The myriad activities in Waikiki are obvious, from people watching to surfing on perfect waves, outrigger canoeing in the surf, catamaran rides, and world-class shopping on Kalakaua Ave. After a couple of days unwinding on the beach you might be ready to avail yourself of the many other charms the island of O’ahu in Hawaii has to offer. To get some exercise we explore the delights of hiking through tropical wonderlands. To expand our cultural horizons we visit museums or take in a traditional hula performance downtown. To get away from the bustling activity of Waikiki we head out to the laid back North Shore. We usually eschew use of a car for in-town activities, opting instead for ambulation, public transportation or rideshare/taxi, except when we strike out for the North Shore, when we rent a car from one of the many inexpensive purveyors in Waikiki.
UPDATED in 2020
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
Visiting the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a must-see for many visitors to the island for the first time. The memorial commemorates the 1,177 sailors and marines who were killed when the USS Battleship Arizona was bombed in 1941. The memorial is located on top of the still-submerged ship.
USS Arizona Memorial
(US Navy photo, by PH3AW-SW-JAYME-PASTORIC-USN_2)
The Visitor Center and museums are free. Tickets are available at the door or may be reserved ahead of time at Recreation.gov. Reservations are recommended. Other park service programs and independent tours are available for a fee.
If you are active duty, retired, reserve, national guard or a DOD civilian you can take advantage of the The Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMPACFLT) Admirals Boathouse guided tour. For information and reservations, call (808) 471-9988.
Founded in 1889 by Charles Bishop, husband of Princess Pauahi who wamems the last descendent of the royal Kamehameha lineage, the Bishop Museum houses the largest collection of cultural artifacts from Hawaii and the Pacific, numbering over 24 million items. Central to the museum’s collection is the Princess’ set of artifacts, family heirlooms, ceremonial spears and art. The Hawaiian Hall, newly restored in 2009, features three floors of artifacts demonstrating pre-contact life, Hawaiian history and the importance of nature in daily life. The Polynesian Hall showcases the strands of history that link Hawaii with distant neighbors scattered across the Pacific, including their Polynesian origins. The museum hosts hula and Hawaiian music performances on the expansive lawn. A planetarium and interactive science center is also located on the grounds.
To get to the Bishop Museum take Bus #2, or check the website for driving directions.
We are fortunate to have friends in Honolulu who regularly perform hula and have expanded our appreciation for this ancient art form. Our friends’ two sons, in fact, won the prestigious Merrie Monarch hula competition in 2007 with the I Ka Wekiu halau (club), beating many teams from the islands and the mainland. My favorite style is the men’s traditional style, characterized by chanting in the Hawaiian language, lack of musical instruments, and costumes reflective of the past, such as skirts made of ti leaves. The primal, fierce masculinity of the warrior dances is balanced by the grace and unison of the dancers as they represent ancient stories of the Hawaiian people.
I also enjoy the modern style, which allows musical accompaniment, usually with modest costumes imposed by the conservative missionaries, with full length skirts, long sleeves and high necks for the women, long pants and shirts for the men. Many of the Waikiki hotels feature hula dancing, some of it authentic, but often performed by just one or two dancers. Hula is most often a group activity, though there may be soloists within a performance, and to see twenty or more performers dancing in unison is a moving experience. Hula performances can often be seen at the Hawaii Theatre Center, a grand old historic theater built in 1922. Check the Hawaii Theatre website for listings, and you’re likely to find a hula performance listed. If you’re there for a short time don’t worry about the details, just go. We’ve seen high school performances that took our breath away, and variety shows combining hula and Hawaiian musical performances that made us feel like we were part of a giant extended family, one tied together with bonds of appreciation for art forms that are keeping the Hawaiian language and culture alive. If you get really hooked, do a web search in your local area and you may be surprised to find hula halaus in your area performing, especially along the West coast of the U.S. The year we attended Merrie Monarch, the Academy of Hawaiian Arts Academy from Oakland, CA was the hands-down crowd favorite with their audacious hybrid of hula and street-smart modern dance. A number of hula festivals are held during the summer (see below), and Merrie Monarch is held annually in Hilo on the Big Island.
To get to the Hawaii Theatre Center, located at Bethel St. between Hotel and Pauahi Sts., take The Bus #2 or 13 from Waikiki, or check the website for driving directions.
The Windward side of the island is home to Kailua and Lanikai Beaches. The quiet waters and shallow bays protected by an extensive offshore reef offer excellent kayaking and snorkeling. Guided and self-guided tours and kayak rentals are available from several locations in Kailua including Kailua Sailboard and Kayak. There are six protected islands and a bird sanctuary that offer kayaking destinations with secluded pools, remote beaches, and plentiful wildlife observation from seabirds to turtles, albatross, dolphins and tropical fish. We have rented kayaks on several occasions to paddle over to Lanikai Beach or over to one of the other islands, and have enjoyed the crystal clear waters and shallow reefs.
To get to the Windward side of the island, check the Kailua Sailboard and Kayak website for driving directions over the Pali Highway from Waikiki and other points, as well as bus routes. The bus could take up to two hours and a 15 minute walk, so driving is recommended.
The rugged West coast of O’ahu can be best appreciated by boat, and a favorite boating activity of ours is an excursion from Ocean Joy Cruises based near Ko’olina. The Kai’Oli’Oli is a fast and stable power catamaran They provide pick-up from Waikiki hotels, or if you have a car it’s a 30 minute (depending on traffic) drive out to Ko’olina Marina from Waikiki. The catamaran cruises along the less developed Wainai coast, where you can spot spinner dolphins and flying fish, seeing a bit of history as you pass the notch in the rugged mountains where the Japanese flew undetected to drop their bombs on Pearl Harbor in World War II. The boat stops for an hour to snorkel in the warm waters, getting up close and personal with the sea turtles that ply the waters, but this isn’t the best snorkeling place on the island. We enjoy this cruise for the boating aspect more than the snorkeling, and to see an unspoiled side of the island that doesn’t get as much exposure. In the winter months the mountains shine a brilliant green against the blue sky. Lunch is provided and it’s a very pleasant way to spend the day.
To get there, pick-up is provided from Waikiki hotels, or get driving directions to Ko’Olina Marina from their website.
Diamond Head is a popular hike that is located a short bus ride or long walk from Waikiki. It is a strenuous walk up many stairs but the views are worth it.
Harold L. Lyon Arboretum
We often like to combine the Manoa Falls hike with a visit to the lovely grounds of the Lyon Arboretum, located adjacent to the trailhead. This garden showcases an extensive display of native and introduced flora. Established in 1918 by the Sugar Growers Association to test tree species and identify plants of economic value, it was acquired by the University of Hawaii in 1953. Today native Hawaiian species are emphasized, including collections of palms, ginger, ti and taro. A stroll around the paths of the arboretum is an agreeable way to conclude a hike to Manoa Falls.
To get to the Lyon Arboretum, see directions above for Manoa Falls.
Hanauma Bay State Park is one of the those locations a travel writer can get conflicted about. It’s a beautiful bay for snorkeling but is so popular that the magic has been diminished. I’ll mention it here because it feels odd to leave it out. Go there if you are intrigued by the snorkeling and then consider finding other places to snorkel. I prefer to go to Shark’s Cove in the North Shore (summer only; winter currents bring big waves to the North Shore in winter) to snorkel.
There are so many activities do to in O’ahu that you won’t be able to fit them all into one trip. Time to plan your next trip.
See other Hawaii articles at Inga’s Adventures