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Destination Spotlight: Oahu Travel Guide
Issue #17-23 features a Destination Spotlight travel guide on the island of Oahu including a look at the best places to stay, where to eat and the top things to do and see when visiting Hawaii.
Destination Spotlight travel guides from The Family Travel Guy are delivered to your inbox on the last Friday of the month highlighting a new location each time that we have visited, as I previewed at the beginning of the year: Here's what you can expect in 2023 from The Family Travel Bulletin
The Ultimate Oahu, Hawaii Family Travel Guide
Oahu, often referred to as "The Gathering Place”, is home to approximately 75% of Hawaii's diverse population, a fusion of East and West cultures rooted in the values and traditions of the Native Hawaiian people. It's unique that you experience both town and country by only taking a short drive away from bustling Honolulu and Waikiki Beach.
Oahu is the third-largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago and is known for its stunning beaches, outdoor activities, rich history, and cultural attractions. The island has a diverse landscape that ranges from rugged mountain ranges to lush rainforests and sandy beaches.
Know Before You Go
Oahu can be split up into 5 different regions:
Honolulu & Waikiki Beach
Each area has a different feel to it and offers something a little different for visitors with unique things to do and see.
Honolulu & Waikiki Beach
The world-famous Waikiki Beach was once a playground for Hawaiian royalty and was first introduced to the world when its first hotel, the Moana Surfrider, was built on its shores in 1901. Fast forward to today and Waikiki is still Oahu’s main hotel and resort area - a vibrant gathering place for visitors from around the world. Along the main strip of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki you'll find world-class shopping, dining, entertainment, activities and resorts.
The Duke Kahanamoku Statue, located on Waikiki Beach, has become an iconic symbol of Waikiki and the surf culture of Oahu. Legendary Hawaiian waterman (and Olympic gold medalist) Duke Kahanamoku grew up surfing the waves of Waikiki and was instrumental in sharing the values and sport of surfing to the world and came to be known and respected globally as 'the father of modern surfing'.
Waikiki Beach is almost entirely man-made, but there’s more to Waikiki than just the beach. Attractions near Waikiki like the Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium offer fun for the whole family. You can learn about the history of Waikiki by reading the surfboard markers along the Waikiki Historical Trail. Among the various things to do, high-end boutiques, shops, and restaurants can be found all along Kalakaua and Kuhio Avenues.
Best of all, Waikiki is within a half hour of a variety of Oahu attractions, including Pearl Harbor, Iolani Palace, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, the Ko Olina area and Hanauma Bay. Other notable points of interest nearby include Ala Moana Center (a massive outdoor shopping center), the local neighborhood of Kapahulu and the arts district of Chinatown.
There is much more to Oahu than Waikiki Beach and if you don't venture out from the big city of Honolulu, you have not truly seen or experienced everything Oahu has to offer.
Gain a unique perspective on World War II with a visit to Pearl Harbor, or explore the island's agricultural traditions at the Dole pineapple plantation.
The most important landmark in Central Oahu sits to the south in historic Pearl Harbor, the largest natural harbor in Hawaii. This active naval base is home to five historic sites that you can visit. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is a free attraction at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, a unit of the US National Park Service (NPS). The Pearl Harbor National Memorial includes the USS Arizona Memorial, USS Oklahoma Memorial, and USS Utah Memorial. The visitor center is also the gateway to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites: Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. These special monuments commemorate the historic events that changed the course of history during World War II.
The fertile central valley between the Waianae Mountains and Koolau range offers a peek back to Oahu’s history. Agriculture on the island was booming in the late 19th century, attracting immigrants from around the world to work on plantations. On your way from Honolulu to the North Shore, you’ll pass the Leilehua Plateau in Wahiawa and see sprawling fields of pineapples. Get a closer look by stopping at the Dole Plantation, where you can learn about the spiky-but-sweet fruit’s legacy on Oahu and cool down with a delicious frozen Dole whip treat. Kids will love running through the huge three-acre shrub maze.
On the Leeward Coast of Oahu (West side of the island), you'll find lots of sunny and dry weather as well as more rural towns, off-the-beaten-path beaches and the luxurious resort area of Ko Olina.
The sunny and dry Leeward Coast of Oahu lies at the foot of the Waianae mountain range and ia approximately thirty miles from Waikiki (depending on traffic), but the contrast between the regions is striking. Where Waikiki offers urban hustle and bustle, the Leeward side of Oahu is less developed, with picturesque towns like Kaploei, beautiful off-the-beaten-path beaches and rural landscapes to explore.
If you plan to stay on the Leeward Coast, you’ll have three major major resorts to choose from in the beautiful Ko Olina resort area that include the luxurious Four Seasons Oahu, Marriott Ko Olina Beach and Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa.
Located just a short drive from Honolulu, you can enjoy the highlights of Oahu’s lush Windward Coast, including the peaceful Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden and adventurous Kualoa Ranch.
As you drive over the sloping Pali Highway, skyscrapers and the sprawling city of Honolulu give way to lush valleys and country landscapes. Exiting the tunnels east of the Koolau Mountain Range, it feels as if you’re entering a different world and a turquoise ocean shimmers in the distance. A trip to the Windward Coast reveals a slower-paced side of Oahu, and some of the most stunning natural beauty anywhere in Hawaii.
From Kailua town, you can head in two directions. Go clockwise down the coast towards Makapuu Point Lighthouse and eventually Diamond Head and Waikiki. Or drive north and spend a day exploring the Windward Coast as it winds lazily around the island toward the North Shore, offering interesting stops along the way, like the serene Valley of the Temples, which is home to a stunning Japanese Buddhist temple.
Driving along the two-lane highway you can't miss Mokoli’i, the tiny island pointing up from the sea. Stop at the park and stretch your legs or have a picnic.
Just across the highway you’ll find one of Hawaii’s most seen but least-recognized locations: Kualoa Ranch. A generations-old family-owned ranch, its scenic valley has provided the backdrop for countless movies and TV shows, including "Jurassic Park" and "Lost". Fortunately, it’s not just for the stars; visitors can enjoy horseback riding, ziplining, ATV tours and host of other activities.
From here, Kamehameha Highway meanders past Kaaawa, Kahana Bay and around the northernmost tip of the island to Oahu’s North Shore, home of the best surf spots in Hawaii, and some say, in the whole world.
Roughly a one-hour drive from Waikiki, the North Shore is also home to a variety of accommodation options, including condo rentals and the exclusive beachside Turtle Bay Resort. Take a little road trip to the charming surf town of Haleiwa Town, where you can shop, eat like a local and cool off with rainbow-flavored shave ice. Continue your drive to Laie to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center and the old plantation town of Kahuku.
If the perfect wave exists, you’ll find it on Oahu’s North Shore. The towering, glassy winter waves of this legendary surf mecca draw the best surfers in the world, while smaller and gentler summer waves are better for beginners. You can also explore Waimea Valley and hike to Waimea Falls.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Oahu, Hawaii, largely depends on your priorities and preferences. The island experiences warm and tropical weather year-round, with average temperatures ranging from the mid-70s to mid-80s Fahrenheit.
The peak tourist season on Oahu typically falls between mid-December and mid-April, when the weather is drier and cooler, making it an ideal time to visit for those seeking a respite from colder climates. However, this is also the most expensive time to visit, with higher prices for flights, accommodations, and activities.
If you prefer to avoid the crowds and high prices, consider visiting Oahu during the shoulder seasons of April to June or September to mid-December. During these times, you'll typically find fewer tourists, pleasant weather, and lower prices.
How to Get There
The main airport on Oahu is Honolulu International Airport (HNL) and is served by many major airlines, including American Airlines, Delta, United, Hawaiian Airlines, and many others, with direct flights available from many major cities in North America, Asia, and other parts of the world.
If you are already in Hawaii or planning a trip to another island in the state, you can take an inter-island flight from airlines such as Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
Where to Stay
There are endless amounts of hotels and resorts to choose from on Oahu, but half the struggle is knowing where to start researching and trying to figure out what is the best place for you to stay when visiting Oahu.
Honolulu & Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach is one of the most famous beaches on the planet, featuring a 2-mile stretch of white sand and calm turquoise blue ocean, fringed by towering high-rises and boutique resorts located on the South Shore of Honolulu, Oahu.
There are an endless amount of hotels and resorts to choose from in Waikiki - but where should you start and where is the best place to stay in Waikiki Beach?
Here are my top recommendations when considering hotels in Waikiki, with a link to the best of the rest down below:
The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, Waikiki: The most coveted spot on Waikiki Beach is at The Royal Hawaiian, featuring luxurious guest rooms showcasing unrivaled panoramic views of Diamond Head and the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
The Kahala Hotel & Resort: This secluded beachfront resort, just 10 minutes from Waikiki, features spacious accommodations, a world-class spa, world class dining at five restaurants, private lagoon with resident dolphins and Kahala beach.
See other great options here: Oahu Travel Guide: Where to Stay in Waikiki
Ko Olina Resort Area
One of our favorite areas to stay in all of Hawaii is in Ko Olina. There are some great resorts to choose from, with our personal favorite being Disney Aulani! If you're planning a trip to Oahu, I would recommend spending a few nights in Waikiki/Honolulu at the beginning of your trip and then spending the rest of your vacation in Ko Olina.
The Ko Olina Resort encompasses 642 acres with sweeping ocean and mountain views and a string of lagoons connected by more than a mile and a half of seaside pathways. Accommodations here include Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club and the Beach Villas at Ko Olina.
Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina: The Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina is the first Four Seasons property on Oahu, located in the Ko Olina resort area on the West side of Oahu. The five-star Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina balances a classic Hawaiian style with modern one-of-a-kind luxury.
Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa in Ko Olina on the island of Oahu, is the perfect place to stay for a Hawaiian family vacation that will immerse you in local culture through Disney magic. It truly is the most magical resort in Hawaii and perfect for a family vacation!
Marriott's Ko Olina Beach Club: Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club offers 550 one, two, and three-bedroom villas across three towers. Well-appointed villas have ample living and dining space to accommodate anywhere from four to eight guests, elegant, comfortable furnishings, fully equipped kitchen and dining areas, furnished private balconies and patios, washer and dryer, and more.
There are also a nice selection of family-friendly amenities here including heated outdoor pools with whirlpool spas; a children’s outdoor pool, activity center, play area and daily activity programs for all ages; a spa, restaurants, and an arcade.
See other great options here: Oahu Travel Guide: Where to Stay & Things to Do in Ko Olina
You won't find many resorts on the North Shore of Hawaii, but the one that is there is the perfect hideaway. Turtle Bay Resort spans across nearly 1,300 acres of lush, historic land, with five miles of untouched coastline and twelve miles of breathtaking trails. Located approximately one hour from Honolulu International Airport, and a few minutes away from the Polynesian Cultural Center, Historic Hale‘iwa Town, Waimea Valley, and world-famous surf breaks this stunning oceanfront resort pays tribute to the culture of Hawai‘i while ensuring guests experience a deeper connection to the North Shore spirit.
We stayed here years ago for a few nights during our honeymoon and the resort has been renovated and reimagined since then and we can't wait to go back and enjoy a stay here.
Things To Do
From trips we have been on, here are my top recommendations on things you need to add to your Oahu itinerary:
Kualoa Ranch: 4,000 acres of natural beauty with secret beaches, hidden valleys and majestic mountains offering movie site tours, ziplining, ATV tours and more.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden: Strolling or driving through these lush 400 acres on the windward side of Oahu, you will truly agree that Hoʻomaluhia is rightfully named "a peaceful refuge."
Go on a hike: Some of our favorites include Diamond Head , Koko Crater Railway Trailhead, Makapuu Lookout, and the Lanikai Pillbox hike
Attend a Luau: My top two on Oahu are KA WA'A at Disney Aulani and Aha'aina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach
Waimea Valley & Falls: Walk through scenic botanical gardens to a 45-foot waterfall at the end
Dole Plantation: Historic pineapple plantation with family friendly attractions that include train rides, the world's largest maze and Dole whips.
Relax on a Beach: Some of our favorites include: Lanikai Beach, Kualoa Regional Park, Waimanalo Beach, the Ko Olina Lagoons, Waikiki Beach, Kahala Beach, Haleiwa Beach and so many more!
Visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial Hawaii: Learn about one of the most pivotal moments in US history - the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II.
Disney Aulani Character Dining: Have breakfast with Mickey and friends at the Disney Aulani Resort
Capture Oahu memories on a Flytographer photoshoot: We've done this a few times when visiting Hawaii and the pictures are always amazing!
Regardless of where you choose to explore and what you decide to do, you’ll be sure to have a great time exploring the many amazing things to do and see all across Oahu.
Where to Eat
No matter where you go on Oahu, you can expect to find amazing restaurants featuring fresh and local foods. When visiting the islands is the ideal place to enjoy the sunshine, these local delights and Hawaii essentials are a must to try while on vacation:
Loco Moco: Contemporary Hawaiian dish and to locals, this dish is comfort food at its finest. What could be better than a hamburger patty topped with gravy and a fried egg, all placed on top of a heaping plate of rice? It’s filling, it’s delicious, and it’s ready to make your day.
Poke: Poke is a rich dish full of flavorful, simple ingredients. Most versions use ahi tuna, chopped into small cubes and combined with onions, sesame seeds, limu seaweed and soy sauce. Sometimes, other freshwater fish or even octopus may be substituted instead. The dish is so popular that it has made its way across the ocean, showing up in eateries all along the mainland.
Poi: Taro root, a vegetable similar to sweet potato, forms the basis of this classic side dish. The taro is baked or steamed and then pounded, gradually mixed with water until it forms a thick delectable paste.
How do you eat it? The choice is yours! Add it to shredded pork or lomi lomi salmon, eat it by the spoonful, or use it as a dipping sauce.
Haupia: Haupia is a traditional dessert made from coconut. The coconut cream is combined with arrowroot powder and then baked in an underground oven. Modern versions often boil the cream and add cornstarch as a thickening agent before chilling in the fridge. Regardless of the method, haupia will surely satisfy your sweet tooth after the main meal.
Lomi Lomi Salmon: Although similar to poke with its use of raw fish, lomi lomi salmon is prepared using different techniques. The salted salmon is massaged gently, over and over, and then mixed with onions, tomatoes and hot peppers. The overall flavor combination imparts a tangy yet satisfying bite.
Kalua Pua’a: This dish features pork slow-roasted in an underground oven, resulting in meat that practically melts off the bone. The wood smoke used in the oven gives the meat a pleasingly strong flavor without the need for additional condiments. Heaped over rice, kalua pua’a is a meal in itself.
Shave Ice: similar to a snow cone and the perfect way to cool off on a hot day
Oahu is home to the metropolitan center of Hawaii and its vibrant dining scene means that it’s an excellent place to find creative and delicious food representing diverse cultures.
On Oahu, you can eat like a local in smaller neighborhoods or dine in high style at Hawaii’s top-rated restaurants across the island. Splurge on dinner at one of the buzzworthy high-end spots in Honolulu, or save your vacation funds by finding tasty fare at casual spots, coffee shops and food trucks.
Some of our favorite restaurant stops over the years include:
Shrimp trucks: Find these food trucks on the North Shore, whose menu offers a variety of shrimp-centric plates. Giovanni's shrimp truck is one of the more popular food trucks to visit.
Monkeypod: Monkeypod Ko Olina is an eatery featuring sustainable Hawaiian food featuring a open-air patio & great happy-hour scene with live music.
Eggs'n Things: Be sure to get here early for breakfast as lines and wait times can get very long. Eggs'n Things is an Oahu instituion that opened back in Waikiki in 1974 and the Ko Olina location was so good we ate there multiple times on our last stay in Ko Olina!
Hoku's & Plumeria Beach House: Hoku's & Plumeria Beach House at The Kahala Hotel & Resort is heralded for its innovative fusion fare which melds Hawaiian, Asian, Mediterranean and European flavors. The restaurant’s twist on contemporary Island cuisine ensures that it is consistently ranked as one of Hawaii's best restaurants.
Merriman's Honolulu: A pioneer of the “Farm to Table” movement in Hawaii, Peter Merriman brings Hawaii Regional Cuisine to his newest restaurant in Ward Village on Oahu.
Hula Grill Waikiki: Perched at the ocean’s edge overlooking famed Waikiki Beach, Hula Grill Waikiki presents diners with spectacular views of the beach and ocean. Open for breakfast and dinner daily plus lunch all weekend long.
'AMA'AMA (Temporarily Closed): Located at Disney Aulani, this idyllic, beachside restaurant and bar serves modern interpretations of classic Hawaiian cuisine.
Makahiki - The Bounty of the Islands: At Disney Aulani, offers both a buffet and a la carte options that feature fresh ingredients and international flavors, served in a festive, open-air dining room. Also find character dining here most days for breakfast!
Duke's Waikiki: Popular option known for its beachfront location, surf 'n' turf, tiki vibe & umbrella drinks.
We've eaten at all of these restaurants and more, but if you need grab-n-go options, you can also find great food options at local coffee shops, Whole Foods and Foodland locations throughout the island.
Oahu is a beautiful and captivating island that is worth visiting at least once in a lifetime. If you're considering a trip to Oahu, I hope some of the information here can help you plan out your next trip.
I hope this destination spotlight guide helps you plan out your next trip to Oahu and gives you a glimpse into highlights of the island, as well as a look the best places to stay and things to do and see in while visiting Oahu.
The Family Travel Guy
I hope this email helped spark some travel inspiration!
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