Here we are with another edition of our interview series! This time we’re heading to a stunning island in the Pacific Ocean famous for being surfer’s paradise with powerful waves that can reach epic heights.
Home to Diamond Head, Waikiki, the capital city of Honolulu, and the Pearl Harbor Memorial, Oahu is one of the most popular Hawaiian Islands. Within its just 596 square miles, there are so many stunning hikes, hidden beaches, diverse cuisines, native Hawaiian historic monuments, and stunning views.
Curious about other cities around the globe? Then check my archives for many interviews of the “Through the Eyes of a Local” series.
Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself? Where are you from and what do you do?
Hello! My name is Sarah, a soon-to-be college graduate, and an aspiring travel writer. I’ve basically spent my entire life on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, which exposed me to stunning natural landscapes and so many beautiful cultures – definitely one of the best places to visit in the USA. Then, there were my travels.
They started off with some small road trips with my family through the Hana Highway in Maui to trips across the five different continents, and now they’ve expanded to include trips with friends as well.
What do you like about Oahu?
There’s honestly so much that I love about Oahu, Hawaii. I love that there are so many things to do on such a small piece of land. I also love that even after living here for my entire 21 years of life, there are still secret hikes, beaches, and foodie spots that I find out about. And I adore that you can make your life constantly filled with adventure without ever driving more than an hour (well, without traffic).
Which 3 places do you highly recommend paying a visit in the city?
Because I am obsessed with waterfalls and Oahu has some stunning ones, doing a waterfall hike has to be one of my recommendations. Although there are many around the island, Manoa Falls is the most popular, while Waimano Falls (although much more difficult) has a fun rope swing into the waterfall pool.
My second recommendation has to be Lanikai or Kailua Beach. Because these beaches are next door to each other, they both have the stunning teal blue ocean color that is just captivating. The waves aren’t large at all, so it makes swimming or floating in the ocean very relaxing.
My last recommendation is on the North Shore of Oahu because that area has a unique vibe of its own. While I had a hard time narrowing what specific place to visit on the North Shore, I decided to choose Laniakea Beach. (I know, its spelling is very similar to the last beach. I apologize.) Laniakea Beach basically always has the Hawaiian green sea turtles (which are locally called honu) chilling on the sand. How cool is that?!
And which place should people avoid?
I was quite hesitant to write anywhere on Oahu for this question, but I’ve decided to say Waianae. While some gems can be found in Waianae, the locals in that area are particularly not fond of tourists. Odds are they won’t do or say anything; you might just be a bit uncomfortable with how the locals may look at you.
What is the best way to get around Oahu? Is it easy to reach nearby cities?
Because I like to get very off-the-beaten-path with some of my adventures, renting a car is always a good option in my mind. However, if that’s a little too far out of the budget, our bus system (called “The Bus” – we’re just so creative), can actually take you around most of the island for just $5.50 per day per person.
Because Oahu is an entire island, I’m going to change the question a bit to “is it easy to reach nearby islands?”. Although the Hawaiian Islands aren’t that far apart, the only way to get to Oahu to any other island is to fly.
How travel-friendly is the city?
Because Oahu has been a tourist destination for decades, it is very friendly. Many tourists come here for a perfect Hawaii honeymoon too. Unlike many people believe, the language of Hawaii, the 50th state of the United States, is actually English! Because the island is pretty small, it doesn’t take too long to get to their airport (unless there is traffic – we can have some pretty bad traffic during rush hour).
How safe is Oahu? Is it ok to walk around with your camera or alone at night?
Overall, Oahu is a pretty safe area. My number one tip for visitors is to hide the possessions that you leave in your car. Petty theft from cars is pretty common on Oahu, so don’t leave anything valuable looking (cameras, iPhones, expensive-looking purses) lying in the passenger’s seat.
On that same note, don’t leave anything that looks like it could hold something else (a beach bag, a backpack) in a noticeable area. Locals tend to use the center console for small items and shove bags beneath the seats (think like you’re on an airplane). As for walking around at night, try to stay in more populated areas, just because there is quite a lot of drug use in less busy places.
What is the most characteristic aspect of your culture?
I wrestled with this one a bit because there are many “characteristic aspects” of local culture in Hawaii. I decided to pick the duty to take care of the ‘aina (land). I’ve noticed that many times the use of this phrase almost implies to take care of nature in general – both the land and the ocean. I don’t ever think I’ve seen a local litter at a beach or on a hike. They will run for the plastic bag that flies away.
That being said, make sure you also treat the ‘aina with respect. Don’t throw out your water bottles on the side of a hiking trail. (I once did a trash clean-up on the tourist-populated Diamond Head hike, and it was AWFUL.) Don’t rip yourself a giant leaf off of a tree to fan yourself with. (If you think this is ridiculous or only done in movies, I’ve seen it in person.) Don’t step on the coral in the ocean. Keep in mind the wellbeing of the plants and animals around you, so the beauty of the nature on Oahu can be preserved.
Can you tell us where we can find the best view of the city?
The best view of the main city of Oahu, Honolulu, is from Tantalus Lookout. It may be the only place from which you can see the whole city of Honolulu. However, that is definitely not my favorite view on Oahu. That award goes to the view from the Lanikai Pillbox hike.
What is the most traditional dish on Oahu?
There are so many traditional Hawaiian dishes. Kalua pig, lomilomi salmon, poi, laulau, and haupia are just a few. I’ll expand on the first one: kalua pig.
To prepare Kalua pig traditionally, locals will literally dig a giant hole in the ground (it’s called an “imu”) that will fit an entire pig. Hot rocks and a fire will be used to cook the whole pig under a layer of banana leaves for anywhere from 8 to 16 hours. It’s a long, hard process, but it’s so good! If you head to a luau on the island, you’ll get some version of Kalua pig (usually a much faster version). But cross your fingers and hope you’re lucky because kalua pig cooked in an imu is so much better! If not, I’ve heard rumors that Kono’s serves up some pretty traditional kalua pig.
Could you recommend a local bar and a restaurant?
Because I am still quite young and I have barely passed the legal drinking age, I haven’t been to any local bars, so I can’t recommend any. Instead, I’ll recommend two restaurants.
My first recommendation is the Monkeypod Kitchen, which is located on the west side of Oahu. I have been to their happy hour (3–5:30 p.m. and 9–11 p.m.) many times because the food is delicious and all appetizers and kiawe-wood oven pizzas are half-off. (There’s also a drink discount, but I don’t know what it is.) The Hamakua mushroom pizza, pumpkin patch ravioli, and Kauai shrimp and Hamakua mushroom potstickers are amazing. Honestly, I’ve never been disappointed by the food I’ve eaten at Monkeypod. If you do choose to visit Monkeypod outside of their happy hour times, it can be a little pricier.
My second recommendation is Opal Thai. First of all, let me preface: eating at Opal Thai is a one-of-a-kind dining experience. You do not get a menu; the chef chooses what you will eat. When you get your food, you’re still not exactly sure what you’re eating. Oh, and the part that still throws me just a tad whenever I go, your water is served in a mini silver bowl, not a glass. That being said, the food at Opal Thai is amazing. The flavors of the tangy freshly-squeezed lime, the herby cilantro, and the Thai chilis are absolutely delicious.
What is the biggest tourist trap of Oahu?
Oh, I am so glad you ask. I honestly think that most of Waikiki is a tourist trap, particularly Waikiki Beach and the Waikiki shopping area. First of all, the thin shoreline of Waikiki Beach is always jam-packed with tourists and very much lacking on any shade. You can’t swim out all that far, because a wall was put in place due to safety concerns (probably a good move, but it still irks me). Waikiki Beach is probably one of my least favorite beaches on Oahu, but many times, it’s the only beach tourists ever visit.
Second, the Waikiki shopping area just baffles me. Besides being absurdly overpriced, half of the products being sold don’t make sense to me. Like why do you need UGG boots in Hawaii when the temperature rarely even reaches below 60 degrees Fahrenheit? I don’t get it.
Can you tell us a memory that you have in this city?
A couple of months ago, my family and I decided to paddle out in two two-person kayaks to a tiny island off of the east side of Oahu called Chinaman’s Hat. First of all, the kayaking experience was so much fun. We pushed and pulled our paddles through the crystal clear water until we reached the island about forty minutes later. Then came the hike. The hike was quite a challenge with its thin dirt paths and mini rock climbing sections.
Once we reached the top though, the effort was totally worth it. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such an unobstructed view of anything in my life, let alone the stunning Pacific Ocean on one side and the bright green ridges of the Koolau Mountains on the other. It was just absolutely stunning.
Could you describe the people of Oahu?
The people of Oahu are very much a community. Even though there are a million people on the island, everyone somehow has a connection to everyone. When you are outside of this community (say you recently moved to Oahu), you might feel quite lonely and sometimes even discriminated against. But once you are accepted, you very much feel that you have a community to turn to. You’ll learn about the history behind local traditions and even find out about hidden local secrets.
Tell us a fun fact of Oahu.
We have an absurd number of Toyota Tacomas driving around the island. We have a bunch of trucks in the first place, and I’d estimate that at least 30% of the trucks are Toyota Tacomas.
What piece of advice would you give to readers who want to visit your hometown?
Get outside of Waikiki. Please. There is so much more of the island to see than just the overcrowded beach and the overpriced shops.
Is over tourism a problem in your city? If so, could you explain why and how?
Yes! Everyone knows Hawaii is a booming tourist destination – and it will probably always be a booming tourist destination. It definitely stimulates our economy and without it, we would be struggling. However, recently I do think that it’s becoming a bit too much. As opposed to in the past, when all of the hotels were condensed into the Waikiki area, they have been spreading.
At first, it was a small lagoon area on the west side called Ko Olina, then next there was a chain hotel that popped up on the North Shore. Now, there are chain hotels popping up in the middle of one of the growing cities on the island, even though it’s a solid ten-minute car ride from any beach (that’s a long time, considering every other hotel is oceanfront). That was a big change. Now tourists won’t just be on the edges of the island; instead, now they are slowly moving to the core, to the centers of local life, and I don’t think many locals are happy about that.
What is the biggest misconception other countries have about Oahu/Hawaii?
Honestly, there are a lot of prejudices against people who live in Hawaii. There are misconceptions that Hawaii is undeveloped, uneducated, and basically, a third-world country that is an extension of Asia. What saddens me more is when people who come to visit still believe in these misconceptions after they have come to visit.
Sure, we might not have a Trader Joe’s or an IKEA, but that’s not the definition of “developed.” The locals might speak a dialect that sounds different from ones you may be familiar with, but that’s not the definition of “uneducated.” Finally, just because the houses are smaller and a large chunk of the population is of Asian ancestry, does not mean Hawaii is basically an Asian third-world country. Hawaii is a naturally beautiful place with its own unique culture; it’s not bad, it’s just different.
Can you tell us a book based on Oahu/Hawaii?
My pick for a Hawaii book is quite funny but probably difficult for non-locals to understand. It’s called Pidgin to the Max. It’s basically a humorous dictionary of the local slang words used in Hawaii.
Fun fact: It wasn’t intended to be a commercially-sold book. A couple of friends decided to write the book for fun and publish a couple copies, but it took off!
Get to know Sarah
Sarah is the writer of Borders and Bucket Lists travel blog. Her blog covers guides, tips, and advice for travel and gives a little insight into life in Oahu.
Interested in more interviews? Then check my archives of the “Through the Eyes of a Local” series to read tips from many cities around the globe.