There’s an island where the ocean folds into so many shades of blue, you’ll give up trying to identify them. Where the jungle blankets jagged mountains that begin where the deserted beaches end. And that sand? It’s so powdery that calling it sugar-like is an affront to its softness. This paradise is none other than Oahu, Hawaii; aka one of the most visited islands on the planet.
If you’re looking to uncover hidden gems in a very discovered place, to be the only one on the exquisite beaches and to eat the best food — no matter where you have to go to get it — this is the Oahu travel guide for you.
Where to Stay
Leave the crowds in Waikiki and consider renting a place in a smaller beach town. On the windward (east) side of the island, Ka′a’awa (population 1,379, as of the last census) or the bigger Kailua (population 38,635) are both beautiful, lower-key options.
The Ka’a’awa Valley on this side of the island looks so remote and tropical that it has served as a filming location for Lost, Jurassic Park and Godzilla. And yet it’s just a 40-minute drive from the throngs in Honolulu.
Everything is bigger on the North Shore — the waves, the scenery, the beaches. Everything that is, except for the crowds. Check out Mokule’ia Beach Park, a long enough stretch of sand that you may not run into anyone else. Depending on the time of year, the waves can get huge, so unless you know what you’re doing on a surf board, it’s best to stick to the sidelines.
On the leeward (west) side of the island, Keawaula Beach, with its jagged green mountain backdrop, may be the most beautiful — and secluded —in all of Oahu. Take the Farrington Highway until you find a pull-off just before the road ends at Ka’ena Point. Keawaula is the northernmost beach on the west shore, and thanks to a lack of development, you could very well have this stunning strand all to yourself.
In the Water
While 3,000 strangers are swimming into each other while snorkeling in Hanauma Bay (seriously, it averages 3,000 people per day), you can be snorkeling with dolphins along the Wai’anae Coast. Most visitors to Oahu never come to the leeward side of the island, as it’s much less populated and the road doesn’t go all the way around. Once you see the unspoiled beauty of this side, though, you will be very grateful that most people stay away.
Eō Wai’anae Tours promises dolphins on their catamaran snorkel excursions, and, sure enough, you really will be swimming with a pod of wild dolphins, which call this side of the island home. Just try not to swim into a family of Flippers while lost in awe of their cuteness.
Take a Hike
The road heading up the leeward side of Oahu dead-ends at the Ka’ena Point Trail. Hike along the rocky coast to the western tip of the island, where you’ll join the Hawaiian seabirds and endangered monk seals. This out-and-back 4.8-mile hike gets incredibly hot and dry, so bring lots of water and sunscreen.
For lusher scenery, try the 8-mile Koloa Gulch waterfall hike (not far from Laie on the windward side). Wander through the Hau’ula Valley, cross streams (you’ll definitely get wet!) and scamper over wet boulders before arriving at a gorgeous, 100-foot waterfall. Take a dive in the freshwater pool because, well, you just hiked to a Hawaiian waterfall and that’s what to do after hiking to a Hawaiian waterfall.
Where to Eat
You can’t go to the North Shore without hitting one of its exemplary shrimp trucks. Feasting on spiced crustaceans served out of trucks is as much a part of Hawaiian surf culture as riding the waves. The best is the turquoise Aloha Shrimp truck, which you’ll find parked next to a convenience store in Hau’ula. The spicy lemon garlic flavor is crave-worthy.
The best poke on the island is served out of a tiny strip mall joint in Wai’anae. Aloha Poke (yes, another “Aloha” restaurant; they don’t call it the Aloha State for nothing) knows its cubed, marinated raw fish, and the spicy and ginger shoyu varieties are awesome.
Even if you’re looking to dodge the crowds and stay out of the city, Palace Saimin is worth the trip into Honolulu. This local’s favorite has been simmering saimin — think Hawaii’s version of ramen — since 1946. Bonus: a large bowl will only set you back $5.