As an Oahu resident, I must admit that the occasional complaints I hear from visitors about this island being "too crowded" or "too busy" bug me a little. Yes, there are nearly a million people living here, making Oahu by far the most populated island in the state, and, yes, Honolulu is most definitely a typical U.S. city, with tall buildings, traffic dilemmas and large airplanes frequently buzzing overhead.
Waikiki, of course, is home to gorgeous ocean vistas, iconic beaches, great dining, tons of shopping and a vibrant nightlife, but it's also the most densely crowded visitor destination in the Hawaiian Islands.
I certainly understand why some visitors might be looking to spend their vacations away from that brisk hustle and persistent energy, but classifying all of Oahu as busy or crowded is a mistake. There's exquisite beauty on this island and many excellent locations where travelers can simply escape and relax.
And they don't have to book a stay at an obscure bed-and-breakfast or suspect vacation rental to take advantage of Oahu's serenity. Less than an hour's drive west of Honolulu, travelers will find a terrific alternative to Waikiki, loaded with both charm and comfort, at the Ko Olina Resort & Marina.
A happy place
Translated from the Hawaiian language, Ko Olina literally means "place of joy" and was, at one time, a private playground for the native ruling class. Encompassing nearly 650 acres along the western Oahu coastline, today the resort features a range of guest accommodations, but families looking for spacious, fully equipped condos should definitely consider the two- and three-bedroom options at relative newcomer Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort.
Construction on the 247-unit building was completed two years ago, and according to managing director Joseph Yamaoka, the place has since been a highly popular destination for extended families booking two or three villas on multigenerational getaways. Complete with state-of-the-art kitchens, sprawling lanais and handsomely appointed living spaces and bedrooms, the Beach Villas property is home to a pair of expansive pools and sits just steps away from one of Ko Olina's four protected beachfront lagoons.
"Ko Olina is really a neighbor island experience on the island of Oahu without the flight, and you're still just a drive away from Honolulu and all that excitement and energy," Yamaoka said. "The atmosphere here is just a lot more tranquil than what you might find in Waikiki."
Something of an elder statesman on Oahu's west side, the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa was Ko Olina's first hotel, built 17 years ago. This fall, work began on an extensive refurbishment for all of the property's 387 guestrooms.
"The rooms have gone through numerous soft redos [in the past] -- carpet, painting -- but they've never had a full renovation," said Dan Banchiu, the JW Ihilani's general manager. "The entire room is being gutted out, and we're putting in all new furniture, fixtures, carpet, paint, everything. Even the faucets in the bathrooms are being replaced."
Scheduled to finish up in mid-January, the renovation work on the rooms will also include the addition of 42-inch, flat-screen LCD TVs along with a technology jack to connect and recharge MP3 players, smartphones and other personal electronic devices.
The complete overhaul of the JW Ihiliani's 35,000-square-foot spa ended in October, and the facility now features a redesigned reception area, a new couples treatment room, a 24-hour fitness center, a new salon and an enhanced meditation area and Zen garden.
Home to an 18-hole championship golf course that has hosted both LPGA and Senior PGA Tour events in the past, Ko Olina definitely offers serious duffers of all abilities a substantial challenge. But the resort also contains a 330-slip, award-winning marina, making it a great launching point for sunset cruises, charter sportfishing excursions and scuba outings.
Folks staying at Ko Olina and looking for first-rate snorkeling may want to consider a trip with Ocean Joy Cruises. The company moors its 61-foot power catamaran, the Kai Oli Oli, at the resort's marina and offers a couple of three-hour tours along Oahu's western coast daily. Trips include a full hour's worth of snorkeling time at some of the island's best locations populated by all sorts of tropical fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles. Sighting some of west side's spirited spinner dolphins is actually guaranteed by Ocean Joy with a free return trip voucher for tour-goers who miss the marine mammals.
And according to the company's owner, Shane Griffin, patrons on winter and spring outings regularly see some of the thousands of humpback whales who calve and mate in Hawaii between December and April.
"It's really cute in the spring because you get to the see the calves come, and sometimes the mother whales are holding them up with their nose, helping them float while they're flopping around," Griffin said.
Commissionable to agents, Ocean Joy's Dolphin Watching, Sightseeing and Snorkeling cruises are $139 for adults and $119 for children under 13 and include an onboard buffet. Visit www.oceanjoycruises.com.
Sneak peek at Disney
Those traveling out to Ko Olina in the near future are sure to spot the rapidly progressing construction at Oahu's most anticipated new hotel project in years: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa. A collection of 356 hotel rooms and 460 Disney vacation club villas spread over 21 acres, Ko Olina's newest property is scheduled to open Aug. 29.
The Aulani will have more than 14,500 square feet of meetings space; an 18,000-square-foot spa; 36,695 square feet of outdoor venue space; water slides; a marine species conservation pool; a snorkel lagoon; restaurants; lounges; wedding facilities; and more.
"I think what they've done right is that they've made it a Hawaiian type of resort with some Disney elements," said Duke Ah Moo, an Oahu native of Hawaiian descent and vice president of product development for Pleasant Holidays. "They've gone to great lengths to make sure that it's authentically Hawaiian."
As you might expect, Ko Olina officials are delighted to have the Aulani's grand opening only months away, and that group includes the general manager at the JW Ihilani next door.
"I think it's very exciting," Banchiu said of Disney's arrival. "Ko Olina hasn't really been on the map for a number of years. We were basically a stand-alone business for most of the last 17 years, and Disney coming on is really going to add a great brand that we can partner with to get the word out that Ko Olina isn't Waikiki but a very different and special place on Oahu."