Calling all nature lovers: wildlife and water sports in Hawaii’s Oahu island

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean you’ll find the most isolated group of volcanic islands in the world: beautiful Hawaiʻi nei, as the locals call it. This picture-perfect paradise is made up of eight main islands, with over 80% of the population hailing from Oahu, “the gathering place”. The name refers to it being used as a meeting point for the different Hawaiian kings from the main islands to agree on treaties.

Oahu is a very special and diverse place; it is a melting pot of different cultures with an island flare, that offers a bustling city life as well as isolated beaches teeming with wildlife. Finding those hidden gems is quite easy and with a little bit of exploration, you might find yourself joyfully lost in some of the most beautiful places youʻve ever seen.

Read our guide on what to do in Oahu and get ready to be completely surrounded by majestic mountains, clear blue waters and the aloha spirit.

An ocean lover’s paradise

Start your trip with a surfing session on Waikiki Beach © GE Keoni

Start your trip with a surfing session on Waikiki Beach © GE Keoni

If youʻre into surfing, look no further than one of the most beautiful beaches in the Pacific: Waikiki Beach. It’s so popular because it offers a range of different waves suitable for both first-time surfers and professionals catching eight-foot waves.

Finding a board is quite easy and cheap with dozens of rental shops located along various parts of the beach. Feeling a little timid of paddling out by yourself for the first time? Not to worry! Rentals frequently have staff that can accompany beginner lessons. Some lessons are as cheap as $15 (£11) an hour, with the board and beverages included. The surf teachers in Waikiki are very focused on ocean safety, but also know how to stoke you out for your first Hawaiian wave. If youʻre staying in Waikiki, try booking in hostels or cheap hotels to save the bucks for other exhilarating activities.

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Why not snorkel a bit at Kailua Beach?

Why not snorkel a bit at Kailua Beach?

It’s time to explore the east side of the island; so grab a couple of dollars and catch “TheBus” to Kailua town. “TheBus” is as the name reveals a public bus transportation that virtually covers every part of the island for a very small fee. Just be aware that you need to have the exact change, that you to feed into the machine next to the driver. Alternatively, you can purchase a one-day pass.

Within Kailua town, there are many places to eat and shop, and it is a true beach loverʻs paradise. Perhaps the most beautiful beach in Kailua is Lanikai, which means heavenly sea, and it truly lives up to its name. There are many activities to do at Lanikai Beach: snorkeling, diving, swimming, SUPing, or just sunbathing. If you arenʻt staying here and are just taking the bus passing through, donʻt forget to pick up your transfer ticket. This will allow you to catch the bus to Kāneʻohe.

Landscapes out of a movie

Chinaman's hat, a beautiful basalt islet in Kāneʻohe Bay

Chinaman’s hat, a beautiful basalt islet in Kāneʻohe Bay © nmikita

Kāneʻohe is home to the only sand bar protected by fringing reefs in all of Hawaii. If youʻre on a time crunch and are looking for that one special adventure, it is highly recommended to check out Kualoa. Kualoa is home to Kualoa Valley where huge Hollywood blockbusters and popular TV series were filmed. The mountains truly meet the ocean in Kāneʻohe, offering untouched rural landscapes. Outside of Kualoa Regional Park is Mokoliʻi or Chinamanʻs hat, and it’s a popular swimming and paddling destination.

Chinamanʻs hat is a small island about half a mile from shore that offers good snorkeling, fishing and hiking. Hike to the top of Chinamanʻs hat and enjoy the panoramic views of Kāneʻohe Sand Bar (a raised strip of land in the middle of the bay), neighbouring coral reefs, as well as a birdʻs eye view of the beautiful Kualoa Mountain Range.

Safety tip: before making your way to Chinaman’s hat, be sure to check ocean conditions, tides, rip currents and wave height at the lifeguard post on Kualoa Beach.

Caves galore

Explore Oahu's hidden gems – mermaid caves

Explore Oahu’s hidden gems – mermaid caves © GE Keoni

Continuing on to the opposite side of the island is Waiʻanae, a diamond in the rough. Once you go through Waiʻanae town you will come to the most western part of the island, Kaʻena Point, an area untouched by resorts and homes.

One of the most interesting and unique formations in all of Waiʻanae are the mermaid caves. These rocky caves are filled with coral sand, crystal clear water and open ceiling holes that allow rays of sunshine to peak through on sunny days. You can comfortably swim around in the water in these caves, and you might accidentally stumble upon some “mermaid candy” (seashells) if youʻre lucky enough and mother ocean decides to be giving.

If youʻre more interested in land caves and are up for the hike, make your way to Upper Makua Cave. This short hike will lead you up the side of the Waiʻanae Range to a beautiful, spacious formation that offers views of Kaʻena Point in the west and Waiʻanae in the east. The hike is steep at points, and shoes are a must if you want good traction while ascending and descending.

Swimming with dolphins

The Hawaiian spinner dolphins are wonderful and cheerful creatures to hang out with

The Hawaiian spinner dolphins are wonderful and cheerful creatures to hang out with © GE Keoni

Because of its isolation, wildlife flocks to the western portion of the island. Early morning ocean adventurers are often graced with the presence of turtles, reef fish and eagle rays, but the most special greetings usually come from the beautiful and intelligent “naiʻa” or Hawaiian spinner dolphins.

This nocturnal species of dolphin hunts at night but makes its way to protected coves and beaches, where it rests on sandy bottoms during the day. The dolphins are very friendly and curious, and you will often see them leaping out the water, doing insane acrobatics and full twists (which is how they got their name). If you stay calm, these beauties will usually approach you, giving you the side eye approval. Theyʻll open their mouths, play with their bubbles, and it truly seems as if they are playing with you. If babies accompany mothers, sometimes youʻll find the mischievous little guys swimming in circles around you, competing for your attention. Be aware that each day is different for dolphins and it is not guaranteed they will always be around.

Your best bet is to try Electric Beach first, and if they arenʻt splashing around there, try and spot them somewhere else on the west side. It is strongly advised to wear a mask, fin and snorkel, as well as being a competent swimmer, if you want to swim with the Hawaiian spinner dolphins.

Oʻahu is so diverse and offers a different kind of fun for every person visiting. If you enjoy the city life and shopping, stick to Honolulu; if you want adventure, hit up the east and west sides of the island.

If you ever find yourself lost, donʻt be afraid to approach the locals. The aloha spirit is alive and well on the islands, and everywhere you turn youʻll be greeted with friendly smiles.

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