I have to start this post with an apology to Oahu. I’d visited the island a few times years ago, and while each trip was great, none of them matched the Hawaii I’d come to love so much growing up. I found Oahu to be too touristy and developed, and never got the feeling of being transported to a tropical paradise the way I did when visiting some of the other Hawaiian islands. With each visit, I found myself wishing I was here instead. But to be fair, I’d only spent time in Waikiki – which, don’t get me wrong, is great if you’re looking for a bustling city by the beach with a tropical climate – but is also a very small representation of the island as a whole. I’d heard wonderful things about other parts of the island, though, and was beginning to think I may have underestimated all it had to offer. My boyfriend and I put our doubts to the test by giving it another shot this past April, and I’m so glad we did. Between the beautiful scenery, balmy weather, delicious food and laid-back culture, falling in love with the island was effortless. If you’ve ever contemplated a visit, I hope this guide will give you the final push to book a trip. You won’t regret it.
- Airbnb – In an effort to get a more local experience, we decided to avoid the large hotel chains and opted for a couple of Airbnb rentals instead. Hotel amenities are always nice, but we really appreciated the convenience of having some extra space and a small kitchen to prepare some simple meals. We also spent some time chatting with each of the Airbnb owners during our stay, who were so helpful in acquainting us with the local neighborhood, which made us feel even more at home.
- Kailua – We started our trip in Kailua and stayed in this Airbnb. This quaint little beach bungalow is situated under an giant banyan tree (pictured below), and is located just steps away from a beautiful strand of Kailua beach, so we took full advantage of the close proximity, walking to and from the beach multiple times a day to catch the sunrise, sunset, etc. We loved our stay in Kailua, and felt it struck the perfect balance between being a relaxing small-town, but with plenty to do.
- North Shore – From Kailua, we took a scenic drive (about 40 miles) to the North Shore where we checked into our second Airbnb (pictured below). Apart from the obviously stunning beachfront location, I was blown away by the beautiful interior and modern decor of the room (and apparently so were many of you because I received lots of messages from people asking for details on our stay!). Falling asleep in that dreamy canopy bed never got old, and the sound of waves crashing outside made for such a peaceful setting. The North Shore is pretty rural compared to other parts of the island, and if you’re interested in staying in this Airbnb, just know that it’s a bit secluded from the nearest part of town. We had mixed feelings about the secluded location when it came time to run errands or head out for a meal, but we loved our stay overall and would return in a heartbeat.
SEE & DO
- Relax at the beach – I think this activity goes without saying when visiting a tropical island, but Oahu is home to some of the most beautiful beaches, so a proper beach day is a must. Lanikai Beach (pictured below) is totally worth the hype. Between the soft white powder sand, turquoise water and rock formations in the distance, it reminded us of something you’d see in Thailand. You can also kayak to the Mokulua Islands (aka, “The Mokes”) seen on the horizon in the distance, which I’ve heard nothing but great things about. The beach does get crowded though, so try and go on a weekday if possible.
- Snorkel in Hanauma Bay – Sadly we didn’t get a chance to snorkel in Hanauma Bay, but we did take a drive up the coast to see it from above (pictured below on the left) and heard rave reviews about the snorkeling.
- Hike – If you’re looking for a quick hike with a big reward, look no further than the Lanikai Pillboxes Hike. It’s steep, but you can reach the first viewpoint within a half an hour and the view over Lanikai and Kailua is absolutely breathtaking. I hear it’s even more special during sunrise and sunset, which isn’t hard to believe. I also heard great things about the Likeke Falls Hike from my friend, Chelsea, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to check that one out.
- Rent bicycles – One of the best decisions we made during our trip was to rent bicycles. Apart from walking, it’s the best way to take in all of the beautiful surroundings and doubles as a relatively easy form of exercise, so you’ll feel a little less guilty about all of the delicious food there is to eat on the island.
- Stop at the world famous Pipeline to watch the surfers – We actually discovered Pipeline by accident while driving along the coast from Kailua to the North Shore, and our jaws dropped when we saw the size of the waves (apparently they’re even bigger during the winter, which is hard to imagine). We’d never seen anything like it growing up in Southern California, so we pulled the car over to watch the surfers before continuing on our way. The North Shore is notorious for their surf culture, so it was fun to be immersed in the town where so many pro surfers got their start, many of whom currently reside there. *Fun fact – our Airbnb on the North Shore was owned by world record-breaking surfer, Garrett Mcnamara.
- Visit Kualoa Ranch – Kualoa is beautiful ranch on the Northeastern side of Oahu that offers a variety of tours and activities including horseback riding, ATVing, ziplining, and even movie tours. If the scenery looks like something you’ve seen in Jurassic Park, that’s because it is! The ranch serves as a famous backdrop for lots of well known movies and tv shows including Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, 50 First Dates and Lost, to name a few. We opted for the ATV tour, which was a fun way to take in all of the beautiful scenery, and it even included a little bit of the film history which we found to be really interesting.
- Rent a car (preferably a convertible) – Renting a car was another one of the best decisions we made on our trip. There are so many interesting places to explore on the island and having a car is the quickest way to get around. If possible, I would recommend renting a convertible so you can really soak up the beautiful weather and scenery as you explore the island. We blew it on that one (you can see our tiny red car below), but it gave us even more of an excuse to pull over and get out of the car every time we stumbled upon something beautiful.
- Build your own sandwich at Kalapawai Cafe & Deli – This casual market was located just down the street from our first Airbnb in Kailua, and makes delicious sandwiches if you’re looking for a quick bite to eat.
- Top your pancakes and waffles with coconut syrup – It’s not uncommon to find coconut syrup offered on the breakfast menus in Hawaii, and it’s such a delicious alternative to traditional maple syrup. We made our own coconut syrup-drenched banana pancakes one morning (pictured below), and it was easily one of my favorite meals of our trip.
- Have an acai bowl – Finding an acai bowl on Oahu is hardly a challenge, but we thought Haleiwa Bowls were the most impressive and loved the variety of delicious fruit and healthy toppings to choose from, like fresh papaya, bee pollen and chia seeds.
- Fuel up with a hearty breakfast at Over Easy – We had trouble fitting our order on the table because we tried just about everything on the breakfast menu, and I’m happy to report that not one dish was disappointing. If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love the Crispy Edge Pancakes and the Custard French Toast. And if savory is more your thing, I recommend the Potato N’ Eggs or the Fried Egg Sandwich.
- Stop at a shrimp truck – Food trucks are synonymous with Oahu’s food culture (especially on the North Shore), and you can’t leave without stopping at a shrimp truck (it’s what they’re best known for, and for good reason!). I’m not ashamed to admit that we visited one daily and thought Shrimp Shack and Giovanni’s were the best of those we tried. Pro tip – order the signature garlic shrimp with rice – so delicious.
- Pop into Moke’s Bed & Breakfast for their famous Lilikoi Pancakes – Moke’s claims their Lilikoi Pancakes are “life-changing,” and they’re not lying. They come with a delicious Lilikoi cream sauce (pictured below) that makes maple syrup suddenly feel boring.
- Stop by a fruit stand for some fresh fruit – One of the things I loved about the North Shore was having easy access to delicious tropical fruit. If you drive along the Northeast Shore, you’ll see plenty of fruit stands on the sides of the road filled with fresh coconut, papaya, pineapple, mango – you name it. There’s nothing better than refreshing coconut water on a hot day, and we loved grabbing the mixed fruit bags to snack on while we laid on the beach.
- Cool off with some shaved ice – Indulge your sweet craving with another one of the island’s favorite food staples: shaved ice. We tried the highly-rated Matsumoto’s and thought it was good, but weren’t convinced it was worth the long line. Pro tip – top your order with sweetened condensed milk.