Rediscovering Oahu's Unmatched Travel Experiences

Oahu is Hawaii’s “gathering place” for good reasons which also make it the ideal four-night vacation destination for families who get bored spending an entire vacation inside a resort.

Having attended high school in Honolulu and lived in Waikiki, I have feelings for Honolulu and Oahu. Over the years I’ve returned a half dozen times and have visited some of the outer islands. But when I spend the time and money to visit Hawaii, my first choice is always Oahu — not Oahu the way most visitors experience it, but Oahu as experienced by a kamaaina — that’s Hawaiian for old-timer.

Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s broad, gracious main thoroughfare, is unmatched anywhere in its mix of visitors from around the world.

Oahu offers a richer plate of experiences than any of the outer islands, partly because it houses a city of nearly a million, including the lively Waikiki district, partly because it has a unique combination of street life, geographical features and climate the other islands can’t match. I know some people like to “get away from tourists” and end up spending their whole vacation holed up in Maui or Kauai. But take my word for it, Oahu is where the action is.

Oahu’s Attractions

When I contemplate a Hawaii trip a long list of activities come to mind — gorging at Zippy’s, hiking through a rain forest to deep pools fed by a waterfall, enjoying the lonesome crystal waters and spectacular vistas of the windward coast, soaking up the atmosphere at old Haleiwa, body surfing on the North Shore, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, seeing the Society of Seven at the Outrigger, joining the human river coursing through Kalakaua and Kuhio, exploring the colorful Asian eateries popping up all over Waikiki, dining at the hip new restaurants reinvigorating the old Chinatown section of downtown Honolulu, hiking out to the beautifully desolate beach at Kaena Point, and cruising around the island and through its rugged lush mountains.

Waikiki Beach Lively Waikiki Beach is lined with deluxe hotels and upscale, immaculate Kalakaua Avenue.

The only way to work in the activities on that list is to rent a car, preferably an SUV, book a Waikiki hotel and a flight that gets into Honolulu by the early afternoon of Day 1 and flies out late evening of Day 5. That way you can fit five full day’s worth of activities into a four-night stay. This kind of a custom driving stay to Oahu is costlier than a tour package, but not too much more if you plan in advance and shop around for deals on air fare, car rental and hotel.

Packing for Oahu

We took our latest Hawaii trip during spring break in mid-March. By booking early, we got a great deal on Hawaiian Airlines which flies the Airbus A330-200s with spacious, accessible 2-4-2 seating in economy class. Our fare limited us to a single carry-on suitcase each, plus a “personal item”, meaning a purse or a backpack. A $25 additional charge would have applied for each checked suitcase but — being practical travelers who didn’t expect a dinner invitation from the governor while in town — we had no trouble fitting the minimal wardrobe needed for a five-day Hawaii stay into a small carry-on suitcase.

Board your flight wearing running shoes (which you will need for hiking as well as to keep your feet warm during the flight, especially the one back) and carry a pair of comfy but durable sandals in your suitcase. Skip dress shoes. Wear a light windbreaker for those all-too-common showers or squalls, as well as to help you get some sleep on the redeye back. Pack six tee shirts, one for each additional day plus two more to change into. You will only need two pairs of socks. Wear a pair of long pants on the flight and carry two pairs of shorts plus, of course, your swim trunks. A pair of nice sweat pants and a long-sleeve shirt for sleepwear also come in handy. Don’t worry about gear for snorkeling or other activities. Quality equipment can be easily rented at very competitive rates.

Hawaiian Airlines

The nice thing about Hawaiian’s A330-200s are the roomy overhead storage compartments that dispense with the need to scramble for storage space. Unlike many planes, the overhead bins can store three carry-on suitcases vertically above each pair of center-row seats. That third slot comes in handy because the overhead bins above the pair of window-row seats are shallow and can only hold one small suitcase sideways plus a backpack. You can also put a backpack or a small overnight bag under the seat in front of you.

Our Hawaiian flight left the gate at LAX at 10:35 a.m. on Saturday and arrived in Honolulu at around 1:10 p.m. local time (3 hours earlier than PDT) after a 5 1/2-hour flight. Getting there takes about 55 minutes longer than flying back because of the jet stream at the cruising altitude of around 40,000 feet. The resulting headwind varies by latitude. Flying in the westerly direction to Honolulu the headwind blows at around 70 mph at 32-degree N. latitude (Los Angeles) and weakens to 9 mph at 21-degree N. latitude (Honolulu).

The sense of having arrived in Hawaii hits you profoundly the moment you walk out into the open-air walkway for the long trek to the main terminal for the shuttle to the car rental facility. The temperature, humidity and constant cooling breeze in Oahu combine to make you feel as though Mother Nature is caressing you. If not for our compunctions about propriety, natives and visitors alike would happily go naked.

Car Rental

After about a two-minute wait on the center island in front of the terminal, the Dollar shuttle bus arrived for a four-minute ride to its bustling lot and outdoor rental counter. We had booked a Ford Escape or equivalent at the special rate of $35 per day but were told by the harried counter lady that no more Escapes were available. She suggested a few alternatives that sounded stodgier. They didn’t appeal to me, I told her. After some minutes of checking with staffers processing returns, she said a Jeep Wrangler was being washed. Fifteen minutes later we were delighted to drive away in a Wrangler Sport Edition with oversize wheels and a soft top that normally goes for $65 per day. Its rugged look and feel and arrogantly high seating instantly transformed us into adventurers in paradise.

For Angelenos used to endless gray freeway drives, Oahu’s scale is delightfully reduced. The entire island would fit inside Los Angeles County with room to spare. The drive from Honolulu International to Waikiki is only about five miles. After barely two miles on the H1 freeway we exited on Nimitz Highway, the main coastal surface road that takes you efficiently along the southern edge of Honolulu into Waikiki.


But just two miles from the freeway exit, on the southeastern edge of downtown Honolulu, we made a left into the Zippy’s at 666 Nimitz Highway. Zippy’s is the Islands’ ubiquitous fast-food/family restaurant chain. It offers Asian dishes like teriyaki, saimin, Korean barbecue, katsu and mahi mahi along with American staples like chili, hamburgers, pastrami and spaghetti. Whatever plate you order comes with a scoop of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad.

The chain has added a bakery annex called Napoleon’s which offers some Asian-flavored pastries (red bean buns, for example) as well as typical American-style donuts, buns and tarts. When I was going to Honolulu’s McKinley High, the Zippy’s on King Street used to be a favorite after-school snack stop. Over the years I’ve stopped eating most of the dishes I loved as a teen, but the restaurant exerts a powerful sentimental pull, making at least one Zippy’s stop mandatory per Hawaii trip.


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