Oahu is Hawaii's third largest island, but once out of developed Oahu this is easy to forget. Solitude on the white sands of a tropical beach is never too far away—but neither is a golf course and good shopping. A hike through the green interior, through pines and tropical tangle, makes it no challenge to pretend that this is a land forgotten by time—but the skyline of Honolulu indicates it is not.
For the best of big-city Hawaii, Honolulu is it. Cultural attractions rub shoulders here with the unforgettable historic; spend an afternoon touring World War II Museums and Memorials in Pearl Harbor, wander rich artistic offerings the museum, sample Chinese cuisine in Chinatown and explore the old royal palace before retiring to watch an evening sunset from the beach. Deep-sea fishing charters leave from the harbor, as do diving tours and whale-watching boats. If you'd rather not test your sea legs, sit and watch the bustle of Hawaii's biggest port area for entertainment, then head down the shore to Waikiki for some dedicated relaxation.
Waikiki glistens with developed, cultivated beauty set off by the natural charms of long stretches of soft powder sand and bright blue waters. Snorkel, swim, learn to surf or sailboard here—but don't forget to sit back and bask in the warm Oahu sun, with the appropriate sun block of course. When these efforts in holiday-making grow too strenuous, visit the Honolulu Zoo or Waikiki Aquarium to put it all back in perspective.
Spend a few hours hiking in the Koloau Mountains before heading to Hanauma Bay, along Oahu's southeast tip, for top-rated snorkeling and water fun. Stop in to see the dolphins and sharks at Sea Life Park before heading north along the coast.
Windward Oahu, is, not surprisingly, the windy side of the island. Just northwest across the mountains from Honolulu and the other two 'big' cities on the island, Kailua and Kaneohe have all the requisite urban thrills but easily accessible rural retreats. Take off on one of the trails into the interior for views down the coast and some quiet before investigating the Polynesian Cultural Center at the top end of this coastal stretch.
Around the corner, along the north coast, swimmers and snorkellers enjoy beaches during the summer months, turning them over to surfers when the swell gets house-high in winter. Watch from the beach off-season, or, soar above it all in a glider and catch a glimpse of the small white ribbons of breaking surf from the air.
To reach the side of Oahu protected from the wind, the Leeward Side, one has to drive back down to Honolulu. Recover from this 30 or so mile drive with a day at the Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park before exploring the beaches winding along the coast. Waters here can be hazardous, so for safe snorkeling and swimming stick to areas without tricky currents, no matter how inviting the waters appear.
Importantly, enjoy your trip to Oahu—whether you want urban allure or mountain splendor this beach-trimmed island has something for even the most dedicated workaholic.