Oahu: "The Gathering Place"

Discover soulful island experiences in Hawaii's ultimate melting pot. By Martine Bury

My first visit to Oahu, 16 years ago, took an unexpected but auspicious turn. I was a reporter covering the North Shore’s legendary winter surfing championships. Little did I know the official start of competitions relied on whims of Mother Nature. Until the very second the wave heights and water conditions reached a sweet spot, no events would begin. I camped out for nearly three weeks, mostly at Turtle Bay Resort. With idle days, I would drive—cutting through the historic Dole Pineapple Plantation—and get purposefully lost, discovering the ancient island’s icons and secrets. Hidden crater hikes, heli-tours, glider rides, the occasional luau or casual backyard kalua meals with everything roasted in an underground oven: I was hooked. 

The volcanic archipelago’s third largest island offers a tropical climate, biodiversity, and compelling history on every inch of its nearly 600 square miles. Native Hawaiian culture runs deep and the trappings of modern tourism—from Waikiki’s Chanel boutique and hipster gastropubs to Chinatown and luxe resorts—dish diversions. Yet, it’s all about aloha ‘āina, love of the land, tied to the Hawaiian people’s treasured “sense of place," and respect for the ocean.

Oahu provides unique opportunities to pass the days away on perfect beaches, like serene Lanikai and Kailua on the windward side, and view life-altering sunsets at places like Diamond Head State Park. Take a detour, and get aquainted with the island’s unique gardens. A 2,000-acre spread of fertile Waimea Valley is home to over 5,000 tropical and subtropical plant species, and walking trails that lead to spectacular Waimea Falls with its inviting swimming hole. Tucked in a lush rainforest beneath soaring hills, University of Hawaii’s Lyon Areboretum in Manoa Valley offers a peek at Hawaii’s rarest plant species and the chance to join fun, horticultural workshops. For something different, explore the alien, palm and plumeria dotted desert-scape of Koko Crater Botanical Gardens. Or enjoy time out at Foster Botanical Gardens, in the middle of bustling Honolulu.

Dive into history at must-visits Pearl Harbor Memorial and Bishop Museum or go off-the-beaten-path. Archeology buffs: learn about the sacred heiau, Hawaiian temples, at sites such as Puu O Mahuka Heiau on Pupukea cliffs on the North Shore and Kane'aki Heiau to the west. Now a center for Islamic arts and culture, my favorite Oahu hangout is Shangri La, the fascinating, Islamic-style mansion of famed American heiress Doris Duke. 

On an island of abundance, it’s fitting that you have your pick of fantastic stays. Sleep in storied spaces at The Royal Hawaiian Resort Waikiki—affectionately dubbed the “Pink Palace of the Pacific.” Opened in 1927, the 400-room, Spanish-Moorish style hideaway has played host to a long list of celebrities, dignitaries and opulent events. Sumptuous and historic, The Kahala Hotel and Resort sits on the South Shore’s softest white sand beach and stands apart in its reputation for impeccable service. For fashionistas, the vibrant Halekulani is an all-out stunner, complete with an oval-shaped pool and sleek Nobu restaurant. Tracing a pristine stretch of the North Shore, the recently-refurbished Turtle Bay delivers ocean views from every room. And, new kid on the block Four Seasons Ko Olina offers spacious rooms, a peaceful retreat at the 35,000+ square foot Naupaka Spa & Wellness Center and a Mercedes-Maybach S600 to whisk away guests in style.