Since 2011, when I dipped my toe into the world of solo travel with my first trip to Paris, I have had an insatiable appetite for exploring the world on my own. The freedom and the growing confidence with each solo trip is empowering and overflows into all aspects of my life.
The older I get, the more I gravitate toward the sea (and all water). There’s something about the water, sand, and a clear blue sky that has a meditative effect on me. I appreciate nature more now than I did in my 20s and 30s. This was why Hawaii gently twisted my arm to come and visit.
Oahu is a perfect destination for us solo travelers to immerse ourselves in nature. The sea, the mountains, the lush rainforests; there’s not only the beach and laid-back lifestyle, but the locals are friendly, too. The weather is amazing, and Oahu is a safe destination for solo travelers.
There is so much to do and see on Oahu, and here I share some highlights that I enjoy when I’m exploring the island solo.
I love the North Shore, and Haleiwa is the center of this part of Oahu. The North Shore is the “real Oahu,” celebrating the surfing lifestyle.
You can easily spend a good part of the day in Haleiwa wandering in all the cool shops which sell everything from clothing to t-shirts, surfing gear, and home goods. Most of the shops are located right on Kamehameha Highway along a one-mile stretch. Much of that stretch has sidewalk, but part of the way does not.
Haleiwa has some of the best food in Oahu. I love to grab a breakfast burrito at Kono’s in the North Shore Marketplace, find a nearby picnic table, and watch the island chickens scurry about. There are a few sit-down restaurants.
Pro Tip: I like to skip the restaurants in favor of a plate lunch at a food truck. Oahu has a very food truck-orientated lifestyle perfectly suited to solo travelers. That is clear in Haleiwa, where there are food trucks everywhere. My favorite is North Shore Crepes. Just look for the cute VW van.
2. Shave Ice At Matsumoto’s
You may run into a long line of tourists and locals in Haleiwa waiting for a shave ice sweet treat at Matsumoto’s. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Along with serving shave ice, the attached store sells all kinds of merchandise. T-shirts, pancake mixes, and other gift items are available.
Pro Tip: Ask for the add-on vanilla ice cream! Trust me.
Fun Fact: The Matsumoto’s opened their grocery store in 1951, eventually converting it to sell merchandise and souvenirs, then expanded and began selling shave ice topped with their own syrup recipes. Matsumoto’s is still a family-run business with only one location in the world.
3. World-Class Surfing On The Banzai Pipeline
A real treat if you are visiting Oahu’s North Shore in the winter months is watching the pro surfers. You need a car to get to the pipeline. Drive past Waimea about 2 miles on Kamehameha Highway to “the pipeline.”
This is the most famous spot to watch the surfers in Hawaii. When the surf is right, swells from the northwest form those perfect barrels.
The best viewing is about 100 yards left of Ehukai Beach Park. If you are lucky and score a parking spot in the park, it’s just a short walk onto the beach. The alternative is street parking.
Pro Tip: Ask a shopkeeper at one of the surf shops in Haleiwa if the surfers are at the pipeline today. They will know if the conditions are right to go watch on that day. If they are, brace yourself for the traffic jam, and know it’s worth it! It’s a marvel to see the power of nature create those waves.
4. Kō Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum Distillery
Visiting Kō Hana Distillery and sampling their rum is a uniquely Hawaiian experience. While molasses is the base for most rum, they make Kō Hana rum from the fresh juice of 36 varieties of heirloom sugar cane. These varieties are native to Hawaii and, like the grape to the wine producer, each cane variety produces a distinct flavor.
Kō Hana offers two different tours. Each tour also ends with a sampling of the rum. If you don’t have time for a tour, you can still enjoy a tasting.
5. Lanikai Beach
This half-mile-long stretch of beach is postcard perfect. The spectacular blues of the water and the powder-soft sand make Lanikai Beach one of the best beaches in the world. On the windward side of Oahu, the water is calm and a glorious spot for snorkeling over the reefs, swimming, and kayaking.
Parking here can be difficult. There’s free street parking on one side of Mokulua Drive. This area is residential and access to the beach is by public walkways in between the properties, which helps to keep crowds down.
Pro Tip: Go early in the day for a better chance of nearby parking, or you may need to park at Kailua Beach and walk (less than a mile) to Lanikai Beach. Kailua Beach has a sizeable parking lot and restrooms. Lanikai and Kailua Beach do not connect.
6. Mokule’ia Beach
When I travel solo, I prefer to avoid crowds. So if you’re looking for a beach that gives you a feeling that it’s all yours, this stretch of sandy shoreline is perfect. Although the surf is rough and you can’t swim here in winter, it’s the seemingly endless miles of beach that call to those looking for an escape from the crowded beaches in many other parts of Oahu. Here you can just pull your car over and step onto the beach. Take highway 930 (Farrington Highway) and pick your piece of beach heaven.
7. Wahiawā Botanical Garden
Wahiawā Botanical Garden is in central Oahu in the town of Wahiawā. This 27-acre botanical garden has two levels. The upper level and a ravine which is dense rainforest. Maps are available at the entrance and there is a self-guided tour included in the brochure as well. Accessing the ravine is by a steep trail, which can be hard to navigate for some, but those with mobility issues can still enjoy the upper part of the garden. Admission is free.
8. Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden backs up against the Ko’olau Mountains. While you can walk the garden, it’s best to drive through and stop at the parking lots to inspect. At the top, there is a parking area and a lookout you can walk up to. The view from the platform is astounding. The mountains, with their blanket of green, surround you and you feel you can almost reach out and touch them. You can drive through in 20 minutes, but why not allow at least a couple of hours? Admission is free.
9. Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor is a must when visiting Oahu. Taking that short, somber ride out to the USS Arizona Memorial was surreal. Walking around the grounds and walking through the museum was captivating. Being there on the actual site is an experience that is unforgettable. You can spend a half day here.
Pro Tip: If you cannot score tickets for the tour of the USS Arizona Memorial, arrive early on the day you want to go. You wait in a line, and they add a few walk-ins on every departure to the memorial. I arrived first thing and had no trouble getting on the boat.
10. Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
Instead of battling the crowds in Waikiki looking for fun souvenirs, this is the place to go. When I travel solo, I like one-stop shopping so I have more time for experiences, plus this is a fun place for people watching.
The swap meet is open three times each week: Wednesday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Up to 400 vendors sell everything from ukuleles to fresh fruit. Admission is $2 for ages 12 and up. Find additional details here.
11. Bailey’s Antiques And Aloha Shirts
Ask anyone on Oahu where to get a vintage Hawaiian shirt and they will name Bailey’s Antiques in Honolulu. Even if you’re not in the market for a shirt, stop anyway just to see pictures of the famous folks who have bought shirts here.
If you’ve considered taking a solo trip to Oahu, you should. With an airport that is small and easily navigated, a main highway system that makes it easy to drive from one side of the island to another, quiet stretches of beach, and a food truck scene perfect for those of us who dine solo, you can’t beat it for that once-in-a-lifetime solo travel experience.
Pro Tip: Rent a car. We solo travelers are an independent bunch, and seeing the island by car is the best way to go. My suggestion is to check out Turo.