Exploring Hawaiian Culture on Oahu

  • 01 of 10

    The Rise of Cultural Tourism

    Statue of Duke Kahanamoku in Waikiki
    John Fischer

    Cultural tourism is thriving, and especially so in Hawaii and on the island of Oahu.

    Visitors to Hawaii need to take the time to learn about the culture, foods, history, language, and music of the islands. While Hawaii is the 50th state, there is no other such ethnically and culturally diverse state in the nation.

    In this feature, we will help you plan some experiences during your trip to Oahu that will allow you to experience the many cultures of the people of Hawaii, learn a bit about the history of Hawaii, try some foods that you may have never eaten, and finally feel the rhythm of the islands with its ever-changing music scene.

    It all begins with your flight.

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  • 02 of 10

    Which Airline to Fly

    Hawaiian Airlines
    Hawaiian Airlines

    Sadly, there really is only one airline on which you can get a sense of Hawaii and that is ​Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian is Hawaii's biggest and longest-serving airline.

    Hawaiian flies from 11 gateway cities in the mainland USA including, for East Coast fliers, a non-stop flight from New York's JFK Airport to Honolulu International Airport. The airline was named the nation's top carrier for punctuality in 2015 for the 14th consecutive year.

    With local Hawaiian flight attendants who are eager to share their aloha, to main cabin meals that feature some excellent Pacific Rim cuisine, Hawaiian Airlines is definitely the airline of choice when flying to Hawaii.

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  • 03 of 10

    Where to Stay on Oahu

    The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
    John Fischer

    The choice of hotels that will really give you a sense of the history and culture of Hawaii is a bit easier in that there are a number of excellent options.

    Starwood Hotels and Resorts manages two of the oldest and historically significant hotels in Waikiki, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened in 1927 and the Moana Surfrider (a Westin Resort & Spa) which opened in 1901. Located between these two iconic properties is the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach and nearby is the Outrigger Reef on the Beach. All four hotels offer daily Hawaiian cultural activities.

    The Royal Hawaiian offers history tours twice weekly as well as once a week classes or demonstrations of Hawaiian quilting, shell/kukui nut bracelet making, lauhala bracelet weaving, coconut art, and flower lei making.

    The Westin Moana Surfrider offers historical tours three times weekly as well as flower lei making classes, a twice-weekly kukui nut art workshop, and a weekly ho'ala, a Hawaiian sunrise ceremony.

    The two Outrigger properties offer an extensive selection of daily activities which include hula and 'ukulele lessons, classes in making flower hairpieces, a ti leaf lei, a kukui nut bracelet, and more.

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  • 04 of 10

    What to Do in Waikiki

    Young Man surfing on a Boogie Board
    John Fischer

    Despite a reputation as merely a large urban hotel and shopping megacity, there are actually a number of activities in Waikiki in which a visitor can participate which will give him or her sense of the history and culture of the area.

    Several hotels offer historical walking tours of Waikiki and there is also an excellent self-guided walking tour, which will take you along the beaches of Waikiki, where some of Hawaii's past heroes, such as the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, once stood.

    Above all else, however, Waikiki is about the water and there are numerous ocean activities where you can try some of the sports that have made Waikiki famous for the past 100+ years. You can take a surfing lesson from one of the famed Hawaii beach boys or try your hand at standup paddle boarding.

    If you'd prefer to take it all in sitting down, you can take an outrigger canoe ride and still experience the ebb and flow of the waves of Waikiki.

    Of course, for many, like millions before, it's enough to just relax on the beach and take a dip in the ocean.

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  • 05 of 10

    What to See in Historic Honolulu (Part 1)

    Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum
    John Fischer

    A short drive or bus ride from Waikiki, two historic buildings are must-sees for anyone interested in the history of Hawaii.

    The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, designated the Hawaii State Museum of Natural and Cultural History, is a museum of history and science located in the historic Kalihi district of Honolulu.

    The three floors of Hawaiian Hall take visitors on a journey through the different realms of Hawaii. The first floor is the realm of Kai Akea which represents the Hawaiian gods, legends, beliefs, and the world of pre-contact Hawaii. The second floor, Wao Kanaka, represents the realm where people live and work; focusing on the importance of the land and nature in daily life. The third floor, Wao Lani, is the realm inhabited by the gods; here, visitors will learn about the ali'i and key moments and rulers in Hawaiian history.

    Of particular interest in Hawaiian Hall, the ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (helmet) of Kalani‘opu‘u, the chief of Hawaii Island and given to Captain James Cook in 1779 as a gesture of goodwill, has returned to Hawaii from New Zealand on long-term loan. For Native Hawaiians, the ‘ahu ‘ula, mahiole, and all other featherwork were reserved exclusively for the use of their ali‘i (royalty), symbolizing their chiefly divinity, rank, and power.

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  • 06 of 10

    What to See in Historic Honolulu (Part 2)

    The Iolani Palace
    Luis Castaneda Inc. / Getty Images

    Located in downtown Honolulu's historic district, the 'Iolani Palace is the only royal palace located within the 50 United States.

    Built in 1882 by King David Kalakaua, the 'Iolani Palace was the home to Hawaii's last two ruling monarch, Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Lili`uokalani, who ruled until she was deposed in a palace coup lead by a group of American and European businessmen in 1893.

    Today, the palace offers self-guided audio as well as docent-guided tours. Original furniture and belongings of the monarchs continue to be located and returned to the palace for display in the State and personal rooms, as well as in the excellent museum in the basement level of the palace.

    While you're in the palace area, be sure to take a walking tour of historic Honolulu.

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  • 07 of 10

    Where to Go on Oahu's Windward Coast and North Shore

    Hawaii, Oahu, Group of people horseback riding at Kualoa Ranch
    Dana Edmunds / Getty Images

    Located a bit over an hour north and east of Waikiki, two destinations offer visitors the opportunity to learn. First is a place where families can learn about the history and culture of the various peoples of Polynesia who migrated to the shores of Hawaii beginning over 1000 years ago.

    Established in 1963 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Polynesian Cultural Center features six Polynesian "islands" in a beautifully landscaped, 42-acre setting representing Fiji, Hawaii, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. Additional island exhibits include the great mo'ai statues and huts of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the islands of Marquesas. A beautiful manmade freshwater lagoon winds throughout the Center.

    About 70 percent of the PCC's 1,000 employees are Brigham Young University-Hawaii students from the actual islands represented at the PCC.

    The second location, Kualoa Ranch, is owned by a family descended from the first Western physician in Hawaii, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, who is dedicated to the preservation of some of the most beautiful and picturesque land in all of Hawaii. Dr. Judd purchased the original acreage from King Kamehameha III in 1850 and the family has owned the land since.

    Kualoa Ranch is a 4000-acre private nature reserve and working cattle ranch located on Oahu's Windward Coast.

    In an effort of offset the costs of preserving the vast majority of their historic land, Kualoa Ranch offers a wide assortment of tours including Jungle Excursions, Garden Tours, ATV and horseback tours, as well as a new zipline tour. By far their most popular tour is their movie location tour in which you'll visit numerous filming locations for such films as 50 First Dates, Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Mighty Joe Young, Pearl Harbor, Tears of the Sun, and Windtalkers, as well as the hit TV series LOST.

    Kualoa Ranch is an example of how a family can maintain their connection to history and the land while still thriving in the modern world.

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  • 08 of 10

    How to Wind Down in the Evening

    Blue Note Hawaii
    Blue Note Hawaii

    After a day of adventure, it's time to rest and enjoy some food and entertainment.

    Choosing a place to dine on Oahu is a difficult, often near impossible, decision. There are hundreds of dining options and many are excellent choices.

    One of our favorites is located in the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach and it is appropriately called Duke's. With photos and ambiance that recall the heyday of Oahu's beach boys, Duke's offers a fine selection of Pacific Rim cuisine. It is, however, perhaps best known for its "barefoot bar" where you can enjoy some of the best island cocktails and a fine bar menu.

    For a relaxed dining experience, just a short cab or rental car drive from Waikiki, Nico's Pier 38 features fresh fish caught by the local fleet, hand-picked daily by Chef Nico himself and his expert fish buyers. You won't find a better poke trio appetizer in Hawaii. The staff and owner are amazingly friendly and there's live entertainment most evenings.

    For a more modern twist on Pacific Rim cuisine, and within walking distance of many Waikiki hotels, you can try Chai's Waikiki where Chef Chai Chaowasaree has reopened one of his eateries with an upscale Hawaiian fusion concept featuring the use of as many local ingredients as possible.

    When the dining is done and there's still time to party, head to Blue Note Hawaii at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach. This 9,000 square-foot jazz club and restaurant features some of the world's most celebrated artists, from jazz and blues to Hawaiian favorites in an intimate and often lively setting.

    There are also numerous locations in the greater Waikiki area where you can catch the best Hawaiian music artists such as 'ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro who we had the privilege of meeting again at Kamaka & Sons Ukulele where our small group was able to enjoy a factory tour narrated by the 91-year-old Fred Kamaka, Sr.

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  • 09 of 10

    What About a Luau?

    'Aha 'Aina, Royal Hawaiian Hotel
    John Fischer

    As the sun sets and your trip to Hawaii is coming to an end, what better way to spend an evening than to attend a luau.

    One of the best is located right in the heart of Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It's the "'Aha 'Aina (Gathering for a Meal): a Royal Celebration," and what a celebration it is. With a beachfront sunset setting, open bar, and a sumptuous buffet selection, you're sure to have a full stomach when the evening darkens and it’s time for the show featuring the performers of Tihati Productions.

    Tracing the history of the land upon which the Royal Hawaiian sits, the production progresses from the days of the Alii to the Monarchy and onward to the early days of the territory of Hawaii and time of World War II and beyond. Of course, what luau takes place without a Samoan fire-knife dancer and 'Aha 'Aina features one of the best on the island.

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  • 10 of 10

    A Long Day's Journey Comes to an End

    Hawaiian sunset
    John Fischer

    You've now been able to experience just a taste of the culture and history of Hawaii. This, however, is just a beginning of the journey which you can experience on one or many return visits to the islands.

    On each of the six major Hawaiian Islands, you'll find numerous opportunities to explore all that Hawaii has to offer. It's a journey that will take multiple visits to complete, but what a journey it is!

    For More Information

    To learn more about the culture and community of the Hawaiian people, we recommend the book MANA: A Journal of Hawai’i from Watermark Publishing.

    Book Your Stay

    Check prices for your stay in Honolulu/Waikiki with TripAdvisor.