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An In-Depth Guide to the Island of Oahu

Young woman relaxing on Oahu shores

Aloha! Welcome to the beautiful island of Oahu. At North Shore Villa, we aim to ensure that your stay on our beautiful island is as magical as it should be. We hope this guide to Oahu is just what you need to have the trip of a lifetime. Check out the history, art, and fun activities in paradise and discover all the best things to experience while you are here!

Click any of the links below to jump to the section you are most interested in:

HISTORY OF OAHU | OAHU LANGUAGE & CULTURE | LAND ACTIVITIES | WATER ACTIVITIES | FOR THE FAMILY | FOOD | SHOPPING | HONOLULU | WAIKIKI | NORTH SHORE | WINDWARD COAST | EVENTS | TIPS & TRICKS

History of Oahu

The Hawaiian Islands were settled by Polynesian voyagers who, after settling the land, developed a new culture in their new homes infused with the social and political traditions of their ancestors. The Islands were divided into smaller kingdoms that were each ruled by their own chief who looked to a council comprised of other chiefs and high priests for guidance. This led to an eventual monarchy of Hawaiian kings and queens, each contributing to the culture and traditions of Hawaii.

The end of Hawaiian monarchies came when a group of American businessmen overthrew Queen Lili'uokalani in a bloodless coup on January 17, 1893. Without any permission from the U.S. State Department, the group proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate. The queen of Hawaii was placed under house arrest at Iolani Palace, a historical building you can visit today. Eventually, the U.S. government decided to annex the islands, which led to statehood in 1959. Hawaiian and American tensions in the islands derive from this history. On your visit, it would be wise to remember to be courteous and sensitive to locals.

Oahu Language and Culture

The culture and language of Hawaii have been influenced by many people and cultures over the centuries. Agriculture has always been an integral part of Hawaiian life. The mixed population seen all over Oahu today can be attributed to land development and the plantation life that imported workers from many countries in Asia, as well as Portugal and Puerto Rico. These people brought their cultures, food, and traditions with them as they settled in Hawaii, which is evident in the diverse atmosphere today.

Language

The two official languages of Hawaii are Hawaiian and English. Hawaiian is a Polynesian dialect with 13 letters and two symbols: the okina (‘) which represents a glottal stop, and the kahako (ō) which elongates the vowel that it is over. The kahako changes both the pronunciation and meaning of the word. Schools on Oahu now offer Hawaiian immersion options, where all classes are taught in the Hawaiian language. For a comprehensive Hawaiian dictionary, visit wehewehe.org.

Culture

Hawaiian culture is embedded in Oahu as seen in the numerous museums, galleries, and theatres that can be found throughout the island. Age-old traditions of hula and Hawaiian music are an important part of the culture that are infused into daily life.

To experience the culture in Oahu we recommend the following:

Hawaii State Art Museum: Located on the 2nd floor of the Capital District Building, this museum features exhibits, gardens, activities, and events surrounding Hawaiian culture and art.

Honolulu Museum of Art: With the mission to bring great art and people together, the Honolulu Museum of Art is dedicated to the cultural legacy and ideals of the Hawaiian people and their neighboring countries.

Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House: The second location of the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Spalding House, features art galleries, a permanent installation of David Hockney's interpretation of his original stage designs for the 1981 Metropolitan Opera production of L'Enfant et les sortilèges, sculpture-filled gardens, and a magnificent view overlooking Diamond Head and Honolulu.

Downtown and First Fridays: Downtown Honolulu comes to life the first Friday of each month with galleries, art exhibits, and free entertainment. First Fridays are the perfect way to experience the Hawaiian Culture.

Shangri La: The Shangri La museum of Islamic art, culture, and design offers insight to Islamic culture. The museum was built in 1937 as the Honolulu home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke and was inspired by Duke’s extensive travels throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Hawaii Theatre: Known as “the pride of the Pacific”, the Hawaii Theatre has been open since 1922 and serves the community with its tradition of high quality productions.

Diamond Head Theatre: The Diamond Head Theatre was opened in 1915 and has evolved into a modern gem. Located in Honolulu, this theatre is known for putting on popular shows to sold out audiences.

Kumu Kahua Theatre: To see plays about life in Hawaii, plays written by local playwrights, and plays about the Hawaiian people, check out the Kumu Kahua Theatre. This theatre was founded to experiment local works and has evolved into a full theatre with the mission of promoting local lifestyles and traditions.

Hula

Hula has become an iconic symbol of Hawaiian culture and art. This art form was originally used to communicate oral history through hand and hip movements, often accompanied by song and chants. Costumes embellished with flowers, leis, feathers, and shells are often worn by the dancers. Two forms of dance, the ancient kahiko style and modern auana style, both embody the Aloha spirit of the islands. Be sure not to miss out on the Aloha spirit by enjoying hula during your stay in Oahu. Maybe you’ll even get a chance to learn a hula.

Music

In addition to the sounds of the salty breeze and the crash of ocean waves, you will also hear the sound of Mele O Hawaii, or Hawaiian music. The harmonies you hear throughout the island originated in melodies made from the drum, nose flute, and vocal accompaniment. These early forms of music have evolved into the musical masterpieces heard today often accompanied by the popular ukulele. Visit the Kapi’olani park bandstand in Waikiki for live music or attend the Ukulele Festival held in Oahu every July.

Land Activities

See the natural sites and scenes of Hawaii through one of the numerous land activities that Oahu has to offer.

Hikes and Bikes  

The Island of Oahu has a variety of scenic hikes and bikes for all ages and abilities!

Ultimate Oahu Trail Guide Infographic

There are places in Oahu to rent scooters and bicycles all around the island and opportunities to jump on guided bike tours. Check out some of our favorites!

Historical Bike Tours

Spend four hours on the historic Honolulu tour that takes you past the iconic downtown sites including Iolani Palace, the shoreline, and Chinatown. Check out locations used to film TV shows such as Lost, Hawaii 5-0, Gilligan’s Island, and Magnum P.I.

Rainforest Bike Rides

Get away from the crowds and hit the dirt! This ride will take you through the rainforests where iconic movies such as Jurassic Park and Godzilla were filmed. There are both half-day and full-day mountain hikes available.

Pedaling Pub Crawl

Rent out a 15-person bike and join in on the pedaling pub crawl! Take 2.5 hours to bike around Oahu while stopping for beer tasting along the way.

Foodie Bike Tour

The ever popular Hawaii Foodie tour by Bike Tour Hawaii is a 4-hour ride with 10-16 stops at local restaurants to try local food throughout Honolulu and Waikiki.

Don’t Forget High Adventure!

For all you high adventure seekers, don't miss out on the on-land thrills of Oahu! Many companies on Oahu offer skydiving, ziplining, glider rides, and offroad mountain biking.  

Golf Courses

For a perfect day of leisure, check out one of the many golf courses on Oahu. What could be better than playing a sport you love while surrounded by breathtaking views? 

North Shore

Kahuku Golf

Turtle Bay Golf Course

Royal Hawaiian Golf Course

Pali Municipal Golf Course

Windward

Ko’olau Golf Course

Mililani Golf Course

Pearl Country Club

Ted Makalena Golf Course

Honolulu

Ala Wai Golf Course

Hawaii Kai Golf Course

Moanalua Golf Course

 

Leeward

Coral Creek Golf Course

Hawaii Prince Golf Course

Ko Olina Golf Course

‘Ewa Beach Golf Course

 

 Central

Oahu Country Club

Pearl Harbor

Visit the largest, historical tourist attraction in Hawaii. Pearl Harbor has two museums in addition to the USS Arizona Memorial honoring the crewmen killed on December 7, 1941 when Japanese Naval Forces bombed Pearl Harbor. Tickets are free, but anyone wanting to visit should arrive early, or book tickets well in advance.

Water Activities

From relaxing on the beach to snorkeling, and from wakeboarding to swimming with sharks, Oahu offers a variety of water activities for everyone!

Beaches

Ultimate Oahu Water Activity Guide Infographic

It’s Play Time!

Did you know that Oahu is the birthplace of modern surfing? It’s the host of three of the most prestigious surfing competitions in the U.S. No surfboard? No problem. Equipment can be rented for surfing and almost any and every water activity you can think of! Some of the most popular beach activities include body surfing, bodyboarding, paddleboarding, wind sailing, hang gliding, wakeboarding, kitesurfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, snuba diving (a new mix of snorkeling and scuba), jet skiing, swimming with shark expeditions, and parasailing. Sport fishing for Blue Marlin is another popular water activity as well as boat and whale watching cruises!  

For the Family

Lilo and Stitch gave the world the lesson, “ohana means family, family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” The island’s plethora of family friendly activities and adventures, that you and your little ones are sure to love, is evidence of Hawaii’s love for you and your ohana.

Polynesian Cultural Center: Explore the Polynesian culture and heritage by wandering through the 42 acres of the Polynesian Cultural Center. Experience song, dance, and traditions of other Pacific islands by participating in hands-on activities and a spectacular luau and evening show.

Dole Plantation: The Dole Plantation is not only a delicious experience, but a family favorite too. The plantation has activities for the entire family, including the Pineapple Express Train Tour, the Plantation Garden Tour, and the Pineapple Garden Maze. End the day with fresh pineapple soft serve.

Atlantis Submarine: See the beauty under the sea by booking a ride in the Atlantis submarine. Explore Waikiki’s marine mysteries from 100 feet under the water while getting to see turtles, fish, sharks, eels and more!

Waikiki Aquarium: Perfect for a rainy day, the Waikiki aquarium brings the ocean to you. With over 3,500 unique marine animals, beautiful coral, and home to the endangered Hawaiian monk seals, this is an Oahu must see!

Honolulu Zoo: The Honolulu Zoo has over 900 tropical animals and is open daily (except for Christmas) for visitors to explore and learn about animal life in Hawaii.

Kapi’olani Park: This beautiful park is named after Queen Kapi’olani and has been open since 1877! This park is perfect for those looking for a relaxing stroll and also offers morning Tai Chi classes, and evening concerts.

Sea Life Park: Is swimming with dolphins on your bucket list? Here’s your chance to interact with these beautiful creatures as well as watch turtle trainings, see penguin habitats, and marvel at sea birds, sharks, and more!

Other family favorites include exploring the Hawaii Nature Center, visiting the Bishop Museum, and playing at Wet 'n Wild Hawaii!

Food

You can’t go wrong when it comes to food in Oahu! Our island features delicacies from all over the world including traditional Hawaiian meals combined with influences from Japan, China, the Philippines, and American Cuisines. Be sure and try some of the freshest produce in the world grown right here in Oahu. WARNING: you’ll be craving it for weeks to come!

Luaus and Dinner Shows

Hawaiian barbeque

Get the full Hawaiian experience by attending a luau or dinner show! There are high quality dinner shows all over the island; here are some of our favorites:

Polynesian Cultural Center

After interacting with natives from seven Pacific island villages on 42 acres, enjoy dinner at Hawaii's most authentic luau. You’re in for a surprise. All we can tell you is that there are adolescents and fire involved. If you’re afraid to venture, the Ambassador buffet offers a better mix of American and Hawaiian cuisines. Authentic food trucks at the center’s Hukilau marketplace is a cheaper alternative for local dishes like garlic shrimp. Finally, Pounders restaurant near the theater for the evening show, Ha: Breath of Life, will take your breath away.

Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park

With a view of both the ocean and the mountains, Chief’s Luau is the highest rated luau on both TripAdvisor and Yelp. Experience authentic Hawaiian cuisine while being hosted by one of the world’s best fire knife dancers, Sielu Avea.

Magic of Polynesia

There’s no show in the world like it! This “must-see” spectacle is the #1 performance in Waikiki. The Magic of Polynesia featuring John Hirokawa: guaranteed to mesmerize.

Paradise Cove Luau

Paradise Cove Luau is on a 12-acre beachfront estate where a Hawaiian-style luau supper and Polynesian entertainment is staged with fun-filled activities throughout the evening.

Ka Waa - A Luau at Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa

Experience an exhilarating and enchanting journey through Hawaiian history and discover its deep cultural roots in canoe (waʻa) exploration, which brought the first ancient explorers to the shores of Ko Olina.

Aha’aina Luau

Waikiki’s only oceanfront dinner show is a culinary and sensory celebration, commemorating Hawaiian culture and transforming the traditional island experience in grand Royal Hawaiian style. The Royal Hawaiian’s ‘Aha‘aina is a lavish epicurean journey through time.

Lei Leis

The open air bar and grill is one of the most popular local spots on the North Shore. A casual and laid back atmosphere coupled with mouthwatering dishes, makes it no surprise that this place sees surf and movie industry stars regularly.

Haleiwa Joe’s

This Oahu gem offers hand-cut and homemade seafood right from the ocean to the grill. It’s one of the longest standing restaurant establishments on the North Shore and their coconut shrimp can’t be beat.

North Shore Shrimp Trucks

Tourists from Honolulu and Waikiki always make the trek to the North Shore to try the famous shrimp trucks. Simple plates of peel-it-yourself garlic shrimp, rice, and Hawaiian macaroni salad is one of the top dishes on the island. Decide which truck is your favorite between Fumi’s, Romy’s, Giovanni’s, and more.  

Ted’s Bakery

Known for their famous Chocolate Haupia Pie, Ted’s Bakery is a must when visiting Oahu. Whether you’re craving something sweet or looking to try popular local dishes like Chicken Katsu, Shoyu Chicken, or a Loco Moco, Ted’s is the place to do it.

Hukilau Cafe

If you’ve ever watched 50 First Dates, you may have heard of the Hukilau Cafe bringing Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore together. Although the place was jazzed up for the movie, this hole-in-wall restaurant never disappoints. A perfect breakfast stop, the banana pancakes and French toast always impresses.

Top of Waikiki

Fabulous 360-degree views are served nightly at Hawaii's only revolving restaurant. Chef Lance Kosaka's award-winning Hawaii-Regional Cuisine is the perfect complement to a superb wine list.

Shopping

From local crafts to international designers, Oahu has the fashion finds, food, stores, and items you are looking for! Check out some of our favorite shopping centers around the island:

Ala Moana Center: With over 340 stores and restaurants, the Ala Moana Center features children’s play places, live Hawaiian music, hula shows, art exhibits, and more!

Aloha Stadium Swap Meet and Marketplace: This open air flea market features some of the best local finds and deals in town! Come find your favorite handmade Hawaiian products.

The Center of Waikiki: Also known as the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, the center of Waikiki is an upscale shopping and dining plaza not far from the Waikiki beaches and perfect for a night out on the town.

Dukes Marketplace: Dukes Lane Marketplace and eatery describes itself as “a shopping-dining adventure unlike anything you have experienced in the past”. Be sure to call ahead to make reservations at Basalt, its premier restaurant known for its “well-traveled Island food”.

International Marketplace: The International Marketplace is a mall that offers traditional Hawaiian dining and entertainment with a wide variety of stores for everyone and every need. They feature stores that specialize in products from luggage to eyewear, and from sporting wear to luxury stores including Christian Louboutin, Swarovski, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Luxury Row: Luxury Row is a high-end shopping complex that specializes in boutiques, apparel, and accessories. In addition to its many stores, it is known for offering “one of the finest collections of luxury brands in the world, with more than 111,000 sq.ft. of international retailers including Chanel, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Coach, Tiffany & Co., Moncler, Miu Miu, and Bottega Veneta.”

Lanikai Beach at dusk

Honolulu

Honolulu is known for being one of “nature's finest” places and is guaranteed to leave you in wonder and awe at the beauty you will see.

Some of the local favorites include:

Chinatown | Foster Botanical Gardens | Tantalus Rainforest Makiki | Lyon Arboretum | Manoa Heritage Center | Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside Look Out

Waikiki

Great food, lots of fun, beautiful scenery, electric nightlife, and pristine beaches is what make Waikiki so special. While you’re in this part of Oahu, be sure to check out some of the museums and memorials that it is known for.

US Army Museum: This museum honoring the Hawaiian Army is open Tues-Sat from 10:00 am - 5:00 pm. The exhibits in this museum honor the military institutes, events, and technology of Hawaii’s history.

Wahiawa Healing Stones: While the history of these stones is not completely known, Hawaiians believe that the stones at this monument have sacred healing properties.

Waikiki Aquarium: With over 3,500 unique marine animals, beautiful coral, and incredible events this is an Oahu must see!

Honolulu Zoo: The Honolulu zoo has over 900 tropical animals and is open daily (except for Christmas) for visitors to explore and learn about the animal life in Hawaii.

Kapi’olani Park: This beautiful park is named after Queen Kapi’olani and has been open since 1877! This park is perfect for those looking for a relaxing stroll and also offers morning Tai Chi classes, and evening concerts.

North Shore

Make the North Shore your shore by exploring all that the North Shore of Oahu has to offer!

Polynesian Cultural Center: Learn about the islands through spectacular shows and activities. This is a MUST see!

CLIMB Works Keana Farms: Zipline through Oahu’s North Shore!

North Shore Eco Tours: Learn about Hawaii while exploring untouched land off and experiencing the beauty of nature.

Kahuku Farms: Take a tour through Kahuku farms and learn about the history of the food of the Island. This tour will teach you about the food process, from planting the seeds to getting to your home.

The Beach: Some of our favorite public beaches include Shark’s Cove, Mokuleia Beach, Malaekahana Beach, Sunset, and Ehukai Beach. But of course, when you stay at North Shore Villa, you have your own private beach that you can see from your bed!

Leeward Coast

Plantation Village: Plantation Village is also known as the outdoor museum of Hawaii’s cultural history. This village tells the story of sugar plantations in Hawaii with replicas of plantation structures as well as restored buildings. Experience authentic and personal artifacts, clothing, furniture, and art from Polynesia, Hawaii, and Asia.

Waianae Mountains: The Waianae Mountains form the western part of Oahu and are home to the oldest volcano on the island. This mountain range is known for its dry but beautiful red earth.

Windward Coast

Sea Life Park: If dolphin encounters, luau’s, and aquariums are your thing, make sure and add Sea Life Park to your to-do list!

Makapuu Lighthouse: This lighthouse is situated on Oahu’s most eastern point and overlooks Sea Life park. It is a great place to spot whales and other islands in the distance as you overlook the beauty of Oahu.

Nuuanu Pali Lookout: This historic lookout is known for its panoramic views of the Koolau Cliffs and Oahu’s Windward coast.

Byodo-In Temple: The only place in Hawaii where you can see an authentic Japanese temple! What makes this temple even more incredible is that it is a to-scale replica of a temple in Uji, Japan, and was made without nails!

Annual Events

Oahu has many annual events that you will not want to miss! While the 2017 dates are listed below, these are events that happen at similar times every year. Check the dates of your trip and see if you’ll be in town for some of these awesome activities.

Chinese New Year: Early to Mid January

Honolulu Festival: March 10-12, 2017

Lei Day: May 1, 2017

Mele Mei: Month of May

Lantern Floating Festival: Memorial Day

King Kamehameha Day: June 11, 2017

Koloa Plantation Days: July 21-30, 2017

Prince Lot Hula Festival: July 15-16 2017

Ukulele Festival: July 16 2017

Aloha Festival: September 2017

Vans Triple Crown: Nov-Dec 2017

Pearl Harbor Remembrance: December 7, 2017

Click here for a complete list of seasonal events and activities in Oahu.

Tips and Tricks

Hanauma Bay

At North Shore Villa, we make sure that you are taken care of from the moment you book your reservation to your journey back home. When you book with us you have access to our resources including accommodations, concierge services, pick-up and delivery services, activity suggestions, private chef, cleaning, dinner reservations, grocery shopping, etc. We are ready to provide what you need to make your perfect vacation, perfect.  

Oahu is beautiful year-round and everyday is a good day to visit. If you want to see the humpback whales, make sure to visit between October to April.

For an easy and delicious meal, review our list of North Shore’s best meals. Our personal favorite? Definitely, the shrimp trucks.

Temperatures vary from 70 to 85 degrees on average. Come prepared in the summer months for rain and bring your rain jacket!

Tune your radio in to KCCN 100.3 FM, KDNN 98.5 FM, and KINE 105.1 FM for the sounds of Hawaii as you venture through the island!

Reserve Pearl Harbor tickets in advance, Tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are free, but there are only 1200 given out a day so reserve them in advance or they may sell out!

Consider buying the GO-Oahu Card! This card is either a 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 day all-inclusive pass to the popular spots on the island and can save you money depending on the attractions you plan on visiting.

 

If you’re considering a visit to the breathtaking island of Oahu, book your stay with us at North Shore Villa.