i ventured out to the island of Oahu to visit my friend ben and to learn the surfer way of life. ben is an officer in the navy and is stationed at pearl harbor. he graciously opened his home on Lanikai beach in Kailua to my friends and i for a 9 day visit. i had the opportunity to surf for 7 days while in Oahu and truly felt like i reached a new level – learning to read the waves, paddle and stand up on my own, and touch my toes on the nose or “hang ten”.
not only is Oahu a surfer’s paradise for the beautiful beaches and epic Big Wave competitions on the North Shore, but it’s an island where the people have a free spirit and the common phrase is ainokea or “i don’t care”. so if you plan to explore Oahu, let your hair down, slather on the sunblock, and grab a board because you won’t just be taking a trip, you’ll experience a lifestyle. oh and come with an empty stomach because you have to try da kine grindz bra!
navigating this post: i’ve broken down my recommendations by location on the island: Kailua (ben’s neighborhood on the east coast), Waikiki (south), Pearl Harbor (central), Waimanalo (south east tip), and my personal favorite the North Shore.
[see my map]
getting around: i recommend renting a car, but there is a bus system if you prefer, although getting around by bus will ultimately be slower. like some of the places i’ve visited, you’ll quickly learn to rely on landmarks in some areas instead of street signs. the people are friendly so when in doubt, just ask!
places to stay: although i had fantastic accommodations in Lanikai, for practical purposes i’d advise staying in Waikiki as there are tons of amenities such as surf lessons, restaurants, and shopping. it may not be “central” but this is the central hub of Oahu.
for 9 days we were privileged to call Kailua, and more specifically Lanikai beach, our home. this is hands down THE most beautiful beach i’ve ever seen. from the silky soft sand, to the gorgeous vacation homes, to the sky blue water, to the view of the mokes, it’s easy to understand why this beach is frequently the destination for wedding photos.
food: Lanikai is home to a bunch of local food establishments, so you can easily find your fix in the morning or after a long day out on the waves.
- Teddy’s bigger burgers – insanely huge and delicious burgers. split a spud burger and grilled pineapple chicken sandwich with garlic fries not on the healthy side, but you’re on vacation!
- Moke’s bread & breakfast – WOW this place is epic for breakfast lovers. order the complete breakfast with portuguese sausage (kind of like spam, but awesome and a local staple), eggs, rice/hashbrowns, and toast. go ahead and splurge (or split) the waffle ala mode for dessert – belgium waffle with peaches and vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream, powdered sugar, and cinnamon. (off the menu – you can order the banana pancakes and ask them to add chocolate chips!) the omelettes here are also amazing and can be customized pretty much any way you like.
- Boots & kimos – an experience you can’t find on the mainland! order kimo’s famous macadamia nut sauce on his onolicious pancakes! (ono means delicious btw). trust me, your mouth needs to experience this.
- Aloha Salads – one place that will help you maintain your bikini figure. try the aloha passion with red grapes, apples, walnuts, cranberries, mangoes and blue cheese, recommended with steak. or try the aloha pineapple with strawberries, pineapple, coconut, fresh mint, mandarin oranges and lychee, recommended with shrimp. there are a ton of choices, and you can create your own or get a sub/soup. definitely a great lunch spot!
excursions: two activities i would recommend in Kailua are hiking the pill boxes and Maunawili Falls. the pill boxes are now abandoned buildings but once stored weapons during world war II. you can wake up around 6:30 and hike up for 20 minutes to climb on top and catch a gorgeous sunrise. the hike to Maunawili Falls takes about 45 minutes each way. you will get muddy so wear shoes you don’t mind ruining, and make sure they are non-slip. the fall itself is breathtaking, and you can cliff dive from about 10 feet up or 20 feet.
surfing: there’s decent surfing around here depending on your level. you can catch some beginner waves in Kailua, but they were pretty choppy when i was there and harder to ride (all depends on the day). the marine corps base is nearby in Kaneohe, but you need someone with access to get in. these waves break beautifully, but this surf is only recommended for advanced surfers since it’s rough and the shore is all rocks.
Waikiki is the tourist hot spot, so there’s tons to do, and most places are walkable from hotels to the beach, restaurants, and shopping. we spent a lot of time here even though we didn’t stay nearby, which is why i recommend staying here when you’re in town.
nightlife: we went to Lulu’s on a friday night to see the Deadbeats perform, and it was awesome! Lulu’s is a local restaurant/bar, and it’s pretty fun. we were able to order drinks, nachos, and poke for the table, and they had surf videos on the tvs (my heaven!). the Deadbeats are a ska/hip hop group consisting of a lead singer, saxophonist, keyboardist, drummer, and bassist. they have funky lyrics and really know how to jam. it was a dance party from the moment they set foot on stage. plus we found out they’re from houston! we also hit up Level 4 night club one night. this is a huge club with a large stage, and a dance floor. it actually felt like we were on the floor of a large auditorium, so it was kind of awkward. i’m not a huge fan, but it was interesting. of course i’d recommend grilling and having a bonfire on the beach any day
beach: Waikiki beach is an interesting surf spot. the waves go on forever, so you can catch a really long ride, and they aren’t too high – perfect place for me to practice. however, it’s so crowded that you can easily run into others. we got rentals from a stand on the beach for $10 for a few hours. we also did a booze cruise one day, i think it cost $30 for unlimited drinks, great music, breeze running through your hair, and a beautiful sunset. the cruise lasted about 1.5 hours. i definitely recommend this, it’s a blast!
shopping: we didn’t do a ton of shopping but walked along the strip to see what they had. we did spend a lot of time and money in a local store called alter ego. it was pretty rad with some cool tshirts that i haven’t seen anywhere on the mainland.
food: here’s a list of all the things i tried down in waikiki. scrumptious!
- Hawaiian cookie co – the most delicious shortbread cookies you will ever try! i love coffee dipped in chocolate. great for souvenirs and beautifully packaged.
- Ono Hawaiian foods – legit hawaiian food. try the pork lau lau with poi, chicken long rice soup, salsa, and rice. mm and haupia for dessert! my tummy is growling lay everything out and eat it in a circle, trust me that’s how you do it.
- L&L drive-inn – the garlic mochiko chicken is fabulous, and the chicken katsu is probably one of the most popular dishes. great for lunch and the portions are huge if you order a full entree. there are several locations on the island.
- Bubbies homemade ice cream – yummy ice cream and awesome mochi in tons of flavors! hits the spot after hours in the sun.
- Eggs n things – breakfast spot near the beach. i had the portuguese sausage and eggs, but the portion was too big. it was super loud from construction but that’s probably over now. it wasn’t very memorable.
- Duke’s Seafood Grill – restaurant right on the beach, so it’s extremely crowded, loud, and filled with tourists. it’s so convenient after the booze cruise or surfing though. good food, decent drinks.
- Leonard’s bakery – malasada donuts! omg if heaven were a fluffy, sweet pastry filled with cream (optional), it would be this!
shopping: good place to buy souvenirs to bring home!
- NEX – this is the navy exchange, and unfortunately you can’t go unless you have a military id. it’s a big department store that sells pretty much anything, and there’s a navy discount. my friends bought ukuleles for themselves/souvenirs, and we all bought tons of kona coffee and chocolate covered macadamia nuts to bring home as well.
- aloha stadium swap meet – think super huge flea market, like the rose bowl in pasadena if you’ve ever been. there are tons of tents with clothes, trinkets, food, etc. to look at. we spent hours there and were finally so exhausted we forced ourselves to leave. good place for souvenirs also!
excursions: we took the Admiral’s boat ride and toured the USS Arizona memorial. it was a really good tour, beginning with a video, a boat tour of the harbor, and then we docked to walk around the memorial. the atmosphere was very somber, and it definitely made us appreciate our men in uniform ben was also able to bring us on board the USS Tucson to tour the submarine. pretty awesome to be on an actual submarine on active duty. i’m so proud of ben!
excursions: i definitely recommend driving out to go snorkeling at hanauma bay. yes it’s touristy and can get crowded, but for $15, you get entry, equipment, and time to relax in the water. it was completely worth it when i accidentally bumped into a sea turtle and was literally face to face with such a glorious creature. amazing! another tourist trap that i (and every other 7 year old) truly enjoyed was swimming with dolphins at sea life park. it cost around $150 plus $15 for the photo (you can’t shoot close-up pics from inside), but it was so fun! the dolphins are extremely smart, and you get to spend a lot of time in the water petting them, doing a dolphin ride, and getting kisses! it’s pricey but when else would you do this? definitely a memorable experience!
for me this was the best part of the trip, spending time on the north shore. the beaches here are not only famous for surfing, they are beautiful and almost surreal. i recommend spending at least two days (if not more!) here visiting all the beaches and surfing…what else?
beaches: Waimea Bay is a beach famous for the huge rock where you can cliff dive. it also has amazing waves that roll in and out from shore, carrying you in a steady current back and forth. it’s scary yet soothing, a perfect juxtaposition of the huge looming rock and clear blue waves. of course we had to make a stop at the Banzai Pipeline, home to the epic big wave competition called the Pipeline Masters that rounds out the circuit at the end of the year. the day we were there, we saw 10 foot waves, and we heard they reached 18 feet the next day (september). this is no match for the monstrous 50-footers you’ll find in december.
One of my most memorable surfing spots was Puaena Point, a well-hidden cove in Haleiwa town. you have to paddle out a bit from shore to find where the surf breaks, but it’s breathtaking and very serene to be out in the middle of the ocean. the waves aren’t massive for north shore, so this is a great spot for beginners. the north shore surf girls also teach here, and i caught a lesson from them for $75/hour. (you may recognize the owner from the movie Blue Crush!). the best part was seeing sea turtles pop their heads out of the water next to me while i was surfing. simply remarkable.
We made pit stops at a few other notable beaches: Sunset beach, Turtle Bay Resort, and Turtle Beach (no turtles out that day).
food: the food on north shore is total surf food – comes from a cart, you can carry and eat, and it’s cheap.
- Matsumotos – hawaiian shave ice! think sno beach for you austinites but BETTER! shave ice in 30+ different flavors with condensed milk served in a huge cup! delicious way to cool down after all that sun.
- Haleiwa Joe’s seafood grill – try the poke, coconut shrimp, and the fresh fish.
- Giovanni’s shrimp truck – garlic shrimp and lemon butter shrimp with garlic rice. this is a MUST if you visit north shore. i think this has to be my favorite food trailer ever. trust me, it’s that good.
excursions: on our second day at north shore, we made dinner plans at the Polynesian culture center for a luau & light show. the luau was very beautiful, and the food was traditional hawaiian food (similar to ono’s). the only problem with this place is that they didn’t serve alcohol, and i didn’t care for the light show. i suggest finding another luau spot (there are a few) that have a bar if you care to drink. the price was about $75 for everything. we also made a pit stop at the Dole plantation on the drive up just to try the pineapple whip. it’s a sweet frozen ice cream treat but we were kind of over it after 2 bites. good place for souvenirs but don’t plan to spend a long time here.
overall my trip to oahu was fun-filled and eventful. i’ll always remember it as a turning point in the way i surf.
if i could do it again, i would: sky dive, hike diamondhead, stand up paddle, and take hula lessons. i guess there will have to be a next time for sure!