Oahu is Hawaii’s most visited island (largely because it’s home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, and its major tourist hub, Waikiki). Waikiki (a beachfront neighborhood in Honolulu) is home to about 95% of the island’s hotel rooms, so by default, it’s where most tourists end up. Waikiki is basically a big city on the beach. Think endless high rises, flashy shopping centers, all the major chain restaurants, and a million people. All of the major hotel chains are represented as well as plenty of budget options and even trendy new boutique hotels.
And then there’s the rest of the island. So the big question is…to stay in Waikiki or not?
Why You Might Like Waikiki
So…if it’s so crowded, why do people stay there? Simple. It’s Hawaii’s oldest resort area (the Moana Surfrider was built in 1901), and people have been flocking there ever since. It’s also a really beautiful beach with stunning views of Diamond Head in the background. Most people who have never been to Hawaii end up in Waikiki, usually because flights to Honolulu are cheaper than the other islands, and because they’ve heard of it. They think, “it’s popular for a reason…it must be where you’re supposed to go.”
Here are a few more reasons why people like staying in Waikiki:
- You can find cheap hotels. Just like any major city, the more hotel rooms there are, the more competitive prices are.
- You don’t need a car. Shuttles are a dime a dozen from the Honolulu airport to Waikiki and most visitors just stay in Waikiki/Honolulu and don’t venture out to the rest of the island.
- Waikiki is pretty densely populated with attractions (museums, historic and cultural sites, the zoo and aquarium, etc.) so most of it’s easily walkable.
- There’s a good (and reasonably priced) trolley system around Honolulu/Waikiki and Oahu has a decent public bus system for getting around to some of the major tourist attractions.
- There’s a LOT of shopping. From luxury designer brands at the Ala Moana to major chain stores at the Royal Hawaiian Center, to cheap souvenir outlets everywhere, Waikiki is a shopper’s paradise.
- There are a ton of restaurants. You’ll find major chains (Cheesecake Factory, Hard Rock Café, etc.) and pricey resort restaurants as well as local joints (as you venture away from Waikiki into Honolulu).
Why You Might NOT Like Waikiki
Now, a few reasons you may not like Waikiki:
- It’s very crowded. On the beach, you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with fellow sun worshipers.
- There’s soooo much traffic! Even if you have a car and you’re willing to get out and explore, expect a headache getting around.
- There’s so much to see on the island besides Waikiki (the truly beautiful parts!) and getting around by bus isn’t too convenient.
- If you do rent a car, many Waikiki resorts charge as much as $40/day to park it.
- You may come home feeling like you’ve had more of a city vacation instead of an island vacation.
Waikiki Resorts & Hotels
If you’re going to stay in Waikiki, here’s where I recommend:
Fancy Beach Resorts: My personal favorite is the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (also know as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”) because it’s so chic and iconic. The Moana Surfrider is another great historic option and the Hilton Hawaiian Village feels like a city in itself.
Boutique Hotels: The Modern Honolulu is a super trendy waterfront hotel that’s not cheap, but getting increasingly popular. The Surfjack Hotel is a midpriced boutique resort that plays up 1960s Hawaiian beach culture, and the Equus Hotel is a reasonably priced equestrian themed property with a great location.
While Waikiki does have it’s charms, if you’re in search of a laid back Hawaiian beach vacation and wanting to see the island’s beauty, I think you’ll find much better places to stay on Oahu.
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So if you don’t stay in Waikiki, where should you stay? There are three major areas of the island where I suggest staying: 1) Kailua/Lanikai, 2) the north shore, and 3) Ko’olina.
Kailua and Lanikai: Located on the windward side of the island (a 20-30 minute drive east of Waikiki), Kailua is a quaint little beach town that’s been “discovered.” Among the local breakfast joints and bikini shops, you’ll find a Target and Whole Foods. Kailua Beach and Lanikai are some of the loveliest beaches in Hawaii and much less crowded than Waikiki, although it’s getting pretty crowded on the weekends. The only downside to staying on this part of the island is that you won’t find any hotels or resorts, which is part of its charm. It’s got a much more “local” vibe. If you want to stay in Kailua or Lanikai (a small beachfront neighborhood in Kailua), you’ll need to check Airbnb or VRBO for vacation rentals.
North Shore: Oahu’s famous north shore stretches all the way from Laie to Haleiwa and is what locals call “country.” You won’t find a Target or Costco up there. But you will find gorgeous beaches (only swimmable in the summer), and sleepy little surf towns. The only resort on the north shore is Turtle Bay and it’s lovely. Otherwise, you’ll be staying in a vacation rental. You’ll find a lot of options on Airbnb and VRBO. If you want to be near a town with a lot of shops and restaurants, focus your search around Haleiwa.
Ko’olina: This resort community on the west side feels a world away from Waikiki, but very much like a vacation spot instead of the more “local” Kailua and north shore. The big destination in Ko’olina is Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, which is my absolute favorite place to stay in Hawaii. Although, when I stay there, I never want to leave the resort! There’s also a Four Seasons and although it’s super swanky, I don’ think it’s on the same level as the Four Seasons on Maui or the Big Island. There’s also a Marriott Beach Club property as well as some other condos and rentals you may book on VRBO. There’s a small shopping center in Ko’olina as well as a Target and Costco in nearby Kapolei. Otherwise, Ko’olina is a little remote from the rest of the island, which could be a good thing!
P.S. This post contains some affiliate links, but don’t worry…I always tell you exactly what I think.
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