Exploring A Less Crowded Oahu

If you would like to get a sense of what Oahu has to offer besides for the crowded and over-hyped Waikiki Beach, you've come to the right place. Visiting Oahu or any Hawaiian island for that matter can be overwhelming. As soon as you land, you are bombarded with tours and excursions, and it can leave one more confused than they'd like.

I have been traveling to Oahu for years to visit close friends who relocated to this beautiful island. I have learned there is a huge difference between where the hotels and travel agencies send the tourists and where the residents go. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share some of this with you.

It does not matter if your hotel is in Honolulu or even right on top of Waikiki (after all, sometimes there are great deals). There are areas that are only a 15-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, but have been able to remain relatively low key. The residents obviously prefer it this way. But as long as you remain respectful and don't trash the place - I believe you deserve to know about these beautiful areas too.

I decided the best way to do this was to design a loose 3 1/2 day itinerary based on the sites I absolutely would not want you to miss. I include other sites - even if more touristy, that are worth seeing if you have a strong interest or more time than this itinerary permits.

Day 1 - Planned as a half-day

Hop in the car. Make sure you've got water, towels, camera, book, sunglasses, sunscreen, hats, something to throw over wet bathing suits (don't get burned early in the trip, very strong sun even through clouds).

*ABC Drugstores are all over Waikiki, so don't worry if you forget to bring this stuff with you from home. They'll have anything you could possibly need and not priced as high as hotels.

Drive to Pali Lookoutdo your thing, take photos, stare in awe, do a little walkabout. Hop back in the car and drive straight to Kailua Beach.

Early evening: Walk around China Town, maybe good night for Dimsum, and stroll nearby areas of Honolulu. Good relaxing ending to 1st day...might not want to see a city again after you hit the North Shore tomorrow :-).


The Nuuanu Pali Lookout overlooks 985 foot cliffs of the Koolau Mountain Range and is one of the best views on O'ahu. It was here in 1795 that King Kamehameha and his warriors defeated the O'ahu armies by sending them over these steep, forested cliffs and claiming his victory and uniting the Hawaiian Islands.

Although the Pali Lookout is a well know tourist spot, there is a less widely known trail at the lower end of the lookout that you can take to get a different perspective on the views from the Pali. This trail follows along the route of the Old Pali Highway, has a wide variety of plants and is worth a quick look.

Parking and admission are free. Due to the gusty winds, do not wear hats or any headgear. I would also advise holding your children's hands as the wind can be quite powerful.


Pali Lookout: Take H1 east bound from Waikiki. Then take the Pali Highway, Route 61, via Nu'uanu Pali Drive. Follow the signs to the Lookout.

Directions to Kailua Beach:

From Waikiki take H1 to the Pali Highway (61). Take the Pali over to the Windward side of Oahu. Stay on the Pali at Kamehameha Highway and the Pali Highway turns into Kalanianaole Highway.

Take Kalanianaole Highway to Kailua Rd. You will NOT need to make a turn onto Kailua Rd, just bear to the left where Kailua Rd meets Kalanianaole Highway. At the triangle intersection of Kailua Road and Kuulei Road, bear to the right to stay on Kailua Road.

At the 2nd signal intersection, make a left turn to stay on Kailua Road. Go through the intersection of Kailua Rd and Kawailo Rd and you will be in the park. If this lot is full, simply go back out to Kawailo Rd. and follow it around the park. There are many places to park. During the weekdays it is not that crowded and makes for a good day at the beach, but during the high tourist season and on weekends it can get crowded. (in this area is a general store, which I think says 'General Store'...good place I recall for sandwiches, chips, etc. - that you may want to take to the beach).

Day 2 - North Shore baby!

Be prepared to spend all day there. (bring light coat in case it gets windy)

Along the way you can stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation...I had fun here, took pictures with my head in the pineapple backdrop. Learned a little history...it's fun, great for kids. It's not a must though – depends how you are feeling. If you decide to skip it – just go straight to Haleiwa, a little town a short distance further.

In Haleiwa, you will find stores catering to surfers, contemporary boutiques, art galleries, souvenir shops, and restaurants (trust me, it's not as big as it sounds). MUST get a shaved ice there or little stores further down the road (more info later)! If you want an awesome grilled mahimahi sandwich, get it at Kua 'Aina Sandwich.

Further down the road is Waimea Bay and Audubon Botanical Garden.

Waimea Bay is where the North Shore really begins with huge waves common in the winter. Waimea Valley Audubon Center and Waimea Falls are across the street. See below for more info.

Stop off at Byodo-In Temple which is in between these two places. You don't have to go in, but it's really beautiful just to look at or take pics. It's a replica of a 900-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, complete with a 3-ton ceremonial brass bell, a 9 foot gold & lacquer Buddha, and a landscaped Japanese garden. But it's really the undeveloped setting it's in that was most impressive to me.

Also, along the North Shore is the famous trio of beaches – stop, take pictures at any and all, hang out...Hale'iwa Beach, 'Ehukai (and the Banzai Pipeline) Beach, and Sunset Beach .

It is also nice to have a drink at around sunset at the Turtle Bay Resort, the only major resort on the North Shore. It is a lovely setting and might be the perfect last destination before heading back to Honolulu. Whoever is driving – just get a pina coloda or something light!

North Shore Snacks

Yes, this deserves a topic all on its own. Stop at a cute general store area in small North Shore town of Haleiwa with a snow cone stand outside – you will see people with giant snow cones – they call it SHAVED ICE here and it is a bit different. Just don't eat it in the car or if you are wearing anything nice...at least it melted on me.

Another unhealthy, but even more dangerously delicious local dessert to have at least once – are MALASSADAS (similar to donuts, but better). They originate from Portugal where laborers from the Azores came to the plantations in 1878, bringing their traditional foods with them. Today, there are numerous bakeries in the islands that specialize in making malasadas, perhaps the most famous of which are Leonard's Bakery and Champion Malasadas in Honululu.

I enjoyed, however, the little shack kind on the North Shore. Just make sure they are serving them warm...and make sure to drive away from there never to return because they are soooo good. And as mentioned above, you might enjoy stopping at the Turtle Bay Resort for sunset drinks.

Waimea Valley is located on Oahu's North shore. The 1,800 acre tropical park is alive with running streams, cascading waterfalls and a variety of plants and animals, many of them indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands. They are known for their falls which I think may have been closed down the last time I was there.

Waimea Bay Beach Park has a strong rip current that runs out at the center of the bay and can by quite treacherous depending on the time of year. During the Summer, waters are calm and good for swimming. But during the Winter, it is home of the largest, dangerous, most spectacular, rideable surf in the world. When the surf's up, even the most experienced swimmers and surfers think twice before entering the waters. They also ask the lifeguards about conditions and you should, too!

Directions: Take H1 west bound to H2heading to the North Shore.Take the Wahiawa Exit and get on Kamehameha Highway. Turn right into the Park just past the Waimea Bay Beach Park.

Day 3 - Snorkeling

Half day snorkeling off of the island - There is lots of competition among activity providers so you can get some great deals on a half-day excursion that includes transportation and snorkeling equipment.

Also, Hanauma Bay which is renowned as one of Hawaii’s favorite beaches for snorkeling is located on the southeast coast of Oahu (about 10 miles east of Waikiki). You can go there after or more likely on another day for an hour or so – maybe rent snorkeling equipment and do a little on your own. But probably crowded, so you definitely want to do an excursion for a more guaranteed solid snorkeling experience.

On clear days at Hanauma Bay, you can see the islands of Molokai and Lanai across the channel, and during the winter and early spring months, breaching humpback whales can be spotted from shore. So at least check it out.

The rest of the day might be a good day to spend on the Waikiki beaches and people watch OR drive around the island to spots you at least want to see, but may not have time to stop and hang out at (just make sure it's not on the North Shore as that is a bit farther). Perhaps, drive around Round Top and Tantalus Drive which circles Round Top Mountain giving you views of Manoa Valley, Mount Tantalus, Honolulu, and the ocean. Maybe go for fancy dinner.

Day 4 (half) - Hiking Manoa Falls

Manoa falls is a relatively unknown corner of Oahu which you must definitely not miss. The Valley of Manoa holds a towering pristine waterfall and is one of the best wilderness rain forest experiences on the island. Manoa Valley also shelters an arboretum, a lovely Chinese graveyard where food is left for the departed, and a lovely old established neighborhood.

I think the main trail (where there are other hikers to ask is about 2 hours long. I was last taken on a longer, more difficult one by a crazy friend & local – that went very high & took about 4 hours. Though I'd stick with the regular one to avoid getting lost. Bring WATER as you obviously cannot drink the stream water.

Directions to Manoa Falls

From Waikiki: Take McCully Street out of Waikiki toward the mountains. Turn right onto Kapiolani Blvd. Turn LEFT onto University and take University Ave. past UH (the University of Hawaii). University Ave. changes names to OAHU ROAD as it passes E. MANOA ROAD. Keep going until you reach MANOA ROAD.

Just don't confuse MANOA RD. with E. MANOA RD and you'll be OK.

At the very end of MANOA ROAD, just past the old Paradise Park parking lot on the right, and the entrance to the Lyon Arboretum further on and to the left, is a heavily shaded area of dead end road. You can park alongside it, but do not leave anything visible in the car, or be seen placing anything in the trunk. Get everything ready for the hike to Manoa Falls before reaching this point. Do not park your car at the Manoa Falls trailhead. Instead park it the residential area of Manoa Road. People say there are too many break-ins at the trailhead.

Walk a few yards to the end of the road to the chain barrier on the right. Walk around it and follow the path over a small footbridge.

Notice the enormous leaves of the Elephant Ear plants. The path veers left into the forest and is well marked and not confusing to follow. Pay attention to the footprints in the mud to guide you. Keep in mind that for the entire hike, you are following the stream that you see on your right uphill, but you never cross it. If you stray off the trail, just stop and listen for the sound of the stream and head back toward it. The stream is Manoa Falls and following it will lead you there. If you hike on a weekend, there will be more people around to help you find your way.

This is a RAINFOREST. THE TRAIL GETS SLIPPERY AND MUDDY, so wear appropriate shoes! One of the guys with us wore tevas and fell about every ten minutes once we got up there where it was drizzling. But it was fun! *Mosquito repellent is important too.

More Well Known Sites

So, hopefully by now you've enjoyed some of the sites I've recommended. Depending on your energy level, you may be up for more hiking or craving some historical education to put all that you've seen into context. Depending on how long you have, you may want to visit one or more of these places too.

Diamond Head is an extinct crater that you can hike up to. It can get very crowded with tourists and gets very hot, so you need to go early in the AM. You will see it from Waikiki and may want to take the hike for the 360 degree view of western Oahu. While it is worth a visit, I feel confident that if you don't have the time for two hikes – Manoa Falls is far more worth it.

*If you do decide to check it out, I've been told that stopping at Kahala Resort & Hotel for lunch is highly recommended. They have an outdoor casual lunch with an ocean view and it is reasonably priced for lunch.

Pearl Harbour – Maybe I'm bad for saying a maybe, but unless you go early, it's crowded. That being said, it is significant to US history – so if you don't make it this time around, be sure to go next :-).

Iolani Palace & Bishops Museum has one of the greatest collections of Hawaiian cultural and natural history artifacts. Founded in 1899. The nation’s only royal palace built in 1882. This is where Queen Liliuokalani’s government was overthrown in 1893, and where she, the last Hawaiian monarch, was imprisoned. Iolani Barracks dating from 1870 and built to house the Royal Guards, are located on the Palace grounds. It is renowned for its exhibits concerning Pacific life and culture.

Honolulu Academy of Arts was built in 1927 as the home of art collector Mrs. Montagne Cooke. It features 30 individual galleries, garden courtyards, works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Japanese ceramics and paintings, antiques from the Ming and Ching dynasties, Hawaiian, South Pacific and rare African art.

Queen Emma Summer Palace was the summer home of Queen Emma, wife of Kamehameha IV. The museum includes antique koa furniture and portraits of the Hawaiian royal family.

Well, I hope this helps narrow things down a bit. Remember, do what you can, don't feel pressured to do everything you read or hear about. If you hit at least the main spots on this list and mix it in with your own ideas and discoveries , you will no doubt have an EXCELLENT time.

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Comments 8 comments

Phyliss 7 years ago

GREAT, detailed article. Just wanted to let you know I used a few pointers on my trip last month and they were perfect! Thank you.

mary perkins 4 years ago

Interesting but not helpful as I don't have a car so how do I get to those places?

John 4 years ago

Rent a car or take the bus - Oahu has an awesome bus system (www.maps.google.com - click on transit/the bus icon)

Jared 4 years ago

These are good spots, but fairly popular on the tourist circuit. If you want a secluded beach with pristine conditions go to the far northwest side of the island to kaena point.

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Rinki Pramanik 4 years ago from Torrance

I also plan to vist all these places this weekend

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Ponderize 4 years ago from California Author

I hope you enjoy these spots and found this article useful Rinki!

Misti 4 years ago

I just moved to Honolulu in April. Because of work, I haven't had much time to explore, but I am slowly but surely working my way down your list. Thanks for the tips!

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Ponderize 4 years ago from California Author

Great Misti - you are lucky you get to live there!

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