Oahu (Hawaiian: Oʻahu) is the most populous of the Hawaiian islands, the third largest in size (after the Big Island and Maui) and the cultural, financial, and top tourist destination of the Hawaiian islands. As the home of the city of Honolulu, the state capital, and as home to over 85% of the state's population, Oahu is appropriately nicknamed "The Gathering Place."
Oahu is truly at the heart of Hawaii. The city of Honolulu is busy, and its Waikiki district even more so. Oahu is home to the only real metropolitan area in all the Hawaiian Islands. For some, this has been both a blessing and a curse for the island.
On the plus side, visitors to Oahu and local residents themselves share in all the amenities and conveniences that only a large city such as Honolulu can provide—days spent dashing about, bustling nightlife, great restaurants, exciting cultural events and establishments, good public transportation, and a variety of shopping and lodging options. Combine this with the city and island's extensive beaches, parks, mountains, recreational areas, and quaint towns and this makes one enjoyable metropolitan area. On the minus side, Honolulu is a big city and has all the big city problems that come along with it, such as traffic, high cost of living, and some crime.
Honolulu may not embody the vision that some visitors have of Hawaii after looking at so many postcards: serenity and relaxation. True, one can relax on Oahu just by going to the right destinations on the island, you just need to know where to look. A calming oasis can be found as there are many resorts located outside of Waikiki that offer less crowded surroundings. Natural beauty can be found in the two mountain ranges, the Koolau and Waianae ranges. Some great hikes are just a short drive into the mountains from Waikiki. Secluded white sand beaches, funky beach towns, pounding winter surf on the North Shore. All of which can be found in other parts of Oahu.
So enjoy Honolulu and all it has to offer. But if you don't see the North Shore during the wintertime when monstrous waves pound the shore (think of the opening scene of the 1970s show Hawaii Five-O), then you have really missed something. Brave and experienced surfers attack these waves! If you don't take a drive through miles of pineapple fields, and if you don't take time to visit some of the white sand beaches, mountain trails, and scenery outside of Waikiki, then you really haven't seen all Oahu has to offer.
Two mountain ranges make up the island of Oahu. The Koolau Range (Hawaiian: Koʻolau) runs along the east side of the island and forms the backdrop for Honolulu; the Waianae Range (Hawaiian: Waiʻanae) runs parallel to the Koolau Range along the west side.
The majority of visitors to Oahu stay in Honolulu and its Waikiki district. The rest of the island is less visibly touched by tourism, with only a few B&Bs among the houses and natural sites on the Windward Coast and the North Shore.
The state capitol and by far the largest city in the Hawaiian Islands, home to excellent museums, notable historical sites, scenic landmarks, the tourist hotspot of Waikiki, and a diverse dining and nightlife scene, among other attractions.
A mostly suburban mix of bedroom communities outside Honolulu, situated amidst miles of pineapple fields.
The wetter and more lush part of the island, home to many secluded beaches, sleepy villages, and one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the Pacific.
The drier part of the island, with several rural communities and a couple of up-and-coming resort areas.
Home to some of the largest waves on earth in the winter; the ocean and surfing are a way of life here. Along the shore you'll also find charming towns and some interesting cultural attractions.
Besides Honolulu, a city large enough to be a region of Oahu onto itself, there are a number of towns of note on the island:
- Kailua - The largest town on the Windward Coast, with secluded beaches and lush scenery.
- Kahuku - A small town on the North Shore.
- Kapolei - A relatively new town on the Leeward Coast that's a focus of recent suburban expansion, with few tourist attractions but a developing resort area.
- Nanakuli - A small town on the Leeward Coast.
- Waianae - Another small town on the Leeward Coast.
- Hale'iwa - A small and pleasant beach town that's the focal point of activity on the North Shore.
- Waipahu - A prominent bedroom community and former sugar plantation town in Central Oahu.
- Kaneohe- Known For its sheer natural beauty, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more stunning Oahu neighborhood than Kaneohe, on the other side of the mountains from Waikiki. Kaneohe Bay has nearly 20 square miles of turquoise water.
- Waikiki - The tourist center of the Hawaiian Islands, with its famous beach and block after block of highrise hotels sitting beneath the striking Diamond Head crater.
- Pearl Harbor in Western Honolulu is noted for the surprise attack of December 7, 1941 that launched the United States into WWII; today visitors will find a striking memorial atop one of the battleships sunk that day as well as naval vessels open for tours.
- Hanauma Bay in Eastern Honolulu is arguably the best place for snorkeling in the islands, with a very accessible reef situated in the crater of a flooded volcano.
Flights from all over the world land at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport just outside of downtown Honolulu. Free Wiki-Wiki (Hawaiian for "quick") shuttle buses run between the Main Overseas Terminal and Interisland Terminal every 15 minutes. These will eventually be replaced with moving walkways and people movers.
TheBus routes #19 and #20 run between the airport and Waikiki. The fare is $2.50. Exact change is required and space for baggage is limited.
When taking TheBus from the airport to Waikiki, make sure the destination sign reads "Waikiki Beach and Hotels". The westbound #19 bus continues to a military installation (Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam), and Military Police check all passengers for military ID at the gate. Do not get on this bus if you do not have military ID: you will be left at the gates with no way to return to the main highway.
Car rentals are available at the airport and various locations downtown. A car is worth having for visits to the North Shore or if you are staying outside of Honolulu/Waikiki.
The Oahu bus system, officially called TheBus, runs between almost all towns on the island and to most tourist destinations.
- One-way fare is $2.50 adults, $1.25 youth, with exact change required. This fare does not include any transfers; once you get off the bus, a new fare is required.
- A day pass is $5.00 adults, $2.50 youth, and includes unlimited trips for the remainder of the service day (until 2:59 a.m. the following day). Be sure to specifically ask for it when you first board the bus. If you expect to make a round trip, multiple trips, and/or to transfer buses, the day pass will be worth getting. Simply show the day pass to drivers as you board.
Also available from ABC Stores and other Waikiki-area shops is a very handy guide to TheBus for $2.95.
Currently, an elevated rail project is under construction and is expected to be completed in phases through 2019. The line will connect Kapolei on the southern Leeward Coast with Downtown Honolulu, with stops at Pearl Harbor/Aloha Stadium and the airport.
The following are some of the more important major highways on Oahu. Both the common name and the state route number are given here. With the exception of H-1, H-2, and H-3 locals refer to most state highways by name, rather than route number.
A common question that mainland visitors ask is why Oahu has Interstate highways when they don't cross state lines (or even county lines for that matter). The answer lies in the full name of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Each of the Interstates has a current or former military base at or close to its terminus, and all of them run close to Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam. (In any event, there are a number of Interstates on the mainland that also run entirely in one state.)
- H-1 is an interstate freeway that runs from Kahala in East Honolulu west, through downtown Honolulu, past the airport and out to the western suburb of Kapolei where it joins Farrington Highway. H-1 is the busiest and most heavily used freeway on Oahu.
- H-2 is an interstate freeway that runs from the town of Waipahu through Mililani to the town of Wahiawa in Central Oahu.
- H-3 is an interstate freeway that runs from the suburb of Aiea, through the windward communities of Kaneohe and Kailua, to the gate of Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
- Moanalua Freeway/H-201 is an interstate freeway auxiliary route that serves as an alternative route for H-1. It runs from the Middle Street Merge (H-1, H-201) in the community of Kalihi in West Honolulu to the H-1, H-3, H-201 merge in Aiea. Some freeway signs may still label Moanalua Freeway as Route 78, even though Route 78 has since become H-201 in 2004.
- Nimitz Highway/Ala Moana Boulevard (state route 92) runs from Pearl Harbor to Waikiki; it is the main route from the airport to Waikiki.
- Pali Highway (state route 61) runs from downtown Honolulu to the Windward town of Kailua.
- Likelike Highway (state route 63) runs from the Kalihi district of Honolulu to the Windward town of Kaneohe.
- Kalanianaole Highway (state route 72) starts from the east end of H-1 and runs through the East Honolulu suburbs around Makapuu Point, and through the rural community of Waimanalo, ending in Kailua.
- Kamehameha Highway (state routes 99, 80, and 83) is the main highway on Oahu, starting from Pearl Harbor, going through the leeward communities of Aiea and Pearl City, then through Central Oahu, around the North Shore, and along the Windward coast ending at the town of Kaneohe.
- Farrington Highway (state route 93) is two separate roads: the south side starts where H-1 leaves off in Kapolei and leads to the Leeward coast communities of Nanakuli, Waianae, and Makaha, ending at the south end of Kaena Point State Park. The north side starts from Waialua on the North Shore through the community of Mokuleia to the north end of Kaena Point State Park(the road used to go around the point but the part that actually rounded the point has been closed and replaced with a nature preserve. A trail connects the two portions).
- Fort Weaver Road/Kunia Road (state routes 76, 750) goes from Schofield Barracks near Wahiawa south to Ewa Beach.
- Try windsurfing, surfing and body-boarding at Waikiki and (less crowded and more scenic) North Shore and Kailua Beach. - see Oahu Surf Conditions, Radar, and Forecasts and Girls Who Surf for lessons.
- Enjoy horseback riding on the North Shore and Windward Koolau Range
- Explore hiking all over the island: in particular, Diamond Head State Park (excellent view of Honolulu and the surrounding area). Also visit Lanikai's Pillbox (leftover from WWII sitting above Lanikai). Gives spectacular view of Waimanalo, the Koolau Mountains, Kailua and the Mokulua Islands sitting in the distance. The Oahu Trailblazer adventure guide provides an overview of all the island's trails with maps, photos and hike descriptions. See Trailblazer Travel Books.
- Kayak on the Windward side to the Mokulua Islands which are a bird sanctuary and also offer encounters with turtles which have made a huge comeback in the Windward bay area. It should be noted that it is against state law to violate the sanctuary area. The beach on the islands is not part of the restricted zone, however.
- Circumnavigate the east half of the island: From Honolulu, take H1 east until it turns into Route 72. Follow Route 72 around the southeast corner of the island. Then go on Route 83, which goes along the east coast of the island around the northeast corner to the North Shore. Return to Honolulu along Route 99, Interstate H2, and Interstate H1. Unfortunately, it is not possible to circumnavigate the entire island, because there is no road between the North Shore and the Leeward Coast around the northwest corner of the island.
- Driving tour around East-side of island gives spectacular views. Stop several times along the route to see blowhole, swim in secluded cove, hike up to the Lighthouse for amazing views or check out ancient Hawaiian drawings and Heiaus (Hawaiian temples).
- Drive up to the Round-Top Forest Reserve (excellent view of Honolulu and the surrounding area), or over the Pali Highway; be sure to visit the Pali Lookout.
- Viewing Marine Wildlife (the best 1/2 of Oahu is underwater!)- see Wild Side Specialty Tours to sail with whales, dive with dolphins, and snorkel coral reefs with turtles and tropical fish.
- If the hot weather is too much for you, go ice skating at the Ice Palace in Honolulu (see "Do" in the Honolulu article).
Although Oahu is generally not regarded as a premier dive destination, there are many reasons to consider diving here. The islands have fewer types of coral than any other part of the tropical Indo-Pacific, and reef health has been impacted by a variety of human forces, including population increases, shoreline development, land-based sources of pollution, increased sediments in the water, damage by tourists and divers, groundings, poor water quality from runoff and sewage treatment, and over-fishing. But Hawaii has a greater number of endemic tropical marine fishes than any other region except the Red Sea.
At the present time there are three MLCDs (Marine Life Conservation Districts) on Oahu - Hanauma Bay, Waikiki, and Pupukea. The MLCDs are designed to conserve and replenish marine resources. The taking of any type of living material (fishes, eggs, shells, corals, algae, etc.) and non-living habitat material (sand, rocks, coral skeletons, etc.) is generally restricted, if it is permitted at all.
Reef Dive Sites:
- Hanauma Bay - Water depths in the inner bay range to about 30 feet, and visibility is generally good. The outer bay is recommended only for experienced divers. Depths range up to about 70 feet, and there is a large finger coral reef on the left side.
- Pupukea - includes three dive sites on Oahu's north shore - Shark's Cove, Firehouse, and Three Tables - with depths ranging from 20-45'. Many ledges, arches, lava tubes and other features. From about May through October the water is generally calm, but surges are possible. During winter months current and wave conditions become extremely dangerous in all areas.
- Kahe Point Beach Park (also known as Electric Beach) An adjacent electric generating facility outflows clean warm water through two giant cooling pipes offshore. Easy beach entry when the surf is low, with depths ranging from 5-35'.
- Trench Dive - (also known as Haleiwa Ali'l Beach Park) Park your vehicle in Western parking Lot of the park. Entry is easy, walk to left side of Main building. Water depth is only 1-2' for about 100m then starts to drop off. Wall starts at 10' and drops to about 90' Trench was originally built to hide submarines. Southern wall is most dramatic.
Wreck dive sites:
- The Seaplane Wreck - a twin engine Beechcraft airplane off the west coast with a maximum depth of 100'/30m. Sunk in 1986 as an artificial reef project.
- Corsair Airplane Wreck - a deep dive with a maximum depth of 107'/32m. A mostly-intact wreck submerged since 1945 when the pilot ditched it after engine problems during an exercise.
- Mahi Wreck - a former minesweeper/cable layer sunk off the west coast in 95'/29m of water, with the deck between 60-80'/18-24m. Shortly after being sunk as an artificial reef project in 1982, Hurricane Iwa repositioned the ship 180 degrees.
- San Pedro Shipwreck - a former a Korean fishing boat resting in 85 feet of water with the main decks at 65 and 70 feet. Sunk in 1996 by Atlantis Submarines.
- Sea Tiger Shipwreck - Rests upright on a sandy bottom off the Waikiki coast at 130'/40m, but dive depth is generally between 80-100'/24-30m. Sunk on June 24, 1999 by now-defunct Voyager Submarines.
- YO-257 Shipwreck - Rests upright at 95'/28m off the Waikiki coast. Often in Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine's top 5 of US best wrecks. Sunk in 1989 by Atlantis Submarines.
- Breeze Hawaii, 3014 Kaimuki Ave., Honolulu, ☎ . A PADI Five Star Development Center with 4 dive boats.
- Deep Ecology, 66-456 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, ☎ . A full-service, PADI Five Star Scuba Dive Center.
- Honolulu Scuba Company. 670 Auahai Street, Honolulu, HI 96822 1-808-220-0577 Full Service Dive Center
- Kaimana Divers, 1051 Ala Moana Blvd, ☎ . Two-tank boat charters based out of Waikiki.
- Ocean Legends, 111 Sand Island Access Rd. #R-10, Honolulu, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Mon-Sat 9AM-5PM. PADI Dive Center with 20 years of training and dive exploration.
- Dive Oahu, NEX & Camp Smith, ☎ . PADI Dive Center, caters to military and civilians alike. Daily Dive Boat at Kewalo Basin Harbor.
- Aaron's Dive Shop, 307 Hahani Street, Kailua, ☎ , toll-free: . Daily 7AM-7PM. PADI 5-Star Dive Center, caters to speciality divers, mixed gas and recreational. Daily Dive Boat Charters.
- Living Ocean Scuba, 1125 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, ☎ . Daily 7AM-7PM. Guided dives at Hanauma Bay and daily boat dives from Kewalo Basin.
Some areas, including parts of Downtown/Chinatown, Pearl City, Waianae, Nanakuli, Waipahu, and Kalihi, are not very safe after dark. Officers from the Honolulu Police Department are extremely helpful to visitors and will steer you away from potential problems.
Some beaches are unsafe due to surf conditions or currents. Always check the Local Oahu Beach Conditions in advance to know the dangers. Check with the lifeguards and look for flags (Yellow=Caution; Red=Dangerous; Black=Extremely Dangerous). Underwater rocks and coral can be very shallow in some locations even with large waves, so know before you go. Some beaches (like Sandy's Beach) have very large very dangerous shorebreak at times. It is good to know general beach safety to understand the risks.
Take care when hiking on trails. Several trails are hazardous, especially after large amounts of rain, go with someone who is familiar with the area. It is very easy to get to dangerous locations that are not marked by signs or railing. When hiking near on rock shelves beside the ocean, dangerous areas are not blocked off. Understand the conditions of the oceans and take note how high up the water has splashed due to wave action. It is not uncommon to have areas that are safe and fun to explore until surf conditions change making them dangerous or deadly. If you fall into the water in high surf near rock walls, SWIM AWAY from the rocks and shore, DO NOT PANIC, call for help and swim parallel to the shore to location of little wave action or toward sandy areas.
Remember that as much as you need to keep yourself safe, you need to keep Hawai'i safe as well. Please practice the Leave No Trace principles to make sure everyone can enjoy the islands. It's not only illegal to do things like feed or hassle wildlife, take rocks, sand or plants, but it's also immoral and detrimental to the Hawaiian Islands. They are the most isolated land mass on the globe and have many species and landscapes that are struggling to survive under the pressures of tourism. Respect the 'aina the best you can. Do not cut trails, litter, or desecrate natural or man made sites.