Most Oahu travelers know about Waikiki, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, and Hanauma Bay. But what are some of the best things to do in Oahu off the beaten path?
Traveling to Oahu
Hawaii is one of the world’s most beautiful places. It has also become one of the few destinations I will travel to again and again. I’ve had the good fortune of traveling to Hawaii three times, with a multi-island family trip years ago and a cousins’ trip to Maui last year.
When my boyfriend Justin (Justin also LOVES Hawaii and has an undisguised ambition to make it our permanent home one day) and I looked to visit Hawaii again in March, we decided to spend it on Oahu, to better get to know the island and explore parts of it that were a bit off the beaten path.
For us, “off the beaten path” is exactly how Oahu should be experienced, as it’s Hawaii’s most populated island. Popular tourist sights like Hanauma Bay, Waikiki, and Pearl Harbor fill up early and fast (we’re talkin’ like, 8:00 AM), and crowded parking lots and beaches are ubiquitous. We had both already experienced those big tourist sites on past trips, so we skipped them this time.
That’s why I decided to do a quick post about some of the best things to do in Oahu that might be a little less heavily trafficked, but just as worthwhile.
10 Things to Do in Oahu Off the Beaten Path
1. Take H3 to the Windward Side of Oahu
Many tourists choose to stay on the south shore of the island, in and around the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and Oahu’s largest resorts, hotels, shops, and restaurants.
Even if you choose to stay in that area, take a car and drive what we thought was Oahu’s most beautiful highway, H3, to the windward side of the island.
You’ll cut through lush, green mountains and be rewarded with a view of the ocean.
This side of Oahu also has some of its most beautiful beaches, including Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach Park. These beaches do get crowded early, so get there in the morning.
(Also pay attention to street parking signs and make sure you’re parking in the right direction on two lane roads––we saw countless tourists get ticketed for parking in the wrong direction because they didn’t realize that some streets were not one-way.)
We stayed on the windward side, in an Airbnb in Kaneohe. If touristy areas are not your vibe, we highly recommend staying in Kaneohe or Kailua! Just look at the view of Kaneohe Bay from our bedroom:
And this one from the balcony at sunrise:
2. Kayak to the Mokes
My favorite day on the entire trip was what I now call “kayaking day.” We rented kayaks from a company called Kailua Beach Adventures, walking distance from Kailua Beach Park, where you could launch your kayak and head to “the Mokes,” or Na Mokulua, two islets off the coast.
Despite not being a huge tourist attraction like Hanauma Bay, this is a relatively popular activity among adventurous travelers, so plan to get there early.
We headed out at 9 AM, before stopping at a local deli and grocery store (Kalapawai Market) for some provisions.
Justin and I got a tandem kayak, and headed for “the twin islands” on our own, but there are also guided tours if you’d like more help launching your kayak, navigating the waves, etc.
Kailua Beach Adventures has a pretty good safety video that you’re required to watch before heading out––make sure to be safe and go with a guide if you’re not confident!
When we arrived at the larger of the two islets, Moku Nui, there were already several other kayaks there, but there was enough room for everyone.
We had our well-earned snack after the hour and a half of paddling we’d done to get there (remember to pack out your trash!).
And then we explored the island, including the rocky coast…
And the Queen’s Bath:
We even saw wildlife, like this Hawaiian monk seal, napping on the beach, quite oblivious to all the kayaks.
We also saw many birds, crustaceans, and even sea turtles swimming alongside our kayak on the way back.
After our day on the water, we picked up a tasty dinner from Local Boy Sushi in Kaneohe…
And ate it with a view of the bay in the Airbnb. A perfect day.
3. Marvel at Islamic Art at Shangri La
One of my must-see sights on Oahu was the home of heiress Doris Duke. I share a love of old homes and architecture with my mom and sister (and my dad who’s usually happy to tag along). We knew of Shangri La from visits to Doris Duke’s estate in Newport, Rhode Island, and her farm in Hillsborough, NJ.
But her incredible home on Oahu, which we’d only seen in pictures, was definitely a highlight of the trip. Be sure to book tickets to this tour early (tours are run by the Honolulu Museum of Art, and tickets include both the tour and access to the museum).
We snagged the last 2 tickets available the date of our departure, booking them the day we arrived, i.e. a week in advance). Try booking a couple weeks to a month in advance.
Because let me tell you. It’s worth the visit. Doris Duke was an avid collector of very high quality Islamic art, and she masterfully integrated it into the home’s design.
Just look at this gorgeous living room:
This insane bathroom:
And the beautiful grounds and pool house, right on the water:
4. Sample Hawaiian Classics at Helena’s
One of the reasons I keep going back to Hawaii is quite simply, the food. At Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Honolulu, you can get a crash course in some Hawaiian classics done right, including dishes like lau lau (pork steamed in taro leaves), kalbi ribs, kalua pork, mac salad, and poi.
It’s a wondrous mashup of many different cultures, and it’s part of what makes Hawaii so special.
Of course, there are many other restaurants on Oahu that serve up these classic dishes––just find one and make sure to order some variety!
5. Visit a Botanical Garden
There are several very quiet, lovely botantical gardens on the island, including two that we visited: Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden and Koko Crater Botanical Garden.
If you’re looking to really get away from the crowds and just be in nature for a while, we’d highly recommend you make a stop at these gardens!
6. Pick Up Fresh Fruit at the Farmer’s Market
You have to pick up some fresh fruit––papaya, pineapple, mangoes, apple bananas––while in Hawaii. One of the best places to do that is at a farmer’s market!
We actually went to two farmer’s markets in our time on Oahu––the KCC (Kapi’olani Community College) Saturday farmer’s market, and a smaller market on South King Street in Honolulu.
You can pick up local specialties like lilikoi (passion fruit) pie, fresh juices, fruit, prepared foods, and more. We definitely recommend the KCC farmer’s market, as it’s the biggest one (the smaller one was a little underwhelming), but again, get there early, because it’s gained quite the following.
7. Spend Half a Day at Makapu’u
Our favorite beach on Oahu was Makapu’u. It’s not exactly a family/swimming beach in the winter months––the waves were large, and they broke very fast. Lifeguards were there to make sure that only experienced bodysurfers with fins were in the water.
Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful beach with a cliff to one side that makes it feel secluded. After you do the very popular Makapu’u Lighthouse hike at sunrise, make a stop at this beach just to enjoy the sun and watch the waves.
8. Learn Some Hawaiian History (Bishop Museum, Iolani Palace, Hawaii Plantation Village)
While it may seem kind of lame to go to a museum while in paradise, we really appreciated the Hawaiian history we learned at three different stops:
1. The Bishop Museum (Hawaii’s state museum of cultural and natural history)
2. Iolani Palace (the royal residence of Hawaiian monarchs)
3. Hawaii’s Plantation Village Museum (a historical reproduction of a sugar plantation, where you could see how different groups of immigrants, like the Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, etc. lived on these plantations in the early 1900s)
There were very few tourists at any of these places when we visited, and it was almost like we had each of those places to ourselves. These are also great rainy day activities, perhaps with the exception of Hawaii’s Plantation Village, which is mostly outdoors.
9. Byodo In Temple
Byodo In Temple is a Buddhist temple that was dedicated to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigrants’ arrival in Hawaii.
It’s a replica of a nine centuries’ old temple in Kyoto, Japan. The temple is located in a cemetery/memorial park, which may turn off some tourists, but with the temple in foreground and Oahu’s dramatic green mountains as a backdrop, it’s a worthy stop.
10. Go In Search of Good Food
It’s probably unsurprising to readers that one of our primary objectives this trip was to find and eat delicious food. We filled up on fish, sampled local dessert delights like Leonard’s Malasadas (Portuguese donuts), and never missed a meal.
This was by no means an exhaustive list of where we ate––just a few examples. But I bet many Woks of Life readers have suggestions to share in the comments!
For videos and more from the trip, check out the Hawaii story highlight on The Woks of Life Instagram.
Know of more places to visit on Oahu that are off the beaten path? Let us know in the comments!