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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.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
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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