So, you want to go to Hawaii but what island is the best to visit? Planning a trip to Hawaii can be daunting, confusing and overwhelming despite the images of crystal clear waters and palm trees. Our Oahu travel guide is here to help ease some of the stress and have you enjoying all the natural beauty Hawaii has to offer.
My wife and I began to plan a trip to Hawaii to celebrate our 10th anniversary. That was the easy part but things got much more complicated from there. Despite traveling all over the world, picking a landing spot for our Hawaii trip felt more confusing than any trip we have taken.
Going to Maui appeared to be the consensus pick for our first trip, but the combination of flights and expensive hotel options crossed this off our list. There is a good chance you will find affordable (by Hawaii standards) flights to Honolulu, but your options are not limited to vacationing inside the city.
You can still find peace and quiet in Oahu, and if you crave being in the city there is also those options as well. We are offering a strong recommendation for staying in the North Shore which is about a one hour drive from the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu.
From the turquoise waters and green mountains to world-class food trucks, here are some tips to making the North Shore of Oahu your Hawaii travel destination.
What Island Should You Travel to in Hawaii? The Case for Staying at the North Shore of Oahu
We could not have been happier with our decision to stay in the North Shore area of Oahu. The region is known for having some of the best beaches to surf in the world, food trucks and wide open farm lands. Throughout our stay, we often saw signs that read “Keep the country, country” emphasizing the locals’ desire to refrain from overdeveloping the area.
Our vacation experience would likely have been different if we stayed in the more crowded area of Waikiki Beach where the majority of Honolulu’s hotels and resorts are located. We opted to drive an hour north of the airport to stay at Turtle Bay Resort. The hotel comes highly recommended and is the same location where a number of movies and television shows (including “Lost” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) have been filmed.
While Turtle Bay is worth the splurge, there are plenty of Airbnb and VRBO options around the North Shore if you are looking for more affordable places to stay. If you do stay at Turtle Bay, we strongly recommend venturing outside the resort to try the different food truck options. Not only is it much cheaper than eating every meal at the hotel, but the food is also tastier.
The mark of a good meal, enticing golf course and, yes, vacation is not wanting it to end. We definitely did not want our trip to Oahu to end leaving with an admitted sense of dread to go back to the mainland. It appears we are not alone as Joe Montana and his family took an extended trip to the North Shore to get away during the pandemic, per ESPN’s Wright Thompson. The Montanas turned a two-week trip into a month long stay at Oahu, especially enjoying the world-famous waves.
The Best Things to Do in North Shore Oahu
After taking recent trips where our itinerary had us on the go every moment of the day, our goal in Hawaii was to relax and enjoy the view (both literally and metaphorically). Yet, if you want to be on the move in Oahu there is plenty to see and do, especially in the North Shore area. Originally, we were going to Uber and Lyft rides instead of renting a car. With the Turtle Bay hotel more than an hour away from the airport, this would have been costly, and we changed our plans to rent a car.
This allowed us flexibility to drive around the island, including spending a full day in Honolulu. It took us about an hour to get from the North Shore to Honolulu, and you may even opt to stay in the popular Waikiki Beach despite our evangelism for the North Shore in this story.
Our day in Honolulu included a trip to Pearl Harbor but be advised that you would be wise to book your tickets in advance. We drove up to Diamond Head to check out the view, but unfortunately were pressed for time preventing us from doing the actual hike. Locals will tell you there are better hikes in the area to explore, but it was definitely a popular spot the day we drove around. Be sure to reserve your parking pass in advance online if you are planning to visit.
We took our trip in February which meant big waves, crazy wind and colder weather than is typical on the island. We still found the weather to be pleasant just be prepared for random rain storms that will not be predicted on your favorite weather app. Having a light hoodie for the early mornings and late nights was helpful with the strong winds.
We found listening to the waves to be so relaxing, even if it made me a little hesitant to go far into the waters. Be sure to check to see if there are any surf competitions at the North Shore during your stay. We were unable to find one but show up to any of the major beaches and you will be able to watch the surfers, especially Banzai Pipeline which is one of the most famous surfing beaches in the world.
As an aside, I am so glad I watched HBO’s surfing documentary “Momentum Generation” which gave me a great appreciation for the history of the North Shore prior to our trip. After viewing the film, it truly felt like I was standing on holy ground on the North Shore beaches with Oahu deserving a great deal of credit for the rise of pro surfing.
Overall, we found the vibes of the North Shore to be refreshingly simple. Enjoy nature by taking a walk along the beach, getting in the water and jumping in the pool if you are staying at a resort. Take a break from the sun by trying a new food truck in the area.
For nighttime activities, the lobby of Turtle Bay Resort offers nightly live music (typically from 6:30-10 p.m.) which is open to the public even if you are not staying at the hotel. You can park for free at the beach guest parking, and it is a short walk to the main lobby of the hotel. The outdoor bar offers great views of the waves and typically has live music as well.
We essentially rinsed and repeated this same day never tiring of enjoying paradise along with North Shore’s local culture. This may sound simplistic, but it is possible to pack your Hawaii itinerary with things to do and not be present to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Oahu, Hawaii: Tips for Golfing & Drinking the Best Kona Coffee During Your Trip
If you enjoy golf, Oahu has plenty of offerings, but I may have found my favorite course anywhere in Kahuku. For $30, non-residents can walk the nine holes of Kahuku Golf Course and an extra $4 gets you a push cart. Be sure to pack your own food and drinks as all that is offered at the course are vending machines, but it is a quick course to play.
There is also the Dole Plantation which is a great stop for families offering a train ride around the complex. Others may find it a bit touristy, and we made our stop quick given the amount of people.
A few additional recommendations that we unfortunately did not get to are the Crouching Lion Hike checking out sunset at the Tantalus Lookout and the ‘Ehukai Pillbox Hike. We also wanted to spend more time in the Kaka’ako arts district of Honolulu. The SALT shopping center in Kaka’ako offers live music, local vendors and plenty of great food options.
For the coffee connoisseurs, Honolulu offers the most options for beans and tasting menus, but you will find the beautiful drink all over the island. One of the best places is Kona Coffee Purveyors located in the International Marketplace. Expect to wait in line, but it does move fast. There is an affordable nearby parking garage as well as some available street parking (mostly of the two-hour variety). The pastries are worth the line by itself and would strongly recommend the pineapple coconut almond croissant. I do not like coconut but loved this breakfast item as you could not taste it in the pastry.
As for the drinks, I tried both the regular Kona coffee as well as an Americano made with the Kona espresso beans. Is is worth the hype? I found both to be extremely good cups of coffee and enjoyed being able to cross Kona off my list of things I tried. The store offers a great variety of coffee beans, but the Kona options are priced at a premium (this is the case all over the island). You can buy a small bag of Kona coffee here for about $27, the cheapest I saw for the premium beans.
The Honolulu Coffee Experience Center received strong recommendations, but we were unable to check it out. Hopefully, you are able to make it there and even try the açaí bowls which looked amazing.
The Best Food Trucks to Eat at the North Shore of Oahu
There are no shortage of dining options in the North Shore with an ever-booming food truck culture. There are pockets of “food truck centers” all over the island with most stands being surrounded by other options. It makes for a great group stop preventing the dreaded debate needed for just one restaurant.
I discovered Da Bald Guy food truck thanks to a Netflix episode of “Street Food: USA.” The truck was started by a father and son, and the food did not disappoint. I chose to upgrade to the pick-two option for about $25 which allowed me to select two entrees. The furikake crusted salmon and chipotle cajun butter shrimp did not disappoint.
The salmon filet was massive and the plate comes with two scoops of rice along with macaroni salad (both are staples of the traditional Hawaiian lunch plate). While I did not get to try it personally, the pan fried poke is legendary, and Da Bald Guy breakfast menu also landed strong reviews.
It appears the Netflix shoutout has business booming as there are now several food options around Da Bald Guy. I spoke to one worker at the Kahuku Beer Garden who said the area is thankful for Netflix as the show is bringing business to the surrounding offerings, not just Da Bald Guy.
Some of the additional options at this food truck stop include the ever-expanding Seven Brothers, Makahoa Pizza Company and Raised by the Waves. The hamburgers at Seven Brothers are a must try and big enough that my wife and I split the signature Paniolo offering. The massive hamburger came with a patty, cheese, bacon, grilled pineapple and two sizable onion rings along with barbecue and house sauces. The fries are cut-up potatoes, a cross between home fries and homemade chips.
Another great option to check out is Pupukea Grill, a standalone locale near one of the popular food truck areas. We scoped out food after watching the surfers at the nearby Banzai Pipeline beach (known as ‘Ehukai Beach Park in Google). With country music playing in the outdoor speakers, the vibe made me feel like I was back in the South.
I tried the kalua pork quesadilla and cajun swordfish tacos with an Acai smoothie to drink. Fresh ingredients, large portions and a unique menu make the food worth the wait. My wife tried the nearby North Shore Tacos and was not disappointed. We also both tasted the North Shore Shave Ice which was amazing and big enough for three people to share.
There are arguments over where the best shrimp truck is located, but I found most restaurants offer their own rendition of the areas signature dish. The garlic butter shrimp is the most common dish with some places also serving a cajun option. The majority of trucks serve the shrimp with the shell on as a way to hold in all the great seasoning.
The Best Restaurants at North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii
The one disclaimer I would add with the food truck experience is there are chickens everywhere. We did not find this to be a problem, but there are plenty of online reviews complaining about the experience. The chickens at some locations were more aggressive than others, climbing on the picnic tables, etc. There is also the variable of the weather but most areas offered covered picnic table areas in case of rain.
Sometimes it is nice to eat at a nice brick and mortar restaurant and the North Shore does have several good options. We discovered Haleiwa Joe’s on our final night in Oahu, and it gets bonus points for being open late. As an aside, many of the food trucks close early, so you would be wise to scope out the hours each day.
My entree was the grilled fish (a rotating catch of the day) which included a Macadamia nut pesto, lobster cream sauce and garlic mashed potatoes. I wanted to try the salmon egg rolls, but they were sold out (maybe you will have better luck).
The showstopper was the Paradise Pie which is a giant scoop of Kona coffee ice cream in pie slice form with an amazing Oreo cookie crust. You also get Belgian chocolate sauce on the side if you need even more sugar.
We tried several of the food options at Turtle Bay Resort, but one of the surprises of the trip was the Ho’Olana coffee shop in the lobby. The staff was welcoming and several times we opted for their breakfast over the pricier options at the resort. The location is stunning with big windows overlooking the beach. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, Ho’Olana is a good place to post up for either work or play while enjoying the views.
My only regret is discovering the breakfast burrito hours before our flight out of town. The spinach tortilla came with sausage, eggs, bacon, cheese and potatoes along with two amazing salsa options. I also tried the Spam Musubi here which can be found all over Hawaii. This version came with spam, egg and rice wrapped in seaweed.
Beach House also came highly recommended, and we ate dinner there one night. Reservations are required at most times. My main regret was coming at night and not getting to enjoy the beautiful view of the ocean. The location is stunning with the restaurant having a tree house feel surrounded by open glass windows. The carmelized pineapple butter rum cake was the star of the evening, but there are plenty of fresh seafood options including sushi rolls.
There are a few additional recommendations that we did not get to try but are worth checking out. The lunch plates at Waiahole Poi Factory received praise, particularly the Kalua pig and of course, the poi. Leonard’s Bakery offers an assortment of pastries and donuts.
Ted’s Bakery is viewed by some to have the best pies in the world with people coming from all over to try the Chocolate Cream edition. Let us know if this is true. The Skull & Crown Trading Company is a tiki bar located in Honolulu known for their signature cocktails. If you are looking for diner food, checkout the Highway Inn which has multiple locations.
We have offered a lot of words on what to do in Oahu, but as always our list is not exhaustive. Do not be afraid to go off the beaten path to make your own memories. Even on vacation, we need to be reminded to be where our feet are. Sometimes the food truck right next to us will be a better experience than driving an hour just to try one of the highly recommended spots.
Our trip to Oahu wet the pallet to experience the other islands as I am sure it will for you as well. Until next time, Aloha.
is a sports and news contributor based in Atlanta, Georgia. Jonathan has had exclusive interviews with a number of the top athletes in the world. He graduated from UCF with a Master of Sport Business Management degree and has worked inside the industry in a variety of capacities in the sports world. Follow him on Twitter @JonDAdams.