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Oahu (“O-wah-who”) is the most developed of the Hawaiian Islands, with around 75% of the state’s population. It’s also the most frequently visited of the islands. For many visitors and armchair travelers, Oahu is Hawaii. Honolulu is a major cosmopolitan city with all the advantages (numerous things to do) and disadvantages (crowds and traffic congestion) that go with it. But once you get outside the urban sprawl, whether by rental car or using the island’s excellent mass transit system (“The Bus”), Oahu has many unspoiled scenic attractions.

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Picture of sunrise over Waikiki and Honolulu

A good place to begin a tour of Oahu is fabled Waikiki (“Why-key-key,” meaning spouting water). Actually, you don’t really have a choice. Oahu lacks the proliferation of rental condominiums found on the other islands, and there are few hotels or resorts outside Waikiki. So in effect, Waikiki has become a kind of tourist ghetto that’s very nearly an island itself. It’s surrounded by a canal on two sides, the ocean, and the Diamond Head crater. Picture of Waikiki Beach Photograph of surfboards at Waikiki Beach

Waikiki can get very crowded, with unbelievable hordes of visitors from the US Mainland as well as from Japan in the peak season (generally November through February, and July and August). Just about every square centimeter of Waikiki is built up with some kind of high rise hotel or shop.

But Waikiki is still an “essential Hawaiian experience” not to be missed. It’s best explored on foot; you can ride “The Bus” back to your hotel if you or your feet get tired. Get up early to begin your walk while the crowds are still sleeping in. You might be rewarded with a blazing sunrise from the window of your high-rise hotel room. It also helps to visit in the spring or autumn.

Although south-facing Waikiki is not Oahu’s best surfing beach (the north shore, with its Banzai Pipeline, gets the famous waves), many visitors still feel like trying it. So there are plenty of surfboards for rent, in whatever color you might want. Picture of a dancer in the Kodak Hula Show

One traditional bit of local color is now gone. Beginning in 1937, the Kodak Hula Show offered a colorful display of graceful hula dancing, accompanied by live Hawaiian music. At the end of the show, the dancers would provide titles for photo albums, slide shows, videos.... and Web pages. Kodak Hula Show finale

Unlike the high-priced hotel luau packages and “Polynesian revues” continually touted to tourists, this free show charmingly captured the balmy Aloha spirit without bombast or spectacle. Kodak discontinued its sponsorship in 1999, possibly because the financially-beleaguered company’s bean counters realized that more of the audience were using camcorders than film. The tour operator Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays took it over and renamed it— perhaps more accurately— the Pleasant Hawaiian Hula Show.

The show’s 65-year run ended in September 2002, after Pleasant Hawaiian decided their money could be better spent elsewhere. In this age of sensory overload, nobody seemed to consider this gentle anachronism worth sponsoring. But you can still see a smaller-scale free hula show on Waikiki Beach. The Kuhio Beach Torchlighting and Hula Show, with sponsorship from Hyatt Regency and the state and local governments, is performed on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings.
Picture of Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki

Tucked almost inconspicuously amidst the glass-and-concrete high-rise hotels is the Royal Hawaiian, with its distinctive Pepto-Bismol pink exterior. Built in 1927, it’s a vestige of the days before jets when Waikiki was a luxury resort for well-heeled ship passengers.

Dipped candles at the International Marketplace Picture of Hawaiian shirts at Waikiki

If you’re among the many people for whom a “successful” vacation means coming back with a suitcase full of souvenirs and knickknacks, Waikiki is a cornucopia of tchotchkes. There are at least three stores on every block selling garish Hawaiian shirts, along with the ubiquitous beach mats, plastic hula dolls and ukuleles made in China, and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.

And in the center of Waikiki is the sprawling “International Marketplace,” replete with multi-ethnic fast food, along with artisans making and selling wood carvings, painted coconuts, or colorful hand-dipped candles.
Photo of outriggers on Waikiki Beach at sunset Picture of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head at sunset

Waikiki is probably at its best in the early morning and late afternoon. In the morning you can wander the uncrowded beaches contemplating the outrigger canoes. By late afternoon, the throng who mobbed the beach during the day are in their hotel rooms nursing their sunburns. The trade winds are cool and refreshing, and the beaches are again tranquil.
Picture of Arizona Memorial

While it’s not in Waikiki, the most visited attraction on Oahu is Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial. The brochures and the introductory video explaining the history of Pearl Harbor insist that the Memorial (built directly over the sunken hull of the U.S.S. Arizona) is intended as a place for “quiet contemplation.” Alas, accommodating the sheer number of visitors on the tours necessitates a pace that makes quiet contemplation all but impossible. The presence of many Japanese visitors on the tours adds a slightly surreal note to the experience.

You need not let the tour companies or your hotel sell you one of the many tours to Pearl Harbor. For $2.50 each way, you can take the No. 20 or 42 bus from Waikiki. The driver will tell you where to get off; from there it’s a short walk to the entrance, where you can join the queue for the next tour. The tours, on Navy boats piloted by genuine Navy personnel, are the only way to get to the Memorial.

Pictures of Honolulu Chinatown market Picture of incense in Honolulu Chinatown

The cost: Free— it’s one of the few items in the defense budget that ordinary citizens (and foreign visitors) can enjoy. But if you’re visiting during peak times (Christmas break, spring break, and throughout the summer), it might be worth the $1.50 “service fee” to make a reservation up to two months in advance. Picture of Waikiki sunset

Also readily accessible by bus from Waikiki is Honolulu’s Chinatown. Its funky buildings, authentic restaurants, and stores selling exotic herbs and vegetables are about as close to a trip to Asia as you can get without leaving the United States. There are also Buddhist and Taoist shrines, including one in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza where people pause to light incense.

After visiting Pearl Harbor and Chinatown, it’s back to Waikiki for a spectacular Hawaiian sunset.

Scenic Oahu Beyond Waikiki

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