Rent a car for freedom to explore Oahu
You’ve had your fill of lounging beachside at that swanky Waikiki resort and now you’re looking for a little adventure. That means it’s time for an Oahu road trip. Rent a car and go!
Those who explore outside of Waikiki and Honolulu will be rewarded with mesmerizing scenery, quaint Hawaiian villages and a rare chance to explore a dormant volcano.
So if you want to experience real Hawaii while on vacation, here are 2 drives that will give you an authentic experience on Oahu.
North Shore and Windward Oahu
It can be a little shocking to first time visitors to see how heavily developed Waikiki and Honolulu are. More than a million people live in this corner of Hawaiian paradise. But just 30 minutes of driving will get you past the 8 lane freeways and into pineapple fields and then onto the blend of hippy and surfer culture that is the North Shore.
While getting there, you might want to drop by the Dole Plantation, a kind of fruit theme park with lots of fun things like a pineapple maze to entertain any kids that you are towing around. Grab a ‘Dole Whip’ soft-serve ice cream before you head off again. Or save yourself for Matsumoto’s Shave Ice in the North Shore’s largest town Haleiwa. While enjoying your shave ice, you might want to look through the outdoor painted surfboard gallery!
Cruising along the north shore offers enormous variety. Some of the world’s most famous surfing beaches line up along the route: Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the iconic Banzai Pipeline. These surf breaks need large swells to really perform so fingers crossed you pick a day when the waves are pumping. But its not just about surfing, one of Oahu’s best archeological sites, the Puu o Mahuka Heiau, a type of spiritual temple, is just a 5 minute detour off the beach road and offers fantastic views up the coastline. And for a little nature, a stop to Turtle Beach is almost guaranteed to allow you a look at some sleepy sea turtles up close and personal.
After leaving the North Shore, you might be starting to feel a little hungry again. Roadside fruit stalls provide a chance for delicious tropical favorites like pineapple, coconuts and mangoes but you should also be adventurous and try some of the more unusual fruits too. But don’t fill up too much, because just around the corner are a number of Shrimp trucks. There are several to choose from but Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is always popular. A plate of hot freshly prepared shrimp in butter is just right.
Continuing further we enter the windward coast. Follow the coastline to see sea arches, secluded bays and the incredible cliffs of the lush Ko’olau Mountains. This section of the drive is naturally beautiful. Chinamans Hat makes for a great photo just off the coast. As we turn inland we can allow ourselves to relax into the serenity of the Byodo-In, a reproduction of a Japanese Temple with beautiful gardens and koi swimming in the ponds. Ahhhhh.
Cross the mountains for a return to Waikiki but along the way to absorb the views from Nu’uanu Pali Lookout. But hold onto your hat as the wind almost always roars up the mountain cliffs.
Finish by returning to Waikiki.
Its recommended to allow a full day for this drive. Don’t be afraid giving up a whole day of beach time; bring your swimsuit as there a several places to take a swim and a little sun tanning break.
Southeast Shore: Home to Hawaii’s most Famous Attractions
Looking at a map, this looks like a much shorter drive than the North Shore circle, but it sure packs a lot in and its worth a full day, though it can be done in a half day if you don’t stop to get wet on the beaches along the way
Starting from Waikiki, the first stop is Diamond Head. Its an uphill hike rising 760 feet to the top for superb views back to Waikiki. Most people with reasonable fitness will make the hike. And some of the stairs and short tunnels along the way will leave you with a sense of accomplishment. A word of advice: don’t leave your camera in the car – you won’t feel like going back to get it and starting again.
Hanauma Bay is next and would have to be the world’s best-known snorkeling beach. In fact, it’s so popular that it’s closed one day a week to give the reef a “rest”. Tuesday is the normal closure day but double check before you go to avoid disappointment. Parking is limited so an early start is recommended. I hope you spot a humuhumunukunukuapua’a while you are there!
Continue along the coast with a quick stop at the Halona Blowhole and then take the short walk around to the Makapu’u Lighthouse that looks over deep blue ocean. If you’re not feeling like the walk, there is an excellent drive-in viewpoint, overlooking some gnarly body surfing beaches and across the water to Manana Island, or Rabbit Island if you find that hard to pronounce.
Keep following the Kalanianaole Highway until the turn that take you into Kailua and Lanikai. These are 2 of the very best beaches in all of Hawaii, and you won’t find yourself overrun by tourists. The picture of the “Mokes” (Mokulua Islands) from Lanikai is postcard-worthy.
If you’ve stopped to enjoy the beaches, swum with the fish and hiked Diamond Head, you will be ready to return to Waikiki for a well-earned Mai Tai. The Pali is the recommended fast way back and a stop at the lookout should not be missed if you haven’t done it already. A visit to the Iolani Palace offers an excellent introduction to Hawaii’s fascinating history and culture in Honolulu, before reaching Waikiki again. You will be visiting the only Palace in the USA.
Once again – since you are in Hawaii, be sure to take your swimsuit with you.
When You Go….
Have you lost track of all the attractions on Oahu? We don’t blame you. You could spend months exploring everything this island has to showcase. These 2 drives will show you the full spectrum of what the island of Oahu has to offer, beyond all the fun, shopping and dining that Waikiki is famous for.
In our opinion, trying to do “all” of the island in just one day is just too much, and you won’t get to enjoy the many great stops as much as you should. That’s why we recommend dividing your exploration of Oahu into these 2 drives.
To ensure you don’t miss out on the best sights, download a GyPSy Guide driving tour apps for Oahu. It’s just like having your own personal tour guide ride along with you!