With vibrant Honolulu as its anchor, the third-largest Hawaiian Island is home to a diverse pop­ulation, which spreads from the big city to far-flung surf towns. Here, the insider's guide to the island's can't-miss beaches, activities, restaurants, and more.

By Caroline McKenzie
November 08, 2017
Hanauma Bay State Park
Hanauma Bay State Park; Photo: Ashley Thomas

Natural Wonder: Hanauma Bay State Park
On the island’s eastern tip in a volcanic cone, these pristine waters are among Hawai‘i’s top snorkeling destinations. Once abused by tourists, the area is now controlled and requires visitors to watch a nine-minute video on preserving marine life before entering the park.

Famous and Worth It: Pearl Harbor + ‘Iolani Palace
If you think you shouldn’t see these sites because they’re so famous, think again: Both are vital glimpses of history that affected these islands and the world beyond. Book a tour of Pearl Harbor Memorial through Polynesian Adventure Tours, and do not miss the gowns that belonged to Queen Lili‘uokalani, who was imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace.

The Modern Honolulu's Sunrise Pool
Courtesy of The Modern Honolulu

Rest Your Head at: The Modern Honolulu
With striking views and tranquil white rooms, this sophisticated hotel is a hidden gem. Make your daily commute between the Sunrise Pool (surrounded by aged-teak decking and a canopy of autograph trees) and the Sunset Pool (encircled in white sand and daybeds with oversize batik pillows).

Secret Beach: Waimānalo Bay Beach Park
This roughly three-mile stretch of golden sand and turquoise waters on the island’s windward side is as secluded as it is stunning. Spend the morning at the park and grab plate lunch from the roadside stand Keneke’s on your way out.

The joy of learning to surf
Courtesy of Star Beachboys

Don't Leave Before You: Take A Surf Lesson
Learn the basics of Hawai‘i’s signature sport in group or private one-hour lessons with Honolulu’s Star Beachboys. (Look for their yellow tent in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue on Waikīkī Beach.) After hanging 10, walk five (minutes) down the beach and reward yourself with a cocktail under the pink umbrellas of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Knockout View: Nu‘uanu Pali
Just five miles from Honolulu, this lookout on the Pali Highway provides sweeping views above (to the Ko‘olau cliffs) and below (across the lush countryside of the Windward Coast). The spot is also known for its strong winds, so prepare to feel nature announce itself amid the visual splendor.

The view overlooking Lanikai
Tony Shi Photography/Getty Images

Shopping Stop: Echo & Atlas
Skip the luxury retailers that line Honolulu’s posh Ala Moana Boulevard and take advantage instead of the city’s crop of independent boutiques with strong aesthetic chops. Case in point: Echo & Atlas, designer Julianne Thomas McGee’s handpicked collection of clothing, vintage jewelry, and even dishware.

Top-Notch Mai Tai: House Without A Key
Settle in at the evocatively named restaurant at the storied Halekulani hotel for a sweet take laced with rock-candy syrup. The breezy oceanfront setting—on a lanai beneath an ancient kiawe tree—is also pretty sweet.

WATCH: A Perfect Weekend in Oahu, Hawaii:

Sweet Sunset Spot: The Fish House
O‘ahu’s western shores abound with fiery displays, but the most stylish place to watch it all go down is the Fish House at the Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina. You’ll have a 180-degree view across Ko Olina’s lagoons, framed by tiki torches and palm trees. Complement the scene with the aptly named Sunset Smash cocktail: a blend of gin, strawberries, basil, and liliko‘i kombucha.

The Pig and the Lady
Courtesy of The Pig & The Lady

Meal of the Moment: The Pig & The Lady
The hot center of O‘ahu’s blazing food scene is The Pig & The Lady, where chef/owner Andrew Le creates inventive, Vietnam-inspired dishes such as miso-cured salmon and free-range duck pho. (Insiders avoid the crowds by going on Tuesday nights.) Also having an enduring moment: Ed Kenney’s family of standout restaurants that champion local fare: Mud Hen Water, Kaimuki Superette, Mahina & Sun, and Town.

Prime Watering Hole: The Tchin Tchin! Bar
It doesn’t get much hipper than Honolulu’s Chinatown, where this swanky loft space turned wine bar pours and pairs with small plates. Locals like its rooftop patio for the ultimate pau hana, a Hawaiian ritual of after-work relaxation and socializing that visitors will find themselves wanting to take home with them.

Souvenir Power Move: Print from Ashley Goodwin
Photographer Ashley Goodwin documents her home island with artful shots that capture the beachy, breezy beauty of O‘ahu. Frameable 24- by 36-inch prints are $225.

Courtesy of Pamakane Pico

Insider Take: A Honolulu Day Done Right
“I rise early and hike to Lanikai—the name means ‘sea heaven’—to watch the sunrise. After that, I head to Anuenue Exquisite Tea for a cup of freshly brewed green. In the afternoon, I visit the farmers’ market for fresh fruit and vegetables. Finally, I stop in at ‘Ai Love Nalo, one of several new vegan restaurants in Honolulu, for the Banana Swirl, a take on Hawai‘i’s beloved acai bowls.” —Pamakane Pico, owner/lead designer at Ocean Dreamer Florals