The island of Oʻahu offers much more for adventurous travellers than just the historic streets of Honolulu and Waikiki's beach resorts. Hitting the island’s roads allows you full licence to check out some of Hawai‘i's most spectacular scenic drives. Along the way, you’ll see everything from plunging cliffs and cloud forests to world-famous surfing beaches and small towns overflowing with genuine aloha.
Over misty mountains on the Pali Highway
Oʻahu's shortest scenic drive, the Pali Hwy (Hwy 61) never fails to deliver cinematic panoramas. From Honolulu, the road twists up into the verdant peaks of the Koʻolau Range, making a painterly backdrop for downtown's skyscrapers.
Pull over at Nuʻuanu Pali State Wayside for a quick stroll out to a celebrated viewpoint, spying on the emerald valleys and aquamarine bays of the Windward Coast. Just 10 miles after leaving the city, the highway rolls downhill into the laid-back beach town of Kailua, where you can go windsurfing or rent a kayak and paddle to deserted offshore islands. Don't worry: you'll still have time to drive back over the pali (cliffs) to Waikiki for sunset mai tais and a Hawaiian music and hula show.
Windward Coast's wild beaches & ancient valleys
Hawai‘i's version of a two-lane country road, the Kamehameha Hwy (Hwy 83) traces the serpentine curves of the misty Windward Coast for 30 miles, passing small farms, ancient fishponds and untamed beaches.
Start off in Kane‘ohe, wandering the lush Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden or visiting vermillion-painted Byodo-in, a faithful replica of a traditional Japanese temple (be sure to ring the bronze bell outside for luck). Pull over at Kualoa Ranch for a tour of famous TV and movie locations, as seen in Lost and Jurassic Park. Across the road is uncrowded Kualoa Regional Park, which has a quiet swimming beach with dramatic scenery, including views of Mokoliʻi Island, also known as Chinaman’s Hat for its unique shape.
Keep motoring up this postcard-worthy coast, stopping to photograph Kaʻaʻawa's Crouching Lion rock formation, which appears in Hawaiian legends. Past Laʻie's Polynesian Cultural Center lie the rugged beaches of Maleakahana State Recreation Area, an inviting area for swimming, snorkelling and camping. Hungry yet? Wind up your Windward Coast road trip at Kahuku's famous roadside shrimp trucks, where you can chow down on a plate of fresh crustaceans stir-fried with garlic and butter.
Surf's up on the North Shore
Oʻahu's renowned North Shore beaches are where surf pros from around the world battle giant winter waves, drawing thousands of spectators. During summer these same waters become almost glassy, giving you amazing chances to snorkel, scuba dive and even swim with sea turtles.
Start your scenic drive at Turtle Bay, where the crystal-clear waters of Kuilima Cove are gentle enough for kids to splash in. Across from Sunset Beach, stop at famous Ted's Bakery for a local plate lunch and a slice of coconut haupia pie. Cruise down the Kamehameha Hwy (Hwy 83) past Banzai Pipeline surf break to Pupukea Beach, where you can snorkel or dive in summer at Sharks Cove and in hidden sea caves. In winter, gape at the monster swells of Waimea Bay, opposite Waimea Valley park, where the whole family can hike to a waterfall-fed pool that’s great for swimming, try their hands at Hawaiian crafts or learn a few hula dancing moves.
You've saved the best for last: Haleʻiwa, epicentre of the North Shore's surfing scene, just 15 miles from Turtle Bay. Shop for a bikini or rent a surfboard, then stick around to watch sunset over the boat harbour. Or escape civilization entirely by driving out past the unpeopled beaches of Mokuleʻia, as seen in the hit TV show Lost, toward end-of-the-road Kaʻena Point. There at the island's lonely northwestern tip, ancient Hawaiians believed that lost souls would leap into the afterlife if their ʻaumakua (animal guardian spirits) did not appear to lead them home.
Beyond the Gold Coast: Diamond Head to Makapuʻu Point
Next door to Waikiki, this drive packs tons of adventure - both on land and at sea - into just 15 paved miles. All along Oʻahu's southeastern shore, movie stars and millionaires have built oceanfront mansions, including heiress Doris Duke's estate Shangri La, now a museum of Islamic art.
Start off early in the morning at Diamond Head State Monument. Tackle the 0.8-mile trail that ascends this ancient volcanic tuff cone, with sweeping views of the coast from a windy summit. Or head straight to Hanauma Bay, a nature preserve and underwater marine park for snorkelling and scuba diving in a giant outdoor fishbowl. For more watersports thrills, check out the adventure tours offered by outfitters at the marina in picturesque Hawaiʻi Kai, also a tasty lunch stop.
As the curving Kalanianaʻole Hwy (Hwy 72) leaves the glitzy suburbs behind, the scenery quotient skyrockets, especially at lookouts such as the Halona Blowhole, where the ocean blasts up through lava rocks, and atop the Makapuʻu Lighthouse Trail, where you can watch migratory humpback whales swim by offshore in winter. Don't miss gazing upon the adrenaline-charging waves of Sandy Beach, where President Barack Obama used to hang out when he was growing up in Honolulu – but stay safely on the shore. These famous waves are for experienced experts only.