Previous visitors usually light up when you tell them you’re going to Hawaii—especially for the first time. Earlier this month, I went for the first time with family to the state’s most popular, well-developed, but still rural island of Oahu.
After exploring every corner of this so-called “Heart of Hawaii” for 10 full days, I consider myself fully converted to the gospel of Aloha and the greater eight-island state. For individuals who want to experience Hawaii without feeling or bored or “island fever,” Oahu is the best of both worlds, and a great gateway isle.
Here you can relax at a picturesque beach, gawk at some of the world’s largest waves and the tiny surfers trying to harness them, or surf yourself on nearby gentle giants. You can snorkel some of the finest reefs, find the perfect romantic sunset, drive through volcanic valleys, or kayak and parasail on the open teal seas. If the outdoors aren’t your thing, you can shop, wine, and dine at Waikiki’s finest in this “Paradise of the Pacific.”
First Things First
When you arrive at Honolulu International Airport, you’ll notice how old (if not run-down) the place seems to be. Could this be a sign of things to come? Might Oahu be overhyped? An hour later, I found my answer: Not at all.
While driving through this capital, coastal city, I was struck by its natural beauty. Admittedly, the island isn’t the most immaculate. But its surroundings are stunning. And what it lacks in manicured surroundings, it more than makes up for with the hospitality and warmth of the Oahu people (who account for more than two thirds of the state’s total population).
To get the most out of the island and to access its four major regions—the crowded South Shore, the rural North Shore, the scenic Windward/East Coast, and the sleepy Leeward/West Coast—I strongly recommend renting a convertible Mustang or family minivan. Although costly, it’s worth every penny. You’ll surely encounter slow traffic at times, but you probably won’t care upon looking out the window and finding yourself in Hawaii.
Things To Do
With so much to do on Oahu, I’ll get right to my recommendations. For sunbathing and swimming, Kailua was our favorite beach. Unlike nearby Lanikai (also stunning), the former has bathrooms and showers and grass covered knolls to take it all in. Kualoa Beach Park is also quintessential Hawaii.
For massive waves, head to Bonzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea on the fabled North Shore. If you go in winter, you can see jaw-dropping swells between 30-40 feet high. The sight is so impressive, we spent several hours just watching these forces of nature roll in.
For terrific scenery, drive north on the Kalanianaole Highway (Route 72) and look to your right as you round the corner. If you do, you may just see breaching humpback whales and will surely see one of the most amazing stretches of green coastline in your life. Pali Lookout on State Highway 61, Tantalus Lookout, and West Oahu’s Route 93 are also worth your time.
As for getting wet, I can’t say enough about snorkeling Hanauma Bay. Although crowded, you won’t care while watching green sea turtles rummage for food, finding some of Nemo’s colorful friends, and being surrounding by schools of shiny fish. As for surfing, the beginner waves of Waikiki and Gone Surfing Hawaii are an awesome ride, and Chuns Reef is a good place to surf the North Shore without dying.
To see for yourself why so many people want to get married here, head to Turtle Bay Resort. On a poolside Thursday night overlooking the ocean with a ukulele playing in the background, I witnessed one of the most peaceful, serene, and golden sunsets in my life.
To round things out, we enjoyed the Tahitian coconut bread, Hawaiian luau and fire dancers at the Polynesian Culture Center. (For comparison, I’ve seen impressive indigenous dances in both Africa and New Zealand, and this was arguably the best.) We also enjoyed hiking Manoa Falls, Diamond Head, and feeling something fierce on the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
With so much to eat on Oahu, again I’ll get right to the highlights. At Flour & Barley, jump for the ahi poke (a delicious Hawaiian spin on sashimi), meatball bruschetta, and vegetable pizza. At MW Restaurant, excite your Asian palate and understanding of food pairings with ahi nachos, Hawaiian dumplings, and wasabi prime rib. At Agu Raman, don’t miss the miso and spicy tonkotsu.
On the North Shore, my family ate at Angel’s Shave Ice three times within 48 hours. Topped with sweetened condensed milk and a trio of premium syrups, it’s a taste explosion. So is Seven Brothers Burgers. I tried several different combinations while there, but my favorite was the perfectly seasoned cheeseburger. The best thing I ate in big surf country, however, was Kono’s “Old School” pork sandwich with guava BBQ sauce. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
To finish off our appetites, we dined at Zippy’s, an Oahu staple that native Brunos Mars endorses. Although it’s mostly regional comfort food, their mac salad is the best I’ve ever had, their twist on chili is worth trying, and their Korean chicken is worth writing home about.
The best meal we had during our entire stay, however, was at Bills Hawaii. Chef Lucas Woodden’s watermelon and pork mint salad is a revelation that totally works. So is his veal pork ragu with arugula and pappardelle. And his scrumptious ricotta pancakes—all exciting and regional spins on traditional favorites.
Where to stay
Although Oahu rooms are in no way cheap, the good news is they are a bit more affordable and with a wider selection than other Hawaiian islands. During our stay, five properties stood out, one of which I will write about exclusively next week. For the center of it all, you can’t go wrong with Outrigger Waikiki. It’s right on the best part of the beach, is a great option for those seeking cultural events such as lei making and hula dancing, and embodies the Aloha spirit.
For something a little more fun, head to Hilton Hawaiian Village. It’s a much more spacious property with its own lagoon, several pools, private beach, sprawling shopping center, and Firework Friday’s. While on the North Shore, splurge for at least one night at the aforementioned and unrivaled Turtle Bay. Then stay the rest of the time at the suprsingly delightful Courtyard Marriott North Shore, a rejuvinating springboard to everything the area has to offer.
The final word
I’m in awe of Oahu. After visiting it, I’m determined to return sooner than later and widen my scope to nearby Kauai, Maui, and the “big” island. Anyone who has simply touched down for Honolulu or Pearl Harbor is grossly missing out on its unique mix of “exotic America.”
All told, it’s remarkable for a destination to have either spectacular sights, exciting food, or endearing culture. That Hawaii has all three is a testament to its enduring notoriety and never-ending fondness. As the gateway to and arguably the most diverse of those convergent Hawaiian possessions, Oahu is undeniably outstanding.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him @blakesnow