Take a short drive from Waikiki and Honolulu over the mountainous Pali Highway to the lush country landscape and white sand beaches of Oahu's Windward Coast. On the way, be sure to stop at the historic Nuuanu Pali Lookout for a breathtaking preview of the beauty yet to come.
As you exit the tunnels on the other side of the Koolau Mountain Range, it feels as if you're leaving one world and entering another. A turquoise ocean shimmers in the distance calling you to Kailua, a thriving beach town where you’ll find a host of eats, trendy local shops and a crescent beach that looks like it belongs in a magazine.
From Kailua town, you can head in two directions. Go clockwise around the island to Sea Life Park, Makapuu Lighthouse, Hanauma Nature Preserve and eventually Diamond Head and Waikiki.
Or spend a day exploring the Windward Coast in a counter clockwise direction as it winds lazily around the island toward the North Shore, offering interesting stops along the way.
The serene Valley of the Temples is home to an amazing Japanese Buddhist temple, while the café at nearby Heeia Kea Pier is known for a farm to table menu that’s literally “fresh off the boat.”
Driving along the two-lane highway you can't miss Mokolii, fondly known as "Chinaman's Hat." Stop at the park and stretch your legs or have a picnic. Just across the highway you'll find one of Hawaii's most seen but least recognized locations: Kualoa Ranch. A generations-old family-owned ranch, its scenic valley has provided the backdrop for countless movies and TV shows, including LOST and Hawaii Five-0. Fortunately, it's not just for the stars. Visitors and locals alike enjoy horseback riding, ATV tours and host of other activities.
From here, Kamehameha Highway meanders past Kaaawa ("Ka-ah-ah-vah" and yes, there are three As in a row), gentle Kahana Bay, Laie with the Polynesian Cultural Center, the old plantation town of Kahuku and around the northernmost tip of the island to Oahu's North Shore, home of the best surf spots in Hawaii—and some say—the world.
Makapuu Beach Park
Backed by sea cliffs, Makapu'u Beach Park (view panorama) is popular among bodyboarders and bodysurfers. Rip currents and a powerful shorebreak make for a very rough ride, perfect for adventure seekers. During the summer months the ocean is usually calmer than in the winter months (November to February), but even in the summer there are waves here almost every day. In other words, Makapu'u is not suitable for a leisurely swim. The width of the beach varies throughout the year. In the winter, high surf erodes the beach and exposes large boulders in the shorebreak.
Just around the corner from Makapu'u Beach on the sea cliff is Makapu'u Lighthouse. A paved trail leads to it that can be accessed from a parking lot along Kalanianaole Highway. This area is known as the Ka Iwi State Scenic Shoreline. Also located just south of Makapu’u Beach is the Makapu'u Lookout (also has a parking lot). From up here you can enjoy a nice view of Makapu'u Beach and two islands – Rabbit Island (the larger one, also known as Manana Island) and Black Rock (the smaller one, also known as Kaohikaipu Island).
Nuuanu Pali Lookout
Just a 5-mile drive northeast of Downtown Honolulu, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout offers panoramic views of the sheer Koolau cliffs and lush Windward Coast. Driving up the Pali Highway through tall trees and dense forests to get to the lookout, you’ll see the city disappear and the tranquil beauty of Hawaii’s natural landscape emerge.
Perched over a thousand feet above the Oahu coastline amid mountain peaks shrouded by clouds, the stone terrace overlooks the areas of Kaneohe and Kailua, Mokolii (a pointy island locals call Chinaman's Hat) and the University of Hawaii's marine biology research center, Coconut Island. Other notable landmarks that can be seen are Hawaii Pacific University’s Windward campus, Kaneohe Marine Corps Base and the Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, which is part of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens.
After you’ve soaked in the view, continue through the Pali Tunnels to Windward Oahu. As you near the bottom you'll face a "tough" decision: go straight to the buzzing beach town of Kailua or turn left through Kaneohe and follow the lush coastline to Haleiwa and Waimea Bay on Oahu's famed North Shore.
The Pali Lookout is a site of deep historical significance. Named "Pali" meaning ‘cliff’ in Hawaiian, the Pali Lookout is the site of the Battle of Nuuanu, where in 1795 King Kamehameha I won the struggle that finally united Oahu under his rule. This fierce battle claimed hundreds of soldiers' lives, many of which were forced off of the Pali's sheer cliffs.
Note that the Pali Lookout is also known for its strong and howling winds. You'll understand why the Nuuanu Pali Lookout is one of Oahu's best scenic points when you feel the wind push up against you, hear the winds whistle through the mountains and see the breathtaking views of Oahu's lush Windward Coast.
Valley Of The Temples
Deep in a lush valley along the 2,000-foot Koolau Range lies the Valley of the Temples. The resting place for many of Hawaii's departed, Valley of the Temples’ hilly landscape is scattered with hundreds of freshly placed tropical flowers, like torch ginger and bird of paradise, to remember loved ones.
The main attraction in the Valley of the Temples is a Japanese temple called Byodo-In, which translates to the "Temple of Equality." A scale replica of a temple in Uji Japan and made entirely without nails, Byodo-In was dedicated in 1968 as a centennial commemoration of the first Japanese immigrants in Hawaii. Famed Kyoto Landscaper Kiichi Toemon Sano planned the Japanese garden complex that houses Byodo-In with extreme attention to detail, from the gravel's ripple-like design to the small bridges over the fishpond.
The deep drone of the sacred bell (bon-sho) fills the tranquil temple grounds, as it is customary for visitors to ring the bell before entering the temple for happiness and longevity. To sound the five-foot, three-ton brass bell, you must pull and release a wooden log called a shu-moku. Inside the Byodo-In sits an 18-foot gold leaf-covered Buddha where visitors are welcomed to light incense and offer a prayer. Outside, peacocks and black swans roam the garden grounds and turtles lounge beside the pond. The temple's pond is also filled with koi, a Japanese decorative fish that is a symbol of love and friendship.
The Valley of the Temples is truly a hidden gem in Hawaii found off the beaten path on the Windward Coast. There is no other place where you can see an authentic Japanese temple situated against the gorgeous backdrop of Oahu’s soaring Koolau Mountains.
Kailua Beach Park
With a half mile of soft white sand, turquoise water and gentle breezes, Kailua Beach Park located on the Windward Coast is a local favorite. A hub for water sports, Kailua Beach welcomes visitors and locals to windsurf, body board, kayak and parasail. Conveniently, kayak rentals, dive shops and beachwear boutiques are located nearby the beach.
Kailua Beach's proximity to several small islands makes it an ideal place for adventuring and kayaking. Closest to the shore is barren Flat Island, and far off to the east are the Mokulua Islands, commonly known as "Moks" or "Twin Islands." To the west of Kailua Beach is Kalama Beach, a family-friendly beach with mild waves great for teaching kids how to surf and body board. To the east is Kailua's sister beach, Lanikai Beach, which is another beautiful stretch of sand, although less accessible since it's nestled between residential housing and parking is limited.
On the way to the beach you'll pass charming Kailua Town. You'll find scattered along Kailua Road a variety of restaurants and shops to satisfy all tastes. Eat like a local and try a shave ice to cool down after the beach. President Obama famously treated his family to some shave ice at the Island Snow in Kailua Town. Or grab a plate lunch and head to Kailua Beach's large grassy areas and picnic benches, perfect for eating lunch near the ocean.
As couples lounge on the sand with their dogs, teenagers play in the water and families throw parties on the picnic tables, you'll learn that Kailua has a laid-back environment different from Waikiki. Consistently rated one of the best beaches in America, Kailua Beach is a great getaway less than 30-minutes away from Honolulu.
Sea Life Park
Come play with us! Where dolphins dance, sea lions sing, and penguins perform in this magical place by the sea. Sea Life Park Hawaii offers Hawaii’s most diverse array of close-up marine animal encounters.
Mingle nose-to-nose with the dolphins in our Dolphin Royal Swim, Dolphin Swim Adventure and Dolphin Encounter programs. Be a sea trek adventurer and photograph rays, turtles and sharks in the 300,000 gallon Reef Tank. Hand feed a sea lion, swim next to a ray in the Hawaiian Ray Encounter, or play with a sea lion in the Sea Lion Discovery program.
Feel the excitement, feel the adventure, and be a part of the action at Sea Life Park!
Staring out at the circular-shaped shore of Hanauma Bay on the southeast tip of East Honolulu, you can imagine how this beautiful cove was once a volcanic crater. Today, this crater, likely flooded by wave erosion, is home to an important nature preserve and the island’s most popular snorkeling destination.
Preservation is emphasized at Hanauma Bay after it went through a major restoration to re-establish its delicate eco-system. Learn about protecting the bay at the recently opened Marine Education Center where you can watch a short theatre presentation and view exhibits. Then swim out into Hanauma Bay's clear blue waters and explore the lively reefs full of colorful fish. Rent or bring your own masks, snorkels and fins. And be sure to pack a lunch or stop by the snack bar after a morning of exploration.
Again, be aware that great care and responsibility should be shown in the waters and on the beaches. This is the first Marine Life Conservation District in Hawaii so it's important for visitors to preserve the fragile marine ecosystem of the bay by not littering and by not touching the sea animals or coral. The preserve is open daily except Tuesdays. Also note that the parking lot fills quickly so try to arrive early or you’ll have to find parking off site.