Just beyond the dense cluster of high-rise hotels and glitzy shops that line Waikiki’s main avenues, you’ll find Oahu’s real hidden gems off scenic island highways. Looping around the island from south to north and back again is one of the most doable and impressive day trips in Hawaii. From shrimp trucks to surf spots, follow your sat nav to gorgeous mountains, coastal stretches and lots and lots of rainbows.
Get an early start at Heavenly (342 Seaside Ave., 808-923-1100) or its sister restaurant Goofy (1831 Ala Moana Blvd., 808-943-0077), both serving sweet and savory breakfast options like purple-colored taro English muffins, French toast and morning greens made with locally sourced ingredients. Head north to the stunning Byodo-In Temple (admission $5/ages 13-64, $/seniors, $2/ages 2-12, cash only; 47-200 Kahekili Hwy., 808-239-8811) to ring the giant peace bell and walk through koi-filled ponds at this replica of a 900-year-old Kyoto Buddhist temple.
Continue north to the breathtaking Kualoa Ranch (49-560 Kamehameha Hwy., 800-231-7321), where blockbuster movies including “Kong: Skull Island” and “Jurassic World” were filmed. Be sure to book ahead for an ATV tour, horseback ride or zip line adventure.
Recharge before heading to the North Shore with a stop at one of the Kahuku shrimp trucks along Kamehameha Highway. The main contenders for lunch-plate supremacy include Giovanni’s (66-472 Kamehameha Hwy., 808-293-1839), Romy’s (56-781 Kamehameha Hwy., 808-232-2202) and Fumi’s (56-777 Kamehameha Hwy., 808-232-8881). Try one or all three.
Drive up toward Kawela Bay to loop back down south to Haleiwa, with stops at one of the North Shore’s beaches, such as Velzyland, Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline, Chun’s Reef and Laniakea. For a sweet treat, pull off at Ted’s Bakery (59-024 Kamehameha Hwy., 808-638-8207), just before Sunset Beach, for a slice of its signature chocolate haupia cream pie.
For more local fare, cruise through the small, surfy town of Haleiwa and grab a coffee in nearby Waialua at Brew + Foam (67-292 Goodale Ave., 424-234-2244) or sample freshly brewed coffee and authentic island shave ice at Island-X Hawaii (67-106 Kealohanui St., 808-637-2624).
On your way back to Waikiki, snap a quick pic for your Instagram inside a giant plastic pineapple at the historic Dole Plantation (64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy., 808-621-8408), where you can also stick around for the full pineapple experience and ride the Pineapple Express tour train.
If the timing works out, from here you can take a short detour to Manulele Distillers (92-1770 Kunia Rd., 808-517-4067), about 10 minutes from the Dole Plantation, to shop for barrel-aged Kō Hana Agricole Rum made from heirloom sugar cane. The distillery hosts tastings until 5 p.m.
Or skip the rum and drive straight to Ahi Assassins Fish Co. (2570 S. Beretania St., 808-439-4045), about a half-hour from the Dole Plantation, for fresh, authentic poke.
If you have extra time…
Make the most of your 24-hour car rental with a quick morning trip to the Iolani Palace (guided tour $21.75/adults, $6/ages 5-12; 364 S. King St., 808-522- 0822), a 10-minute drive from Waikiki in Downtown Honolulu. This National Historic Landmark is the only official royal palace in the United States. And if you have a few hours to spare during your trip, be sure to check out Doris Duke’s Shangri La, near Diamond Head State Monument. You won’t necessarily need a car for this: Tours of the Islamic art museum depart from downtown’s Honolulu Museum of Art Wednesday through Saturday at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and must be booked in advance ($25).
Good to know
Getting there: Fly nonstop to Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, from JFK on Hawaiian Airlines or JetBlue and from Newark on United, with flights clocking in at a little over 11 hours. You can pre-purchase a lei greeting on a flight with Hawaiian.
Getting around: There are several places to rent a car, including the conveniently located Enterprise at Island Colony in Waikiki (445 Seaside Ave., 808-922-0090). For a real island experience, splurge on a convertible Mustang.
Where to stay: Off bustling Kalakaua Avenue and a quick walk to Waikiki Beach, the boutique Shoreline Hotel (342 Seaside Ave., 808-931-2444) has amenities like a rooftop pool and complimentary fruit-infused water. Also in Waikiki, the hip Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club (412 Lewers St., 808-923-8882) features Mahina & Sun’s, from Honolulu chef Ed Kenney.