Oahu's exceptional beauty has made the island not only a top tourist destination, but also a favorite location for filming hit movies and top-rating TV shows. Among those shot in Oahu are "50 First Dates," "Jurassic Park," "The Karate Kid, Part II" and "Lost." As if these weren’t enough to showcase Oahu, the venue of the online racing game Test Drive Unlimited is modeled after the island. Stretches of white sand beaches, lush rainforests, and numerous volcanoes are only a few characteristics that make Oahu distinct. Known as "The Gathering Place," Oahu is the seat of power and home to about 75% of the total population of the state of Hawaii. One of the island's extraordinary features is that it is sandwiched between mountain ranges, which resulted from two shield volcanoes, Waianae and Koolau. Oahu is famous for the volcanic cones strewn all over the island, which are all dormant. Apart from the geographic bounty that makes the island one-of-a-kind, the rich hodgepodge of culture and tradition that it offers is more than enough to make a trip to Oahu an experience worth remembering.

Oahu's Diamond Head and Punchbowl Crater

Oahu would not be Oahu without the Diamond Head and the Punchbowl Craters. Originally called Leahi by native Hawaiians, Diamond Head got its English name when British seafarers, who arrived on the island sometime in the 19th century, thought that the calcite crystals embedded on the crater were diamonds. Now, Diamond Head is considered a US State Monument and one of Oahu’s defining features.

The Punchbowl Crater is known as Puowaina among the Hawaiian people, and is also popularly called the "Hill of Sacrifice." The crater was formed around 100,000 years ago and used to be the place where people who have broken taboos were offered as human sacrifices. Today, it is where the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is located.

There are plenty of volcanic structures around Oahu, and Koko Head is the youngest crater at only 32,000 years old. You would consider it young, too, if you knew that Oahu first rose above the sea as the Waianae volcano about 4 million years ago.

Oahu's God-given beauty

Oahu’s picturesque quality is entirely made by nature. What seem to be mountain ranges enclosing the island are actually remains of Waianae and Koolau volcanoes. When these shield volcanoes erupted millions of years ago, their halves slid underneath the ocean, leaving the rest to form the east and west walls of Oahu. What now lie in between these "mountain ranges" are amazing natural scenery and a valley marrying Eastern and Western cultures. The average water temperature on the island is at 23 degrees Celsius (or 74 degrees Fahrenheit). The island’s climate is as warm as its people, who have managed to preserve the cultural richness and tradition that makes Hawaii "Hawaii." The people of Oahu and the entire state of Hawaii are best known for their generosity and welcoming spirit, which spell out "Aloha." Oahu is one place where differences are celebrated. The presence of various ethnicities in the island chronicles Oahu’s plantation days way better than the remains of the plantations themselves. The offspring of sugar and pineapple plantation workers brought in from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Russia, and the Philippines make up a significant number of Oahu’s population today. Combining this assortment of cultures with that of native Hawaiian, the cuisines, festivities, and way of life in Oahu are like no other.

Only in Oahu

Picturing a holiday in Hawaii would have you conjuring images of hula dancers, ukulele players, pineapples, white sand beaches, and turquoise waters in a heartbeat. Indeed, Oahu is a beach bum’s heaven, with 112-mile stretch of white sand shoreline engaged in an endless love affair with the Pacific Ocean. In Oahu, life’s a beach because there are beaches practically in every direction, and each beach has its own specialty to offer.

The Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Beach, Sunset Beach, and Turtle Bay are found on the North Shore. Banzai Pipeline’s Hawaiian name is "Ehukai Beach," meaning "reddish-tinged water," because the sun hitting the breaking waves causes the sprays to turn into a rosy color.

The beach is popular for bodysurfing, bodyboarding, and fishing. However, swimming and surfing at Banzai Pipeline is not for the novice, especially since the waves can go higher than 10 feet. Advanced surfers who go for bigger waves head to Waimea Beach, where the popular Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational surfing competition is held annually. The Sunset Beach area is known to be the one of the "longest rideable surf spots in the world." It has a length of two miles and is great for a lazy, sun-soaking day with the family. Turtle Bay was known for turtles that used to be abundant in the area, laying their eggs on its shore. Although there’s not many of them at Turtle Bay anymore, some lucky visitors get to spot the turtles on rare occasions. The water current here is next to non-existent, making it a perfect spot for snorkeling.

On the East Shore, you’ll find the powdery white sand beaches of Makapuu, Waimanalo, Lanikai, and the Kualoa Regional Beach Park. Makapuu boasts of its scenery of rocky cliffs, tidepools enclosed in lava rocks, and a US Coast Guard lighthouse perched on top of Makapuu Point. Waimanalo is an idyllic beach with quiet and crystal clear waters, set in a peaceful town where you’ll find several farms and ranches. Lanikai is one of United States’ top beaches according to Conde Nast ratings. If you’re in Oahu for some privacy and quiet time, this is the place for you. You’ll be hypnotized by the warm, salty breeze and the graceful swaying of palm trees. Close to it is Kailua, which is one of the best beaches in America. It is regarded as Lanikai’s sister beach and is best for sailing and kayaking. The Kualoa Beach Park is right across the famous Kualoa Ranch. If you take a stroll on the beach, you’ll find the art of nature at its best with pretty shells littering the sand and a view of the Chinaman’s Hat.

On the South Shore is the world-famous Waikiki Beach, where millions of tourists go to each year. Other popular southern Oahu beaches are Magic Island, Hanauma Bay, and Sandy Beach, which is best known for the Halona Blowhole that spits water high into the air. On the perennially sunny West Shore, you’ll find Ko Olina Resort, Makaha Beach, and Yokohama Bay. This side of Oahu boasts of lagoons and amazing trails at Kaena Point.

Other unique features of Oahu

Although it’s doubtful for you to have enough of the beach, there are other important sites that define Oahu, especially since the island is an interesting display of contrasts: East meets West, cityscape meets natural scenery, modern amenities meet village lifestyle. Walk down memory lane and visit Pearl Harbor’s Arizona Memorial. The USS Arizona was among the battleships that sank during the 1941 bombing, along with its 1,177 crew members. Tours are free at the memorial site, which is less than an hour’s drive to the west of Waikiki. Then, you can literally jump ship to the nearby Battleship Missouri, which symbolizes Japan’s surrender to the US and the end of WWII. You can also go to the Iolani Palace, known as the former seat of power in Hawaii. Located in Honolulu, it's the only restored palace you'll ever find in the US. This is where the ancient Hawaiian rulers governed their kingdoms until the end of the monarchy, when Queen Liliuokalani gave up the crown. Another important landmark in Oahu is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. It is the burial site of around 25,000 heroes who fought for America in three wars: WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. You’ll also find a monument of the Hawaiian astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who died on duty while on the Challenger space shuttle. The cemetery is also known as the Punchbowl, because it is located on the Punchbowl Crater. Ironically, it is also called the Consecrated Hill, because secret royalty burials and human sacrifices were done there.

Your trip to Oahu won’t be complete without a visit to the Honolulu Zoo, which is home to a thousand animals. One of the most recent members of the zoo family is Violet, the partner of Honolulu’s favorite orangutan, Rusti. You shouldn’t miss the zoo’s golden lion tamarin monkeys and Komodo dragons, as well as the colorful tropical birds, which all seem to squawk "Aloha!" While you're at it, enjoy Honolulu to the fullest by enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of Chinatown, especially if you're there in February in time for the Chinese New Year festivities. For a taste of Polynesian art and music, go to the Hawaii Theatre Center and the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). You can try your hand at Tongan spear throwing, Maori war dance, and a variety of Polynesian practices, especially since the shows at PCC require audience participation.