Beginner’s Guide to Hawaii: Oahu and the Big Island

Hawaii

Continuing our three-part series on how to see Hawaii for the first time, this installment moves on to the largest Hawaiian island, as well as the most visited of the six tourist islands. Hawaii is actually made up of eight islands, but Niihau and Kahoolawe are both off limits to tourists without special permission and permits. In part one of our guide, we highlighted Maui, which offers the perfect blend of culture and tourism that looks like the Hawaii seen in films and postcards. Also included were Lanai and Molokai, the smallest of the six islands, both of which provide that much needed connection to Hawaiian history and tradition. Now we move onto Oahu, home of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, and Hawaii (the Big Island), home of five volcanoes, three of which are active.

Oahu

Oahu

Given that it's the most populated island in Hawaii, Oahu has a little bit of everything. Honolulu is an international destination: the city offers a world-class shopping scene, exciting nightlife, an abundance of highly rated hotels, and a culinary scene that rivals major cities around the world. Yes, it’s home to the most crowded Hawaiian beach, Waikiki Beach, but Oahu has a lot more to offer than most travelers might guess. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in Honolulu, so it’s good to break away and experience the more mellow side of Oahu in addition to all the hot tourist spots.

Perhaps the most famous site in all of Hawaii is Leahi Diamond Head State Monument, a 475-acre land crater created more than 300,000 years ago from a single explosion. It costs all of $1 to walk in (or $5 to drive) and enjoy the views. Open from 6 am to 6 pm daily, it’s a great way to spend a day. Five miles from downtown Honolulu is the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, which has vistas considered to be the best on all of the islands, and a 1,000-foot perch that looks down on Honolulu, Kailua, Kaneohe, and more; it’s also possible to see the Honolulu Botanical Gardens and the University of Hawaii, both additional locations to add to your itinerary. For another outdoor activity, Hanauma Bay State Park has the reputation for the best snorkeling. Situated in the remnants of a volcanic crater, the park, located just thirty minutes from Honolulu by car, has an admission price of $7.50 per person, deep blue waters, and an abundance of undersea life.

Oahu

For some Hawaiian history, the Polynesian Cultural Center takes visitors back in time to the days of the Polynesian monarchy, long before Hawaii was ever part of the United States. There are eight different packaged “experience” options for visitors to enjoy, including the Super Ambassador Package, which includes special seating and backstage access in addition to the dining experience provided with every package. Also located on Oahu is the Dole Plantation, which offers a tour, a garden maze, and even a train tour, which is popular with children. Admission to the Dole Plantation is free, but activities each have a cost. Finally, a trip to Pearl Harbor is a right of passage for visitors to Oahu. The USS Arizona is still visible from the surface of the water, and Pearl Harbor Tours provide somber experiences filled with history and remembrance.

But no trip to Oahu is complete without a visit to the North Shore, just about an hour-long drive from Waikiki. There are places to eat, shop, and hang with locals, but most importantly, there are places to surf. The beaches of the North Shore stretch seven miles and host the world’s premier surfing competitions, meaning the surf is intended for only professionals and spectators. Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach (Banzai Pipeline) and Sunset Beach are some of the most coveted beaches in the world, and taking a day to explore the North Shore will provide a mini escape from the madness of Honolulu.

Oahu

Where to Stay:

The Royal Hawaiian opened in 1927 and is known as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific.” This historic, yet modern, 528-room resort boasts the award-winning Azure Restaurant and Mai Tai Bar, as well as Waikiki’s only beachfront luau, Aha Aina.

Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa is an elegant 793-room resort that opened in 1901 and recently underwent a $20 million transformation. It's also home to Beach Bar in the legendary Banyan Courtyard.

The Modern Honolulu is cosmopolitan and chic, a sophisticated hotel overlooking the marina. Footsteps away from the top-ranked beach in America, it is also home to Morimoto Waikiki, one of the best dining experiences on the island.

The Big Island

Hawaii

Often referred to as the “Big Island,” Hawaii is the largest and most volcanically active island in the Hawaiian chain, an ideal destination for the active, outdoorsy traveler. There are hundreds of miles of coastline for surfers, swimmers, and snorkelers, as well as volcanoes with ever-changing landscapes. The west side of the island, Kailua-Kona, is home to the larger resorts and world-class golf courses. Hilo, located on the east side of the island is home to a rainforest, waterfalls, and red-hot flowing lava. Head to Volcano Village, located around the corner from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can participate in the famous Kona Manta Ray Night Dive, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Big Island has a little bit of everything and will definitely provide that thrill-seeking adventure some travelers crave. To get a sense of what the entire island has to offer, most guests opt to take a helicopter tour to get an up-close look of hidden waterfalls and fresh lava flows. Zip-lining, whale watching, scuba diving, hiking, biking, and camping are popular as well. When it’s time to slow down a bit, a visit to the breathtaking Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s most sacred location, provides some of the best stargazing in all of the Islands. Waipio Valley has one of the most stunning views, but it’s the horseback riding trails leading to waterfalls within the valley that attract most visitors. For the ultimate in dolphin experiences, the Sunlight on Water dolphin eco-tour is the best way to behold the magnificence of the animals, as the company operates with the utmost respect and care for them while still providing an incredible memory.

Hawaii

Where to Stay:

Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa is situated on the iconic lava rocks of the Kona coast. This property overlooks the historic Keahou Bay and provides guests with endless resort activities.

Hilton Waikoloa Village is a 62-acre resort that's a trip in itself, with 1,240 guestrooms, three fresh-water swimming pools, an ocean-fed snorkeling lagoon with aquatic life, Dolphin Quest educational center, thirteen dining and bar options, a museum walkway, and more.

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, set on the North Kona Coast, offers a dramatic mix of white-sand beaches and black-lava landscapes. The expansive open-air living spaces provide an authentic, yet luxurious, Hawaiian experience. 

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