Oahu is where I was born and raised, and where I lived my first 24 years. Because I still have family there, I visit every few years, and have been fortunate enough to share my favorite parts of the islands with my son and husband.
Oahu is probably the most well-known island, because it has been the backdrop of multiple TV shows. Currently, that would be Hawaii Five-O, and previous to that, the series Lost. If you had any notion that Hawaii is a quiet, small-town, tropical paradise, please tune in and watch Hawaii Five-O one evening. Honolulu, the big city, is the backdrop for this show and is shown exactly like it is: a giant metropolis (population in the 2010 census was nearly 1 million!) with blue, sandy beach backgrounds, as well as mountainous green backdrops and tropical jungles. You can hear multiple languages being spoken in Waikiki, from Japanese to German, and it is truly an international destination.
As with the other island reviews, I will describe the sites I’ve visited on Oahu, but cannot cover every inch of the island, and will refer you instead to what I consider the best series of books on the islands by Andrew Doughty. As with any advice from anyone, please use common sense when exploring and don’t do anything foolish just because you read it somewhere.
The Honolulu Airport
What people notice most is that the Honolulu Airport is an open air airport, not completely enclosed with air conditioning like most mainland airports. My husband says he loves feeling the sea breeze as soon as we get off the plane and walk through the open air terminal to baggage claim. That’s how he knows he’s in Hawaii again. The inter-island terminals also have some nicely landscaped outdoor areas you could enjoy while waiting for your flight, something you don’t see on the mainland.
Waikiki is a happening place that should be visited at least once. Waikiki Beach, with its gentle waves, is on one side of the main drag (Kalakaua Avenue), while high-rise hotels are on the other side. It is a fascinating place just to people watch, since people are literally from all over the world, and speak all different languages. At night, Waikiki comes alive with street artists doing everything from break dancing to classical violin playing. And of course, there are shops selling every kind of souvenir you could imagine, from clothes, to trinkets, to $10,000 art gallery paintings, so there’s something for everyone and every budget.
Diamond Head, on the far eastern end of Waikiki, is a landmark most people recognize as symbolic of Hawaii. What few people know is that there’s a challenging hike that takes you to the top of Diamond Head. The trailhead to the hike starts on the other side of Diamond Head, so most drive there, even if they’re staying in Waikiki. You get a spectacular birds-eye view of Waikiki from up there, along with a shoreline view extending for miles either way. The ocean view is definitely worth the hike, though do be warned, some of the hike is a bit strenuous. It’s also very hot and dry on this part of the island, so DO bring water.
Saturday Farmer’s Market at Kapiolani Community College
The KCC Saturday Farmer’s Market is very popular, and was quite crowded when we went one July. There were lots of vendors selling breakfast foods, and my mother and I had some fresh strawberry crepes. Sausage on a stick looked popular too, judging from the lines, and of course there were the usual Hawaiian pineapple, guava, and coconut smoothies available. Lots of fresh produce for sale too–apple bananas, pineapple, purple sweet potatoes, etc., in addition to other local products like jams and cookies and orchids. The KCC Saturday Farmer’s Market is a fun way to spend a Saturday morning if you’re in the area.
My son loves walking around Chinatown in downtown Honolulu because he’s never seen anything like it. There are myriad fresh fish and produce markets selling things he’s never seen before, along with cooked food vendors selling things he’s never heard of either. If you’re strictly a burgers and fries type, then Chinatown is not for you. But if you’re an adventurous soul that loves tasting and buying “different” things, then by all means, make a morning or afternoon shopping trip to Chinatown, and have something different for lunch. There are numerous places serving dim sum, or Chinese appetizer plates, that make for a fun lunch. Cooked plates of food, deli-style, can also be ordered at many vendors. There are even Chinese pastry shops selling things like moon cakes and sesame-peanut candies, among other things. My favorites are the see moi, or Chinese preserved fruits, and nori mochi crunch, or seaweed-wrapped rice crackers.
Ala Moana is a huge, open air retail shopping center with a massive food court that’s worth visiting, in addition to some restaurants found throughout the complex. Dining choices go from the American McDonald’s and Dairy Queen to Korean, Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, and Thai. And you can top off your meal with French pastries for dessert! I always gain 10 lbs every time I visit lol! The mix of retailers reflects the international shopping clientele: there’s the all-American Sears, along with Shirokiya, a Japanese retailer. The well known Victoria’s Secret is found as well as a variety of local retailers only found in Hawaii selling surf/Hawaiian apparel. Even if you come from a big city with big malls, you will be amazed at the variety found here at Ala Moana.
Hanauma Bay is one of the most well-known snorkel beaches on the islands, and is so popular that it closes every Tuesday to let the water refresh. Because parking is limited, you should arrive as early as possible, because after the lot is full, they just turn people away. Hanauma is a Marine Life Conservation District, which means no fishing is allowed, and there are consequently lots of fish. The biggest parrotfish I’ve ever seen in my life swims around here. The only downside to Hanauma is that because of its popularity, it’s not really a “natural” experience, with just you and the fish, since so many other people are there. But there’s an educational center and video that newbie snorkelers should watch. Please do not stand on the coral–it’s a living organism and you kill it when you step on it.
East Coast drive to Waimanalo
This drive is literally along the cliffs overlooking the ocean and offers some spectacular views, and some pulloffs for you to take pictures. The Blowhole, another well-known landmark, is found here and at high tides creates quite a spray! Makapuu Beach is a beautiful beach framed by black lava rocks, but has some incredible riptides, so only strong swimmers should enter the water.
Lanikai Beach, Kailua
There are several islands offshore of Lanikai that you can choose to kayak or swim to. My son swam with snorkel and flippers to one of the smaller islands, but once he got there, he said he really couldn’t walk on the island, because, well, you can’t walk on lava in bare feet, and you can’t walk in flippers either. So he just rested a bit, and then swam back.
We had an unexpected surprise the day we visited. While we were sitting on the beach, out of nowhere, a parasailer just landed right in front of us. Then he packed up his gear and disappeared just as quickly as he arrived!
Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, Kaneohe
Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, on the windward, lush, tropical eastern side of the island, was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection for Kaneohe. It is an incredibly beautiful, tranquil garden setting, with a manmade lake against the backdrop of the lush Koolau mountains. There are walking trails and benches at Hoomaluhia to enjoy quiet contemplation. And there are hundreds of ducks to break the silence for you! The birds here also sing full songs, not just one note, like the ones we hear back home in Florida. We actually photographed a mongoose here, which is pretty difficult, since they’re like squirrels and never stay still very long. They are considered pests and there are no natural predators in Hawaii
H3, the freeway that goes through a mountain
The H3 connects from the H1, on the Honolulu side, then goes through the Koolau Mountain Range to the Windward cities of Kaneohe and Kailua. It’s incredibly scenic because you drive right up to the green mountain range, and then go through the mountain. When you exit on the other side, you see the ocean again. The view is actually different on each side of the H3, so if you’re on Oahu long enough, you can plan to drive it both coming and going from Honolulu. Honolulu traffic is brutal at rush hour though, so try to time it so you’re not near downtown on the H1 in the afternoon.
Waimea Bay on the North Shore
Waimea Bay is an absolutely beautiful blue-green bay with calm waters you can snorkel on the left side during the summer. While it was a little cloudy, I did see more than one turtle and of course, fish. During the winter months, the surf here can be treacherous and swimming is not advised.
There is a tall lava rock just offshore that many jump from into the ocean. It is high enough to cause hesitation when you’re up there looking down, but not high enough to hurt anyone doing a cannonball; I’m not sure if you’d hit bottom if you dove head first at low tide, but I certainly wouldn’t try it! Warning to both sexes—the force of the water from a jump that high can push your swimsuit off! Females tend to stay slightly submerged when they surface, checking that everything is still tightly tied on before fully emerging from the water. : )
Because of Waimea’s beauty and popularity, it is difficult to find parking and it’s best to come early, or be patient when you arrive and turn off your ignition while waiting for a parking space.
Shark’s Cove, Three Tables, and Turtle Beach, North Shore
These are beaches on Oahu’s north shore with good snorkeling. The north shore is certainly not as touristy as Waikiki, so the beaches aren’t as crowded, and it’s a nice alternative to snorkeling the sometimes crowded Hanauma Bay. Shark’s Cove, shown here, is a bay with fairly clear water and a good assortment of coral. Three Tables down the road had quite a few fish, but was a little cloudy since we were there in the afternoon and there was already some wave action. Turtle Beach was so cloudy that we got out of the water because we couldn’t even see anything snorkeling. BUT, you don’t even need a snorkel if you want to see turtles. They crawl out of the ocean and sun themselves on shore, oblivious to all the tourists who stop to get their pictures taken with them on the beach. While we were there, an entire busload of Japanese tourists got out and had their pictures taken!
Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, Haleiwa, North Shore
Matsumoto’s is supposedly one of the best places on the island to get good shave ice, and they certainly have a variety of flavors to choose from! Since it’s such a local treat, we always stop here after visiting Waimea Bay so my son can get one. The last time we were there, there was a Japanese film crew filming some sort of Japanese reality show, and dozens of people in their entourage showed up and filled Matsumoto’s. I could hear people speaking Japanese, along with Japanese signage on some objects people were carrying, but I can neither read nor speak Japanese so have no idea what it was all about. I got pictures of them taking pictures though!
Waiola Shave Ice, Kapahulu and McCully
Some say Waiola’s shave ice is better than Matsumoto’s. Certainly easier to get to, since it’s in Honolulu! In fact, Kapahulu is an area right behind Waikiki, so worth checking out if that’s where you’re staying. My son recommends both places; he says they’re both great, but in different ways. The shave ice is finer at Waiola, but there are more flavor choices at Matsumoto’s like pickled mango.
Byodo-In Temple, Kaneohe
The Byodo-In Temple is a replica of a Buddhist temple from Japan and worth a visit if you want to feel like you’re in Japan without having to make the trip. I’ve never been to Japan myself, but I thought it seemed pretty authentic, and there was a koi pond teeming with fish that you could feed. Very pretty, very serene, with a beautiful green mountain backdrop, it’s a nice change of pace from Waikiki. If you’re a Lost fan, this is where Jin proposed to Sun–it’s her father’s house.
Submarine Tour off Waikiki
We did the Atlantis Submarine tour one year, because, well, I’d never been on a real submarine and thought it might be fun. Apparently Atlantis Submarines offers tours not only in Wakiki, but also on Maui and the Big Island. On the Waikiki tour, you are taken by boat to the deeper waters off Waikiki. The boat ride alone is enjoyable, because you can see Diamond Head to the east, and see Waikiki from a different viewpoint—offshore. After awhile, the boat stops, and you’re somewhere in the middle of the ocean, yet not far from civilization because you can see all of Honolulu. Then, from deep below, a submarine slowly emerges not far from your boat, and it’s like you’re in a movie. The two objects slowly come together (boat and submarine), and people are unloaded off the submarine, and another group (us) is loaded on. The whole process of boarding a submarine in the Pacific Ocean off Waikiki seemed pretty surreal. But everything went as planned, people boarded, took seats, the hatch was closed, and we started to descend to the depths of the ocean. I could see a depth gauge counting higher and higher, and yet we didn’t feel any different because the cabin is obviously pressurized. It didn’t seem any different, really, from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where they pretend that you’re diving deep, only we really were!
There are some sunken ships and artificial reefs that the submarine drives around, and we did see a turtle just sitting there, deep under the ocean. But honestly, I actually see more fish while snorkeling. I would still recommend the Atlantis Submarine tour to anyone as a unique way to spend part of their day though, just because it’s such a unique experience.
Dining on Oahu
If you took the time to fly all the way to Hawaii, you really owe it to yourself to try some of the local foods. Hawaii is a true melting pot, and you can find a smorgasbord of cuisines, from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, and Hawaiian, to Italian, Mexican, American, and Pacific Rim Cuisine (a new age blend of everything). If you love food, you will be in 7th Heaven, and my son has even told me he’s dreamt about some of the local meals he’s had here, once we’re back home. Look for restaurants where locals eat—the parking lot will be crowded, or you can clearly see a restaurant that’s full. That’s where the good, inexpensive food is.
You can’t get more local than a shrimp truck on the north shore. After we visited the North Shore, Waimea Bay, and some of the other beaches, we were hungry. Where to eat? Well it turns out there are several shrimp trucks on the main road into/out of Haleiwa in a parking lot sort of across the street from the McDonald’s. We ate at Zane’s and I had the best deep fried coconut shrimp ever. It even came with an absolutely delicious citrus sauce as a dip. Even my mom, one of the most critical food critics I know, pronounced it very good! My husband had the fish and chips and also said it was excellent and fresh.
Local fast food can be found at places like L&L (a chain that’s as common as McDonald’s is on the mainland), Zippy’s, and other local chains. They serve the standard “plate lunch,” which is a main local entrée like curry chicken katsu (curry sauce on a crispy, coated chicken breast) or kalua pig (smoky, shredded pork), along with rice and macaroni salad. It’s also a good place to try some of the local fresh fish at reasonable prices.
The Chinese restaurants here have extensive menus with dishes you won’t find at standard take-out places in many mainland cities, so you should try something new. You can find Chicken w/ Crunchy Cashew Nuts in a Crispy Taro Basket at Hee Hing in Kapahulu, for example. You can actually eat the taro basket, and it’s delicious! Taro is a root, like potatoes, and you can fry it, like potato chips. It’s delicious in a different way. You can also buy a bag of taro chips at Long’s or ABC Drugs, the two drug stores you find everywhere in Hawaii. Hee Hing also serves excellent noodle dishes and won ton mein (won tons with noodles in soup) is one of my son’s favorite dishes here. Crispy honey walnut shrimp is also excellent, though a bit pricey. And they do make an excellent version of my favorite dish growing up: crispy pan fried (cake) noodles with chicken and vegetables.
I have a hard time finding Korean food on the mainland, so love eating it in Hawaii, especially the little bowls of seasoned cold veggies like bean sprouts and watercress they always bring out with your meal. Pul-go-gi, or Korean BBQ beef, is my favorite, and is a staple on the menu of any Korean restaurant, like Kim Chee II in Kaimuki, shown here. The BBQ chicken is also very good. This is not “mainland-style” tomato sauce BBQ, but Hawaiian style teriyaki BBQ where the marinade is soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and sesame oil. Yumm!
If you like sushi, you’ll be in heaven here. Even the supermarkets carry decent sushi, and it’s my favorite snack to take to the beach in a small cooler. Bite-sized, tasty snacks between snorkeling, yum! In Hawaii, sushi doesn’t always mean raw fish is an ingredient. My favorite type has canned, seasoned tuna in it. And then there are sweet cone sushi (also called aburage), where sweet rice is stuffed into a deep fried, brown tofu wrapper. If you’re into unique foods, check out some of the local supermarket delis. At the Foodland in Kaimuki, you can buy things like tako poke (spicy octopus), along with spam musubi (seaweed wrapped rice balls with a spam center). Yes, the food in Hawaii is definitely unique!
While you’re in Hawaii, you might also want to try Pacific Rim cuisine, which is the more upscale, fine dining version of local foods. Be prepared for an interesting menu and some steep prices though! For more affordable options, there’s a little hole in the wall place called North Shore Grinds in Kaimuki, on 10th Avenue. They serve upscale fish dishes in a plate lunch style. I had a grilled mahi with cilantro pesto plate that had brown rice and a green salad as the sides. It was excellent and reasonably priced. The fish was the freshest I’ve ever had (next to Alaska), probably because there was a fish market two doors down from them. If we’d stayed longer I would’ve also tried their herb crusted mahi with a lemon cream sauce. I’d definitely check out North Shore Grinds if you’re in the area.
For Hawaiian food, Ala Moana Poi Bowl at the Ala Moana Makai Market Food Court has just about everything. My son had a plate of pork lau lau (pork steamed in lau lau leaves), lomi lomi salmon (salmon with tomatoes and onions), poi (taro root paste), chicken long rice (clear rice noodles and chicken in broth), and haupia (coconut pudding). It was all pretty good and I really liked the chicken long rice.
Bubbies is an ice cream shop in the University area that sells mochi ice cream. If you’ve never had it, you should try it; it’s a different taste sensation, that’s for sure! Mochi is a rice flour that has a chewy consistency. Japanese mochi is a snack with mochi on the outside, and some filling, usually a sweet black bean paste, on the inside. Well, what Bubbie’s did was put ice cream inside the mochi instead of the typical filling. The result? Chewy ice cream! I liked the chocolate mochi with peanut butter ice cream inside, and also the chocolate dipped raspberry mochi. We also had some fabulous ice cream pie with raspberry, chocolate, Bailey’s, and oreos. Man, do these people know ice cream flavors!
Shopping for Local Products on Oahu
There’s one retailer in the Ala Moana area (801 Kaheka St) that is a uniquely local store. Currently called Don Quijote, it used to be Daiei, and before that Holiday Mart. It seems as if everytime I go back it has a different name, but still carries a huge, and I mean huge selection of local and direct from Asia products, meaning, I can’t read the label and have no idea what the product is. My husband described it as an Asian Wal-Mart on LSD lol! They have cases and cases of different brands of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, so if you want to buy in bulk, you can get a good deal here. Long’s Drugs is the other place that carries a large assortment of snacks if you’re looking for something unique to bring back. And if you’re hungry, there are even hot take-out food items you can buy out front: Chinese dim sum, Korean BBQ, Japanese food, plate lunches, milkshakes, etc. The deli inside also had a lot of prepared food for sale. I found some brown chocolate mochi with a peanut butter filling, and also a purple taro mochi with a sweet potato filling.
If you’re anything like me, you will eat to your heart’s content while in Hawaii, buy a few cases of chocolate covered macadamia nuts to take home to friends and relatives, savor the last bite back home awhile later, and remember the good times you had while visiting. Hopefully, you’ll come back and visit another island on your next trip!