The best way to discover the beauty of Oahu is to drive along the island’s scenic coastline. The day we arrived at Oahu, after spending an incredible time on the Big Island, we drove straight out of Honolulu, and away from its maddening crowds.
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Waikiki To The North Shore
The North Shore is the most beautiful area of Oahu. It’s less crowded, less touristy, and definitely less commercial.
There are several shuttles that run between Honolulu and the North Shore, but taking them means skipping out on seeing the best parts of the island. Also, if you were to take the shortest route between Waikiki and North Shore, you’d probably miss out on an incredibly scenic route.
So, if you plan to get to the North Shore from Honolulu, I highly recommend taking the long scenic way around. It’d probably take you 4x the time but you’ll get to discover Oahu’s beauty – its gorgeous beaches, and coastline.
Oahu’s Scenic Drive Map
Locals advised us that instead of heading north-west, head south-east to get to the North Shore. I know that that sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s the most scenic route.
The map below shows you the route they advised us to take.
We split this scenic drive over a couple of days. Our road trip started in Honolulu, and ended in Laie, where we spent our first night. We drove from Waikiki to Hanauma Bay, all along the Windward Coast and finally to the North Shore. Along the way, we stopped at some stunningly pristine beaches, and drove between mountains and the sea.
For the next couple of days, Laie served as our base as we drove around the North Shore all the way to the western tip of Oahu, before heading back to Honolulu. By spending a couple of nights on the North Shore, we were able to really take our time discovering Oahu’s coastline.
Hotels around North Shore
I personally would advise you to spend a couple of nights at the North Shore, or in the vicinity of the North Shore. This gives you a chance to not only enjoy this scenic drive, but also appreciate the beauty of North Shore at a more gentle pace.
- Turtle Bay Resort – Iconic luxury property on the North Shore that’s been featured in numerous Hollywood movies. The resort is like a small town, and offers practically every facility. Great for families!
- Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore – Relatively new hotel near North Shore. This is where we broke our scenic drive on the first night.
Hale O Kaunala – Fantastic location, a few minutes walk from the beautiful beaches of North Shore and the famous Ted’s Bakery. Great reviews!
Aloha Wahiawa – Located in the town of Wahiawa, a 20-30 minute drive from the North Shore.
This part of the island is just so beautiful that it’d be a mistake to not spend a couple of days exploring it.
Oahu Scenic Drive
So, let’s get back to the drive. Here is a list of all of the scenic points of interest along Oahu’s coastline.
Our first stop out of Waikiki was Hanauma Bay.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Given its proximity to Waikiki, it’s no wonder that Hanauma Bay is crowded. The bay area was once inside a giant cinder cone, and as the water made its way through, it left behind an area rich in life sustaining nutrients. Thousands of people descend upon Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve to snorkel with the fish and see the beautiful corals. Sadly, the corals have taken a beating from so many tourists over the years.
Unlike some of the other snorkeling areas (Shark’s Cove for example) entrance isn’t free at Hanauma Bay. But if you get the Go Oahu Card, it includes access to Hanauma Bay.
Visitors are expected to sit through a short film before they can enter. You can sign your name in their register if you think you’ll be back within a year (so that you can skip the short film the next time).
Although the beach is overcrowded, it is absolutely beautiful!
Sandy Beach is one of the most popular beaches for surfers in Honolulu. The waves here are among the strongest. We were warned by several people that we shouldn’t try and risk swimming at Sandy Beach. Apparently, a surfer had lost his life a day before 🙁
Halona Blowhole Lookout
Just before Sandy Beach is the Halona Blowhole Lookout. The powerful waves around this area really make for a beautiful blowhole. The view from the lookout too is spectacular.
This was probably one of my favourite beaches along the drive. The vast expanse of white sand, blue water, and mountains made this beach feel so big, yet so cozy. I could imagine myself sitting on this beach reading a book (which I did see someone else doing). I would have done it had it not been for the fact we had a long way to go before our hotel. This was the perfect beach in my opinion.
Probably the most over-hyped beach on the North Shore. Lanikai Beach is located close to Kailua Beach Park and isn’t the easiest beach to get access to. It’s located behind a row of beach houses and there’s hardly any parking available. Also, with all the houses overlooking the beach, it doesn’t feel that secluded. I guess, all that hype really built up the beach for me. Personally, I thought the beaches close to Waimanalo, or Banzai are way more secluded, and beautiful.
This was my favourite aerial photo of Hawaii. Somewhere along Kaawa, the road gets squashed between the mountain and the sea. The sudden change of scenery feels beautiful, yet intimidating. This is probably one of the most photogenic parts of Hawaii in my opinion. All along the coast are small beaches that often remain empty and attract only a few locals who come to walk their dogs. Driving along this route is highly recommended.
Kahana Bay Beach
The Kahana Bay Beach is a secluded and relatively calm beach for the North Shore. From the number of pyres on the beach, I got a sense that this beach sees a lot of bonfires.
Not to be confused with the Punaluu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island, the Punaluu Beach on Oahu is thin, narrow stretch of sand located along the North Shore. The views of the sea, and the views of the mountains behind made this beach unique in my opinion.
Turtle Bay Resort is probably the most iconic, and biggest resort (850 acres) on Oahu. It’s been featured in numerous Hollywood movies from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. So, naturally we had to stay here. The resort’s beaches and snorkeling areas aren’t restricted to the general public. So, even if you aren’t staying at Turtle Bay Resort, head on down to the Kuilima Cave for snorkeling, or to Turtle Bay to see magnificent sea turtles.
I’d highly recommend staying at this iconic property in Hawaii (even if it’s just for a night)!
Banzai Pipeline (also known as “Pipeline” or just “Pipe”) is another epic beach worth visiting. The beach is famous for its notorious waves that draw surfers from all across the island.
Shark’s Cove is known for two things – snorkeling, and food trucks.
The rocks in the area provide a natural bay for fish, and sea turtles to stay within, and feed. That’s what makes it a perfect spot for snorkeling. It’s also not as crowded as Hanauma Bay.
Waimea Bay Beach Park
Waimea Bay Beach was another one of my favourite beaches on the North Shore. The beach has a giant diving cliff from which divers jump into the ocean, which gives it a unique character.
Also, it’s probably the only beach that I’ve been to that needs air traffic control for drones!
Laniakea Beach – Famous For Sea Turtles (Honu)
Although Laniakea Beach stretches for miles, you’ll always find most of the crowd concentrated in one corner of the beach. The reason – sea turtles.
Everyday, numerous giant sea turtles come to this corner of Laniakea Beach to feed on the seaweed in the area. You can even snorkel here with the turtles, but be warned that these guys will creep up on you without a warning.
Given how many cars are parked around the turtle’s area, and the number of people crossing the street, it’s hard to miss Laniakea Beach.
Kaena Point Trail
The Kaena Point Trail is a hike that leads you to the western most tip of Oahu, Kaena Point. The point at which the hike starts is quite literally the end of the road on the North Shore.
The hike is absolutely deserted, save for a few campers, and offers some of the most gorgeous sunset views. The hike can take about an hour to complete (if you don’t stop) and offers amazing views of the ocean all along the way.
Although we had set out to reach Kaena Point, we eventually decided not go all the way. Why? Well, we wanted a secluded spot for a sunset, and we got that wherever we stopped on the trail. So what if it wasn’t at the tip of the island?
And more importantly, there is no light or paved road to hike back at night. In pitch darkness, it can get dangerous. We did have a flashlight on us, but I still wouldn’t advise hiking back in the darkness, unless you’re really confident.
The Short Drive Back To Honolulu
On our way back from the North Shore to Honolulu, we drove back along the main freeway. We were disappointed at how quickly we arrived in Honolulu.
When we drove up to the North Shore, it had literally taken us 6 hours with all the stops. The time taken had given us a sense of space between Honolulu and the North Shore.
On our way back, it took us under an hour to get back to the airport. This made us realise that we weren’t really that far away after all. North Shore just feels like a different world when compared to Honolulu, and downtown Waikiki.
There are tons and tons of more beaches along the North Shore, but I hope this post gave you an idea of where to stop and what to explore. If you enjoyed this post, make sure you share it with who will too.
Car Rental Options in Honolulu
There are numerous car rental options across the city and at the airport. If you’re looking for the most economical option, I would suggest running a comparison across the major service providers. There are a couple of websites that let you search multiple rental options in one shot. I would say that is your best option.