10 best Oahu experiences

It’s no secret that Hawaii has always been a popular destination for some tropical island bliss, but Oahu has been getting a lot of attention in the past couple of years for another reason. You couldn’t ask for a better endorsement than being the birthplace and childhood home of President Obama (who still returns home to visit).

However, this island, which is home to most of Hawaii’s population, has something to offer all travelers — like lush, green mountains, sparkling beaches, traditional entertainment and a hefty dose of culture and history. There’s more to Oahu than tourist havens like Honolulu and Pearl Harbour. Here are some must-see destinations, according to Lonely Planet’s Honolulu, Waikiki & Oahu Guide:

Best beach: Kailua Beach Park

Oahu has over 125 beaches — so why make it a point of seeing this one? For one thing, it’s on the opposite side of the island from the split personality of the Northern Shore — where winters are more suited to surfers than swimmers. The waves at Kailua Beach are “just right” all year round, not to mention the postcard perfect waters and gently sloping sandy bottom. It’s an ideal setting for visitors of all ages and beginners looking to try water sports, whether you want to take a leisurely stroll, swim or try your hand at windsurfing. The reef’s nearby islands practically invite kayakers — and many tour companies offer guided trips that include picnics and snorkelling.

Best beach to watch the world’s best surfers: Pipeline (Ehukai Beach)

Oahu’s North Shore is the place to see the “rock stars of the ocean” during the winter months. Why does the Banzai Pipeline get top marks? It has some of the biggest and heaviest barrels (waves) in the world — and they can peak at 30 feet or more. The waves break just 50-100 yards offshore thanks to a shallow reef (which adds a little danger and excitement to the sport too). In other words, you won’t need those binoculars or massive zoom lens cameras to see the action. If you’re there in December, watch the pros hit the waves for the Billabong Pipeline Masters, part of the annual Triple Crown of Surfing.

Secret sunset spot: Ma’ili Beach Park

There’s one thing missing from the romantic image of a sunset stroll along a palm-tree studded beach: the crowds. Waikiki Beach and other favourite beaches tend to get the lion’s share of the attention (not to mention the people), but Ma’ili Beach is still “uncluttered and under-populated”, according to Lonely Planet. There isn’t much to do in the town of Ma’ili aside from the park, which helps keep the tourist quotient low. However, the park is a favourite picnic and barbeque spot for the locals, and there’s a long stretch of sand from which to choose a secluded spot.

Best neighbourhood for walking: Chinatown

It’s small enough for a morning or afternoon walk, but don’t let the size deceive you. Chinatown is packed with history, art, nightlife, markets and tasty places to eat. It’s located near Honolulu’s harbour, making it the perfect addition to an itinerary around the state’s capital city.

Some top sights on this neighbour tour include the Hawaii Theatre, Hawai’i Heritage Center, the Kuan Yin Temple and Izumo Taisha — a Shinto shrine built by Japanese immigrants back in 1906. Also not to be missed are the markets — the Oahu Market, Kekaulike Market and Maunakea Market — where you can find fresh foods and other treats. On the first Friday of the month, take the art walk to check out the local arts scene and meet artisans.

Best hiking trail network: Mt. Tantalus area

Weather patterns in Hawaii make for luscious greenery and tropical flowers, but you don’t have to venture far from Honolulu to find it. This network of trails offers an adventure for most ages and abilities — like a short hike to Manoa Falls or a more challenging hike up the Pauoa Flats Trail to the Nu’uanu Lookout. They’re a great way to learn about local species of trees and flowers too.

Many of these trails can be challenging, but they’re easy on the budget. Aside from parking costs, access to many of the trails is free.

Best unexpected greenery: Wahiawa Botanical Garden

Many tourists don’t get to experience the best of Oahu’s greenery because they don’t go off the beaten path, but Wahiawa is worth the trip. Located near the centre of the island, it’s an ideal stopover on your way to or from the North Shore. It’s a haven for nature lovers and gardeners alike with 27 acres of grounds featuring a mixture of “the manicured and the wild”. Tour areas filled with ornamental plants, and later check out the forests of tropical hardwoods, bamboo and ferns.

Best scenic drive: Southeast Coast

There’s no shortage of places to find some eye-popping views and stunning photo-ops on Oahu, including the well-known Pali and Kamehameha highways. However, if you’re planning a road trip to Kailua Beach then you shouldn’t miss the Southeast Coast where you’ll find the “biggest dose of drive-by beauty”. Starting at Hanauma Bay and tracing along Makupu’u Point to Waimanalo, this route offers some lookouts over beaches and parks — where you can stop for the day to soak up some sun — and romantic coves to pause for a snack.

Best place to learn about Hawaii: The Bishop Museum

Hawaii has a long and diverse history involving many cultures, including American, Asian and Polynesian influences in addition to Hawaii’s ancient ways. The Bishop Museum captures the natural and cultural history of the islands — including heirlooms from the Hawaiian royal family, documents and photos, and artefacts from all areas of daily life. Learn about the legends, religions and culture of Hawaii and other Pacific cultures.

It’s also a destination for science and environment buffs too with the Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center — where visitors can learn about Hawaii’s unique climate — and the Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium.

Best shave ice: Matsumoto Shave Ice, Haleiwa

So you thought Hawaiian cuisine was all about tropical fruits and roast pigs? Enjoying a slushy treat is an essential Oahu experience. It isn’t your typical snow cone — in a place where summer always seems to be in the air it’s become an art form. Imagine a smoother texture, your choice of homemade syrups (simple, exotic or sugar-free) and optional toppings like ice cream, condensed milk or sweetened azuki beans. Just be prepared for a line-up on a hot day and a bit of a sticky situation!

Best nightlife: Waikiki

You didn’t expect to go to bed early, did you? An outdoor patio, a tropical drink in your hand, torch light, hula dancers and live music are a few of the things to enjoy after hours on Oahu, even if you aren’t into the party scene. Lonely Planet notes that entertainment is focusing less on kitschy shows for the tourists and more on keeping traditions alive — though you may have to be a little selective in your choice of entertainment.

If you’re there in the winter and spring months, you won’t have to wait quite so long for the after-sunset festivities to start. The nights may feel like summer, but they don’t have the long hours of daylight.

– There are accommodations to suit any travel style, from bed and breakfasts to luxury resorts. The islands are still recovering from the economic slump, so there are still deals to be had into 2010.

– Road trips are the way to really see the islands, and they can take as little as three days or as long as a week (the guide features some sample itineraries and routes). Another bonus: courteous driving is the norm.

– Getting to the islands may not be quick or inexpensive, but a lot the entertainment and experiences are free.

– To find out what’s on Obama’s must-see list, check out the special section on the Hawaii tourism board website, Barack Obama’s Hawaii.

For more information about Oahu, see Lonely Planet’s Honolulu, Waikiki & Oahu Travel Guide and the Honolulu & Waikikiwebpage.

Additional sources: United States Travel Report (from voyage.gc.ca), GoHawaii.com