Oahu’s best offerings are free, from the exquisite sunrises over Kailua beach to the rainbows, rain forests, waterfalls and miles of sandy beaches and coastlines to sigh for. Sometimes the best day is spent with toes in the sand and nose in a book, letting the rest of the world spin around you.
From cozy pocket coves to sweeping ribbons of white sand, Oahu’s beaches are as varied and distinct as its mountain cliffs and verdant valleys. Water temperatures vary slightly, from 77 degrees in the winter to 82 degrees in the summertime, and surf conditions can turn from tranquil waters into a rollicking surfer’s paradise overnight. Weather isn’t always a predictor for what’s happening under the water, so be sure to adhere to posted signs and nightly news forecasts about beach conditions, including wave heights and turbulence. One easy solution is to swim only at beaches with lifeguards, and check with them before entering the water.
Two-mile-long Waikiki Beach enjoys its fame for a reason: a postcard-perfect setting with Diamond Head in the distance, surfers paddling out for sunset waves, and clear, lapping waters begging you to come right in. Everything you need is there, from surfboard and boogie-board rentals to plenty of spots to grab a bento box or a burger. While much of the beach is action central — great people watching, anyone? — the less-crowded Fort DeRussy Beach Park area has palm trees, shade and picnic tables.
In Kailua, two beaches considered Oahu’s prettiest sit side by side: Kailua’s three-mile strand of cottony soft sand with just enough wave action to put your boogie board to good use, and Lanikai’s idyllic strand with its tethered outrigger canoes, palm trees, bathtub-calm waters and perfect view of the twin Mokulua Islands (referred to locally as “the Mokes”), which stays with you long after you return home.
Every Oahu visit includes a trek to the North Shore, where garlic-shrimp food trucks, Matsumoto’s Shave Ice — an island institution since 1951 — and the renowned surfing beaches are legendary. The surf spots draw crowds year-round but especially during the winter, when the waves are big and the surfing ferocious. Along this iconic route, Waimea, Sunset and Pipeline have seen the world’s greatest competitions of this Hawaiian-born sport. But leave the water to the pros and stick to gawking from shore. During winter months, the waves and undercurrents are enough to challenge even the most experienced.
On the southeastern coast, one of Oahu’s most iconic vistas, the pint-sized Halona Beach Cove, was forever etched in memory by the epic kiss in the sand between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity. Best to appreciate it from the hilltop lookout, as the walk down to the beach is steep and rocky and can be treacherous if the water is choppy and rushing into the cove.
Wildlife viewing and boat tours
Green sea turtles, spinner dolphins and humpback whales can frequently be spotted in Oahu’s waters, and the endangered monk seal — a sweet-looking but fierce 400-pound grayish-black seal — occasionally makes an appearance on a sunny beach. Be careful to keep your distance, since interfering with any wildlife is prohibited by federal and state law, as well as local custom.
Whale watching can be found all around the island. The humpback whales migrate to Hawaii from Alaska during the winter (November through March) to give birth, and whale-watching tours offer a glimpse of the action — baby whales swimming with their mothers, putting on fabulous breaching and diving shows as the pups learn to hunt and live independently. These whales follow their own calendars, so their annual time of appearance varies to some degree, with the first spotting occurring in October some years. However, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be able to spot whales in Hawaii from November through the end of March. Whale-watching tours leave from Waikiki daily during whale season.
Spinner dolphins are visible from the waters on the leeward side of the island, with boat tours leaving from the Waianae Boat Harbor (and many offering pickups in Waikiki). Star of Honolulu offers a big-boat experience, while smaller boats like the North Shore Catamaran offer more personalization. Ask about recent sightings as well as no-sighting refunds before you book. The whales follow their own schedule, so sightings can vary significantly day-to-day.
Sunset cruises and catamaran sails are among the island’s most popular tours. In Waikiki, catamarans sail from the beach several times every day, including their popular sunset sails. Book with the crew right on the beach. Local favorites include Kepoikai II and the Holokai.
If getting out on the trails, in the water and back to nature is part of your Hawaiian dream, consider a visit to Kualoa Ranch, which offers tours, hikes, horseback riding, sailing, swimming and adventure on its 4,000-acre nature preserve. Its popular Hollywood’s Hawaii Backlot tour features more than 50 of the biggest blockbuster movies and TV shows filmed in the state.Yes, it’s very touristy, but the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa offers a glimpse of the island’s plantation days when immigrant workers tended acres of sugar cane and pineapples — and the world’s largest maze, one of only a few botanical mazes in America. The Pineapple Express Train tour through the property is especially family-friendly, and the frozen Dole Whip is always a crowd pleaser.
Waimea Valley, a cultural and conservation site across from famed Waimea Beach, takes visitors into the history of native Hawaiian life. Guests wander through the ahupuaa, a pie-shaped piece of land stretching from the mountain tops to the beach where native Hawaiians had access to everything they needed, from fresh water and hunting grounds to flatlands and ocean access. Hike the paved, shady two-mile path through indigenous rain forest plants and cool off at the waterfall at the trail’s end. If the walk seems too daunting, you can hop on a shuttle.