Off-the-Beaten-Path Oahu

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Off-the-Beaten-Path Oahu

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Oahu is world-famous for its perennially popular attractions – think Waikiki Beach – but the island is actually brimming with less-visited, non-touristy activities. Head to Kailua for the quieter beaches and tucked-away restaurants, go kayaking out to the isolated island of Mokulua, get shaved ice at Local Motion or wade into the tide at Waimea Beach. These are just a few of the off-the-beaten-bath Oahu things to see and do while you’re on this gorgeous isle.


1. Swim at Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon
This five-acre, human-made wading pool is an actual lagoon surrounding by sand and swaying palm trees. Pull up a lounge chair or soak for hours in the clean water. It was named after the Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimming champion and Ambassador of Aloha surfer.

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2. Hike Lanikai Pillbox
Also known as the Kaiwa Ridge Trail, the Lanikai Pillbox hike is fairly steep grade leading to rewarding views of Oahu’s windward side. As you climb, look for the Mokulua Islands, Kailua Beach, Lanikai Beach, Kaneohe Bay, Chinaman’s Hat, Waimanalo Bay and the Makapu’u Lighthouse.


3. Lanikai Beach
This picture-perfect beach is accessed via several public beach access alleyways – look carefully, otherwise you may miss the entrances. In the Lanikai (which means “heavenly ocean”) neighborhood in Kailua on the Windward East side of Oahu, the beach boasts powdery sand and seclusion. You’ll see two islands offshore: the Mokes, or Na Mokulua, and a bird sanctuary on the second. Come for the sunrise or the moonrise, go kayaking in the calm waters, snorkel over the coral reef and check out nearby Paradise Bay Resort.


4. Hang at Waikiki Beach
We’ll cheat a little here because Waikiki Beach is so famous, and heavily visited, but you can’t leave Oahu without spending some time here. Try something new and take a surf lesson from one of the licensed Waikiki Beachboys or head out into the water in an outrigger canoe.

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5. Take a Swim at Hanakapiai Falls
You’ll put in a fair amount of effort hiking in to the 300-foot-tall Hanakapiai Falls, named after a princess of Menehune. Surrounded by lush jungle, soaring cliffs and gorgeous coastline, you’ll feel like you’re in your own private paradise. Be sure to take a dip in the plunge pool.


6. Wander Through a Botanical Garden
If you can’t resist a pretty garden, you’re in luck – there are several on Oahu. Start at Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, a 400-acre oasis on Windward Oahu near the Koolau Mountains. Look for plants from the Americas, Africa, India, Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as local flora. You can even go catch-and-release fishing in the 32-acre lake. In the Waimea Valley, you can visit the namesake botanical garden on land that was lived on and cared for by the Native Hawaiian high priests and their descendants for centuries. Check out the Hawaiian hibiscus and more than 48 species of taro. Don’t miss the chance for a swim at 45-foot-tall Waimea Falls.


7. Hide Away at Makua Beach
Looking for a secluded beach? Head to the undeveloped, never-crowded white sands of Makua Beach in the Makua Valley near the Waianae Mountains. It’s a popular surfing and bodyboarding beach in the winter months; swimmers are advised to stay close to shore. Makua is the second to last beach along the road; keep going and you’ll get to the last one, Yokohama Bay. Both are part of Ka’ena Point State Park.

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8. Explore the North Shore
Seeking the perfect wave? Look no further than Oahu’s North Shore. The winter waves here are legit, while the summer waves are gentler and better for beginners. Spread out on more than 7 miles of beach. You might even be in town for one of the premier surfing competitions – the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. If you’re more into sunbathing and relaxing beach strolls, visit Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline) and Sunset Beach. While you’re here, visit the exclusive Turtle Bay Resort, check out the charming surf town of Haleiwa Town, eat rainbow-colored shave ice and visit the Polynesian Cultural Center of Laie.


9. Surf at Shark’s Cove
Rated by Scuba Diving Magazine as one of the “Top 12 Shore Dives in the World,” Shark’s Cove demands your attention. You’ll find it on the North Shore of Oahu, part of Pupukea Beach Park. Large, smooth boulders and coral make up the seabed, making caves for marine life to hide in, awaiting your discovery. Prefer to stay above water? Check out the Pupukea tide pools on the south side of Shark’s Cove.


10. Visit the Honolulu Museum of Art
Take a break from the sun and visit one of the world’s best art museums – the Honolulu Museum of Art. Look for pieces by Hokusai, van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Picasso, Warhol and more – plus an impressive collection of Asian and Hawaiian art.

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11. Eat Lunch at a Shrimp Truck
When it comes to shrimp trucks, Oahu has choices. One favorite is Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, where the wait is long, but worth it. Try the lemon butter shrimp, the garlic shrimp, the shrimp scampi, the spicy shrimp – really, all of it! We also love Romy’s Kahuki Prawns & Shrimp Inc., where the Kahuku-grown shrimp are large and juicy and come with sweet corn, salad and “two-scoop rice.” And one more – Macky’s Sweet Shrimp Truck, where you’ll typically wait just five minutes before diving into your garlic butter/lemon pepper or coconut shrimp order.


12. Hang with Sea Turtles
Also known as Turtle Beach, Laniakea Beach is famous for its wide-open views and – you guessed it – its sea turtles. Giant green sea turtles come right up out of the water to bask in the sun on the sand. Be sure to keep your distance, never touching or provoking one of these gentle giants, who likely love this rocky cove for its kelp and green moss.


13. Climb the Stairway to Heaven – If You Dare
The Haiku Stairs, or “Stairway to Heaven,” was built by the US Coast Guard to access the LORAN radio antenna at the top of the mountain. Once the Coast Guard operations ended, the stairs closed to the public. Upon its renovation in 2003, hiking the stairs still risked a heavy fine, but thousands of hikers climb it every year regardless. If you don’t want to chance it, stick to the local Kaulana’ahane Trail.


14. Ride an Underwater Scooter
Here’s a new only-on-vacation experience. Ride an underwater scooter and come face to face with Oahu’s marine world. You’ll set off into the waves on a catamaran, enjoying fabulous views of the Koolau Mountains, Diamond Head, Maunalua Bay and the Koko Crater. Somewhere along the coast, you’ll sink underwater in a self-propelled, electric scooter and given instructions on how and where to best find green sea turtles, living coral reefs, tropical fish and more.


15. Indulge at Turtle Bay Resort
Wondering where to stay on Oahu? Consider the new Turtle Bay Resort. Designed to emulate the layered richness of the island, Turtle Bay connects its guests to the nature of the North Shore. Play golf, take a surf lesson, soar away in a helicopter tour, visit with sea turtles underwater and perhaps even glimpse an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Go horseback riding on the beach. A variety of accommodations are available, with all modern amenities for couples and families.


16. Eat Local
With so much delicious Hawaiian food to try on Oahu, try to eat smaller and more often. Visit one of the famous shrimp trucks or get in line for shave ice. Tuck into Kahlua pig or spicy ahi poke. There are acai bowls and smoothies, coconut quinoa curry, musubi with Spam and malasadas. Wash it all down with a mai tai. Then, head on over to the many farmers markets throughout the island, trying breadfruit, fresh taro, mochi, Koko Crater Coffee and more. Look for the Haleiwa Farmers Market, the KCC Farmers Market and the Mililani Farmers Market.

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17. Find a Hidden Beach
Purchase and pack picnic goods and fresh fruit juice, then head to the North Shore to Kaena Point. There are many empty stretches of sand here, just calling your name. Look behind you – the lush jungle is where Lost was filmed. Also on the North Shore, you can join the local kite surfers at Aweoweo Beach Park. If you’re on the south side of Oahu, check out Halona Cove near Sandy Beach or Makapu’u Beach.


18. Visit a Temple
About a half-hour northeast of Honolulu, you’ll find Kaneohe and the Byodo-In Temple. Hang out for a few serene moments, feed the koi and admire the architecture, which is a replica of a 950-year-old Buddhist temple in Japan.


19. Take a Helicopter Tour
Get a bird’s-eye view of Oahu with a reputable helicopter tour operator. You’ll get to see all the treasures of the island, from waterfalls and craters to pristine valleys and hidden beaches.


20. Hike Chinaman’s Hat
Take a kayak tour from Waikiki Beach to Kaneohe and Chinaman’s Hat. This small island near Kualoa Ranch has a small peak that affords great views of the shoreline and the Kualoa Mountains.

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21. Kayak to the Mokes
Another fun kayaking adventure, rent a canoe or kayak and paddle out from Lanikai or Kailua Beach to the Mokes (Mokulua). You’ll likely have the isolated island all to yourself. There are several good cliff-jumping spots if you dare and a lovely little Queen’s Bath to soak in. Keep an eye out for a Hawaiian monk seal – they like to sun on the beach.


22. Find the Crouching Lion
A less-frequented hike than others on Oahu, the Crouching Lion Hike is on the northeast side of the island looking out over Kahana Bay.


23. Try Yoga on a SUP
You’re in the tropics, so give warm-water stand-up paddleboard yoga a try. It’s particularly blissful at sunset.


24. Summit Wiliwilinui Ridge
Off the beaten path for sure, the 4.5-mile Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail takes you up, up and up, to incredible east coast panoramic views of Honolulu, Waimanalo and Konahuanui. The crowds are held off by the small parking lot. Start off early and secure a parking pass, then relax at the beach in the afternoon.


25. Learn About Hawaiian Culture
Check out the Plantation Village Museum, a historical reproduction of a sugar plantation. Learn how the Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese lived and worked on these plantations in the early 1900s. Spend an hour or two at the Bishop Museum, Hawaii’s state museum of cultural and natural history.


26. Search for Public Art in Waikiki
Explore the up-and-coming neighborhood of Kaka’ako in Waikiki and discover its many murals. Since you’re here, plan time to sample the local breweries and coffee shops and do some boutique browsing.

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27. Hike to the Makapu’u Lighthouse
On the east shore of Oahu, you’ll find this short two-mile roundtrip hike, which leads to the 1909 (still operational) Makapu’u Lighthouse. Bring a lot of sunscreen and water as you’ll be in the sun the whole way – it’s also beautiful, and cooler, at sunrise.


28. Jump Off the China Walls
Go cliff diving at China Walls – or just watch the brave who do – the lava-rock ledge and cliffs near Koko Kai Mini Beach park in the Hawaii Kai neighborhood.
29. Tour Pearl Harbor on Your Own
Avoid the crowds and take a self-guided walking tour of Pearl Harbor, from the USS Arizona Memorial to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. Start at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to get your bearings.


30. Explore the Waimea Valley
Get lost in this revered spiritual valley, given to high priests as far back as 1092 AD for its plentiful resources. Look for places of worship, ancient burial sites and Wailele Falls.


31. Push Yourself on the Lanipo Trail
If you’re looking for a taxing, yet rewarding hike, Lanipo Trail fits the bill. This strenuous 7.5-mile hike takes you along the Mauna Lani Heights ridge, high above the Kaimuki neighborhood. The views of Honolulu – and much of the island – are well worth your effort.

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