Oahu, the main and most populous island in the Hawaiian chain and the primary entry point for most visitors, contains numerous attractions and warrants at least three full days to see the major sights. Honolulu, the state’s capital, provides the best base of operations for your exploration.
Waikiki Beach & Diamond Head presents one of the most famous scenes in the world. The beautiful and popular beach, renowned for surfers and outriggers is set against the backdrop of the ancient volcano remnant and is stunning at any time of the day.
The islands themselves are located virtually in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, above what is known as a geological “hotspot”, a permanent area of upwelling magma, rising from earth’s mantle. Because the Pacific Ocean plate is moving in a northwesterly direction, new islands are created from northwest to southeast. Thus, Oahu (one of the more westerly of the Hawaiian Islands) is older than Maui or Molokai. The youngest of the Hawaiian Islands is the “Big Island”, Hawaii. As a result of all this geology, Oahu has remnants of volcanoes, but nothing active, while Hawaii has several very active volcanoes.
But Waikiki is all about the water and “sun’n’fun.“ Numerous hotels on the beach or just across the street offer opportunities for all sorts of water sports, or just plain tanning or wading. Climbing Diamond Head (at Diamond Head State Monument) provides the hearty (many stairs and highly exposed to the tropical sun) with a glorious view of the beach and the Oahu shoreline. (Be advised that flashlights are needed since the walk traverses several lengthy tunnels — they are available at the State Monument but are expensive, so visitors are advised to bring their own from home). While at Waikiki, be sure to watch or join the surfers ride the waves (many are excellent) and walk along the beach to people-watch and to be seen.
While in Honolulu, also check out the state government area which includes the interesting State Capitol Building, Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the USA, and the statue of King Kamehameha, who united the islands and was their first true monarch.
Iolani Palace is the only official royal residence in the United States. From 1882 till the end of the monarchy in 1893, it was the residence of the Hawaiian royal family. Subsequently, it became the capitol building. Now it is open to the public and is preserved as a memorial to the past.
Across from the palace is the statue of King Kamehameha, who united all the Hawaiian Islands and served as Hawaii’s first king. Also nearby is Hawaii’s new Capitol building which is also worth a look because of its unusual architecture.
Other Oahu sights include snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, visiting Pearl Harbor to get immersed in World War II history at the USS Arizona and other memorials, or spending at least a half day at the Polynesian Cultural Center for an entertaining look at the various cultures of the South Pacific.
Pearl Harbor is the scene of the infamous Japanese air raid, on December 7, 1941, which heralded America’s entry into World War II. This is still an active US Naval Base, but much of the area devastated in the attack has been preserved as a memorial to the men and women who lost their lives on that fateful day. The most important memorial is the USS Arizona Memorial, which consists of a white enclosure above the sunken hull of the Arizona, on Battleship Row. Oil still leaks from the vessel, and continues to bubble upward to the surface.
The men who lost their lives when the Arizona sunk are still entombed within its hull — their names are immortalized on the walls of the shrine room. Access to the memorial is via shuttle boat and tickets are available on a first come, first served basis, starting at 7:30 AM, so visitors are encouraged to arrive early and plan to wait in line, especially during the summer months. A visit includes a 23-minute documentary film and the 50-minute boat trip. The entire experience is extremely spiritual and reverent, and visitors are asked to maintain silence in respect for these lost souls.
Other sights available on a visit to Pearl Harbor include the Battleship Missouri Memorial, which commemorates the end of the World War II Pacific Campaign on the ship where the Japanese surrender was signed in 1945, and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park. The USS Utah Memorial may be visited by civilians, only when accompanied by a military sponsor.
The Polynesian Cultural Center, located near the north shore beaches on the island of Oahu, is an educational and entertaining examination of the cultures of the islands of the South Pacific. The complex is divided into sections which recreate the homes and environments of these people. Within each area, there are demonstrations, such as, opening a coconut, dancing the hula, weaving a basket, etc. Some of these exhibits solicit visitor participation.
There is a daily parade of boats, one for each island group, which displays men and women in native costumes doing native dances. In the evening, these same performers participate in an extended program of dancing, flaming-baton twirling, etc.
Hanauma Bay nature preserve, located on the northeast coast of Oahu, is a state underwater park which features snorkeling and scuba diving on a horseshoe-shaped, protected beach. Coral reefs are located just a few feet offshore, in fairly shallow water, making the area delightful even for small children. There is a fee to use the area and visitors are required to attend a safety and conservation orientation before reaching the beach.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the area has had a negative effect on the reef — it is not as extensive or accessible as it once was.
1. Visit the Hanohano Room at the top of the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian Hotel, in Honolulu, for the best view of Waikiki and Diamondhead. The room has huge glass windows, so have a drink at the bar and take lots of pictures.
2. Take a drive north from Honolulu along the Pali Highway, Route 61, to the Nu’Uanu Pali State Wayside for a glorious view of the northern part of the island from a cliff which was the site of King Kamehameha’s decisive victory in the battle to unite the islands. Along the way, stop at the Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which sits high above Honolulu and offers views back toward the city.
3. To see the best surfers in the world, drive to Oahu’s North Shore, where legendary beaches like the Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay receive some of the best surf in the world, especially in winter.
4. Take note of the following when visiting Pearl Harbor. Because of additional security measures adopted post 9-11, bags, including camera bags and backpacks, pocketbooks, etc. are not allowed on the tour, so visitors should leave these items in their car, before leaving the parking lot to get into line. Cameras are allowed as long as they are exposed in full view.
5. My walking tour of Honolulu was posted on New Year’s Day, 2009. It accesses many of the city sights described above.