Oahu isn't the biggest Hawaiian island geographically -- that would be the Big Island, of course -- but it is the largest, by far, in population, and the state's definitive center of commerce. Honolulu, once a sleepy state capital, has grown into a veritable metropolis, with a population of one million at last count. Waikiki, its tourism center, is a bustling sub-city in its own right. Because of all that development, the area in and around Honolulu is decades removed from the unspoiled tropical paradise that many mainlanders associate with the entire state. Nevertheless, Waikiki remains an obvious choice for those who want a Hawaiian vacation -- sun, sand, luaus, surfing, hula, mai tais -- without sacrificing the creature comforts of home.
At any given time, 44 percent of visitors in the entire state are spending the night in Waikiki, a touristy, milelong stretch of shops, restaurants, and high-rise hotels that runs along Oahu's southeast coast. Waikiki offers a curious blend of mainland suburban staples and local flavor. On the sidewalks, Japanese tourists intermingle with tanned locals, surfboards under their arms, on their way to the beach to catch a few waves after work. On both sides of the street, high-end retailers -- Tiffany, Cartier, even an Apple store -- are interspersed with indoor malls and streetside vendors hawking cheap seashell jewelry and T-shirts. Seemingly every midmarket chain restaurant can be found here -- Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, Tony Roma's -- along with more than a handful of Starbucks and fast-food joints. Along the coast, manicured and palm trees lead to a sunny white-sand beach. Children splash about in the shallow water near the shore, while surfers and standup paddle-boarders (the rad new thing to do) patrol the outer waters. And towering above it all: 40-story, thousand-room hotels like the Hyatt Regency and the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, dotting the landscape like pins in a cushion.
Outside of Honolulu, there are limited lodging options but plenty more space and beautiful scenery. Just 20 miles (about 25 minutes by car) from Honolulu airport -- nearly as close as Waikiki -- Ko Olina is an up-and-coming, master-planned resort area that offers a clean, easy version of the Hawaiian vacation on four man-made lagoons with turquoise waters. It's far less crowded and far more serene than Waikiki (save for the construction noise from the Disney resort being built, to be completed in 2011).
Even more serenity, and more natural beauty, can be had on the island's lush North Shore, home to legendary surfing beaches like the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay. In the winter, waves can top 40 feet. Year round, a mellow vibe pervades on the uncrowded beaches, bookended by volcanic rock and surrounded by green mountains. With more locals than tourists, roadsideand , and the quaint, historic surf town of Haleiwa, the North Shore offers some of the island's most quintessential pleasures. But it is isolated -- about an hour from Waikiki and the airport.
With its plethora of budget and midrange options, Waikiki is an excellent choice for those who want a Hawaiian vacation without breaking the bank. On that prudent end of the spectrum, we highly recommend Hotel Renew, the Aston Waikiki Beach, the Park Shore, and -- a steal at less than $100 a night -- the newly renovated Aqua Waikiki Pearl. For families with a little more leeway, price-wise, we like the Marriott Waikiki, Sheraton Waikiki, and the Hilton Hawaiian Village. And for those with a lot more leeway, price-wise, there are really only three luxury hotels in Waikiki: the Moana Surfrider, the Royal Hawaiian, and the Halekulani, all of which offer their own advantages and disadvantages.
The best hotel on the island might be the Kahala, 10 minutes outside Waikiki. Among its many highlights: five-star service, beautiful rooms, an elite restaurant, and Dolphin Quest, the only swim-with-the-dolphins experience on the island.
In Ko Olina, on the west coast, the Marriott reigns. The JW Marriott Ihilani provides the only true hotel-style accommodations in the area, and luxurious ones at that, with a gorgeous full-service spa, award-winning restaurants, and huge, elegant guest rooms. The neighboring Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club shares many of its amenities and activities, but offers time-share-style accommodations (typically two- and three-bedroom units with kitchen facilities) designed for longer stays. The Beach Club also boasts three amazing pools, seven Jacuzzis, and a waterslide, which aren't shared with the JW, and make it one of the best picks on the island for families.
On the North Shore, Turtle Bay Resort has seemingly everything -- miles of unspoiled shoreline, great restaurants, two 18-hole golf courses, its own stables, even helicopter rides on-site -- but the lobby and guest rooms are dated and bland, not luxurious. Further off the beaten path, the Ke Iki Beach Bungalows provide funky, modest beachfront lodgings. Service is nonexistent -- staying in one of the 11 bungalows is akin to renting a house -- and amenities are zero, but a beautiful North Shore beach is just out the door, as are hammocks and barbecues.
We compiled lists of the best luxury hotels, best value hotels, best family-friendly hotels, most romantic hotels, "hidden gem" hotels, our favorite hotel rooms, and the best hotel spas. Don't have time to read all that? Not to fear. We selected one hotel from each list that bests its competitors (if only slightly).
The packed beaches and megaresorts of Waikiki tend to be most popular with budget travelers and families. But luxury travelers who like Oahu for its familiarity and convenience will still find a handful of posh havens amidst the hubbub.
Budget travelers who don't think Hawaii is in their price range should think again. It's exotic, sure, but it's accessible for every budget -- especially in Waikiki, where competition between megaresorts to fill their many rooms results in refreshingly low rates.
A kid-friendly resort in Oahu is usually one of two things: A large, amenity-packed mega-resort with kid activities and dining options galore, or a do-it-yourself, kitchen-equipped condo for longer (albeit no-frills) stays. We found standouts of both types.
On Oahu, it's important to remember that the reality can include crowded Waikiki beaches, which makes finding a romantic hotel a bit of a challenge. But if you choose wisely, there are gems to be found among the hyper children and rows of towels.
Visitors to Hawaii constantly get to experience the thrill of discovery: a beautiful flower, a breathtaking view, or a secret beach can feel as though it belongs to you alone. But when it comes to hotels, it's hard to find a refuge that hasn't already been discovered by the teeming hordes.
Rooms in Hawaii vary greatly in size, style, and amenities, but we've slept in over 90 beds across the state to bring your top picks. Here's our list of the top eight rooms that we found to be the most spacious, stylish, and sumptuous.
Oahu draws more families than romance or luxury travelers (who often head to Maui), but spa-lovers and stressed-out parents counting on relaxation shouldn't worry: the island is home to a number of top-notch spas.
June - Aug; Dec. - March; school vacation periods
June 1-Nov. 30