Road Trip: Drive Around Oahu in a Day

By Napua Heen
Laniakea Beach, Haleiwa.  Photo:   Robert Linsdell.

Laniakea Beach, Haleʻiwa. Photo: Robert Linsdell.

There are many ways to see the island of Oahu – take a guided tour, hitch a ride on a helicopter, or explore the coast by boat.  These are all exciting options, but we prefer sightseeing by car.  The reason?  Well, you choose the route, you can linger as long as you want, and you can eat and shop along the way.

The island of Oahu is just the right size for taking a drive. It’s large enough that you will not run out of things to do and sights to see yet small enough that you can complete the drive in one day.

Chances are that although it’s possible to see all of the island’s postcard worthy sights in one day, you won’t want to. You’ll meet a honu (turtle) and want to stay to play. You’ll discover a waterfall and decide to go for a swim. You’ll hike a mountain and find the view is a perfect background for a photo shoot of you and your someone special, and you’ll linger much longer than you intended. Nevertheless, here are our recommended stops for driving around Oahu in day.

Looking to rent a car? Special rental discounts available for Hawaii.com members. Click here for more information.

1. Waikiki

Most visitors to Hawaii stay in Waikiki. This is most likely where you’ll be starting your day. Watch surfers paddling out for their morning session or catch a wave yourself at Waikiki beach. You can also make the short, but steep 0.8-mile hike up Diamond Head. The trail will lead you to old military bunkers, a lighthouse and summit views of the ocean and Oahu’s Southern coast. Getting outdoors and into nature is a great way to start the day!

2. Hawaii Kai and Waimanalo

The East side of the island is an outdoor lover’s playground with Sea Life Park and Hanauma Bay being two great options for those wanting to see, swim, and play with Hawaiian marine life. If this is a priority for you, plan on spending lots of time in East Oahu. There will be so much to see.

Another great way to start your road trip is with a short two-mile hike up to Makapu‘u Point lighthouse. You can save Waikiki and Diamond Head for another day and head out early for a sunrise hike. From the vantage point at Makapuʻu, you’ll gain gorgeous views of the sun coming up over the blue horizon, the coastline, Rabbit Island, Molokai, and even whales if you’re there between December and May.

The drive up the coast from Makapuʻu will take you through the town of Waimanalo. Roadside cafes and eateries make this a convenient and delicious place to stop for a bite to eat. In addition, the beach here was named 2015’s #1 Beach in America by Dr. Beach. Waimanalo is a hidden treasure. Many people don’t get the opportunity to experience this local haunt, but you can.

3. Kailua

Photo:  karendesuyo".

Photo: karendesuyo.

Not too far up the coast from Waimanalo is the trendy beach town of Kailua. If you want to see what everybody’s been talking about, venture through Kailua to check out Lanikai beach, hike up Lanikai pillboxes for a whimsical view of the offshore Mokulua Islands or sunbathe at Kailua beach. Both Lanikai and Kailua beaches have been winners of the prestigious #1 Beach in America title.

With many restaurants to choose from and lots of healthy options, Kailua is a great place to get a good meal.  We recommend eating here before continuing your road trip, as dining options are limited along the stretch of road from Kailua to the North Shore.

Kailua is known for its famous shave ice shop, Island Snow. A lesser known place to sample this iconic sweet treat is The Local. The Local Shave Ice is highly recommended by Hawaii.com editor, Napua Heen, because the syrups here are made from locally grown fruit. Located inside the lifestyle boutique Aloha Sunday Supply Co., The Local is easy to miss but well worth the search.

4. Pali Lookout

https://www.flickr.com/photos/64128817@N03/6327839511/

Photo: JayW51.

Located just mauka (mountainside) of Kailua, there are two main reasons why you should check out Pali Lookout. One, you’ll see amazing views of the Koʻolau mountain range. Two, this pali (cliff) is the site of a major battle that took place in 1795. You’ll be able to stand where King Kamehameha I and his army defeated the Oahu army before going on to unite all of the islands into one kingdom. The strong winds and crisp air here are refreshing.

5. Kaneohe

Photo:  Prayitno.

Photo: Prayitno.

Kaneohe, the next stop on our drive around Oahu, is known for its rich, lush green landscapes. These two gorgeous stops prove it. You may have caught glimpses of the Byodo-In Temple in various shows like Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I. But even if you have, you’ll still be in awe when you gaze upon the Japanese temple replica and its verdant surroundings. Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens is another tropical treasure with acres of Native Hawaiian plants and jaw dropping Koʻolau mountain views.

6. North Shore

Waimea Falls.  Photo:  Thomas Shahan.

Waimea Falls. Photo: Thomas Shahan.

Leaving Kaneohe destined for Oahu’s epic North Shore, you’re in for a scenic one-hour drive. You’ll see lush forests, beautiful bay views, and Oahu’s “country” side. You will pass the small offshore island called Chinaman’s Hat as well as Kualoa Ranch where many movies have been filmed. (We highly recommend you come back to spend a day here.) You will also pass the Polynesian Cultural Center. (This is a great place to experience a lūʻau. Maybe after your day at Kualoa?)

When you see the shrimp trucks serving up yummy plates of garlic shrimp, you’ve reached the North Shore country town of Kahuku. Travel a bit more and you’ll hit Haleʻiwa and the famous 7 mile miracle which is home to several white sand beaches of miraculous beauty, starting with Sunset Beach and ending with Haleʻiwa Beach Park. Laniakea Beach where the honu (Hawaiian sea turtles) are known to rest is located here. You can swim with the honu or watch them rest on the sandy shores but please don’t touch. Honu are endangered species. During the summer, the 7 mile miracle beaches are picture perfect for sunbathing or sunset walks. During the winter, big swells roll in, and the dangerous surf becomes a playground for the world’s best watermen. Also along this 7 mile stretch is Waimea Valley where you can walk through a botanical garden, swim at a waterfall and participate in cultural activities.

Cool off with Matsumoto’s rainbow of tropical shave ice flavors. Matsumoto’s is “the shave ice place” on the North Shore. They do their toppings right! And now they even have an edible cracker bowl imported from Japan. Mmm!

7. Ko Olina

Photo:  Joel

Photo: Joel.

The North Shore of Oahu is a beautiful place to end the day, and the sunsets are just stunning. If you’ve made it this far, rest assured you’ve seen the best of Oahu. However, if you’ve made good time during your drive around Oahu, our last suggestion will be the icing on the cake. Ko Olina on Oahu’s West side is wild and gorgeous. An area boasting breathtaking beaches, golf and water activities, some of Hawaiʻi’s best resorts are located here, like Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa and Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. You can swim in one of the area’s four manmade lagoons, catch a traditional Hawaiian lūʻau at Paradise Cove, or simply enjoy the sunset over the endless blue sea.

Your drive time back into Waikiki from Ko Olina will be about 45 minutes.  From Haleiwa, the drive time back into Waikiki is just under an hour.

The best thing about a road trip around Oahu is that you now know your favorite spots. You’ll know where you want to be back the next day. Enjoy your road trip!

Don’t forget – special rental car discounts are available for Hawaii.com members. Click here for more information.

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