Get beyond Waikiki’s buzz to gorgeous lagoons, sunny resorts of West Oahu.
WEST OAHU, Hawaii — Palm fronds rustled in the breeze as we strolled under a dazzling blue sky near the crescent-shaped lagoon called “Ulua,” Hawaiian for fish. We paused to watch a catamaran glide from the nearby marina. It was a laid-back afternoon — as most are — at Ko Olina, a 642-acre luxury development near the Waianae Mountains on Oahu’s sunny leeward side.
Ko Olina, meaning “place of joy,” is home to four such man-made crescent lagoons, an 18-hole golf course, a marina, a small retail center, privately-owned villas, resort condos, a cultural retreat known as Lanikuhonua, and three luxury hotels: Aulani, Disney’s resort hotel and spa; Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club; and the recently opened Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina.
As regular visitors to Oahu, my husband and I are among a growing number of those who prefer the slow pace and scenery at Ko Olina and the island’s west coast to Honolulu’s hustle and bustle. And you need not stay in one of the high-end lodgings to enjoy the area.
If you go
Ko Olina is about 25 miles west of Honolulu; allow 1 to 2 hours, depending on traffic.
You’ll need a car if you aren’t participating in an activity that includes shuttle service from Waikiki or other parts of Oahu. There is no public bus service to the resort; the nearest bus stop is on the busy Farrington Highway (no sidewalks), some distance from the development.
• Ko Olina Resort shuttle: A free shuttle — open to the public — runs regularly from the marina to the shopping center, with stops at the resort hotels.
Ko Olina parking
• Limited on-site public parking is available on a first-come basis. Lots close at dusk.
• Ko Olina Marina parking lot is $10 a day, dawn to dusk.
• Day visitors may park at Disney’s Aulani for $37/day. The hotel will validate for four hours with a $37+ dining receipt from its restaurants or lounges. Marriott day-visitor valet parking is $20 if out by 11 p.m.; $37.70 after 11 p.m.
• Ko Olina activities (golf, ocean and lagoon, luau): koolinafun.com
• Oahu information: gohawaii.com/oahu
Ulua, near the marina, is furthest from those luxury high-rise hotels and the lagoons they front. It’s where the greatest number of day-trippers seem to congregate, although there’s public access to and day use permitted at all the lagoons in this development.
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We’d passed dozens of locals and tourists who’d nabbed spots on Ulua’s grassy border. Some picnicking, others, stretched out on beach towels, were working on their tans while catching a few “Zs” or sea-gazing. Kids chased sea foam as gentle waves broke on the sandy beach. In the distance a bride and groom posed for wedding photos at the lagoon’s edge. Despite its popularity, the lagoon is never as crowded as the island’s more famous beach, Waikiki.
Following the walkway to the other lagoons, named Nai’a, Honu and Kohala (for dolphin, turtle and whale), we pondered which — if any — we’d spot that day. Depending on the season, we’ve seen each of those sea creatures swimming off the resort’s shore.
Ko Olina’s popular Paradise Cove, at the north end of the development, provided the highlight of Bellevue residents Ann and Greg Oxrieder’s day trip. They spotted an endangered monk seal resting on the sand and sea turtles swimming in the cove. “It was a peaceful day away from the commercialism of Waikiki,” said Ann, “No crowds of tourists, just turtles and tranquillity.”
Renton residents Debbie and Clark Olson headed to Ko Olina on their one-day cruise-ship stopover in Honolulu. Their destination: Aulani, where they left their rental car with the hotel’s parking valet, then visited Disney-themed shops and ran into Pluto, Mickey and Minnie Mouse while exploring the hotel’s lush grounds.
“We had lunch at the hotel’s ‘AMA‘AMA restaurant overlooking the lagoon. We sat for a long time enjoying the beautiful, breathtaking view,” Debbie recalled.
The tranquil setting belies all there is to do here. Day trippers can fill their time in any number of ways:
• Sand and sea
Rent snorkel gear, stand-up paddleboards, even a beach umbrella and chairs from the Ko Olina Beach Experience booth (808-797-9791, koolinafun.com), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at Nai’a Lagoon, near the Marriott Beach Club.
Ko Olina Ocean Adventures (808-396-2068, KoOlinaOceanAdventures.com) and Ocean Joy Cruises (808-677-1277, oceanjoycruises.com) operate sail and/or snorkel cruises from Ko Olina Marina. Both provide shuttle service from Waikiki hotels.
• Hole in one
The Ted Robinson-designed 18-hole championship course at the Ko Olina Golf Club (808-676-5300, www.koolinagolf.com) has been listed as one of the top 75 U.S. Courses by Golf Digest. Save some bucks by playing a Twilight round (after 1 p.m.). Juniors (17 and under) play for free after 3 p.m., rental sets included, with one paying adult per child. Shuttle service from Waikiki.
• Let’s luau
There’s a Mai Tai punch-and-lei greeting, feasting and Polynesian dance performances at the nightly Paradise Cove Luau (800-775-2683, paradisecove.com). Cost varies by package selected, starting at $85 for adults. Transportation from Waikiki is extra.
Every Tuesday evening Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club presents “Fia Fia,” a buffet and Polynesian show on its great lawn that is open to the public. No shuttle service. For tickets contact the concierge desk, 808-679-4728.
• Sip and sample
You could spend the day eating your way through Ko Olina, with more than two dozen eateries and lounges from which to choose. At Ko Olina Station near the resort’s entry gate you’ll find flavors such as Coconut Macadamia ice cream or Mango Sherbet among many served up at Two Scoops Ice Cream Parlor (808-489-4350, twoscoopsicp.com). A few steps away Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman (808-380-4086, monkeypodkitchen.com) has happy hour twice daily. Save room for a towering slice of their cream pie.
Check out the new Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina with a visit to its Fish House restaurant (808-679-0079, fourseasons.com/oahu/dining/restaurants/fish_house) at the edge of its sandy beach. Resort-casual attire is recommended as are reservations. Try a grilled catch-of- the-day sandwich or beef burger with side for $22 or a Fish House Salad, $16/$27. Happy hour daily 3-6 p.m. Lunch and dinner. Patron parking validated.
Sunsets don’t get any better than from Longboard’s Bar and Grill (808-679-4700) at Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club, overlooking Na’ia Lagoon. Happy hour, 5-7 p.m., cuts the price of their specialty drinks by a few bucks. Don’t miss the frozen Mai Tai. Garlic fries, fish tacos, and Kalua pork quesadillas are popular. Three hours validated parking with a receipt of $40+.
• Say ‘spa-ahh’
Pamper yourself at the Four Seasons Oahu Naupaka Spa and Wellness Centre (808-679-0079, fourseasons.com/oahu/spa), which has 17 treatment rooms including three outdoor “muliwai massage hales,” or cabanas. Next door at Disney’s Aulani Laniwai Spa and Salon (808-674-6300, resorts.disney.go.com/aulani-hawaii-resort/spa-fitness) services include family spa options and Minnie Me treatments for ages 3-12. Both resorts validate parking for spa visits.
Near Ko Olina
The seats are wooden and the ride’s a bit bumpy in the Hawaiian Railway Society’s restored open-air cars that travel along a 6.5-mile route from Ewa town, east of Ko Olina, north through the resort to Kahe Point. The narrated trip provides riders a glimpse into island history and the role sugar-cane cultivation played in its development. Operating year-round, the train makes one Saturday and two Sunday runs. The Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday trips include a 20-minute ice cream stop in Ko Olina ($8-$12; 808-681-5461, hawaiianrailway.com).
Beyond Ko Olina
Pokai Bay Beach Park (85-037 Waianae Valley Road) is family-friendly and rates highly in user reviews. A combination of its generally calm waters, a breakwater that makes for protected swimming and snorkeling, and plentiful free parking makes it a favorite on the island’s west coast. Just off the Farrington Highway, the park is about 10 miles north of Ko Olina, a 20-minute drive.
Farrington Highway ends about 22 miles north of Ko Olina (about an hour’s drive) at the remote Kaena Point State Park. Its Kaena Point Trail — a hot, dry route with little shade and no drinking water, but spectacular views — follows the lava coastline to and around Oahu’s westernmost tip, a sacred place to ancient Hawaiians. Some trail sections tend to wash out, so check conditions by contacting Hawaii State Parks, 808-587-0300 or hawaiistateparks.org.
For a more restful end-of-the-road adventure, do some wave-watching from the expansive beach along Yokohama Bay. It’s a popular place to watch waves anytime but especially when storms strike the island. It has public restrooms and ample roadside parking but no food or water.