Hawai‘i’s most visited island, O‘ahu has much to offer besides the clamor of humanity in Honolulu, Waikīkī, and the central ‘Ewa plain. The rest of the island is amazingly rural, with large areas of sugarcane fields and rain forest where wild boar still roam. It is easy to escape into O‘ahu’s spectacular scenery as jungle-clad roads and trails transport you from the high-rises of Honolulu. The Wai‘anae Mountains and the Ko‘olau Range form the backbones of the island, while tropical beaches line the shimmering coast. The snorkelers’ paradise of Hanauma Bay and the world-class surf breaks on the North Shore draw the crowds, but the Wai‘anae Coast is peaceful. Cultural attractions range from the popular Polynesian Cultural Center to the tranquil Byodo-In Temple.



Snorkeling in this sheltered bay is like swimming in a gigantic aquarium with more than 400 species of fish, some of which exist only here. A sandy-bottomed hole in the reef is perfect for first-time snorkelers. Fish-feeding, once a popular tourist activity, is no longer allowed since this is a conservation district. A Marine Education Center presents an orientation video and offers restrooms, a snack bar, and a tram service to the beach. To avoid the crowds, visit early in the morning.


It is worth stopping at the lookout below the Makapu‘u lighthouse for humbling views of sky and sea, with rock islets artistically arranged. You can watch the action on nearby Makapu‘u Beach, a pocket cove that boasts the island’s best body-surfing waves. Local kids make the wave-hopping look easy, but it requires precise timing to avoid being dragged onto the rocks. Hiking trails lead upward into black mountains, but you do not need to climb beyond the first 100 ft (30 m) or so for spectacular photos. Hikers can continue to the hang-glider launch site at 1,250 ft (380 m) and watch the intrepid fliers. Facing Makapu‘u Beach, the educational Sea Life Park features a huge Hawaiian reef tank and regular performances by penguins, sea lions, and dolphins. The park has spectacular views of O‘ahu’s breathtaking coastline. Buses link up with Waikīkī.


This replica of a 900-year-old Japanese temple cannot be seen from the highway. The only marker is a Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau sign for a historic sight. Once you turn into the Valley of Temples – a non-denominational cemetery – the road winds into the valley to reach this hidden treasure, its walls red against fluted, green cliffs. After crossing the curved vermilion footbridge, you can ring a three-ton bell to assure long life and to receive the blessings of the Buddha. Remove your shoes before entering the shrine, where a 9-ft (3-m) gold and lacquer Buddha presides. Visiting the temple just before sunset provides a tranquil experience. You will not be able to see the Buddha (the temple closes at 4 pm), but the profound silence will be punctuated only by the singing of birds. The sun set ting behind the cliffs gives off pink and mauve hues, and, if you are lucky, you may have the scene all to yourself.


The three trails that make up the Hau‘ula Trails area – Hau‘ula Loop Trail, Ma‘akua Ridge Trail, and Ma‘akua Gulch Trail – provide everything that hikers love best about Hawai‘i’s finest trails. They are wide with excellent footing and offer spectacular mountain, valley, and ocean views. You should allow approximately two hours for a round-trip of any of the trails, all of which begin beyond the end of Ma‘akua Road, off Hau‘ula Homestead Road which is just beyond the tiny town of Hau‘ula.


The village of Lā‘ie was founded by Mormon missionaries in 1864 after a failed attempt to settle on the island of Lāna‘i. Lā‘ie now contains a Mormon temple, a branch of Brigham Young University, and a 42-acre educational theme park known as the Polynesian Cultural Center. At the Center, students from all over the Pacific demonstrate crafts and dancing in seven Polynesian “villages”: Tongan, Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Fijian, Maori, and Marquesan. The instruction, whether it be Tongan drumming or Samoan fire-making, is delivered in almost continuous mini-shows, and audience participation is encouraged. The afternoon show, Rainbows of Paradise, presents legends from all the islands with singing, dancing, and martial arts performed on double-hulled canoes. The Center is worth the hefty admission fee. However, some critics question the authenticity of the exhibits and shows – not all the “islanders” in the villages are the real thing. Despite this, the PCC remains Hawai‘i’s most popular paid attraction, with almost a million visitors a year. Regular shuttle buses connect with Waikīkī.


One of a few intact examples of an ahupua‘a – a Hawaiian land division from mountain to sea – Waimea Valley is a beautiful, unspoiled environment, a sacred place for native Hawaiians, and an important educational resource. After periods as an attraction, with glitzy hula shows and cliff divers, and as a facility run by the Audubon Society, it is now operated by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The 1,875-acre (759-hectare) area includes a waterfall, a 5,000-plant botanical collection, a refuge for endangered wildlife, and archaeological sites, including a 15th-century heiau (temple) dedicated to Lono, god of peace, agriculture, and music. Walking tours and cultural activities such as lei making, hula lessons, and storytelling are included in the cost of admission. Bring binoculars, as the park has great opportunities for birdwatching. After your visit, enjoy a swim or a snorkel at Waimea Beach Park across the street.


Once a plantation town and more recently a hippie hangout, Hale‘iwa is now the hub for the North Shore surfing community. Graced by local color from these subcultures, the town has a single main street with art galleries, boutiques, general stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. Tin-roofed Matsumoto‘s is the best place to try a Hawaiian specialty known as shave ice (thinly shaved ice flavored with exotic syrups and toppings, such as adzuki beans). Flanking a picturesque boat harbor are well-appointed public beaches. Ali‘i Beach Park is famous for big waves and surfing contests, but the adjacent Hale‘iwa Beach Park, protected by a breakwater, is one of the few North Shore spots where it is usually safe to swim in winter. The town‘s biggest event, the Obon Festival, is held every summer at a seaside Buddhist temple. It involves folk dancing and the release of thousands of floating lanterns into the sea, a truly enchanting sight.


The Dole Cannery, built by James Dole in 1903 next to his Wahiawā pineapple plantation, was at that time the world’s largest fruit cannery. In 1907, operations moved to Honolulu, eventually closing in 1991 due to increasing competition from Asia. The original Dole Cannery in Wahiawā now functions as a distribution warehouse. Across from the warehouse is Dole Plantation, a gift shop selling a range of pineapple products and a demonstration garden showing the different stages of the fruit’s growth. The Plantation is also home to the Pineapple Garden Maze, which is the largest maze in the world, with 1.7 miles of paths and covering more than two acres.


This $3 million restored village portrays over 100 years of sugar plantation culture. It shows how plantation owners segregated workers along strict ethnic lines and how, in spite of this, a common pidgin language developed. The village contains some recreated buildings from the major ethnic groups that worked the plantations, from the Korean, Puerto Rican, and Japanese homes to a Japanese bathhouse and a Shinto shrine. Personal objects placed in the houses give the impression that the occupants have just left.


With no souvenir stands and very few restaurants, O‘ahu’s sunny leeward coast is home to a population of native Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders. One of the coast’s prettiest beaches is Pōka‘ī Bay, where a breakwater shelters an aquamarine lagoon with sand as soft as cloth under your feet. Further northwest is Mākaha Beach, famous for its 30-ft (9-m) waves. In Mākaha Valley is Kāne‘ākī Heiau, with thatched houses and ki‘i (carved idols). It was used as a war temple by Kamehameha I. Mākaha means “ferocious,” and the valley was once notorious for bandits. The area still has a reputation for car break-ins; camping is not advised.


O‘ahu’s western extremity, Ka‘ena Point has a stark, mountainous coastline and spectacular sunsets. A hot but relatively easy 2-mile (3-km) trail leads to the point. Legend tells that the rock off the point is a chunk of Kaua‘i that the demigod Maui pulled off when he was trying to unite the two islands. On clear days, Kaua‘i can be spotted to the north. You may also see rare monk seals, green turtles, and humpback whales. The world’s highest waves slam against the rocks here. So far, no one has been suicidal enough to surf them. The point can also be reached from the road’s end in Mokulē‘ia. The two roads do not connect.