For Californians, Hawaii is an easy and efficient summer escape. A roughly five-hour plane ride will land you in a tropical paradise, no passport required. While each of the islands offers its own array of treats, I’m partial to O’ahu. Growing up, I made a trip to the well-known tourist island nearly every summer to surf Waikiki (yes, I used to surf; yes, I was pretty good; no, I absolutely don’t do that anymore) and play by the hotel pools and in the roaring shore break. I loved breakfasts at The Royal Hawaiian and riding a catamaran out past the waves. These days, I still love Waikiki for its Rodeo-drive-meets-white-sand-beaches vibe and the busy ‘city’ streets that parallel the coastline. But as an adult and dining-lover, I’ve found that the most recommended restaurants and to-dos found on Google and other travel sites fail to illuminate my favorite aspects of the island. For instance, ‘Best O’ahu Restaurants’ lists seem to only highlight the fine dining locations on the Waikiki strip. And while I’ve found a gem or two within that list, more often, I am dissatisfied with the pricey prefix menus which don’t do the island’s seafood true justice (though the views are worth it). My experience, which has been aided by my friendship with a local who knows some hidden spots, has encouraged me to create my own O’ahu vacation ‘itinerary,’ an all-inclusive must-try list that reveals some not-so-hidden secrets. While I’ve excluded some to-dos which can be easily searched (ie. Best Hikes), this should map out a relaxing, luxurious, and quintessential island stay!
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View this post on Instagram A post shared by Ko Olina Resort (@koolinaresort)
A post shared by Ko Olina Resort (@koolinaresort)
While Ko Olina is not necessarily a secret – boasting the luxurious Four Seasons and a Disney resort – it is the lesser-known paradise of the island. The truly stunning bays include post-card-worthy resorts, but less-walkable exterior options; hence, bringing in fewer tourists than Waikiki. However, for $20, you can valet all day at The Marriot where you can curl up in the white sands, enjoy the waveless water, and stroll to the bar for a frozen cocktail.
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A post shared by The Tchin! Tchin! Bar (@thetchintchinbar)
This rooftop bar makes one mean margarita! With a backdrop of abundant foliage perfect for Instagram, you can feel the tropical breeze while snacking on small plates and tartines for great prices. Come early or make reservations as this place really pops, drawing a cool young professional crowd.
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A post shared by Sansei Seafood Restaurant (@sansei.hawaii)
Part of D.K. Restaurants, Sansei’s sushi is totally off the charts. The five-page dine-in menu provides more choices than you can devour in a single sitting while showcasing just how mouth-watering the island’s seafood can be. Plus, you can try some of the D.K. Steakhouse favorites, like Lobster Mashed Potatoes. My must-try: DK’S CRAB RAMEN WITH TRUFFLE BUTTER BROTH. Holy decadence!
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A post shared by Kailua Beach Adventures (@kailuakayaks)
It may not be hard to find picturesque beaches on O’ahu, but Kailua is an absolute dream. Small paths between growing greenery lead you to a strip of white sand and some of the most turquoise waters I have ever seen. With a handful of parking lots and street parking, this glorious setting is a must!
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A post shared by BUZZ’S ORIGINAL STEAK HOUSE (@buzzsoriginalsteakhouse)
To me, this beachside eatery is a quintessential island stop. It looks like an only-slightly-modern tiki hut with a sprawling patio and a dim indoor space that truly says, ‘island beach bar.’ On rainy island days, I’ve sat at the bar for hours, drinking frozen pina coladas, downing some of the island’s best sashimi (get it while it lasts!), and trying the calamari steak.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Turtle Bay, North Shore, Oahu (@turtlebayresort)
A post shared by Turtle Bay, North Shore, Oahu (@turtlebayresort)
Again, while this resort might not be a secret, it certainly deserves all the hype! You can park for free on the resort and jet to the beautiful, public beach. Or, even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can enjoy the amenities: a horseback ride on the sand that takes you past the setting of The Hunter Games: Catching Fire, the best pina colada ever at Beach House by Roy Yamaguchi, or an espresso martini at Off the Lip – the hotel bar that puts you eye level with an infinity pool.
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A post shared by Maya’s Tapas & Wine (@mayastapasandwine)
While you’re on the North Shore, you have to hit Maya’s. A cozy restaurant with a charming white-fenced patio, this food is literally to die for. Imagine – all your favorite tapas but with triple the flavor. Packed with garlic and a punch of zesty spices, you are in for a flavor sensation that’s unmatched in nearly any city. My must-try’s: Baked Buratti and Gambas Al Ajillo.
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A post shared by Roy E. (@s2rp3roi)
I almost feel bad adding this to the list, as this breathtaking local’s beach is supremely serene without the addition of tourists. I’ll just say this – as we visited each beach on my recent trip (each more spectacular than the last), I wondered why Waimanalo was my local friend’s favorite. Then we arrived, and I instantly understood.
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A post shared by Japanese Kizuna (@kizuna_japanese_sushi)
Here’s another one I hesitate to add, as this already-packed place is another local favorite. While unassuming on the outside, this restaurant has hands down the best sushi I have ever eaten in my entire life. Put this up against any Nobu, Matsu Hisa, or Sugar Fish and Kizuna still takes the cake. . . by a landslide. Plus, they have real wasabi (not the green horseradish we’re used to). My must-try’s: Salmon Nigiri and the Waikiki Roll.
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A post shared by 53 By The Sea (@53bythesea_hawaii)
Because any trip does need one restaurant with stunning ocean views and food that is up to par, I’m adding this photo-worthy location to my list. Get glam and step into this magnificent mansion with a restaurant that has the most beautiful views on O’ahu. Plus, the food actually matches the setting. My must-try’s: Tomato Brioche (think Indian curry flavors) and Surf and Turf (think lobster on the barbecue).