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Oahu sometimes gets a bad rap by people who didn’t do their research before their trip and ended up staying in Waikiki when they were expecting something totally different from Hawaii.
I’ll be honest…I have a love/hate relationship with Waikiki. I love it for what it is, but I hate it for how a lot of first time visitors assume it’s “Hawaii.”
Here’s the deal, yes Waikiki is often marketed as an island oasis, but it’s really a big city on the beach. If you don’t like Vegas or Miami, you’re probably not going to like Waikiki.
Waikiki is probably one of the most iconic beaches in the world (it is goooooorgeous), but it’s lined with high rises, it’s crowded, and it faces the same challenges that most large cities face (including a large homeless population).
I mean, there are a LOT of good things we could say about staying in Waikiki, but since you’re here reading a post about where to stay BESIDES Waikiki, I’ll assume you’re not into it.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you like), the VAST majority of places to stay on Oahu are in Waikiki.
But don’t worry! You’ve got options!
Where to Stay on Oahu Besides Waikiki
It’s a big island, but generally there are three main areas outside of Waikiki where people like to stay:
Ko Olina: A resort area on the west side of Oahu that has all of the amenities for the perfect vacation.
The North Shore: The stretch from Haleiwa to Laia along the north side of the island that’s famous for big surf, local towns, and a more “country” vibe.
Kailua & Lanikai: A residential area on the windward side (east side) that’s famous for spectacular beaches and picturesque beach towns.
Ko Olina is a resort area (luxury resorts, condos, vacation rentals) and the North Shore and Kailua/Lanikai are local areas (Airbnbs, houses, garage apartments/ohanas, etc.) although the North Shore has a big resort and condos at Turtle Bay.
After reading that little breakdown, you probably know EXACTLY where you want to stay. BUT.
But but but but.
A huge increase in illegal vacation rentals (thanks to companies like Airbnb) has really caused a major housing crisis (not just unique to the area), so the county has really cracked down on vacation rentals outside of approved tourist zones.
I’ve got a whole post about navigating the vacation rental scene on Oahu here, but basically, if a property wasn’t grandfathered in with a permit (not many are), your LEGAL vacation rental options are going to be limited to the resort areas of Ko Olina, Turtle Bay on the north shore, and Waikiki.
So good news: if you’re looking at hotels/resorts and traditional condo type accommodations in those areas then you’re a-okay.
But if you’re looking for a house or apartment/ohana type set up in Kailua/Lanikai or along the north shore (not in Turtle Bay), then you’re going to have to do your research that it’s an approved short term vacation rental with a permit (and just because it’s listed on Airbnb or Vrbo doesn’t mean it is). Again, read this post for all of the details about how to find a LEGAL vacation rental on Oahu. And here’s the list of approved short term rentals straight from the county.
Okay, so moving forward when I’m talking about the Kailua/Lanikai and north shore areas, we’re going to assume that you’re looking at legal options and not a non permitted/super risky option.
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. I have a sneaky feeling that when most people think of a Maui vacation this is the vibe they’re thinking of. Large resorts with every amenity you can think of, expertly manicured grounds, picturesque beaches that are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing, and plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance. Did I mention the faint sounds of ukulele music and palm trees blowing in the breeze? That’s pretty much Ko Olina.
There are a few large resorts (Disney’s Aulani, the Four Seasons, and Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club), a golf course, marina, and a small shopping center with some restaurants, tennis, a couple of luaus.
The town of Kapolei is also nearby which has conveniences like Target, Costco, a movie theater, a small waterpark, and quite a few restaurants.
The only downside of staying in Ko’olina is how remote it is from the rest of the island (but that honestly could be a good thing). You really don’t feel like you’re on Oahu when you’re put in Ko Olina. You definitely need a car if you’re planning to get out and explore other parts of the island. There are a couple of rental car locations at some of the resorts if you decide you just want to rent one for the day.
***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Hawaii. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. On Oahu, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Royal Hawaiian, Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Waikiki, and the Laylow.
Best Hotels in Ko’olina
If ever there was a resort made for families in Hawaii, it’s Aulani. Of course, Disney and kids go together like pb&j, but Aulani is really something special. Yes, it’s a sprawling mega resort with every kind of activity and amenity you could ask for, but the attention to detail in the architecture, design, and landscape manage to make it feel intimate and charming. I’d venture to say it’s the most “Hawaiian” resort you’ll find in Hawaii.
I’ve stayed at Aulani several times and you can read all about it here.
Check pricing here.
Nothing says luxury like the Four Seasons so if you’re looking to splurge on your honeymoon (or you just expect a high level of quality and service), you won’t be disappointed with the Four Seasons. And actually like all Four Seasons properties, it’s very kid friendly as well. It shares the same lagoon with Aulani so you’ll get double the restaurants and amenities nearby. The Four Seasons also has a great onsite tennis program (the only one in the area).
Check pricing here.
If you need a little space, but don’t want to sacrifice all of the resort amenities, you’ll love the Ko Olina Beach Club. It’s one of Marriott’s vacation club properties (but anyone can book with cash) so a lot of the rooms have multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, washer and dryer, etc. But you’ve still got the sprawling resort setup with all of the restaurants, pools, activities, etc. It’s usually a cheaper option than Aulani or the Four Seasons but it’s within walking distance to take advantage of all the fun.
Check pricing and read reviews 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.
Oahu’s North Shore
Oahu’s north shore is famous for its big waves and surf culture. Towns that are sleepy during the summer grow in size during the winter months as surfers from all over the world come to surf some of the world’s best waves. The north shore is actually home to the “triple crown” of surfing in December and January. Locals call this stretch of Oahu the “country” (as opposed to Honolulu which is “town”) and you won’t find a Target or Costco up here. But you will find gorgeous beaches (only swimmable in the summer), and picturesque little surf towns.
The north shore is probably the most popular area to stay for travelers who want to get out of Waikiki or see the “real Hawaii.” It’s not as centralized as Kailua, Lanikai, and Waimanalo on the windward side and besides a smattering of communities (most notably Haleiwa) it really does feel like the country. Chickens and horses abound.
Read about my favorite things to do on Oahu’s north shore here.
Hotelwise, there’s only a couple of places to stay on the north shore:
Best Hotels on Oahu’s North Shore
Turtle Bay is the perfect place to stay if you want the full luxury resort experience, but still want to be situated on the more local, chill side of the island. You’ll get the poolside service, spa, etc. and only be a stone’s throw from the north shore’s best beaches, snorkel spots, cute towns, and great places to eat. The location is convenient if you’re planning to spend time at Polynesian Cultural Center and Kualoa Ranch, and it’s only about 45 minutes from Waikiki.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
Located in Laie (just a quick walk to the Polynesian Cultural Center), this casual hotel is the perfect basecamp to explore the north shore on a budget.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
Kailua & Lanikai
Located on the windward side of the island (a 20-30 minute drive east of Waikiki), Kailua (and neighboring Lanikai) is a quaint little beach town that’s home to some of the prettiest beaches in Hawaii. This part of the island is one of the major areas that people “in the know” or people who like to travel more off the beaten path/more locally tend to zero in on. And for good reason. 1) the aforementioned beautiful beaches, 2) the local community feel, and 3) the escape from Waikiki.
But it’s not perfect (what ever is?). Here’s the rundown on Kailua…it’s been “discovered.” What used to be an honest to goodness local community is now slowly turning into what many locals disparagingly call a “little California.” Mixed in among the local breakfast joints and surf shops, you’ll now find a Target and Whole Foods. And building is on the rise. Now, as a visitor this isn’t likely to bother you (for me personally, having a Target and Whole Foods nearby is a huge plus), BUT it’s caused quite a bit of strain on the local community in recent years.
The rise in popularity of sites like Airbnb resulted in a lot of property being bought by wealthy folks from the mainland (or internationally) and being rented out as short term vacation rentals to visitors. In addition to creating a bit of a housing crisis (it becomes much harder for local families to afford to be able to stay in the area), it also changes the community (i.e. more businesses and amenities catered towards tourists and less towards residents).
You shouldn’t be discouraged from staying here after reading this post (presuming you find a legal rental!), BUT just be extra careful to be aware of your surroundings and know that not everyone around you is on vacation. Imagine stopping by the local market/deli to grab breakfast on your way to drop the kids off at school and not being able to park because all of the tourists have used the few spots as beach parking. It’s stuff like that that sets the local community a bit on edge sometimes. It should go without saying, but when you’re staying in a neighborhood you’re not staying in a resort and not everyone is there to cater to you on your vacation. But that’s what makes it a more local experience!
Start your search for vacation rentals in Kailua here.
Read about my favorite things to do in Kailua (and the windward coast) here.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani.
If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center.
If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki.
And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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