A guide on the best way to experience Oahu for the first time
There’s something that’s undeniably magical about the Hawaiian islands. Stepping out of the airport into the warm, fragrant air is something that I always look forward to. Hawaiian hospitality dictates that a first-time visitor feels like family. From the second the lei is strewn across your shoulders, you are a welcomed guest. To ease you into the joys of the island, I’ve put together a little beginner’s guide to Oahu. E komo mai.
While it’s not necessary to master the Hawaiian language, it does help to acquaint oneself with a little pidgin (Hawaiian-English creole). Knowing the difference between “kanes” and “wahines” when using the restroom (hint: women and wahines both start with “w”) will definitely come in handy. If a meal is truly delicious, simply say that it is “ono” or it “broke da mout” – a dish so yummy it literally breaks your mouth. No doubt you’ll be thankful for your time on the island, and that can be articulated through a heartfelt “mahalo.” A little goes a long way and the locals will be tickled with the haoles (howl-ee’) attempts at local conversation.
Being an island, Oahu has no shortage of pristine beaches. Waikiki is a perfect place to start for a first-time visitor to Oahu. This epicenter for tourists hugs the popular boardwalk and offers easy access to the two-mile white sandy beach. One of my favorite parts about Waikiki is that most days the tide is extremely low. You can trek out 100 yards and only be up to your waist in water.
The notorious Diamond Head photobomb
Viewfinder Tip: If you don’t want to share Waikiki with the hoards of other tourists, stop by in the morning and watch the locals catch some waves before the crowds hit.
One of the best ways to enjoy Waikiki without getting sand in your swimsuit is to hike iconic Diamond Head Crater. This landmark has one of the most recognizable profiles of the island. If you’ve seen any pictures or postcards of Waikiki Beach, then it’s incredibly likely that Diamond Head was photobombing the background. It’s a 0.75-mile hike to the edge of the crater’s rim where the best views of Waikiki await you.
A view of Waikiki taken from the rim of Diamond Head Crater
While tourists flock to the beauty, ease, and prime people watching of Waikiki, to escape the melee and not have to fight for a prime sand spot, head to the beckoning beaches of Lanikai. Located on the windward side of the island, Lanikai is hands down my favorite place to catch some rays. Don’t take my word for it; on any given day you’ll find photographers and models using the glassy waters and white powdery sand as their backdrop.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is the perfect place to get an introduction to Hawaii. The center allows each visitor to get a taste of the many nations of Polynesia, including Hawaii. With numerous interactive demonstrations, including tree climbing, canoe racing, spear throwing, and fire making, you’ll walk away with a greater understanding of the many Polynesian cultures that make up the local population of Hawaii.
No trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center would be complete without feasting at the famed Ali’i Luau. Serving up Hawaiian staples like kalua pig, lilikoi chicken, lomilomi salmon, and fresh poke, you’re sure to leave satisfied, if not stuffed. Enjoy your authentic meal along with local entertainment. Maneuver through your sticky poi as you sing and sway to traditional Hawaiian music while being entranced by the talented hula dancers. Just remember to follow the story of their hands and not the mesmerizing sway of their hips.
Another essential Oahu experience for first-timers is a visit to the Pearl Harbor Arizona Memorial. Accessible only by boat and the final resting place of over 1,000 sailors and Marines, the USS Arizona is a somber spot to reflect and honor those that gave their lives when a Japanese fleet attacked the naval base on December 7, 1941.
The USS Arizona Memorial
I can talk about Hawaiian food until the humuhumunukunuku?pua?a come home. While I’ve already dedicated a post to Oahu’s best foodie stops, let me just break down a few of my favorites while I have you here. Luau norms aside, there are a few dishes that a first-time visitor absolutely has to try. A plate lunch is a staple for most locals. These lunches on the go come with at least one protein (kalua pig, mochiko chicken, etc.), a scoop of macaroni salad, and another scoop of rice. Our favorite places for a hearty plate lunch are L&L’s and the ubiquitous Zippy’s (known for their mouthwatering chili).
If you’ve saved room for dessert, then you’ve got to try a Leonard’s malasada. These naughty deep-fried Portuguese doughnuts are all too addicting. Try a traditional malasada coated in sugar, or, opt for one that’s filled with chocolate, custard, or haupia (coconut cream). Leonard’s Bakery is conveniently located in downtown Honolulu, while their “malasadamobile” is right across from the popular Waikele Shopping Center. Be sure to check them out. You’ll thank me later.
Whether you’re visiting Oahu for the first time or the hundredth, I know you’re going to have an absolute blast. Throw back a few mai tais, stuff yourself silly with laulau, and tan those cheeks under the glorious Hawaiian sun.
What comes to mind when you think of Hawaii?
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Chris and Tawny have had articles and videos published on USA TODAY TRAVEL, BBC Travel, Matador Network, as well as appeared as guest stars on TLC Asia's Fun Taiwan television series. When not on the road, you can find Chris and Tawny nestled in their home in Tacoma, Washington fueling up on coffee and cat cuddles while planning their future adventures. You can follow their travels on their blog, Instagram, and YouTube