Daydreaming of distant tropical sands, warm emerald water, rustling palms, and majestic green mountains—with you embedded somewhere and everywhere in that postcard-perfect scene? After 18 months of COVID lockdowns and extreme travel restrictions, who isn’t? The good news: Early last month Hawaii officially lifted its COVID-19 pre-travel testing restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers, so escaping to Hawaii’s signature, all-purpose pleasure isle, Oahu, is idyllically possible again. There’s no better place than Oahu to soak up some serious sun and fun in paradise—and here are our top five outdoor excursions to prove it.
Each of them alone is worth the trip. Better yet, tackle all five to fully make up for all those rough months of daydreaming. Yeah, you’re really out there now.
If you’re looking for a reason to get out of town and soak up some sun in paradise, you’ve come to the right place. Here are 5 outdoor excursions in Oahu, all worth the trip alone—but if you can tackle every one while you’re there, you’ll not only come home fully re-energized, but you’ll also have some epic photos and video to make even the most adventurous travelers blush.
1. Snorkel at Shark’s Cove
World-famous Hanauma Bay is home to some of the finest snorkeling and diving on Oahu, and also some of its thickest tourist crowds.
Escape those hordes at your own better kept secret—Shark’s Cove. Tucked up on Oahu’s North Shore, Shark’s Cove is cheaper (read: free), just as gorgeous, and the perfect spot for savvy adventure travelers to spend a day on the island’s outer coast. And don’t let the name fool you. There are no sharks here.
Park along the highway or in the small dirt lot on the beach side, unpack your gear, and dive into a tropical cove teeming with thousands of benign, brightly colored fish—including the Hawaiian state fish (and unofficial state tongue-twister), the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa.
Swim a tad farther out to score up-close encounters with the resident honu (green sea turtles).
Please respect the reef by not standing or sitting on any part of it; wearing reef-safe sunscreen; and keeping a safe, respectful distance from wildlife (without feeding them).
Tasty tip: Grab a bite at the iconic Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, parked right along the Kamehameha Hwy in Haleiwa.
2. Hike Diamond Head
If your idea of a good time is thrashing your quads, glutes, and hammies, you’ll need to take the Diamond Head hike.
Just up the road from downtown Waikiki, the signature walkabout at Diamond Head State Monument is nothing you’ll need to train for. It’s a doable 1.6 miles round trip with only 560 feet of elevation gain.
At a moderate pace, it’ll take about two hours to get up and down. But you’re in Hawaii. Take your time. Soak it in. Bring water, snacks, comfortable shoes—and definitely a camera for one of the island’s most unbeatable payoff panoramas at the top.
Built in 1908, the trail to the summit of Leʻahi (Hawaiian name for Diamond Head Crater) will make you appreciate the geographical significance of this volcanic crater, as well as the historic military role this vantage point afforded U.S. defenses.
If you can muscle yourself up and down the trail before noon, it’ll make the conversation over lunch one for the books, guaranteed.
3. Surf Waikiki
What Hawaiian vacation would be complete without some surfing?
This is the very place where modern surfing was launched. Legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku called the famous breaks of Oahu his office. All levels of surfers come for either the monster winter waves up at the North Shore to the gentler barrels of Waikiki. Go for the latter if you’re newer to surfing. The long, shallow, sandy contours of Waikiki are ideal for mellow, rolling waves that are as forgiving as they are thrilling.
Rent a board from any of several vendors set up right on the sand if you want to go it alone. Or sign up for some surf lessons from several schools up and down the beach.
A favorite surf school in town is the Ohana Surf Project, located across from the Honolulu Zoo. Their instructors are known for getting you up on your feet, as well as filming your entire session for some epic Instagram posts and teaching moments.
Advanced surfers can head to more challenging spots within walking distance of the main stretch—with names (Bowls, Kaisers, Diamond Head) that will ring familiar to surfing zealots near and far.
4. Jump Off the Waimea Rock
Waimea Bay is where surfers from all over the planet flock each winter to see if they have what it takes to ride some of the biggest breaks on Earth. The world-renowned big-wave surf spot is located up on Oahu’s North Shore at the mouth of the Waimea River.
We’re talking waves that can be several stories high (on moderate days)—and even bigger when the ocean feels like it. But fear not. During the summer, it’s usually about as flat as a lake up here. In other words, perfect conditions for swimming, floating—and leaping off rocks.
The famous rock at Waimea Bay is about the best entry-level rock jump you can find up here, with several spots to choose your point of entry from.
An easy climb straight from the sand lands you anywhere from six to 15 feet from the water’s surface, with plenty of clearance as you hit the ocean. From down here, you can bask in the warm, calm water and enjoy the rest of the show: A steady stream of local kids and gravity testers of all ages line the top of the rock to showcase their epic leaping skills.
Word to the wise: Get there early. The small parking lot fills up quickly—with overflow parking along the highway.
5. Explore the Reef at Bonzai Pipeline
We mentioned the North Shore is mercifully flat during the summer months. What better time for non-professional surfers to test ride one of the deadliest surf spots on the planet and live to tell the tale?
More people have died (or come close to it) riding the Bonzai Pipeline than just about any other big-time surfing magnet on the planet.
What makes this spot so deadly? During the swell-rich winter season, waves have about as much power as a freight train. Coupled with curling over a brutally sharp, shallow reef, these waters are a recipe for danger.
This is exactly why snorkeling the reef during the mellower summer is such a cool experience for surf enthusiasts of all levels who’ll likely never throw their hat in the ring when the Pipeline awakens later in the year. The jutting fingers of reef, the dark holes, the sheer treacherous nature of this spot are astounding—and far safer to view in this season.
As legendary surf filmmaker Bruce Brown put it, “In the holes [at Pipeline], you find pieces of surfboard… teeth… things like that.”
For surf culture enthusiasts, now’s the time to see it up close without being punished.
Where to Stay on Oahu: White Sands Hotel
While there’s no shortage of hotels in touristed Waikiki, White Sands is one of the area’s true hidden gems. Located off the main drag—but just one block from the beach—the charms of classic Hawaii are quietly residing at this little throwback hotel, which appears unassuming from the outside.
Inside, it’s a tropical oasis, transporting guests back to the 1960s, complete with vintage decor like rotary phones, vending machines (yes, they have Hawaiian-themed playing cards) and rope-swing seats at a poolside bar accompanied by an endless laid-back soundtrack.
Each room is uniquely appointed with eclectic, old-school furnishings while providing modern comfort. On an island that can get pricey, the White Sands Hotel offers wonderfully affordable options for both couples and families, while also providing suites for the full luxury experience. Yet another welcome throwback in timeless Oahu.
Where to Eat in Oahu: Fete
Listing the top places to eat in Honolulu warrants its own article. Our own “best restaurant” nomination goes to Fete. Tucked a bit off the main drag in Chinatown, a short $10 Uber ride will whisk you to one of the most inventive, unique, and overall must-visit restaurants in the area.
With hip, modern decor and a mellow dining scene that made us feel very comfortable (during COVID protocols at the time), this restaurant from Honolulu-born owner and chef Robynne Maii accurately calls itself a “Seasonal New American neighborhood restaurant with local roots and a global outlook—where classic techniques meet island flavors and ingredients at their best.”
The menu’s signatures include Coconut Kaua’i Prawns (with curry leaves, lime, and black pepper), and linguitini carbonara (with slab bacon and Portuguese sausage), and Kaua’i Ranch Korean hanger steak.
One of our favorite dishes of the evening was the grilled carrots appetizer with a sunchoke aioli and sunchoke chips. Trust us, you gotta try these carrots. For drinks, they offer a fine selection of craft beers and several craft cocktails worth writing home about—from a signature Ma’i’i Tai and Noho Mule #3 to (the winner of the evening) a Spicy Kitty (Tito’s, Yuzuri, Hawaiian chili-infused oleo saccharum, shichimi spice, muddled shiso, and club soda) served in a glass that alone is worth ordering the drink for.
Editor’s Note: Check all local CDC guidelines before you travel, as restrictions are constantly changing with the global pandemic