If you find yourself arriving by air, your first glimpse of South Pacific paradise lies in the vitality and vibrancy of Hawaii’s capital city, amidst the buzz of modern living and a skyline that goes hand-in-hand with being one of America’s leading cities. But as exciting as Honolulu is, the island of Oahu brings so much more to the traveller’s table, with its depth and richness of culture, history and traditions. It’s an eclectic fusion of city and country, America and Polynesia, modernity and history. From urban sophistication to small-town charm, from the North Shore’s legendary surf to world class museums; Oahu sheds its layers to reveal the very heart of Hawaii where extinct volcanoes contour the skyline alongside the sparkling high-rises of vibrant Waikiki.
There are two main areas that make up the focal points to Honolulu – the historic and business district of downtown and the world famous resort of Waikiki, three miles to its east. History, both ancient and modern, has shaped the island’s culture and nowhere else evokes a more poignant sense of Hawaii’s past than at the moving memorial at Pearl Harbor and at Iolani Palace, the only royal household standing on United States’ soil. The city is as mindful and respectful of its past as it is its future and the revitalisation of old neighbourhoods has paved the way for smart boutiques, trendy bars and headline grabbing cuisine. Just head over to Kalakaua Avenue and you'll find yourself on the Rodeo Drive of the South Pacific.
When you feel like a break from the city, drive an hour from lively Waikiki and the mood changes dramatically. The Windward coast boasts some of the island’s most lush, verdant coastline, and is as famous for its turquoise waters and light-sand beaches as it is for being President Obama’s vacation destination of choice. Closer still and you have the Leeward Coast, where mountains stretch out into the sea; beaches are expansive, and still remain relatively untouched by touristic development. Perhaps best known for the iconic “From Here to Eternity” beach and the once-considered steamy love scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, today, you’ll find more Native Hawaiians here than anywhere else on the island and you’ll see that cultural pride is still very much alive and kicking.
The waves of the iconic North Shore are legendary. In the winter months, you can watch big-wave surfing with swells anything up to 40-feet high, attracting the world’s best surfers to the premier international surfing competitions. Summer sees things calm down considerably; the waves subside and beginners can boast they’ve scaled the surf of the fabled North Shore. But you don’t have to be a surfer to get the most out of the area. The beaches are gorgeous any time of year and there is an abundance of less rigorous activities from kayaking and snorkelling to horseback riding and whale-watching.
Things to do
The Hilton Hawaiian Village is a superb hotel located right on the Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Oahu with excellent amenities.
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The stylish Sheraton Waikiki sits on the shores of Waikiki Beach, Oahu with views of the shimmering ocean from many of its rooms and restaurants.
Top tips for visiting Oahu
1. Surfing in Oahu
• Among surfers, Oahu is acknowledged as the birthplace of modern surfing and it was Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimmer-turned-surfer who popularised the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing with his mile-long ride in Waikiki.
• If you’ve never tried it, why not make a start where it all began. You can sign up for a lesson at the seaside booths along Kuhio and Waikiki Beaches, near the Duke Kahanamoku Statue.
2. Iolani Palace
• If you are visiting Iolani Palace, you can take a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour of the Palace from Tuesday to Saturday. If you’re facing the Palace, the ticket office is to the left on the State Capitol side of the building.
• As one of Oahu’s most important historical landmarks, Iolani Palace plays an integral part in understanding the history and culture of Hawaii. The Palace sits in the centre of an area which is definitely worth a walking tour.
• Across South King Street you’ll find Aliiolani Hale and the King Kamehameha I statue and right behind Iolani Palace is the State Capitol building and Washington Place, home to the Governor of Hawaii.
3. Shopping in Oahu
• The Ala Moana Center in Honolulu is Hawaii's largest shopping facility and is an open-air oasis with more than 290 stores and 80 different dining options.
• The Ala Moana Shopping Trolley provides convenient transfers between the centre and various locations throughout Waikiki every 10 minutes, so if you are partial to a bit of retail therapy on your holiday make sure you locate your nearest trolley stop.
• Opening hours are from Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 9:00pm and Sunday 10:00am to 7:00pm.
4. Diamond Head
• One of the island’s most rewarding hikes is the trek to the crest of Diamond Head, the iconic volcanic cone, as mentioned in the “Things to Do” section.
• In addition to climbing the 175 steps, your journey will take you through dark, underground tunnels and old military bunkers so you will need to bring a torch. You also need to ensure that you bring plenty of water for the 763-foot summit as well as your camera for the spectacular views that await.
5. The Polynesian Cultural Center
• Set on 42 acres of Oahu’s North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center is the most popular attraction in the entire state with villages and exhibits representing the island cultures of Hawaii and Polynesia.
• While in Hawaii you have to experience the famous luau, a Hawaiian feast with traditional entertainment and the Ali’i Luau here is one of the most authentic on the island.
• The lagoon hosts various canoe tours throughout the day while the Canoe Pageant takes place at 2:30pm.
• The Hukilau Marketplace offers up a variety of Polynesian crafts, clothing and jewellery and you can round off your day at the “Ha: Breath of Life” show featuring over 100 performers and Samoan fire knife dancing. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday from 11:45am to 9:30pm.
6. Whale watching in Oahu
• It’s possible catch a glimpse of whales from Oahu’s many beaches and from south-eastern spots like the scenic Makapuu Lighthouse, Hanauma Bay and along overlooks near Leahi (Diamond Head). However for a more intimate and up-close experience, several companies offer whale watching tours and cruises depart from various ports along Oahu’s southern and western harbours.
• The best time to view these gentle giants is from December to May, when the majestic kohola and humpback whale come to the warm Hawaiian waters to breed and give birth to new calves. Keep an eye out for dolphins and turtles too.
7. Waimea Bay & Valley
• Located on the legendary North Shore, Waimea Bay was an influential surf spot during the dawn of big wave surfing in the 1950s. Adventurous surfers began to challenge the powerful winter waves of Waimea which in turn gave birth to the big-wave riding phenomenon that is so prevalent now.
• If you want to see the best men and women surfers in the world, big wave season hits Hawaii from November to February and Waimea Bay is one of the best spots to catch them.
• Away from the surf you can also explore Waimea Valley, a beautiful botanical garden and cultural attraction that is home to the stunning Waimea Falls.