Waikiki is world-renowned for its vast, welcoming beaches, restaurants and nightlife, but it’s tourist central. When you’re ready to ditch the crowds, rent a car and head east. Winding through the Windward Coast, North Shore and the central part of the island, you’ll find beachside towns, shrimp shacks, surfers, waterfalls and pineapple fields. Here’s how to hit O'ahu's highlights in one day.
Departing Waikiki in the early morning, follow Ala Wai Boulevard to Kapahulu Avenue, home of Leonard’s Bakery since 1952. Stop in for fuel for the journey ahead: a pink box loaded with fresh-from-the-oven glazed, flavored or stuffed malasadas (Portuguese donuts), before following the H1 past Diamond Head and the marina in Hawai'i Kai to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. The bay’s sheltered, shallow waters fill two craters on an extinct volcanic cone that helped create the nearby pinnacle of Koko Head; it’s one of the best snorkeling spots on the island.
Search the fringing reef and its sandy lagoons for honu (sea turtles), paired butterfly fish and humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the state fish. By arriving early you’ll have some of the best reef activity, water conditions and the smallest crowds (opens 6am, closed Tuesdays).
When you’re ready, towel off and head back to the car. It’s a quick 5-minute drive along Kalaniana’ole Highway (Hwy 72) to the Halona Blowhole, a roadside pull-over where wave action forces a jet of water through the skylight of an underwater lava tube giving off a regular geyser effect. Look for rainbows in its spray, and on clear days, for the island of Molokai and Lanai on the horizon beyond.
Another 5-minute drive brings you to the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail at Makapu’u Point. The moderate, 2-mile paved path leads to overlooks of a red lighthouse built in 1909 and sweeping southern and Windward coastal views, one of the island’s best vantages for spotting the spouts of migratory humpback whales from November until early April.
Kalaniana’ole Highway continues along through Waimanalo, sandwiched between white sand beaches and the undulating green wall of the Ko’olau Mountains, past one of the largest freshwater marshlands in the state, and to the trendy surf town of Kailua.
The peaceful Valley of the Temples is a 15-minute drive north of Kailua off Highway 83 and tucked into an amphitheater in the mountains. Behind a maze of scenic cemeteries, Byodo-In, a non-practicing Buddhist temple and replica of the UNESCO World Heritage listed temple in Uji, Japan, welcomes visitors. Meander its garden paths past peacocks and koi ponds, through its wooden interior, and to the kanetsuki-do, or bell house, to ring its three-ton meditative brass bell.
Back on Highway 83, follow the coast as it hugs Kaneohe Bay — look out for the offshore sandbar, a popular spot for weekend boat parties. In the tiny town of Kualoa, the 4,000 acre Kualoa Ranch is Oahu’s adventure headquarters. The private estate and working cattle ranch dominate scenic Kaʻaʻawa Valley and run regular ATV and horseback tours, TV and movie tours to the on-property sites where ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Godzilla’ and more were filmed. It also has kayak excursions of its offshore waters and the adjacent 800-year-old Moli’i Fishpond, one of Hawaii’s largest.
Ready for lunch? You may want to stop for a plate lunch at one of the popular garlic shrimp trucks that line Highway 83 as it rounds the curve toward the island’s North Shore. Then it’s on to the Polynesian Cultural Center in La’ie where actors representing six communities from across the Pacific demonstrate cultural traditions — from dancing and weaving to gathering coconuts and fishing — in mock villages. On your way out of town, swing by the La’ie Point State Wayside, a scenic seaside setting with lore-infused offshore islands and made famous in the movie ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall.’
Before long, you’ll arrive at the North Shore, where a seven-mile series of beaches host epic surf competitions in winter. Look for legendary sites such as Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline (at ‘Ehukai Beach Park) on your way to Waimea Valley, across the street from Waimea Bay. The area, part of a traditional ahupua’a (Hawaiian land-to-sea property division) has botanical gardens, restored Hawaiian hale (house) and heiau (temples) and a 45-foot waterfall under which guests can (sometimes) swim.
After the laid-back North Shore, it’s on to Haleiwa. In town, follow the boardwalk to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice and choose up to three of 40 different flavors — including lilikoi (passion fruit), li hing mui and lychee — to make your own version of Hawaii’s popular treat topped with condensed milk. Or, save your dessert craving for locally-made Waialua chocolate, available from the Waialua Sugar Mill. The old warehouse and smokestack of one of the state’s largest sugar plantations now houses a market of unique local businesses.
Turning inland on Highway 99, cut down the center of the island past the red earth fields filled with spiky pineapple plants. Long associated with the islands, the South American import became an important crop in Hawaii in the 1900s, and helped to establish the agricultural industry here along with plantings of coffee and sugar. Pop in to the Dole Plantation, with its huge pineapple-themed gift shop, narrated train ride and dizzying plant maze to learn more about this history.
Around sunset, before making your way back down the H2 toward Pearl Harbor and on to Waikiki, pull 100 yards into a dusty field to admire Kukaniloko Birthing Stones in bathed in stunning golden light. This ritual site in the center of the island is infused with mana (energy)—and Hawaiian alii (royalty) gave birth atop the carefully-arranged boulders for centuries. It's the perfect place to reflect on all you've seen and done on an epic day trip around O’ahu.