Join me as I whisk you away to the sandy shores and stunning horizons of Oahu.
True, some folks feel that crowds, traffic, and high rises have compromised the paradisal aura of Hawaii’s most heavily populated island. But now having visited twice, I think it’s the ideal place to go for a little bit of everything.
The fact is, you need not travel far to find lush, mountainous landscapes and stunning skylines where ocean blue meets sky blue.
And when it comes to beaches, you’ll find Oahu is a little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll.
Beautiful Beaches of Oahu
When you say “Oahu” and “beach” the first word that comes to mind is “Waikiki.” The most famous of Oahu’s beaches, it teems with tourists, many of whom are staying in the giant resort complexes that line Honolulu’s shorline.
You’ll find surfing, canoeing, snorkeling, swimming, boogie boarding, sand combing and all sorts of stimulation aimed at visitors to the island. A popular, free hula show across from the Hyatt Regency takes place Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening, weather-permitting from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm.
When we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, I quite enjoyed sitting on the beach to take in all the action and people watch. We even enjoyed an afternoon cruise on the The Spirit of Aloha.
They also offer a fireworks dinner cruise and sea turtle snorkel lunch cruise. In the same area, Atlantis Adventures offers a submarine tour where guest can explore life “under the sea.”
When visiting Waikiki, expect to have plenty of shoreline drink and dining options…and expect pay to pay top dollar for them! The Barefoot Snack Shack, located by the beach at Hale Kao Hotel is one of the more affordable options, offering hot dogs, burgers and other beachy eats under $5.
If you’re looking for a beach in the Waikiki area with fewer tourists and a more local vibe, Kaimana is a great option. A public bathhouse allows showers, clothing changes and restrooms breaks.
My friend warned me to not be alarmed if you see a few homeless folks in or around the bathhouse, though that wasn’t the case when we visited.
This was a great beach to just veg out, picnic, and wade into the cooling waters.
Located next door to busy Waikiki, this is a local favorite in Honolulu. Long distance swimmers and stand up paddle boarders come here burn some calories.
While the shallow waters have a rough, rocky start in most areas, visitors can wade in via sandy pathways that give way to larger expanses of smooth beach floors.
With very little wave action, it’s also great place to simply float the day away. This was our last beach stop before packing up for our departing flight, so we sent off our leis by plucking the orchids from the string and returning them to nature.
This snorkeler’s Camelot is also one of Oahu’s top tourist destinations. Sadly, decades of overuse harmed the coral and threatened the sea creatures that called it home.
However, with more careful management and tourist education, Hanauma Bay is once again providing a top shelf snorkeling experience. Even if you don’t care to snorkel, it’s just as lovely to relax on its sandy shores and visually devour this pocket of paradise.
It may grow crowded as the day progress, but we most recently visited on a lovely Sunday afternoon, and I didn’t mind sharing the beach with plenty of other tourists. However, if the parking lot fills up, you may have to wait in line to park or if the line is too long, park elsewhere and hike up to the entry point. There is also shuttle service for $25.
When I visited with my husband last fall, we made the most of the time change and arrived at Hanauma Bay near its 6 a.m. opening time. Not only did we beat the crowds (skipping the otherwise required educational video and $7.50 entry fee), but we were able to watch a spectacular sunrise.
Keep in mind Hanauma Bay is closed every Tuesday to give the preserve a little break from the crowds.
North Shore Beaches
No visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to the North Shore. With a scenic 45 minutes drive, you can leave city life behind for this famous surfing destination. While winter months bring higher waves, there is still plenty of sun, sand and snorkeling to enjoy year round.
It may be considered one of Oahu’s top snorkeling spots, but it’s probably not the best place for beginner snorkelers, and when the waves are high, it’s downright dangerous.
However, during my March visit, the waters of Shark’s Cove were as smooth as my friends have ever seen it. And the snorkeling was FANTASTIC.
I was so excited to get in the water, I forgot to take photos. However, you can come along on my underwater adventure in this YouTube video, courtesy of our most excellent hosts and friends, Erin and Holly.
Shark’s Cove is at the 3:25 mark, but I suggest watching the entire video if you have 6 and a half minutes to spare, as it also includes footage from many of the beaches mentioned in this blog, as well as my shark snorkel.
This was perhaps my favorite place to snorkel, due to the varied sea life (thick schools of tropic fish, sweet sea turtles and colorful eels) and the deeper waters. Once I got out further, I never felt crowded by coral, even though it was all around me.
Pupukea Tide Pools
Located next door to Shark’s Cove, the shallower Pupukea Tide Pools are a great place for novice snorkelers.
The tide waters overflow into Pupukea, so visitors are more protected from pounding waves.
There are still stunning displays of sea creatures, though you will have to watch your step , settling your feet for the sandy spots as you wade into its coral-covered shoreline.
Laniakea Beach, aka Turtle Beach
While this rocky, little beach isn’t great for swimming and, with no signage, is easy to pass by, it may be worth a stop all the same if the time is right.
If you see a gathering of people at Laniakea Beach, do yourself a favor, and pull over. Chances are good that sea turtles are sunbathing on its shores.
When these beloved, sleepy sunbathers arrive, volunteers set up a rope barrier and keep watch, so visitors can view the the sea turtles from a respectful yet fairly close distance.
Located next to Turtlle Bay Resort, visitors can simply park in the free public/beach access parking lots. In fact, even non-resort-guests can enjoy lounging on Turtle Bay’s comfy lounge chairs, if they’re available.
While it was plenty wavy when we stayed at Turtle Bay last fall, I still couldn’t resist some snorkeling, knowing sea turtles often visit its waters. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Just make sure to give these mellow “honu” their space, as it’s illegal to touch or harass them!
If you’re coming back from the North Shore, I highly recommend extending your travel time and driving along the Windward Coast. And if you’re driving a convertible, even better. You’ll want the top down to take in the scenery, as the road falls between two stunning views: endless, blue ocean and unbelievably lush, green mountains.
Before you turn towards Honolulu, you’ll want to visit the community of Kailua. This residential area is where the Obama family prefers to vacation (you can rent the same vacation home they did at a mere $4,500/night).
Located just south of Kailua and next to the lovely Kailua Beach, Lanikai Beach is what many people consider one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Because it’s not in a commercial area (just accessing the beach can be a hunt for those who don’t know where to look), you’ll find locals and in-the-know tourists at this beach.
While you can snorkel here, it’s not the reason to visit, as there are better snorkel spots.
Pack a picnic. Bring a beach read. Apply the sunblock. And relax as you sink your toes into powdery sand that is so exquisitely smooth, it almost qualifies as creamy.
- Oahu’s beaches are utterly diverse, so I suggest exploring all coasts if you have the time.
- All of Oahu’s beaches are open to the public, meaning there is no private beach off limits.
- Respect the marine life. Remember, the ocean is their home, and you are only a visitor. If you are fortunate enough to see a sea turtle or monk seal, do not touch or harass it. Not only is it bad manners, but it’s a crime punishable by law.
- Avoid contact with the coral, for your safety and its safety. It’s a living thing, and the human touch can damage or kill it. It is also often covered in spiny sea urchins.
- Leave the beach the way you found it. If anything came to the beach with you, it needs to leave with you or be disposed of properly.
- Come prepared. In addition to a towel, a hat, sunglasses, water, snacks and sunblock, if you plan on spending time in the water, I recommend investing in water socks and a swim shirt for sun and abrasion protection, as well as snorkel gear (click on the products for affiliate links to my Amazon picks).
This concludes part 1 of of Trippin’ Midwest Mama’s 3-part Oahu series! Check back later this week for part 2 “Local food favorites,” where I explore the delicious flavors of Oahu that many tourists often overlook.