Each of the five main Hawaiian islands offers its own unique experiences. However, Oahu occasionally gets overlooked for being thought of as being overdeveloped. It does include the state capital, Honolulu, and its high-rises—but the Hawaiian hub also has so much more beyond that. In fact, as the most ecologically diverse island in the chain, it offers something for everyone.
The 600-square-mile island’s stunning secret waterfalls are compelling enough on their own, but the volcanic oasis affords much more than jungle baths. The third-largest jewel in the Hawaiian archipelago, Oahu feels like several exotic locales in one. Depending on which side you visit, you can get caught up in adrenaline-pumping hikes on mountain ridges or savor the simplicity of island living on long sandy beaches. The less touristy western coast has a slower pace, ideal for days of rest and relaxation, while the balmy northern end abounds with adventure for thrill seekers. Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the country, sits in Honolulu—along with dozens of luxury goods stores with the latest inventory and special discounted “Hawaiian pricing,” to appeal to an international clientele.
To experience just how diverse this island can be, plan to spend at least a week exploring its sacred westside trails, turtle-covered beaches on the North Shore, and Polynesian museums in the capital. Here’s how to plan your journey on Oahu that will let you bring those Zoom beach backgrounds to life.
Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina
Home to a large Native Hawaiian population, the air of the Leeward Coast has a tangible spiritual presence. Ancient Hawaiian legend has it that Kaena Point, the island’s westernmost tip, is a sacred ground where souls leap into the realm of the gods. Guests of the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina can take a six-mile spiritual trek to Kaena Point, guided by a kuma or teacher. Once at the top, the kuma chants odes to the west shore, and performs a sunset hula.
The 371-room resort features original mid-century modern architecture by Edward Killingsworth. It first opened in 1998 as a JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and reopened as a Four Seasons in 2016 with updates by Philpotts Interiors. For ultimate isolation and unlimited ocean views, book the penthouse suite on the 17th floor, complete with an expansive 800-square-foot terrace facing the lagoon, plus a serviced kitchen, formal dining room, and spacious living room. However, even standard rooms and suites come with marble bathrooms, Toto electronic toilets, and large private balconies.
The property has a fantastic, infinity-edge, adult pool and a beachfront known for great snorkeling, paddleboarding, and lounging. The shores are calm and quiet, but it’s the custom experiences that really set the property apart: jewelry making with shells from the forbidden Niihau Island; first-of-its-kind virtual reality wellness treatments; and sailing on a wa’a (canoe). Aboard the 35-foot The Entertainer sport yacht, you can journey to hidden beaches while sipping champagne and dining on seafood from the property’s Mina’s Fish House—a delight in its own right. The restaurant, led by James Beard Award–winning chef Michael Mina, has the world’s first fish sommeliers. Its five-course culinary experience involves indulging in line-to-table seafood dishes paired with crisp wines and artsy cocktails (try the If Can, Can). At the adjacent La Hiki Steak, Bahamian chef Simeon Hall Jr. brings the smells and tastes of Hawaiian farms to your palette with island-style huli huli chicken and chopped local bacon salads. After a day of feasting, wake up early the next morning to catch the sunrise from the iconic pink Maili pillbox, a two-mile hike in Nanakuli. From $580. fourseasons.com
Turtle Bay Resort
For those craving more novel escapades and unsullied coastline, the North Shore picks up where the Leeward Coast leaves off. Famed for its great waves, northern Oahu is a surfing mecca, with jaw-dropping, white-sand beaches far removed from the crowds of Waikiki Beach. Charming vintage towns like Haleiwa color the scenery and recall the shabby-chic, wooden storefronts and homes in the West Indies. As the preeminent beach accommodation on the North Shore, the sprawling Turtle Bay sits on 1,300 acres of oceanfront land, complete with horse stables, bike trails, two 18-hole championship golf courses, and a spa. In March 2020, as part of its $70M renovation, the experiential resort launched Stay Well Premier to enhance health and relaxation. Rooms come with air-purification and filtration systems. The unique program also features in-room aromatherapy, soundscapes, and fitness and nutrition perks from Cleveland Clinic Wellness. Slightly more niche, the resort’s 42 Hawaiian-themed beach cottages place the ocean in your backyard.
Days at Turtle Bay are filled with back-to-back explorations on land and sea. Horseback riding along the property’s 12-mile coast is a must. After an al fresco breakfast at Lei Lei’s Bar & Grill, pack your swimsuit for an afternoon of waterfall chasing and turtle watching. Cruising along the Kamehameha Highway, stop at the Banzai Pipeline to watch surfers take on the reef break’s legendary waves. Visit the lush botanical gardens within the Waimea Valley, and continue along the nature paths leading to the cascading Waimea Falls, where you can take a swim amid flora and fauna imported from places like Fiji and Madagascar.
Visit the nearby Laniakea Beach and, if you’re lucky, you may spot a Hawaiian green sea turtle sunbathing on the sand. Turtle Bay can arrange a turtle-watching kayaking tour in Kawela Bay to double your chances of seeing one of the aquatic creatures. While on the North Shore, be sure to stop for a plate of garlic shrimp, a local delicacy, at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. For an exhilarating hike with a rewarding view of Ehukai Beach’s crystal-clear waters, climb to the top of the Ehukai Pillbox trail. Other amusements available to book through Turtle Bay include swimming with sharks off the coast of Haleiwa, playing with dolphins, and night diving in a marine reserve. From $254. turtlebayresort.com
Espacio The Jewel of Waikiki
Some say Waikiki can be a bit much. But is it? Its vitality and melting pot of cultural influences might be just the panacea for quarantine-induced boredom. The vibrant Honolulu-adjacent town has an endless amount of poke restaurants, Hawaiian clothing shops, and tiki bars to explore. Everything is within walking distance, so you can park your car, stroll around the shopping centers, and take in the breathtaking sunsets at palm tree–lined Waikiki Beach. Staying at Espacio means you get the best of both worlds: total solitude and easy access to city amusements. The boutique hotel has just nine suites, each on its own floor. The 2,250-square-foot, light-filled suites are available in two- and three-bedroom configurations featuring personal butler service and complimentary luxury car rental service. Suites come decked with Carrara marble dining tables, handwoven bedsheets from Japanese brand Tenerita, and balconies with hot tubs that overlook the ocean. Espacio’s unique setup also caters to social distancing with private elevators, in-suite saunas, and services like contactless in-suite personal styling through Neiman Marcus and private chefs. Aside from the modest lobby, the few public areas consist of a rooftop terrace with a serviced infinity pool and jacuzzi.
The hotel’s restaurant, Mugen, serves up a French-Japanese tasting menu with fresh seafood from the Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo, black summer truffles sourced from Oregon, and caviar from Denmark. The menu’s highlight is chef Jason Yamaguchi’s signature dish, the Sasanian Osetra Caviar with mochi blini, vanilla bean panna cotta, and cured yolk. While in Waikiki, check out local spots like Kuhio Beach Park and cultural landmarks such as the Duke Kahanamoku statue and Iolani Palace, which is more than worth the visit to learn about Hawaii’s rich culture and history. Staying in Waikiki makes it easier to access small bakeries like Leonard’s for delectable Portuguese doughnuts called malasadas, and to drive through eclectic residential areas like Kaimuki. From $2,625. espaciowaikiki.com
New York to Oahu: Reopenings are expected by July but confirm travel restrictions and hotel reopenings ahead of time. Hawaiian Airlines offers 11-hour nonstop flights to Honolulu from JFK or book a United Airlines nonstop flight to/from the island hub out of Newark.