I love Hawaii. The weather is amazing. The water is clear, the waves are big, the scenery is just stunning – and there’s so much to do. Did I mention the weather is amazing? I lived in Hawaii several years ago, and still visit there quite often. One of the most popular islands there is Oahu – also known as ‘The Gathering Place’. Oahu is the third largest Hawaiian island, and home of the state capital, Honolulu.
If you’re reading this prior to booking your trip, after you’ve booked it, or maybe you’re just dreaming – let me sell you on Oahu for a second. Oahu has it all. It’s got nice waves, a great nightlife, is very kid friendly, has plenty of scenery and history to it, and plenty of Hawaiian culture. It is a quite busy island, and it’s easily the most visited island by tourists, so you won’t be the only people there soaking in Hawaii – but don’t let that deter you at all. I have been to Hawaii both with and without kids, and I feel that no matter how many dependents you claim on your tax return, you’ll love Oahu. Naturally, you’ll next want to visit other islands, but Oahu is an awesome place to visit first that I would recommend without hesitation.
Sales pitch aside – I’ve come up with a list of 11 “Must Do’s” while on Oahu. These are things which I can almost assure you will result in an amazing visit to the islands. Without further ado – here’s my list.
1. Watch Fireworks On The Beach in Waikiki
One of our favorite things to do when on Oahu is to watch the weekly fireworks show at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. The show is run by the Hilton itself, but people come from all over Waikiki to watch the fireworks on the beach. It’s a fantastic environment for the whole family, and besides – who doesn’t love fireworks on the beach?
The show is every Friday at 7:45pm in front of the Hilton on the beach, but you’ll have a good view of the fireworks from most places on the beach in Waikiki. I’d recommend showing up about 30 minutes early for the best spot on the beach. If you do make it early, you’ll have a seriously up-close and personal view of the show.
2. Visit North Shore
If you’re looking for beaches which are less crowded, North Shore is the place to go. It has a distinctly slower pace than the rest of the island (especially Waikiki) – and is frequented by surfers, body boarders, and those looking to beat the crowds.
On your way up to the North Shore, you’ll pass through Haleiwa. Haleiwa is a tiny surfer town with some great local restaurants, shopping, and plenty of surf and dive shops to satisfy the more active tourist needs. One of the locals’ favorite things to do in Haleiwa is to buy shave ice (Yes, that’s how they spell it) at the local hot spot. I’d personally recommend spending a couple of hours browsing and exploring in Haleiwa alone. A good option is to hit the beach in the morning, then venture into town for lunch, and return to the beach in the afternoon.
It’s worth noting that North Shore is the home of world famous surfing – and as a result, massive waves are not unheard of here. It’s not a spot for beginner swimmers, surfers, or body boarders. If you do want to swim, the best time would be in the summer, although I wouldn’t recommend going out far, as the rip tide can (and will) pull you away from the beach. Beware if you bring kids – you’re best off enjoying the scenery and letting the kids play in the sand on the North Shore, and watch the awesome local surfers. One notable exception to this rule is the Turtle Bay resort, which for a few dollars of parking, has a nice cove which is protected from the waves and is perfect for little kids.
3. Whale Watching
Seeing a whale in the wild is an absolutely incredible experience. In our case, we used Viator to book a Whale Watching Tour out of Waikiki. I actually used credit card points I had earned to pay for our tour, rendering it totally free for the five of us. Normal price would have been about $60 per person, or $300 for my entire family. That being said – we thoroughly enjoyed the boat ride and whale watching, but I wouldn’t do it again. Why?
Because we saw more whale action from lookout points! For Free!
That’s right. There’s lookout points all over the island, and if you’re there during the right time (November to May – March is best, though) – you can see tons of whales just by posting up at these lookout points with your camera! Our favorite spot for spotting the Humpback Whales is just off Kalaniana`ole Highway (72) just past Hanauma Bay. For some other awesome lookout spots, check out the NOAA website here.
If you’re set on a boat-based tour, I wouldn’t necessarily deter you – but I’d recommend checking out a couple of lookout points first. Worst case – you’ll just get some amazing views of Oahu and a great boat ride.
4. Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
Not far from my favorite spot to whale watch, is Hanauma Bay. Hanauma Bay is a natural preserve that is absolutely pristine. It’s a favorite spot for tourists, and is completely packed with wildlife. I’ve personally seen Dolphins, Sea turtles, and a multitude of different types of fish here. Even if you don’t snorkel, you need to make an exception here. It’s an amazing preserve that is sure to satisfy even the most demanding tourist. If you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t worry – there’s rocks which provide a break from the waves, so the water is pretty calm.
It’s cheap, too – Kids under 12 get in free, and adults are $7.50 (as of this writing). They do have rental snorkel gear here, and lockers to store your valuables (you’ll get a key with a wrist bracelet to swim with). When you enter Hanauma Bay the first time, you’ll be forced to watch a short video that is mandatory once a year – it’s not bad, although you’ll be itching to get in the water.
It’s worth noting that Hanauma Bay is a busy place. I’d highly recommend you either show up very early (think 7-8am), or wait a little later and chance not finding parking. If there isn’t parking available, you’ll have to park down the hill, which can be a very steep walk of at least half a mile along a busy road – so keep this in mind, especially if you are with children or older travelers.
5. Learn to surf
If you come to Hawaii, you’d be missing out if you didn’t at least try to learn to surf. There’s plenty of surf instructors that post up along the beach for impromptu lessons, or you can call one and schedule a lesson. One of the most reputable surf schools is Waikiki Beach Services – they were super professional, fun, and kept everyone safe.
Lessons are typically given in hour intervals, and you can typically choose between small group or individual lessons. Be aware that small children may require individual lessons for safety reasons.
It’s also worth noting that most of the surf schools will photograph the lesson from the water, and offer to sell you the photos afterwards. While I generally am not a fan of these services outside of surfing, in this case – the results are usually pretty impressive and a lot better than what you can snap from the beach – some even include video, too!
6. Hike Diamond Head for an amazing view
Diamond Head is a huge tourist attraction, but is also frequented by locals looking for a workout. The crater portion of Diamond Head was formed 300,000 years ago, and the path to the summit (761′) begins inside the crater and heads up from there. It’s a pretty easy 1.5-2 hour hike depending on your level of fitness. While I’m not fond of heights, it’s perfectly doable by most, and we’ve even seen elderly people making the walk up to the top of Diamond Head, where you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of the Pacific and all of Waikiki Beach.
Diamond Head is located east of Waikiki, and if you drive, it’ll be $5 to enter the park per vehicle, or $1 if you walk-in. There can be quite a bit of people walking up, so I’d recommend getting there early to beat the lines (and the heat). Definitely bring some good shoes, a water bottle, and a camera (or phone) to snap some great pictures overlooking the coast.
7. Check out a real waterfall at Waimea Valley
Waimea Valley is an 1,875 acre valley which consists of world-class botanical gardens, historic Hawaiian archaeological sites, and of course, the 45-foot Waihī Waterfall. You might recognize the waterfall – it was in an episode of Lost, which is an awesome added bonus if you have watched the show (fortunately we do!). The waterfall is at the end of the paved walkway, which is about a 1.5 mile round-trip total. It’s a relatively easy walk with some hills, but it’s a great time to slow down and enjoy the gardens and wildlife.
If you decide to check out Waimea Valley, it’s located on North Shore east of Haleiwa. As of this writing, tickets are $16 for adults, and $8 for children ages 3-12.
Protip: Waimea Bay is a small, but awesome beach where you can swim, watch surfers, and watch people jump off “Chicken Rock” into the Pacific. If you visit Waimea Valley – you should check out Waimea Bay while you’re in the area. It’s right across the street.”
8. Attend a Luau
What’s Hawaii without a Luau? For the sake of full disclosure – I wasn’t excited when we booked our Luau. I can’t explain why, but it just didn’t seem like something I would enjoy. We ended up attending the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park and it was fantastic, for the most part. The Luau is literally inside the Sea Life Park, so if you’re going to the Luau, I highly recommend you visit the park first. It’s a great sea park – very intimate, and with an awesome backdrop of the pacific and the surrounding mountains/hills.
A Luau in itself is highly entertaining, and you’ll surely walk away very happy, full, and probably learn a thing or two about native Hawaiian culture. That being said..
I would recommend the Chief’s Luau, cautiously, to those with small children.
The Chief himself runs the Luau, and this guy filled the Luau with sexual undertones and jokes that children don’t get, but are blatantly obvious to adults. It was funny once or twice, but an hour into the show – and the Chief was still hitting on women and breathing heavily into the mic (as an example). I’m by no means a prude – I served in the US Army – but it was borderline inappropriate. Despite my strong objections to that behavior, the kids didn’t notice, and it was a great night overall. Don’t let me warnings scare you off – the Chief’s luau was still a total blast, I just want to make sure people are aware of the possible content.
Your alternative to the Chief’s Luau is basically two-fold: any Luau in Waikiki, or the Polynesian Cultural Center. The PCC holds a very well-regarded Luau which is pricey, but very worth it. The Luau’s in Waikiki have mixed reviews – one is actually on the rooftop of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. If you’re looking for a fun night without traveling far from Waikiki – one of the local Luau’s might do. If you’re looking for authentic Luau’s – without hesitation, go to the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore, or the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park as a backup.
9. Chill out at the beach
There’s a lot of things to do on this list, but let’s face it: you came to Hawaii to relax. The island is literally surrounded by beaches (varying in quality), so you really can’t go wrong here, but there’s some things to consider if you’re just looking to relax on the beach:
- Waikiki Beach is shallow with small waves, and is a great place for kids, though it is always busy.
- Any beach on north shore is fantastic for relaxing. These will be less crowded. Sunset Beach is a favorite – but don’t try to swim there in the winter as the waves and tide will be too strong.
- On the Northwest corner of the island, is Kaena Point. It’s a rocky preserve – but there is a small beach when you first arrive (it’s usually nearly empty), and if you bring good walking shoes, you can hike along the coast for some great scenic views, and often without seeing hardly anyone.
- On the Southeast side, Lanikai Beach is where you want to be. Calm surf, white and, and not too crowded typically.
- Also on the Southeast, Waimanalo Bay Beach Park (part of it is referred to as ‘Bellows’), is a nice multipurpose beach for fishing, kayaking, swimming, and off-beach activities as well.
10. Drive the entire island
Oahu is a big island with 227 miles of shoreline – though the roads don’t cover all of that. I’d highly recommend spending one day driving around the entire island, stopping along the way to explore, if your schedule allows for that. It’s a great way to spot things you’d like to do, or places you’d like to explore – and it offers breathtaking scenery along every turn.
If you were to drive straight through without stopping, expect to spend several hours driving a complete circle around the island. The secret here is spontaneity – don’t keep a rigid schedule. Stay flexible and enjoy the drive!
11. Pick up souvenirs at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
You’re going to want to buy souvenirs. Let me save you a LOT of money – don’t buy them anywhere but the Aloha Swap Meet. If you go to Waikiki, you’ll find cheap trinkets that are probably made in Asia. If you shop at the Swap Meet, however, you’ll be shopping from over 400 local vendors, craftsman, and artists. The Swap Meet is held outside the Aloha Stadium every You’ll find the usual touristy asia-made trinkets as well (think “I Love Hawaii” shirts) – but you’ll also find fantastic souvenirs and true aloha items, for a great price. I personally picked up a tiki man made out of local wood, and watched a local Hawaiian carve it out – then engrave it personally for me on the spot. The price? $25.
Another plus to exploring the vendors at the swap meet, is the local food. You’ll find all sorts of local treats that are grown and/or prepared locally. Anything from breads, to cookies, to fruit – it’s all there. Don’t stress about bringing cash, either – there’s ATMs sprinkled throughout the stadium.
Be sure to check out the Aloha Swap Meet website to ensure you show up at the right times – I personally recommend visiting Saturday mornings.