O‘ahu means "The Gathering Place" and that spirit still shines. The Hawai‘ian island blends the hip urban culture of Honolulu—the state's capital—with ancient sacred sites, steep rain-forested ridges, and resorts sprawling beside turquoise coves. It also gave birth to big-wave surfing along its Nort…h Shore, which shelters mellow, artsy towns. Just a little bigger than Los Angeles, O‘ahu makes it easy for visitors to zip outside the glitzy tourist hub of Waikiki into the heartland of Hawai‘i.
What to know before you go to O‘ahu
Some claim O‘ahu has the best weather in the state. Regardless, the whole island certainly enjoys great conditions year round. Expect temperatures averaging 80°F from mid-November through March. The mercury then climbs into the upper-80's.
Rain showers favor the windward (east) side, but tend to be quick squalls. Winter is wetter, sure... but the season makes up for it with fantastic surfing and whale watching.
Bargain-hunters prefer mid- to late May and anytime in September. Avoid the last week in April, when many Japanese visit and accommodations can be hard to find.
Honolulu International Airport (HNL) serves not just as the main gateway to O‘ahu, but to all the islands. Rent a car there, if you plan to venture outside Waikiki (which you absolutely should!). Urban parking can be a challenge, however: budget plenty of time and even more patience, or else ample funds for pricey garages. Apps like ParkMe, BestParking, and Parkopedia can eliminate the guesswork.
Want to fully chill out and leave the driving to someone else? Most resorts—and some attractions—run shuttles. The island also has good transit with TheBus and the Waikiki Trolley, as well as taxis, the SpeediShuttle, Uber, and Lyft.
Many visitors beeline right for two pampering playgrounds: Waikiki (with around 30,000 rooms) and Ko Olina (2,000-ish) to the west. That's good news for independent travelers, who can get off the beaten path quickly. Start by dining at one of Honolulu's hip, innovative restaurants, then venture further afield. You'll be in the groove by the time you hit the North Shore, a legendary surf zone where 36 breaks string into "The Seven-Mile Miracle." Save time to explore mellow boho towns like Hale‘iwa there. Then drive down the lusher windward (east) coast, stopping at beautiful Lanikai Beach and snorkeling Hanauma Bay.
But don't turn your back on the big city entirely. It has much to offer from the Bishop Museum to Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor and Iolani, America's only royal palace.
Hawai‘i gets a bad rap, between sugary-sweet cocktails and pizza atrocities—pineapple!—first committed by a Greek-Canadian. Go beyond the tourist treats to traditional dishes like poke (marinated cubes of raw fish) and kalua pig slow-roasted in an imu (pit oven). Other standouts include saimin noodle soup, Spam musubi and "loco moco" (rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy). Finish with a shave ice, Portuguese malasada doughnuts, or the iconic dessert haupia (coconut-milk custard).
The early 90's saw the rise of Hawaii regional cuisine, elevating these diverse ethnic flavors with even more global fusion. Today Honolulu teems with inventive restaurants and craft cocktail bars.
Native Hawai‘ians are the descendants of ancient voyagers: bold explorers who sailed over 4,000 miles from French Polynesia, navigating by the stars. They evolved an elaborate social system, full of customs, legends and taboos. The 1778 arrival of Captain James Cook opened up the archipelago to the outside world, forever reshaping it.
Hawai‘i continued to be a monarchy, until a group of American-backed businessmen and sugar planters forced Queen Liliʻuokalani to abdicate in 1893. Five years later the United States annexed the islands, which finally became the 50th state in 1959. Today 21 percent of residents have Hawai‘ian ancestry and almost 300,000 people consider themselves fully native. Not only is the indigenous population recovering, but so is the island-wide zeal for traditional culture.
Generally Hawai‘ians cherish children and encourage them to rip around the ocean and islands, gleefully exploring. Visitors need to stop, look, and listen where the water's involved, though. Consult Hawaiibeachsafety.com and then the lifeguard, before letting little ones loose. Waikiki Beach—down past the Duke Kahanamoku statue—has a sea wall that mellows the surf. Also excellent are the Ko Olina lagoons, home to the Four Seasons O‘ahu and the Disney Aulani, which embraces local culture without tipping into kitsch and clichés. Favorite attractions for kids include the Atlantis Submarines, ATV rides at Kualoa Private Nature Reserve, the Children’s Discovery Center, and Disney's luau—which locals consider the island's best!
Make sure your sunscreen doesn't degrade the beautiful marine life of Hawai‘i (bereefsafe.com). A single drop of the common ingredient oxybenzone—even in a body of water the size of 6.5 Olympic swimming pools—can damage coral... and over 40 percent of reefs are already contaminated. Brought the wrong kind? Guests at the Surfjack can trade polluting brands for ocean-safe sunscreen.
Hawai‘i and the mainland limit the flow of agricultural products to prevent invasive pests. But the USDA regulations aren't as cut-and-dried as many visitors fear. For example, seed jewelry and most flower lei are fine, but cactuses and plants in soil don't make the cut.
read before you go
Travel writer and photographer Amanda Castleman lived in Europe and the Middle East for eight years before returning to her home port of Seattle. Despite her yoga-and-yogurt tendencies, she's a former wilderness guide who's happiest covering nature, animals, and outdoor adventures. Her Honduras scuba article won a Lowell Thomas award (travel writing's ersatz Pulitzer). A renowned journalism instructor since 2003, Castleman still teaches an annual Travel Writing Master Class online and a week-long workshop in Rome each spring. Bring her an apple and she'll reveal the best espresso in the Eternal City...