Almost three quarters of Hawaii’s population live on OAHU, which has monopolized the islands’ trade and tourism since European sailors realized that Honolulu offered the safest in-shore anchorage for thousands of miles. Well over half of all visitors to Hawaii arrive in Honolulu, and many remain for their entire vacation. Oahu effectively confines tourists to the tower-block enclave of Waikiki, just east of downtown Honolulu; there are few rooms anywhere else.
While over-development makes it hard to recommend Oahu over its neighbours, it can still give a real flavour of Hawaii. Oahu has some excellent beaches, with those on the North Shore a haven for surfers and campers, and the cliffs of the windward side are awesome.
Almost the whole of Pearl Harbor, the principal base for the US Pacific fleet, is off-limits to visitors. However, the surprise Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, which an official US inquiry called “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”, is commemorated by a simple white memorial set above the wreck of the battleship USS Arizona, still discernible in the clear blue waters. More than 1100 of its crew lie entombed there.
Free tours of the memorial operate between 8am and 3pm each day, but it can be two or three hours after you pick up your numbered ticket before you’re called to board the ferry that takes you there. The visitor centre does at least offer long-range views of the memorial, which was partly financed by Elvis Presley’s 1961 Honolulu concert, his first show after leaving the army.
The huge USS Missouri, which survived the attack and was the scene four years later of the ceremony in Tokyo Harbor that ended World War II, is moored alongside the Arizona. Guided visits, by bus from alongside the Pearl Harbor visitor centre, include the actual surrender site as well as sweeping views of the harbour from the Missouri’s bridge.
See our comprehensive first-timers-guide to the Hawaiian islands for overviews of all six freely visited islands, and more on what to see and do in Oahu.