In the more than two decades that I have written about Hawaii one of my biggest frustrations continues to be the number of people who visit the island of Oahu and spend all of their time in or around their hotel in Waikiki or the City of Honolulu.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of wonderful places in Waikiki and Honolulu and they are well worth experiencing. I wouldn't deny anyone a hike to the top of Diamond Head or a special dinner at one of the great beachfront restaurants in Waikiki.
Still, however, Oahu is a beautiful island and it's well worth exploring, if only for a day or two of your vacation. Here are some of our favorite places outside of Waikiki and Honolulu.
Nuuanu Pali Lookout
Located in Central Oahu, midway between Honolulu and Oahu's Southeast Coast, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout is one of the must-see stops for any first time visitor to Oahu With amazing views of Oahu's southeast shore and windward coast, this is also a very historic location.
It was here that in 1795, Kamehameha I, from the island of Hawaii (the Big Island) defeated the forces of Maui's Chief Kalanikupule, who had previously conquered the island of Oahu. Both sides had received arms from European merchants and military, including muskets and cannons to go along with Hawaiian weapons, consisting mostly of spears. However, Kamehameha's weaponry, obtained from British Captain George Vancouver, were superior.
Located about 10 miles east of Waikiki just off the main coastal road (Kalaniana'ole Highway, Route 72), Hanauma Bay is the first Marine Life Conservation District in the State of Hawaii.
The Preserve is closed on Tuesdays. In addition, admission is limited to a set number of people, so be sure to arrive early. It costs $1.00 per car to park and $7.50 per person to enter the Preserve.
Visitors view a nine-minute film before they are allowed to proceed to the beach. Once there, however, there is some of the best snorkeling opportunities in all of Hawaii all within close distance to shore.
Halona Blowhole and Sandy Beach
Just north of Hanauma Bay off the Kalaniana'ole Highway you'll find the pullout for the Halona Blowhole.
The blowhole results when waves are forced into an underwater lava tube and the pressure forces a stream of water to "blow" out the other end shooting high into the air. The Blowhole is most exciting when surf is active on this side of the island.
Just down the road from the Halona Blowhole is the long and often very windy Sandy Beach Park.
It's a great place to stop and watch folks fly their kites and there are almost always lots of surfers and body boarders testing the surf.
Makapuu Lighhouse Trail
Just a bit further along the southeast shore you'll come to Makapu'u Point. A parking area has been built to accommodate folks who want to take the moderate 2-mile hike up to the point and the Makapu'u Point Lighthouse. You'll see the driveway to the parking area on your right.
The hike is relatively easy, although it's best in the morning when the sun is less strong. It takes a little over an hour roundtrip.
The view of the coast in both directions is amazing. It's a great place to see whales in season. On a clear day you can see the island of Moloka'i in the distance.
Sea Life Park
Located just a few minutes north of the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail, Sea Life Park has been one of Oahu's most visited attractions for over 50 years. It is popular with local residents, school groups and as a place for corporate parties.
The park provides visitors with interactive experiences that permit guests to come in direct contact with dolphins, Hawaiian rays, sea lions and other marine animals. There are also numerous activities and exhibits available to park visitors of any age who don't want to "get wet" with the animals.
Popular daily shows and exhibits include the Bird Sanctuary, Dolphin Cove Show, the Hawaiian Ocean Theater, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Habitat, the Hawaiian Reef Aquarium, Kolohe Kai Sea Lion Show, Penguin Habitat, and the Sea Turtle Feeding Pool.
About nine miles north of Hanauma Bay on the Kalanianaole Highway, past Makapu'u Point, you'll arrive at the community of Waimanalo Beach, which is home to about 4,000 people, Here you'll find the Waimanalo Bay State Recreation Area, my favorite beach on Oahu.
Over 5 miles in length with lovely, soft white sand, Waimanalo Beach is rarely crowded on weekdays. It's a great place to meet and talk to a local enjoying this wonderful spot.
The swimming is generally excellent since there are rarely large waves. It is a major weekend gathering place for local families who hold picnics and barbecues in the shaded area near the beach. It is ideal for bodysurfing, boogie boarding and swimming. Waimanalo offers spectacular view of the coastal mountain ranges of O'ahu and of Manana "Rabbit" Island.
Kualoa Ranch, now also referred to as Kualoa Private Nature Reserve, is one of my favorite places on Oahu. The ranch owns two adjoining valleys all the way to the ocean, the Hakipu'u Valley and Ka'a'wa Valley. The ranch has been used as a filming location for numerous TV shows, including Lost, the new Hawaii Five-0 and Last Resort as well as many motion pictures including Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Godzilla, Pearl Harbor, 50 First Dates and Windtalkers, to name just a few.
Kualoa Ranch offers a number of tours and activities, including a Movie Sites and Ranch tour, a Jungle Expedition Tour, an Ancient Fishing Grounds & Tropical Gardens Tour, ATV tours and horseback rides.
Kailua and Lanikai
I recommend that you take time to visit Kailua Beach which will be about 17 miles and 30 minutes south of Kualoa Ranch. Kailua Beach is one of Oahu's most beautiful beaches and well worth a visit. In 1998, Kailua Beach was named Best Beach in America by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman a.k.a. Dr. Beach and hence retired from competition.
From Kailua Beach Park you can take a ride through the exclusive area of Lanikai. The road into and out of Lanikai is located at the southern end of the beach. The road is a one-way loop, so it will take you right back where you start. Lanikai has some of the most beautiful and expensive homes on the island. Lanikai Beach was chosen as Best Beach in America in 1996 by Dr. Beach. The views of the small Mokulua Islands is best seen from the beach.
Polynesian Cultural Center
At the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, visitors to Oahu have the unique opportunity to learn about the culture and people of Polynesia, not from books, films or television, but from the actual people who were born and live in the area's major island groups.
Founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center or PCC is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Polynesia and sharing the culture, arts, and crafts of the major island groups to the rest of the world. The Center has been Hawaii's top paid visitor attraction since 1977, according to annual state government surveys.
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.
North Shore Beaches
Known as the "surfing capital of the world," Oahu's North Shore spans from La'ie to Ka'ena Point.
The highlight of any visit to the North Shore, especially in the winter, is a stop at one of the North Shore's famous surfing beaches. Sunset Beach, 'Ehukai Beach Park (home to the Banzai Pipeline) and Waimea Bay are famous locations that both the amateur and professional surfer are well aware. Many sites are visible from Kamehameha Highway, yet some remain known only by word of mouth from the local surfers.
During the winter, massive waves pound the North Shore of Oahu, thrilling visitors and locals who come to watch one of nature's greatest spectacles.
Hale'iwa is the quintessential beach and surf town on the North Shore. This quaint locale is a mecca for beach goers, surfers, fishing enthusiasts, craftsmen, artists, clothiers, visitors, and locals.
It's the perfect place to park from your North Shore drive and take a walk down the town's main street with its art galleries, boutiques, cafes and surf shops.
Dole Plantation on Oahu is the second most popular visitor attraction in Hawaii with over 1.2 million visitors annually.
Located in Central Oahu outside Wahiawa town along the way to Oahu's North Shore, Dole Plantation offers a number of fun activities for visitors and locals alike, including their world famous Pineapple Garden Maze, the Pineapple Express Train, the Plantation Garden Tour and their extensive Plantation Center and Country Store.
No visit to the island of Oahu is complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor. Located less than an hour west of Waikiki, Pearl Harbor is home to the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Missouri Memorial, the Bowfin Submarine Museum and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
It was 75 years ago that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor marked the US entry into World War II. The sites at Pearl Harbor pay tribute to the men and women who served and the many who died in the war.
You can easily spend a full day at Pearl Harbor. I suggest that you arrive early to secure your free tickets to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. You can also order the tickets ahead online. Afterwards, you can purchase tickets to visit the other sites. I recommend a combination ticket ($65 for an adult) that will allow you admission to all of the attractions and includes an audio tour of the USS Arizona Visitor Center.
Paradise Cove Luau
There are many luaus to choose from on the island of Oahu and no visit is complete without attending at least one. My choice for that luau is the Paradise Cove Luau located at the Ko Olina Resort less than an hour west of Waikiki and Honolulu.
Situated on the largest luau grounds in Hawaii, guests can experience a wide assortment of pre-luau activities, a superb imu ceremony, excellent luau food and one of the best luau extravaganzas in Hawaii.