Want the scoop on visiting Oahu? I had compiled this guide for my best friend’s wedding and figured I share it on my blog so it’s easier to reference if anyone ever asks me for tips when visiting Oahu. I’m putting together my guide for Kauai, Maui and Hawaii’s Big Island and will post those soon. Guess all those years handling public relations for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau paid off. Let me know what you think in the comments below. (Updated as of 5/23/11)
You may recognize Oahu, which is known as the “Gathering Place,” as the locale for some of your favorite movies and TV shows such as “Lost,” “Hawaii FIVE-0,” and the next installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” For those who have lived in Honolulu, the island has a lot more than just beautiful beaches and warm, friendly people.
I wanted to provide you with some information on the island and tips to make your stay more enjoyable. Whether it’s your first or fifth time visiting, I hope you enjoy Oahu as much as I do.
Oahu is the third largest island in the Hawaiian Island chain and home to the state capital, Honolulu, and world-famous Waikiki Beach. Nearly one million people live in Honolulu, which is considered one of the top metropolitans in the U.S.
Besides Waikiki, you’ll also find three renowned resort areas on the North Shore, the Leeward (west) Coast and in the Kahala area of East Honolulu.
The temperature in March ranges from the low 70s to the low 80s. Feel free to pack a light jacket since the weather in Hawaii can vary. It’s not uncommon for there to be a passing rain shower even when it’s bright and sunny outside.
For a helpful list of items to pack, check out this blog post from Go Visit Hawaii.
Points of Interest
Once you’ve arrived and settle in, you’ll want to experience all that Oahu has to offer. Marvel at Oahu’s spectacular natural wonders like Leahi (Diamond Head) and Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. Take your first surf lesson in Waikiki, then attend a luau at sunset and watch authentic hula. Explore Hawaii’s rich history and culture at the Iolani Palace, King Kamehameha Statue and Kawaiahao Church, all within a block of each other. Then indulge in a taste of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and the best of Hawaii’s nightlife. Or if all else fails, spend the day tanning on one of Oahu’s beautiful beaches.
Most Visited Attractions
- Ala Moana Beach (great place for swimming, surfing, stand-up paddling)
- Hanauma Bay (well-known snorkeling spot; there is an admission fee for visitors)
- Kailua Beach (great spot for beginning bodyboarding and kayaking)
- Ko Olina Resort and Marina (man-made lagoons that are well kept and enjoyable for families)
- Lanikai Beach (nice beach and a lot of kayakers)
- Sandy Beach (big waves to watch the professional surfers)
- Sans Souci Beach (nice beach that close to Waikiki but away from the crowds)
- Sunset Beach (popular spot for bodyboarders but the current/waves can get rough; mainly for experienced swimmers)
- Waikiki Beach (most popular beach on Oahu with a variety of activities including surf lessons, catamarans, kayaking, stand-up paddling and outrigger canoe paddling)
- Waimanalo Beach (a local favorite)
- Waimea Bay (beautiful spot on the North Shore to watch big wave surfers)
Even if you’re only here for the weekend or a week, I wanted to share some Hawaii cultural tidbits so that you feel comfortable when interacting and getting to know the locals.
Pidgin (pronounced like the bird) is also known as Hawaii Creole English. Spoken by a lot of locals, the language is influenced by a variety of cultures during Hawaii’s plantation days. It’s a little hard to explain so it’s best for you to listen for it when you’re traveling around Oahu. Here’s a quick link to Wikipedia for your reference:
Locals use “ewa” (pronounced “eh-va”) when referring to the west, “Diamond Head” for the east, “mauka” is toward the mountains and “makai” toward the sea.
It was one of the first things that President Barack Obama did during his inauguration parade. Locals do it when they’re driving or hanging out with friends. It’s the common gesture that’s known as the “shaka” sign.
Throughout the generations, various stories have been told to explain the origins of the shaka sign, with some dating back to the plantation days in Hawaii. The meaning can differ from one local to another; however, it remains a gesture of thanks, understanding, and the aloha spirit of Hawaii. Follow the simple instructions below to learn how to “shaka”:
- Extend the thumb and pinky finger.
- Keep the three middle fingers (index, middle, and ring) curled.
- Face the back of the hand towards the person that is being greeted.
- Give a little shake with a smile.
Ono Grindz (Delicious Food)
Last but not least, I save my favorite section for you. With all the sightseeing and activities around the island, what better way to enhance your Hawaii experience by filling your stomach with Hawaii’s “ono grindz” (delicious food).
Hawaii’s melting pot of culture provides an opportunity to sample a wide range of cuisines. Due to its diverse population and rich history, Oahu is a great destination for the foodie at heart. Below are some of my favorites from budget eats to “empty your wallet” meals.
Hawaii’s seafood is some of the freshest you’ll taste (due to the fact that local chefs can purchase their fish from the Honolulu Fish Auction on a daily basis). A popular local favorite that I encourage you to try is poke (pronounced “poh-keh”), cubed raw fish (usually ahi tuna) and seasoned in many variations.
A great place to sample the freshest fish on the island is at Nico’s at Pier 38, steps away from the Honolulu Fish Auction. Some of the local favorites are Ahi Belly plate lunch and Furikake Ahi plate lunch, but the daily specials are chosen to represent whatever the chef thinks is the best and freshest catch of the day.
If you’re a sushi connoisseur, you might want to check out the following:
- Genki Sushi (inexpensive sushi on a conveyor belt)
- Gyotaku (Local Japanese restaurant with a large menu for anyone)
- Kuru Kuru (one of the best ahi bowls on Oahu)
- Morimoto’s (yes, the Iron Chef recently opened a location in Waikiki)
- Nobu (another well-known restaurant with a location in Waikiki)
- Sasabune (home of THE sushi chef – listen to what he says and eat what he serves or else)
- Yanagi (a local favorite visited by Japanese celebrities)
Hawaii Regional Cuisine
About 20 years ago, 12 Hawaii chefs came together to create the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, which blends local ingredients with techniques and flavors from around the Pacific and the world. Celebrating the diverse culinary backgrounds of Hawaii’s people along with the variety of fresh fish and local produce, there are many restaurants around Honolulu that specialize in this cuisine (many of which are considered fine dining/white table cloth). Here are a few restaurants to add to your list: Alan Wong’s, Chai’s Island Bistro (great place for food and Hawaiian music), Chef Mavro (combining French and Pacific Rim cuisine) and Roy’s (one of the most well-known with its locations in Hawaii and around the U.S.).
On the other spectrum of fine dining is the traditional local plate lunch. Usually comprised with two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni or potato salad, and one or more entrees choices. Plate lunch favorites include chicken katsu, hamburger steak, teriyaki or shoyu chicken, kalua pig, or mochiko chicken. The portions are usually big but low on price. Some of my favorite plate lunch spots include Rainbow Drive-In on Kapahulu Avenue, Zippy’s (a local fast food chain with a numerous locations on Oahu). For those looking for a healthier version, check out Diamond Head Market & Grill or Kakaako Kitchen.
Traditional Hawaiian food
Sample some of the traditional Hawaiian staples including lomi lomi salmon, kalua pig, lau lau, haupia, etc. at some of my local favorites including Ono Hawaiian Foods, Helena’s Hawaiian Food, and Yama’s Fishmarket.
North Shore shrimp trucks
One of the tastiest reasons to visit the North Shore is Giovanni’s Original White Shrimp Truck. I’m giving the shrimp trucks a separate section because it’s a MUST DO. Stick with the original, the scampi, or try their hot & spicy if you want that extra kick. The locals will always debate which shrimp truck is their favorite but hands down Giovanni takes it. Don’t forget to bring: $13 per plate (cash only), hand wipes (it gets messy) and a sharpie to sign the side of the truck.
While you’re driving to or from the shrimp trucks, you’ll see many fruit stands along the highway. It’s one of the best things about Hawaii – fresh tropical fruit. Depending on the season, you’ll find coconut, mango, watermelon, dragonfruit, longan, cherimoya, persimmons, lychee, apple bananas…the list goes on. Some of the fruit stands will also sell Kahuku corn, one of the sweetest corn available.
If you aren’t able to stop at the fruit stands, the farmers markets are another option. The largest is the Kapiolani Community College farmers market on Saturday mornings. Others include North Shore farmers markets on Sundays, or the new Hawaii Kai farmers market on Saturdays.
Savory and sweet treats are plentiful in the islands. Here are some of my favorites:
SPAM musubi – Don’t knock it until you try it. Also known as SPAM sushi, they are a staple in the local diet and can be easily found at a local 7-Eleven or convenience store.
Saimin/Ramen – Sometimes served with the SPAM musubi, saimin is considered comfort food on a cold day (usually around high 60s to low 70s F) in Hawaii. A nice bowl of broth and noodles topped with anything from char sui (barbeque pork), egg, green onion and ham. It’s so local that you can even order off the menu at McDonald’s! Many locals frequent Shige’s Saimin for a classic bowl of saimin. I like the Japanese ramen and usually visit spots like Sanoya, Jimbo’s, and Taiyo Ramen.
Malasadas – It’s considered a Portuguese doughnut or a hole-less donut. One place to get them fresh is the iconic Leonard’s Bakery on Kapahulu Avenue. The malasadas arrive hot and sweet and definitely a must-try if you’ve got a sweet tooth.
Shave Ice – Another perfect way to end the day is with the island treat called shave ice. The Hawaiian version of a “snow cone,” shave ice is flavored with syrups like the traditional “rainbow” of strawberry, banana, vanilla to tropical ones like li hing mui, lilikoi (passion fruit), mango and more. You can top your shave ice with condensed milk for an extra sugary hit, azuki red beans, or a scoop of ice cream in the bottom. And yes, the word “shave” is not in past tense. We’re not always grammatically correct in the islands.
If you’re on the North Shore, everyone seems to go to Aoki’s or Matsumoto’s. In Honolulu, Waiola Shave Ice is one of the popular spots with two locations — one in Moiliili and one in Kapahulu.
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