Many first-time visitors to Hawai’i find themselves on the island of O’ahu, and that’s honestly one of the best jumping off points for malihini (guests) who have never visited the Hawaiian Islands before.
Why is O’ahu the best place for neophytes? Simply put, the island is nicknamed “The Gathering Place” for good reason—the state’s activity thrums around its vibrant capital, Honolulu, and many of the Hawaiian Islands banner “bucket list” attractions can be found here. While the Neighbor Islands have much to offer, O’ahu is a great place for beginners to start.
It’s also important to note that each of the island’s distinct regions offer shades of Neighbor Island offerings. Visitors who enjoy the laid back, residential Kailua and Kane’ohe might enjoy exploring Maui, while those who fall for Hale’iwa’s bucolic charms might want to check out the Garden Isle of Kaua’i.
Here, I’ve put together a list of the top O’ahu attractions for first-timers not to miss. I’ve also included some logistical items that are good watch-outs for first-time Hawai’i visitors.
Pearl Harbor is one of the state’s top attractions. Although the memorial itself is closed for repairs as of press time (it’s currently slated to reopen in March of 2019) visitors can still take a boat tour around the National Monument and visit the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center.
Tickets are free and can be requested in advance or first-come-first-served (it’s often best to go right at opening). More information about the National Monument and its museums can be found on the National Park Service website.
At the Visitor’s Center, the Passport to Pearl Harbor is also available for sale, which includes admission to other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites including the Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
Waikiki, once marshland, grew from a single resort hotel at the turn of the century to one of the world’s preeminent tourist draws just decades later. The compact district bordered by the Ala Wai Canal on two sides, Waikiki Beach on the Pacific, and Kapahulu Avenue on the east, is the city’s primary destination for tourist-oriented resorts, shopping and dining.
It’s so cosmopolitan it’s difficult to eavesdrop among passersby and hear the same language spoken from one group to the next. Expect tourist pricing, crowds and a global panoply (read: not too Hawaiian) of consumables, but for spectacle and atmosphere, it has to be experienced at least once.
Le’ahi (Diamond Head)
Easily the island’s most recognizable landmark, the views of this dormant volcano that dominates the skyline view from Waikiki are some of the world’s most postcard-perfect.
The State of Hawai’i operates portions of the crater as a national monument, and visitors can pay an access fee to park and climb to the peak, where spectacular views of the city await. It’s a short, but strenuous (almost entirely vertical) hike, but the views in good weather are worth it.
The park is open every day from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Visitors should avoid going in the middle of the day when the sun and heat are at their zenith, take water, sunscreen and a head cover, and know their hiking limits.
On the island’s North Shore, a world away from the bustle of Waikiki, is Hale’iwa, an early 20th Century town that takes its name from a hotel that was once situated on the banks of the Anahulu River. Today, the town, which still has many period buildings intact, is famous for shave ice, art galleries and surf competitions.
It’s also a popular spot for tour buses, so head out early, and take plenty of cash—a good number of the stores still don’t take cards.
On the way to the Windward side communities of Kane’ohe and Kailua, take the offramp and drive through botanical bliss to find the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout. The spot marks a pivotal moment in Hawaiian History as the site of the 1795 battle that won Kamehameha dominion over O’ahu, helping to cement his status as the first ruler of all the islands as the United Kingdom of Hawai’i (Kaua’i and Ni’ihau, which were never successfully invaded, joined peacefully, albeit under duress, in 1810).
The view of the Ko‘olau cliffs and the Windward Coast is spectacular in fine weather, and worth the $3 parking fee for vehicles.
After taking in the view from the lookout, the beach community of Kailua and its eponymous beach are another stop worth seeing. Reminiscent of Southern California (or, incidentally, Maui) the laid-back bedroom community is a haven for surf shops and organic juice bars and grocery stores.
Kailua Beach itself is also a top draw, with silky white sugar sand, turquoise waters and generally calm surf, although it can get windy—the beach is understandably a top destination for windsurfers.
Learn more about O’ahu and the other Hawaiian Islands by visiting the official website for The Hawaiian Islands. Travel professionals can also enroll to become a Hawai‘i Destination Specialist with courses offered by Travel Agent Academy.
*The author recognizes the importance of Hawaiian Language diacritical marks such as the kahako (macron), although some marks may have been omitted for web browser compatibility.
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