Oahu's Top 10: How to Have the Trip of a Lifetime!
As the daughter of someone born and raised in Hawai'i, I am a self-proclaimed expert. I have visited over 50 times, most of my family still lives there today, and I even have the geo coordinates of Honolulu tattooed on my arm (the ultimate sign of love, no?). Over the course of my life, while on my 50+ Oahu trips, I have done just about everything the island has to offer. As such, I have come up with a long list of do's and don'ts. Below are my top 10 recommendations for those looking to have the trip of a lifetime on Oahu!
Whenever my friends or people I know go to Oahu and stay in Waikiki the entire time they all end up hating it. Because of that, let me start out by saying do not spend all of your time in Waikiki. Waikiki is a great place to stay but if you do stay there make sure you rent a car so that you are able to get to items 1-9 below!
For breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a view, try Duke's. My preference is breakfast at sunrise which is easy to make if you are visiting from the mainland because the time change will be in your favor. The Edge of Waikiki at the Sheraton is a wonderful happy hour spot. The mojitos are to die for and I now find myself going here numerous times per visit! They also have live music at night and an infinity pool :) For amazing sushi, try Doraku Sushi and aim for happy hour (it's both food & drinks)!
For a local snack, Hawaiian Crown Plantation is a great place to grab fresh luxury pineapple. The luxury part just means that it tastes like candy/heaven and like no pineapple you have ever tasted, honest! The dried pineapple is also unreal (again, tastes like candy but there's no sugar added) as is just about everything offered there. They make great gifts to take home and make sure to try the pineapple smoothie or grab an acai bowl.
Candy Bar Hawaii is a great place to treat your sweet tooth and very instagram friendly! So much so that often brides and grooms are in there snapping pics. Full disclosure: my uncle is an investor.
If you have free time at night, walk up and down Waikiki. There are street performers, parrots, and other fun things to check out! Also try a sunset cruise if that is of interest to you.
9. KUALOA RANCH
If you want to spend the day (or two!) feeling like you're in the real life Jurassic Park or need a fun break between restless beach days, look no further. Kualoa is a beautiful ranch between Honolulu and the North Shore where many famous movies were filmed - Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, Pearl Harbor to name a few. They offer countless different tours and adventures, everything from horseback rides to ATV tours to their new treetop canopy zipline tour! I have done most and would highly recommend them all.
PS. Secret island (#4 on this list) is also here!
One of the best things you can do while visiting Oahu is to take advantage of the beautiful hiking options. There are trails for hikers of all experience levels and the photo opps you'll get can only be captured on foot so get out there and explore!
For a quick & easy hike with a beautiful view check out Diamond Head. Also with beautiful views and still fairly easy is Lanikai Pillboxes (pro tip: go to Lanikai to watch the sunrise, hike the pillboxes while it warms up, then return to Lanikai for beach time). For a moderate jungle hike try Tantalus. And, if you are in for something extra difficult, try my favorite of them all - Kokohead. Go before sunrise as there is no shade whatsoever and it gets HOT.
Kayaking anywhere in Hawaii is gorgeous (of course) but my go-to is from Lanikai beach to the mokes. For kayak rental check out Hawaii Beach Time - they'll bring it right to you at the beach!
6. NORTH SHORE
When visiting Oahu you can absolutely not miss a visit to the North Shore. The North Shore is the most remote and by far the most beautiful, in my humble opinion. Haleiwa should be your North Shore destination and I'd recommend making numerous stops on your way and while there.
First up, beaches! On your way, stop at world famous Pipeline, home of the world's deadliest wave. Unless you're a great swimmer do not get in the water here, though! If you're looking for a beautiful beach with water you can go in without worrying about dying (always a plus), I'd recommend Waimea Bay next. It even has a large rock you can jump off if you are up for an adventure! The parking lot is very small and it is your only option for parking so I'd recommend getting here by 10 or 10:30am. When you're ready to eat, head to Haleiwa from there!
If you need some pre-beach breakfast fuel, grab an acai bowl at Haleiwa Bowls (you might've seen them on Instagram!). For lunch in Haleiwa check out Kua 'Aina: a local burger spot that is fast and pretty good! They only take cash, so come prepared.
Once you're done eating, walk around Haleiwa itself which is a super cute old surf town. Pro tip: lots of great Instagram photo opps! You MUST stop by Matsumoto's: the best shave ice on Oahu! You'll notice there's almost always a line at Matsumoto's but the other shave ice places around it are deserted- it is for good reason, go here! Try it with ice cream.
If you skip lunch in Haleiwa, check out the food trucks on your way back to Honolulu. Try Pupukea Grill for a spicy tuna bowl (soooo good), Giovanni's for shrimp (really popular!), or North Shore Tacos for tacos, of course. You can and should also stop at a fruit stand on your way to/from for some fresh, all natural coconut juice! Again, also a great photo opp.
5. Haleiwa Joe's at HAIKU GARDEN
Haleiwa Joe's at Haiku Gardens is my favorite dinner spot in all of Hawai'i - and that's saying a lot coming from someone that has visited Hawai'i over 50 times! Dining here makes you feel like you are eating dinner in Jurassic Park and to make it even better, the food is also to die for. Go early, put your name in (make sure you request a table on the edge so you have a clear view) then walk around the gardens below until your table is ready. It is a 15-30 min drive from Honolulu, depending on traffic.
Note: there's also a Haleiwa Joe's in Haleiwa, but I specifically recommend the Kaneohe location at Haiku Gardens.
4. SECRET ISLAND at kualoa ranch
If you are looking for a beach that is more remote, Secret Island (part of Kualoa Ranch) is my go to. Although not free, buying a ticket gets you access to the beach and unlimited activities such as standup paddleboarding, kayaking, beach volleyball, etc. for 2.5 hours. I would consider doing this in the morning and then taking a tour of the ranch in the afternoon.
Pricing varies depending on age and season. You can find more specific info on their site here.
3. LANIKAI BEACH
DO. NOT. MISS. THIS. Lanikai Beach is my favorite beach of all time, often listed as one of the best in the world! Try to get there for sunrise or stay for sunset, not just for the views but also to avoid the crowds (it is quite popular these days). If you're looking for an activity, consider kayaking to the mokes. For kayak rental check out Hawaii Beach Time. Alternatively you can hike to the nearby Lanikai Pillboxes when you are sick of the beach
Stop by Kalapawai Cafe & Deli for lunch in Kailua.
2. DOORS OFF HELICOPTER TOUR
A doors off helicopter tour is hands down THE most beautiful way to see the island. Going the doors off route makes for completely unobstructed views so if you are interested in the photo opps provided from a helicopter, there is no better option. The company I did it with, Genesis Helicopters, is unfortunately no longer operating so I do not have a specific recommendation but do your research and make sure to find a company that you feel safe with.
If you need a place to rent a good lens, Hawaii Camera Rental was very helpful. I used the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II for my trip.
1. SWIM WITH DOLPHINS in the wild
Swimming with dolphins in the wild is a truly magical experience that should be made top priority while visiting Oahu. I love it so much that I've done it a handful of times already! Dolphin Excursions is the company I recommend using. They will provide you with you roundtrip transportation from Waikiki if needed.
Other notable things, not included in any of the links above:
- Luau's are a bit touristy but if you haven't had Hawaiian food or been to a Luau before, check it out
- Give your body a sun break by walking around Ala Moana (the most beautiful outdoor mall)
- Grab some to go sushi rolls at Kozo Sushi. They keep the nori (the seaweed) separate from the rice so it stays crispy and it is SO GOOD
- For fresh poke and many different varieties try Ono Seafood
- Try a malasada at Leonard's! If you haven't had one before, this is a must
- Tour Shangri La if you're looking for history and art
- Visit the USS Arizona Memorial
- Go shopping for Hawaiian Jewelry at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
- Have breakfast on Saturday at the farmer's market. Try the pizza, the sausage, and do not leave without trying at least 2 things from Hawaiian Crown Plantation (to DIE for)
- Give parasailing a try if you are itching for a little adventure
If you want to follow my day to day travel adventures, follow me on Instagram at @ckanani.