Known internationally for its hula dancers and leis, Oahu has much more to offer than what you see in the movies. In fact, Hawaiian culture is as diverse as its history. From its healthy and delicious native cuisine to its five-vowel, eight-consonant language, you'll find a great mix of Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Island cultures in Hawaii.
Looking for a taste of the culture that makes this state so unique? Head out to a luau. There are many luaus offered here, often at oceanfront sites, featuring hula dancers, traditional roasted pig feasts, tropical drinks and Polynesian music. You can also watch fire dances and catch other entertainment from the various islands, including Samoa, Tahiti and Fiji, that influenced the settlement of Hawaii.
Oahu is known as The Gathering Place. The nickname comes from the fact the islands were settled by Polynesian sailors who used the stars to navigate the Pacific. They arrived on the islands in voyaging canoes with experts on such topics as medicine, building, farming, plants and animals.
Following the traditions of their own native lands, they used plants, trees, teeth, bones, shells, bark, birds’ feathers and flowers in sophisticated ways to make clothing, cure their ailments, decorate and entertain themselves. That's how leis became a part of Hawaiian life: they signify grief, marriage, even peace treaties, depending on the flowers used. Leis can be found all over the island, especially in Honolulu's Chinatown.
During the 1800s, industries such as whaling, sugar and pineapple farming flourished on Oahu. Plantation owners brought in workers from Japan, Korea, China, Puerto Rico, Portugal and the Philippines, contributing to the rich ethnic mix that currently makes up modern Hawaii. Some of these residents settled in Chinatown, which is still a neighbourhood worth exploring today.
The Hawaiian Islands were governed by separate kings until Kamehameha the Great won the Battle of Nuuanu on Oahu (at what is now known as the Pali Lookout) and united the islands. Seven monarchs followed before Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1959. Honolulu's Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawaii's last king and queen, is a National Historic Landmark that you can tour with a guide. It is the only royal palace within the United States.
The 20th century saw the islands become one of the world's major tourism destinations, and some of the hotels built in the early 1900s, like Waikiki's landmark "Pink Palace," remain popular.
To learn about the origins of Hawaiian culture, take a trip to Honolulu's Bishop Museum—Hawaii's State Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Built in 1889, this Victorian building predates Hawaii induction as a U.S. state by almost 70 years. Here, you learn about the Polynesian dance commonly known as the hula, and read the first description of surfing by one of Captain James Cook's crewmembers in 1779. In addition to its Hawaiian and Polynesian Halls, visitors find a planetarium, the kid-friendly Mamiya Science Adventure Center and the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame. Even if you're hoping to soak in more sun and then history, many visitors also tour the Pearl Harbor site. This location, representing and important day in U.S. history, is considered a must-see by travellers to the area.