WANDER LIST: OAHU
When asked to conjure up images of Hawai'i in their head, most people paint a tropical paradise of white sand beaches, palm trees, hula dancers and soft lapping waves along the shore. While this idyllic picture of Hawai'i is certainly very real, the reasons why I have always felt so at home here, particularly Oahu, go far beyond those sunsets and beaches we all see depicted in travel brochures.
I've been lucky enough to have visited Hawai'i many times in my life. My husband was born and raised in Oahu, so we've been visiting his family out there pretty much every year since we've been dating. We got engaged in Maui and got married at Waimanalo Beach in Oahu. To me, it just feels like home, and to my husband, it IS home.
The island of Oahu is known as "The Gathering Place". This moniker definitely represents what's most important to the people who call this place home. The ohana, the family, is the center of everyday life. Whether it's the family you were born into or the family you choose, the sense of community here is as palpable as those postcard-worthy Hawaiian sunsets.
Although the appeal of Oahu is easily seen on the surface, there's so much more to this island that I hold so near and dear to my heart.
Below is by no means a comprehensive list of everything I love in Oahu, but it features a lot of the places I usually give out to first-time visitors who ask me for recommendations. You'll notice there are no lu'aus, no bus tours, no mention of helicopters. Although all those things are nice, too.
[ See & Do ]
Haleiwa Town & North Shore - Legendary swells put it on the map, but there are more things to do than surf in the North Shore! There's lots of shopping and great food in Historic Haleiwa Town, and Sunset Beach is a great place to catch...you guessed it, a great sunset.
Lanikai Pillbox Hike (aka Ka'Iwa Ridge Trail)- This trail may be short, but it delivers a spectacular view of most of the Windward side of the island. The trail is also pretty steep, so it's a great way to get some cardio in early in the morning!
Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail- I wouldn't really call this much of a trail, more like a paved road up to see amazing views of Windward coast. There's little to no shade on the trail, so bring a hat and lots of water!
Makapu'u Tidepools- An offshoot of the lighthouse trail, the hike down to the pools is full of loose rocks, so make sure to bring good trail shoes! A dip in the tidepools feels amazing after a hot day of hiking. Beware of strong rogue waves that sometimes crash into the pools. Strong swimmers recommended.
Maunawili Falls Hike- Get ready to get nice and muddy on this 3-mile jungle trail. Waterproof hiking shoes are recommended. I learned this the hard way.
Tantalus Drive- This winding hillside drive offers some of the best views of Diamond Head and the greater Honolulu area.
Hanauma Bay- This famous snorkeling spot can often get crowded, especially on weekends, but it's well worth it for easy snorkeling.
Kaena Point Trail- This trek along the westernmost tip of Oahu is truly breathtaking. It sort of reminds me of Jurassic Park. Starting from the Waianae side, it’s best to park near the beach lifeguard stand if you can and walk the extra quarter mile or so to the Ka’ena Point State Park entrance.
China Walls at Sunset- Also known as Koko Kai Mini Beach Park, this is a great spot to catch a sunset in the Portlock area of Oahu. Parking is only in the residential area, so be respectful of the residents' properties.
Byodo-In Temple- Tucked away at the foot of the Ko'olau Mountains in Kaneohe, this is a peaceful and serene place to take a stroll and admire the Japanese Buddhist temple and its surrounding gardens.
Waikiki Beach- While it's true that Waikiki is a total tourist trap, this historic piece of paradise is still worthy of all its hype. It's a great place to people watch and catch a sunset if nothing else. Need some poolside drinks? Grab a cocktail at The Edge of Waikiki bar next to the Sheraton's infinity pool.
Lanikai Beach- I may be biased, but this is hands down my favorite beach on Oahu...maybe even all of Hawaii! We usually opt for the more secluded patches of shore at the southern end of Mokolua Drive. The residents here aren't too thrilled with visitors parking on their streets, so always be courteous and respectful of their property...They pay a hefty price tag for it.
Waimanalo Beach- If you want a more peaceful beach vibe, Waimanalo is typically more quiet than Kailua or Lanikai Beach. My husband and I got married here for that reason. Again, this beach is in a residential area, but there's also Waimanalo Beach Park with lots of parking spaces available.
Manoa Falls Hike- This easy short hike is less than a mile one way, but it takes you through lush tropical vegetation which was the backdrop to scenes from Lost and Jurassic Park.
Waimea Falls- The Waimea Falls Park trail leading up to this North Shore landmark is very family friendly. There are botanical gardens along the way and at the end of the short 30-minute walk, you're rewarded with a nice cool dip at the 50-foot Waimea Falls!
Chinatown- A few years ago, I wouldn't have recommended going into this seedier section of Honolulu unless you were especially brave. These days, the revitalization of the area has brought with it lots of great local restaurants, bars and shops. I've even discovered a couple of new favorites here, which I list in the following sections.
[ Shop ]
Mōno- If you love well-designed, quality goods for your home and office, then this awesome store will surely become an instant favorite. Chatting with the shop owners Dean and Cassy, it’s clear how their innate love for design aesthetics translates over into their carefully curated selection of office supplies, stationery, home goods and more.
2013 South King St. (Honolulu)
Olive Boutique- This charming little shop is the perfect place for beach-chic essentials like dresses, swimwear and island-inspired scents.
43 Kihapai St. (Kailua)
Oliver Men's Shop- A few doors down from its sister store is this tiny yet very inspiring menswear shop filled with great clothing and accessories for guys or girls who love shopping for their dudes (like myself)! There are so many great details around the shop -- from old surf photos of the owner’s wife's grandfather to the entryway tiled entirely out of pennies from 2013, the year Oliver opened.
49 Kihapai St. (Kailua)
Fishcake- This unique studio space offers fresh home furnishings, art and accessories in a cool, contemporary setting. There's even a Morning Glass Coffee bar at the front of the store. My kind of place for sure.
307 Kamani St. (Kaka'ako)
Fighting Eel- A chic women's boutique that carries feminine pieces from local and national designers.
multiple locations on Oahu
MORI by Art + Flea- This new and unique shopping experience brings together a creative small business community and like-minded artists from all around Oahu. There's really something for everyone here, from whimsical paper goods to jewelry to exclusively-designed tees. They also offer creative workshops and events, giving up-and-coming artists a chance to share their work. Because we're all about supporting local businesses wherever we go, MORI is definitely a store after our own hearts!
The Ward Warehouse 1050 Ala Moana Blvd. (Kaka'ako)
Paiko- Inspired by Hawaii's beautiful island flora, this botanical boutique is such a lovely addition to what used to be an industrial area of Honolulu. Aside from plant and fresh cut flower arrangements, they also carry books, crafts and gifts. Oh, and there's a Brue Bar coffee shop right inside the store. Swoon.
675 Auahi St. (Kaka'ako)
Owens & Co.- Located in historic Chinatown, this well-curated boutique features hard-to-find designers, both local and international. They carry one of my favorite new t-shirt lines handmade in Honolulu called Salvage Public (as does Oliver Men's).
1152 Nuuanu Ave. (Chinatown)
Roberta Oaks- Find one-of-a-kind handmade modern Hawaiian shirts and lots of other unique fashion finds in this awesome lifestyle boutique.
19 N. Pauahi St. (Chinatown)
Hana Hou Vintage- Opened by the owners of Kailua favorite Muumuu Heaven, this highly-edited vintage clothing and accessories shop is a vintage lover's dream. So many gorgeous dresses (Hawaiian and otherwise), you'll want to play dress up for sure!
Ginger 13- Owner and designer Cindy Yokoyama puts her creative background to great use by thoughtfully curating the jewelry, gifts & accessories offered in this adorable boutique. Her collection of bohemian-inspired handmade jewelry is truly unique and makes the perfect souvenir or gift!
22 S. Pauahi St. (Chinatown)
Hound & Quail- This hidden gem tucked away in the outskirts of Chinatown is an antique collector's dream. From vintage cameras to charming old books, there's plenty to keep you coming back to their gorgeous and airy new space.
920 Maunakea St. (Chinatown)
in4mation- This popular streetwear lifestyle brand started in Hawaii but has since gained a huge following all over thanks to their always fresh aesthetic.
multiple locations in Oahu.
Madre Chocolate- Carefully crafted from bean to bar in Kailua, Madre Chocolates uses organic, fair-trade cocoa blended with unique ingredients like lilikoi and hibiscus. My personal favorite is the Triple Cocoa. Stop by and sample their best sellers! They're always very helpful and love to share their story.
8 N. Pauahi St. (Chinatown)
20A Kainehe St. (Kailua)
[ Eat & Sip ]
Town Kaimuki- Chef Ed Kenney’s first restaurant serves delicious and inventive dishes using seasonal, local and organic ingredients. The menu changes often, so it’s worth popping in every time.
3435 Waialae Avenue (Kaimuki)
Opal Thai- This small, unassuming restaurant gained its popularity largely due to chef and owner Opel Sirichandhra’s passion for Thai food and his fun, quirky personality. It’s BYOB and the chef personally selects your dishes for you based on your preferences. Don't worry, everything he brings out is more amazing than the last! A total must try.
66-197 Kamehameha Hwy. (Haleiwa)
The Pig & The Lady- Try their modern and eclectic take on Vietnamese cuisine with a little island flavor mixed in.
83 N. King Street (Chinatown)
Helena's Hawaiian- This is a great spot to grab traditional Hawaiian comfort foods like squid luau, pipikaula short ribs, lomi salmon & more!
1240 N. School St. (Kalihi)
Morning Glass Coffee- There are two distinct locations, one inside Fishcake which serves coffee, tea and pastries, the other in Manoa which has a larger food menu for breakfast & lunch.
2955 E. Manoa Rd. (Manoa)
The Manifest- Great drinks & chill nightlife with a cool downtown vibe.
32 N. Hotel St.
Sweet Home Waimanalo- Grab a healthy and delicious açai bowl before heading out to the beach! They also have a little gift shop filled with locally-made goods.
41-1025 Kalanianaole Hwy. (Waimanalo)
He'eia Kea Pier General Store and Deli- Known for their Hawaiian plate lunches and burgers, this is a great place to grab lunch while looking out into Kaneohe Bay.
46-499 Kamehameha Hwy. (Kaneohe)
Leonard's Bakery- If you’re only going to try malasadas (Portuguese donuts) once on the island, this would be the place to do so. Their custard-filled malasadas are my absolute favorite!
933 Kapahulu Ave. (Kaimuki)
Liliha Bakery- This is iconic Oahu bakery is best known for their “coco puffs” (cream puffs filled with, you guessed it, chocolate filling) and their Chantilly cakes. A must try!
515 Kuakini St. (Kalihi)
Wow Wow Lemonade- Handcrafted lemonades and smoothies with fresh local ingredients. Grab one on the way to the North Shore!
43 S. Kamehameha Hwy. (Wahiawā)
Brue Bar- There’s one inside Paiko which is more grab-and-go style, but the one downtown is more conducive to kicking back with friends or a good book while enjoying a cup of delicious coffee.
119 Merchant St.
Fresh Café- Serving breakfast, lunch and drinks while promoting community and creativity by providing a unique gathering space to showcase musicians, artists & culinary talents.
831 Queen St. (Kaka’ako)
1111 Nu’uanu Ave. (Chinatown)
The Beet Box Café- Yet another place I like to get açai bowls. They focus on fresh, local and organic ingredients and the whole menu is vegetarian & vegan. It’s located inside Celestial Natural Foods, all the way in the back.
66-443 Kamehameha Hwy. (Haleiwa)
Lucky Belly- Really excellent ramen. A must try, particularly on rainy days.
50 N. Hotel St. (Chinatown)
Chad Lou's Coffee- Located in between Olive Boutique & Oliver. Try their Aloha ‘Oe Latté!
45 Kihapai St. (Kailua)
Jawaiian Irie Jerk- Really incredible, authentic flavors of Jamaica! We loved their jerk chicken wings and the goat curry…yes, goat, was amazing. The only downside— small servings at a not-so-small price. Thanks a lot, Guy Fieri!
1137 11th Ave. (Kaimuki)
Shimazu Store Shave Ice- While it’s expected of everyone who visits Oahu to endure the long lines at Matsumoto’s up in the North Shore, I much prefer the shorter lines, larger and more unique flavor selection and cheaper prices at Shimazu. Ask to see the sizes before ordering…you may be shocked when they hand you the “medium”.
330 N. School St. (Kalihi)
Assaggio's Italian- I usually don’t recommend chains unless it’s Zippy’s…but this is a local favorite for traditional Italian in a nice, classy setting. Try their steak filet if you eat meat. My husband swears by it now!
Multiple locations in Oahu
Nico's Pier 38- This is an excellent place to get some of the freshest seafood on the island—right on the pier. Try the furikake ahi pan seared ahi!
1129 N. Nimitz Hwy.