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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?
Psst…once you finish reading this post and have a better idea of where you might like to stay, read these posts for specific suggestions:
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.
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. Read about my favorite things to do in Kailua (and the windward coast) here.
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.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Oahu
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 (read all about my last stay at Aulani here). Although, when I stay there, I never want to leave the resort! 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!
My 2 Cents about Oahu
If you’re only going to be on the island for a few days, Waikiki is the easiest place to stay. There are sooooo many options at every price range and it’s fairly centrally located to explore the island. Although if you’re only there for a few days, it’s probably to do the big attractions in Waikiki/Honolulu (Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, etc.).
The north shore and Kailua are by far better places to stay to get a true feel of Oahu, but apart from Turtle Bay Resort on the north shore, that means you’ll be staying in an Airbnb or apartment. I’d pick Turtle Bay over any place in Waikiki.
Ko’olina on the west side is the best place in Oahu to get a true resort experience (like Maui). There are only a handful of resorts here (but plenty of condos), but Disney’s Aulani Resort is world class. It’s easily my favorite spot to stay in all of Hawaii. If you have the budget, I’d stay in Ko’olina for the week and plan to explore the island from here. If you’re on a budget, I suggest splitting your stay between Waikiki and Aulani and doing your island exploring from Waikiki and your pool/beach time from Aulani.
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. 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.
And don’t forget to read these posts for specific suggestions on where to stay on Oahu:
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