Best of Oahu, Hawaii

Aloha e. Think you know Hawaii ? Read along with me while I highlight the best Stay/Do/Taste/See experiences on Oahu for a visitor written by a born and raised in the islands, fourth generation kama’aina (literally: land child). Please check frequently as I’ll add more in the weeks to come. We’ll get " really local” here, so once you book your air and get a place to stay- we are taking off! I welcome your questions too.

Kailua, HI, USA
Kailua Beach is always named one of the best beaches in the world. It has the most deliciously soft sand, gentle surf, and maybe a turtle ( honu) to swim with. Kailua Beach is actually many beaches. For a fascinating study on ancient beach names, take a look at the historical Hawaiian names in John R.K. Clark’s book “The Beaches of Oahu.” In modern times the beach names are three. Oneawa ( AKA Castles), lies to the north near the house the President favors for holidays. Kalama sits in the middle of the crescent named to honor Queen Kalama the wife of King Kamehameha III, former owner of the entire Kailua district. Kailua Beach Park is thirty acres with parking, picnic facilities, lifeguard and restrooms. Kayak rentals are close by and you may pull the boats across the street, stopping for a custom made sandwich at Kalapawai Market, and paddle out to one of the Mokulua islands. If you want a quieter experience albeit with no facilities or life guard, try Kalama Beach via any marked public right-of-way along Kalaheo Avenue beginning in 300 block and proceeding north. Pay attention to no-parking signs; find parking down a side street off Kalaheo Avenue TOWARDS the mountains. Leave nothing of value in your car, take chairs, towels, sunscreen, hats, a cooler of water and perhaps lunch. If winds pick up, pack up and head to docile Waikiki.
2424 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA
Every afternoon about 5:30 PM, islanders and connoisseurs of sunsets arrange themselves at their favorite beach side vantage point on the west and south shores of Oahu for a chance to see the legendary “green flash”. In all of my years of living in Hawaii, I have only seen it twice, but sometimes I think it was a result of a very strong Mai Tai and staring at the sun too long. If you’d like to try for a glimpse of this phenomenon, you might as well be sitting in a comfortable spot with a great drink in hand. SWIM is a poolside bar with views over the statue of Duke Kahanamoku out to Waikiki beach. On an upper deck of The Hyatt Regency Waikiki, you are above street level so nice treetop and beach views are yours. I recommend the Lychee Martini ( pictured). The pupus are really good here too and if you plan it right, might serve as dinner. If not, hop over to SHOR American Seafood Grill. Visible across the pool with indoor or outdoor seating, start with amazing Baby Kona Abalone with garlic herbed butter, the tremendous seafood tower or the catch of the day you pair with a sauce you select from the list like Pineapple Shiso Relish, Hamakua Mushroom, Soy Radish etc. Insider Tip : Valet your car gratis with purchase – so get your ticket stamped and tip your valet.
1775 Moana Blvd., Honolulu
A fairly new addition to the Waikiki waterfront, the seven-year-old Modern was a dream come true for those young urbanites who never quite felt at home in the more traditional Hawaiian resorts. It’s not directly on the beach—the closest is the lagoon and expansive beach in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, a quick walk on the hotel’s ramp—and instead overlooks the picturesque Ala Wai Boat Harbor, where many of the island’s boating excursions depart. Designed by George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, celebrities in the world of fashionable hotels, the look is warmly modern, all whites and creams and luxurious wood, and some striking art pieces, including a large surfboard installation in the lobby (titled “Wreck-tangles”). There’s a fun nightclub and some seriously good restaurants, though the real scene is out on the Instagram-worthy two-tiered teak pool deck, lined with lots of cushy chaises and shady corners to curl up. Upstairs is the adults-only pool—less a pool than a shallow water prop for frequent DJ-hosted dance parties. But for as much as the Modern is a hipster haven, the service is surprisingly good at making sure guests never feel like they’re crashing someone else’s party.
59-024 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712, USA
Everyone is crazy for the chocolate haupia pie here, but the shrimp plate is also so good you’ll want to lick your fingers. —Hoku Haiku 59-024 Kamehameha Hwy., Sunset Beach, (808) 638-8207. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue. Read more about Hoku Haiku’s North Shore neighborhood in Oahu.
Puu O Mahuka
“The cultural site is home to Pu‘u o Mahuka, Oahu’s largest heiau, or ancient temple. The site has beautiful panoramic views, and you can look out to Waimea Bay, which is cool when the waves are big,” says Hoku Haiku.

The largest temple site on Oahu estimated to be built in the 1600s. Historic site where Hawaiian chiefs prayed and reportedly conducted human sacrifices. It’s still considered to be an important spiritual site today.
1525 Bernice St, Honolulu, HI 96817, USA
The largest museum in Hawaii studies and preserves the history of the islands and the Pacific—for those interested in local culture, it’s a must. The Victorian building originally housed family heirlooms from Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha I, including her ancestor’s royal feathered cape. Today the Bishop teems with more than 24 million artifacts, documents, and photos about Hawaii and other Polynesian cultures. Other highlights include everyday items, like combs made from coconut-leaf ribs, and extraordinary ones, like the leiomano (a shark-tooth-studded weapon kept hidden until battle). Don’t miss the 55-foot sperm whale skeleton and other natural-history exhibits, along with a planetarium showing how voyagers navigated the Pacific, guided by the stars.
5000 Kahala Ave, Honolulu, HI 96816, USA
Long considered one of the top hotels on Oahu, the Kahala has always been a particular favorite among the type of guests who travel with their own security detail. A number of past U.S. presidents, plus kings, queens, princesses Grace and Di, a handful of Nobel Peace Prize winners, rock stars, and movie stars, all have slept under its venerable roof at some point during the hotel’s 50-year history. The see-and-be-seen set moved on long ago, but privacy seekers still make a beeline here. They’re drawn less by the property’s fabulous beach (though that’s reason enough to stay here) than by its exclusive location—in a well-fortified cul-de-sac in the ritzy Kahala neighborhood. But there’s a warm and fuzzy side to the hotel, too. A pod of dolphins has full-time residency in the hotel lagoon, and visitors of all ages can swim with them (for a fairly steep fee). Rooms have a preppy beach house vibe—raffia ceiling fans, linen loveseats—and many come with heart-stopping sea views.
27 Hoolai St, Kailua, HI 96734, USA
Moke’s in Kailua town on the windward side of Oahu is a local institution. It’s breakfast all day and lunch after 11AM until closing at 2PM. Highlights? The family’s grandmother’s Liliko’i pancakes and homemade corned beef hash are the enduring, most-requested faves here. All breads are baked on premises and the brown gravy smothering the hamburger patty, rice and eggs of the Loco Moco is as the owner’s son says " my dad jokes that the gravy is pork and chicken that tastes like turkey ( What? ) " my dad is a man of ‘isms,” Keola says of his father Moke head chef and leader of this very friendly kama’aina Warren family business. Just great food, great quality cooked like your grandma would !
Folks in Kailua really work together to protect the uber cool beach factor of the town. But face it, since a major landholder of commercial properties (now sold to another) began bussing in Japanese tourists for day-tripping from Waikiki a few years ago, and Obama makes your town his holiday hideout, you’ve been discovered Kailua. So Kailua sells tee shirts, fresh juice smoothies, haute muumuus, soaps, canoes, water sport rentals and tours, has great eateries, all manner of " made in Kailua” goodies, and even a Whole Foods. What they all come looking for is the “Kailua vibe” an indescribable laid-back, coconut tree, walk to the beach, surf board under your arm, lifestyle. Kailua tries to balance entrepreneurship with protecting what makes it so special and that’s why I love 3rd Ave Shore. Here Sam (Samantha) and Ted Hardin’s imaginative original SURFace designs are made into removable decals of all sizes, so take a little bit of the elusive Kailua vibe home to put up on your wall. Who wouldn’t want a honu ( turtle), surfboard or orange VW bus peeking at you from your wall every time you think of Kailua?
49-560 Kamehameha Hwy, Kaneohe, HI 96744, USA
Why would a local visit a tourist attraction? Because Kualoa is a beautiful escape and a place to appreciate Hawaiian culture. Building sprees that began in the early 1900s spread across Hawaii with no concern for desecrating places of cultural significance or taro farmland, making it more remarkable that this land system running from the mountains to the sea, known as an ahupua’a, still exists. The Morgan family, descendants of Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, land-owner after King Kamehameha III, have diligently kept the integrity of the area intact while providing a financial base to preserve Kualoa’s 4000 acres on Oahu. Drive out to the ranch on your own or arrange a Waikiki pick-up, then take in a full or half-day of tours, a beach day, and dinner show. Kualoa Ranch has been a scene-stealer in many movies and a tour will drive you through some of the locations. If horseback riding is your thing, experienced wranglers can set you up on well-kept horses. While your gentle mount does all of the work, magnificent vistas will leave you breathless. For those preferring their horsepower with four tires, there are ATV rides or, a jungle expedition in a Pinzgauer up mountain trails stopping for a stunning view of Kane’ohe Bay, an 800-year-old fishpond and a tiny island called Mokoli’i. There are easy options like the garden tour and fishpond boat ride. Everyone will enjoy the authentic Hawaiian show featuring ancient dances about Kualoa while dining under the stars.
316 Kuulei Rd, Kailua, HI 96734, USA
Handmade soaps with local scents, island and Kailua themed artwork, the good kine slippers, greeting cards, books, treats, floral purses, Hawai‘ian honey, tees, fresh tropical flowers and other goodies will delight you at Kailua General Store. Sit outside and enjoy a cooling shave ice before you shop or sip something and ask owner Steven Parker for the latest Kailua news. You will love this old-time family store reminiscent of plantation days expertly designed and built with recycled materials. Wander over to the shop next door that shares a door way: 3rd Ave Shore. Friendly, well curated and definitely recommended.
Honolulu, HI 96744, USA
This used to be the old highway to get from the leeward to the windward side of the island. It was literally built into the side of a mountain and was barely hanging on. It’s now been replaced with a proper 4 lane highway complete with a tunnel, but parts of the old highway are still there to hike on. To get there you have to go through tourists. They are there for the lookout and the spectacular view – but you can go much deeper than that! From the lookout, go down to the right and go past the ‘closed’ sign, away from the tourists at the lookout snapping photos.

Take the old Pali Highway through dense jungle growing along the side of this lush mountain. We also picked fresh guava off the trees and snacked on them along the way down. We hiked about 45 minutes down and then slowly turned around and came back up. You can hike all the way through to the end though.
Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa
A Hawaiian fantasyland on Oahu’s more remote leeward coast, about 40 minutes from Waikiki, Aulani is so seductive—for all ages—that many guests are loath to leave the property at all. And who can blame them? The beach is an idyllic cove (albeit a man-made one) stocked with kayaks, boogie boards, and everything else little beach bums could want. Then there are the three pools, including one for adults only and one filled with tropical fish for snorkelers-in-training, two impressive waterslides, and the biggest crowd-pleaser of them all, a 900-foot-long lazy river where guests, big and small, splash around on inner tubes as they meander around a faux-rock grotto. Goofy, Minnie, Mickey, and the rest—all in their vacation outfits—make occasional cameos at the breakfast buffet or by (sometimes, in) the pool. But while Aulani is most assuredly every kid’s dream, it is not every parent’s nightmare. The resort decor is more traditionally Hawaiian than obnoxiously Magic Kingdom; the lobby is built to recall an old canoe house, on a grand scale, and is covered in murals, painted by local artists, depicting island life. Hawaiian storytellers gather around a fire pit at night, and rooms have warm woods, with a single subtle reference to the Mouse King—a wooden carving of Mickey with a surfboard and ukulele that doubles as a desk lamp. Perhaps best of all, the Aulani has an outstanding, supervised kids’ club that’s free to guests ages 3 to 12. Babysitters are available for kids as young as six weeks old.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Food + Drink
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East