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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

O'ahu itinerary for first time visitors

Updated: Feb 18

O’ahu is usually the first place where first time visitors to Hawaii visit and I get it. It has Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach as well as the Northern Shores for surfing. Nothing wrong with this but there is so much to do in O’ahu, it is difficult to cram it all in a week. My blog post is about the places where visitors should hit up to do and see. I haven’t put a time scale into this itinerary as there needs to be time to chill out on the beach and listen to the waves crashing against the shore. O’ahu is one of those islands in the world where a lot of time is needed to check out all the amazing places it has to offer but also needs some time to relax. O’ahu was the second island I came across (after Big Hawaii) and is certainly more upbeat especially on the Southern Shores as that is where Honolulu (the state capital) and Waikiki is based. The other shorelines are more out of the way, laid back places to check out. I fell in love with O’ahu (along with Big Hawaii and Maui) and here is my top advice for a pleasant stay here and also a list of places which needs to be done.

North Shore Beach, O'ahu, Hawaii
One of the many North Shore beaches found at Haleiwa

Getting to O'ahu

The best way to travel to Hawaii is by air of course. There are cruises which go around the Pacific Ocean and stop in O’ahu but on this post, I focus on air travel. The main and only airport on O’ahu is Honolulu - Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) and is also the largest airport in the State of Hawaii and the main gateway to the islands. The main airlines to serve O’ahu are Hawaiian, Alaska, Delta, American, SouthWest and Japan Airlines and destinations served are mainland USA, Canada, Japan, French Polyensia, Australia and other Pacific Islands as well as connecting flights to the other Hawaiian Airlines. Did you know that the longest domestic flight in the USA flies from HNL to Boston and New York with Hawaiian?

Photo of Hawaiian Airlines aircraft at Kona Airport, Big Hawaii island.
Hawaiian Airlines

On arrival, I must admit the best way to get around the island is by renting a car. Public transport does run from the airport into the city and Waikiki but to get around the island, unless booking up with a tour, forget it. I know it's not environmentally friendly but this is my honest opinion and if booked in advance, this can be the cheapest option. If looking for a cheaper car option than by using the main rentals like Almo, Hertz etc, try Turo. I hired a car with a local and worked out great and insurance can be brought.

Accommodation and food in O'ahu

Don’t get me wrong but accommodation in Hawaii is expensive, and a lot of visitors will book up stays in resorts or the main hotels which will cost an arm and a leg. A lot of the hotels and resorts don’t include breakfast in the price, that will be extra. So if traveling to the islands on a budget, I would say, go self-catering. That’s what I did. I rented a house on the North Shore, O'ahu via Vrbo. As I had a car, I could go to the supermarkets or to local stalls around the island to take products back to the house and cook. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to go to the restaurants, of course go to them as well, but it's not that cheap in Hawaii. I would also say go to Costco if staying a lot longer as products can be cheaper but some products will have to be brought in bulk.

Drinking cocktails at Hard Rock Cafe, Waikiki
Hard Rock Cafe in Waikiki

Things to do and see in O’ahu

Where do I start? Ok, I will do this in sections as I did the northern shore, eastern shore and southern shores in my seven day stay here; however I didn’t touch the western shoreline. Maybe next time? Right, let’s get ready to cram all this in!

Northern shore:

Beaches: There are numerous beaches to choose from to chill out on the wide golden sand. They are also great places to watch surfers do their thing on the famous North Shore coastline of O'ahu. One beach I highly recommend was the first one I checked out on the island, known as Hale’iwa Beach Park on the eastern side of Hale’iwa. I will always treasure the memories here as it was here I felt the ‘real’ Hawaiian beach experience. Palm trees with their branches blowing about in the coastal wind, lying on the sand, taking in the sounds with not a soul in sight. It was the perfect moment and is one of those moments on these beautiful islands I will always treasure.

The beautiful North Shore beachs of O'ahu, Hawaii

Waimea Valley: located halfway between Haleiwai and Kawela Bay, I only came across this by chance whilst driving along the main road, so I consider this to be a hidden gem. After parking up and paying a small fee, I walked up a trail path which goes through a nature reserve and botanical garden where the sounds of water going down the streams can be heard and the beautiful sight of fauna and flora. At the end of the trail is the Waimea Falls where there is also a lagoon that the water flows into. Its great on a hot day but no swimming of course if it has just rained (not sure why that is to be honest). Another reason to come here, if you are a fan of the television series, Lost, Waimea Valley was used in the filming during one episode. The walk throughout the valley can be steep in places however the paths are in good condition and are just good enough to push strollers and wheelchairs up them.

Loved walking up the Waimea Valley to check out this waterfall
Waimea Valley

Southern shore:

Honolulu: the state capital of Hawaii and to be honest, I wasn’t really impressed with it. Maybe I needed more time here, however there are some things to check out. As well as Waikiki which tags onto the eastern end of the city, there is a piece of history I wanted to see. It is the Iolani Palace which is the only Royal palace in North America and the official residence of one of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs, King Kalakua and his sister Queen Liliuokalani. The Americans who came over to Hawaii took over (not 100% sure what happened as I am still learning the history of Hawaii and I always say that there are two sides to every story if that means anything), but the Queen was later tried, convicted and imprisoned here at the Iolani Palace. The monarchy was eventually overthrown and became an American territory before becoming a state of the USA after the Second World War. These days the Iolani Palace is now a National Historic Landmark and the public can go inside and visit.

Also don’t forget to check out the King Kamehameha Statue which is located nearby. However, this is not the original statue, it is a replica. The original one is located on Big Hawaii.

The only Royal palace in North America, the Iolani Palace.
Iolani Palace & King Kamehameha Statue

Waikiki Beach: A very popular place for visitors to stay and chill out on the beach and learn to surf. Also a very well known location for the hit US-show Hawaii-Five-O if you are into the show. The very sandy beach stretches for over two miles with a lot of high-rises and resorts overlooking it. At night this place is where beautiful sunsets can be captured. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of this place. It was so touristy, all the gift shops, chain restaurants and bars where anyone can go around the world, and this wasn’t Hawaii for me. For others, its the place to be but for me, nope. It was OK but I was glad to get away from this area afterwards to the laid-back Hawaiian lifestyle.

The touristy beaches of Waikiki near Honolulu
Waikiki Beach

Diamond Head: One of the main landmarks on O’ahu and very noticeable when flying in and out of Honolulu airport or seeing it from down below on Waikiki. Diamond Head is part of the range of volcanoes on the island that has stood here for over two million years. But over 300,000 years ago, an eruption occurred and created the crater we see today. Hikers can go up there to check this out and will take about two hours to do so. To the locals, they call Diamond Head as Lēʻahi which roughly translates as ‘brow of the tuna’. Not quite sure why but hey, that’s what the locals call it. Since I visited Diamond Head, reservations are now required for visitors to Hawaii. All the information can be found here.

Pearl Harbor: As a person whose interests includes history, then for me a visit to Pearl Harbor is a must. The harbor was attacked by Japanese forces in December 1941 to take out oil supplies which would stop the Americans heading westwards towards Asia and assist with allied forces there. Because of the bombing, the United States were now involved fully in the Second World War. Here I paid my respects at the USS Arizona Memorial and checked out the exhibits on display. Tours are available and if you want to visit the memorial, it's best to book in advance (however there are usually around 1000 walk-in tickets on the day available but you have to be super quick on the day to grab them). All the information needed about the tours can be found here.

The memorial at Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor

Eastern shore:

Byodo-In Temple: Because of its location, I would say this is one of Hawaii’s hidden gems and I only came across this place on Google Maps. The Byodo-In Temple is a Japanese Buddhist temple located in Kaneohe. The temple was built in 1968 to commemorate one hundred years since the first immigrant from Japan landed in Hawaii. The temple itself is a replica of the one in Uji, Kyoto prefecture in Japan which has stood there for over one thousand years. However this replica is smaller than the one in Kyoto.

Whilst here I got to ring the sacred bell outside the temple, its dong-noise sounding out the valley where the temple is located. I got to walk around the temple and check out the decor whilst having a small prayer. Just remember to take the shoes off guys! There is also a eighteen-foot high golden Buddha statue to gaze upon whilst in the front of the temple, visitors can feed the fish. It really did feel like I was in Asia again. It was so peaceful, I could have stayed here all day and just relaxed.

The beautiful Buddisht temple of Byodo-in-Temple in O'ahu, Hawaii
Byodo-In Temple

Kualoa Regional Park with Chinaman’s Hat lookout: This little regional park on the eastern shores is worth a little stop where one can stretch their legs, have a snack, go for a wander on the small beach nearby or take in the views of the small islet nearby known as Mokoli’i. In English, it is known as Chinaman’s Hat because of the unmistakable shape of the island. According to Hawaiian mythology, Pele’s sister Hi’iaka battled a dragon lopping off its tail & leaving a piece of it behind which is known today as “Chinaman’s Hat”. Its resemblance to the hats worn by Chinese farmers, but this popular landmark is actually called Mokoli’i which means “Little Lizard”.

The famous lookout of an island which looks like a Chinaman's Hat from Kouloa Ranch
Chinaman’s Hat lookout

Kualoa Ranch: One of the main sights I really wanted to see was the Kualoa Ranch with its amazing backdrop. It is here where some of the Jurassic Park franchise was filmed along with classics like Lost, Jumanji, 50 First Dates, Godzilla, Pearl Harbor, Kong: Skull Island, Along Came Polly, Mighty Joe Young and You, Me and Dupree to name a few. As well as booking up a tour to go around the ranch to see these movie locations and stunning scenery, there is also a chance to do an ATV tour, e-bike and zipline.

The ranch itself is over 4000 acres and is a private nature reserve as well as a cattle ranch. Way back in 1850, King Kamehameha III sold a piece of land at Kualoa to an American, Dr. Gerritt P. Judd. Over the years, more and more land was brought up and increased to the 4000 acres which is where it stands today. The ranch is still owned by the family, at present, The Morgans who are direct descendants of Dr Judd. Whilst on the tour I found out that most of the filming for movies, television and even music videos are filmed in the northern part of the property. The only way to get to see the ranch is by going on a tour, because without a ticket, visitors can only see the visitor centre and the gift shop.

I really did enjoy my experience here. From bouncing around in the bus going around the ranch to hiding underneath the tree which was used to shelter from dinosaurs on the run in Jurassic Park was truly amazing. But for me it was the landscape, which is truly remarkable. Even the ocean view and looking out towards the Chinaman’s Hat was just simply breathtaking.

For more information and to book up tours, please visit their site here.

Kualoa Ranch is an amazing movie set location to check out
The tree featured in Jurassic Park is located here at Kuoloa Ranch

Travel tips for O’ahu (and the other Hawaiian islands):

Hawaii has two official languages and is the only U.S. state to do so (one for the pub quiz, the USA overall does not have any official languages, due to the many languages spoken by its citizens, like English, Spanish, Hawaiian, maybe a bit of French is spoken somewhere etc). Hawaii’s official languages are English and Hawaiian (which is a Polynesian language and very similar to languages spoken across the Pacific islands).

Hawaii accepts the US Dollar like the rest of America. Credit cards are widely used now but it's handy to have cash in places in the middle of nowhere just in case.

The climate is mostly warm and dry as the islands are located near the Equator. However if a rainstorm comes, it won’t be too long before it's over and everything will be dry again. Always have a light jacket for evenings when taking a stroll along the shoreline (or going up mountains) as it can be quite breezy here.

When using suncream, make sure it's reef friendly. Any sunscreen which contains the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate are banned as they are harmful to the reef. Hawaii was the first US state to bring this law in.

Also the crowds, how could I forget the crowds. Out of all the Hawaiian islands, O’ahu is the busiest. If you want to avoid the crowds, do not come during the peak summer months and the holidays around Christmas. I came in June and was fortunate that it wasn’t too busy.

Swimming in the ocean, no sharks here in O'ahu!
I love a cheeky swim in the Pacific


I love Hawaii and I love O’ahu. I can’t sum it up better. I love the landscapes, the breeze of the ocean, turtles on the beach, lying on the beach, running on the beach, did I mention beach?, the food, the culture, the history, O’ahu has it all. I only scratch the surface with O’ahu as I only had seven days here and I wish I had longer as I missed out on a few things like the Dole Plantation and going to the South Shore. The things I missed I hopefully catch up on my next visit. O’ahu has something for everyone and I would highly recommend it. Why not combine it with a trip to another Hawaiian island, as the connections with Hawaiian Airlines are amazing and very frequent. That's what I did and you get to see more of this beautiful part of the world.

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O'ahu, Hawaii - Danik's first timer's guide to this paradise island

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1 Comment

Jun 26

One of the top destinations on my list. Thank you for this, really interesting.

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