A lot of people are fine just bumming around the beach or hotel pool and booking one or two last minute excursions once they arrive, but most visitors want to get out and really explore the island. If that sounds like you, you’re going to love this post. I’m going to break down everything you need to know so you can plan the perfect Oahu itinerary! Let’s start with a quick breakdown of the island…
You need to know a little bit about how Oahu is laid out. Oahu isn’t a terribly large island, but it’s home to over a million people so TRAFFIC can make getting around take longer than you’d think. The island is broken up into a few different areas:
Waikiki & Honolulu: Honolulu is the major city on Oahu (and the state capitol). Waikiki is a beachfront neighborhood IN Honolulu that’s home to about 95% of the island’s hotel rooms. It’s Hawaii’s oldest resort area (the Moana Surfrider was built in 1901), and people have been flocking there ever since. Pretty much everything in Waikiki is within just a few blocks of the beach and it’s a gorgeous one. The view of Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head in the background is probably the most iconic image of Hawaii.
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.
Kailua & the Windward Coast: Located on the east 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. It’s got a much more “local” vibe.
Ko’olina & the West Side: 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. There are a few large resorts, a golf course, marina, and a small shopping center with some restaurants (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!
RELATED: Not very familiar with Oahu? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and where to stay and my favorite condos, luxury resorts, boutique hotels and a Guide to Ko’olina plus a review of my stay at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa.
Before I get into what I would suggest for an Oahu itinerary, I’ll address a few common questions I get:
How many days on Oahu? I rarely ever suggest spending less than one full week on any one Hawaiian island and Oahu is no exception. If you’re wanting to explore the island and still feel like you’ve had a relaxing vacation, you’ll want at least 6 full days. And of course, more is always better ; )
Stay in one place or move around the island? When trying to decide where to stay, it pretty much comes down to Waikiki or…everywhere else. So a lot of people think it might be a good idea to spend part of the trip in Waikiki and part of the trip somewhere else to see another part of the island. Generally, I don’t think it is. Even on the same island, packing up and switching resorts just takes up so much time that I don’t think it’s worth saving an extra 30 minutes in the car every day to go out exploring.
BUT…here’s when I do recommend splitting your stay: if you want to stay at a nice beach resort for a little R&R, but it’s not in the budget to spend your entire vacation there. One of my favorite ways to split a trip to Hawaii is by spending the first 3-4 nights in a condo/cheaper hotel near where I want to do the bulk of my exploring and then switching to a fancy beach resort for the last 3-4 nights to do absolutely nothing. It’s a good way to save money and also not feel guilty about spending $$$ on a resort while you’re out exploring the island. On Oahu, I would spend the first part of the trip staying in Waikiki (and touring the island) and then move over to a nice resort in Ko’olina for some serious lounging.
What about visiting multiple islands in one trip? Go for it! I still recommend at least one week per island, but there are some exceptions. If there’s something you REALLY want to see or do (i.e. the volcano, etc) you could justify spending only a couple days on that island in addition to another island, but usually when people try to spend 3-4 days per island and hop around a lot they end up seeing more of the airports or just the super touristy parts of each island.
Stay in Waikiki or not? I have a love-hate relationship with Waikiki and most people tend to feel the same way (they either love it or hate it) so this one is really a personal opinion. I’ve gone in depth about the pros and cons of staying in Waikiki here.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
What are the “must dos” on Oahu?
I could give you a list of 100 things you absolutely don’t want to miss on Oahu (and you’ll find plenty of lists like that on this blog), but I’m going to keep it short and sweet here because nobody has time to do that many things on vacation. You can go to ANY Hawaiian island and find beautiful beaches and fun adventures like snorkeling, surfing, paddleboarding, horseback riding, tennis, golf, zipling, etc. You know. There are so many things to do that while 100% amazing, you’ll find some version of it on every island. So here I’m going to list out the things that are unique to Oahu that I think you absolutely shouldn’t miss. This should help you out whether you’re spending 7+ days on Oahu or you’ve only got 3-4 days.
Pearl Harbor: For me…I don’t think you can come to Oahu and not visit Pearl Harbor. But when I’m asked about it, I usually tell people…you know if it’s a “must do” for you or not. Some people have it on their short list (hi, me!) but I also have friends who have been to Oahu many times and never visited Pearl Harbor. The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is the true highlight but there are plenty of other things to tour as well including three museums, the USS Missouri and the USS Bowfin.
North Shore: If you’re visiting Oahu in the winter months, you’ll witness some of the world’s best surfers taking on the world’s biggest waves on the north shore. December brings the Triple Crown of Surfing to Oahu which is super cool to see in person, but be prepared for crowds if you plan to go out to watch the tournaments. No matter what time of year, you’ll want to visit Haleiwa town (Matsumoto shave ice!), Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay, Laniakea Beach (turtles!) and hit the famous shrimp food trucks in Kahuku.
Iconic Waikiki: 90% of visitors end up staying in Waikiki, but even if you’re not, it’s something to be experienced for sure. Plan on dinner and drinks timed to see the sunset. Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki is THE most iconic place to have a meal and mai tais on Waikiki and you can’t beat the views, but I also love House without a Key at the Halekulani. Additionally, you’ve got to see the Royal Hawaiian (the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”). You’ll find the best shopping at the Ala Moana Center, and if you enjoy history and Hawaiian culture, make plans to tour the Iolani Palace.
Kailua & Lanikai Beach: Two of the prettiest beaches in Hawaii are right next to each other on the windward side of the island. Kailua Beach is easier accessed than Lanikai (parking is tricky) and it has access to food at the Kalapawai Market and you can even rent kayaks and paddleboards nearby. If you’re at all active, I would say hiking the Lanikai Pillbox trail is an absolute must. Hit it early and then relax at the beach.
Hike Diamond Head: The view of Diamond Head from Waikiki Beach has got to be the most iconic view in Hawaii, but the view from the top of Diamond Head over Waikiki and Honolulu is pretty spectacular too. It’s not a difficult hike (you can make it to the top in about half an hour) and it’s a well worn traveled trail but there are quite a few stairs once you reach the top and it is a fairly good climb. Check the hours and days before you go because access has been limited lately. $5/person for walkins. $10 parking. Cash only.
Drive the Windward Coast: This is one of the prettiest drives in Hawaii. If you’re staying in Waikiki, drive around the south side of the island and head up the east side (the windward side). You’ll pass Hanauma Bay (one of the most popular snorkeling spots in Hawaii and worth stopping for the overlook even if you’re not snorkeling), Koko Head Crater (a fairly strenuous hike), the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse trail (totally paved-great views!), the Halona Blowhole, Waimanalo (beautiful beaches) and then into Kailua.
From Kailua up to the north shore you’ll pass endless beaches and the Koolau Mountains make a stunning backdrop. Kualoa State Park is a must stop (Kualoa Ranch here is where you can take the famous movie tours plus go ziplining, horseback riding, ride ATVs, etc) and in Laie you’ll find the Polynesian Cultural Center. Obviously, you can’t stop and do all of that in one day, but the drive alone is 100% worth it.
How to Plan the Best Oahu Itinerary
So let’s talk about planning YOUR perfect itinerary…
Know your vacation style. How you like to vacation will have a huge impact on how you plan your trip and how much you’ll be able to see and do. So what exactly is a “vacation style?” Well, simply put, it’s how you like to spend your vacation!
Are you the type that’s up with the sun and out about adventuring all day only to return to your room to shower and sleep? Are you the type who enjoys spending the majority of your time hanging out at your beach resort? Or do you like a bit of both?
Everyone has a different idea of vacation so the first thing you’ll have to do is decide which suits you best. Are you always on the go, do you spend most of your time beach bumming, or do you do a combo of both? Part of your decision will be based on your personality and likely part will be based on where you’re staying.
For me personally, when I’m staying in a condo or budget hotel, I’m more likely to be out and about everyday, but when I’m staying at a nice beach resort, I’m more inclined to spend time lounging by the pool or on the beach. If you’re the type who’s always on the go, you’ll be able to see a lot of the island. If you want beach time too, I recommend renting beach gear (chairs, umbrella, snorkels, cooler, etc.) for the length of your stay and throwing them in the car so you’ll have them wherever you end up.
If you’re staying at a nice beach resort, I would suggest planning a different activity each morning and spending each afternoon at the resort. Or you may decide to split your trip up like I mentioned earlier and do the bulk of your exploring while you’re staying in a condo or vacation rental and then move to a nice beach resort when you’re ready to just relax.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Oahu
Come up with a game plan, but don’t overplan! If I could only give you one piece of advice about planning your trip to Hawaii, this would be it. I know…it costs a lot of money to get to Hawaii (and it’s so far away). For a lot of people, it’s a once in a lifetime trip and of course you want to see absolutely EVERYTHING. But trying to cram it all into one trip will likely leave you feeling like you spent your whole trip in the car (or in airports) and now need a rest from your vacation upon returning home.
Here’s how I always lay out my trips:
As I’m researching my destination (yes, I do a LOT of research), I keep a running list of things I want to do, places I want to visit, restaurants I want to eat at, shops I want to go to, etc. From my main list, I break it down into three categories:
A “don’t miss” list: This could be anything from visiting Pearl Harbor to snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. These are the things that you ABSOLUTELY have to see/do or you’ll return home heartbroken. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but you get my point.
A “nice to see” list: These are things that you really want to see and experience, but they might be a little more minor. For example, seeing the surfers on the north shore or having mai tais at the Royal Hawaiian. These are just examples, obviously, what might be a “nice to see” for somebody may be a “don’t miss” for you.
An “if there’s time” list: I think you can guess what this list is for. Things that you’d like to see or do if there’s time, but won’t be upset about if you miss.
As you lay out each day, plan ONE thing from your “don’t miss” list each day. Combine it with one or two things from your “nice to see” list, and a smattering of things from your “if there’s time” list. Prioritize your “don’t miss” item every day (whether it’s doing it first thing or making sure you have a reservation for it) and fill in the rest of the day with things from the other categories.
Get familiar with Google Maps. Once you have your lists of activities and things to do, the best way to sort them into days is by their location on the island. Many people underestimate how big Oahu is and due to a lack of direct roads (plus traffic) it can take quite a while to get around. So don’t waste time crisscrossing all over the island, and try to plan each day’s activities on one part of the island.
My favorite way to start sorting activities and sites into days is by using a Google Maps. Plot all of your locations on a Google Map and then you’ll be able to see which ones are near each other and start planning your days that way. Of course, this can also be done on a paper map, but on a Google Map, you can create layers for different days or different types of activities and sites and organize things that way.
While generally speaking, focusing your day on only one part of the island is the most efficient strategy, there are some times when this doesn’t make sense. The major scenario where this doesn’t work is when you’re staying at a nice beach resort that you want to spend a lot of time at. In this case, I would plan a morning’s worth of activities on one part of the island, return to your resort for an afternoon of playing on the beach or at the pool, and then don’t be afraid to venture back out somewhere for dinner.
Be flexible. I think this tip is the secret to making a good vacation great! It’s so simple, yet key to really having the best experience in Hawaii. I think that a good plan is essential, but you have to know when it’s time to go to plan B. Or do something else entirely.
The major thing you’ll have to be flexible about in Hawaii is the weather. While the temperature is always pretty balmy, a good rainstorm can change your plans pretty quick! A word of warning: it’s not unusual for a 10-14 day forecast to predict rain everyday in Hawaii so don’t panic and think your trip is going to be a total wash! It’ll likely just be quick storms that roll in and roll out. But for days where the local forecast truly is predicting rain, you might have to mix things up!
One good thing about the Hawaiian Islands is that they’re pretty large so except in the case of a major storm system, the weather will likely be different on different sides of the island. Check the weather forecast the night before (or morning of) and you may decide to rearrange your days based on the weather. Obviously this may not work if you have activities or tours booked, but otherwise, don’t be afraid to swap out days in your itinerary to go chasing the sunshine!
The Best Oahu Itinerary
Okay, let’s get to some recommendations…instead of putting together an entire 6+ day itinerary, I’m going to lay out a bunch of different daily itineraries so you can pick and choose what interests you and put together your own weekly itinerary (or however many days you have to spend).
These days aren’t listed in any particular order however, as a general rule of thumb, I like to schedule any activities/tours that are contingent on the weather for the first part of the trip or the middle so if it gets cancelled you have room to reschedule.
Most flights from the US mainland arrive midday which is great because you’ll have plenty of time to get situated and have a good dinner, but I wouldn’t make any big plans (air travel is so unreliable these days!).
Plan to check in, get settled, and spend whatever time is left in the day at the pool or beach near where you’re staying. Check out this post for recommendations on places to eat.
Day 1: Diamond Head and Waikiki
Hike iconic Diamond Head and spend the day hanging out in Waikiki.
Get started bright and early (just grab a quick snack for breakfast), and head to Diamond Head before it gets hot. Diamond Head is the extinct volcano that makes such a gorgeous backdrop for Waikiki. If you’re driving, it’s $5/car to cark (if there’s room-another reason to get there early). If you’re walking in (the Waikiki trolley system extends down to Diamond Head), it’s $1/person. The hike takes 30 minutes to the top if you’re climbing steadily. There’s a monster staircase at the top before you finally reach the summit for mentally prepare yourself. The entire hike takes me about an hour round-trip, but I’m not much of a lollygagger ; )
After your morning at Diamond Head, (and it may only be 9 or 10 depending on how early you got started), head back to your hotel if you’re staying on Waikiki and take advantage of their beach amenities. If you’re not staying on the beach, Kuhio beach is a nice spot if you want to be in the thick of it.
You could also do a bit of resort hopping. The Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider are absolutely worth seeing. The Royal Hawaiian is often called the “Pink Palace of the Pacific” and you’ll feel like you’re stepping back into the 1960s. Have a drink at Mai Tai Bar, and check out the shops in the lobby. The lobby is seriously incredible.
If you’re interested and the days work out, there’s also a free tour of the property offered on Tuesday and Thursday at 1PM. It meets by the Royal Hawaiian Bakery. Even if you’re not staying there, you’re more than free to go in and look around, shop, eat, etc. Just stay out of the pool! You should also stop by the Moana Surfrider. It’s the oldest hotel in Waikiki and it’s a great spot to sit on the verandah and have a drink.
For dinner, make reservations at House without a Key before sunset. There’s live music every night and you’ll be treated to stunning views of Diamond Head in the distance.
Read more about things to do in Waikiki and Honolulu here.
Day 2: Pearl Harbor & Honolulu
After breakfast, head out to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Arizona Memorial. The visitor center, two museums, and USS Arizona Memorial are free and open at 7 AM (and close at 5PM), but the first tour isn’t until 7:45 AM. While it’s free, you do have to have a ticket. Only 1,300 tickets are given out daily and once they’re gone, they’re gone. You can reserve tickets online in advance (for a small processing fee), through the National Park Service, but some are reserved to be handed out the day of. If you get there early, you won’t have a hard time getting a ticket (if you missed out on reserving them in advance), but if you show up later, your tour time may not be for several hours.
Plan to spend a couple of hours here to tour the USS Arizona Memorial and see the two free museums. Plan longer if you’re interested in touring the Missouri Battleship, the Bowfin Submarine, and the Museum of Aviation in the Pacific (all of which are paid experiences). If you prefer to book a tour, you can book a good one here.
Head back to Waikiki and stop for a plate lunch at the famous Rainbow Drive-In or Helena’s Hawaiian Foods depending on where you’re going next.
You could spend the day soaking up rays on the beach, but if you’d like to see something of cultural value, I highly recommend touring either the Iolani Palace or the Bishop Museum. The official residence of Hawaii’s monarchy, Iolani Palace is close to the center of Waikiki so it’s more accessible if you’re staying there. There are guided and self-guided tours are available.
The Bishop Museum is really one of Oahu’s hidden gems (it’s not hidden by any means, it’s quite highly acclaimed, but it doesn’t receive the attention that other attractions do). The Bishop Museum is an exquisite collection of artifacts with exhibits that masterfully tell the story of the history and culture of the Hawaiian (and Polynesian) people. The price is a deterrent for some ($22.95/adult) and the entrance buildings make it seem doubtful that anything of value exists beyond, but the Hawaiian Hall and Polynesian Hall are real treasures. There’s also a science center (with an amazing exhibit on volcanoes) and a planetarium that are worth checking out. It’s $5 to park in the Bishop Museum lot so a lot of people park on the street.
It’s deeper in Honolulu so you’ll need to drive, but that means you can stop by Helena’s Hawaiian Foods for a truly authentic meal. This is truly a local spot, but they’re soooo friendly to visitors. Parking is tricky, and it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s so worth it.
If you get an early start at Pearl Harbor, it’s possible to do both the Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum.
Day 3: South Side Adventure
Start your day off bright and early with a sunrise hike at Koko Head Crater. If you don’t make it for sunrise, still go early (like 6AM) because it gets hot, hot, hot. It’s a challenging hike, about 1000 steps straight up railroad ties to the top, but the views are incredible.
After all of those steps, backtrack to the Koko Head Marina shopping center to see if Leonard’s food truck is parked there. Their malasadas (Portuguese style donuts) are the best on the island (or at least the most famous). If you want a more substantial breakfast, stop at Koko Head Café.
Next, head to Hanauma Bay for some snorkeling. Note: It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so you may need to shuffle your days around to accommodate this. The nature preserve is open from 6:45AM-4PM (but the last entry is at 2PM and the beach closes at 3PM) and limited to 720 guests per day (120 per hour). Entry is $12/adult (locals and kids under 12 are free). There are currently no equipment rentals available and the snack bar and gift shop are closed. You’ll also want to monitor conditions close to your trip as it has been known to close spur of the moment due to jellyfish (which sometimes has to do with the tides and moon phases and other times just seems random). Needless to say, snorkeling here can be hit or miss due to conditions, but it truly is a special place.
When you’re done with Hanauma Bay, continue on to the Halona Blowhole. It just takes a couple minutes to park and take a look, but since you’re already over here, you might as well.
Next you’ve got to see the view from the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail. Parking is limited in the lot at the trailhead (you can see it from the road), so you may have to park along the road and walk down. It’s a 2-mile round-trip hike to the top and back and it’s all paved. I did this in flip-flops, although I wouldn’t really recommend it. It’s an easy enough hike, but a pretty good incline going up. The hike only takes about an hour, but bring plenty of water, especially since it will be afternoon.
After a day of snorkeling and hiking, you deserve a drink and some dinner. Either stop at Kona Brewing Company at the Koko Head Marina or head back into Waikiki.
Also, if besides Hanauma Bay, you want to squeeze in some more beach time to this day, Sandy Beach is a great spot to watch boogie boarders (not so good for swimming through) and Waimanalo Beach Park is beautiful.
Day 4: Kailua & Lanikai
Head over to Hawaii’s biggest little beach town and spend the day at the world’s most beautiful beach.
Kailua has some rather famous breakfast spots. Cinnamon’s is pretty buzz worthy, but I love Moke’s Bread and Breakfast. They have the BEST lilikoi pancakes ever.
Work off that breakfast by hiking to the Lanikai Pillboxes. These old concrete military bunkers have been painted and graffitied over the years, and the view from up at the first one is outstanding. The trailhead is on Kaelepulu Drive in Lanikai. All of the parking is on the street. This hike took me about an hour up and back, but you really have to scramble in some places. This is my favorite hike on Oahu. It’s pretty short with a big payoff.
When you’re finished hiking, bum around Lanikai and Kailua beach for the rest of the day. Lanikai is regularly ranked as one of the best beaches in the world. There are no amenities and parking is tricky, but you’ve got to at least see it. Weekdays are pretty quiet, but weekends can get pretty crowded.
Neighboring Kailua beach is just as beautiful, a bit more crowded, but way more accessible and convenient. It’s easy to rent kayaks or paddleboards around Kailua beach, and if you’re looking for a low key lunch spot, Kalapawai Deli is right on the beach and has great sandwiches. It’s also a little general store and good place to stock up on snacks and drinks. And nearby Island Snow is one of the best spots for shave ice on the island.
For a fun adventure, book this tour that kayaks out to the Mokulua Islands (the “Mokes”) off Lanikai Beach.
Kailua is also a great place to shop. When you’re done with the beach, stop by Guava Shop and Bikini Bird on Hekili Street. That whole street is packed with cute boutiques.
For a nice (but Hawaii casual) dinner, go to Haleiwa Joe’s in Kaneohe (not he one in Haleiwa!). They don’t take reservations, and there can be a wait to get a table, but the setting is so lovely. If you have a small group, you can sit in the bar area.
Read my full guide to the Kailua/windward area here.
Day 5: Windward Side Adventure
Get ready to see the prettiest part of Oahu today!
When you’re ready to hit the road, take the H3 over towards Kailua/Kaneohe and head up the windward side. This is one of my favorite drives on Oahu.
Stop at Kahana Bay to take in the beauty of the mountains and the beach. In this area you’ll find one of the most stunning hikes on Oahu, Crouching Lion. It’s been officially closed, but it’s still quite a popular little hike. GO AT YOUR OWN RISK. Parking is at Swanzy Beach Park. From there, walk north up Huamalani Road to the trailhead. I recommend only going as far as the first mini summit (less than half a mile) as it gets pretty dicey past that. It’ll only take you 30-45 minutes to get to the top, but it’s a pretty steep incline. You’ll be rewarded with the best views of Kahana Bay and the mountains in the background. Don’t go if it’s been raining and even then plan to get dusty/muddy.
If you opt out of Crouching Lion, I recommend starting the day hiking to Maunawili Falls instead. You’ll pick up the trailhead in a residential area and from where you park it’s about two miles to the falls. It’s not a particularly challenging hike, but it is a beautiful trail ending at a waterfall in a swimmable pool.
After your hike, continue north on Kamehameha Highway until you reach Kualoa park. You’ll get amazing views of the mountain range plus Chinaman’s Hat offshore.
You should make afternoon reservations for an adventure at Kualoa Ranch. This famous ranch has been the backdrop for so many Hollywood films including Jurassic Park. They offer horseback riding, ziplining, and movie tours, but my favorite is the two-hour ATV tour.
If you’re not interested in any activities at Kualoa Ranch, make plans to kayak out to Chinaman’s hat and hike to the top. It’s not an adventure for beginners, and you’d have to rent a kayak elsewhere and bring it out. If you’re interested in this adventure, I’d book a guided tour with Tim’s Tours.
When you’re done at Kualoa Ranch, you could backtrack and head back to town, or continue heading to the north shore. You’ll pass Laie where the Polynesian Cultural Center is located and Kahuku where all of the food trucks are.
Day 6: North Shore
If you’re staying in Waikiki, head up the H2 to Haleiwa town.
Make Kono’s Restaurant in Haleiwa your first stop. Fuel up with a big, hearty breakfast as this is going to be a big day of adventuring. The smoothie bowls at Haleiwa Bowls are also legendary (as well as WowWow Lemonade). Matsumoto’s has some of the best shave ice on the island and the north shore is famous for its food trucks (the shrimp scampi at Giovanni’s is amazing), but if you’re not ready for lunch yet, don’t worry, there are a lot of trucks in Kahuku also. Most of the shops in Haleiwa don’t open until 10 AM, but many are worth going in. I especially love Guava Shop and Clark Little’s Gallery.
A few miles down the road you’ll come to Laniakea Beach, which is a great spot to see honu (green Hawaiian sea turtles). There’s a bit of parking across the street, but you’ll probably have to park along the road. Plan to spend 20-30 minutes here admiring the turtles (but don’t get too close!).
Next you’ll come to legendary Waimea Bay. It’s a gorgeous swimming and snorkeling (and rock jumping) spot in the summer, but it’s one of the biggest surfable waves in Hawaii in the winter. When the surf’s breaking, there’s nothing like watching the surfers here, but expect a huge crowd and a long walk from your car.
If you’d like to see a waterfall, Waimea Falls is pretty convenient. Park at Waimea Valley and it’s a one mile hike down a leisurely path through a botanical garden to the falls. There are also usually some cultural activities and educational workshops going on. $16.95 for adults and $8.95 for children.
Just down the road you’ll find Sharks Cove, which is an excellent snorkeling spot in the summer. It’s definitely worth a stop (bring your own gear!), if you can find a parking spot.
Next up you’ll come to Sunset Beach, which is probably the most famous beach on the north shore. It’s golden, wide, and beautiful. The Bonzai Pipeline surf break is offshore along this stretch of beach. Expect is to be packed in the winter as it’s one of Oahu’s best surf sites (and home to the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing competition).
Right after you pass Sunset Beach, you’ll find Ted’s Bakery. They’re famous for their chocolate haupia (coconut) pie. Stop in for a piece or get some to go. The last spot you’ll come to on the north shore is Kahuku where you’ll find a lot of food trucks. Giovanni’s has a truck here, which is probably the most famous. Definitely don’t miss Seven Brothers in Kahuku. They have great seafood, but also the best burgers on Oahu.
You can keep driving south to Laie, but at this point, I recommend turning around and returning to Haleiwa for dinner at Haleiwa Beach House (make reservations).
Read my full guide to Oahu’s north shore here.
Day 7: West Side Adventure
Drive out to the west side of Oahu to Ko’olina for a snorkel cruise that includes swimming with wild dolphins! In addition to the dolphins, the boat will also make stops at known natural turtle cleaning stations (the algae eating fish clean the turtle’s shells), and if it’s whale season you’ll be in for a special treat. Cruises leave out of the Ko’olina Marina in the morning and afternoon and can be booked here.
After your tour, head up the west side of Oahu for some turtle spotting. Makua Beach and Electric Beach are the two best spots for spotting turtles in the wild. Makua Beach is lovely with a beautiful background of lush green mountains. Electric Beach (officially called Kahe Point) isn’t so lovely above the surface. It’s called Electric Beach because it’s located next to a power plant. But the snorkeling/sea life is phenomenal here. Take your own gear and monitor conditions before you get in the water. If it looks rough, don’t go out.
You’ll come to Electric Beach (Kahe Beach Park) first, just a short ways from Ko’olina.
When you’re done snorkeling at Electric Beach, keep heading up the road to the Mermaid Caves.
I feel like I need to mention the Mermaid Caves (Tunnels) here, because they’re a popular spot for a lot of adventurers, but I don’t necessarily recommend going down into the cave. If you’re there at low tide on a calm day and there are plenty of other people around, you might want to attempt it. But it makes me nervous going down into a wet cave. You’ll find it at Nanakuli Beach Park. You’ll want water shoes as you have to cross lava rock to get to the opening. Once you find the opening, you jump down into the sand below. The trick is getting back out. You have to be able to pull yourself back up through the opening. Like I said, only attempt if the conditions are just right and there are others around that could help out in case of an emergency. It’s quite a site to see though.
Continuing north from the Mermaid Caves you’ll come to Makua Beach. These beaches are less frequented by tourists than other beaches. The entire west side is less frequented actually. These are “local” beaches and while it’s perfectly safe and starting to attract more “adventurous tourists,” just be mindful of your surroundings and particularly respectful.
If you’re a real adventurer, keep on going until you come to the end of the road. The Kaena Point Trail is dry, rugged, and pretty isolated. There just aren’t too many people that make it out there. It’s mostly because the road doesn’t connect around the island. The trail goes about 2.5 miles out and it offers great views of the coast, but it’s very arid so bring plenty of water. The tide pools below may look enticing, but it’s just so isolated that I recommend staying out of the water. If anything should happen, there’s just no one around to help.
And once you’re finished, it’s back the way you came. End the day with dinner in Ko’olina at the Monkeypod. It’s also worth noting that if you opt out of any of the hikes/activities on this day, the Ko’olina resort area is beautiful and many locals from around the island drive over to play in the lagoons.
Read my full guide to the Ko’Olina area here.