Hawaii’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 Mamala Bay.
A plethora of neighborhoods surrounds the central area. These areas are generally quieter and more residential than Waikiki, but they’re still within minutes of beaches, shopping, and all the activities Oahu has to offer.
Waikiki --Some say that Waikiki is past its prime—that everybody goes to Maui now. If it has fallen out of favor, you couldn’t prove it by me. Waikiki is the very incarnation of Yogi Berra’s comment about Toots Shor’s famous New York restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
When King Kalakaua played in Waikiki, 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 Waikiki’s main street, would love the scene today. Some 5 million tourists visit Oahu every year, and 9 out of 10 of them stay in Waikiki. 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. Waikiki means honeymooners and sun seekers, bikinis and bare buns, an around-the-clock beach party every day of the year. Staying in Waikiki puts you in the heart of it all, but also be aware that this is an on-the-go place with traffic noise 24 hours a day and its share of crime—and it’s almost always crowded.
Ala Moana --A great beach as well as a famous 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 . This 200-store shopping behemoth is getting even bigger—a 650,000-square-foot expansion, anchored by Bloomingdale’s, is expected to open in the Ala Moana Center by the end of 2015. For our purposes, the neighborhood called “Ala Moana” extends along Ala Moana Boulevard from Waikiki in the direction of Diamond Head to downtown Honolulu in the Ewa direction (west) and includes the Ward Centers and Ward Warehouse complexes, as well as Restaurant Row.
Downtown --A tiny cluster of high-rises west of Waikiki, downtown Honolulu is the financial, business, and government center of Hawaii. On the waterfront stands the iconic 1926 Aloha Tower. The whole history of Honolulu can be seen in just a few short blocks: Street vendors sell papayas from trucks on skyscraper-lined concrete canyons; joggers and BMWs rush by a lacy palace where U.S. Marines overthrew Hawaii’s last queen and stole her kingdom; burly bus drivers sport fragrant white ginger flowers on their dashboards; Methodist churches look like Asian temples; and businessmen wear aloha shirts to billion-dollar meetings.
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 on Saturday 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.
Manoa Valley --First inhabited by white settlers, the Manoa Valley, above Waikiki, still has vintage kamaaina (native-born) homes, one of Hawaii’s premier botanical gardens (the Lyon Arboretum ), the ever-gushing Manoa Falls, and the 320-acre campus of the University of Hawaii, where 50,000 students hit the books when they’re not on the beach.
To the East: Kahala--Except for the estates of millionaires and the luxurious Kahala Hotel & Resort , there’s not much out this way that’s of interest to visitors.
Beyond Kahala lies East Honolulu and suburban bedroom communities like Aina Haina, Niu Valley, and Hawaii Kai, among others, all linked by the Kalanianaole Highway and loaded with homes, condos, fast-food joints, and shopping 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 Hawaii Regional Cuisine restaurant, in Hawaii 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 Makapuu Lighthouse.
The Windward Coast
The windward side is the opposite side of the island from Waikiki. 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. Waikiki is just a 15-minute drive away.
Kailua --The biggest little beach town in Hawaii, Kailua sits at the foot of the sheer green Koolau mountain range, on a great bay with two of Hawaii’s best beaches. The town is undergoing some redevelopment—there’s now a strip mall anchored by the island’s largest Whole Foods, and new condos are sprouting up. But, for the most part, it’s still a funky low-rise cluster of timeworn shops and homes (at least for now). Kailua has become the B&B capital of Hawaii; it’s an affordable alternative to Waikiki, 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 to the Mokulua Islands off the coast is a favorite adventure.
Kaneohe Bay --Helter-skelter suburbia sprawls around the edges of Kaneohe, one of the most scenic bays in the Pacific. After you clear the trafficky maze of town, Oahu returns to its more natural state. This great bay beckons you to get out on the water; you can depart from Heeia Boat Harbor on snorkel or fishing charters. From here, you’ll have a panoramic view of the Koolau Range.
Kualoa/Laie --The upper-northeast shore is one of Oahu’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 Laie, a Mormon settlement with its own Tabernacle Choir of sweet Samoan harmony.
The North Shore --Here is the Hawaii of Hollywood—home to giant waves, surfers, tropical jungles, waterfalls, and mysterious Hawaiian temples. If you’re looking for a quieter vacation that’s closer to nature and filled with swimming, snorkeling, diving, and surfing, or just plain hanging out on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the North Shore is your place. The artsy little beach town of Haleiwa and the surrounding shoreline seem a world away from Waikiki. The North Shore boasts good restaurants, shopping, and cultural activities—but they come with the quiet of country living. 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 Waikiki, and even longer during the surf season, when tourists and wave-seekers can jam up the roads.
Finding Your Way Around, Oahu Style
Mainlanders sometimes find the directions given by locals a bit confusing. Seldom will you hear the terms east, west, north, and south; instead, islanders refer to directions as either makai (ma-kae), meaning toward the sea, or mauka (mow-kah), toward the mountains. In Honolulu, people use Diamond Head as a direction meaning to the east (in the direction of the world-famous crater called Diamond Head), and Ewa as a direction meaning to the west (toward the town called Ewa, on the other side of Pearl Harbor).
So if you ask a local for directions, this is what you’re likely to hear: “Drive 2 blocks makai (toward the sea), and then turn Diamond Head (east) at the stoplight. Go 1 block, and turn mauka (toward the mountains). It’s on the Ewa (western) side of the street.”
Central Oahu: The Ewa Plain
Flanked by the Koolau and Waianae mountain ranges, the hot, sunbaked Ewa Plain runs up and down the center of Oahu. Once covered with sandalwood forests (hacked down for the China trade) and later the sugarcane and pineapple backbone of Hawaii, Ewa today sports a new crop: suburban houses stretching to the sea. But let your eye wander west to the Waianae Range and Mount Kaala, at 4,020 feet the highest summit on Oahu; 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 Oahu: The Waianae Coast
The west coast of Oahu 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 Marriott and Disney hotel, pricey resort restaurants, golf course, marina, and wedding chapel, should you want to get hitched. The funky west-coast villages of Nanakuli, Waianae, and Makaha are the last stands of native Hawaiians. This side of Oahu is seldom visited, except by surfers bound for Yokohama Bay and those coming to see needle-nose Kaena Point (the island’s westernmost outpost), which has a coastal wilderness park.