Want some entertainment with your food? Try a luau. My favorite is at Disney's Aulani, where the musicians are award winners, the food is delicious, and the tables are spread out under the stars. It takes some scouting beyond tourist spectacles, though, to find truly authentic music and dance. Venues favored by locals include the Kani Ka Pila Grille, at the Outrigger Reef, which features live Hawaiian music nightly. The crowd is key to the good time: Here, aunties get up and do the hula. The finest music in all the islands may be at Honey's Restaurant in Kaneohe, founded by the mother of crooner Don Ho. You'll find slack-key guitar wizard Led Kaapana there on Saturday nights. He's a four-time Grammy nominee but remains humble and humorous—though you might have to take lessons in Hawaiian Creole to catch all his jokes.
For an only-on-Oahu experience of nature, head out to the North Shore. Consider spending a half day at Waimea Valley, a cultural and educational center with more than 1,875 acres under conservation. You can hike through inland forests, explore a replica of an ancient village, and swim under a waterfall.
Oahu boasts the best sandy beaches in Hawaii. It's also got Waimea Bay, where you can watch world-class surfing. If your interest is piqued, stop by Surf N Sea to sign up for lessons. Or head toward the nearby historic bridge, whose double arches have spanned quiet Anahulu Stream since 1921. In my youth, the water was dotted with fishing boats; today it's a secluded spot for kayaking and paddleboarding.
Historic Haleiwa, with its surf shops, food trucks, and shave ice stores, was my stamping ground as a kid, but Mokule‘ia was where my family lived—and still does. The beaches at this far western tip of the island are less populated than others but just as beautiful. For a rugged five-mile round-trip hike, follow an old railroad bed and dirt road to Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve, a protected coastal sand dune that is a sanctuary for the Laysan albatross.
At Kaena, you may feel as though you're at the end of the earth, and in a way you are. Ancient Hawaiians considered this the jumping off point to the hereafter. If you want to experience the sublime while still in the here and now, consider a glider tour from Dillingham Airfield. As a teenager, I spent a year commuting to Honolulu for school in a small plane flown by a family friend. Returning each evening to this airfield—soaring above mountains and beaches, then banking out over the ocean with its bands of sea green, turquoise, and cobalt—altered my outlook on life.
The perspective reminds me that Oahu, for all its glitzy attractions, remains something primal and fundamentally distinct: a volcanic island in an infinitely large sea, carved by wind, softened by rain, and overflowing with surprises.