For an island only slightly larger than New York City, Oahu is brimming with opportunities for adventure, and nothing requires more than an hour drive. Away from Waikiki’s electric strip, green mountainous ridges tower over a cross-island highway that connects some of the world’s greatest surf spots with breathtaking hikes and world-class snorkeling.
Once an isolated kingdom halfway between Asia and America, Hawaii has developed a unique cultural identity independent of the mainland U.S. With influences from Polynesia, Japan and China (to name a few)—apparent in local language, music and cuisine that spans fresh seafood to Spam—Oahu, the state’s most populous island, is the epicenter of the aloha spirit.
From 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., Marukame Udon in Waikiki—the sole outpost of the eponymous Japan eatery—is packed with patrons slurping up Sanuki udon before they hurry into work. It’s known for its noodles—their dense, toothsome texture is achieved by aging the dough—and addictive broth, which is made in small batches to maintain optimal flavor. The Ontama, mixed with fried garlic, scallions and soft-boiled egg in bukkake broth, is a consistent favorite.
Head to the Honolulu Museum of Art to learn about Islamic art, and if you haven’t had enough, take the museum’s shuttle to Shangri La, the former home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke and home to one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic art in the world. The master suite—opened to the public less than a year ago—is modeled after the Taj Mahal, complete with red, green and gold mosaic work and perforated marble doors called jali that allow the sunlight in. Plan ahead, as tickets ($25) sell out a month in advance, and morning tours are best—air conditioning was one luxury even Duke lived without. Prepare to spend about 90 minutes in this palace-like home.
Take the shuttle back to the Honolulu Art Museum and head to Oahu Market in Chinatown. The city’s oldest market (open since 1904) is not exactly clean and draws a seedy crowd at night, but it guarantees a discovery. Scour the narrow aisles for roasted piglet heads and snouts, rows of fresh kampachi (white fish native to Hawaii) and exotic fruits, like the fuchsia-colored star apple. Don’t leave without trying povi masima—salted, Samoan beef brisket.
Prep for an active day by filling up on macadamia and banana soufflé pancakes at Cream Pot. The lighter, tastier version of the breakfast standby is, unfortunately, also much easier to eat. For something savory, try the Japanese-inspired Benedict with ahi tuna on rice cakes.
Oahu’s striking topography is a hiker’s paradise. For the thrill-seeker, Olomana requires rock climbing and steady footing to reach its three jagged peaks, which offer unparalleled views of the Eastern half of the island. The Lanikai Pillbox hike (pictured above) takes you through a series of hills that look down at the clear, turquoise water at Lanikai beach and Mokulua islands. You can spot the former wartime pillboxes, which now house backpackers and homeless. Now-defunct wooden train tracks offer a vertical climb up Koko Head Mountain for a cardio challenge. Or, dodge the afternoon sun on the shaded trail to Manoa Falls, which—depending on the season—are either voluminous or a slow dribble.
To cool off, rent or BYO snorkel gear to Hanauma Bay nature reserve, which is replete with schools of tiny silver goatfish, bright blue and yellow parrotfish and spotted yellow and black surgeonfish darting through coral reef. Watch your step for sea urchins.
In ancient Hawaii, a luau marked a special occasion, like a marriage or a victory at war, with food and dance to honor the gods. Paradise Cove’s waterfront luau (from $80) starts just before sunset with activities like canoe riding and hula dancing. Over dinner—a buffet of traditional Hawaiian dishes like poi, mashed taro, and kalua pig—dancers dressed in elaborate costumes perform Tahitian and Samoan dance. But the fire show is the real spectacle.
Alternatively, Hale Kealoha serves luau food in a minimalist environment—cement floors, long faux-wood tables and folding chairs—but the food is authentic, as noted by the dominantly local crowd. For $28, you get a traditional Hawaiian spread—including poke, raw Ahi tuna marinated in soy sauce and seaweed, and squid luau—a grassy curry made from taro leaves, coconut cream and small pieces of squid. Meals are served family-style, and there is live music Saturday and Sunday nights.
From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the last Friday of every month, the Honolulu Museum of Art reopens with food, wine, and cocktails for Art After Dark. A welcome change from the usual bar scene, the $10 entry grants access to a new exhibit every month and even better people watching; culture-seeking grandmas, drunken 20-somethings, and everything in between frequent the event. Just make sure to arrive early; parking is a mess.
Start the day with a hot, fluffy malasada—a Portuguese doughnut, without the hole—from Leonard’s bakery. Made in bulk in old Portugal to use up lard and sugar in the house before Lent, the classic malasada was plain and topped with sugar. Leonard’s modern iterations are stuffed with haupia (coconut custard) or macadamia nut cream. Spot Leonard’s by its retro neon sign and the smell permeating through the crowded parking lot.
After breakfast, go from from Portugal to Japan as you step onto the lawn in front of Byodo-in Temple, a replica of a 900-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Green, fog-covered mountains stand in contrast behind the temple and on the grounds, black swans and peacocks roam freely contributing to the dream-like haze.
It’s hard to believe that Oahu’s bright blue water was the final resting place of more than 2,000 American soldiers after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. An hourlong tour of the former naval base includes a film and a boat ride to the site of the USS Arizona, where visitors can board a memorial built atop the sunken ship. Looking down through the clear water, you can see the oil still leaking from the ship, said to represent the tears of those buried underneath.
Hawaiians have been surfing for more than 3,000 years, when fishermen started riding waves on a board to get ashore faster with their daily catch. If you’ve got your own board, find the perfect wave on the North Shore’s Ehukai Beach (known as Banzai Pipeline) and Waimea Bay. Otherwise, book a lesson with the friendly staff at Gone Surfing Hawaii, and don’t be surprised if they take you out for drinks after.
There’s a long-held debate over which is the best shrimp truck on Oahu, but you can’t go wrong with the garlic shrimp at Giovanni’s. The graffiti-covered truck, parked in a dusty lot a mile from the North Shore, serves a mound of just-caught shrimp fried and smothered in garlic and oil for $13.
The best way to cool off on a hot day is with a cup of shave ice. It’s served everywhere in Hawaii, but Matsumoto is the most famous—for good reason. The green tea special—green tea-flavored ice with vanilla ice cream, adzuki bean, mochi and “snow cap” (condensed milk)—isn’t just dessert; it’s an art.
Watch the sun set over Waikiki and the rest of Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head, which affords perhaps the best view on the island. The hike up is short (about 0.7 miles), but give yourself some extra time on Oahu’s most popular hike to maneuver around the other tourists.
For dinner, head to Side Street Inn, a sports bar in an industrial section of Honolulu that serves furikake-crusted ahi and flaky, deep-fried kampachi that rivals any four-star eatery. Don’t leave without trying the spicy fried chicken, seasoned with sweet chili and shoyu.
Tucked away on the third floor of a former apartment building on Lewers Street in Waikiki, Genius Lounge Sake Bar is a refreshing retreat from the craze of Kalakaua Avenue. Cherry wood furnishings and candlelit tables create an upscale vibe, but moderately priced beers and sake maintain it as a standby for Asian transplants and locals.
Fly into Honolulu International Airport (HNL), which is 10 miles from Waikiki, six miles from downtown and serviced by the major airlines.
In Waikiki, Hale Koa Hotel has breathtaking ocean views and high-end food at half the cost of a neighboring resort. The catch: it’s an Armed Forces Recreation Center, so you’ll need either a connection to the Department of Defense or a sponsor. Rooms start at $90.
Set within a nearly 650-acre gated resort community, Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club is about a half-hour from Honolulu by car and far more subdued. The resort’s private lagoons offer calm swimming and quiet sunsets. Rooms start at about $300.
Rent an apartment on Airbnb in Waikiki, Kailua or North Shore for an average of $100 per night.
is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.