Searching for Oahu’s Hidden Treasures
Oahu is a Traveler’s Delight
By Noreen Kompanik
So often when Oahu is mentioned, travelers tend to think of the urban concrete jungle of Honolulu, the crowded beaches of Waikiki, and traffic jams on its multi-laned highways.
Though Waikiki and Honolulu have their must-dos like Pearl Harbor’s Arizona Memorial, the U.S.S. Missouri, and Diamond Head, once you see what you’ve come to see, it’s great to know there are other places on the island that are far more restful and relaxing.
For a long time, Oahu was mine and my husband’s least favorite of the Hawaiian Islands – mostly due to the crowds. After all, eight out of ten Hawaiians do live on this small island!
Lots More to Oahu
Once we began to venture out, however, we discovered there’s so much more to Oahu. Lots more.
The island has all the wonder, natural beauty, adventure, and discovery that a person could ever ask for.
You just have to know where to find it and do some advance planning. And you’ll definitely need a car to get there.
Have a map at hand just in case GPS isn’t picking up a signal, which happens when you’re surrounded by mountains.
But once you get out there to explore these amazing places, you’ll understand why getting off-the-beaten-trek is the way to experience the true aloha of Oahu.
It All Started with Ko Olina
My mother-in-law had wanted to visit Hawaii her entire life but for one reason or another, life always seemed to get in the way, and she never quite made it.
Finally, a few years back, we were able to coordinate all our family’s schedules and make a multi-generational trip. We chose Oahu due to her age and mobility issues.
Great-Grandma begged to see Waikiki first. She’d watched so many Hawaiian movies that in her mind, this had to be heaven on Earth.
The Waikiki of Today
Unfortunately, like many others who visit this busy, bustling place, it wasn’t what she’d expected at all. Waikiki of the 1950s and 60s is not the Waikiki of today.
The good news however is that we were heading for a week in Ko Olina (meaning a place of joy), an incredibly picturesque resort area on the southwestern side of the island with four protected man-made lagoons.
In order to give her an easy, fun, and memorable experience, we decided to stay at the villas of Disney’s Aulani Resort. She loved it! And so did we.
Since that trip, we’ve stayed at other resorts in this fairly secluded area. Though it’s only a 30-minute drive from the airport, it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu. And it’s a great home base from which to experience the true magic of Oahu.
It’s like finding an old bottle with a pirate map inside revealing the island’s buried hidden treasures.
It may take a bit of work to find them, like hiking to a secret waterfall, venturing to a hidden cave, or kayaking to a disappearing island.
But, rest assured, it’s so worth it to find these secret gems most visitors know absolutely nothing about.
Though Oahu isn’t really known for its waterfalls like the Big Island, Maui, or Kauai, they do have them, and as waterfall lovers, we happen to know how to find them.
You’ll need good hiking shoes, sunscreen, and insect repellant, but we guarantee you’ll love the prize that awaits at the end of the trail.
Waterfall flow is determined by rainfall, so, obviously the more rain, the more impressive the cascade. Likeke Falls is a sweet secret spot we found on a recent trip to Oahu.
It’s a breathtaking two-tiered cascade that takes a one-mile roundtrip uphill hike on the remnants of a volcanic stone roadway through a tropical emerald rainforest reminiscent of a Jurassic Park movie set.
The rustic root-covered lava rock trail can be slick and muddy after a rainstorm, but, it’s worth the trek. And, it’s the one waterfall on the island that’s always flowing, rain or shine.
Waimea Falls on Oahu’s North Shore is a much easier destination for those who aren’t into heavy hiking or up for a challenge.
More of a nature walk, the Waimea Valley Trail is surrounded by lush picturesque jungle-y botanical gardens and historical sites.
The scenic paved trail is 3.5 miles out and back, easy to navigate, and perfect for all ages and fitness levels. The reward at the end (especially after a good soaking rain) is a stunning 45-foot cascade. There is an entrance fee, but we didn’t mind a bit after exploring this tropical paradise.
Exploring the Mysterious Kaneana (Makua Caves)
At the base of a huge cliff outcropping, the 100-foot high, 450-foot deep Kaneana Cave (Makua Cave) is a mystifying and sacred coastal grotto rich in Hawaiian lore. Situated on the remote western side of Oahu, legend has it that Kaneana is one of Hawaii’s most haunted sites. And the local Hawaiians believe it.
There are many stories associated with the caves, of shapeshifter gods and mankind’s birth from the womb of the Earth goddess. Nonetheless, the impressive cavernous formation located directly across from beautiful Kaneana Beach is a must-do.
If nothing else, just to satisfy the curiosity. There are no signs but it’s almost impossible to miss the massive cave entrance. If you dare to go inside, you’ll need to have a flashlight. And if you choose to take a hike, you’ll see more of the caves, and be treated to spectacular ocean views.
Pu’u o Makua Heiau (Historic Place of Worship)
Heiau are Hawaiian temples located throughout the Hawaiian Islands. They were constructed to treat the sick, provide offerings to the gods, pray for rain, successful fishing trips, or safe voyages.
We found one of the largest and most preserved heiau on Oahu’s North Shore. Perched 300 feet above sea level on a scenic bluff overlooking Waimea Bay and Waimea Valley, Pu’u o Makua Heiau has a fascinating story.
There is no admission fee to enter, and there are excellent interpretive signs on the trails which provide a better understanding of the sacred role of the heiau in Hawaiian life.
As we strolled through the remnants of the heiau’s remaining stone structures and stacked walls, a gentle breeze stirred off the tourmaline waters and through the palm trees as if to remind us that for the ancient Hawaiian gods, their mana still lives here.
Checking Out the Disappearing Island
It’s one of Oahu’s best-kept secrets. And how did we find out about it? From the locals, of course.
It may go by different names– Sunken Island, Disappearing Island, Sand Bar, Atlantis of Hawaii, or the Hawaiian name Ahu o Laka, but this natural phenomenon is amazing!
Located about a mile offshore in Kane’ohe Bay, the secluded turquoise oasis is right in the center of the bay on the windward side of Oahu. The water is only waist-deep at high tide.
But at low tide, the island emerges showcasing its soft pearly white sand against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Ko’oalu Mountains.
This sandbar beach is perfect for snorkeling, having a lunch picnic and enjoying panoramic views of the mountains and nearby islets. You’ll need a boat to get there, or in our case, a kayak.
As always when in the Hawaiian sun, pack plenty of water, and sunscreen, and don’t forget your snorkel gear!
Discovering the Byodo-In Temple
It’s serenely beautiful and so unexpected. A spectacular red and gold Buddhist structure sits at the foot of the towering cloud-covered Ko’oalu Mountains in the Valley of The Temples Memorial Park. This is a complete and total surprise to many Oahu visitors.
The architectural masterpiece is an exact replica of the 950-year-old temple at a UNESCO Heritage Site in Uji, Japan. It houses an 18-foot Buddha statue and the adjacent sacred Bell House.
Constructed in 1968, the temple commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Japanese arrival to the island to work the sugar plantations.
The two-acre temple grounds are a lushly landscaped paradise home to wild peacocks, black swans, and hundreds of Japanese koi. The picturesque property also features a large reflecting pond, meditation niches, and a series of small waterfalls.
Visitors speak in hushed tones as if to not disturb the peace and serenity of the temple. There couldn’t be a more ideal spot on the island for contemplation and reflection.
Searching for Sea Turtles at Laniakea Beach
Oahu’s North Shore has long been a siren calling surfers and free spirits to its sandy shores and impressive surf. Winter swells can bring towering 30 to 40-foot waves. As for the rest of the year, these North Shore beaches are perfect for snorkeling, sunbathing, tide-pooling, and turtle-watching.
Laniakea Beach (commonly known as Turtle Beach), and situated between popular Waimea Bay and Hale’iwa, is a great spot at low tide for exploring its magnificent tide pools teeming with tropical fish.
Home of the Honu
It’s also known for the honu (Hawaiian sea turtles) who make their home in this stretch of Hawaiian waters.
The beach is only marked with signage from the northern direction, not the south, so having a map makes all the difference. Parking is on both sides of the road, and visitors can walk a short stretch down to the beach.
We couldn’t have been more excited to see several of these magnificent sea creatures gliding through the crystalline waters and one large green sea turtle sunbathing on the beach oblivious to its admirers.
Historic Town of Hale’iwa
Good planning is everything, and if you’re already in the North Shore area, you can’t miss having lunch in Hale’iwa Town. We love this place.
Rustic, authentic, and laid-back are just a few ways to describe the more than a century-old surf town of Hale’iwa, located on Oahu’s famous North Shore. And guaranteed, you’ll see surfers heading in or out of the Pacific waters with their boards.
Once the playground of Hawaiian royalty, this sweet throwback Hawaiian village features a charming array of art galleries, surf shops, eateries and food trucks serving the island’s famous garlic shrimp, fish tacos and more.
But you cannot pass through without stopping for Haleiwa’s renowned island treat—shave ice (yes, it’s “shave” not “shaved).” Much finer than the traditional snow cone, it’s served with your choice of flavored syrups. We guarantee it’s a luscious treat you will order more than once on the island.
Heading to the Halona Blowhole and Cove
Located on Oahu’s southeastern shoreline just minutes from renowned Hanauma Bay, Halona Point is definitely a “honey, stop the car now” destination. And if you time it right, you’re really in for a special treat.
At high tide, water shoots up to 30-feet or more through a hole in an impressive lava tube formed by volcanic eruptions eons ago. The point is also an ideal place for whale-watching when in season.
And here’s another secret. Just to the right of the blowhole sits quiet Halona Cove with its narrow stretch of sand and surf made famous during a steamy 1953 “From Here to Eternity” movie scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr.
When waters are calm, the intimate cove, aka Eternity Beach, is a great place for swimming.
An anonymous author once said “Walking off the beaten path will open up a world of beautiful opportunities.” Can’t imagine this fits any better than finding those hidden treasures on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.