If you’ve got a rental car and a day to kill, you can sight-see a good portion of the island in one day and all on one road. By driving up the eastern shore to the North Shore, and back down through the middle, you’ll experience the best of Oahu’s rugged landscape, dramatic coastal scenery, and rural old school Hawaiian charm.
Find your way to the Kamamehameha Highway aka “The Kam Highway” in Kailua/Kaneohe. If you are coming from Waikiki, take the Pali Highway to merge onto the Kam Highway. Make sure you pull off at the Pali scenic overlook just before the tunnel – you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of bright green cliffs dramatically dropping down to the valley. If it’s rained recently you’ll have an added bonus as the mountain ridges double as raging waterfalls, and rainbows can frequently be spotted.
Once you get to the Kamamehameha Highway, head north. Head through the suburban area of Kaneohe and on a two-lane road hugging the coast. On the right will be turquoise waters and directly to your left gorgeous craggy mountain ridges. The hustle and bustle of Waikiki will feel like a whole other world, as stores and strip malls give way to roadside fruit stands and beach shacks.
Just past Kualoa Ranch (film site of “Jurassic Park,” “Godzilla,” “Mighty Joe Young,” and “Lost”) and the tiny offshore island dubbed “Chinaman’s Hat,” you will pass Tropical Farms Macadamia Nut Farm. It’s worth a quick stop to learn a little about one of Hawaii’s most famous crops, not to mention to take advantage of the free samples of various macadamia nut flavors and complimentary cups of coffee.
Make sure you save some of your appetite for the famous “Shrimp Shacks” a bit farther up The Kam Highway. There is one in a painted bus on the left side of the road near Laie that is especially renowned for its coconut shrimp.
Also in Laie is the Polynesian Cultural Center (kind of like a Polynesian Disneyland run by Mormons), an interactive park really only worth the hefty entrance fee if you want to make at least a half day of it. Just past the PCC you can see the grand Mormon temple up to the left. It may seem odd to see Mormon temples in the tropics, but the Mormon church has had a presence here since the late 1800’s, when their missionaries first arrived.
The Kam Highway will eventually curve around and deliver you to the famed North Shore, home of some of [img_assist|nid=1193|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=188]the most legendary surfing spots in the world. If you are there during the winter months, you will see monstrous waves at spots like Pipeline and Waimea. In the summer months, the waves are mostly nonexistent, but beware the rip tide is still strong. Either way, the beaches near Sunset Beach are some of the widest and longest in the state. There’s a parking lot on the beach side of the road across from Sunset Beach Elementary that will give you access.
If you keep going down the Kam Highway, you’ll come to Waimea Bay, another beautiful beach that has huge waves in the winter but barely any in the summer. To the left side of the bay you’ll find an outcropping of rocks you can climb and cliff jump into the water. There are almost always people there doing the jump, so you should be able to follow them and know where the safe spots are.
If you’ve seen enough beaches, head across The Kam from the bay and drive into Waimea Valley Park, a botanical garden that includes a waterfall (as seen on the show “Lost”). There is a small fee to get into the park and it’s worth it if you want to see some wild peacocks and enjoy a peaceful walk amongst tropical plants and trees.
If you keep driving the Kam Highway you will get to Haleiwa, which is the only real “town” on the North Shore. Here you can get a famous shave ice from Matsumoto’s (expect there to be a long line) or at Aoki Shave Ice next door (usually less of a line). There aren’t a lot of great restaurants on the North Shore, but Haleiwa Joe’s might be your best bet. It’s on the harbor and has great cocktails and a mostly seafood menu.
To complete your loop, head south from Haleiwa back towards Honolulu. This will take you through the pineapple fields, and right by the Dole Plantation. Stop and take a tour, or just stop in to check out some pineapple plants (they grow differently than you’d think) and get a cone of Dole Whip which is similar to frozen yogurt or sorbet.
From here, follow signs back to Honolulu, or wherever you are ending your day. You’ve just seen more than half of Oahu!
What & Where:
Tropical Farms Mac Nut Farm (49-227 Kamehameha Hwy Kaneohe; 808-237-1960)
Polynesian Cultural Center (55-370 Kamehameha Highway Laie; 808-293-3333)
Waimea Valley Audobon Center (59-864 Kamehameha Hwy, Hale`iwa; 808-638-7766)
Matsumoto’s Shave Ice (66-087 Kamehameha Highway Hale`iwa; 808-637-4827)
Haleiwa Joe’s (66-011 Kamehameha Hwy Hale`iwa; 808-637-8005)
Dole Plantation (64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy Wahiawa; 808-621-8408)
For more information about Oahu check out these great books on Amazon Oahu Revealed: The Ultimate Guide to Honolulu, Waikiki & Beyond, Frommer’s Honolulu & Oahu Day by Day by Frommer’s, and Driving and Discovering Hawaii: Oahu, Honolulu, and Waikiki
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