Last Updated on July 11, 2023
Vacationers visiting Oahu, Hawaii seem to be of two kinds. There are the thrill-seeking, rowdy, night-life vacationers. Then there are those seeking relaxation, a more chilled vacation experience. Luckily, Oahu has plenty of exciting, blood-pumping activities and lots of fun, relaxing things to do as well.
Oahu boasts almost three-fourths of the state of Hawaii’s population, and 60 percent of the island’s residents live in Honolulu. That’s a lot of people in one small space. There are certain things a visitor must do, like visit Waikiki Beach, remember history and the fallen at Pearl Harbor, and see Diamond Head.
For those that worship the sun and adore fast-paced activities, downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach are for you. The high-end shopping, dining, and clubbing experience in this area are off the charts. For the chill crowd, there are out-of-the-way resorts, quiet beaches, and endless sightseeing.
Dole Pineapple Plantation
What screams Hawaii more than Dole pineapples? A fun-filled stop for the whole family is the Dole Pineapple Plantation, just 27 miles north of Waikiki Beach.
Ride the Pineapple Express Train for a fun and educational 20-minute trip through two miles of stunning North Shore scenery. Get lost in the giant Pineapple Garden Maze, the world’s largest maze of Hawaiian plants.
Stroll through the plantation’s eight different gardens. Get an up-close view of the plants that are the source of tropical delights from coffee to exotic fruits.
The Dole Plantation Country Store has gifts, souvenirs, and refreshments including the world-famous DoleWhip soft-serve ice cream or smoothie. You can even purchase a fresh pineapple to take home.
I grew up watching surfing movies and I was thrilled on a recent trip when I found out the waves at North Shore were to be extremely high. I couldn’t wait to see the giants at Banzai Pipeline. What I didn’t count on was “feeling” the water’s force. Standing on the shore, the waves were bigger than life and the force of them rising, curling, then crashing was intense. I’m glad I was able to experience it.
The waves aren’t the only thing to see at North Shore. When you reach Haleiwa you’ll know you’ve arrived at the North Shore. The town is packed full of bohemian-style souvenir shops, surf shops, restaurants, and local artist boutiques.
Be sure to stop and take pictures at the famous North Shore sign and the iconic Rainbow Bridge–Kamehameha Highway Bridge #603.
Have lunch at any of the scrumptious Haleiwa restaurants and for dessert grab another North Shore must-have–authentic Hawaiian Shave Ice.
Spend the afternoon relaxing at Waimea Bay. Watch turtles at Laniakea Beach, also known as Turtle Beach. Witness a spectacular sunset at Sunset Beach.
There is nothing like seeing for miles from atop a volcano crater, making the last turn on a jungle trail to see a magnificent waterfall, or seeing whales, seals, and rare birds in their natural habitat.
One of the most famous trails is the iconic Diamond Head. The 0.8-mile hike from trailhead to summit is steep and strenuous, with many switchbacks and steep stairs, plus a couple of tunnels. The postcard view from the summit is stunning and worth the arduous climb. Note: Wear sturdy shoes and bring water.
Nearby is Koko Head Crater. It has 1,048 steps that lead almost straight up. Again, the panoramic views from the top are spectacular.
Oahu’s waterfall trails are some of the best in Hawaii. My favorite (and relatively easy) waterfall trail is Manoa Falls Trail. Another island favorite is the paved Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail.
One of the best lesser-known hiking trails is Kaena Point Seashore and Albatross Bird Sanctuary. Enter from North Shore. During nesting season over 400 Laysan albatross call this park home. You also might see Hawaiian monk seals in the tide pools and whales spouting off in the ocean.
AllTrails.com has a comprehensive list of dozens of Oahu hiking trails, their location, length, and degree of difficulty.
There are several places to snorkel on Oahu.
Shark’s Cove at the North Shore is a favorite of mine. It has a rough, rocky shore, not sand. Wear sturdy water shoes. Shark’s Cove is also a popular scuba diving spot, with miles of cave formations and lava tubes.
Hanauma Bay is the most famous of all Hawaii’s snorkeling beaches. Even if you don’t snorkel, Hanauma Bay and Nature Preserve is worth the visit. The bay is an old volcanic crater, has calm, shallow water, and beautiful white sand.
I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the beach while the rest of the family snorkeled.
My favorite way to explore any new place is to drive around and stop at interesting, historical, or scenic spots. Oahu has no shortage of amazing day drives. Using downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach as a starting point there are four scenic highways with some of my favorite stops.
Interstate H-1 and Route 61 loop: Driving south you’ll go by Diamond Head, Hawaii Kai Lookout near Koko Head and Hanauma Bay, Lanai Lookout, Halona Beach Cove (where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr filmed their famous beach love scene in From Here To Eternity), and the Halona Blowhole Lookout. Further east is Makapuu Lighthouse Lookout, Makapuu Beach, and Makapuu Point Tide Pools.
After Waimanalo Beach head inland and connect to Route 61, also known as the Pali Highway. You’ll leave the gorgeous beaches and head to the high country. A must-stop is the famous Nuuanu Pali Lookout, a historical landmark with panoramic views of mountain peaks and coastal cliffs. You’ll pass the Queen Emma Summer Palace as you head back into town.
Interstate H-2: This highway runs north to the Dole Plantation and North Shore. Along the way, there are vistas, beaches, shops, and macadamia nut farms.
Interstate H-3: H-3 is a beautiful scenic drive that takes you high over the mountains to the windward side of the island. There you can connect to Route 61, the H-1 loop, or take Kamehameha Highway north. Be sure to keep a look out on H-3 for the start of the Haiku Stairs, also known as the Haiku Ladder and Stairway to Heaven.
Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Arizona
Learn about one of the most pivotal moments in United States history at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, located in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, just north of downtown Honolulu. The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is comprised of the U.S.S. Arizona, U.S.S. Oklahoma, and U.S.S. Utah memorials.
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center offers excellent opportunities to learn about the December 7, 1941 attack on Oahu and the Pacific theater. There are two exhibit galleries, outdoor exhibits, an audio tour, a theater, and a bookstore. From there, visitors can access other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, such as the USS Bowfin Submarine, the Battleship Missouri, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
Traditional Hawaiian Luau
Learn about the culture of the Pacific Islands and Hawaiian life through shows, hands-on activities, hula, and fire dances. Enjoy traditional food and drink. There are several Hawaiian luaus to choose from. No matter which location you choose, you will always remember your first luau.
Paradise Cove is a seaside luau at Ko Olina Resort. This amazing experience begins the minute you walk through the gates with a Hawaiian lei and tropical drinks.
Thebackyard-style barbecue at Germaine’s Luau was featuredon Good Morning America.
Ka Moana Luau at Sea Life Park begins and ends with fire, the Toa Luau is near a waterfall in Waimea Valley on the North Shore, and the Polynesian Cultural Center offers several Hawaiian luau packages.
Learn Local History and Culture
The downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach area is full of island history and culture. Visit Hawaii’s premier cultural and natural history museum.
The Bishop Museum boasts three floors of signature galleries, special exhibitions, and a planetarium. Behold is the Iolani Palace, once home to King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani, the only official royal palace in the US. No Oahu vacation would be complete without photos at the Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Statue. This nine-foot bronze sculpture honors the Hawaiian Olympic champion and father of international surfing.
Sea Life Park
If snorkeling isn’t your thing, you can still see an abundance of marine life at Sea Life Park, less than 15 miles south of Waikiki. Watch shows and enjoy educational animal experiences at Hawaii’s number one marine life and animal park.
At Sea Life Park there are tons of family fun activities, including touch pools for the kids. If you’re looking for a more unique experience, you can swim with dolphins, sharks, or sea lions.
Did you know that there are over 30 golf courses on Oahu? Most are municipal, semi-private, or public. If you are a golfer, can you imagine anything finer than golfing on a beautiful Hawaiian island?
Whether you choose the windward side of the island, the leeward side, or North Shore, you will enjoy diverse landscapes and scenic ocean views. For a list of golf courses, location, and pricing check here.
There are plenty of activities on Oahu for the more adventurous thrill-seeker. You can swim with sharks at several locations including Haleiwa Shark Tours, North Shore Shark Adventures, and Island View Hawaii, all of which offer cage-free shark dives.
Or get a bird’s-eye view of Oahu’s North Shore on a scenic glider ride at Honolulu Soaring. Also known as Mr. Bill’s Original Glider Rides, they offer 10- to 90-minute rides at Dillingham Airfield. As I am afraid of heights, I was a little apprehensive when we were gifted a glider ride. But have no fear–this was the best experience ever!
Zipline, kayak, horseback ride, or go four-wheeling at Kualoa Ranch, an eco-adventure park where the movie Jurassic Park was filmed.
Deep Sea Fishing
One of the best experiences we had on Oahu was deep-sea fishing, also known as sportfishing. Oahu’s sportfishing adventures are some of the best in the world. Big game fish include ahi (yellowfin tuna), ono (wahoo), mahi-mahi (dolphin fish), marlin, and spearfish.
There are many outfits around Oahu, mostly on the leeward side, that offer half-day and full-day fishing trips. You’ll find a large selection at Waikiki Tours. We opted for Aikane Sportfishing and had an unforgettable fishing experience aboard the Kekahi Inn.
Shopping on Oahu is as diverse as the people who visit. In the heart of Waikiki, there is the iconic International Market Place and the Royal Hawaiian Center both offering dozens of high-end shops and restaurants. Just north of Waikiki is the Ala Moana Center, a four-story, upscale shopping mall.
If you are only going to have one shopping extravaganza in Oahu, I suggest the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. Don’t let the name fool you. This is more than just your average swap meet. The vendor booths circle the football stadium several rows deep. There is everything from ‘aloha’ t-shirts and bikinis to artwork and surfboards. There are plenty of Hawaiian food booths, too. You can even purchase a real painted coconut and have it mailed home.
Where to Eat
There are so many fantastic places to eat on Oahu; there are too many to list them all. However, if you want to experience Oahu, not just eat, there are two musts. North Shore Shrimp Trucks and La Mariana Sailing Club, near downtown Honolulu, at Ke’ehi Harbor.
No trip to Oahu would be complete without stopping at a North Shore Shrimp Truck (or two). There are several and everyone has their favorite. Giovanni’s, Hono’s, Romy’s, and Big Wave just to name a few. What will your favorite be?
The Historic La Mariana Sailing Club is legendary, to say the least. It is an authentic tiki bar restaurant and one of the most fun places on Oahu with the finest menu. La Mariana’s interior is filled with Hawaiian tiki décor and authentic artifacts like carved tikis, rattan chairs, and pufferfish lamps.
Where to Stay
There are so many great hotels in Waikiki. Staying right on the beach will cost you, but you can search a block or two off the beach to find some good deals.
For those that want to get away from the often hectic busyness of Waikiki as I do, there are several smaller beach resorts and B&Bs around the island. On the windward side of the Oahu, there is Waimanalo Beach Cottages near Waimanalo Beach, rated one of the best beaches in the world.A few miles north set in the world-famous area of Lanikaiis award-winning Hawaii’s Hidden Hideaway B&B.