You know those images you have in your head of Hawaii? Of barefoot beach bars, peach-coloured sunsets and ukelele players serenading honeymooners along the shoreline? Well, you may be relieved to know that those fantasies are 100% real. Yes, Hawaii is every bit as dreamy as you imagined.
From the moment you set foot in the “Aloha” state, and are greeted with a hula garland around your neck and Mai Tai in your hand (yes, that actually happens), you know you’ve arrived in paradise.
The island of Oahu is often the first stop on any Hawaiian vacation, due to its handy international airport, and most travellers head straight for the towering skyscrapers and popular beach-front resorts of Honolulu.
But beyond the white sands and picture-perfect Waikiki sunsets, there is a whole beautiful island to discover – one that far too few travellers really get out to explore. I’m talking dramatic mountain landscapes, tumbling waterfalls, rugged coastline and volcanic craters – all within an hour’s drive of Honolulu.
In 2-3 days, you can cover a lot of the main attractions on the island of Oahu. Here are 5 top experiences that should not be missed.
Hike up Diamond Head Crater
Trade in your flip flops for your hiking shoes and head to one of Oahu’s most beautiful trails for unbeatable views across the island.
The iconic Diamond Head Crater is visible from wherever you are in Waikiki – which should be your first clue that the views from the top are going to be pretty spectacular! The scenery on the way up is just as impressive, making this one island hike not to be missed.
Take the 23 bus from Waikiki to the Diamond Head State Monument, where you can pick up the trail – or if you’re feeling particularly active, you can hike the extra 2.5 miles from Waikiki Beach directly to the trail-head. From here, it’s less than an hour’s hike to the top.
It’s an easy hike but with a fair few steps and tunnels as you go. As you make your way up through the rolling, green landscape, more and more of the glistening Pacific Ocean comes into view.
Once at the top, panoramic views of the island stretch out in front of you, as far as the eye can see. There is a viewpoint at the top where you can take photos and take in the breathtaking scenery all around you, before descending back down.
Reward yourself at the end with a famous shaved ice cone from one of the trucks at the trail-head – this refreshing and colourful Hawaiian dessert is the perfect way to cool down after your hike!
Roadtrip around the North Shore
Rule number one for getting out and exploring the real Oahu? Hire a car. Once you’ve navigated your way out of Honolulu, there is one main road to the North Shore – Kamehameha Highway – so it’s virtually impossible to get lost.
The North Shore has a much more laid back and local feel to it, compared to the tourist hub of Honolulu. This is where Jack Johnson sang about banana pancakes, after all (#truestory)… are you getting my drift?
As you make your way along the highway, you’ll pass by ruggedly beautiful beaches, chilled out beach towns and some of the world’s best surf spots (if you’re travelling between November and February, you may even be able to catch some big wave surfing!)
Be sure to stop at Laniakea Beach – aka Turtle Beach – known for its (you guessed it!) beautiful green turtles that can often be spotted lounging on the shore. Also worth a stop is Haleiwa Town, with its mish-mash of boutique stores and ultra hip surf vibe; the Polynesian Cultural Center – a great stop for families with plenty of interactive activities to keep the kids (and adults!) entertained; and Waimea Bay for some of the best snorkelling on the island.
Top tip: if you’re headed to Maui after Oahu, I’d recommend saving the snorkelling for then and spending your time elsewhere along the North Shore.
Maximise your time by combining your North Shore roadtrip with a visit to Waimea Valley and/or Kualoa Ranch...
Explore Kualoa Ranch
Kualoa Ranch, with its dramatic mountain scenery and sweeping valleys, is instantly recognisable from countless movies and TV shows – from Jurassic Park to Lost to King Kong.
The landscape is truly like no other, so it’s not surprising that this little slice of paradise serves as one of Hollywood’s most famous backdrops.
The site offers a wide range of activities for visitors; from horse-back riding and zip-lining to ATV tours and movie location tours. You can even take an organised boat trip to a “secret” island for the day.
We opted for the movie tour but, honestly, were a little disappointed with our choice and wished we’d spent the time exploring at our own pace instead. Whichever way you choose to explore, the scenery alone is guaranteed to blow you away. Just be prepared for some rain – there’s a reason the island is as green and luscious as it is!!
Take a dip at Waimea Valley
Another popular stop along the North Shore is the mystical Waimea Valley. This is a unique and spiritual place, from which to explore Hawaii’s rich history and culture.
For a $16 entrance fee ($8/child), you can explore the valley trails and make the short, leisurely hike (approx. 1.5 miles return) through beautiful gardens to a picturesque waterfall. Be sure to bring your swimwear, so that you can take a dip in the natural pool if you fancy it.
Complimentary cultural and botanical garden tours are also available at certain times of the day. Stop at the Visitor Center when you first arrive to find out what’s on offer.
Visit Pearl Harbor
A visit to the historic site of Pearl Harbor should be on everyone’s list whilst exploring the island of Oahu.
This is where the devastating Japanese air strike on US forces took place in 1941, killing 2335 people and signalling a significant turning point in the Second World War.
Today, a popular Visitor Centre and several memorials stand within these soberingly beautiful surroundings. There are a number of interesting exhibits, plus an excellent 75-minute tour of the USS Arizona Memorial, which includes an introductory film and short boat ride to the memorial, where the sunken ship still rests visible under the water’s surface. It’s a truly moving and must-do experience to appreciate the significance of this important part of our history.
There’s no fee to enter the main visitor centre or memorial sites, but tickets are limited and issued on a first-come-first-served basis. For a small fee, it’s worth reserving your spot through the National Parks website up to 60 days before. Otherwise, make sure you arrive as close to the opening time as possible (7am) to ensure you get your ticket, as this is one of the most popular sites in Hawaii.
So there you have it… however you spend your time in paradise, I have no doubt you will fall in love with the “aloha” spirit of Hawaii, the amazingly friendly people and spectacular scenery. Hopefully this guide will help you to experience some of the best experiences and sights that Oahu has to offer. Mahalo!