Oahu is the main international gateway to the Hawaiian Islands and often overlooked by visitors in transit to the more “rugged” gems of the island chain. Home to Honolulu – the state’s capital and only proper city – Oahu is way more than just the “concrete jungle” of high rises on Waikiki Beach. With volcanic craters dotting the coastline, magnificent beaches, and the signature eroded peaks of the Pali Coast – Oahu may possibly be the most beautiful island in Hawaii if it weren’t for its exploding population. And after all, the island known as the “Gathering Place” is treasured in the hearts of Hawaiians, both of yesteryear and of the present. In this 4 days in Honolulu and Oahu sample itinerary, we’ll explore the island’s best spots and balance between the urban experience and the laid back country life that awaits active visitors.
I spent a week in Honolulu and Oahu while exploring the main Hawaiian Islands and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, in a relatively small island where 70% of the state’s population and nearly one million people reside, expect a different experience. But the “warnings” by some of the other islands’ residents to be cautious of the “concrete jungle” proved to mostly be false. The time spent in Oahu was quite reminiscent of my visit to Tahiti in French Polynesia. Not only does Tahiti share similar demographic characteristics and the “in-transit” mentality of Oahu, but the two often share stunning geographic features. It’s often nice to have the modernities of a proper city such as malls, restaurants, and nightlife, but Oahu’s added value is that once you leave the big city behind on a road trip, the island’s beauty is remarkable.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that Honolulu and Oahu’s tour operators offer a plethora of paid activities, as you might expect from the busiest island in Hawaii. However, in this sample itinerary, we’ll stick to basics and concentrate on activities that you can do independently.
What’s Included in this 4 days in Oahu Sample Itinerary?
Pro tip #1: if you’ll be spending 5 days in Oahu, I recommend starting the fifth day with a visit to the Pearl Harbor Museums, followed by either a walking tour of downtown Honolulu (Chinatown, Aloha Tower, Kawaiahao Church, Aliiolani Hale, Iolani Palace, St. Andrew Cathedral and Punchbowl) or a road trip up the more remote west coast of Oahu (Makaha Beach Park and Kaneana [Makua] Cave). Early risers can start with a guided visit to the Honolulu Fish Auction. Those interested in learning about the Polynesian culture can head to the Bishop Museum, considered the most authoritative institution on Polynesian studies.
Pro tip #2: if you’re a history buff (I can totally relate) but don’t have that extra fifth day in Oahu, you can swap day one’s morning (Diamond Head) with a visit to Pearl Harbor and then replace day three’s morning (Manoa Falls) with a visit to Diamond Head.
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4 Days In Honolulu & Oahu Map
This map contains all the places mentioned in this sample itinerary. Click on the image to open in Google Maps.
Honolulu & Oahu Travel Tips
Here are a few essential travel tips for Honolulu and Oahu. Don’t forget to go over the things you need to know before visiting Hawaii, where you’ll find general advice on visiting the Hawaiian Islands including how to save on costs.
When is the Best Time to Visit Honolulu & Oahu
Oahu and Honolulu are year-round destinations, busy with tourists throughout the year. However, weather and peak tourist seasons will have an effect on your stay nonetheless.
Weather: it’s important to note that weather greatly varies between the windward and leeward sides of the island (in general: north vs. south). If it’s raining on the north shore, there’s a very good chance Honolulu is baking in the sun. That said, the island as a whole sees drier weather during the North American summer months and wet weather during the winter months. Shoulder seasons are always a good time to visit (Apr-May, Sep-Oct). I personally visited Oahu during February and March. In the February visit, I arrived just as a massive storm had weakened and sunny weather had moved in. During the March visit, most of the week was filled with nothing but sunshine except for the first day, in which another (smaller) storm was coming to an end.
Peak tourist seasons: aside from the steady barrage of organized tours crisscrossing the island (especially from Asia), Oahu gets an extra dose of visitors during the U.S. holiday seasons (Christmas, New Year’s, Easter etc.) and school holidays (spring and summer breaks). It’s best to either avoid these periods or secure your flights and accommodations early.
Where to Stay in Honolulu & Oahu
Oahu is small enough and its network of roads efficient enough (albeit gridlocked at times) for it to make sense to base yourself in the Honolulu area for your entire stay on the island. I’ll list two areas in the city that I recommend, but if you’re absolutely looking for a place to stay outside of the big city, Kailua is the best option, Hauula is even further out and quieter, and Kawailoa Beach is for those looking to surf mighty north shore waves.
Here’s a link to a complete list of Honolulu accommodations which you can book online.
Waikiki Beach Area
Waikiki is the place to see and be seen if that’s your thing. If you want to stay smack in the middle of the action, Waikiki is for you. Accommodations in Waikiki primarily consist of high rises, luxury beachside hotels, and furnished condos. For a quieter stay, look for places in the residential area between Waikiki and Diamond Head. Keep in mind three things if choosing to stay here: (1) free parking is rarely included, (2) a resort fee and sometimes even a cleaning fee will be added to the price so carefully read the fine print, (3) this will not be a quiet stay but you will be close to the beach, shopping and dining, and the nightlife scene. See Waikiki Beach accommodations.
Manoa is an affluent residential neighborhood of Honolulu, nestled at the base of the beautiful mountains that shield the city from the trade winds. The area boasts many dining options and is a short drive from Waikiki and the network of interstate highways. The only downsides are the lack of nightlife and the absolute need for a car (which I recommend to have in any case…). See Manoa accommodations.
Most of the backpacker hostels in Honolulu are in Waikiki Beach. They tend to be quite large establishments and naturally offer backpackers activities to keep them busy. I advise booking well in advance because the good ones fill up quickly. Your other alternative is cheap Airbnb’s in the Ala Moana area. I stayed in a shared unit for less than the price of a dorm bed in a Waikiki hostel (and I had the room all to myself since everyone just… follows the crowd to Waikiki).
Here’s a link to a complete list of Honolulu accommodations which you can book online.
Getting Around Oahu
Oahu’s extensive bus network – TheBus – services most parts of the island for just $2.50 per single ride (transfer good for two hours, exact change needed). If you’re just staying in Honolulu and wish to go to a specific beach/attraction outside of town, using the bus should be just fine for point-to-point travel and you won’t need to rent a car. You can also use the bus to get to/from the airport or use a Waikiki shuttle ($15) or an Uber (~$40). I must mention that buses on popular tourist routes can be completely full even on weekdays, with drivers not picking up additional passengers along the way (for example Waikiki to Hanauma Bay) … Use apps like Moovit to optimize your bus route.
If you’re out to seriously explore Oahu, I highly recommend renting a car either for your entire stay or for the days you’ll be spending outside of Honolulu. There is a lot of competition over tourist dollars so you can get great deals on rentals (plus the gas is the cheapest in the state).
The island of Oahu boasts many attractions suitable for families, adventure seekers, and history buffs. Browse through this list of Oahu attractions and aim to purchase your tickets in advance. If you’re planning on doing quite a bit of sightseeing, the Honolulu Flexi Attractions Pass might unlock some savings!
Oahu Driving Tips
Here are a few key things to consider when exploring Oahu by car:
- There is no need to rent a 4WD in Oahu as you’ll likely only drive on paved roads.
- Traffic is a real issue on Oahu, with roads often congested in the morning and afternoon rush hours, plus on weekends and holidays. In addition, when “country” roads are being repaired, traffic is reduced to either one lane in each direction or in total, leading to even greater slowdowns. I highly recommend using navigation systems such as Waze or Google Maps to outsmart traffic as much as possible. This is especially key when heading back to the airport to catch your flight off the island!
- Parking is expensive in the Waikiki Beach area and will set you back at the very least $20 per day. Once you leave the downtown area and the city in general, there usually isn’t a problem.
- Car break-ins are unfortunately quite common in Hawaii. Avoid leaving your car in isolated areas and never leave anything inside the car. Also, inspect the parking area for any broken glass – this is a definite sign to head elsewhere.
- Since Hawaii is a ‘no-fault’ state, car rental companies will scare you to death and offer incredibly expensive insurance plans. With the larger companies, you can usually decline this, but with the smaller ones, they often force you to take at the very least the cheapest package which can amount to about $15 per day. American car owners usually have an insurance policy that covers rental cars, but foreigners do not. If you’re traveling from abroad, perhaps your travel insurance can include this type of coverage. In this case, you will need to show at the counter that you have coverage so bring a copy of your policy (in English).
The Honolulu Airport (Bad) Experience
I must mention that the Honolulu airport has to be one of the least friendly airports in the U.S. and this considering that tourism is the most important source of state revenue! I am pretty sure there was no free WiFi throughout the terminal (only in small parts), but the main issues are the overcrowdedness in the check-in area and the long walks needed to reach some gates. I highly recommend to check-in online AND still arrive at the airport way in advance.
What to Pack for Honolulu & Oahu
Together with this 4 days in Oahu itinerary, I recommend grabbing a Lonely Planet guide to Hawaii to have useful information at your fingertips and to better understand Hawaii’s culture and interesting history.
As far as packing goes, a visit to Honolulu and Oahu mostly revolves around beaches, scenic drives, shopping, and nightlife, along with the occasional short hike. This means packing proper beach gear, comfy walking shoes, rain gear, and decent-looking summer attire. Have a look at this page for more information and recommendations.
Shopping in Honolulu
As you might expect from the most populated island in Hawaii that is so frequented by tourists, Oahu and Honolulu boast a pretty welcoming shopping scene. Though there are surely more options, here are three recommendations:
- Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki Beach: good for “tacky” and high-end souvenirs, unique surf clothing, and luxury stores.
- Ala Moana Center: Honolulu’s premier shopping experience (free parking). You’ll find here several department stores, all the top U.S. mainstream and luxury brands, and a very large food court.
- Waikele Premium Outlets: the quintessential U.S. shopping experience, this “Premium Outlets” member is located about 30 minutes west of Waikiki, with paid shuttle service connecting the two ($10). Venture out here only if it’s serious shopping that you’re after.
Staying Safe in Honolulu & Oahu
- See the “Oahu Driving Tips” section for related tips, including car break-ins on Oahu.
- In Honolulu, avoid walking in the downtown area and large parks at night (Waikiki is OK). This especially includes the Chinatown area which is sketchy during the daytime as well. Honolulu does have a crime and drug problem for a number of reasons and it is best to exercise caution and inquire with your hosts before venturing into the urban area.
- Oahu’s beaches can be very dangerous during periods of high surf, especially on the windward side. Exercise caution and never swim out too far.
- Shark attacks have been known to occur in Oahu’s beaches. There’s not really much you can do but just be aware and ask the locals.
- Oahu’s remote West Coast is sparsely populated and reception may not be adequate. Be sure to fill up the gas tank and have offline access to Google Maps.
Day 1: Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach
On the first of your 4 days in Oahu, we’ll stick around Honolulu and visit two of Hawaii’s most iconic sites: Diamond Head Crater and legendary Waikiki Beach.
Logistics for the day
I recommend getting a relatively early start to the day (approx by 9 am) and to visit Diamond Head prior to Waikiki Beach. The crater is not only one of the most visited places in the entire State of Hawaii but also tends to see intensely hot weather by midday. So pack lite hiking gear (sandals ok) as well as beach gear to avoid having to return to your accommodation in between.
KCC Farmers Market
If it just so happens to be Saturday morning, start the day at the KCC Farmers Market – considered the best farmers market in Oahu. The Saturday morning version (7:30-11am) is preferred over its Tuesday afternoon session (4-7pm).
Hike in Diamond Head Crater
Strategically located on the sunny coast overlooking Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head is the symbol of Oahu and the most recognized landmark of Hawaii. The crater was formed by a relatively late eruption of one of Oahu’s ancient shield volcanoes. As magma met groundwater and created steam, there were blasts of ash, coral, and pyroclastic debris that created tuff cones such as Diamond Head and Koko Head (see tomorrow’s itinerary).
Known as Le’ahi to Hawaiians, Diamond Head was a spot of significant spiritual importance that immediately drew the attention of the first Westerners to land on the island’s sunny shores. These early explorers mistook the calcite crystals found on the slopes of the crater for diamonds, and that’s how its present name came to be. As the U.S. increased its presence in Hawaii, Diamond Head was an ideal location for the island’s coastal defense system and in 1908, a trail leading to the summit was constructed by the army. On the slopes and on the summit, artillery stations were constructed and even a firing station was built to coordinate the launch of long-distance shells in the event of a marine invasion.
Hiking to the summit of Diamond Head is an absolute must, though you’ll have to share the trail with hundreds of other folks who have the same genius idea. You can literally drive inside the crater floor and park your car, but a much more scenic route is to simply walk from Waikiki or park on its slopes and walk to the visitor’s station ($1 entry fee for walk-ins). From here, you’ll pick up the 0.8-mile (1.3 km) trail (one way) and hike to the summit.
Along the way, various lookout points offer sublime 360-degree views of the area, primarily north to the Koʻolau mountain range and east toward Koko Head (see day 2 itinerary). However, it is the view from the summit that is the most rewarding – a nearly unobstructed view of the Waikiki Beach coastline and (unfortunately) its endless collection of high rises.
Logistics: the hike takes about 1.5-2 hours return including all the scenic stops and can get quite steep at times though it is not over-challenging by any means. If you don’t depart early, it will be crowded with tourists, some of whom are slow going (think lots of children). The lookouts, especially at the summit, are very crowded so patience is required. Due to the crater’s unique position and shape, it is very sunny and gets extra hot until you reach the breeze of the summit. Put on sunscreen, don’t forget to wear a hat and drink lots of water. There are restrooms and food trucks at the visitor’s center, where you should also pick up a trail brochure.
Love it or hate it, it’s difficult to visit Honolulu without paying a visit to Waikiki Beach – one of the most famous beaches in the world. Since we’ve just enjoyed an incredible bird’s eye view of Waikiki from Diamond Head, it makes perfect sense to spend the rest of the day on this famous stretch of beach.
Pro tip: if you want to stick around town but looking for a quieter spot other than Waikiki Beach, head to Ala Moana Beach Park. It’s pretty much right next to Waikiki Beach and frequented by locals. Another plus is the nearby Ala Moana Center, Honolulu’s premier shopping experience where you’ll also find a large food court and a supermarket.
The area known as Waikiki Beach was frequented by Hawaiian royalty in the old days, in an effort to “escape the city”. It was also a prime farming area, abundant with wetlands and taro fields. Things started to change in 1901 with the opening of the first hotel, which we’ll soon visit, and Waikiki pretty much never looked back, for better or for worse.
These days, it is THE place to see and be seen in Honolulu, if you’re a tourist that is. Its concrete-jungle buildings rise to much greater heights than the original palm trees, but they do meet a beautiful patch of the bluest of blue waters, a haven for swimmers and surfers! Waikiki is always packed with tourists and their tour buses so don’t expect a relaxing day at the beach with nothing but the sounds of birds whistling and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Here are a few of Waikiki Beach’s top highlights:
Waikiki Beach is actually a series of beaches stretching from the Sheraton Waikiki to Queen’s Beach. Some stretches have more sand than others, some are better for surfing, and some are protected by concrete lagoon walls.
I actually preferred parking it at Queen’s Beach. While the bottom is a bit rocky and not super comfortable for swimming, the beach – backed by Kapiolani Park – is quieter and there’s a greater chance to find a (paid) parking space in the Honolulu Zoo lot. It’s also the best spot in Waikiki Beach for watching the sunset!
Waikiki’s busy thoroughfare, Kalakaua Avenue connects the series of beaches. Parts of the avenue are a beachfront promenade, running parallel to Waikiki’s endless hotels and shops.
There are a few noteworthy stops along the way (aside from the shopping), including the Duke Kahanamoku Statue – Hawaii’s eternally lei-draped famous “surfing pioneer” and winner of several Olympic medals in swimming, the Moana Surfrider Hotel – the 1901 luxury hotel built in beaux-arts fashion that started the Waikiki hype, and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel – the 1927 art-deco hotel built in Moorish red fashion and the definite standout of Waikiki.
Day 2: Koko Crater and Hanauma Bay
In the second of these 4 days in Honolulu and Oahu, we’ll leave the city behind but not venture too far. We’ll start the day with a hike and finish off in one of the world’s most beautiful bays.
Pro tip: wondering what happened to the Pearl Harbor Museum visit? Scroll back up to the itinerary outlined at the start of this travel guide. Below the outline, you’ll find a recommendation on how to “squeeze” a museum visit into this sample itinerary.
Logistics for the Day
Today’s itinerary can be done either with a car (recommended) or with a bus (take the #22 from Waikiki Beach). Whatever the case may be, pack for hiking, beach, and snorkeling (plus a change of clothes). Don’t forget adequate sun protection as this part of Oahu is very sunny. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and snacks, as these are expensive in Hanauma Bay.
Breakfast in Waikiki
Start your morning at Tropical Tribe on Ala Moana Boulevard with the best acai bowls in Honolulu. If you can’t make it here, a good acai bowl is never too far away in Honolulu. Just have a look online.
Hiking the Koko Crater
Oahu boasts many hiking trails and the Koko Crater Trail is definitely one of the more challenging and rewarding hikes. I’m talking about a steep mile-long climb over 1,000 “steps” that are actually the remains of an old railway built during WWII to construct and supply a lookout tower atop the summit of this tuff cone – Diamond Head’s little sibling.
The more you climb, the finer the views get, even if you don’t make it to the summit. On a good day, you’ll enjoy exclusive views of Hanauma Bay and the coastline!
Logistics: park at Koko Head District Park and pick up the trail leading up (hard to miss). The trail is exposed throughout the journey so be sure to protect yourself from the sun and drink plenty of water. Don’t forget to do a bit of stretching before and after!
Spectacular Hanauma Bay has to rank among the prettiest in the world, certainly when it comes to the tropical ones. Its perfect crescent of golden sand meeting turquoise waters is protected from the outside world by tall cliffs. As with Waikiki, the bay was the playground of Hawaii’s royal family in the past, and it was off-limits to tourists for many years until rebranding itself as a marine reserve.
The name of the game in Hanauma Bay is the snorkeling, thanks to an ancient coral reef that is almost completely sheltered from the violent forces of the Pacific Ocean. But even if snorkeling isn’t your thing, I highly recommend visiting Hanauma Bay, even if just to enjoy the views from the top before continuing your road trip along the coast.
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and Marine Park is no ordinary park. Due to the delicate marine ecosystem and the high tourist demand, visitor numbers are restricted and you might need to wait at the scenic lookout before being admitted ($7.50). You will then be requested to watch a video explaining just how delicate this marine ecosystem is and what is required from you during your visit.
Please respect these rules and even if you get “pissed off” for being forced to watch this video, remember that Hanauma Bay was off-limit for so many years and it is thanks to the staff that you’re even able to splash in its waters!
Once you’ve cleared the video, you’re free to either walk down to the beach or use a paid motorized service. The busiest section of the beach is the closest to where the trail ends/begins and this is also the best snorkeling spot. The further you head along the beach, the more quiet things get but you will by no means have a large patch of sand all to yourself.
Logistics: paid parking is available or you can take the #22 bus from Waikiki Beach. Hanauma Bay is busy throughout the day but especially during weekends and holidays when it is best to avoid. Full facilities are available at the beach and up top. Bring water, food, and snacks as those are quite overpriced in the restaurant by the entrance. Lastly, it is best to bring your own snorkeling gear because, as you may have already guessed, renting here is quite expensive!
Day 3: Manoa Falls & Southeast Coast Road Trip
The third of these 5 days in Oahu is a combination of a classic “road trip” with short stops, along with a couple of short hikes.
Pro tip: this is an action-packed day in some of Oahu’s most scenic spots. Don’t stress if you can’t manage to fit everything mentioned here into your own itinerary. You can simply start tomorrow’s itinerary where you finish off today’s.
Logistics for the day
Get an early start to the day (by 8 am) and be prepared for both hiking and the beach! I’m including two short hikes in today’s itinerary so a change of clothes and comfortable hiking shoes are required in addition to the usual beach gear and sun protection.
Tantalus Scenic Drive
This ain’t exactly the Hollywood Hills, but believe it or not, Honolulu has a pretty spectacular scenic drive just minutes away from downtown. Pick up Tantalus Drive and snake your way up the forested mountains, home to million-dollar homes and panoramic views of Honolulu and Diamond Head. The winding road, which is crossed by several hiking trails, then becomes Round Top Road and eventually heads back down completing sort of a loop.
Manoa Falls Hike
The hike to Manoa Falls is recommended for those who will not be visiting other islands in Hawaii. Otherwise, you can opt-out if your itinerary feels too congested. There’s a proper parking lot at the trailhead ($5 but at least your car is safe) as well as restrooms and gift shops. The trail is a very easy going 1.6-mile 2.7 km (return) and leads hikers (more like walkers) through a pretty forest before reaching the 100 ft (30 m)waterfall.
Coffee in Manoa
Since you’re already in the affluent neighborhood of Manoa, you might as well pause for a refueling stop. At Morning Glass Coffee, not only is the caffeine dose superb but they also have delicious pastries and proper breakfast dishes. Literally two minutes away, you can also try Andy’s Sandwiches & Smoothies and grab something to go.
Scenic Road Trip
After freshening up, it’s time to hit the road. Pick up Highway 72 and drive along the southeast coast. Eventually, the road will bend north and merge with Highway 61 back to Honolulu.
A pretty roadside stop slightly reminiscent of Bixby Bridge on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Technically, you should be able to spot the Island of Lanai from here on a good day, and maybe even Maui and Molokai. Feel free to hop over the fence and inspect from up close (but not too close) the pancake-like lava rocks with their fine layers.
Halona Blowhole & Cockroach Beach
A very short drive from Lanai Lookout and you’ve made it to the Halona Blowhole Lookout. From here, you can admire the natural spectacle that never gets tired. To your right, walk a few steps and look down to Halona Cove – better known as Cockroach Beach. This gem is hiding right beneath the coastal highway and is easy to miss if you don’t stop to watch the blowhole.
Unless you’re an experienced body surfer, visit Sandy Beach just to admire the colors: turquoise and gold meeting each other with Koko Head in the background. It’s one of the prettiest beaches in Oahu but also one of the most dangerous so admire the beauty of Sandy Beach with a delicious shrimp plate lunch from the food truck parked in front!
Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail
This is one of the most rewarding hikes in Hawaii, and considering it’s just a mile in each direction, this stop should be a no brainer. Park the car at the designated parking lot and begin walking uphill on the paved road which leads all the way to the lighthouse and viewing area. Along the way, you’ll be treated to magnificent views of Koko Head and the valley beneath it, along with sublime coastal views atop the Pacific Ocean (be on the lookout for sea turtles, dolphins, and whales).
Once at the top, catch a glimpse of the old lighthouse and learn about its interesting history on this strategic and windy location. Before wrapping up this hike, treat yourself to breathtaking views of Makapuu Beach, and the bird sanctuary islands off the coast. Makapu‘u Point has to be one of the prettiest if not the prettiest spot in Oahu!
Logistics: the trail is paved from start to finish but it is completely exposed to the elements, meaning you’ll need to protect yourself from the sun, drink plenty of water, and be prepared for windy weather (watch out for your hat and sunglasses).
If you hiked to the lighthouse, this quick stop is not a must, but if you opted-out, this is your best shot of catching panoramic views of the dramatic coastline in front of you.
Makapu’u Beach Park
As is the case with Sandy Beach, Makapuu Beach is more for watching rather than for swimming, unless you’re an expert body surfer… After the scenic lookouts up the road and from the lighthouse trail, I just stopped for a quick glance from the side of the highway.
Make sure you have at least 1-2 hours of sunshine for Waimanalo Beach because it is so pretty out here. Waimanalo is one of the best beaches in Oahu, the island’s version of Hanalei Bay in Kauai due to the generous size of this crescent of white sand.
Waimanalo is good for both surfing and for swimming, just find your own spot and enjoy the last few hours of this road trip before starting the drive back to Honolulu. If you feel like you need more time on this beach, you can actually start tomorrow’s itinerary in Waimanalo, or either skip the Manoa Falls or lighthouse hikes.
For a sneak peek of what’s ahead tomorrow, take the scenic Highway 61 back to Honolulu. Known as the “Pali Highway” this ancient trail was transformed into a main artery that also doubles as a scenic highway. You definitely want to catch the gorgeous views from the Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside ($3 parking). The lookout is also the starting point for the challenging Pali Notches K1 and K2 hikes.
From the 1200 ft lookout, you can get a sense of the unique scenery of the windward coast, with its crowning feature – the eroded emerald cliffs of the ancient Koʻolau Volcano (if you’ve been to Kauai, think of the Na Pali Coast). This exact spot was the site of a violent battle in which the winning forces of King Kamehameha the Great literally tossed about 500 enemy soldiers to their death – an act which led to King K’s victory and eventual unification of the Hawaiian Islands under his crown.
Pro tip: optimal viewing times from the Pali Lookout are in the morning hours when the sun’s rays directly shine on the eroded cliffs. Nonetheless, the views are pretty spectacular throughout the day (even in heavy rain) and you can even start tomorrow’s itinerary at this very same spot.
Day 4: Pali Coast & North Shore Road Trip
The final day in this 4 days in Oahu itinerary is spent exploring the island’s windward coast as part of one last road trip. This is the island’s “rural” section, where anti real estate development signs of “keep the country, country” are common, where life is good, and where secluded beaches meet the emerald cliffs that have been eroded for millennia.
Logistics for the day
Maximize your final day on the island and hit the road early on in the morning. Wear casual walking gear but also be prepared for the beach, including snorkeling!
The only Hawaiian Island with official interstates, the H3 is an engineering marvel that you don’t want to miss. I remember watching a Discovery Channel documentary on how challenging its construction was and ever since then I dreamed of one day cruising on one its lanes and through its tunnels. The largely elevated interstate cuts through the Koolau Range (the eroded cliffs we saw yesterday), snaking its way along a viaduct and through miles of tunnels. It was one of the most expensive interstate highways ever built and its challenges were not only limited to engineering, but also to environmental and land disputes.
Pro tip: you can also take the Pali Highway from Honolulu (Highway 61) and stop at the Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside if you didn’t get the chance to yesterday.
While most beachgoers head to the more “organized” Kailua Beach Park, its smaller sister beach just 5 minutes to the south is a whole lot prettier. Lanikai Beach was one of the prettiest beaches in Hawaii that I made it to over the course of four months! The colors of the water and sand, the palm trees, and the small offshore islets teasing you to come over – all make this beach look like a South Pacific jewel!
Logistics: access to the beach is via narrow pathways between the rows of mansions (be on the lookout for exotic lizards). There is some shade but not a whole lot. Swimming is safe if you don’t venture out too far and when the weather is calm. Both Kailua and Lanikai beaches are optimal for kayaking.
Pro tip: if you like to start your mornings with a hike, the Kaiwa Ridge Trail – better known as the Pillbox Hike – is for you. The short hike might be slightly challenging, but the views are certainly rewarding with the morning sunshine.
Food/Drinks Break in Kailua
Kailua is the biggest town on the windward side of Oahu. I personally found it too busy for a seaside community but on the plus side, there are loads of ways to quench your thirst and satisfy your craving. For coffee and awesome sandwiches to go, stop at Kalapawai Market. It’s been around since 1932 so there’s probably a good reason why. If fresh juice or a smoothie are what you’re in need of, Lanikai Juice is just up the road.
Pali Coast Scenic Drive
As you head north out of Kailua along the coast, both the scenery and vibe really start to change with every passing mile. This is as “country” as the windward coast gets, the kind of place you can see yourself retiring in. The beaches out here are a bit more “rugged” and emptier than their cousins down south, while on the other side of the “highway”, horses and cattle roam around large plots that need no fencing on their west wings, with the eroded emerald cliffs of the Pali Coast doing the job without any setup costs. Sharp eyes might recognize the scenery over the next few miles from… Jurassic Park!
If you haven’t had lunch yet, stop at the roadside Waiahole Poi Factory. This popular family-owned joint is famous for their Hawaiian plate lunches and poi. I am not a huge pork eater so passed on the opportunity, but if tasting real local food is your thing – pop in for a visit. A bit further up the road is Tropical Farms – another popular roadside stop. Starting out as a small seller of macadamia nuts, this place has ballooned into a large shop. There’s an endless selection of coffee (and a free tasting), nuts of all sorts, and souvenirs galore (plus clean toilets!).
Kualoa Regional Park
I stopped here for a quick look and absolutely fell in love. This might not be the prettiest beach on the island, but the coastal views are sensational and you can finally step out of your car and admire the beautiful cliffs from here – a much easier task than trying to do so from a moving car!
Laʻie Point State Wayside
Veer off the coastal road to this wild lookout point. From the tip of this narrow peninsula, catch a glimpse of a perfect sea arch and watch brave (or foolish) locals (usually men, of course) practice their cliff jumping skills.
Malaekahana State Recreation Area
Not a must, Malaekahana Beach is hardly ever crowded and when conditions are right, you can actually walk across the lagoon to Goat Island – a small bird sanctuary.
Lunch in Kahuku
I hope you have some room left in your stomach because Kahuku is “shrimp country”. Thanks to nearby shrimp ponds, supply is always fresh and plentiful. As you near the town, you’ll notice a large concentration of food truck. This is where you want to stop. If shrimp ain’t your thing, you’ll find a few other good options, but if it’s shrimp you fancy – Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is your calling! Folks driving up the coast literally line up for a plate of the most delicious shrimp I’ve tasted in Hawaii. Choose from lemon butter, hot spicey, or my favorite – scampi: shrimp marinated in olive oil and garlic!
North Shore: Ehukai Beach Park
By now, you’ve “rounded the corner” and starting to head south back to Honolulu via Oahu’s famous North Shore. This area is one of the best places in the world for surfing, with mammoth waves slamming into windswept beaches. Quite a few pretty beaches dot the north shore and you can pretty much stop wherever you want. I spent a couple of hours at Ehukai Beach Park – where some of the world’s most perfect barrels break. Though surfing conditions were not optimal on this perfectly sunny day, the beach was magnificent and there were even a few surfers trying their luck.
Once a laid back spot, the immense strip of soft sand is now backed by enormous mansions. Some are owned by ordinary wealthy folks who like to surf, some by surf-friendly celebs like Jack Johnson (love you Jack), and some are owned by top surf brands who use the mansions to pamper the pros who advertise them as well as loyal fans.
This is the north shore’s most popular beach so finding a parking spot is quite a challenge. When the weather is good, Waimea Bay is drop-dead gorgeous, definitely worth the wait for a parking spot to free up.
Shave Ice at Matsumoto
To wrap up this road trip in Oahu with a sweet taste in your mouth, stop for some shave ice at Matsumoto Shave Ice on the way back to Honolulu. Considered the best shave ice in Oahu, the wait at Matsumoto can be over 20 minutes long, but it’s totally worth it. I never thought that shave ice could vary from one place to another (after all, it’s ice with flavored syrup), but Matsumoto definitely trumps them all. Choose from over 30 flavors that can be combined to create an infinite amount of new ones, and don’t forget to ask for some ice cream inside – it’s the best!
I hope you’ve found this 4 days in Honolulu and Oahu sample itinerary useful for planning your holiday! Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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