As the capital city of Hawaii, the world’s most remote archipelago, Honolulu has all the perks of a sleek metropolis -- historic sites, luxury shopping, and a dining scene that can easily swoop you from the masterful delicacies of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant to a convenience store rectangle of onigiri-like Spam-and-egg musubi. But a mere 10 minutes outside its bustling downtown, the wildness begins as you swish through the grass on an unmarked path behind a Chinese cemetery, stopping to squint at a faded petroglyph depicting a family’s journey to the island of Oahu by sailing canoe, guardian dog in tow. Underneath towering banyan and African tulip trees, hike along Nuuanu stream to Kapena Falls, and a cliff you can jump off into a swimming hole.
Now you’re exploring the essential Oahu, also known as “The Gathering Place.” This island of 597 sq. mi. is the third largest of the state’s 132 islands and atolls. It’s also its most populous, with more than 900,000 residents, most of whom live in Honolulu.
Oahu’s surface is rumpled by two almost parallel mountain ranges of extinct shield volcanoes: Waianae in the northwest and Koolau in the southeast. The northeast trade winds cool the Koolau mountain air, turning it into rain that greens up the forests on the windward side of the island. Its central valley’s red volcanic soil grows everything from coffee to the Dole company’s thousands of spiky hectares of pineapples. Some 125 beaches loop around Oahu like a lei.
These beaches offer countless activities, from watching wild sea turtles to snorkeling, kite-boarding, boogie-boarding and kayaking. Whenever you can bring yourself to move slightly inland, there are hikes, golf courses, jungle adventures, museums, horseback riding, art galleries, botanical gardens, cultural experiences and live performances of every kind. There’s never a question of too little to do on Oahu – rather, the challenge lies in trying to do it all.
With countless options for every generation, families and couples are in their glory here. The people-watching’s best on the sands of Waikiki. More solitary experiences are better achieved outside the city, where the closest thing to clamour comes from the birdsong of the White-rumped Shama. Luckily, if you rent a car, you can easily experience both the tamed Oahu and the wild, with even the furthest tip of the island only an hour’s spectacular drive away.
While all the major Hawaiian islands are justifiably famous for their tropical climate, awe-inspiring beaches and volcanic mountain ranges, Oahu is the only one that’s also blessed with a major city with all of its temptations, including historic homes like Queen Emma Summer Palace, a beach-side aquarium containing only indigenous fish, and such high-end shopping destinations as Chanel and Hermes. In the same giant Honolulu mall – the Ala Moana Shopping Center -- where you can find handmade Hawaiian quilts and traditional foods like kalua pig in the food court, you can also inch on the latest bikinis at Victoria’s Secret and slip into a dozen pairs of Jimmy Choo’s.
Honolulu’s spicy cultural mix and Pacific Rim alliances add up to a sophisticated food scene. The city’s Chinatown, well over a century old, offers vast labyrinths of Asian produce, fish and meats, and stall after stall of freshly stir-fried or steamed Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Singaporean food. Elsewhere on the island, roadside stands sell warm banana fritters, as well as freshly picked mangoes, papayas and coconuts whose water can be guzzled right from the shell.
Outside the city are countless smaller communities, each with charms of its own. The North Shore’s Haleiwa, once a plantation town, is now a second home to countless bronzed and shaggy-haired surfers bent on conquering the world’s narliest tubes. Its relaxed vibe invites you to slake your thirst with shave ice, satisfy your hunger with fish tacos, poke around its funky shops for beach wraps, jewelry or an even better surfboard, then head out to another beach for one last splash.
It’s the variety that sets Oahu apart -- the contrast between the energy of fun-seekers surging along Honolulu’s Kalakaua Avenue at night and the random spectacle of an endangered monk seal awkwardly shuffling from the sand back into the roaring surf at the North Shore’s Sunset Beach. Say aloha to the juxtaposition of nature at its wildest and civilization at its most cultivated.
Hawaii is misunderstood. Because it’s so far away from any mainland, it’s not a place travellers stumble on casually, gathering multiple insights over time. The exports for which the islands are best known internationally are often seen as curiosities, things like hula dancing and lei. Thus, those who’ve never been may be under the illusion that Hawai‘i is merely an American state with quirks. In fact, its history is complex and diverse, its cultural life hugely varied, its native cuisine healthy and distinct, its five vowel, eight consonant language abides, and 66 percent of its people have Asian, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander or mixed racial heritage.
The most astonishing way to dash your misconceptions is to visit Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, Hawaii’s State Museum of Natural and Cultural History (1525 Bernice St.). Built in 1889, this monumental Victorian building predates by 60 years the Territory of Hawaii becoming the 50th star on the U.S. flag.
You’ll discover at Bishop Museum that the dance form known as the hula derives from the Polynesians and has been an element of Hawaiian life since ancient times, like the lei, which is not just decorative but symbolic. Meanwhile, the first description of surfing appeared in the writing of one of Captain James Cook’s crew-members in 1779; in those days, the chief (or kahuna) was his community’s best practitioner of he‘e nalu, or “wave sliding.”
And there’s plenty more to learn here. Soaring over the museum’s vast three-storey Hawaiian Hall is a giant sperm whale skeleton, a double hull koa canoe, and kino lau (the bodily forms of gods and ancestral spirits). All of these loom large in the islands’ history, like the plants, trees, teeth, bones, shells, bark, birds’ feathers and flowers that have long been used for food, medicine, decoration and ceremonies.
The first “realm” (floor) of this hall, called Kai Akea, focuses on Hawaiian gods, legends and beliefs and Hawaiian life pre-Western contact, and includes a model of a Hawaiian temple, or heiau. In the second realm, Wao Kanaka, artifacts, video clips and photographs reveal fishing techniques, influential families, and cultural practices and explain how seasonal cycles and lunar cycles were crucial to Polynesia’s sextant-free master navigators, who first settled the islands. The third realm, Wao Lani, focuses on history, Hawaii’s monarchy, and how the nation was finally overthrown.
And that’s just the Hawaiian Hall complex – there are five altogether on the museum’s grounds, including the adjacent two-floor Polynesian Hall, the J. Watumull Planetarium, the kid-friendly Mamiya Science Adventure Center, and Paki Hall, where the Hawai‘i Sports Hall of Fame is on public exhibit. The property also features the Na Ulu Kaiwiula: Native Hawaiian Garden Experience, which you can explore by yourself or with a docent.
You can delve into Hawaiian culture elsewhere, by attending a luau; visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center (55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie), an almost 50-year-old, 42-acre institution with 1,300 employees representing the people of Hawaii, Samoa, Maori New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Easter Island, Tahiti and the Marquesas through performances and hands-on activities; or even listening to traditional music at a beachfront bar. But for the backbone of Hawaii’s culture, start at Bishop Museum.
It’s hard to fault an island whose temperature hovers between 23.8 and 29.4 degrees C (75-85 degrees F) year-round. Typically, temperatures on Oahu during the winter (November-April) go no lower than 21.1 degrees C (70 degrees F) and no higher than 29.4 C (85 degrees F), while in the summer (May-October) they may slide up to 32.2 C (90 degrees F). In general, though, Oahu’s climate is gloriously benign, with an average of 53 percent humidity in the daytime and a gentle breeze that keeps any fears of sweltering at bay.
Variations in temperature have more to do with where on the island you’re located than the fact that it’s December or June, although December does tend to be the wettest month. The western, or leeward, side of Oahu, which is where Honolulu and its Waikiki neighbourhood are located, is warmer and drier than the eastern, windward, side. Honolulu, for example, gets an average of 50.8 cm (20 in.) of rain per year, while Hauula, on the northeastern coast, gets 152.4 cm to 203.2 cm. (60-80 in.). Island-wide, the rainy season starts up in October and reaches its height in December, with June and August the driest months.
Oahu was formed by two almost parallel shield volcanoes 1.2 million years apart -- Waianae, in the northwest, and Koolau in the southeast – each with more than 100 ridges. It features over 290 km. (180 mi.) of general coastline. The Windward and Leeward Coasts, the North Shore, Honolulu and Central Oahu make up the island’s five distinct areas.
The 2.7 million year-old Koolau Range is about 960 m. (3,150 ft.) at its greatest height. It’s the divider between Central Oahu and the Windward Coast. On its eastern side, trade winds continue to sculpt the rock magnificently.
The 3.9 million year-old Waianae, also known as Mount Kaala, is 1,227 m. (4,025 ft.) above sea level at its peak. It largely keeps the tropical rains that mist the eastern side of the island off the Leeward coast. Yet it’s the distinctive tuff cone and crater called Diamond Head (or Leahi), formed long after the island’s volcanoes had largely stopped erupting, that is the most famous peak on the island.
The remoteness of Hawaii, its foundation of volcanic rock, and its prevailing winds have meant that species of flora and fauna that were taken there deliberately by explorers and settlers and accidentally through seeds transported by birds and sea creatures had to be tough and adaptable if they were to survive. Nevertheless, the islands have numerous endemic species of plants and creatures, 90 percent of which cannot be found anywhere else, and many of which are endangered.
The saying on Oahu is that everything’s “20 minutes away.” Since the island’s 72.4 km. (45 mi.) long and 48 km. (30 mi.) wide, that’s not quite accurate, but an hour’s drive will take you just about anywhere you want to go. Rent a car with GPS, though, or bring your own, especially for the city; Honolulu is confusing for a stranger to navigate.
Compounding your potential for bafflement, most beaches and parks inside and outside the city are unmarked, so it’s hard to figure out which is which. Still, all major roads eventually lead to a welcoming slice of sand, so don’t worry -- this is that rare place on earth where the phrase “It’s all good” actually applies.
Do make a note that outside the city in particular, beaches typically have no vendors on them and may have no facilities, either. So bring your own drinks and snacks and put on your swimwear before you leave home.
For full immersion in the relaxed local lifestyle, cue up FM 105.1, the ultra-smooth Hawaiian music station. You’ll soon understand why one local bumper sticker reads “Slow down – it’s not the mainland” -- the speed limit on federal highways is 55 mph (88.5 kph). Start off one day by driving east on Highway 61, a.k.a. the Pali Highway, pulling over for an hour at Queen Emma Summer Palace, where the wife and family of King Kamehameha IV liked to spend the hotter months. Built in 1848, this Greek Revival structure is not huge, but it’s full of portraits of the Hawaiian royal family, the distinctive feather standards called kahili, and impressive koi furniture from the period, including a magnificent sideboard that resembles a cathedral, a gift from England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A tour from a docent -- members of the cultural and historic preservation group called the Daughters of Hawaii -- is the best way to appreciate this glimpse of the former country’s past. The palace grounds feature plants and trees such as the pod-dotted tamarind and the native palapalai, a dainty fern used to make leis.
Continue east through the Pali Tunnel, then pull off and park at the extremely breezy Nuuanu Pali Lookout (grab a jacket), watching for the feral chickens in the public lot. At an elevation of 366 m. (1,200 ft.), this was the site of the final battle that united the Hawaiian islands under the rule of King Kamehameha The Great. Kamehameha’s army was battling the forces of Oahu’s king, Kalanikupule, who tried to take control on the ledge that’s now the lookout. Bad strategy – a multitude of soldiers fell 305 m. (1,000 ft.) to their deaths, and 100 years later, some 800 skulls were unearthed from the land below during construction of the Old Pali Highway.
Mark Twain, who wrote extensively about what were then called the Sandwich Islands, once described the view from this lookout as “the most beautiful in the world.” You’ll reckon he was right as your eyes brush from the furry volcanic peaks of Koolau and the cone of the island called Chinaman’s Hat (Mokolii) into the verdant valley below you and the vast Pacific beyond. You really have to wonder why anybody lives anywhere else.
Eventually you ought to get back in your car and make your way along Highway 61 to the small town of Kailua. Here you may want to stop at Teddy’s Bigger Burgers for a 5” tall hand-patted, charbroiled hamburger and a milkshake so thick you can eat it with a fork. Fully sated, drive directly to Kailua Beach Park, an almost empty crescent of sand 4 km. (2.5 mi.) long, quenched by turquoise water, the mere sight of which could make a frostbitten Canadian cry. It’s often just windy enough here to keep the surf interesting for swimmers, boogie boarders and the kayakers who rent their boats from one of several local outfits.
Travel a little further south to experience wicked real estate envy at Lanikai Beach. Gaze out at the two offshore “desert islands” called Moku-lua and wonder what it would be like to be one of the millionaires waking up to that view daily. Whenever the thought becomes too painful, you can snorkel.
You may choose to return to Honolulu the way you came, which will take about half an hour, or select route 72 to cruise past more than half a dozen more beaches, Sea Life Park and the Halona Blow Hole, but that’s a whole other story. Luana (relax) – you can check them out tomorrow.
Top 10 Attractions
1. Hike Diamond Head: This 1.28 km. (0.8 mi.) trek about 10 minutes by car from Waikiki takes you 170.6 m. (560 ft.) up the famous 300,000-year-old tuff cone and crater. At one time, Diamond Head’s peak was the site of a temple, but in the early 1900s the U.S. Army built Fort Ruger on its rim and started to use it as part of its coastal defense system. The army’s tunnel and steep stairways remain, but just about anybody can do this hike. The view up and down the coast is outrageously good and the whole she-bang will take you 1.5-2 hours, time for photos and marvelling included. When you reach the bottom, reward yourself with a tart guava smoothie from the on-site truck for under $4.
2. Check out the ocean floor in a submarine: Few of us get the chance to venture into the deeps of the ocean -- even fewer get to go there by submarine. With Atlantis Adventures’ Premium experience, you take a boat from the pier outside the Waikiki Hilton to waters about 20 minutes away. Once you get to the artificial reef, clamber down into the world’s largest passenger submarine, which is battery-powered and 19.68 m. (65 ft.) long, and take your seat facing a window porthole along with 63 others. Down, down, down you go, as deep as 36.5 m. (120 ft.), past ancient lava flow encrusted with coral reef, to where Atlantis has placed sunken ships, planes and concrete pyramids on the ocean floor as an invitation to sea creatures. Gusts and flurries of fish mill in and out of these wrecks and you may even spot an eagle ray winging by over the course of about an hour. So cool.
3. Snorkel at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve: This may not be the best snorkeling experience you’ll ever have, but it’s a good introduction. Go as early in the day as you can. Located 16 km. (10 mi.) east of Waikiki, Hanauma Bay’s 7,000-year-old coral reef, rich in tropical fish, is a huge draw, so it tends to be crowded. Admission is $7.50 per person for people 13 and over. After you’ve gotten your fins wet here, you’ll probably prefer to hit free spots the locals recommend, like Waimea’s Shark’s Cove.
4. Farmers’ market in Haleiwa: If this is your first visit to a Polynesian island, you ain’t never been to a farmers’ market like this one on the North Shore, which takes place Sundays 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (there are other farmers’ markets, too). While the format is familiar – more than 40 stands featuring local produce, fish, flowers, art, and unexpected services like eyebrow threading – the stuff on sale is not. How about a flower stall a-glow with birds of paradise, red ginger and orchids? How about tasters of smoked ahi tuna and marlin accompanied by bright shards of pickled onion? How about locally harvested and roasted coffee, passionfruit pineapple scones, island-grown chocolate, and stands full of rambutan, taro, bananas, and fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice? Bring your own bags.
5. Get up close with sharks: If you’ve always been titillated by the idea of going mano-a-mano with the cartilaginous creature Hawaiians actually call a mano, sign up for a shark cage tour. North Shore Shark Adventures’ 10 m. (32-ft.) boat will take up to 12 of you 5 km. (3 mi.) out of Haleiwa, keeping an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles and whales along the way. On this two-hour tour, you can dive, you can swim – and you and up to three companions at a time can opt for (or against) climbing into a secure cage with large Plexiglas windows, and waiting for the gray reef, Galapagos, sandbar and hammerhead sharks to rise to the bait. Bring your underwater camera – you’ll be boasting for a while about this one. Depending on the season, this costs $96-$120 adults, $60 kids 3-13.
6. Surf at Waikiki Beach: Seasoned wave-riders and novices alike flock to Waikiki for sun, sand and the ultimate Hawaiian experience. If you’re an intrepid, coordinated sort, simply observe for a little while, then rent a surfboard at the beach for $15-20 for the first hour, less for the additional hours, and teach yourself. Otherwise, there are all kinds of lessons available -- try Waikiki Beach Services (at the foot of Uluniu Street) --averaging $60 per person per hour for a group.
7. Learn about the attack on Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona Memorial: The surprise bombing of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7th, 1941 destroyed or sank 21 vessels, killed 2,402 people, injured 1,282, and catapulted the United States into World War II. The sites available to tour on this active military base (1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu) include three historic naval vessels and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Of these, the USS Arizona Memorial, where the attack caused the deaths of 1,177 men, is the most popular. There tends to be a long wait for its 23-minute film, short boat ride and visit to the memorial, so arrive early. Expect to be moved. Admission is free; tickets are provided on a first-come, first-served basis.
8. Turtle Beach: Located halfway between Waimea Bay and the town of Haleiwa, this small, rocky beach is a respite for endangered green sea turtles (or honu) avoiding predatory tiger sharks. Some 28 of them regularly sidle up the sand to bask in the sunshine, while protective volunteers keep watch and offer insights. A gentle paddle in the water on your part may produce a memorable encounter, especially if a turtle mistakes your long hair for tasty seagrass and gives it a nibble.
9. Boogie board at the Kapahulu Groin: Boogie boarding can be accomplished anywhere on the island that has robust, vaguely consistent surf, but this particular location in Waikiki, dividing Kuhio and Queen’s beaches, also offers a jetty that slices into the water. That allows boarders to ride right into shore, then run along the jetty with their boards and plunge back into the waves.
10. Explore Chinatown: The Chinese presence on Oahu dates back to the early 1800s, with Chinatown springing up concurrently. It’s still a going concern, and attempts at gentrification have not detracted from its authentic feeling. Barbecued ducks still hang in store windows and lunch options range all over Southeast Asia, from Vietnamese submarine sandwiches to the spicy Malaysian soup called laksa. At the same time, Chinatown Boardroom (1160 Nuuanu Ave.) shows contemporary art and hawks stylish surfboards, owens & co. (1152 Nuuanu) lures you in to coo over its home décor items, and the ultra-cool Downbeat Diner & Lounge (42 N. Hotel St.) dishes out vegan food options and skateboard film-fests. (1,116 words)
Mitch Berger recruits participants for his tours of Oahu by hiking to the top of Diamond Head five days a week, then talking to anybody who’ll listen.
While most hikers are either gazing, dumb-founded, at the view, or huffing and puffing over the effort they made to get there, Berger launches into his theory of how everything is connected, and how the natural world links up to your health and the things you believe.
If you have any curiosity whatsoever, you can’t ignore the guy. He’s Schwarzenegger buff, even-featured, white toothed and unfurls a compelling roster of facts -- and that’s just in his pitch. Before you know it, you’ve pledged to turn up at one of his regular stops at an appointed hour to have him show you the Oahu he wishes somebody had shown him when he arrived from Missouri some 30 years ago. He had no tour – instead, he says, he ferreted out experts in all the fields in which he had an interest, from fishing to martial arts, and begged them to let him learn from them.
As a result, after he piles some 28 of you into his comfortable air-conditioned bus, the owner of Guides of Oahu (whose motto is “Preservation through Education”) can keep up a patter bursting with island lore for more than three hours. The route varies all the time, but wherever he takes you, whether to a gorgeous lookout or a sacred temple called a heiau, along a twisty road or a trail to a hidden waterfall, he’ll be pointing out flora like ironwood trees, whose wood is so hard and dense, he says, that it was once used to make bowling balls. Every part of a palm tree has a use, he continues, which may be why it’s known as “the tree of life.”
Not every story is pretty. Berger reveals the sad tale of the mongoose, misguidedly brought to the island at the beginning of the last century to kill rats but instead responsible for wiping out countless birds, some to the point of extinction.
When you reach the Ulupo heiau on Kailua Road, he informs you that once upon a time, thousands of people would form a human chain from one side of the island to this sacred site near 162 hectare (400 acre) Kawai Nui pond and pass stones along
the line in weeklong rites to honour their ancestors. The result of their toil is a giant, terraced, heaped stone platform, 42.6 m. by 54.8 m. (140 by 180 ft.), where priests presided over ceremonies and rituals. Its history remains somewhat mysterious -- it may have begun as an agricultural heiau that encouraged the fertility of the land, but may later have been dedicated to ceremonies intended to ensure success in war.
Berger points to a nearby tree, telling you how the candle -- or kukui -- nut is so rich that in ancient Hawaii, people would string them together and burn them, each one producing 15 minutes’ worth of light. Fishermen would chew candlenut, then spit it into the water to break the surface tension so they could peer underneath. It also functions as a laxative.
It’s worth knowing that yellow hibiscus makes a good tea that will ease a sore throat. Mango and papaya, on the other hand, are excellent meat tenderizers and are useful for treating stomach ailments, with papaya peel also ideal for soothing a jellyfish sting. Berger identifies island ingredients like elephant ears (or dry land taro), shell ginger, and sea hibiscus (hau). He picks some of the latter and says it was once used to make rope for fishing line, nets and even bunks as well as the curved part on the traditional outrigger canoe.
“It has four times the tensile strength of nylon cord and doesn’t fall apart in salt water,” he informs you, then it’s on to the next few bytes – that dry bamboo can be turned into a lens to make a fire, that ginger is a good antibiotic, that the fruit from the noni tree “helps keep you on the more alkaline side” and that kiave wood is a kind of mesquite that’s used for grilling meat.
You leave the tour full of ideas, perhaps also with the $10 fundraising book he’s produced on the medicinal use of plants. “Genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger,” he says, and the next thing you know, you’re squeezing candle-nut oil on your warts.
In addition to his Oahu tours, Berger takes people out on intermediate hikes and is currently planning motorcycle tours of the Hawaiian islands.
Travelling with Kids
The sharks and eagle rays at the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa: At the foot of the J.W. Marriott Ihilani (92-1001 Olani St., Ko Olina Resort & Marina) is a series of pools that will keep your youngest family members in particular fully entertained. Never mind the koi pond – what about the pond with the baby sharks? There are about half a dozen at any given time, slicing through the water alongside young eagle rays. When they get too big, marine biologists re-introduce them to the wild. The sharks on display may include hammerhead, Galapagos, black-tip reef, sandbar, white-tip reef, gray reef and iridescent black-tip. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, there are several Reef and Ray Adventures for children in two age categories – four to 10, and over 10. There’s a shark feeding and interpretation session; an in-water interactive touch session with such lagoon inhabitants as sea cucumbers, sea stars, giant helmet shells and an octopus; or a chance to feed the pond fish or touch the Hawaiian rays and the spotted eagle rays. Prices for the various adventures range between $31 for a child hotel guest 10-12 years of age to $46 for an adult outside guest.
Disney’s Aulani: Hawaii was naturally Disney-esque without the Magic Kingdom in residence, but the California-based entertainment giant is bringing its own particular brand of pleasure to the massive compound called Ko Olina Resort & Marina. Its new hotel, called Aulani, features a waterslide coursing through a man-made volcano. Explore Ko Olina Resort’s four man-made lagoons and, on foot, follow the shoreline north to a pair of adjacent natural beaches. There’s enough enchantment on this property as a whole for youngsters and oldsters alike that you may well want to spend a night or two here or in one of the resort’s two other hotels.
The lagoons at Waikiki Beach: If you’re a little leery of the open sea as a safe haven for the most youthful members of your party, take them into Waikiki beach’s ponds. The 2 hectare (5-acre) public Duke Kahanamoku lagoon beside the Hilton Hawaiian Village is frankly man-made and not a wave ruffles its surface, so it’s the perfect spot for a child to learn how to paddle-board. Two other protected areas front Kuhio Beach, and they’re part of the ocean but protected from its brunt by breakers. The small and the shy will be delighted.
Banzai Rock Skate Park: Young skateboarders may have a frustrating visit to Hawaii unless they’re willing to break the rules – the sport is banned on the streets or roadways of Waikiki. But you can satisfy their urge to ride the rails (and bowl) once you hit the North Shore, where a modest outdoor skate park across the highway from Sunset Beach means Junior can work on his or her moves with the locals, then wash off the sweat in the waves across the street along with the rest of your party.
Hang Ten at Turtle Bay Resort: Whether or not you surf, you can’t help but admire the die-hards who live to pump the world’s biggest heavies. Turtle Bay Resort’s Hang Ten Café (57-091 Kamehameha Hwy, Kahuku) is situated at a spot on its property that brings your family within a few dozen metres of the waves and, on a good day, the athletes commanding them – an outstanding vantage point when surf’s up. The café’s food is nothing special but the service is friendly, there’s space around it for your kids to explore, and the potent $7 mai-tai will make you glad you’re earthbound as you marvel at the devoted souls who’ve actually mastered this sport of kings.
Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center at Bishop Museum: Occasionally your youngsters need a respite from Old Sol, due to sunburn, exhaustion or just a wish to branch out. On the grounds of Bishop Museum, 1,533 m. (16,500 sq. ft.) of immersive experiences and 30 interactive exhibits await, focusing on topics of particular relevance to Hawaii, such as volcanology, oceanography, seismology and biodiversity. A 7.9 m. (26-foot) tall, steam-spewing walk-through volcano -- “Pu’u ‘O’o” -- is just one of the educational adventures here; your kids also get the chance to simulate a lava flow using hot wax, create tsunami-type waves in a wave tank, and try on costumes representing endemic species. Afterward, they can get their ya-yas out on the adjacent Great Lawn.
The Waikiki Aquarium: It’s a rare aquarium that can stock itself beautifully simply by turning the spotlight on the sea life in its own neighbourhood. Everything here comes from Hawaiian and tropical Pacific waters, including the bristle-faced monk seal and the ornate, mysterious Palauan chambered nautilus. The beachside aquarium is perfectly sized for short young attention spans, is inexpensive for visitors ($9 for adults, $4 and under for children up to 17), and can be wandered into from Kapiolani Beach Park. Across the street are free public tennis courts. A game before you inspect the seahorses? A hike up Diamond Head, a wink at a blacktip reef shark, then a picnic? Decisions, decisions….
Mermaids and mermen are famous for two things -- a lenient dress code and sporting a tail instead of legs. Who knew they also had impressive abs under all those scales? Mermaid Kariel, who calls herself a “living mermaid,” has it all figured out. Since she was three, the Oregon native has been so obsessed with fish fatales that she eventually became one professionally. She invites you, whether you’re male or female, into her underwater world with her hour-long, $25 “Fin to Fitness” workout, offered every Wednesday at 11 a.m. in the pool at the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort and Spa (92-1001 Olani St., Ko Olina, $$$), which is routinely named one of the state’s best spas by such print magazines as Travel + Leisure.
The mermaid’s own fishtail, handmade out of recycled wetsuits, is the super-glam version of the monofin she gives you so you can emulate her moves. You’re promised a total body workout that’s especially challenging to your abdominals and, er, tail. You’ll begin with the “Motion in the Ocean,” a torso roll, and move into the Dolphin Kick originally developed for Olympic swimmers. Other unique aspects of this spa, whose theme is “healing by the sea,” are a Hawaiian Ti Leaf wrap that rehydrates sunburned skin, a traditional Hawaiian massage called Lomilomi, and the warm seawater and air jet massage technique known as Thalasso Therapy. Be sure to take a few moments to unwind even further in the peaceful Zen Garden before you get on with your day.
Honolulu Festival (mid-March): Three days promoting “Pacific Harmony” between the people of Hawaii and their closest neighbours include cultural presentations, a parade, and fireworks over Waikiki.
Spam Jam (late April): This unapologetic street-fest on Kalakaua Avenue celebrates the ever-popular tinned meat with entertainment, crafts booths, a family tent and Spam dishes galore. Wouldjabelieve Spamakopita?
Pan-Pacific Festival (early June): Born in 1980 of the friendship between Hawaii and Japan, this Pan-Pacific “matsuri” (festival) now embraces other cultures and includes food booths, crafts, music and dance, along with a parade and block party in Waikiki.
King Kamehameha Day (June 11): The king who united the islands of Hawaii merits a special state holiday, as decreed by his great grandson in 1871. It starts with King Kamehameha the Great’s statue, across the street from the Iolani Palace, getting crowned with massive lei. The next day, there’s a parade as well as entertainment, food booths, cultural demos and exhibits on the palace grounds.
Prince Lot Hula Festival (3rd Saturday in July): Collect hula expertise at Honolulu’s Moanalua Gardens, where the non-competitive dancing takes place on top of a blessed earthen hula mound called a pa hula.
Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival (mid-August): Founded on Oahu in 1982 to honour Gabby “Pops” Pahinui, a Hawaiian cultural icon who promoted the native acoustic guitar style called Ki-ho’alu, this festival takes place at Waikiki’s Kapiolani Park. The music plays all afternoon.
Aloha Festivals (mid-September): 10 days of Hawaiians feting their own music, dance and history mean a block party in Waikiki and countless free cultural events. The wrap-up parade is an equestrian procession along with floral floats and hula dancers.
Talk Story Festival (mid-October): Three nights of storytelling at Honolulu’s Ala Moana Beach Park -- free family entertainment that may include “Spookies.”
Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (mid-November to December): Founded in 1983, the North Shore’s big show lures surfing’s hardest rippers to its epic waves for spectacular competitions. Admission is free.
If extravagant style is your buzz, you’ll feel right at home when you see the line-up at Honolulu’s Luxury Row. Hugo Boss, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Coach and Bottega Veneta beckon you from 2100 Kalakaua Ave., with its 10,312 sq. m. (111,000 sq. ft.) of famous name brands. The Royal Hawaiian Center (2201 Kalakaua Ave.) offers up 100 stores over three city blocks, including Fendi, Ferrari, and Kate Spade, but also local specialists like Bob’s ‘Ukelele and Koa Nani, which sells Hawaiian heirloom jewelry. If you need a breather, grab a coffee and have a stroll in the Center’s Royal Grove garden.
The Alo Moana Shopping Center (1450 Ala Moana Boulevard), about 10 minutes’ drive away, is Hawaii’s largest, with over 290 shops and restaurants running the gamut from A/X Armani Exchange to 7 For All Mankind. If you’re bargain-minded, stop first at Waikele Premium Outlets (94-790 Lumiaina St., Waipahu) to see if last season’s Barneys New York, BCBG Max Azria and Zumiez lines will do.
If you really like to save on souvenirs, you’ll want to spend at least 10 minutes scoping out the 11,613 sq. m. (125,000 sq. ft.) bazaar known as the International Marketplace (2330 Kalakaua Ave.).
There’s something about Oahu’s lulling island vibe that gets you keenly interested in Hawaiian art and design. Aloha shirts, muumuu’s, sheet music, pinups, postcard and poster images of old-time hula dancers and rakish surfers -- you’ll find these all over, but here are a few stellar resources in Honolulu.
- Vintage aloha shirts are one of the big draws at Tin Can Mailman (1026 Nuuanu Ave.), a Chinatown stop jam-packed with retro treats.
- Peggy’s Picks (732 Kapahulu Ave.) is off the beaten path, but its assortment of affordable antiques, old photographs of events like JFK’s visit to Honolulu five months before his assassination, aloha shirts, $4 sarongs, bobblehead Barack Obama dolls (don’t forget, he’s a local), and old vinyl records of albums by Frank Sinatra will entertain true collectors and lookie-loos alike.
- Hilo Hattie (700 Nimitz Hwy), which claims to have the largest selection of men’s and women’s Hawaiian fashions in the world, is an excellent stop for everything touristy, from muumuu’s and macadamia-nut chocolates to island-made cosmetics. Named after a popular entertainer of the 1950s and ’60s, the almost 50-year-old company (founded in 1963 on the island of Kauai) makes it easy for you, from the Hilo Hattie shuttles that regularly leave downtown loaded with shoppers, to the warm greeting, free shell lei and cold drink that greet you upon entry. Take a few minutes to watch its video about the origins of the aloha shirt and look at relics of the past before plunging into purchase mode.
On the North Shore, Haleiwa has its share of local goods with a tropical feeling, much of it sold out of stores in low, plantation-era buildings. Pick up vintage bark-cloth throw pillowcases, paintings and crafts at Global Creations (66-079 Kamehameha HwyHwyHh); funky fashions by Sue Wong and Betsey Johnson at Silver Moon Emporium (Northshore Marketplace, 66-250 Kamehameha Hwy); stained glass on surf themes and Plumeria Sun’s stunning sarongs, pareos and fabrics at the Sunday Farmers’ Market; or art devoted to seaside life at Wyland Galleries (Northshore Marketplace, 66-250 Kamehameha Hwy), which hosts an art walk on the last Saturday of every month. Needless to say, surfboards and water-related gear abound.
Oahu has every exciting culinary option you’d expect – and a few you wouldn’t -- from a food-savvy part of the world with numerous Asian influences. Dim sum at Chinatown’s modest Mei Sum (1170 Nuuanu Ave., $$) includes crazy-good pork and vegetable pot-stickers alongside such perks as spinach and scallop dumplings with garlic. Japanese sushi and izakaya restaurants thrive here, and Filipino specialties vie for customers with Singaporean noodles and Korean barbecue. Even the ubiquitous ABC convenience stores sell fresh, warm Chinese pork buns that make a cheap, satisfying breakfast.
At the same time, such high-end establishments as Alan Wong’s Honolulu (1857 South King St., $$$$) have pioneered Hawaiian regional cuisine, inventively meshing locally sourced ingredients in dishes like Wong’s appetizer shooter of limpet with shiso essence.
Children find all the stuff they adore and then some, like crisp, cheesy macaroni balls lapped by tangy marinara sauce, at Honolulu’s lively U.S. chain Cheesecake Factory (2301 Kalakaua Ave., $$). In Haleiwa, you can’t beat the Mexican home-style cooking -- house-made salsa, shrimp tacos and all -- at Cholo’s (North Shore Marketplace, 66-250 Kamehameha Hwy, $$). And what’s not to like about a trip out of the city for grilled hot dogs and garlicky “Redneck Rice” (with white and wild rice) at Uncle Bobo’s Smoked Barbecue (51-480 Kamehameha Ave., Kaaawa, $$)?
What you can’t usually get outside these islands is traditional Hawaiian food, and it’s generally superb, even when you order it from a truck and eat it at a roadside picnic table. If sushi is your bag, make it your mission to try poke (pronounced poke-ee), the delicious Hawaiian raw tuna treat dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil and assorted optional flavour-enhancers, including chopped nori and macadamia nuts. You can even find poke at supermarket deli counters. It’s an ideal snack to take back to your hotel room and have with cocktails.
If you’re into barbecue, you mustn’t miss the chance to sample kalua pig, a salty dish that’s wrapped in ti leaves and smoked until it pulls apart. It turns up on the menus of award-winning spots like Ola, at the North Shore’s Turtle Bay Resort (57-091 Kamehameha Hwy, Kahuku, $$$), where it makes a bold appearance on goat cheese nachos with Maui onion sour cream, Asian guacamole and ginger plum sauce. This pork dish also provides the meaty ballast for an outstanding Eggs Benedict in the Napauka Terrace restaurant at the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa (92-1001 Olani St., Ko Olina, $$$), topped with steamed gai lan, perfectly poached eggs and creamy hollandaise.
Go fully native at Ono Hawaiian Food (726 Kapahulu Ave., $$), family-owned for almost 50 years. This unpretentious Honolulu legend, crammed with photos of local and international celebrities, does it all, including laulau, a heap of pork studded with butterfish and wrapped in ti and taro leaves; chicken long rice soup (not actually containing rice but bean noodles); pipikaula, a beef jerky; and lomilomi, a salsa-like concoction of minced salted salmon, green onion and tomato. Poi, the taro root porridge that’s not usually a hit with non-Hawaiians because of its gluey texture and purple hue, turns out to be pretty tolerable when used as a condiment, as advised. Wind up the meal with a few squares of haupia, a firm pudding made with coconut milk.
Cheap, hearty food is popular here. There are lots of trucks serving moderately priced fare on Oahu, and the favourites they serve up include loco moco, a mound of steamed rice topped with a hamburger patty, gravy and a fried egg. You’ve probably heard that the Hawaiian plate lunch generally features rice, hot meat or fish, and macaroni salad -- even the buttery, spicy shrimp coming out of shrimp trucks arrives with a dollop of the stuff. Like Spam, corned beef shows up a lot as well, with people lining up at Honolulu’s distinctly unglamorous Wailana Coffee House (1860 Ala Moana Blvd., $$) for, among other things, a corned beef hash that arrives with butter-fried banana as a surprisingly fine counterpoint. Sweeter tooths will probably go for Wailana’s macadamia hotcakes.
When all’s said and done, maybe sweetness is what you crave. If so, pop by Otto Cake (1160 Smith St., $), a tiny Chinatown shop owned by a punk rocker whose cheesecakes win awards. He cycles through some 90 flavours, but since you are in Hawaii, you might want to accompany your house-made strawberry ginger lemonade with a wedge of pineapple macadamia nut coconut cream. Where else will you get a dessert like that?
“Mellow” is the word that best describes the nightlife in Honolulu, with plenty of free local colour laid on for tourists and residents alike. Though there are clubs and bars galore, the lure of the beach is hard to resist. If you need a meeting place at happy hour, choose the bronze statue made in the likeness of Honolulu native and Olympic swimming gold medallist Duke Paoa Kahanmoku, who’s called the “father of international surfing.” This statue graces Kuhio Beach, and the banyan tree beside it is the gathering spot for a free torch-lighting ceremony with hula and music on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday nights between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., weather permitting. Bring your own seat.
That show is sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts, but many of Waikiki’s hotels are equally generous. On Friday nights at 7 p.m., for instance, the Hilton Hawaiian Village (2005 Kalia Rd.) hosts a free Polynesian show near its pool and then sets off fireworks you can watch from the beach, sometimes followed by fire dancing. The Hyatt Regency Waikiki (2424 Kalakaua Ave.) also stages a modest Polynesian show between its two towers on Fridays about 4:30 p.m., offering crafts like lei-making afterward. Chinatown’s First Fridays happens on the first Friday of each month, with gallery walks and a street party. Friday nights are also distinguished by the Hawaii Yacht Club’s weekly sunset race from Ala Wai Harbor, either 6.4 km (4 mi.) to Diamond Head or 8 km. (five mi.) to Honolulu Harbor. If you show up at the volunteer-run sign-in table by 5 p.m. and pour on the charm, you may even be able to talk your way onto a sailboat as a passenger.