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Hidden Oahu: Discover the Islands Best-Kept Secrets

Find Oahu's hidden gems by heading off the beaten path.

An long entrance bridge leads to Byodo-In Temple on the windward side of Oahu.

Shane Myers Photography / Shutterstock

Legendary Waikiki is synonymous with Oahu. The glittering resort’s high-rise hotels border a wide swath of sand lapped by sapphire waters. It also has location, location, location, neighboring Honolulu, an effervescent, multicultural city that offers world-class shopping and amenities.

But when you venture off the beaten path, you find a different Oahu, full of fascinating cultural and historical sites and mana (the Hawaiian word for spirit). Fortunately, the island is compact, so you can stay in Waikiki and other resort areas yet still discover offbeat and unexpected spots on the island.

Tales of the Supernatural

Believers in ghostly apparitions consider Oahu to be one of the most gloriously haunted places on Earth. Many come to view orbs—bright lights that are said to represent spirit energy—at sites where tragic events occurred in the distant past. Orbs show up in after-dark snapshots. Those who think it’s a paranormal phenomenon say the orbs appear in places where troubled spirits reside. At night, on the Orbs of Oahu Driving Tour, you can experience them at picturesque Kapena Falls and in the famous Chinese Cemetery at the back of moonlit Manoa Valley.

At Iolani Palace—the only royal palace in the United States—you’ll search for orbs of royal ghosts still mourning the overthrow of the beloved Hawaiian monarchy.

Cultural Encounters

Overlooking the perfect crescent of Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, Pu’u o Mahuka Heia’u, Oahu’s largest heia’u (Hawaiian temple), is a place of solemn contemplation. High priests once held religious ceremonies at the temple, whose stone walls form a triple enclosure.

Just down the coast, at the Polynesian Cultural Center, a living museum, you’ll experience Polynesian village life. Islanders demonstrate arts and crafts and teach you to climb coconut trees or dance the hula.

Tucked into a verdant valley on southeast Oahu’s Windward Coast, the bright-red Byodo-In Buddhist Temple is a memorial to Hawaii’s Japanese immigrant population. Burbling koi ponds and quiet prayer nooks grace the peaceful surroundings.

Sea Creatures Great and Small

The population of Hawaii’s humpback whales has increased in recent years. During the winter, you can embark on a short cruise from Honolulu to watch these majestic mammals breach and blow.

Get even closer to marine creatures at Sea Life Park, where visitors can swim with gentle sea lions. Trainers teach you all about the anatomy, physiology and capabilities of these beautiful animals.

See more of the island’s abundant sea life on the west side, where unscripted encounters with dolphins are the norm. Spot pods of spinners leaping from deep crystal waters along the Waianae Coast.

Home of the Brave

World War II buffs can delve into the conflict’s history at a number of sites beyond Pearl Harbor. Schofield Army Barracks, the largest Army base outside the Continental United States, has a unique museum dedicated to the 25th Infantry’s “Tropic Lightning,” a legendary division that has fought in every war in the Pacific during the last century. Eat lunch at the historic Officers Club at the “Pineapple Pentagon,” the building where the U.S. Army Pacific Command has been housed since World War II.

Round out your amazing adventure at the Home of the Brave Headquarters Museum, where you can sit in a vintage army jeep and soak up the sounds of the Glenn Miller Orchestra while relaxing in a 1940s-style cocktail lounge tricked out in true Tiki style.

This article was first published in March 2012 in Traveler and updated in February 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.