Sure sun-lashed Oahu, of which Honolulu is the capital, is a bit of a schlepp from anywhere. However, when it comes to finding an island that has it all – spectacular beaches, some of the world’s best surfing spots, protected marine life, history (Pearl Harbor, anyone?), culture, scenic hiking trails, ono grinds (good eats) and a buzzing nightlife scene – “the heart of Hawaii” delivers. And then some.
And wherever you choose to explore, rest assured that friendly locals are waiting to greet you with a warm “aloha”.
Cruise port location
Honolulu has two cruise ship terminals: Pier 2 Cruise Terminal, a 20 minute taxi drive from Honolulu International Airport, and Pier 11. The latter is located in the heart of Honolulu right next door to Aloha Tower Marketplace – a warren of shops, restaurants and locals waiting to adorn you with leis (gorgeous garlands of plumeria flowers). Yes, the Hawaiian experience begins as soon as you dock.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America homeports year-round in the harbour at Pier 2, while Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line tend to dock at Pier 11.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
You can. Downtown Honolulu, where you can get up close and personal with the real Hawaii (it’s a world away from tourist heavy Waikiki), is within easy walking distance. Eat your way through Chinatown, shop til you drop at the world’s largest open-air shopping center (Ala Moana) or gain some Hawaiian historical insights at Iolani Palace – the only official state residence of royalty in the whole of the United States. Close by lies the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, so called in honour of the great granddaughter and last descendant of King Kamehameha, unifier of the Hawaiian islands, that’s home to the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural and scientific artefacts.
Time permitting, “TheBus” is the best way to explore Oahu. Passengers can get around the whole island for a bargainous US$2.50/£1.90 (US$1.25/£1 for children aged 6-17).
Time poor? Take a taxi, Uber or opt to rent a car (all the big name car rental companies have offices at the airport and in Waikiki), but be warned… Oahu’s traffic is legendary.
Those with deep pockets should check into the Moana Surfrider, a Waikiki Grand Dame that’s beloved for its historic charm and relaxed vibe. The dozens of rocking chairs lining its sleepy porch have consumed many a holiday, and the Moana Lani Spa, offering above-the-waves treatments, may just be the best on Oahu.
Halekulani Hotel is another standout: the five star property’s two room towers, tropical interior lawn, Italian-glass tiled pool and seaside dining offer unmatched Waikiki luxury.
What to see and do
What can I do in four hours or less?
Oahu is best known for its beaches, with Waikiki being the most famous. However, should the white sands of Waikiki get too busy, as global icons tend to do, head to Hanauma Bay – a protected marine life park that boasts a reputation for the best snorkelling. The beloved bowl shape bay is the place to swim with Hawaii’s colourful state fish: step forward the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (humuhumu for short).
Known as the “gathering place”, Oahu is also a great place to hang low (Hawaii is after all the birthplace of surfing). A surfing novice? Sign up for a lesson at Hawaii Hot Spot Surf School run by Oahu native, Errol Kane, who has been catching and riding waves since he was a kid.
Then make a pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor – the target of a Japanese attack that thrust Hawaii into America’s history – to pay your respects at the USS Arizona Memorial, to the 2,500 Americans who lost their life on the 8 December 1941.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Don’t miss Diamond Head National Park, Oahu’s best known landmark.The trail to the summit of this 475-acre crater was built in 1908 as part of the US Army Coastal Artillery Defense System. Allow around an hour to hike to the top of the crater rim and back and keep your camera close: the views of the Waianae Range (to the west) and Koko Head (to the east) are incredible.
Want more of the great outdoors? Lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails at Manoa Falls (a favourite haunt of former US president, Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood on Oahu) where magnificent mountain views, rocky stream-beds, bamboo forests, banyan trees and a 15ft waterfall come as standard.
Feeling thirsty? No trip would be complete without sampling a colourful Mai Tai, Hawaii’s favourite drink. Legend has it that Victor Bergeron, of Trader Vic’s restaurants, first served the Mai Tai – which typically fuses two rums, fresh lime juice, orange Curacao, rock candy syrup and orgeat (almond syrup) – back in 1944 to his friends who, exclaimed in Tahitian, “Maita’o roa ae” meaning “Out of this world!” Try the famous drink over at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Ship-sponsored excursions run to all of the aforementioned destinations, but it’s easy to explore independently via bus or a private taxi, if you prefer.
Eat and drink
Loco moco (a satisfying comfort food dish of rice, fried eggs, patty and gravy) is a popular “ono grind” (good eat) that’s served all over Oahu. But if you only eat one meal, make it the plate lunch. Consisting of two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and everything from kalua pork to Korean barbecue, chicken katsu, beef teriyaki or mahimahi, it’s comfort food heaven.
For a sweet treat, shaved ice is where it’s at. These finely shaved snow cones are served with colourful flavours on the top, with a choice of ice cream or azuki beans on the bottom (don’t knock it until you have tried it). Two shaved ice institutions include Matsumoto – a tin roofed 1950s style general store and Aoki’s, both on Oahu’s North Shore.
Alternatively, sample a range of Hawaiian cuisine at a luau (a traditional Hawaiian party or feast). Typically the sounding of a conch shell signals the beginning of the evening’s festivities: expecty culinary delights including kalua pua’a aka (roasted pig), poke (raw fish marinated in soy sauce) and haupia (coconut custard) served with a helping of culture, history and Polynesian dancing.
Don’t leave the island without…
Purchasing an aloha shirt (often incorrectly called a Hawaiian shirt) at Avanti on Kalakaua Avenue, where pictures of Oahu’s most famous export – music maestro, Bruno Mars – adorn the walls. Unsure which printed shirt to select? The uber helpful Royce is usually on hand to dispense advice and style tips.
Need to know
Honolulu is a long flight from the UK – you’re looking at approximately 17 hours, usually with a stop-off somewhere in the States.
Oahu is generally considered a safe destination to visit but, like anywhere, it’s best to exercise caution and common sense and avoid wandering on the beach or in downtown Honolulu (where there’s a huge homeless problem) at night.
Best time to go
There’s never a bad time to visit Honolulu: you’ll always be able to find warm, tropical weather.
Shops in tourist areas such as Waikiki are open seven days a week.
If you’re planning on bussing around Oahu, invest in a HOLO card, which enables adults to ride “TheBus” for one day for just US$5/£3.90.