Soaring high above Oʻahu, Hawaii from my comfy perch in a Blue Hawaiian helicopter, I marveled at the diversity of the island. From craggy cliffs and mountains to dramatic coastlines, verdant valleys and lush rainforests, this special slice of paradise has it all. And a helicopter ride is one of the best ways to appreciate such vast natural beauty.
On a Blue Hawaiian Helicopters O‘ahu Complete Island tour, you’ll experience the full range of landscape, from the turquoise reefs of Waikiki and iconic Diamond Head to pristine Hanauma Bay and white sand Waimanalo Beach. You’ll get to see Mokoli’i Island, otherwise known as “Chinaman’s Hat,” Sacred Falls and the coral formations in Kaneohe Bay, as well as fly above the Nuuanu Valley rainforest and the panorama of the Dole Pineapple Plantation. The ride concludes with sweeping views of Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri.
Waterfalls drop hundreds of feet right outside your window and there are times when you’ll find yourself flying low over deep and impossibly tangled canyons. As you take in this jaw-dropping scenery, the pilot identifies the various sights and provides interesting details about the island. Crescent-shaped Hanauma Bay, for example, is a nature preserve and the first Marine Life Conservation District in the state. Famed Sacred Falls is a hallowed place for the Hawaiian people and home to many ancient legends, myths and superstitions. Diamond Head was so named by British sailors in the 19th century, who mistook calcite crystals embedded in the rock for diamonds. And Chinaman’s Hat, a cone-shaped outcropping of lava off Kualoa Point, is one of the most photographed landmarks in all Hawaii.
Areas such as the breathtaking Ka’a’awa Valley might look familiar to many, as it has been the filming location for numerous movies and T.V. series, including “Jurassic Park,” “Godzilla,” “Pearl Harbor,” “50 First Dates,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Magnum P.I.” The valley is part of Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch that dates back to 1850. You can visit the ranch and discover the valley via jeep, mountain bike, ATV and horseback riding tours.
It’s hard to know where to look first during your helicopter experience, as you’ll be presented with a nonstop hit parade of stunning vistas. The ride offers plenty of glorious eye candy, but it also gives first-time visitors a useful perspective of the island, which is helpful in creating a plan to explore it once on terra firma.
Beaches figure prominently on O‘ahu – more than 130 grace the island. Possibly the most famous in all of Hawaii is Waikiki Beach, an epicenter for tourists, who camp out on the busy two-mile strand. The place teems with sunbathers and watersport aficionados, who want to see and be seen. Umbrellas and chairs stretch as far as the eye can see. And if you think the beach is crowded, try strolling the walkway alongside it, which is home to restaurants, entertainment and a gazillion shops.
When you’re ready to do some beach-hopping, head to Waimanalo Bay State Recreation Area and Beach Park. This four-mile stretch of white-sand bliss is perfect for sunbathers and boogie boarders, though less suitable for inexperienced swimmers due to its rougher waters. Further north is Kailua Beach Park, a mecca for those who like to bodysurf, windsurf or sail. Swimmers will enjoy nearby Lanikai Beach (my personal favorite), with its clear turquoise water and powdery sand beach.
Along the coast to the North Shore are several notable beach parks: Kualoa, Kahana, Hau’ula and Malaekahana. The North Shore itself is home to renowned Sunset and Waimea Bay beaches. Sunset has been popular with both locals and tourists for decades. In summer, swimmers and snorkelers are abundant, but when winter arrives, the large waves roll in and experienced surfers take over the place. It’s the same scenario at Waimea Bay, which is the ultimate North Shore surf competition amphitheater.
With well over a million visitors per year, Pearl Harbor is the number one attraction on O‘ahu. This national memorial is a place of remembrance, understanding and respect, and often evokes many emotions in visitors. Sights include the sunken USS Arizona and viewing platform, the USS Missouri Battleship, the Pacific Aviation Museum and the retired USS Bowfin Submarine. Currently, the USS Arizona Memorial is closed to the public until repairs are completed to the loading ramp. In the interim, U.S. Navy shuttle boats offer narrated tours around Battleship Row, with prime viewing of the USS Arizona.
You can spend several hours touring the area. The best place to start is at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, where there’s a museum with exhibits detailing the history of this tragic event – an event that changed not only the U.S., but the world. December 7th, 1941 marks the fateful day that the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting base on O‘ahu. This shocking offensive left 2,403 dead and over 1,000 wounded. It forced our country out of its isolationist stance and into war, eventually shifting the course of history. An excellent film gives additional background and dramatic weight to the event, with true tales of heroism, valor and heartbreak.
Hawaii’s most recognized landmark is Diamond Head. Comprised of a broad, saucer-shaped crater, this state monument creates a unique profile on the edge of Waikiki’s coastline. For many, hiking to the summit is a bucket list activity (Hint: make the climb early to beat the heat and the crowds). The trail was actually built in 1908 as part of the island’s coastal defense system. As you walk up from the crater floor, via a series of steep switchbacks, you’ll get a glimpse into the geological and military history of the place. You’ll go through a lighted 225-foot tunnel to enter the Fire Control Station. Completed in 1911, the station directed artillery fire from batteries in Waikiki and Fort Ruger outside of Diamond Head. Once you reach the summit, you’ll see bunkers and a navigational lighthouse, still in use after a hundred years. The view of the shoreline and surrounding area is postcard extraordinaire.
Waimea Falls, located within Waimea Valley, is another favorite hike on the island, though it’s more of a pleasurable stroll. As you walk through lush botanical gardens with oversized tropical plants, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a primordial world. Posted signs along the way describe the grounds, history and plant life that exists in this sacred valley. The reward is a 30-foot waterfall that cascades into a large pool below. Cool off with a plunge in the pool.
For a change of pace, delve into island culture. You’ll get a crash course on all things Polynesian at the Polynesian Cultural Center. This 42-acre extravaganza brings to life the traditions, history and hospitality of six island villages of the South Pacific through a series of exhibits, performances and interactives. Hundreds of Polynesian islanders share their customs, food and cooking techniques, crafts, home-building skills and games. There’s also an award-winning luau, canoe celebration and the critically-acclaimed live evening show, “HĀ: Breath of Life.”
Additionally, various hotels on the island, provide opportunities for guests to learn about Hawaiian culture. Offerings may include ukulele, hula and lei making sessions, and even beginning Hawaiian language classes. You can also try paddling a Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe or rent a board and take a surfing lesson. Surfing to early Hawaiians was much more than a recreational activity. It was a deeply spiritual affair and honored tradition with rituals involving praying for good surf and building a surfboard. The chiefs used it as a training exercise and as a means of conflict resolution.
When hunger calls, it’s a challenge to decide what to eat and where, as the choices are extensive. Seafood reigns supreme, as expected, with such fresh fish as ahi, Mahi Mahi, Ono and Opakapaka typically found on the menu. Preparations range from macadamia nut crusted to soy glazed and blackened. Japanese and Asian fusion restaurants are in abundance, as are the omnipresent poke bowl establishments. Sample the variety of pupus available at happy hour, accompanied by a coconut mojito or Tropical Itch. The latter is a rum and bourbon libation with Lilikoi (passion fruit) juice for sweetener. It’s served with a bamboo back-scratcher instead of a swizzle stick – to scratch your “itch.”
When on the North Shore, stop for lunch at one of the shrimp trucks, like Giovanni’s, Honos or the Shrimp Shack. Get these tasty crustaceans scampi style with plenty of garlic or boiled and steamed in lemon butter. You’ll be licking the sauce off your fingers!
Make sure you also try an acai bowl. The best ones are at Island Vintage Coffee in Waikiki, where the creations are swoon-worthy, and contain such ingredients as fresh tropical fruit, granola, honey, cacao nibs, almond butter or almond milk.
Shaved ice deserves a category of its own in Hawaii. Over the years, it’s become an art form. And if you haven’t had any in a while, be prepared for an array of concoctions that puts the old traditional sno cone to shame. Syrups are often homemade, many with natural flavors, or fresh fruit is used instead of syrup. Most come with the option of soft serve ice cream or frozen yogurt as the base. Toppings are extensive with azuki beans, mochi, lilikoi seeds, popping bobas (flavored jelly balls filled with juice) and more. And the ice is so fine, it feels like snowflakes melting in your mouth. Popular local shops and stands on O‘ahu include Matsumoto, Island Vintage, Waiola, Island Snow and Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha. If you want to know whether a place is any good, just look for a long line of swimwear-clad people.
For everything O‘ahu visit gohawaii.com/islands/oahu.com