

The graceful tiled porch of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel
The graceful tiled porch of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel

On the southern tip of the Leeward Side are a cluster of three large resorts – Disney’s Aulani, Marriott’s Ko’Olina, and the JW Marriott ‘Ihilani – and the luxurious, newly renovated Turtle Bay Resort is the only major hotel on the North Shore.

What are your favorite summer adventures on Oahu? In the comments below, please share what you love best about this magical Hawaiian island.

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