My paradise: Exploring windward Oahu

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Guam

Swaying palm trees, world-class shopping, gourmet restaurants and golden, sandy beaches may be all you need in order to have a great vacation. On Oahu, most of this can be found in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach — along with throngs of tourists and crowds. Want to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown? Hop in your car and explore the rugged Hawaiian paradise of the windward (east) side of Oahu.

Beaches
Some of the prettiest and least-crowded beaches are a short 30-minute drive from Honolulu. Sugary, white sand stretches for miles along the shoreline. Natural beauty abounds with the steep cliffs of the Ko’olau Mountains providing a stunning backdrop. Kaneohe Bay is a protected inlet where tidal fluctuations leave unique sandbars exposed throughout the bay.

. This half-mile stretch of beach is popular for kayaking and windsurfing. If the waves aren’t too choppy, rent a kayak and head out to the Mokulua Islands, or “Moks” to view the coastline from a different vantage point. If you need to stretch your legs on land, there is a paved trail around the park. Or check out the many quaint cafés and boutiques across the road.

Lanikai Beach. The Obama family helped put this sleepy neighborhood beach on the map. Located next to Kailua Beach Park, Lanikai is quieter than its neighbor. The water is more shallow, which makes it the perfect location for little ones to splash in the waves, or for snorkeling among the vibrant, colorful fish and rocky coral reefs.

Bellows Air Force Station. Just 15 minutes down the road is a gem only accessible to DOD I.D. cardholders and their guests. The warm, turquoise waves at Bellows are fantastic for novice and intermediate boogieboarders and bodysurfers. Pitch a tent and camp, or stay in one of the more well-appointed cabins located beachside. At night, grab your buckets and flashlights to catch the elusive ghost crabs that scuttle along the shore.

Places worth a stop
One of the well-known pit stops on the windward side is the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. There are plenty of artifacts and cultural exhibits to explore, with the option of a buffet dinner and luau. While it’s an easy stop, there are many less expensive options that can give you a great sense of Hawaiian history and culture.

Kualoa Ranch. Famous for its scenes in “Lost,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “Jurassic Park” and many other Hollywood films set in the tropics, Kualoa Ranch is worth a visit. Hike through lush valleys, past old sets and props and take in the breathtaking island panoramas. Tour Oahu’s oldest working cattle ranch via all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), or for more of an adrenaline rush, soar through the palm trees on a zipline. Catch your breath on a scenic boat ride and learn the fascinating history of the ancient fishpond and gardens.

Byodo-in Temple. Nestled in the Valley of the Temples just outside Kaneohe, is the Byodo-In Temple. The tranquil gardens and koi pond lend a feeling of calm and serenity to this final resting place for many. Ring the large, brass bell before entering for happiness and longevity. Be sure to remove your shoes or slippahs when entering the sanctuary as a sign of respect. When inside, offer a prayer or have a moment of reflection next to the 18-foot-tall gilded Buddha.

Nu’uanu Pali Lookout. Don’t be intimidated by the droves of tour buses that stop at the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout — they’re stopping for good reason. This scenic overlook is located at the top of Pali Highway, halfway between Honolulu and Kailua. You’ll be awarded with a stunning vista of windward Oahu. On a clear day, you can see Waimanalo and Kailua, and you may be able to watch aircraft taking off from Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay. Be sure to keep your hat inside the car; the wind at the top can be gusty. If you’re feeling adventurous, walk the paved road to the Old Pali Highway. This is the starting point for many awesome hikes below the lookout.

Turtle Bay Resort. This well-manicured hotel and golf resort are tucked away on the northernmost part of the windward coast. Turtle Bay served as the set for the film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Take a horseback ride along the quiet coastline of Kawela Bay, or if you’re a “Lost” fan, trek into the secluded woods next to the resort and discover the mammoth banyan trees that were home to the mysterious “Smoke Monster.” If you’d rather soak in the sunshine, it’s easy to relax on the beach with the gentle waves lapping at the shore. Foodies will be in culinary heaven at Roy’s Beach House, with delicious Euro-Asian cuisine courtesy of island Chef Roy Yamiguchi.

Good eats
During World War II, Spam was introduced to the islands. This inexpensive and non-perishable canned meat was a source of protein for many servicemembers stationed in Hawaii and the Pacific. Over the years, it has become a staple of the Hawaiian diet. Spam musubi, a hand-held snack of sushi rice and a slice of Spam wrapped in a thin ribbon of nori, is a local specialty. If you’re not keen on the canned ham, don’t worry — there are plenty of other delicious eats.

Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp. Shrimp shacks and food trucks in Kahuku, just south of Turtle Bay. While there are plenty of spots to choose from, Fumi’s is a favorite. With virtually no line, an extensive menu and friendly service, this family-owned shop is worth the stop. Try the spicy garlic shrimp, served with a side of steaming white rice and fresh green salad.

Buzz’s Original Steakhouse Lanikai. Just a stone’s throw from Kailua Beach Park, this steakhouse is a hidden gem. There are two restaurants on Oahu, but the one in Lanikai is the original and the best. With stunning views of the turquoise waters, seating is limited and intimate. Stop by for the delicious Ono and Ahi sandwiches or tri-tip salad for lunch. Or watch the sun dip below the Ko’olaus while enjoying mouth-watering prime rib. Reservations are highly recommended.

Cinnamon’s Restaurant Kailua. The word has gotten out about this charming breakfast and brunch spot in downtown Kailua. Offering pancakes the size of dinner plates, the cooks at Cinnamon’s put a tropical twist on traditional breakfast fare. Try the Guava Chiffon pancakes, or my favorite, the Red Velvet. Craving something savory? The Kalua Pork Benedict comes with tender house-made Kalua pork and creamy Hollandaise sauce.  It’s best to go at opening, to beat the sleepy beach crowd. Reservations are only accepted for parties of eight or more.

While it’s easy to stay in the comfortable tourist trappings of Honolulu and Waikiki, take a short drive and discover a different side of paradise.

Subscribe to our Stripes Pacific newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, cultural information, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!

Follow us on social media!

Facebook: Stars and Stripes Pacific
Flipboard: Stars and Stripes Community Sites

Looking to travel while stationed abroad? Check out our other Pacific community sites!
Stripes Japan
Stripes Okinawa
Stripes Korea

Recommended Content