Where to Stay: O‘ahu

The islands of Hawai‘i might be the most exotic place in the United States. Especially when compared to the rest of the U.S.—you can’t get much further from familiar territory. One of the questions I get asked the most about traveling to the Hawaiian Islands is “Where should I stay?” My answer is almost always “Well…that depends”. From an outside perspective, each island must be pretty similar, right? Not exactly. Essentially, each of the four main islands of Hawai‘i are their own county (Maui also includes the neighbor islands of Moloka‘i and Lana‘i), and each has its own characteristics. What’s more, each island has different regions that also make for different terrain, opportunities and experiences for the would-be traveler. Over the next few blogs I’d like to talk about each island, the pros and cons of the different regions and give some of my top recommendations for places to stay at each. Last time I went over Kaua‘i, so we now turn to Hawai‘i’s “Gathering Place”—O‘ahu.

Waikiki & Honolulu

The vast majority of visitors to O‘ahu stay in Waikiki. It’s where you’ll find the lion’s share of all resorts. It’s on the world famous Waikiki Beach. It’s the home of a zillion restaurants. And it’s where the government originally decided they wanted visitors to stay. Honolulu is the central hub of the Hawaiian Islands, and Waikiki is the center of tourism. Lots of people work, live and play in this part of the state, and odds are overwhelming that this is where you’ll be staying. That’s because there are around 80 resorts on the island of O‘ahu, and all but a handful are in Waikiki. At any one time, 44% of visitors in the entire state of Hawai‘i are spending the night in Waikiki.

Imagine an area of less than one square mile that has over 30,000 hotel rooms. Imagine that this area is blessed with one of the most user-friendly beaches in the world. Where just about anyone can take a surfing lesson and ride their first wave. A place with more restaurants than most decent-sized towns. A place with limitless shopping. Well, this place actually exists. Waikiki is the essence of carefree. Visitors here tend to feel safe, warm and happy.

Waikiki is about walking and gawking, eating and shopping, surfing and soaking up the sun. You don’t come to Waikiki to get away from the action; you come here to get a piece of the action. This is the place where you and 4 million of your closest friends each year embrace the tropics and each other. If you’re looking for a quiet, out-of-the-way destination, look elsewhere. Waikiki is a humming, happening visitor mecca.

Here’s a couple of my top picks for places to stay in Waikiki & Honolulu

Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa

The Kahala Hotel & Resort

East O‘ahu

Talk about an embarrassment of riches. This side of the island is windward, so you get wetter weather which in turn brings beautiful, lush vegetation.You have several ways to get to Kailua on the windward side from Waikiki, all of them pretty. Odds are you’ll want to take the coastal highway because there are a number of not-to-be-missed sights along the way. But even if you take the coastal road this time, you should definitely find the time during your stay to take one of the highways that punch though the Ko‘olau mountains—the best being the H-3, which is arguably the most beautiful stretch of freeway in the world. The main towns on this side of the island are Kailua and Kane‘ohe.

Kailua is your classic beach town and, in our minds, one of the nicest places to stay if you’re not going to make your base in Waikiki—though it is no longer the sleepy town it was a decade or so ago. Though only 30 minutes from Honolulu via the Pali Highway, it’s a world away from big city life. There are no resorts here, but vacation rentals and B&Bs are plentiful. Two of the finest beaches on the island bless this community, the kayaking in Kailua Bay to offshore islands is fantastic, and there are some excellent restaurants. If you’re looking for a dreamy beach scene backed by offshore islands, Lanikai Beach is a must. If you want a long, delicious beach to stroll along or want to kayak these waters to a nearby island, you gotta check out Kailua Beach. While it’s true that Kailua seems to be getting loved to death these days, there’s a reason for the love.

Kane‘ohe is the next town. The most important landmark in Kane‘ohe is the Kane‘ohe Marine Corps Base. Forget your visions of row upon row of barracks with privates running around as sergeants bark out orders. This is a charming, self-contained city with all the comforts of home—sort of an island within an island. It has restaurants, a movie theater, gas stations, neighborhoods of beautiful houses, schools and school buses, car rental companies, stellar beaches and a very nice golf course called Klipper. Everything a growing marine and his/her family could want. The only thing you won’t find here is… you. It’s an active marine base and access is restricted. However, there are some amazing sights to see in this area, such as the Valley of Temples. It’s a lush, beautiful stretch of land with various temples scattered around the area. In the back is the greatest temple of them all. The Byodo-In is a grand replica of a 970-year-old Buddhist temple in Uji, Japan. Built in the 1960s to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Japanese immigrant workers to Hawai‘i, the temple is the absolute essence of serenity. It’s like taking a mini-trip to Japan. Backed by the gorgeous Ko‘olau mountain range and fronted by a large pond filled with koi and curious black swans, it’s impossible to not feel peaceful here.

Here’s my (only) top pick for places to stay in East O‘ahu.

Paradise Bay Resort

The North Shore of O‘ahu

The North Shore is probably the prettiest area on the entire island. Forget the big city and its multi-lane highways. This is a place with only a few traffic lights and a two-lane road that hugs the shoreline, embracing the Hawai‘i of yesteryear. Along the way you’ll find yourself constantly drooling over the beaches and mountain scenery. The major towns here are La‘ie and Haleiwa, with numerous smaller communities in between and around them. The area is world famous for its surf breaks, and when winter brings the big swells the whole area turns from sleepy beach community into a surfer Mecca. People and cars line the roads, crowding and craning necks to see the pros take on monster waves. If you’re hoping to stay here during winter, you’ll have to book way in advance. Thanks to the area’s popularity, food options are decent, such as the famous food trucks specializing in shrimp in the community of Kahuku.

The biggest town along the eastern part of the North Shore is La‘ie. In terms of driving time, there is probably no place on the island that takes longer to get to from Waikiki than La‘ie. It’s also light years away in terms of the culture. La‘ie is a town heavily dominated by the Latter Day Saints (often called Mormon) Church. You won’t find much beyond bed and breakfasts for places to stay. Farther west, Hale‘iwa is the other biggest town on the North Shore. Places to stay are relatively sparse. O‘ahu has been amazingly successful at containing resorts in a single area. Outside Waikiki there are fewer than a dozen resorts. Turtle Bay is one of them and essentially the only player on the North Shore.

Here’s a couple of my top picks for staying on O‘ahu’s North Shore.

Turtle Bay Resort

Ke Ike Beach Bungalows

Waianae & Central O‘ahu

Wai‘anae in the west and Central O‘ahu are the least visited parts of the island. Central O‘ahu is dominated by vast fields of pineapple while Wai‘anae is dominated by exceptionally clear water and a bad reputation among island residents. Since there’s hardly anything in terms of places to stay in Central O‘ahu, I’m only going to discuss Wai‘anae and it’s neighboring resort areas.

Wai‘anae is the name of a town, but it’s also the name generally used to describe the western coastline leading all the way to Ka‘ena Point. Wai‘anae is one of the poorer sections of the island, and it has a reputation for being a rough place. In the ’70s that was certainly true. A number of violent crimes against visitors created an image among island residents that persists to this day. Don’t go to Wai‘anae, they say. You’ll get beaten up. Well, frankly, that’s ridiculous, and those who espouse that attitude need to come out here more often. Because it’s so dry, Wai‘anae has some of the nicest ocean water on the island, and you shouldn’t let its reputation dissuade you from partaking of its delights. We’ve gone to the police to confirm that today, violent crimes against visitors are extremely rare here. It’s mainly petty theft—frankly, a lot of it. The biggest problem we’ve found with Wai‘anae isn’t the people—it’s the bad restaurants. There are a few decent places to eat, but many people may prefer to stick with fast food out here.

The resort area of Ko Olina is the main resort out here. Their four manmade lagoons offer super-protected swimming and some surprisingly good snorkeling at times. This is where you’ll find the Disney resort is found. Past Ko Olina is the last large town in this area—Makaha. One of the least known resorts on the entire island is in Makaha. Hawaiian Princess has a heavenly location right on Papaoneone Beach, one of the lesser known beaches, and it’s very reasonably priced for what you get. If you’re not interested in staying in Waikiki, this resort has an incredible beachfront setting.

Here’s my top picks for staying in the Wai‘anae area of West O‘ahu.

Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa

Hawaiian Princess



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