The Ultimate Guide to Oahu
Trust us when we say there is a lot to do on each of Hawai’i’s islands. O’ahu, in particular, is known as the gathering place and is home to Waikiki’s limitless shopping, 30,000 hotel rooms, and user-friendly beaches where just about anyone can take a surfing lesson and ride their first wave.
Creating an ultimate guide to Hawaii is a full-time job. It takes us two years to produce a first edition book, and in the meantime, we update our mobile app daily with new information on places we’ve reviewed.
But to highlight a few real gems, here are the top places you can’t miss while you’re in O’ahu. We’ve rounded up our favorite resorts, sights, activities and restaurants so you’re fully covered and can make the most of your vacation. These places all received A Real Gem or an Ono in our books and app as they stand out from the rest.
We’ve personally stayed at and reviewed every single resort on O‘ahu, and these ones came out on top. They both receive “A Real Gem” from us because they offer something particularly special. Curious about the other resorts? Download our app for free to read all of our O‘ahu resort reviews.
The Royal is one of the premier resorts in Waikiki. Back when they built this place in 1927, there was only one other hotel—the nearby Moana. The Royal’s developers had their pick of where to build, so they chose this part of the beach. And no wonder—this is probably the best stretch of Waikiki—surfable waves offshore and sandy near-shore waters. (Though the water tends to be oddly cloudy here.)
The Modern Honolulu
The hotel used to be part of the Ilikai Hotel next door. In 2010, after $240 million worth of renovations, it reopened as The Modern. They tout themselves as “luxurious, yet brilliantly laid-back,” and we agree. This is one of the few places where internet photos just don’t do it justice, and we’ve never said that before.
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Aqua Bamboo Waikiki
This boutique hotel has a very tranquil atmosphere, despite its location in the middle of Waikiki. A nice pool, fresh bamboo and Buddhas sprinkled about add to its appeal, which has sort of a contemporary Asian feel. Their saltwater pool is nice with the sound of a waterfall to drown out the city noise. Because of the hotel’s relatively small size, nothing feels too distant. Service is personalized and warm.
Some rooms are pretty small but well laid out, so size is less of an issue. (The building gets narrower as it goes up.) The rooms are bright and modern with hints of bamboo and dark woods. There’s a docking station for your iPod, a place to secure your surfboard (limited), and free fresh ground-to-order coffee and tea in the lobby 24 hours a day. Hotel-type rooms have a microwave, fridge and coffee maker—add a burner for the kitchenettes. If you’re staying on a lower floor, opt for a room facing the courtyard pool. There is a manager’s reception once a week and free lei making classes twice a week. Let them valet park your car if you have a larger vehicle. Overall, one of the best Waikiki hotels.
Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa
This is the kind of place you think of when you imagine large, very nice Waikiki hotels: tropical feel, open-air lobby and good staff. Even though it’s very large, it radiates the dreamy warmth you’re looking for without seeming too busy.
There are two towers here—the Kealohilani tower is closest to the ocean, while the Paoakalani tower is more of a walk to the beach. Both towers are named after Queen Lili‘uokalani’s summer homes. Literally translated they mean “heavenly fragrance”. Rooms in both towers have bright splashes of color, are very comfortable, nicely decorated and have large lanais. This place stands out from other Waikiki hotels by thinking of many special touches—reading lamps mounted to the headboards, ergonomic desk chairs for workaholics, and Marriott’s Revive beds (for when you’re done working or playing).
This is one of the most historic Waikiki hotels, originally opened in 1901, and the second floor has a nice display describing the legacy of this establishment. Their three buildings surround a century-old banyan tree that lends an air of timelessness to the ambiance. As an early player in Waikiki, their location is among the best on the beach. The most recent renovations are tasteful and in keeping with its architecture. Even the Banyan Wing rooms are now a tasteful blend of modern Hawaiian decor and convenience in a historic setting.
The buildings are compact enough that you won’t have to do much walking (except to where your car is parked behind the Princess Kaiulani). You have signing privileges at the other Starwood resorts in Waikiki.
There’s a myth that O‘ahu is Waikiki and Waikiki is O‘ahu, but nothing could be further from the truth. O‘ahu has all the wonder, adventure and discovery that a person could ever ask for—and far more. While our app features all of the sights to see in O‘ahu, these are the ones that are not to be missed. You can download our app and use our custom maps to plan your trip around the top sights in O‘ahu.
No matter how long you stay in Honolulu, at some point you should take a drive along Tantalus and Round Top. This 10-mile-long road wiggles and winds up the mountains through a pretty forest above Honolulu to the 1,610-foot level, and in the process you’ll gain an appreciation of Honolulu’s beauty you never really expected.
Ko‘olau Mountain Range
Though the leeward side’s Wai‘anae Range is taller, the Ko‘olau Mountain Range on the windward side looks taller and much more dramatic. The sheer, fluted cliffs carpeted with every shade of green are among the most wondrous sights on the island and never fail to impress. The tallest peaks of the Ko‘olaus, just south (to the left) of the Pali tunnel and peaking at 3,150 and 3,105 feet, are called Konahuanui, literally translated as the big, fat testicles. Hey, we don’t make up the legends, we just report ’em.
First of all, it ain’t overly sharky. It was so named by divers years ago because it sounded more exciting than “the area to the right of the tide-pool at Pupukea.” This tiny cove offers fantastic snorkelling and SCUBA much of the time during the summer (May–September). Yeah, it’s popular and sometimes crowded with people. But it’s also crowded with fish since this area is a preserve. You may find gobs of fish and the occasional turtle, hard-to-find octopus and even bait balls at times.
If you want more from your O‘ahu vacation than a suntan, O‘ahu offers a multitude of activities to keep you happy and busy. Below we list out the more popular activities to do on O‘ahu, with candid information on each. If you’re itching to see what other adventures await you in O‘ahu, you can download our app and filter through the activities based on your preference. The app also includes a geo-accurate map you can use offline, meaning you’ll always have a guide to Hawaii in your pocket.
Snorkelling in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
If you’ve heard anything about snorkelling on O‘ahu, you’ve heard about Hanauma Bay Snorkeling at this underwater nature preserve is one of the most popular activities on the island and shouldn’t be missed, but a lot of hype and misconceptions exist. We go into more detail in our app. What you should expect to see are fish… lots and lots of colorful fish of a few varieties that are very much used to people. This is where having a crowd of more than 3,000 people per day works to your advantage—the fish are so tame that they’ll often hang out and swim right up to your face. Be sure to bring your underwater camera.
Don’t confuse this with hang gliding. This craft has an engine, it’s bigger and more stable, and some even have a powered parachute attached to the craft…just in case (a safety feature boasted by only a small number of pricey traditional airplanes). Trikes take off and land on regular runways, and the ease and grace of the craft are glorious. (Rent the movie Fly Away Home if you want to see what they’re like.) It’s as close to flying like a bird as any form of a flight I know.
Overall, Wai‘anae offers the best dive conditions. It’s calm most of the year, and visibility is often 100 feet or more. We don’t recommend late afternoon dives there since you’ll be fighting traffic the whole way. (Morning trips there go against the traffic.) One of the more interesting Wai‘anae dives is the Mahi. You’ll get an idea of what happens to a ship that has been underwater since 1982 after two hurricanes and an embarrassing incident involving a Navy anchor. The ship has broken in half, but it’s a fun dive, and it’s often accompanied by patrols of spotted eagle rays flying in formation.
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We’ve reviewed over 220 restaurants on O‘ahu and marked those that stand out from the rest with an “ono” symbol. Here are a few of our top-rated restaurants, but if you’d like to see more you can download our app and filter through them all based on cuisine and price. Our app acts as your personal guide to Hawaii by locating each of O‘ahu’s restaurants on our custom maps and showing the distance between you and a restaurant worth your while.
Huge lunch and dinner menus, including lots of seafood, pastas, chicken and sandwiches with large portions. The ambiance is restful, if slightly dressy. Items such as the fish arrabbiata (which is good) and stuffed baked eggplant (also good) supplement more expected pasta items. Service is adequate, and it’s not too horribly priced at lunch. Ask for a table near the fountain at the Ala Moana location.
Also called the Hale’iwa Beach House, this is one of the first restaurants you’ll come to in Hale’iwa if you’re approaching town from the northeast (a good thing if you’re hungry– you’ll hit it before the major traffic snarl). It’s also one of the only restaurants on the north shore with an ocean view. Unfortunately, it’s across the highway, so there’s a good chance you’ll still be looking at a slow-moving line of vehicles crawling by, but the open-air architecture helps give the place more os a beachside feel.
As legendary as its namesake here in the islands, Duke’s has the sort of dreamy atmosphere that’s synonymous with Waikiki, and it’s one of our favorite places to eat breakfast. Some of the tables overlook a pool, while others overlook the famous surf spot. (Duke Kahanamoku was the sport’s first ambassador, the guy who introduced surfing to the American mainland.) Most, however, overlook other tables. Get there close to their 7 a.m. opening time to get a coveted railing table. Koa wood is everywhere, and the ambiance, though it can get a bit loud and crowded, is pleasing.
If you’re hungry for more real gems on O‘ahu, our app has them all plotted on our custom maps which can direct you to each location. The maps will even show you more attractions nearby and will tell you if it’s a real gem or not. Our maps can be downloaded for use offline, perfect for a drive along Tantalus and Round Top! Meaning this guide to Hawaii actually guides you to the sights and activities found on the O’ahu, and you can gain access to the other major islands as well: Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.
More information awaits you in our app, which you can download on your Apple or Android device.
See all restaurants on O‘ahu in our app. Download Now!
Guide to Hawaii – O‘ahu Island
O‘ahu has it all, accommodation-wise, and as you consider where you want to stay—hotel or condo, by the beach or with a mountain view—you might find it intimidating to wade through the vast number of choices.
So here’s what we did. We have personally reviewed every resort on O‘ahu. We have exhaustively cataloged all the amenities, formed opinions on what different properties have to offer and created comprehensive reviews. Sure, you can go online and look at reviews by people who have been to one or maybe two resorts. But none of those sources knows them all and can compare one to the other.
Because this information is so exhaustive, there isn’t enough room in our book to include it all. So we have put all of our reviews in our smartphone app, Hawaii Revealed, and made that portion available for free. There you can sort and sift through the resorts in a matter of minutes using our special filters. We also include our own aerial photos, so you’ll know if oceanfront really means oceanfront.
For instance, you might say, I want a hotel in Waikiki, on a beach, that’s good for families, has an outdoor lanai, a children’s pool, and takes service animals. Oh, and a swim-up bar would be nice. With the filters in our app, you can cut through the 135 or so resorts and get to exactly what you want by reading our in-depth, brutally honest review. How’s that for cutting through the noise?
More things to reveal in the app, your ultimate guide to Hawaii:
- Reviews on Hawaii Resorts with their locations
- Reviews on every single beach on the islands
- Interactive maps of Kauai, Maui, O‘ahu and the Big Island
- Details to help plan your visit to Hawaii’s best sights, tours, activities and more
Download Your Personal Guide to Hawaii Now!