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What Are Some Fun Non-Touristy Things To Do in O’ahu?

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The Coast of Oahu Hawaii

Hawaii is one of the top tourist destinations in the United States since it’s a gorgeous set of tropical islands, but you don’t need a passport to visit. There are pros and cons to any Hawaii trip, though, and one of the biggest is that exact popularity. Tourists flock to the islands, and while the tourist income is a boon, there are many who believe Hawaii is a victim of “over-tourism” and that it’s doing damage to the native population, the historic culture, and even the landscapes themselves.

As a visitor, you should generally strive to be as respectful as possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t visit at all. You might want to avoid the crowds, go on more laid-back adventures, and do the non-touristy things that can make for a unique experience unlike any other.

The question is, what can you do? Well, Oahu is packed with things to do, so you have an immense amount of choice.

Since there are so many options, we’ve put together a list based on categories, with a bunch of options for each. Let’s dig in!

Shopping for Souvenirs

Hawaii is, for many people, a once-in-a-lifetime place to visit. That means, in all likelihood, you’ll want to take home some mementos of your visit. A lot of people consider taking a small vial of sand from the beaches, but due to the sheer volume of people doing so, Hawaii’s beaches were actually disappearing, so they made it illegal to take sand away. So, instead of that (frankly a little cliché) idea, why not go shopping for souvenirs?

Souvenirs in Hawaii

Visit Na Mea Hawaii. Na Mea Hawaii is an independent small business in Oahu with two locations. They’re essentially a specialized boutique with a variety of unique items, from jewelry to tote bags to Hawaiian shirts, all made by local Hawaiian artisans. Whatever you pick up, you know it carries the history and heritage of the islands with it.

Check out the Sunshine Arts Gallery. The Sunshine Arts Gallery is an art collective and store where dozens of artists have their artwork displayed and, in many cases, available for sale. There’s a ton to see, and you can even view a gallery tour on YouTube if you want a taste of what you can find there.

Adventure Under the Waves

While a lot of the best things to do in Oahu are on the island itself, there’s no shortage of incredible ocean adventures as well. In particular, there are a bunch of great locations where you can go swimming, snorkeling, and diving.

Snorkel at Shark’s Cove. Shark’s Cove, also known as Kapo’o, is one of the most popular snorkeling destinations, but that doesn’t mean it’s a prime tourist destination, just that it’s incredible. Make sure to book this trip or tour for the summer, though; winter storms make the seas too rough and dangerous.

A Person Snorkeling

Go shark diving on the north shore. There are several places along the northern coast of Oahu where you can go diving with the sharks. You have two options: with a cage or without. While shark attacks are very rare, it’s still safer in the cage, and the sharks will come a lot closer than if you’re free diving.

Explore Polo Beach. Polo Beach is one of the most quiet and calm beaches along the north side. The entrance poses a choice, however: if you go left, you go to a more isolated area where you’ll have most of the beach to yourself. If you go right, it’s more likely to be populated, with a catch; it’s also an unofficial clothing-optional beach, so be sure to know that ahead of time!

Experiencing History and Culture

The history, culture, and even the food of Oahu are exquisite. You can easily spend an entire trip doing nothing but taking in the history of the islands and their varied experiences. What are some of the off-the-beaten-path options?

Visit the Plantation Village. Hawaii has a long history of plantation work, and while it wasn’t quite as dire as slavery in the American South, it still wasn’t the best. Immigrant workers lived in plantation homes and worked in the surrounding areas, and many of those homes still exist. Some plantations, like the Dole Plantation, are heavily tourist-focused, but the Plantation Village is less frequently visited, more historically accurate, and offers guided tours to walk you through not just the village but the history.

Visit the Buddhist Temple of Mu-Ryang-Sa. Oahu has a long history with Buddhism, and there are temples scattered around the island. One of the best is Mu-Ryang-Sa. It’s an extremely tranquil place and an oasis of calm in the oasis of Oahu. You can explore on your own or sign up for classes to gain an introduction to Korean Buddhism.

Explore the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. While this one doubles as a hike, it’s in a tended garden that contains plants from all over the world. It’s a free park with over 400 acres of wilderness to explore, and it’s large and open enough you’ll likely have significant parts of it all to yourself as you explore. There can hardly be a more picturesque place on Oahu.

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Explore Pearl Harbor. There’s really not a lot to say about this one. Pearl Harbor is deeply embedded in American culture and history, and it’s equally important to Hawaiian history. The Pearl Harbor Museum and the USS Arizona are incredible to visit, though they are more of a tourist attraction than most of the other things on this list. It’s really something you need to do if you visit Hawaii, though.

Drive the H-3. While we don’t normally recommend something as simple as going for a drive – we prefer more on-foot adventures – the H-3 is one of the most scenic and incredible highways in the world and definitely the best on Oahu. It can take you to a lot of the other adventures on this list, and you can see a few other attractive options along the way.

Hiking the Wilds

Hawaii isn’t exactly an untamed wilderness, but there’s plenty to explore and love about the islands. Oahu, in particular, has a variety of fantastic hikes, from short trips through jungles to climbs up to the craters. Here are some of the more interesting hikes you can consider.

Take the Koko Crater Stairs. Also known as the Koko Head Stairs, this is a short hike of only about a mile. Despite the short distance, it’s a challenging hike because it also climbs 1,000 feet in elevation in just half of that distance, so you really need the stamina to make that climb. When you reach the top, though, you’re rewarded with an incredible view across the island below.

The Koko Crater Stairs

Hike the Koloa Gulch Trail. Koloa Gulch is a much longer hike, around 12-14 miles in total. It’s also not well signposted and will require good navigational skills to make it to your destination. What is that destination? A gorgeous Hawaiian waterfall located in a secluded jungle gulch, an isolated enough destination few tourists ever even see it.

Explore the bird sanctuary of Goat Island. Despite being named Goat Island – or, more accurately, Moku-auia – the island is home to more birds than goats. It’s a fairly isolated island, so it’s not much of a tourist destination, and you’re likely to have the majority of the place for yourself, other than maybe a few fishermen or other visitors who read articles like this one. The island is just off the coast from the Malaekahana State recreation area, and you can hike through the water to it at low tide or swim when it’s high.

Try the Olomana Hike. The Olomana trail is also known as the Three Peaks hike because it takes you to – and up – three different mountainous peaks across the island. Do keep in mind that this is a serious hike, and while the first peak is relatively easy and safe, the second and third are harder, and you likely require at least some climbing experience. If that sounds like a great time for you, give it a shot!

Visit Pali Notches at sunrise or sunset. Pali Notches is a steep and windy hike, so it’s definitely not for everyone. You really need to know your stuff and be comfortable with a rough and dangerous path. The rewards, however, are worth it; it’s one of the best views of sunrise or sunset you can get on the islands.

Take the Waimano Falls hike. If you know us, you know we love waterfalls, and while not much can compare to the Icelandic waterfalls we love so much, Oahu has some excellent examples. The Waimano Pools hike is a three-mile hike that takes you past a few waterfalls and leads you to a calm and isolated water hole where you can swim and enjoy your time after the exertion.

About the Stairway to Heaven

It’s worth giving this one a bit of space on its own. The Stairway to Heaven, more formally known as the Haiku Stairs, is a massive staircase leading from the bottom of a valley up across the peaks of the mountains to a radio tower at the top. For many years, it has been a fixture of Oahu tourism.

Recently, though, things have changed. The stairs have been closed for decades, but they were still available to hike, even if you had to take your safety into your own hands. More and more damage over time, overgrowth from plants, and general degradation have meant that the stairway is incredibly risky now.

The Stairway to Heaven in Oahu

In an effort to protect people and to limit risk, the stairway is now even more closed than ever, and it’s now illegal to so much as set foot on it. There is active security at the bottom, periodic security at the top, and even sporadic police helicopters flying over the top to check for people along the way. If you’re caught on the stairs, you can be fined up to $1,000, and that number seems to go up every year.

There’s a “back way” up to the same radio tower, where you can get to the peak and look down the stairs. It’s called the Moanalua Trail, and it’s longer and less scenic but a lot safer and – most importantly – legal.

What to Bring to Oahu

What should you pack to bring on an Oahu adventure? Well, a lot depends on what you want to do! As you can see from our list here, a lot of the options are hiking, which means you want all of your usual hiking supplies.

  • Good hiking shoes.
  • Comfortable clothes for the temperature.
  • Bug spray and sunscreen.

Of course, as with any vacation, don’t forget your documents. You don’t need a passport if you’re a US citizen, but you still want your ID, various reservation and ticket documents, and anything else you’ve booked in advance.

It can also be a great idea to have equipment to make the most of your views and experiences. Photography gear is a must (and we have a whole guide you can read here), but even something as simple as a set of binoculars can be nice to have.

Hanauma Bay in Oahu

What about drones? Hawaii allows drones and drone photography, but you need to be licensed by the FAA with a registration number for your drone. You have to keep drones under 400 feet and within sight as well, and the usual “nowhere near airports” rules apply. You also can’t fly them at night or over people.

Flying drones in state parks is also prohibited, and there are usually local or regional prohibitions to keep in mind as well.

If you plan to do any swimming, you should also consider reef-safe sunscreen, swim clothes, towels, and waterproof packs for your sensitive electronics and other items.

One thing worth remembering, especially if you’re a frequent international traveler and visit places like Bali and the Maldives, is that Hawaii is not remote compared to most of these other tropical destinations. Oahu is far from an isolated island; it’s home to several larger cities and, of course, Honolulu. Anything you forget to bring, you can buy on the island. Don’t feel the need to over-pack!

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