'Most Beautiful Places': Lanikai Beach and Your Guide to Oahu

VIDEO: Most Beautiful Places Contest
ABCNEWS.com

Warm aloha.

Oahu is nicknamed the Heart of Hawaii, and it's easy to understand why.

The island is home to Waikiki, Honolulu, Diamond Head, and Iolani Palace – the only royal palace in the United States.

If you're planning to visit, you're in for a treat. The average temperatures range from a low of 75 degrees to a high of 89.

There are 597 square miles of island, bursting with activities to suit the most demanding, discriminating traveler or the most laid-back trekker seeking to wander off the beaten path.

Love culture and the arts? Check. Fine dining? Check. Sports? Check. Nightlife? Beaches? You get the idea, right? Check!

Take this scenic tour of 13 things to see and do on your visit to Oahu.

PHOTO: Lanikai Beach
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Everybody in the Water!

For those intrepid surfers who want to take on the Pipeline, or the family that wants to paddle, or the couple who want to just laze their day away, Oahu offers beaches to suit every traveler's tastes.

Waikiki Beach is world famous, and the Banzai Pipeline is legendary for producing the powerful waves that only the most experienced surfers can take on, but it was the breathtakingly beautiful Lanikai that caught the attention of "Good Morning America" viewer Lisa Basham of Kailua, who nominated the beach in "GMA's" search for the Most Beautiful Places in America.

VOTE: Which 'Beautiful Place' Is Your Favorite?

And Lanikai doesn't disappoint.

Situated on the windward coast of Oahu, it's a small beach – stretching for just about ½ mile – with a towering reputation.

"I love Lanikai," Diane Ako, a travel writer, blogger and former television reporter who has traveled the island extensively, told ABCNews.com.

Lanikai consistently appears on rankings of the world's best beaches, and it's a go-to location for photo shoots.

Lanikai is nestled in a residential neighborhood of Kailua, and features sparkling white sand, calm blue waters and twin islands called the Mokuluas – or Moks - that can be reached via kayak.

"A lot of the locals make it part of their regular morning exercise, to take their kayaks out and paddle to the islands," Ako said.

PHOTO: Kualoa Ranch
Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Japan
As Seen on TV – Kualoa Ranch

Ever seen Jurassic Park? Godzilla? How about LOST? Or Hawaii 5-0?

The magnificent Kualoa Ranch has served as the scenic backdrop to those productions and many others.

Kualoa actually is a working cattle ranch that was established in 1850 by Dr. Gerritt P. Judd, who purchased 622 acres from King Kamehameha III. Over the years, Judds' descendants expansion the parcel, increasing the size of the estate to its current 4,000 acres.

Ancient Hawaiians considered Kualoa one of the most sacred places on Oahu. Today, the estate is owned and cared for by the Morgan family, who aim to preserve it and protect it from development.

Luckily, tourists are welcomed! Visitors can enjoy horseback riding, excursions by ATV and jungle and ocean tours. Weddings and other social events also may be hosted at Kualoa.

PHOTO: U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor
Courtesy of Ron Chavez
U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan marked the first attack by a foreign power on U.S. soil and propelled the nation into World War II.

Of the 1,177 sailors aboard the Arizona during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, 1,102 were killed.

The memorial – dedicated in 1962 -- is a key part of American history, and no trip to Oahu would be complete without a visit there.

"If you go to Pearl Harbor, you really get a sense of history and World War II," Ako said. "I think you get a deeper appreciation for the men who served in the war, who lost their lives for us. It's different when you go there. The energy is just a lot more sacred, and you know you're on hallowed ground. It's a very profound moment to be out there and I would recommend it."

Visitors to the center watch a movie, tour the memorial and other shoreline exhibits and spend time in quiet reflection. The U.S. National Park Service Estimates that there are 1.5 million visitors to the center every year.

PHOTO: Polynesian Cultural Center
Courtesy of Polynesian Cultural Center
The Polynesian Cultural Center

Immerse yourself in authentic Polynesian life, history and culture at the PCC.

There's no shortage of activities from which to choose, and a staff of 1,300 is eager to help visitors create lasting memories through a variety of educational and cultural programs.

To showcase Polynesian life, PCC offers eight island villages representing distinct cultures -- Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa (Maori New Zealand), Fiji, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Tonga and Rapa Nui. The Rainbows of Paradise canoe pageant on the lagoon that winds through the center's grounds is another feature of the center.

"I remember going on field trips there when I was a kid and taking out of town guests there," Ako said. "I think it's neat that people would be able to get a flavor of the different Polynesian cultures that impact the islands."

Visitors can see the exciting evening show, or learn about the history, traditions, and culture of the indigenous people of Polynesia and the Pacific – including an authentic Hawaiian luau!

PHOTO: Iolani Palace
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Iolani Palace

The only royal palace is the United States is an impressive structure located in downtown Honolulu.

Iolani Palace was built in Hawaii in 1882 by King Kalakaua, but it fell into disrepair. Many of the original objects, including furnishing and other valuable items, were sold.

Restorations efforts began in the 1970s, and the palace opened to the public in 1978.

Many of the original furnishing and other antiquities were recovered and restored to their rightful place inside the historic structure. "It's just an amazing piece of our history," Ako said, adding that when she visits the palace, she feels closer to the people of that era. Other historic sites on Oahu worth visiting include Mauna 'Ala, Royal Mausoleum of Hawaii, which is the sacred resting place of most Hawaiian Kings, and the Queen Emma Summer Palace, the summer retreat of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha.

PHOTO: Bishop Museum
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Bishop Museum

The Bishop Museum is the largest museum in Hawaii and is recognized around the world for its research, cultural collections, consultation servings and public education programs.

Charles Reed Bishop founded the museum in 1889 to honor his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop – who was the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family.

It was established to showcase Hawaiian artifacts and royal family heirlooms. It now holds millions of artifacts, documents and photographs about Hawaii and other Pacific island cultures, as well as one of the largest natural history specimen collections in the world.

"It's a good place to take your kids," Ako said.

Of the more than 340,000 people who visit the museum each year, more than 50,000 are school-age children.

PHOTO: Honolu Zoo
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Honolulu Zoo

Located between the slopes of Diamond Head and Waikiki, the Honolulu Zoo offers visitors a unique glimpse of birds, mammals and reptiles from all around the world, housed in habitats that replicate their native ones.

African Savannah, Pacific Island and Tropical Forest creatures and habitats are on full display.

Take a twilight tour of the zoo to get the full experience, take a dinner safari, or snooze in the zoo – the program that allows visitors to indulge their inner adventurer.

It starts with a buffet dinner and a guided walking tour of the zoo after dark, and ends with s'mores around a campfire. Participants may then pitch their tents on one of the zoo's lawns, or sleep out under the stars.

"I think the zoo is a fun place to spend half a day, if you have the time … if you've got children it might not be a bad idea to take them. They do have a petting zoo, which I think is fun," she said, adding that the zoo's location offered other sights and attractions.

PHOTO: Waikiki Beach Walk on Oahu, Hawaii.
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Shop 'Til You Drop

Oahu presents the best of both worlds for shoppers. Those looking for a bargain will find affordable shops, and those with lots of cash to drop won't be disappointed on the hunts for high-end retailers.

The Ala Moana shopping center offers a mix of affordable and luxury, Ako said. One interesting feature of the mall was the Shirokiya, a Japanese department store that got its start as a notion store in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1662.

Waikiki Beach Walk (pictured above) is another destination for shoppers, offering accessories, jewelry, clothing, dining and specialty foods and retail stores.

"It encompasses … a whole one or two blocks' worth of shops and stores and eateries and it's quite pretty," Ako said. The development revitalized the area.

"Now it's really charming. It attracts a lot of visitors," she said.

PHOTO: Eating out
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Good Eats? No, Great Eats!

So what to do after a day of shopping, swimming, surfing or sightseeing? A fine meal puts the perfect finishing touch to a great day.

The most eclectic of palates will find something to please on Oahu. Hawaiian regional cuisine is distinctive for its strong Asian influences, but there are burgers, beer joints are bistros for everyone.

"We have everything," Ako said. "I've lived in a number of states and other countries. The thing I like about Hawaii is, there's such a lot of cuisine here. You can go to a hole-in-the-wall eatery and it will be just as fabulous as a five-star eatery."

So make a pit stop at any one of the fresh shrimp trucks along the island's North Shore, or, for a change of pace, try La Mer, the celebrated home of neo- classic French cuisine – and the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in the entire state.

PHOTO: Diamond Head
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Take on Diamond Head

After a night of fantastic food, the best way to burn the calories is to get moving. A hike up Diamond Head – a volcano crater that's one of the island's most famous landmarks – is just the ticket.

Situated on the ocean off Waikiki, the extinct volcano is irresistible to climbers, who challenge themselves to get to the top. First, they must climb two sets of stairs – 76 steps, then 99 steps – and then walk a narrow, dimly lit tunnel that's 225 feet long.

Sure, it's a little work. But it's a must-see attraction, Ako said.

"Diamond Head is a nice, gentle hike for a lot of visitors because most of it is paved – although I must caution you that it's not very steep but it's an uphill climb, so you should be prepared. Wear your sneakers, don't wear your sandals. But when you get to the top, it'll be worth it. You'll have a panoramic view of the South Shore of Hawaii."

PHOTO: First Friday Downtown
Courtesy of Oahu Visitors Bureau
First Friday

Downtown Honolulu's Chinatown is the place to be on the first Fridays of every month. The many galleries, art shops, restaurants and other boutiques throw open their doors at night and the hip and trendy come out to play, enjoying exhibits and free entertainment.

"Chinatown has experienced a renaissance, probably in the past decade," Ako said. "There's a funky little art scene going on there and I think this is very appealing to the young and single 20-something crowds or the artist crowds."

On First Fridays, people stroll in and out of galleries and art shops, eyeing the merchandise and just enjoying the scene.

"The streets just come alive with lots of people," she said. "Our streets tend to get a little more quiet in the evening and I like the fact that this brings more energy to the streets. It's a fun place to see and be seen."

PHOTO: Drive Along North Shore
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Cruisin' Along the North Shore

Picture it: You behind the wheel with the top down, the wind in your hair, and a view of the ocean for as far as the eye can see.

That could be your experience if you take a drive along the North Shore coast of Oahu.

Take your time, though. Be sure to stop at a food truck, or one of the many natural attractions along the way, including Kualoa Ranch, Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau state historic site or Sunset beach – home to some of the world's biggest professional surfing competitions.

"It's a lovely drive," Ako said. "The North Shore is charming and rural."

PHOTO: Aloha Tower
Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Aloha Tower

One of Oahu's most well-known attractions, the Aloha Tower lighthouse is located in downtown Honolulu at Pier 9 of the Honolulu Harbor.

For thousands of immigrants – like Ako's ancestors four generations ago -- the tower provided the first glimpse of their new life. At 10 stories high, it was the tallest structure in Hawaii for four decades.

Visitors may climb to the top of the tower -- constructed in the Hawaiian Gothic architectural style – for a panoramic view of the harbor.

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