Oahu, Hawaii Travel Guide
- Waikiki is 20 minutes from the Honolulu Airport; you can be off the plane and on the beach in an hour
- Flights to Oahu are often cheaper than flights to Maui or Kauai.
- More mid-range and budget options (especially in Waikiki) than on other islands
- Some of the world's most famous surfing is found on the North Shore
- Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and hiking at Diamond Head both a 15-minute drive from Waikiki
- Stunning coastal scenery away from development, particularly around Kualoa Ranch
- Sunny, relatively dry weather year round
- Honolulu and Waikiki have best nightlife in all Hawaii
- No need for rental car in Waikiki; can get around cheaply and easily via the bus
- Universally friendly, laid-back service in both hotels and restaurants
- High-end shopping along Waikiki's main drag -- Fendi, Tiffany, Ferrari, and Louis Vuitton
- Some fascinating history, especially at Pearl Harbor
- Smoking is forbidden in all restaurants and most hotels
- Ko Olina is a peaceful master-planned resort area with pristine lagoons and a beautiful golf course.
- Waikiki is notoriously crowded, hyper-touristy, and loud
- Hotel options tend toward mid-range options, particularly around Honolulu
- Pollution and traffic are both problems, even on small roads
- Many hotels in Waikiki don't have pools
- With several exceptions, golf courses don't compare to those on other Hawaiian islands
- Water isn't particularly clear; ocean bottom is often rocky rather than sandy
- Parking in the Waikiki area is expensive
What It's Like
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. 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. For evidence of that, look no further than Waikiki, which can only be described as an urban beach these days.
At any given time, 44 percent of visitors in the entire state are spending the night in Waikiki, a touristy, mile-long 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. High-end retailers including Tiffany, Cartier, and an Apple store are interspersed with indoor malls and streetside vendors hawking cheap seashell jewelry and T-shirts. Seemingly every mid-market chain restaurant can be found here -- like Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, and Tony Roma's -- along with more than a handful of Starbucks and fast-food joints. Along the coast, manicured lawns and palm trees lead to a sunny white-sand beach. Children splash about in the shallow water near the shore (particularly near sheltered Kuhio Beach), while surfers and standup paddle-boarders 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's airport, 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. Other nearby, comparably peaceful escapes near Waikiki include Hanauma Bay, which has solid snorkeling amid a beautiful cove (about 20 minutes wast of Waikiki by car). To the north, you'll find beautiful scenery around the adventure park at Kualoa Ranch, and even more in the Waimea Valley (40 and 55 minutes away from Honolulu by car, respectively).
In fact, traveler's who want a taste of Hawaii and don't mind bypassing Oahu's hyper-touristy south altogether should make a beeline for 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, roadside shrimp trucks and fruit stands, 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.
Where To Stay
With its plethora of budget and midrange options, Waikiki is an excellent choice for those who want a Hawaiian vacation without breaking the bank. However, keep in mind that you'll be contending with massive crowds, less-than-peaceful beaches, traffic, and expensive nightly parking fees. On the prudent end of the spectrum are Hotel Renew, the Aston Waikiki Beach, the Park Shore, and the Aqua Waikiki Pearl. For families with a little more financial flexibility, we like the Marriott Waikiki, Sheraton Waikiki, and the Hilton Hawaiian Village. At the high-end of the spectrum, 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.
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 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 features 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. Farther 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.