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The different Hawaiian islands have different geographic infrastructures. Kaua‘i is made up of one giant extinct volcano. Maui has two (one of them still barely alive). The Big Island lives up to its name, consisting of a staggering five volcanoes, only one of which is extinct (though only two of them are active enough for us to see in our lifetime). On O‘ahu, it took two now-extinct volcanoes to create this paradise. (The second one is probably extinct.) Wai‘anae in the west poked above the water 2.2 million years ago, followed a million years later by its younger sibling, Ko‘olau, in the east. Ko‘olau (called the Ko‘olau Mountains locally, even though it’s really only one long mountain) is shorter—peaking at 3,150 feet, but it’s over 30 miles long. What’s most impressive is that it’s only half the original mountain. The other half has been erased by ceaseless erosion. The top of the older volcano, Wai‘anae, is called Mount Ka‘ala and towers 4,025 feet above the ocean.

Waikiki & Honolulu

Honolulu is the central hub of the Hawaiian Islands, and Waikiki is the center of tourism. Lots of people work, live and play in this part of the state, and odds are overwhelming that this is where you’ll be staying.

Waikiki Area

Waikiki is about walking and gawking, eating and shopping, surfing and soaking up the sun. You don’t come to Waikiki to get away from the action; you come here to get a piece of the action. This is the place where you and 4 million of your closest friends each year embrace the tropics and each other. If you’re looking for a quiet, out-of-the-way destination, look elsewhere. Waikiki is a humming, happening visitor mecca.

Waikiki Beach

Nearly every visitor to O‘ahu stays in Waikiki, so we described the Waikiki beaches here since it’s likely you’ll stroll along with them at various times throughout your stay.

Waikiki is a swimming and surfing beach, not a snorkeling site, and there are no great snorkeling conditions anywhere along here. If you insist, the best conditions are off the tip of the Kapahulu Groin and the tip of the wall at the south end of Queen’s Beach (both of these only if there are no surfers or boogie boarders in the area—they have little patience for snorkelers) and ironically, offshore of the Waikiki Aquarium. 

South of Waikiki

Behind you, Kapiolani Park is a giant, triangular-shaped lawn where people play soccer, fly kites, walk their dogs and jog to their hearts’ content. Diamond Head, that iconic volcano crater that defines the Waikiki skyline, seems to tower over this park. The north end is where you’ll find the Waikiki Shell, a seashell-shaped outdoor amphitheater where live performances are occasionally held. There are also four lighted tennis courts on the makai (ocean side) of the park—no reservations needed. And check out the gigantic banyan tree on the Paki Road side of the park. (Yeah, that’s one tree.)

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Honolulu

Honolulu is overrepresented when it comes to attractions to visit. It’s got so many, in fact, that we have dedicated Adventures & Attractions sections you should check out. Look at places like ‘Iolani Palace, Punchbowl Cemetery, Chinatown, Bishop Museum, Doris Duke’s Shangri La and Garden Tours.

As a rule of thumb, we try to avoid driving into Honolulu from 7–8:30 a.m. and 3–7 p.m. Most traffic goes into Honolulu in the morning and out of Honolulu in the evening, but traffic can go from calm to disastrous over something as simple as a fender bender no matter where you’re going. On weekends, try to avoid driving into Honolulu after 7 p.m.—the traffic usually won’t calm down until 10 p.m. or later.

Ala Moana Area

Just outside Waikiki is Ala Moana. If you’d been in Honolulu in the early 1900s, you’d never have wanted to visit the Ala Moana area. It was a nasty, swampy and smelly area of mud flats that also housed the almost continuously burning Honolulu garbage dump. Everyone avoided the area except duck pond owners. Then in 1912, a dredging company owner named Dillingham bought this worthless land. His friends thought he was an idiot, but Dillingham was looking for a place to dispose of all of his dredged earth. In the 1950s a mile of sand was dumped at this park, creating the perfect swimming spot you see today. (But stay out of the ponds in the park, which are still swampy and nasty.) And in 1959, the year Hawai‘i became a state, its most prestigious shopping center was built across the street, the 50-acre Ala Moana Shopping Center. Ala Moana went from uninviting wasteland to a beautiful and treasured beach park backed by the largest open-air shopping center in the world in less than 50 years.

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Best Former Swamp—Waikiki Beach

Best Sunset Walk—From Kapiolani Park to the Hilton Hawaiian Village

Best Place to View the Most O‘ahu Real Estate—From Pu‘u Ualaka‘a State Wayside Park

Best View at Night—A hotel room in the Waikiki Sheraton above the 20th floor facing Diamond Head

Best Place to See How Royalty Lived—‘Iolani Palace

Best Winding Road—Tantalus Drive

Best Place to See Weird Edible Sea Critters—Maunakea Marketplace

Best Dining Deal on Waikiki Beach—Hale Koa Military Hotel

Best Place to Watch Boogie Boarders Close-up—Kapahulu Groin

Best Place to Hear a Crooner Sing Sad Music—Barefoot Bar, Hale Koa

East O‘ahu

Coastal Route to Hanauma Bay

Leave Waikiki behind by taking Kalakaua Avenue to Diamond Head Road to Kahala Avenue—more scenic than getting on H-1 East right away. You’ll pass the lower part of Diamond Head where some pretty scenic lookouts await. Kahala Avenue is where some of O‘ahu’s richest residents live. There are some truly stupendous mansions along here. In addition, there are some obscenely expensive eyesores on this road, proof that money doesn’t necessarily buy good taste.

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Turn left at the end onto Kealaolu Avenue, which’ll turn into H-1 East. (Look for the signs.) The H-1 will become Hwy 72, known locally as the Kalanianaole Highway. (Don’t try to pronounce that seven-syllable word; you might strain your tongue.)

The beaches along this lower leeward stretch aren’t very good (but the waters can have a very vibrant, turquoise appearance), thanks to runoff from Hawai‘i Kai, a giant housing subdivision. Don’t worry—the beaches will get much nicer.

If you’re hungry, Hawai‘i Kai has lots of restaurants. We’ve noticed at the Kona Brewing Company (which has good pizza) an abundance of spotted eagle rays that skim beneath the surface of the water to dine on algae growing along the nearby boat piers.

North Shore Sights

The North Shore is the prettiest drive on the entire island. Forget the big city and its multi-lane highways. This is a place with only a few traffic lights and a two-lane road that hugs the shoreline, embracing the Hawai‘i of yesteryear. Along the way you’ll find yourself constantly drooling over the beaches and mountain scenery.

Kualoa

As you approach the northern part of Kane‘ohe Bay on Hwy 83, Tropical Farms is a mac nut farm with a very pretty garden area and gorgeous monkeypod trees providing shade. They’re very generous with the flavored mac nut samples and coffee. (They can afford to be at these prices.) Though Tropical Farms offers forgettable guided tours of their farm, the variety of locally made soaps, oils, perfumes, honey, and sauces make their central shop a great place to spend an hour before heading farther north. Also on the property is a building dedicated to Hawaiian jewelry that features pearls and native koa wood in most of their designs. Watch out for the two hazards here: wasps flying around the sampling area and tour buses flying around the parking lot.

Kualoa Beach Park is at the very edge of Kane‘ohe Bay. This gigantic beach park has an endless lawn, a long ribbon of sand fringing it and an oh-so-tempting offshore island called Chinaman’s Hat (Hawaiian name Mokoli‘i).

Kahana Bay

After the tongue-twisting Ka‘a‘awa is the easier-to-pronounce Kahana Bay. Although the bay’s waters are never ultra-clear thanks to runoff from the Kahana River, the beach setting is picturesque, and it’s rare to find more than a few people here during the week. One of the easier kayak trips is up the jungly-looking river. (See Kahana River Kayaking for more.) The state park behind the bay is the Ahupua‘a O Kahana State Park.

La‘ie

The biggest town along this part of the island is La‘ie. In terms of driving time, there is probably no place on the island that takes longer to get to from Waikiki than La‘ie. It’s also light years away in terms of the culture. La‘ie is a town heavily dominated by the Latter Day Saints (often called Mormon) Church. Their university, Brigham Young University – Hawai‘i, has a campus and a beautiful temple here as well. (The temple is the first built outside of Utah. You are not allowed to go inside unless you are LDS, but they have a visitor center where they will enthusiastically share their faith.) The church is virtually everybody’s landlord in this town where alcohol is not allowed to be sold. That’s why there’s a Tamura’s Market in the adjacent town of Hau‘ula, where nearby residents go for their liquid aloha. And the local Chinese restaurant only serves tea, if you ask for it.

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One of the biggest attractions in all Hawai‘i, the Polynesian Cultural Center, is in La‘ie. This sprawling center was created to attract visitors, who help subsidize Brigham Young students from all over the Pacific. They do a particularly good job re-creating island life from around Polynesia.

Wai‘anae & Central O‘ahu

Wai‘anae in the west and Central O‘ahu are the least visited parts of the island. Central O‘ahu is dominated by vast fields of pineapple while Wai‘anae is dominated by exceptionally clear water and a bad reputation among island residents.

Central O‘ahu

This may be a little disorienting, but we’re going to describe Central O‘ahu from the north to the south. That’s because we’re assuming that most people will first see it after having driven around the North Shore when they’re on their way back toward Waikiki. Even if you bolted straight to the North Shore from Waikiki on a mission, this is how you’ll tour it on the way back. Taking Hwy 99 leaving Hale‘iwa, you’ll pass through the 155-acre Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate Plantation on the other side of Cook Island pine trees (used as a windbreak). Coffee and chocolate have opposite harvest seasons, so workers can stay employed year-round, but they don’t offer tours here.

Wahiawa & Mt. Ka‘ala

In Wahiawa, there’s a garden called Wahiawa Botanical Garden off California Street.

After Wahiawa or Schofield you’ll take H-2 south to H-1.
Of course, there’s more to this area than meets the eye. There are large military bases out here, which you can only glimpse from the road. What you won’t see, however, plays a major role in the country’s intelligence gathering. There are miles and miles of tunnels carved underground and a massive underground complex called the Kunia Regional Signals Intelligence Operations Center buried near the pineapple fields. This is where intercepted messages from around the world are decrypted and analyzed. The center became famous when Edward Snowden stole and leaked classified material from here, revealing the extent to which the NSA monitors phone and internet communications.

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From here, you have several places you could head to besides going back to Waikiki.

Wai‘anae and Central O‘ahu are separated by the tallest mountain on the island. The top, called Mt. Ka‘ala, is a flat plateau of swampy ground dominated by mosses and lichen. At 4,025 feet, it’s usually cloud-covered, and trees at the top are stunted. Fully grown ‘ohi‘a trees—normally growing to over 20 feet tall—top out at only 2 to 3 feet, creating a natural bonsai garden.

Wai‘anae

Wai‘anae is the name of a town, but it’s also the name generally used to describe the western coastline leading all the way to Ka‘ena Point. Wai‘anae is one of the poorer sections of the island, and it has a reputation for being a rough place. In the ’70s that was certainly true. A number of violent crimes against visitors created an image among island residents that persists to this day. Don’t go to Wai‘anae, they say. You’ll get beaten up. Well, frankly, that’s ridiculous, and those who espouse that attitude need to come out here more often. Because it’s so dry, Wai‘anae has some of the nicest ocean water on the island, and you shouldn’t let its reputation dissuade you from partaking of its delights. We’ve gone to the police to confirm that today, violent crimes against visitors are extremely rare here. It’s mainly petty theft—frankly, a lot of it. That means some dirtbag breaking into your car to steal your camera while you’re at the beach, or even stealing your stuff right off your beach towel. In the past, the beach parks here were often “taken over” by homeless encampments. Years ago authorities enforced the “No Camping” rules at all but one beach, creating nicer environments at most beach parks and a dense concentration of homeless campers farther north at Kea‘au Beach Park. In 2012 they also evicted the homeless campers from this park.

Oahu Map

Oahu Map

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