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Exploring Oahu's culture, nature and food scene

Tracy E. Hopkins is an accomplished writer, blogger and editor living in New York City. She has expertise covering travel, fashion, health and entertainment.

What to do and see beyond Waikiki Beach

Thousands of guests from the mainland and around the world land every day in Honolulu (known as “the gathering place”), Oahu’s capital city and home to the ever-popular Waikiki Beach.
Koolau mountains

Beyond
Waikiki beach

Thousands of guests from the mainland and around the world land every day in Honolulu (known as “the gathering place”), Oahu’s capital city and home to the ever-popular Waikiki Beach.

Although many visitors are tempted to park their beach bums on the two-mile beach and not venture beyond the resort-riddled area's lavish designer shops and super-sized chain restaurants, we can’t let you fall into that tourist trap. There’s too much to explore in Oahu — the most populated and culturally diverse of the eight Hawaiian islands — beyond Waikiki.

Cultural attractions

In stark contrast to the cityscape of Honolulu, you’ll be in awe of the lush, natural beauty of Oahu’s Winward Side. That’s where you’ll find the Byodo-In Temple (it means “Temple of Equality”) at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. Fashioned after a 1,000-year old temple in Kyoto, Japan, the replica was built in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigrants coming to Hawaii. Ring the large bronze bell to feel good vibrations and say a prayer at the base of Amida, an 18-foot-tall, gold- lacquered Buddha sculpture. Admission is $3.

Take a scenic drive to the Polynesian Cultural Center, located about an hour from Waikiki in Laie. This year marks the Center’s 50th anniversary, and it continues to enthrall visitors young and old as they learn about the island nations of Polynesia — Hawaii, Samoa, Maori New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Tonga — through interactive canoe rides, exhibits and presentations. Make a day of it and stay for the award-winning luau and evening show. Admission starts at $49.95 for adults and $39.95 for children ages 5-11. Look for discount coupons in free magazines like This Week Oahu.

Byodo-In Temple
Byodo-In Temple

Explore nature’s beauty

Start your day with a challenging hike through the rugged rainforest terrain of the Manoa Falls Trail. Fans of the television series Lost will instantly recognize the flora- and fauna-filled landscape as part of “the island.” At the end of the 0.8-mile trail, which is extremely muddy after a rainy spell, you’ll come to a viewing area of the breathtaking, cascading waterfall. You'll be tempted, but swimming is prohibited. There’s a $5 parking fee.

Manoa Falls Trail
Manoa Falls Trail

A short drive from Waikiki Beach is Kailua Beach Park, with its clear, turquoise blue water, gentle waves and powdery white sand. There’s ample parking (get there early on high season weekends), picnic areas and bathrooms with showers. Kayak rentals are also available.

Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach

Spend a sunny afternoon in the 1,875-acre Waimea Valley on Oahu’s rural North Shore, where you’ll find 35 themed botanical gardens featuring more than 200 plant families, as well as exotic, endangered birds, including a proud peacock. And don’t miss the Majestic Waimea Falls, where taking a dip is permitted. Admission is $15 for adults; $7.50 for seniors and children ages 4-12.

Where to eat

The third floor of an office building is the last place you'd expect to find Alan Wong’s, a fine dining restaurant named after its celebrated top chef. But the location is just as interesting as the dining experience. The menu is heavy on saucy seafood, beef and pork dishes, and Chef Wong strives to use locally-sourced and organically-grown products. Save room for one of pastry chef Michelle Karr-Ueoka’s delectable desserts. As a keepsake, guests celebrating a special occasion leave with an autographed menu and a box of delicious chocolate toffee macadamia nuts.

Macky’s Shrimp Truck
Macky’s Shrimp Truck

Mainland food trucks have nothing on the shrimp trucks found along the roadsides of Oahu’s North Shore near the town of Kahuku. At popular spots like Macky’s Shrimp Truck, $10-$12 gets you a plentiful plate of tasty shrimp (fried or sautéed with garlic or hot sauces), two scoops of sticky rice, a slice of pineapple and a green salad.

Wai’oli Tea Room
Wai’oli Tea Room

It’s always teatime at Wai’oli Tea Room, a hidden gem tucked away on a tree-lined side street not far from the University of Hawaii and the picturesque residential neighborhood where President Obama grew up. The quaint, smoke-and-alcohol-free eatery overlooks a garden and offers an inviting selection of fragrant loose teas, savory sandwiches and salads and fresh baked goods. Their bottomless cup of coffee is only $2.95.

Although we don't understand all the fuss about what we call a snow cone, Hawaiians love "shave ice." Perhaps the difference is that varieties like those found at M. Matsumoto Grocery Store in the historic town of Haleiwa, are made with homemade fruit flavors (coconut, pickled mango and lychee just to name a few), ice cream and softened Azuki (red) beans.

Where to stay

The Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa is well suited for couples, low-key families and business travelers. Conveniently located across from Waikiki Beach, the stately hotel also offers a respite from the busy scene outside. To give guests a crash course in Oahu’s history, the Hyatt hired a compelling cultural ambassador named Aka, who leads a leisurely tour of the grounds that’s full of fascinating Hawaiian folklore. Hula lessons and quilt and lei-making classes are also part of the guest experience, as are rejuvenating spa treatments in the two-story, 10,000-square-foot Na Ho’ola Spa. For added value, the fitness center is open around the clock and Regency Club guests are treated to a gourmet continental breakfast and afternoon cordials and desserts.

Aka, cultural ambassador
Aka, cultural ambassador

With its spacious one- and two-bedroom suites, large outdoor pool and a complimentary full American breakfast buffet overflowing with pancakes and eggs (plus kimchee and tossed salad for its international guests), Embassy Suites Waikiki Beach Walk is a great Honolulu home base for families. To help Mom and Dad unwind, the hotel offers yoga classes on Tuesday and Friday mornings and a nightly cocktail reception. Guests also appreciate the hotel’s location a few blocks removed from the beach, and steps from the 40 specialty shops, popular restaurants and free weekly entertainment at Waikiki Beach Walk.

Reasons for a return trip

Every April, the Waikiki SPAM Jam street festival takes over Kalakaua Avenue. We know, it’s gonna be jam-packed. But when else will you get the chance to sample a variety of culinary creations made with this beloved canned mystery meat? Proceeds from the event benefit the Hawaii Food Bank.

In case you didn't stuff yourself with enough poi and poke (po-keh), you can always come back for more on Hawaii Food Tours, designed and guided by food writer Matthew Gray. Three tours are offered, which include the former restaurant reviewer's favorite hole-in-the-wall joints, a traditional luau feast with cooking demonstrations and indulgent multi-course wine dinners.

The early bird catches the deals at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, where over 700 local merchants sell everything from handmade jewelry and crafts to fresh produce and popular local snacks. This bargain hunter's paradise is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $1 for adults, free for children under age 11.

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Photo credits: iStockphoto (top),  John Carluccio (all others)
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