Oahu’s allure lies not only the glitz and glamour of Waikiki, but in the stories woven into its landscapes, the traditions preserved within its communities, and the untamed beauty that waits for those who venture off the well-trodden path.
Waikiki is everything I’d imagined and more. Bright and buzzy, it stretches its way along a dazzling strip of sand lapped by turquoise water just begging sun-kissed visitors to dip a toe in, or learn to surf on.
I’d pictured blocks of plush resorts, interspersed with restaurants, designer stores and bars, and people downing Mai Tais garnished with fruit and cocktail umbrellas. And, of course, there’d be Hula dancers, tiki torches and kids slurping towers of syrup-soaked shave ice. And, as advertised, it is all here, and then some.
But after a few days of its hi-octane energy and glossy façade, I feel the urge to seek a deeper connection with this exquisite Hawaiian island, far from the skyscrapers and high-rises of Waikiki. So off I go to discover Oahu, with a difference.
Chinatown proves a great place to start. Once an area of ill repute, it’s undergone something of a glow up with galleries, hip bars and even hipper restaurants replacing its gambling dens and strip clubs. While there are signs of gentrification, this Chinatown still retains an authentic flavour and its aromatic streets secret a mix of Asian cultures. Traditional acupuncturists and herbal stores are stocked high with jars and bags full of medicinal herbs, flowers and roots, and shops hawking gaudy Asian trinkets, while precariously stacked cooking supplies fall from overstuffed stores are nestled happily alongside tattoo parlours and Hawaiian Lei makers.
I stop to admire the district’s cultural landmarks including the vibrantly hued Kuan Yin Temple, a Buddhist temple adorned with intricate artwork, and the historic Wo Fat Building, said to have been the inspiration for the Hawaii Five-0 baddie of the same name.
And, of course, I eat. I delve into a heaving marketplace where friendly vendors hawk everything from chicken and jellyfish to fresh greens and fish sauce. I watch hungrily through the window at Yat Tung Chow Noodle Factory as dough is fed into rollers and comes out in ribbons of fresh noodles.
Then I join the queue at Sing Cheong Yuan bakery to stock up on bags filled with manapua (baked buns filled with sweet char siu pork), juicy pork hash (a kind of deconstructed siu mai) and slabs of sweet butter mochi, all for under US$5.
Malama might just be my new favourite word. This little Hawaiian word has a big meaning and represents a holistic and inclusive approach to caring for the Earth and its inhabitants. It embodies the concepts of caring for and respecting the environment, fostering a sense of connection, preserving cultural traditions, and promoting harmony, balance and the well-being of all. So, in my quest for connection, I head to Kualoa Ranch to find out more.
A jaw-dropping beauty, Kualoa Ranch, having served as a backdrop for numerous movies and TV shows, including Jurassic Park, Jumanji, Lost, and (so a little bird tells me), a soon to be released live action remake of Lilo & Stitch, is best known as Hawaii’s Backlot. But I have decided to nix its dinosaur and movie tours, ATV rides and horse riding, tempting though they are, to make a little malama of my own.
Kualoa’s Malama Experience offers visitors a unique opportunity to connect with nature and learn about Hawaiian culture while actively participating in the preservation of the land, by teaching them how to malama (take care of) aina (the land). It’s one of the most special things to do in Oahu, especially for families wanting to teach their kids about giving back.
Our gorgeous guide Iwi, a taro farmer, takes us through Kualoa Ranch’s lush valleys, towering mountains sharing information about the flora, fauna, and geological features of the area. While some tours might see visitors planting or harvesting taro crops, taking care of a bull or looking after an ancient fishpond, the experience varies depending on the season, the weather, and the needs of the aina that day.
On the day I visit, there is a small but important loʻi kalo (taro patch) at an ancient altar – or ahu – of stones that needs weeding. There’s also a rough, rocky pathway that needs clearing of rubble for a group of young school children that are expected the next day. In an unexpected twist, there are also piles of cow dung that need clearing to avoid said children disappearing knee deep into them. But in the spirit of malama aina, we collect the manure in buckets so it can be given back to the land and used to fertilise crops. We all happily muck in to get the job done, poop scooping and all. It’s an unexpectedly fun and meaningful morning and fosters in us all a sense of stewardship and appreciation for the land and the traditions of the Hawaiian people.
The LineUp at Wai Kai
Yes, surfing is a huge part of the Hawaiian culture and naturally you can enjoy surf lessons in the turquoise waters off Waikiki, but Surfing in Hawaii has taken a thrilling new turn with the opening of The LineUp at Wai Kai.
One of the best new things to do in Oahu, this state-of-the-art surf park, around 45 minutes from Waikiki, boasts an artificial wave that has both seasoned pros and eager beginners begging for more. Hang on a sec. Did I just say artificial wave? In Hawaii? I sure did. This consistent deep-water standing wave, reminiscent of O’ahu’s legendary Waimea River, allows surfers to hone their skills year round without the limitations of an unpredictable ocean. It also offers an accessible entry point for beginners to learn in a controlled environment.
As I watch surfers navigate the wave with finesse and style, I eagerly step forward with a rented board to make my own attempt, albeit with considerably less grace. And by considerably, I mean none whatsoever. I may not demonstrate a great deal of skill, but experiencing the deep-water standing wave firsthand, I’m an enthusiastic convert (even when I’m tumbling gracelessly off my board – which if I’m being honest is pretty much the entire time). And judging by the happy smiles and stoked shakas of the surfers taming the wave during my visit, I’m not alone.
Deciding to cut my losses on the wave, I trade my surfboard for a hydrobike to pedal along The LineUp’s 21-hectare recreational Lagoon, brimming with kayaks, paddle and pedalboards, outrigger canoes and pedal boats, with far greater success. Perfect for families with kids of all ages, or those simply seeking a more laid-back adventure, you can even book picnic boat cruises or a floating cabana.
It’s tempting but I have one more opportunity to show off my true talents over lunch at The LookOut, where from my front-row seat, I shovel kalua pig into my gob like a gluttonous Olympian, while watching the surfing action below.
The LookOut is just one of three new restaurants on-site, alongside the Boardwalk Cafe and the upscale Plaza Grill. And for those seeking a cultural immersion, a Monday Wai Kai Dinner Show weaves a tale of He’e Nalu (surfing) through music dancing and live surfing on the Wai Kai Wave.
Stepping through vermilion gates, a hint of incense wafting gently in the air, I wonder if I have taken a wrong turn in Honolulu and accidentally ended up in Japan. But no, I’m just 35 minutes from the surf and sand of Waikiki Beach at the Byodo-In Temple.
A faithful replica of the 950-year-old Byodo-in Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Uji, Japan. Oahu’s meticulously recreated temple was constructed in 1968 to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, serving as a bridge between Hawaii and Japan, and fostering cultural exchange and appreciation. Byodo-in offers visitors a wonderful glimpse into the architectural brilliance and spiritual traditions of Japan, inviting them to experience the essence of Japanese culture without leaving the shores of Oahu.
Wandering through the temple’s exquisite gardens, home to wild peacocks and ponds of Japanese koi carps, the deep hum of the temple bell being struck by visitors lulls me into calm. Byodo-in is a sanctuary for the soul and leaves me reminded of the importance of finding moments of peace in our busy lives.
Getting to Oahu
Get a head start on your Hawaiian holiday with a flight with Hawaiian Airlines, where you’ll be cocooned in the warmth of the Aloha Spirit as soon as you board. Hawaiian Airlines flies direct from Sydney, with connections to the Sydney gateway with Hawaiian’s airline partner Virgin Australia. In Honolulu, connecting flights operate frequently to the Hawaiian Islands and to 15 major cities on the US Mainland, making it perfect for a holiday or as a stopover destination on your next US holiday.
Where to stay in Oahu with kids
We recommend a stay at Waikiki’s Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites for families seeking a memorable holiday, with all the conveniences of home.