The Oh Wonderful Guide to O’ahu

To say that I was prepared to visit Hawaii’s most populated island, would be a lie. The extent of my prep was buying reef-safe sunscreen and making sure I had swimsuits that fit. Not one ounce of pre-travel research was done. Having only been exposed to the more desolate Big Island, I was expecting white sandy beaches, quiet afternoons with a Mai Tai in hand and lots of palm trees.

Most of this came true, but with 300 more people around.  Even with the crowd (and traffic) there was no shortage of things to do, see and eat on the island. Now that I’m back with a less-translucent skin color, here’s everything that I would do all over again on O’ahu. Shaka!

What to See

Waikiki Beach

If you’re looking for a quiet, serene and secluded seaside spot—Waikiki is not it. Waikiki is bustling with tourists (both international and domestic), packed with brand name shopping that you all know and lines everywhere. But Waikiki Beach should be penciled in as a stop for the pretty blue waters and people watching at the beach. This is also the epicenter of Japanese food on the island, so don’t miss out on fresh bowls of udon, the classic spam musubi and mochi donuts.

North Shore

Unlike Waikiki, you won’t find a single high-rise apartment or chain store on the North Shore. Instead, expect to find a single small town (Hale’iwa) that is home to the most restaurants and shops that this part of the island has. As long as you’re not there during a major surf competition, you’ll have access to quiet(er) beaches, more open roads and views of nothing but pineapple fields or Hawaiian hills. Oh, and the ocean. If you’ve got a car and like taking drives to nowhere, definitely park and put your toes in the sand at major surf spots like Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline, Chun’s Reef and Lani’s (where you also might spot some turtles).

sharks cove oahu

Shark’s Cove

Hankering for some snorkel time while in Hawaii? Hit up Shark’s Cove on the North Shore to see some needlefish, Hawaiian rainbow fish (my fave!), and sea cucumbers—amongst many other sea creatures too! Be sure to pack water shoes that protect your feet from rocks and DO NOT step on the coral (unlike some other folks I had to scold). Anything for you, Mother Earth.

Pow! Wow! Street Art in Kaka’ako

If you’re frequent readers of the blog or if we’ve traveled together, you know that I love me some street art. Pow! Wow! is a public arts project that brought local and international artists together in Honolulu for a week-long mural painting (among other things) extravaganza. It’s very much worth a visit, plus after you’re done looking at the art, you can pop into the locally owned stores and spots in the hood (like Here. and ARVO Café). Stay tuned in other cities, they’re growing quickly and expanding to Taiwan, D.C., Long Beach and beyond.

byodo-in temple oahu

Byodo-In Temple

Traveling in O’ahu sometimes felt like a mini-Japan—from stepping into Mitsuwa Market to driving by a literal Japanese Food Court in the heart of Waikiki. It’s a smaller-scale replication of the actual, 950-year-old Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Japan and was built to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the arrival of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. Located at the foot of a mountain range, it’s peaceful, lush landscape is totally unexpected. Stop by to slow down.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art

Constructed in 1937 by the “richest little girl in the world,” Doris Duke’s Shangri La served as her Honolulu home, which she built from the ground up (unlike her other homes). After being inspired on her around-the-globe honeymoon travels, Duke began construction on her island property and began to collect and fill her home with Islamic art from the inside, out. If you want to pretend that you too, were born into money or thoroughly enjoy art or architecture, stop by. Admission to her home also grants you a day pass to the Honolulu Museum of Art.

KCC Farmer’s Market

If you don’t know, now you know: I friggin’ love a good farmer’s market. As I reflect back on our Hawaii trip, I honestly think this was the thing I most enjoyed. From tasting fresh macadamia nuts, tasting Hawaiian honey, eating fresh rambutan, to drinking fresh sugar cane juice with lilikoi (the best thing I have EVER drank), plan for a quick trip to KCC on Saturday morning or Tuesday evening. Try pairing it with your Diamond Head hike, as the hike is just above the college where the market is held.

What to Do

manoa falls oahu

Hike Manoa Falls

We had big pipe dreams to walk to a waterfall, then jump into it’s running waters for a post-hike swim. Instead, we chickened out and were our rule-following selves and didn’t make it past the “do not climb” sign. The hike up to the waterfall is a quick 20-40 minutes depending on how speedy you are, full of tropical flora and is quite muddy and slick—so be sure to wear non-stick shoes and clothes that can withstand some dirt.

Swim at Kailua & Lanikai Beach

My favorite part about any warm-weather, seaside vacation? Cerulean blue water. Kailua and Lanikai beaches are located right next to each other, but traffic and parking could be pretty hectic to shuttle between the two. Lanikai frequently ranks as one the world’s top beaches, while Kailua is just plain beautiful. Block off an afternoon for each, then hit up Island Snow (see the Eats section) for a post-beach treat.

Hike Diamond Head

For a good sweat sesh, views of Waikiki and an endless expanse of ocean, put up with the crowds and hike Diamond Head. It’s a 1.5-2 hours round-trip hike, where the first part starts off with a paved path, then an easy set of switchbacks that then transforms into a seemingly endless set of stairs to the top. It’s an old army base, so you’ll also walk through a tunnel, then through a bunker to reach the top. Get ready to get sweaty!

Swim with Sharks

As I write this, I’m realizing that we had a pretty adventurous trip. Who would have thought that the girl who was once 100% convinced that sharks might swim up the toilet would one day swim with sharks? We went cage diving with North Shore Shark Adventures and swam with Galapagos sharks which, if you’re wondering, rarely eat people.

Take a Surf Lesson on North Shore

Barrels, big waves and surf competitions. After (many) more lessons—that could be you! If you’re a water baby (like me), it’s worth blocking off some of the day to surf the North Shore, in the very same waters as household names like Kelly Slater and John John Florence. We took lessons with North Shore Surf Girls right off of Hale’iwa beach park (perfect location to head to lunch right after). The feeling of catching a wave really can’t be beat.

Where to Eat

ono seafood oahu

Ono Seafood

Kaimuki | 747 Kapahulu Ave.

Direct and to the point. That is how I like my people and my poke. Ono is a no-frills joint where parking is limited, your food is served in styrofoam take-out containers and you’re simply there to promptly eat, then leave. Get the shoyu and spicy poke, and save room for the Japanese side dishes they have stocked in their fridge.

Marukame Udon

Waikiki | 2310 Kūhiō Ave #124

Even though you might think eating hot noodles in a hot climate is a no-go, try resisting these handmade noodles (made with Sun Noodle flour!). Ordering mimics a Chipotle (or vice-versa) and don’t not load your plate with tempura, onogiri and kaarage before you check out.

barefoot beach cafe oahu

Barefoot Beach Café

Waikiki |2699 Kalakaua Avenue

Good food and views of turquoise blue waters—this is what brunch dreams are made of. Even though it’s technically on Waikiki, it’s situated far away enough from the main strop that you feel like you could steal some generous minutes of silence before you head back into the tourist horde. Go there for breakfast or brunch and order Dad’s shoyu eggs and a freshly blended pineapple, served in a pineapple. 

haleiwa bowls north shore

Hale’iwa Bowls

North Shore | 66-030 Kamehameha Hwy

The perfect spot for a pre or post-surf snack. Like the name implies, Hale’iwa bowls serves up açaí bowls, fresh smoothies and juices to keep you feeling light and fresh in the Hawaiian heat. I sprung for the blue majik bowl, which solicited lots of stares from others, but a lot of good food for me.

Leonard’s Bakery

Oh my malasada. Do yourself a favor and avoid eating any malasadas until you get to Leonard’s. What is it, you ask? “A Portuguese donut without a hole” as defined by Leonard’s Bakery themselves. They’re light, fluffy, but just dense enough. Get the Guava filling and try the Li Hing (sweet and salty) powdered version to get a taste of this island favorite.

Arvo Café

Kakaʻako | 675 Auahi Street

Tucked next to a flower store and complete with an order-at-the-window window, Arvo is the brainchild of Instagram-loved Dixie Rose (who yes, I’ve been following for years) and Casey Wiggins. It’s cute, it’s hip and serves up freshly roasted coffee and Australian-inspired eats like vegemite toast.

Shaved Ice in O’ahu

Lawson Station

Waikiki | 2255 Kalakaua Ave.

Apparently, Lawson is a chain of convenience stores in Japan, but a purveyor of very fine shave ice in Waikiki. No wonder there were so many Japanese snacks in there. Spring for the Hawaiian Punch flavor, it really does pack a punch of finely shaved ice powder.

Waiola Shave Ice

McCully | 2135 Waiola St.

The one, the only and the very famous Waiola. The best food on the island was mostly served in styrofoam containers—no exception here. Pull up and park, then attempt to master the ordering system (number of bowls, ice cream or no ice cream, then flavors one at a time).

Island Snow

Kailua | 130 Kailua Rd

We basically vacationed just like the Obama family in Oahu. But, only when it came to stopping by the very same shave ice spot that they go to too. Get it straight—visit the Island Snow location that’s closest to the beach to increase your chances of run-in with 44.

Need a map? Save this to your phone for your trip!

Alright, that’s O’ahu—through my take. What’d I miss? What do like to do? Let me know!

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