Hawai‘i’s largest city looks like any other big metropolitan center with tall buildings. In fact, some cynics refer to it as “Los Angeles West.” But within Honolulu’s boundaries, you’ll find rainforests, deep canyons, valleys, waterfalls, a nearly mile-high mountain range, coral reefs, and gold-sand beaches. The city proper—where most of Honolulu’s residents live—is approximately 12 miles wide and 26 miles long, running east-west roughly between Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. Within the city are seven hills laced by seven streams that run to Māmala Bay.
A plethora of neighborhoods surrounds the central area. These areas are generally quieter and more residential than Waikīkī, but they’re still within minutes of beaches, shopping, and all the activities O‘ahu has to offer.
Waikīkī—Waikīkī is changing almost daily. Two new, high-end developments—the Ritz Carlton and the new International Marketplace, anchored by a Saks Fifth Ave.— opened at the end of 2016. It’s a sign of Waikīkī’s transformation: faded Polynesian kitsch giving way to luxury retailers and residences. Still, Waikīkī tenaciously hangs on to its character: Explore just 1 block mauka of Kalākaua Ave., and you’ll find hidden, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, walk-up apartments and nondescript condos where the locals still live, alongside hip boutique hotels.
When King Kalākaua played in Waikīkī, it was “a hamlet of plain cottages . . . its excitements caused by the activity of insect tribes and the occasional fall of a coconut.” The Merrie Monarch, who gave his name to Waikīkī’s main street, would love the scene today. Some 5 million tourists visit O‘ahu every year, and 9 out of 10 of them stay in Waikīkī. This urban beach is where all the action is; it’s backed by 175 high-rise hotels with more than 33,000 guest rooms and hundreds of bars and restaurants, all in a 1 1/2-square-mile beach zone. Waikīkī means honeymooners and sun seekers, bikinis and bare buns, an around-the-clock beach party every day of the year. Staying in Waikīkī puts you in the heart of it all, but be aware that this on-the-go place has traffic noise 24 hours a day—and it’s almost always crowded.
Ala Moana—A great beach as well as Hawai‘i’s largest shopping mall, Ala Moana is the retail and transportation heart of Honolulu, a place where you can both shop and suntan in one afternoon. All bus routes lead to the open-air Ala Moana Center, across the street from Ala Moana Beach Park. The shopping center is one of Hawai‘i’s most visited destinations for its collection of luxury brands (such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel) and Hawai‘i-based stores (from Tori Richard to Town & Country Surf). For our purposes, the neighborhood called “Ala Moana” extends along Ala Moana Boulevard from Waikīkī in the direction of Diamond Head to downtown Honolulu in the Ewa direction (west) and includes the Ward Village, as well as Restaurant Row.
Downtown—Here, you’ll find historic Honolulu, including Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawai‘i’s kings and queens; its business center housed in high rises; and the Capitol District, all jammed in about 1 square mile. On the waterfront stands the iconic 1926 Aloha Tower.
On the edge of downtown is the Chinatown Historic District, the oldest Chinatown in America and still one of Honolulu’s liveliest neighborhoods, a nonstop pageant of people, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes—not all Chinese. Southeast Asians, including many Vietnamese, share the old storefronts, as do Honolulu’s oldest bar (the divey Smith’s Union Bar) and some of the city’s hippest clubs and chic-est boutiques. Go in the morning, when everyone shops for fresh goods such as mangoes (when in season), live fish (sometimes of the same varieties you saw while snorkeling), fresh tofu, and hogs’ heads.
Mānoa Valley—First inhabited by white settlers, Mānoa Valley, above Waikīkī, still has vintage kamaʻāina (native-born) homes, one of Hawai‘i’s premier botanical gardens (the Lyon Arboretum), the ever-gushing Mānoa Falls, and the 320-acre University of Hawai‘i campus, where 50,000 students hit the books when they’re not on the beach.
To the East
Kāhala—Except for the estates of millionaires and the luxurious Kāhala Hotel & Resort, there’s little out this way that’s of interest to visitors.
Beyond Kāhala lies East Honolulu and suburban bedroom communities such as ‘Āina Haina, Niu Valley, and Hawai‘i Kai, among others, all linked by the Kalaniana‘ole Highway and loaded with homes, condos, fast-food joints, and strip malls. It looks like Southern California on a good day. You’ll drive through here if you take the longer, scenic route to Kailua. Some reasons to stop along the way: to have dinner at Roy’s Restaurant, the original and still-outstanding Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine restaurant in Hawai‘i Kai; to snorkel at Hanauma Bay or watch daredevil body surfers and boogie boarders at Sandy Beach; or to just enjoy the natural splendor of the lovely coastline, which might include a hike to Makapu‘u Lighthouse.
The Windward Coast
The windward side is the opposite side of the island from Waikīkī. On this coast, trade winds blow cooling breezes over gorgeous beaches; rain squalls spawn lush, tropical vegetation; and miles of subdivisions dot the landscape. Bed-and-breakfasts, ranging from oceanfront estates to tiny cottages on quiet residential streets, are everywhere. Vacations here are spent enjoying ocean activities and exploring the surrounding areas. Waikīkī is a 20-minute drive away.
Kailua—The biggest little beach town in Hawai‘i, Kailua sits at the foot of the sheer green Ko‘olau mountain range, on a great bay with two of Hawai‘i’s best beaches. In the past few years, the town has seen some redevelopment, with a new Target, Whole Foods, condos, and newer, bigger digs for old favorite shops and restaurants. But it’s still a funky low-rise cluster of timeworn shops and homes. Kailua has become the B&B capital of Hawai‘i; it’s an affordable alternative to Waikīkī, with rooms and vacation rentals starting at $70 a day. With the prevailing trade winds whipping up a cooling breeze, Kailua attracts windsurfers from around the world. On calmer days, kayaking or stand-up paddling to the Mokulua Islands off the coast is a favorite adventure.
Kāne‘ohe Bay—Helter-skelter suburbia sprawls around the edges of Kāne‘ohe, one of the most scenic bays in the Pacific. After you clear the trafficky maze of town, O‘ahu returns to its more natural state. This great bay beckons you to get out on the water; you can depart from He‘eia Boat Harbor on snorkel or fishing charters. From here, you’ll have a panoramic view of the Ko‘olau Range.
Kualoa/Lā‘ie—The upper-northeast shore is one of O‘ahu’s most sacred places, an early Hawaiian landing spot where kings dipped their sails, cliffs hold ancient burial sites, and ghosts still march in the night. Sheer cliffs stab the reef-fringed seacoast, while old fish ponds are tucked along the two-lane coast road that winds past empty gold-sand beaches around beautiful Kahana Bay. Thousands “explore” the South Pacific at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Lā‘ie, a Mormon settlement with a temple and university.
The North Shore
For locals, O‘ahu is often divided into “town” and “country”—town being urban Honolulu, and country referring to the North Shore. This coast yields expansive, beautiful beaches for swimming and snorkeling in the summer and world-class waves for surfing in the winter. Laid-back Hale‘iwa is the social hub of the North Shore, with its casual restaurants, surf shops, and clothing boutiques. Vacation rentals are the most common accommodations, but there’s also the first-class Turtle Bay Resort. Be forewarned: It’s a long trip—nearly an hour’s drive—to Honolulu and Waikīkī, and even longer during the surf season, when tourists and wave-seekers can jam up the roads.
Central O‘ahu: The ‘Ewa Plain
Flanked by the Koʻolau and Wai‘anae mountain ranges, the hot, sunbaked ʻEwa Plain runs up and down the center of O‘ahu. Once covered with sandalwood forests (hacked down for the China trade) and later the sugarcane and pineapple backbone of Hawai‘i, ʻEwa today sports a new crop: suburban houses stretching to the sea. But let your eye wander west to the Wai‘anae Range and Mount Kaʻala, at 4,020 feet the highest summit on O‘ahu; up there in the misty rainforest, native birds thrive in the hummocky bog. In 1914, the U.S. Army pitched a tent camp on the plain; author James Jones would later call Schofield Barracks “the most beautiful army post in the world.” Hollywood filmed Jones’s From Here to Eternity here.
Leeward O‘ahu: The Wai‘anae Coast
The west coast of O‘ahu is a hot and dry place of dramatic beauty: white-sand beaches bordering the deep-blue ocean, steep verdant green cliffs, and miles of Mother Nature’s wildness. Tourist services are concentrated in Ko Olina Resort, which has a Disney hotel and a brand-new Four Seasons, pricey resort restaurants, golf course, marina, and wedding chapel, should you want to get hitched. This side of O‘ahu less visited—though that could change as Ko Olina lures visitors from Waikīkī—except by surfers bound for Mākaha Beach and those coming to see needle-nose Ka‘ena Point (the island’s westernmost outpost), which has a coastal wilderness park.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.