Best Things to Do on Oahu
Oahu may be number three in size among its fellow islands in the Hawaiian chain, but it is first in population. Nearly 900,000 people share Oahu’s 600 square miles of mountains and beaches – that’s three-quarters of the state’s population. Almost half inhabit the bustling city of Honolulu and nearby resort town of Waikiki. Oahu is also the most visited of all the Hawaiian islands, at approximately 4.5 to 4.7 million visitors annually – that’s approximately half of all the visitors to the state each year.
Oahu is primarily defined by the state capital of Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and the famous beach known as Waikiki. These areas absorb tourists by thousands daily. Oahu boasts a fantastic climate, inexpensive accommodations, a large variety of shopping options, and world renown beaches – it’s fair to say the island lures in visitors from around the world. Though this may be the one fault of the island, as many are discouraged by the large crowds of Oahu and thus dismiss the island, instead visiting one of the other, less visited, islands in the chain. After all, chances are if you are staying on Oahu you too will book a room in Waikiki or Honolulu yourself. Nearly all of the island’s resorts are crammed into this small area. Honolulu is the state’s capital and major financial center. It is also home to the main campus of the University of Hawaii. Honolulu wasn’t always the main seat. Until 1845 the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom was located on the island of Maui. King Kamehameha III ordered the move and the Iolani Palace was built later.
But Oahu is much more than Honolulu or Waikiki – it may well be the most beautiful of all the major islands. You simply have to know where to go to experience the beauty that is Oahu.
There is much talk, if not controversy, about how to split up Oahu by region so that it can easily be described on a website such as this. Why the controversy you ask? Well, Oahu, like all the Hawaiian islands, is part of a county politically divided into several districts, clockwise: Ko’olauloa, Ko’olaupoko, Kona, Ewa, Wai’anae, and Wai’alua. Quite honestly, to the modern day traveler these districts serve no purpose.
The remedy then is to find a way to divide the island into segments that are easy to recognize, describe, and access via the major roads of the island. This is where much of the debate comes from. Every “expert” has their own way of dissecting the island into pieces.
Our way is pretty simple and it’s a method we’ve followed in all of our physical guidebooks and eBooks. Ultimately we’ve divided the island in a manner that helps us group attractions together so that they are easily accessible along the major routes of the island. This allows us to use our mile by mile directions to easily and accurately describe each spot here on our website.
The Gathering Place
Oahu, also known as “the gathering place,” is made up of two separate but overlapping volcanoes, known as a volcanic doublet. Its asymmetrical butterfly shape is formed by two mountain ranges: the Waianae Range in the west and the Ko’olau Range in the east. Slicing through the center is the flat Leilehua Plateau. Recent, geologically speaking, volcanic eruptions in the southeastern portion of the island which formed the Diamond Head, Koko Head and Punchbowl craters can be blamed for Oahu’s uneven shape.
The eastern coast of Oahu is hemmed in by a gorgeous mountain range and boasts three of the islands best beaches. Surprisingly, you’ll find no major accommodations here, jut a few vacation homes along the quaint towns that dot the coast. The eastern region offers many visitors an escape from the busting Waikiki scene while still offering the proximity to the shopping and activities of the nearby city just a half hour drive away. The jaw-dropping Ka’a’awa Valley is also located on this side of the island. It is easily recognizable as the backdrop for the hit television series “Lost.” In fact, Oahu has played host to a slew of films, from “Mighty Joe Young” to the surfing flick “Blue Crush,” and television shows like “Magnum P.I.” and the reality show “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”
The famous north shore of Oahu is a surfers paradise, especially in the winter months when the surf is up. The monster waves and laid-back atmosphere have professional surfers flocking to Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay to ride some of the most killer waves in the Pacific. About an hours drive from Honolulu, this region has a surprisingly unpopulated feel to it. Many miles of beaches stretch along this portion of Oahu, making it a popular haven for those looking to relax in the sun.
The western, northwestern, and central regions are where most of the island’s residents live. For the most part, there isn’t much here for the typical island visitors – just a few scattered beaches. Central Oahu does however have one of the island’s largest attractions Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. More than one million people a year pay their respects to the many military personnel who lost their lives during the Japanese attack. Many of these men and women and veterans of many wars are laid to rest in Punchbowl National Cemetery at Pu’owaina Crater (Punchbowl).
The leeward or west side of Oahu is called Wai’anae and is filled with pineapple fields. Although there are many lovely coastal stops on this drier and poorer side of the island, it has received a somewhat unwarranted bad reputation. In decades past, violent crimes against tourists did occur but mostly now the only threat is petty theft.
Beyond the sky scrapers and decidedly urban nature of the southern tip of the island is an Oahu of great natural beauty and old-time charm. For the traveler looking to experience a modern paradise, Oahu has it all – the excitement and culture of a large metropolitan city, the unspoiled beauty of tropical coastlines and verdant mountains plus everything in between.