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Top Things to Do in Oahu
Kailua is the beach you came to Hawaii for: wide and gently sloped, glowing golden in the sun, outfitted with a couple of well-placed islets to gaze at, and fronted by waters in ever-changing shades of turquoise. The waves are gentle enough for children. Kayakers are drawn to the Mokulua Islands offshore. Small convenience stores and restaurants are within walking distance. And there's just enough wind to keep you from baking. It's paradise, but civilized.
Finding Shangri La
Wealth allowed heiress Doris Duke to acquire the lavish seaside estate she called Shangri La. For most, that would have been enough. But Duke had a passion—Islamic art and architecture—and determination as well as money. She had a vision of courtyards and pleasure gardens and rooms that are themselves works of art. And she presided over every detail of the never-quite-finished project. The property, now a center for Islamic studies, is utterly unique and quite simply not to be missed.
Oahu After Hours
Yes, you can have an umbrella drink at sunset. But in the multicultural metropolis of Honolulu, there's so much more to it than that. Sip a glass of wine and listen to jazz at Formaggio, join the beach-and-beer gang at Duke's Canoe Club, or head to Zanzabar, where DJs spin hip-hop and techno. Sample the sake at an izakaya (Japanese tavern) or listen to a performance by a Hawaiian musician. Snack on pupu (hors d'oeuvres), and begin your journey toward that unforgettable tropical sunrise.
Hiking to Kaena Point
If we had but one day to spend in rural Oahu, we'd spend it walking the back road along the rocky shore at the island's northern tip. Kaena, a state park as well as a protected natural area, is composed of 850 acres of undeveloped coastline that centers on the point where it is said the souls of the ancient dead leapt into the eternal darkness. The views are incomparable; shells can be scavenged in keyhole coves in calm weather; whales spout offshore during winter; and threatened native plants flourish. It's a trek that will change your mind about Oahu being "too crowded."
Catching a Wave
Taking a surfing lesson from a well-muscled beach boy has been a Honolulu must-do since the first gay divorcée stepped off the first cruise ship. Waikiki, with its well-shaped but diminutive waves, remains the perfect spot for grommets (surfing newbies), though surf schools operate at beaches (and many hotels) around the island. Most companies guarantee at least one standing ride in the course of a lesson. And catching that first wave? We guarantee you'll never forget it.
Chinatown is like one of those centerpiece lazy Susans: Turn it this way, and you find one thing; turn it another, and there's something else. Each of the various guided tours of this compact and busy neighborhood offers up a different dish: One focuses on food and restaurants, another shines a light on cultural attractions, and the occasional architect-led AIA Tour delves into the area's design character. Take your pick or wander on your own. Just don't miss this unique mixed plate.
Hula with Heart
Professional hula dancers—the ones in poolside hotel shows and dinner extravaganzas—are perfection: hands like undulating waves, smiles that never waiver. But if you want to experience hula with heart, scan the newspapers for a hula school fund-raiser, or ask the activities desk about local festivals. You may see some missteps and bumbles, but you'll also experience different hula styles and hear songs and chants deeply rooted in the culture, all the while surrounded by the scents of a hundred homemade lei.
A Sail on the Wild Side
Who wouldn't want these memory snapshots to take home: the unblinking and seemingly amused eye of a spinner dolphin as it arcs through the wake of the catamaran in which you're riding; the undulating form of an endangered green sea turtle swimming below you; the slap and splash and whoosh of a humpback whale breaching in full view on indigo seas. Wild Side Specialty Tours can't promise these specific encounters, but their ecologically conscious daily excursions in a quiet, uncrowded catamaran do guarantee good memories.
A Day on the North Shore
"Hanohano Haleiwa," the song says—beautiful Haleiwa. Also fun, funky, fast-moving, family-friendly, Haleiwa is an easy place in which to while away half a day. Visit the quirky surf museum, wander through the surf shops, choose from half a dozen good but cheap restaurants, suck up some refreshing shave ice, find one-of-a-kind clothes and gifts, and charter a catamaran or fishing boat. Then head back the long way to town (along the east side of the island) by way of a route that takes you past world-renowned surf spots.
A Trip to Japan
Little known outside Oahu's growing community of Japanese nationals is a class of small restaurant/bars called izakaya, or Japanese taverns. Even newer on the scene are okonomi, hip spots that specialize in Osaka-style grilled omelets and potent Japanese spirits. Both are like a visit to Japan, minus the long plane ride, and, though pricey, the à la carte menus are unfailingly excellent—if distinctly odd—a must-notch in any foodie's belt.
A Plate-Lunch Picnic
Take a break the way the locals do: Get a plate lunch (typically meat with two scoops of macaroni salad and two scoops of rice), then find a park or beach. Don't pack a ton of stuff, don't stick to a schedule. Eat, talk story (local slang for chatting), take a nap, or people watch—then explore, walk, swim, or snorkel. Some options: Mitsu-Ken Catering, then a picnic on the grounds of the nearby Bishop Museum; Fukuya Delicatessen, then Kahala Beach Park; Diamond Head Market and Grill, then Waikiki Beach or Kapiolani Park; L&L Drive-Inn, then Kailua Beach.
Walking in the Rain Forest or to a Waterfall
Wend your way through the hillside neighborhood of Aiea, northwest of Honolulu, and suddenly you're in a cool, green park, scented with astringent eucalyptus. This is the 3½-mi Aiea Loop Trail, and if you're committed to squeezing a hike into a short Oahu stay, you couldn't do better for glimpses of hidden valleys and the experience of an island forest.
If waterfalls are more your speed, then head straight to the back of Manoa Valley, 3 mi mauka (toward the mountains from Waikiki) and you'll find a 1½-mi trail along a well-worn path following Manoa stream through native trees and flowers to the Manoa Falls.