Dreaming of a Tropical Christmas?

Then make your reservations for Oahu, where paradise gets festive for the holidays

Photo courtesy Oahu Visitors BureauDowntown sights: Iolani Palace.

Photo courtesy Oahu Visitors BureauDowntown sights: Shaka Santa at Honolulu Hale.

After a summer of staycations, it’s time for something special this holiday season—especially for those of us stuck here on the ninth island. It’s time to go back to Oahu.

During my time living in Honolulu, before I relocated to Las Vegas, I found Christmas and New Year’s Eve easily the best time of year to take in all the island has to offer: from big surf on the North Shore to an island-wide New Year’s fireworks celebration you have to see (and hear) to believe.

Honolulu has a traditional downtown, one that proudly recognizes its Hawaiian heritage. Iolani Palace is a majestic stone castle and the centerpiece of what was once the home of the Hawaiian monarchy, and one of the first structures in Hawaii to be outfitted with electricity. (Tours Mon-Sat; $20 for adults, $5 for kids 5-12.)

Downtown is where the holiday season comes alive with many buildings and banyan trees adorned with lights. There are also holiday displays inside and around Honolulu Hale (city hall). Take an evening stroll by the fountains and see up-close the giant “Shaka Santa” presiding over the holiday scene.

Most of the best hotel deals are in Waikiki, but you can enjoy less-crowded surroundings on other parts of the island, such as the windward side in Kailua and across parts of the North Shore, where you can find a variety of beachfront bed-and-breakfasts.

Take the Pali Highway from Honolulu over the Koolaus to the windward side of the island for a day trip to Kailua. (It’s called the windward side because prevailing winds change weather conditions from one side of the island to the other, meaning Kailua gets more rain than Honolulu.) Kailua is world renowned for its clean beaches and calm surf conditions enjoyed by visitors and locals alike. Explore the ocean by renting kayaks and paddling out to “The Mokes” (Mokulua Islands). Maybe staying on land is more your speed. In that case, take a hike to the Pillboxes for the ideal windward-side photo opportunity, which includes the many beautiful beach homes that make up the island enclave of Lanikai.

Don’t make the trip to Oahu in December without going to the North Shore to see the giant waves. Watch the world’s best surfers (for free!) at the Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing. The most well-known of the three Triple Crown events is the Billabong Pipe Masters, Dec. 8-20 (conditions permitting). Pipeline has a special place in Hawaii surf lore and each winter holds the promise of mind-bending barrels mastered by the likes of Kelly Slater, Andy Irons and last year’s Pipe Masters champion, Taj Barrow. And remember, to see Pipeline you’re looking for Ehukai Beach Park. Traffic can be heavy along the North Shore during any high-surf time, so get there early, stake a spot and chill—you’re on island time.

If you’re making the trip to Oahu for Christmas, then plan to stay for New Year’s Eve, too, because that’s one party you don’t want to miss. It’s a holiday to end all holidays for locals as they ring in the New Year by exploding firecrackers—lots and lots of them! It’s a sight you really have to experience to believe.

If You Go …

Flying. You can save money by visiting Oahu in mid-December. Most round-trip flights cost about $850, but if you’re willing to endure a slight layover at LAX, you can fly to Honolulu from Dec. 12-30 for $515. Hawaiian Air has a fabulous nonstop flight from Las Vegas. Depart on Christmas Eve morning and it’ll cost you just $175 one-way. Fly home on Jan. 3 for $380.

Bed-and-breakfasts. Try Papaya Paradise in Kailua. One of its properties affords a picture-perfect backyard view of Mount Olomana. The price isn’t as steep as Olomana, at around $100 a night (three-day minimum stay). It also offers beachfront condo accommodations starting at $125 a night.

House rentals. On the North Shore you can find a four-bedroom beachfront home for rent on Ehukai Beach (yes, right in front of Pipeline!) for $600 a night. (vrbo.com/181589). Simple Internet searches will yield many other options.

Insider dining. Irifune, near Waikiki at 563 Kapahulu Ave., is known for its garlic ahi—and it’s only $10 a plate. Also, take the scenic route from Honolulu to the North Shore up Kamehameha Highway. In the town of Kahuku, you’ll find Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, where the shrimp are big and loaded with garlic. It’s a great lunch deal at $13 a plate. One of the most well-known plate lunch spots on the island is the Rainbow Drive-In in Waikiki, 3308 Kanaina Ave.. Featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, this is the spot where locals go to refuel after an action-packed day in the sand and surf.

The weather. December in Hawaii can be wet with cooler temps, so bring long T-shirts to stay warm on days when winds are gusting on the beach. But you can wear shorts your entire vacation with no problem.

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