Small in size but big in scope, the Hawaiian island of Oahu packs a punch with great restaurants, beaches, bars and natural wonder.
South: The City Break
Set against the backdrop of Diamond Head – a lush volcanic crater with finger-like ridges – Honolulu is the first stop for most visitors to Hawaii. It isn’t exactly a laid-back beach getaway, though. The thin strip of sand slithering down the neighbourhoods of Waikiki and Ala Moana is inundated with tourists and luxury resorts clambering over one another for sea views. But what Honolulu lacks in beachside bliss, it more than makes up for with big-city charms: wide boulevards, gleaming malls, glossy resorts and historic sites.
Explore the stately lawns and ornate rooms of Iolani Palace, the only royal residence on American soil, or join a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. A rare feat of modern architecture, the sombre monument sits above the sunken hull of the USS Arizona.
Later, lose yourself in the world’s largest open-air shopping mall. With more than 300 outlets spread over four floors, Ala Moana Center will happily lighten your wallet.
And if you want to escape the sea of selfie sticks, head to Kaimana Beach. “It lies beyond the Natatorium War Memorial, which acts like a visual barrier,” enthuses Honolulu celebrity chef George Mavrothalassitis. “Visitors don’t quite realise it’s there so it’s a bit of a local haunt.”
Almost 20 years after it first opened, Chef Mavro remains one of the finest restaurants in Honolulu. You could opt for the relaxed small-plates menu but to fully appreciate chef Mavrothalassitis’s culinary prowess, you’ll need an empty stomach and an entire evening to work your way through the nine-course tasting menu. The hottest ticket in town, however, is Sushi Sho. It has room for only 10 diners so book well in advance. Flanked by two assistants, Japanese titan Keiji Nakazawa slices, trims, chops, fillets and flays fresh seafood right in front of the diners, turning it into edible origami. Prepare for a procession of fresh-beyond-belief morsels and animated chatter between the chefs that ranges from Japanese whispers to outright orders.
Despite its location on tourist-soaked Waikiki Beach, Halekulani hotel has an unmistakable air of elegance, thanks to its quiet courtyard, lush lawns and crisp white corridors that bring to mind British Colonial architecture. Upstairs, the rooms are just as pleasing, with white sliding shutter doors that open onto private balconies. But the hotel’s most sought-after spot is the palm-fringed outdoor pool area with spotless day beds and uninterrupted water views – either that or the sumptuously decorated La Mer restaurant, where head chef Alexandre Trancher serves decadent French fare.
SEE ALSO: Read Before You Leave – Hawaii
East: The Nature-Lover's Nirvana
You only have to drive 15 minutes east of Honolulu to escape the crush of cars and the tangle of tourists and arrive at locations worthy of Jurassic Park. This is Oahu’s Windward Coast – windier, wetter and therefore impossibly lush, with imposing mountains that rise like walls until they touch a ceiling of luminous clouds. Valleys dotted with frangipanis, vivid hibiscus and trees of flaming yellow sweep across the landscape, while roads snake between and tunnel through mountains and rise above moss-covered cliffs to offer dress-circle views of the sea battering the shore.
Hire a car and drive through the dreamy, misty countryside, making a pit stop at Kualoa, where more than 50 Hollywood movies have been filmed. Bus tours, zip-lines or quad bikes are all excellent ways to explore the 1600-hectare estate. But nothing beats a gentle horseride through the endless expanse of greenery.
Alternatively, sign up for a guided kayak tour with Kailua Beach Adventures. Drift above emerald shallows so clear that you can see the sand and marine life beneath, before arriving at isolated islands with beaches that appear and disappear with the changing tides.
There are many rooms that call themselves the “Presidential Suite” but the master lair at Paradise Point Estates truly deserves the title. When he was in the White House, Barack Obama chose to spend three family Christmases in this holiday home in the peaceful town of Kailua. One look at its courtyard – complete with a lagoon-style pool, a volcanic-rock hot tub and a waterfall framed by weeping hibiscus – and it’s easy to see why. There are five bedrooms, each with an ensuite, plus a dining and living room that opens onto lawns, with direct access to unspoilt Kailua Beach.
You don’t go to Buzz’s for the food. You go for its buzz. Located next to a canal that flows into Kailua Bay, the steakhouse nails the beach-shack vibe with its hut-style shingle roof, verandah dining areas and palate-pleasers such as fish burritos and the Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce burger. If you’re craving gourmet, the fine-dining establishments of Honolulu are just a 30-minute drive away. At chef Alan Wong’s eponymous restaurant, the kitchen delivers marvellous mains such as soy- braised twice-cooked short rib and lobster lasagne.
SEE ALSO: First-Timer's Guide to Honolulu
North: The Surfer's Paradise
It starts in the Gulf of Alaska, where terrifying storms unleash their fury, spawning swells that travel south, uninterrupted, for about 4000 kilometres until they hit the reef of Oahu’s North
Shore. And so we have a surfing mecca.
Barrelling waves – some as high as a five-storey building – draw surfers from all over the world. Join the party on a surfboard or simply take in the show from The Point Sunset & Pool Bar at Turtle Bay Resort. Perched on a headland, the bar has elevated, front-row views of the waves rolling into Turtle Bay. This is nature at its most theatrical – particularly at dusk when boisterous surfers are reduced to skinny silhouettes against the sinking sun.
Nothing gives you a better sense of Oahu than an aerial excursion. Paradise Helicopters’ one-hour Magnum Experience departs from the resort’s helipad and takes in all the facets of the island in one trip. The chopper glides above mountains, swoops into valleys and circles over sacred waterfalls that cascade down the lush cliffs like silver lining. The deal clincher is the mountain-top landing on a plateau barely bigger than the helicopter, with 360-degree views of the surroundings.
Turtle Bay Resort’s headland location and Y-shaped architecture ensures all 410 rooms enjoy ocean views but if your budget allows, opt for one of the 42 split-level Beach Cottages that open onto sea-facing manicured lawns with palm trees and hammocks. Pitched roofs, timber floorboards, deep baths and marble benchtops keep the vibe suitably luxe. Set aside time to explore the 340-hectare property, which has its own stables and 20 kilometres of biking and hiking trails.
The resort has seven food and beverage outlets – from fine-diner Pa‘akai to casual eatery Lei Lei’s – but our pick is the independently owned Roy’s Beach House. Grab a burger or salad from the takeaway window and sink your feet into the sand on the beach or nab a table under the flaming-orange umbrellas on the restaurant’s timber deck. Japanese-born celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi is at the helm, creating dishes such as clam bake studded with prawns from a nearby farm.
SEE ALSO: Which Island in Hawaii Should You Visit?
West: The Coastal Retreat
The west coast is so unlike the other corners of Oahu that it feels like a different island altogether. Mountains give way
to timid hills and valleys that disappear
into the ocean, while roads wind through corridors of sugarcane fields swaying in
the wind. A drive along the dry, sunburnt Leeward Coast is a good idea but to really unlock its wild charms, going off the land and into the warm waves is mandatory.
Wild Side Specialty Tours’ Best of the West boat excursion skirts along the rustic coastline, giving you bewitching views of the 70-metre-high Mauna Lahilahi – often referred to as “the world’s smallest mountain”. More importantly, it offers the chance to snorkel with dolphins, come face to face with green sea turtles and, if the stars align, watch enormous, majestic humpback whales breaching the surface.
No trip to this part of Oahu is complete without a visit to sacred Kaena Point, the westernmost tip of the island, where, they say, the souls of ancient Hawaiians jumped off into the Pacific Ocean to reunite with those of their ancestors. The only way to get here is to walk through Kaena Point State Park. While the eight-kilometre ocean-hugging round trip is moderately challenging, it’s arduous on a blistering day so visit in the morning or, better still, late afternoon in time for a glorious sunset.
Featuring a string of man-made lagoons and more than two kilometres of beachside pathways, the ocean-facing resort enclave of Ko Olina is also home to a clutch of holiday retreats. Chief among them is the Four Seasons, its airy lobby circling around a soaring atrium. Ocean-View Rooms feature banana-leaf wall coverings (a nod to Hawaii’s great outdoors) and spacious ensuites with twin sinks, while Mountain-View Rooms peer over the Waianae Range. There’s a 24-hour gym, five tennis courts, three pools and gardens dotted with spa treatment rooms.
There’s a range of dining options at the Four Seasons – from the relaxed Waterman Bar & Grill to the beachside Fish House – but the most coveted is Noe, hailed as the hottest new fine-diner on Oahu. Chef Ryo Takatsuka’s Amalfi-inspired fare ranges from crumbed veal laced with a champagne-lemon dressing to Burgundy-braised beef balls in a decadent marinara. The menu is supported by a cast of 800 wines, including vintage Dom Pérignon and Tuscan sangiovese. Enjoy dining inside the stately restaurant or take a table outside under trees strung with hanging lanterns.
Image credits: The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach (Sushi Sho); Olivier Koning (Alan Wong's); Craig Bixel (Roy's Beach House); Christian Horan (top and Four Seasons)