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Free Oahu Activities Guide

Diamond Head, Father Damien, Haleiwa

Hawai’i is a popular tourist destination that attracted over 7 million people in 2005. That is about six times the state population. The ideal climate all through the year, magnificent landscape, history, culture, and the peoples’ ALOHA are understandably attractive internationally. Tourism is a large part of Hawaii’s economy, and hence there are many things to do there. Whether you have one day or ten on the island, this article can help you. I always get excited when someone I know is going to Oahu for vacation or to live. After repeating myself many times, I finally decided to write this article so I can email the link instead. This article comments on scenic views, hikes, Hawaiian healing sites, hula, beaches, a statue/church/palace, surfing, Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, and others. Note that a car, taxi, or bus is needed for these experiences.


1) Many beautiful scenic views are often accessible for free on the island of Oahu. Assuming you have a rental car or transportation, I strongly recommend going to the lookouts called a) Pali, b) Tantalus, and c) La’ie Point. Of these recommendations, Tantalus and La’ie Point are not always well known by non-locals and some tourist related literature.

A) Pali:

History: This lookout is spectacular and has a view of the Ko’olau Mountains on the Windward side of the island. The historical significance of this lookout has to do with the triumphant battle King Kamehemeha I executed against the Oahu population in an effort to conquer it. Apparently, Oahu’s warriors fought until they fell over the Pali cliffs to their deaths. When you are driving below the Pali cliffs, the Ko’olau mountains are gorgeous, and often with waterfalls. The panoramic view is definitely worth the trip. Pali is pronounced pah-lee.

Directions: You can access it from either side or direction of the Pali Highway, near the Pali tunnel. It is windy and cold on the Pali and jackets will come in handy. It is open daily (weather permitting) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and has free parking and admission. A lunch wagon and portable bathrooms are there too.

B) Tantalus:

History: This is an over 2000 feet elevation look out with a panoramic view of Manoa valley, Honolulu, and Diamond Head Crater. Manoa is the location of the University of Hawaii’s main campus and prestigious private school called Punahou School. In 1825, Hawaiian Chief Boki brought coffee from Rio De Janeiro to Manoa. Then around 1893 or the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, the Hawaiian Government planted macadamia nuts on Mount Tantalus. Later in 1942 at around 2am, during which time Pearl Harbor was conveniently covered with clouds, Japanese military airplanes dropped 3 bombs on Mount Tantalus. Another less internationally known historical event at this site involves the fact that it is the place I proposed to my beautiful wife during a sunset 12 years ago. She couldn’t help but say “yes” with that ambiance. The sunset viewed from this location is “postcard beautiful”. Tantalus could also be a memorable place for a first kiss (lifetime commitment is optional).


This location is accessed taking the Punahou off ramp from the main Highway (H-1, Lunalilo Freeway heading toward Diamond Head). Next you take the Punahou off ramp and turn left on Punahou Street heading toward the mountains. You then take a left on Nehoa Street and then a right on Makiki Drive. You then merge left on Round Top Drive for about 6 minutes to Tantalus lookout. If you come from Waikiki, you can head toward downtown Honolulu on Ala Wai Boulevard and turn right on McCully then turn left on Wilder, then right turn on Makiki Drive. Continue toward mountain on Makiki Drive and after passing the cross street Nehoa street on Makiki Drive you then merge left on Round Top Drive to the look out. There is also a nice park and picnic area a little further up the road.

C) La’ie Point:

History: Historically, La’ie is the origin and inspiration of the “Hukilau Song” (by Arthur Godfrey) and the Shaka sign (local greeting hand signing). In the early 1900’s, Hamana Kalili was a fisherman and respected Hawaiian elder who lost his three middle fingers and therefore only had his thumb and pinky fingers. Still, there is another story about the origin of the Shaka sign. If one closes there hand, and only extends to thumb and pinky finger, you have the Shaka sign. “Shaka” means “right on” and “howzit” (how is it going). This site has a spectacular sea arch and a seabird island. La’ie is pronounced lah-ee-ay.

Directions: This site is located on Anemoku Road on the beautiful windward coast. Take Anemoku Road off of Kamehameha Highway (at a traffic light) heading north or south on the windward side to end of Naupaka Street . It is on the other side of the Laie Village Shopping Center and in the vicinity of the Polynesian Cultural Center.


Reasonably easy and short hikes on Oahu are Manoa Falls, Diamond Head, and Aiea Loop trail.

Manoa Falls:

History: Manoa valley used to be remarkable for taro and u’ala (sweet potato) fields, a dairy farm, and a trolley. Now it is mostly a residential area with cottage type homes near the University of Hawai’i. Manoa falls tends to be a little muddy due to frequent rain. When I was at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I got into the habit of always having an umbrella in my backpack. You never know with those tropical rains. The falls are about 15 minutes into the hike.

Directions: If coming from Waikiki, you should take McCully Street out of Waikiki toward the mountains. You can then turn right onto Kapiolani Boulevard and then left onto University and drive adjacent to the University of Hawaii campus. Next you turn right onto Manoa Road. This will dead end at the trail head.

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Diamond Head State Monument:

History: Diamond Head is an extinct crater formed by a series of explosive eruptions about 100,000 years ago and is possibly the most famous landmark on Oahu. It has a panoramic wonderful view. The original name was Leahi (tuna brow), but foreign sailors in 19th century saw shiny crystals from lava stone and erroneously thought it had diamonds. It was used as a military fort or bunker with canons around 1900. On the hike you go through it and the tunnel is dark. Flashlights and water are recommended for the Diamond Head hike. It is about one hour up to the top and 40 minutes down depending on your conditioning level.

Directions: In order to get there from Waikiki, you take Kalakaua Avenuve toward Kapiolani Park. Next you merge left onto Monsarrat Avenue and then Monsarrat Avenue turns into Diamond Head Road. Next you drive up Diamond Head Road until you reach the sign that reads Diamond Head Crater (which is between Makapuu Ave & 18th Ave.). There is a bathroom at parking area but not at top of hike. Admission is free (last time I was there) and it is open daily 6am to 6pm.

Aiea Loop Trail And Keaiwa Heiau (temple):

History: The Aiea Loop trail is the sight of Keaiwa heiau which was said to be a medical school or healing and training temple. It is a sacred place and has some displays. The picnic area is in the same field. This hike is great and often shaded by trees.

Directions: Take H1 highway west bound to Highway 78. Then you can get off Highway 78 at the “Aiea” turnoff onto Moanalua Road. Then you can turn right onto Aiea Heights Drive and go to the top of mountain and you will see the trail entrance. In front of the trail are covered picnic tables and bathrooms.


Wizard Stones

History: Sometime before 1400, Ancient Hawaiians hauled these four large stones two miles to the beach. They were thought to be with the mana (spiritual powerful force) of four great Tahitian kahuna priests who were healers. Please see the other article I wrote on Hawaiian Healing published by ASSOCIATEDCONTENT.

Directions: It is located at Waikiki Beach on Kalakaua Avenue. It is next to the Waikiki Police Department which is opposite to the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument

History: Kukaniloko is a collection of approximately 180 sacred stones. It is an ancient Hawaiian royalty site where they came for the birth of their children. The spiritual power of mana is thought to be plentiful there. The stones are said to be a powerful place, and some even have petroglyphs. Kukaniloko Birthstones are one of the most significant cultural sites on O’ahu.

It is at the intersection of Kamehameha Highway (Hwy. 99) and Whitmore Avenue on the north side of Wahiawa (between Wahiawa and Haleiwa). It is close to the Dole Plantation also.

Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau

History: Oahu’s largest heiau (ancient place of worship) is a national historic landmark with an incredible north shore beach view. Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau is the largest and oldest heiau (place of worship) on O’ahu. It is a sacred temple site with walls that consists of three stone structures. This temple is located on the 250-foot cliffs above Waimea Bay. The ancient temple may have served as a heiau of human sacrifice. It is said to be the sacrifice site of Captain George Vancouver’s party in 1793.

Directions: This is on the North Shore and off of Pupukea Homestead Road (Highway 835) which is accessed off of Kamehameha Highway (Highway 83). The Pupukea road is adjacent to a small shopping complex that has Starbucks and a Safeway grocery store. The temple is on the cliff above the shopping complex.

4) HULA:

History: Hula is a form of sacred dancing by Hawaiians that involves spirituality, poetry, hidden meanings or kaona, and stories. There are traditional forms and more contemporary forms. The ancient style is called kahiko. A kahuna or extensively trained specialist could be a specialist in the hula, medicine, canoe building, genealogy, etc. There are some hotels that have free hula performances and ukulele lessons. You should check with the hotel you are staying with for information. Did you know that you can see free daily hula shows on the beach at Waikiki?

Directions: The free hula show is every evening at Waikiki beach across from Hyatt Regency, in vicinity of the Duke Kahanamoku Statue and the Wizard/Healing stones. It is a free performance by varying artists of hula every evening. Summer performances start at 6:30pm but it starts earlier during winter months.

The formerly famous free Kodak Hula Show closed some years ago but is still erroneously listed on some websites.


My favorite northern beaches on Oahu are Sunset beach, Haleiwa beach, Pipeline beach, and Sharks Cove.

History: Historically, the north shore beach was the beach frequented by the old Hawaiian monarchy for their vacations. More recently, Haleiwa beach was where Baywatch filmed their shows. Currently, “Lost” films in the area, especially at Ka’ena Point. Actually all the beaches on Oahu are great and you could drive around the island to see all of them in 1.5 hours (without stopping). Other remarkable beachs are Diamond Head, Makapu’u, Sandy Beach, Waimanalo (great boogie boarding with shore breaks and no coral), Bellows (right next to Waimanalo), Kailua, Makaha, Waialua, and Kahuku Beach.

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Waikiki beach is ideal for swimming and snorkeling. It is even a nice place to boogie board on small waves close to the shore. The long board surfing is a bit of a paddle out from shore and classes and rentals are available. You have to be able to say you went to Waikiki or friends and relatives will be disappointed.

The best snorkeling places to me are at Sharks Cove on the North Shore (summer time only, large waves exist during the winter) and Hanauma Bay. The last time I was at Shark’s Cove I saw a large turtle (Honu) that made a lasting impression. Remember not to touch the turtles or scare them. They will not be near the shore in the future if they are not respected or scared. Hanauma Bay has a very small fee but has spectacular snorkeling and diving. You need to get an early start for Hanauma Bay. The last time I went at 10am, I could not get in since it was full (it was a weekday!).

Directions: Most free maps at hotels will show you where most of the beaches are located.

You can rent snorkels at some beaches but it will be cheaper and healthier to bring your own from home or buy an affordable set on trip.


Kamehemeha Statue

Kamehameha I was the first king to unite all of the Hawaiian Islands around 1810. Supposedly he wanted to unite the islands in order to make a stronger cohesive Hawaiian nation to deal with foreign visitors easier. The missionaries arrived in 1820. A famous prestigious private school is called the Kamehameha Schools. A Kamehameha student’s genealogy must show proof of Hawaiian ancestry in order to go to the school. The author of this article attended the Kamehemeha Schools. Their admissions policy is currently being challenged in court. Princess Pauahi willed the school to “Hawaii’s children”.

Directions: The King Kamehameha statue is on South King Street (a one way street, and the cross street is Punchbowl Street). It is in front of the Judiciary Building.

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Statue

It is at Waikiki beach. Kahanamoku was a pure Hawaiian famous for getting multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals in the Olympics (1912-22) and being an internationally known surfer (and the “Hawaiian ambassador of aloha”).

Directions: Duke is found in Waikiki on Kalakaua Avenue across from the Hyatt Regency hotel. He is also near the Wizard stones and a free daily evening hula show.

Kawaiaha’o Church

History: The Kawaiaha’o Church is historically known for being the first Christian church in Hawaii, and was built around 1840. It is made of 14,000-pound slabs of coral that weighed 1000 pounds each. You can see it for free, but the tour has a fee. Masses in Hawaiian are also available there.

Directions: Kawaiaha’o Church is located in Honolulu at 957 Punchbowl Street. It is near the Missionary Museum and the Medical Library. If coming from Waikiki, take Kalakaua Avenue toward the mountains. Then turn left onto South Beretania Street (a one way street) and then turn left onto Punchbowl Street and it is on the left. There is metered and free parking available on the streets nearby.

‘Iolani Palace State Monument

History: Officially dedicated in 1882, the Iolani Palace was a location for the monarchs and their courts on special occasions. The ‘Iolani Palace was also the former residence of King Kalakaua, Queen Kapiolani, and Queen Liliokalani. It is a beautiful palace that can be viewed on the external premises for free. The Royal Hawaiian Band plays for free every Friday from 1200 to 100pm on the palace grounds. They play Queen Liliokalani’s famous song Aloha Oe. Queen Liliokalani was the reigning monarchy during the overthrow of 1893 by American business men. She avoided bloodshed during the overthrow and trusted the America government, thinking they would eventually give Hawaii back to her since that was the fair thing to do. President Clinton signed a document of apology in 1993 (exactly one hundred years later).

Directions: Tours of ‘Iolani Palace are popular and cost money. You can view the palace from outside without a fee. I understand that you need to make reservations (call 808-522-0832 Wednesday through Saturday) more than two weeks in advance to guarantee getting in on a tour (hours are 9 am to 2:15pm). It is on corner of South King Street & Richards Street in downtown Honolulu.


History: Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing to the world and was also an Olympic champion. It was also the sport of Hawaiian royalty on the North Shore and elsewhere. Surfing is a popular local sport and lessons are easy to find.

During the winter months, the large surf (over 20 feet sometimes) is on the North Shore and many famous competitions are there. Everyone has heard of Pipeline. It is a blast to watch people surfing these huge waves. During the summer, the northern shore has flat to small waves, and Sharks Cove has great snorkeling during that time. During the summer months, the more southern shores are larger (eg. Waikiki beach and Diamond Head beach). One great thing about Oahu is that if one side of the island is overcast, the other side probably has enough sun to enjoy the beach or a picnic. Don’t go in the water when the waves are big! I’ve been held under the water near coral reefs and luckily escaped with my life.

The North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum is in the North Shore Marketplace (66-250 Kamehameha Hwy.). It has great historical surf boards, articles, and a surfing video room. It is open from Tues-Sun and noon-5pm. The admission is free but donations are accepted.

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History: Waikiki beach is a beautiful beach that has a lot of history and all nationalities are represented in bikinis there. It is a beach that has very little coral reefs near the shore. Dinner on the beach and an evening stroll compliment a great day. Furthermore, the Waikiki sunset is gorgeous. The vicinity of Waikiki includes other landmarks like Kapiolani Park and Bandstand (which has free performances and festivals on many weekends), the Waikiki Aquarium, the Honolulu Zoo, shops, restaurants, free weekend movies on the beach, and Wyland gallery. The International Market Place in Waikiki is a trip unto itself.
Waikiki beach is a classic Hawaiian tourist experience.

Directions: Waikiki is about 10 minutes south from the Honolulu airport, and off the main (H-1) highway. Next you just follow the signs to Waikiki.


History: The United States officially entered World War Two after that day of infamy when Pearl Harbor was bombed. It is well worth your time to experience, reflect on, and respect. It starts with a poignant film about the Pearl Harbor event that lasts at least 15 minutes. People are then brought out to a ferryboat and shuttled to the USS Arizona Memorial (near sunken ship). The experience is sobering and gives you a unique perspective.

Directions: You should drive west on H-1 highway past the airport and then take the USS Arizona Memorial exit and follow the green/white signs. The site is open daily from 7:30am-5pm (programs run 8am-3pm). Wheelchairs are accommodated very well and children under 12 should be with an adult. Remember that shirts and shoes are required (shorts are fine but no swimsuits or slippers/flip-flops or slippers allowed). The Arizona Memorial Shuttle Bus picks up people at some Waikiki hotels 6:50am-1pm (telephone 808/839-0911), about $6 round-trip). Pearl Harbor is a National site that is free, no reservations are involved and parking is free.


Everyone should consider the Bishop Museum (artifacts, books, music, hula, children activities too), Childrens’ Discovery Center in Kaka’ako, Hanauma Bay (great beach and snorkeling with a ton of fish, 5 dollar fee), Germaine’s Luau, Polynesian Cultural Center, Honolulu Botanical Gardens, Sea Life Park, Missionary Museum,
Byodo-In Temple (behind Valley of the Temples Cemetery in Kaneohe and has a huge gong bell,koi pond, and Buddhist shrine), Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, Dillingham Airfield for skydiving and glider rides, and the Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park.

If you go island hopping and visit the Big Island, you must experience ATV Outfitters Hawaii. ATV Outfitters Hawaii will be the highlight for your trip! It has a cultural and historical coastal tour on ATVs. The friendly and local Hawaiian Wong family owns and operates it. It is located in Kohala where King Kamehameha I used to live.

Some Random Travel Tips:

1.Do not spend too much time in sun, especially without protection. Sun tan lotion should be SPF 30 or above and needs to be applied hourly while in sun. Getting a first degree burn will minimize your fun.
2.Always lock your doors and valuables.
3.Do not touch or move things at healing or sacred temple sites.
4.Don’t forget museum and botanical garden memberships from home as you may be able to use them in Hawaii.
5.Recheck above information for changes in time and prices.
6.Avoid big waves and watch for under currents and rip tides. You can also talk to the life guard about water conditions.
7.Do not turn your back on waves when in water.
8.Consider bringing your snorkel and fins from home on the trip.
9.Recommended books about Hawaii:

Hawaii: An Informal History by Judd
Hawaii: A History by Kuykendall
A Call For Hawaiian Sovereignty by Dudley and Agard
Man, Gods, And Nature by Dudley is a great and easy to read summary of authentic Hawaiian spirituality and worldview beliefs.
Ancient Hawaiian Civilization by Grant, Handy, Buck, John H. Wise, et al.
Holy Man by Daws is about Father Damien who helped the Hawaiian Lepers.
Before The Horror by Stannard is an overwhelming book about Hawaiian depopulation and genocide.
The Gifts of Civilization by Bushnell discusses Hawaiian health and medicine.
Hawaiian Herbal Medicine by Gutmanis
Polynesian Herbal Medicine by Whistler compares Hawaiian with other Polynesian medicines and histories.
Voices Of Wisdom by Harden has great interviews of Native Hawaiians on different topics like politics, healing, spirituality, hula, culture, etc.
Hawaiian Mythology by Beckwith
Nana I Ke Kumu Volume 1 and 2 is a fantastic question and answer format on virtually all aspects of Hawaiian culture.
Books about Huna are not about the authentic religion. It is however very insightful and useful (Hawaiian worship was called ho’omana).
The Moke Kupihea series of books is presented in old Hawaiian style story telling that teaches you about Hawaiian spirituality and his personal native experiences and thoughts.
Ka Lama Kukui – Hawaiian Psychology by Rezentes
Exploring Lost Hawaii by Crowe and Crowe
Hawaii by Michener is a classic novel not to be missed too.

So that is the advice of a native local Hawaiian. Enjoy and ALOHA.