Visiting O‘ahu: Where and When to Go

A rocky cliff rises above a crescent beach with yellow sand.

Makapu‘u Beach on O‘ahu’s southeast shore. Photo © Chad Zuber/123rf.

Where to Go in O‘ahu

Waikiki

The quintessential O‘ahu destination, Waikiki has beaches with gentle surf and warm water, great weather year-round, ocean activities, shopping, and dining, and is home to the majority of the hotels on the island. Waikiki’s 2.5-mile strip of coastline is the stuff of legends. Not too far away is iconic landmark Diamond Head. The Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium exhibit local flora and fauna, while Kapi‘olani Park is a beautiful green space in the city. Waikiki’s bars and restaurants offer cuisine from around the world and a lively bar scene once the sun sets.

Honolulu

The economic and political center of the state, Honolulu is also the capital of Hawai‘i. Best known for its historic district and Chinatown, Honolulu stretches from Honolulu International Airport to the ridges and valleys of the Ko‘olau Mountains. Here you’ll find stately government buildings like the Hawaii State Capitol and historic sites such as Washington Place and ‘Iolani Palace. For museum enthusiasts, there’s the Hawai‘i State Art Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art. Chinatown offers both fine art galleries and Pacific Rim cuisine.

North Shore

O‘ahu’s rural North Shore is all about beautiful beaches, diving, surfing, and snorkeling. The coastline is natural and unspoiled, and the beaches are the hallmark of tropical bliss. During winter, the North Shore attracts surfers from around the world to ride the powerful, barreling waves that break all along the coast. During summer, the ocean surface remains calm and flat, the perfect conditions for diving and snorkeling at Three Tables and Sharks Cove. Relax at Waimea Bay, take a walk through a botanical garden and historical cultural site at Waimea Valley, or drive up to Pupukea to visit the Pu‘u O Mahuka Heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple site.

Southeast and Windward

The southeast shore spans affluent Kahala to Makapu‘u. Maunalua Bay offers a variety of water activities, from Jet Skiing and wakeboarding to surfing and diving. Sandy Beach is the best bodysurfing beach on the island. From Makapu‘u north to La‘ie is the windward coast, hugging the spectacular verdant cliffs of the Ko‘olau Mountains. The windward side is known for its numerous white sand beaches. Kailua has a beautiful crescent beach with fine sand and calm water, and the town is full of boutiques and restaurants. Hike up to Maunawili Falls, or along the Kawainui Marsh to see native Hawaiian waterfowl. Take the leisurely drive up the coast to the quiet town of La‘ie, home of the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Central and Suburban

The Pearl Harbor Historic Sites are a must to grasp the history of Hawai‘i and O‘ahu and their role during World War II. Learn about O‘ahu’s agricultural past at the Dole Plantation and the Hawaii Plantation Village outdoor museum. Golf courses abound in the region, and there are isolated strips of windswept beaches from ‘Ewa Beach to Kalaeloa.

Leeward

The arid leeward side runs from the Ko Olina Resort to Yokohama Bay and Ka‘ena Point. Ko Olina has fine dining, a golf course, and four artificial seaside lagoons. The predominantly calm conditions of the leeward beaches means there is great visibility for snorkeling and diving. Hike out to Ka‘ena Point State Park, the westernmost tip of the island, and look for Hawaiian monk seals, spinner dolphins, and several species of seabirds nesting in the sand dunes.


When to Go to O‘ahu

While the weather and water temperature remain comfortable all year long, O‘ahu does experience a high tourist season from early December to late April. There is another busy time June-August, mirroring North America’s summer. If you’re planning on traveling in the high season, it’s absolutely necessary to make reservations in advance. Don’t stop making reservations once you arrive—it’s best to make advance arrangements for outrigger canoe rides, catamaran trips, tours, spa services, nightly dinner, and lu‘au shows several days beforehand. If you can make it to O‘ahu during the off-season, you’ll find a little more room to breathe, and rates will be lower.

O‘ahu experiences slight changes in temperature during summer and winter. Summer temperatures reach into the low eighties and the air is more humid, while winter temperatures dip down to the mid-seventies with slightly higher rainfall. Remember that weather here is localized; it can be pouring rain on the windward side and sunny in Waikiki. Be prepared for passing showers anytime.

The south shore sees waves during the summer, from May till September, though they rarely exceed six feet on the face. If you’re keen on catching the famous winter surf on the North Shore, swells start arriving in October, with the peak of the big wave action being November through February. The North Shore continues to have surf through April. If you plan on swimming in Waimea Bay or snorkeling and diving Sharks Cove and Turtle Bay, you’ll want to visit the North Shore during the summer, when the ocean is flat and conditions are prime. North Pacific humpback whales visit near-shore waters from December through April.


Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon O’ahu.


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