The moment you step off the plane in Honolulu, the heady perfume of pikake (jasmine) leis and the tropical heat of the Islands embrace you. Oahu—Hawaii’s most populous island—is truly a paradise for sun-seeking travelers.
Lively downtown Honolulu offers a range of urban activities, from hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries in the city center to the beachfront hotels and round-the-clock bustle of Waikiki. Beyond the city limits, there’s a wealth of natural beauty to explore—white-sand beaches, dramatic and lushly forested mountain ridges, fresh water waterfalls, and pristine coral reefs. Add in the relaxed pace of island living and a good dash of aloha spirit, and you’ve got a recipe for the perfect vacation.
Here are six reasons to make Oahu your next destination.
1. A powerful sense of history
Some believe the history of the Hawaiian Islands dates back to the 3rd century, to the arrival of Polynesians from other islands in the South Pacific. These original settlers crossed the waters in canoes, navigating with the stars, and their distinctive culture flourished until the 19th century, when King Kamehameha united all the islands into one royal kingdom. You can discover Hawaii’s ancient kapu system and way of life at the Bishop Museum (in Honolulu), learn about the lives of the islands’ beloved monarchs with a visit to the beautiful Iolani Palace (also in Honolulu), and trek along the coast to ancient sacred locations. The island is, of course, the setting for more recent history, as well. Visit Pearl Harbor to see the site of the infamous attack that drew the United States into World War II. Cruise across the water to the USS Arizona Memorial, which straddles the sunken hull of the battleship that it honors, and make your way to Punchbowl Crater—the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
2. Fascinating tropical sea life
Oahu’s balmy waters are a haven for all kinds of colorful, strange, and exotic underwater creatures, from neon parrotfish that look like they’re dressed up for an underwater 1980s dance party to playful spinner dolphins. Get an unforgettable, up-close look at the latter with a dolphin or whale-watching cruise, and don’t miss a chance to immerse yourself in the majesty of the oceanic realm with a snorkeling trip. Hanauma Bay in particular is famous for good reason; its coral gardens are protected from the waves, and the remarkable clarity of the water gives you unobstructed views of vibrant fish, gentle sea turtles, and coral formations. If you want to avoid the crowds for some undersea solitude, a local guide can take you to the best secluded locations for snorkeling and diving around the island’s life-filled shores. Not a swimmer? An excursion on the Atlantis submarine lets you stay dry and take in the spectacle 100 feet beneath the water’s surface.
3. Outdoor adventure
Take advantage of Oahu’s year-round sunshine and tropical temps to get out and enjoy some active excursions, such as stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking for the first time, or trekking through the rainforest to a cool, fresh water waterfall. Work off your saimin and malasadas with a strenuous hike along a mountain ridge, a heart-pumping stair climb to the top of Koko Crater, or a leisurely trail walk under the shade of rustling palms. There truly is a way to explore the island’s lush interior for visitors of every fitness level. Adrenaline junkies will find plenty of excitement, from parasailing, ziplining, and jet skiing to ATV rides down red dirt roads and past pineapple plantations. Even if your idea of exercise is hitting the shops, here you can do it at an outdoor mall and work on your tan while you’re at it.
4. The Green Flash
Catch a glimpse of this optical phenomenon right as the sun dips behind the horizon. Even if you blink and miss it, the sunsets in the islands are enough to take your breath away, and they’re particularly beautiful when enjoyed with a cool Mai Tai in hand. Head to the Halekulani as the day comes to a close to have your sunset accompanied by hula dancing, live music, and a slice of classic coconut cake. Or set sail for an evening cruise, so you can savor some fresh island-style cuisine along with your views of the tropical sunset and the sparkling lights of Waikiki.
5. Island scenery
From the beachfront urban bustle of Waikiki to the North Shore beach town of Haleiwa, the lush and forested ridges of the island’s center to the crashing surf and blowholes of the coast, there’s a huge variety of landscapes to admire around the island. A helicopter tour gives you a pretty spectacular overview, with a bird’s-eye perspective on locations you just can’t reach by car. To earn your view, hike to the top of Diamond Head Crater. A 0.75-mile (1.1 km) trail winds up the crater’s interior, passing through tunnels and climbing up staircases to reach a lookout point at the top of the rim. From here, you can take in postcard-worthy vistas of Waikiki, the Diamond Head lighthouse, and the entire South Shore. Here’s a tip: Go early, and reach the observation deck in time to catch the sunrise as it quietly illuminates the island’s peaks, valleys, and shimmering beaches.
6. Two words: Kalua pork
It wouldn’t be a trip to Hawaii without an evening spent celebrating island-style at one of Oahu’s signature luaus. Each offers something a little different, from the Aha Aina luau at the Royal Hawaiian—Waikiki’s historic pink hotel—to the rooftop festivities of the Starlight Luau at the Hilton, and the beachfront celebrations at Sea Life Park or Paradise Cove. At each of these events, you can enjoy demonstrations of classic Hawaiian crafts and games and chat with locals in traditional dress. Dancing—from the graceful hula to fear-defying Samoan fire knife dancing—introduces the fascinating cultures, legends, and history of the South Pacific. And, of course, there’s a feast. Tuck into a delicious buffet of tropical fruits, lomi lomi salmon, huli huli chicken, steamed rice, mahi mahi fish, and—the showstopper—kalua pork, which is slow-roasted in an underground imu oven. If you visit the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center, you can also spend the afternoon before the luau exploring replicas of Tahitian villages and Fijian temples or paddling a canoe across a lagoon.
For more activities, ideas and things to do in Oahu, click here.