Far from the crowds of Waikiki and Honolulu, Kaneohe on windward Oahu is separated from the big city by the vast remnant of a volcanic caldera.
The Ko’olau Range is 500 metres high and spread out like a defensive wall, infusing Kaneohe with a raw kind of beauty captured in a long list of Hollywood movies and TV shows.
This mass of volcanic rock looms in the background of golf courses, hiking trails, tropical botanical gardens and the inviting blue expanse of Kaneohe Bay.
The bay is traced by upmarket houses with their own piers, and demands a visit, either in a kayak or on a cruise.
The sandbar a few hundred metres into the bay is like a desert island, peeking above the water at low tide and beloved by day-trippers.
1. Kaneohe Bay
Kaneohe’s most famous asset is its beautiful bay, 8 miles long and 2.7 miles across. Kaneohe Bay is a remnant from the caldera of the Koʻolau volcano, and is protected to the north by one of only two barrier reefs in Hawaii.
This leaves the bay with tranquil and often warm waters, primed for paddlesports and boat trips.
The water is dotted with five islands or islets: One, Coconut Island, close to land on the south-west side, was a shooting location for Gilligan’s Island in the 1960s, while Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2010), was shot in Kaneohe Bay.
What you’ll notice is that there’s hardly a beach to speak of on the shore, but to compensate you’ve got the fabulous Kaneohe Sandbar, out in the bay and easily reached by kayak, paddleboard or boat.
2. Kaneohe Sandbar
Out in the middle of Kaneohe Bay is a natural sandbar that is only exposed at low tide, but deserves a visit any time.
When the tide is up the sand will be submerged beneath a few inches of perfectly clear turquoise water.
People catch boats or paddle out to the Kaneohe Sandbar to wade and snorkel in the warm, crystalline waters and play ball games, barbecue and picnic on the sand.
Sea turtles are often sighted here, and you can bask in the wonderful views back to windward Oahu’s striking volcanic landscapes.
You can hire a kayak or paddleboard to make the journey, and we’ll name a couple of the rental companies later in this list. Many people charter a boat or call on the likes of Captain Bob’s Adventure Cruises, which also organises barbecues and snorkelling once you arrive.
3. Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens
Wandering this 400-acre garden framed by the powerful walls of the Ko’olau Range, you’ll find yourself in the kind of environment you might recognise from Jurassic Park (1993).
That movie was filmed not far away at the north end of Kaneohe Bay. Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens was founded in the 1980s, and was a project by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection for Kaneohe.
Arranged according to geography are plants and trees from tropical zones around the world, and you’ll come across specimens from as far afield as Africa, India and Sri Lanka, Polynesia, Melanesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and around Hawaii.
Drop by the visitor center for a map and to view the art displays at the galleries next door.
4. He’eia State Park
A big swathe of the west side of Kaneohe Bay is taken up by this state park, a favourite location for picnics with beautiful views of the coast.
There’s also evidence of habitation going back centuries at the He’eia Fish Pond, a corner of the bay with a man-made reef built to trap fish.
This is believed to date back somewhere between 600 and 800 years and has interpretation boards.
He’eia Pier is the embarkation point for kayak and snorkelling trips out into Kaneohe Bay, and, thanks to its gorgeous vistas, is unsurprisingly a popular spot for wedding ceremonies.
5. Kamehameha Highway
If you have a few hours to spare you could spend them on a very picturesque drive through rural Oahu.
Sixty-six miles long, the Kamehameha Highway loops around Oahu’s sparsely populated North Shore, on the way passing a line of stunning coves and sandy bays.
In summer these are usually quite calm and fine for swimming, with caution, while in winter the waves at spots like Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay are ten metres or more and attract the most accomplished surfers in the world.
The more sheltered Shark’s Cove at Pupukea Beach Park has tidal pools rich with marine life and is a haven for snorkelling.
As well as the unspoiled coastline, a big part of the Kamehameha Highway’s appeal comes from the culinary delights available from roadside vendors along the route, selling goodies like Hawaii shave ice, flavoured with pineapple, passion fruit or coconut.
6. Valley of the Temples
This spot, a short drive along the Kahekili Highway from downtown Kaneohe, is a multi-faith memorial park in a beautiful location at the foot of the Ko’olau Range.
The Valley of the Temples was founded in the 1960s and accepts visitors for a small fee. Come early in the day and you’ll have the place to yourselves, which is worthwhile as the park does get popular.
The focal point is the Byodo-In Temple, which we’ll talk about next, and has appeared in TV shows like Lost, Magnum P.I. and the original Hawaii Five-O.
In front are two acres of ponds with hundreds of koi carp, as well as black swans, while colourful peacocks roam the grounds.
7. Byodo-In Temple
The showpiece at the Valley of the Temples is the nondenominational Byodo-In Temple, a replica of the 11th-century namesake temple at Uji, on the southern outskirts of Kyoto, Japan.
The temple was inaugurated in 1968 to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant on Oahu.
This isn’t actually a functioning Buddhist temple as it doesn’t have an active congregation or monastic community, but still receives thousands of worshippers of all faiths and from all around the world each year.
This monument also presents a wonderful photo opportunity, in its manicured setting next to koi ponds, with the chiselled Koʻolau Range rising behind.
Inside there’s a 5.5-metre statue of the Lotus Buddha, carved from wood and covered with gold and lacquer, while just outside is a three-ton brass peace bell, rung by visitors to the temple for happiness and longevity.
8. Bay View Mini-Putt and Zipline
If a family outing is in order there’s 36 holes of minigolf at this scenic and beautifully landscaped course on Kaneohe Bay Drive.
Set among palms, Bay View Mini-Putt poses an engaging challenge for all ages, requiring you to judge gradients rather than tackle novelty challenges like windmills.
The attraction has also recently added the very first commercial zipline on Oahu, open to visitors over the age of six and showing off the sensational volcanic scenery on windward Oahu. Remember to dress sensibly for the zipline and wear close toed shoes.
9. Nuʻuanu Pali Lookout
Possibly the best vantage point in the entire Koʻolau Range is on the Pali Highway, barely ten minutes from downtown Kaneohe.
The Nuʻuanu Pali is perched on the fearsome windward cliff, at a height of 365 metres and affords a distant view of windward Oahu, including Kaneohe and the rugged coastline beyond.
There are boards along the terrace labelling the natural and manmade landmarks, and you can make out the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base (with the Ulupaʻu Crater), the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens and the little islands in Kaneohe Bay.
In 1795 the decisive battle in King Kamehameha I’s campaign to unite the Hawaiian islands took place at Nuʻuanu Pali, when hundreds of Oahu soldiers were forced off these sheer cliffs to their deaths.
10. Lanikai Beach
Five miles east of downtown Kaneohe is what most agree is one of the loveliest beaches in Hawaii and possibly the world.
Lanikai Beach combines many of the things that people picture when they think of a tropical paradise, with glimmering turquoise waters, soft white sand, dreamy ocean views and swaying coconut palms behind.
The ocean breezes are reliable enough for activities like windsurfing and kitesurfing, and a mile or so offshore are the conical outlines of the twin Mokulua Islands, which can be reached on a kayak trip.
Lanikai Beach backs onto a posh residential neighbourhood, and despite being a public beach has no facilities to speak of, which may be a drawback, but helps keep the beach quiet despite its staggering beauty.
With calm, clear and warm waters and lots of interesting things to explore, Kaneohe Bay is made for activities like kayaking and paddleboarding.
There are a few operators based locally, like Kama’aina Kids Kayak & Snorkel Eco-ventures, Kailua Beach Adventures and Adventure Tours Hawaii, renting out boards and vessels for a voyage in the bay.
Naturally the sandbar will be your main destination, but you can paddle to the distinctive Mokoli’i island (Chinaman’s Hat) in 30 minutes, and can circle the exclusive and picturesque Coconut Island, even if you can’t go ashore.
There are more kayaking and paddleboarding experiences available close by, like a guided trip to the Mokulua Islands off Kailua or Lanikai, protected as a seabird sanctuary.
Kaneohe has three unique golf courses in its boundaries, with some of the most invigorating views you may ever experience swinging a club.
These are the public Pali Golf Course, and Bayview Golf Course and Ko’olau Golf Club, both of which are private but accept non-members.
As the name suggests Bayview Golf Course is right by the water, with 18 holes that are often wrapped in dense vegetation and are designed to test your short game.
Pali Golf Course and Ko’olau Golf Club (both 18 holes) are side-by-side in the shadow of that ancient caldera, with amazing panoramas to inspire you between holes.
The slope rating on the black tees at Ko’olau Golf Club is 153, so chances are that you may never play a tougher or more beautiful course than this.
13. Windward Mall Farmers’ Market
Occasional damp weather is a fact of life below the Ko’olau Range, especially between November and March,
But that doesn’t have to deter you from getting hold of some of Oahu’s famous tropical produce and delicious treats. On Wednesday and Sunday there’s a farmers’ market at Kaneohe’s Windward Mall, in front of the Macy’s.
This is set on both levels and in season has stalls loaded with exotic fruit like papaya, pineapple, guava, passion fruit, coconut and pomelo.
High-quality specialty foods are also on offer, like locally roasted coffee, honey, nuts, oils, sauces, marinades and chocolate.
It’s also an opportunity to sample traditional Hawaiian delicacies like fresh poi, fried taro, kulolo and mochi.
14. Friendship Garden
In ten acres, this peaceful oasis was landscaped in the 1930s and is posted high above Kaneohe Bay.
The Friendship Garden is part of the Kokokahi Tract, developed in 1927 as a Christian, multi-ethnic community to foster a sense of harmony.
You can traverse this space, with a thick mantle of mature vegetation, on upper or lower loop trails for peaceful walks.
Among the species growing here are ironwood, monkey pod, Cook Island pine, mock orange, octopus tree, christmas berry, African tulip and washingtonia palms.
There are lots of original Asian-style design elements, including stone steps, wooden structures and walls, and occasionally you’ll be wowed by distant views across the bay and its islands.
15. Haiku Stairs (Stairway to Heaven)
The looming mass of the Koʻolau Range piques many people’s sense of adventure, and in some cases compels them to break the law.
To explain, the Haiku Stairs go back to the 1940s, providing access to the top secret Haiku Radio Station, transmitting signals to US Navy ships across the Pacific.
The walk along the ridge to the station, up almost 4,000 steps, became an attraction in its own right, but was officially closed to the public in 1987.
Now, as you’ll discover with a little research, many hikers ignore the warnings and the threat of a $1,000 fine to walk the stairway and soak up the constant exhilarating views.
There is a legal route, which is longer, more demanding and not to be attempted in wet weather as the mud gets slippery.
The illegal stairway, transferred to city ownership in 2020, may soon be fixed up and reopened, and would surely become one of the great Oahu experiences if made safe.