Oahu's diverse delights lure travellers
A sailboat glides pass Diamond Head, one of Oahu's most recognizable sites. WAYNE JANES/QMI Agency
In Hawaii they say a hui hou. It means "see you soon."
The islanders say it because they know you will be back. We say it because we want it to be true.
The Hawaiian islands are no more than a few green specks in the vast blue carpet of the Pacific. It's the most isolated inhabited land mass on the planet, about 3,500 km and at least five hours flying time from any mainland. It's about as far away as you can get from wherever you don't want to be.
The main islands -- eight in total, not counting reefs, shoals and the like -- are really part of a string of mountain summits at the tail end of the Hawaiian Ridge, an undersea range that begins at the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia and ends at what islanders call the Big Island -- Hawaii. Before 100 AD there is little evidence of human habitation. Ocean-going Polynesians settled here around 800 AD, but it wasn't until the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 that modern contact was established.
The islands are said to have the perfect climate. The daytime temperature rarely fluctuates more than 4C from winter to summer, with an average of about 28C. Even on the hottest days a constant breeze off the Pacific provides natural air conditioning. The sun sets, usually in a spectacular fashion, at about the same time year- round.
It was just before dusk when we land at Honolulu Airport on Oahu, the third largest but most populous island. By the time my daughter and I pick up our car the sun is setting for our easy 20-minute drive into the city.
The Outrigger Reef on the Beach, where we are staying, sits on Waikiki Beach at the end of a street called Beach Walk. The large open-air lobby has the look of a luxe hotel in the Caribbean, except for the full-size outrigger canoe in the lounge and the subtle Hawaiian music coming from the band playing in the restaurant near the pool.
Beach Walk is actually the designation for a several-block neighbourhood on Waikiki, which has been rebuilt in the last few years to make it more open and inviting. Although it's chock-a-block with hotels and condos, the tiki torches, waving palms and open-air shops and restaurants that line the sidewalks give the whole area a vibrant, colourful atmosphere.
Urban Honolulu's population is only about 340,000, but the city has one of the most densely packed skylines in the U.S., ranked 4th only behind New York, L.A. and Chicago. The city, which sits on a half-dozen of Oahu's 120 beaches, is flanked to the west by Pearl Harbor, on the north by the Koolau mountain range, with suburbs snaking their way up the sides of the valleys, and Diamond Head to the east.
Diamond Head is the most photographed feature on Oahu and the famous backdrop to Waikiki Beach surfers. The extinct volcano gets its name from the 18th-century sailors who mistook glowing minerals embedded in the rock for diamonds. The TV series Lost, which was filmed entirely on Oahu, used Diamond Head in some of its scenes. This is where we are headed the next day.
We arrive in the caldera parking lot early to make the climb up the inside rim to the top. Although it's only 7 a.m. there are already several dozen tourists single-filing their way back down. The trail, cut unevenly into the rock wall, zig-zags its way up the inside rim and through a tunnel to the top. After about 40 minutes of mildly strenuous climbing (no problem at all for my 28-year-old daughter) the trail ends on the roof of a World War II observation bunker and a panoramic view of the city below us, the mountains with mist-filled clouds wrapped like scarves around their peaks, and the smaller Koko crater at the eastern tip of the island. The air is cool and clear, the breeze a gift and the morning nearly perfect. The only sound is the wind and the surf below us.
It's Saturday, and our descent leads us right to the farmer's market at Kapiolani Community College, across the road from the Diamond Head entrance. It's crowded, but the smell of fresh cut flowers, cool coconut milk sipped from the just-cut shell and homemade popsicles provide the perfect cap to the morning.
After viewing Honolulu from on high, a few days later we thought we'd like to explore it from sea level. Segway of Hawaii (yes, those segways) offers guided tours of Waikiki, Diamond Head and historic Honolulu, which is the one we choose. After a brief lesson on how to ride a segway (surprisingly easy) we set out with our guide Mike on a glide through the old city.
Honolulu has invested a great deal of money and time in the reclamation of once derelict waterfront warehouses and landfills, turning them into public parks and beaches for those who like to avoid the tourists of Waikiki. We get lots of attention and "thumbs up" as we glide through Ala Moana Park under the shade of bao bao trees to the waterside Aloha Tower and marketplace. Here, under the arches of the tower, is where many of the injured from the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were brought for transport to hospital. Merchant St., Queen St. and Chinatown offer glimpses of an older Honolulu, with narrow streets and sidewalks, and many of the colonial-style buildings still standing.
But the highlight is the Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States. It was the home of King Kamehameha, the first Hawaiian ruler who united the smaller Hawaiian kingdoms into a single monarchy in 1810. The last ruler to live here, Queen Lili'oukalani, was overthrown in 1893 by local businessmen and politicians led by Sanford Dole, of the Dole pineapple family. The group wanted closer business and financial ties to the U.S. mainland.
A counter-revolution was mounted, but was unsuccessful and the queen was placed under house arrest in the palace for eight months. She was later released but was forbidden to leave Oahu. Hawaii was annexed to the U.S. in 1898 and became a state in 1959.
(Interesting asides: The palace was used as the fictional state police headquarters in the original Hawaii Five-0 TV series. Also, because Hawaii was a monarchy there was talk at one point of the islands joining Canada as a colony of the United Kingdom. If events had gone differently "¦)
Although Honolulu is small and densely packed, it never feels crowded. The beaches are all public, with a mix of locals and tourists, but they're never overpopulated. The people are beautiful, relaxed and friendly. We do a fair bit of driving and never run into heavy traffic. The sun shines, a quick, occasional spray like mist from a garden sprinkler provides cooling, the evenings are warm and dry.
On our last night in Oahu we fall asleep to the sound of surf breaking in the lagoon a few floors below our balcony.
Aloha and a hui hou.
IF YOU GO
All major airlines offer timely flights to Honolulu. Driving in Honolulu is headache free, although parking can be difficult. Otherwise the public transit system, TheBus, has several routes covering the greater Honolulu area. Downtown Honolulu is flat, so bike rentals are a good, cheap way to get around.
We stayed at Outrigger Reef on the Beach right on Waikiki. The hotel has various deals this fall starting from $205 US per room per night. Outrigger Reef Enterprises owns a number of hotels in Honolulu, as well as on other Hawaiian islands and around the world. The city has an abundance of hotels, many on or near the beaches.
WHAT TO DO
Honolulu's Waikiki Aquarium is fabulous, admission $9 for adults, $4 for kids. Diamond Head is free, including parking. Although Pearl Harbor is free, it requires tickets for the various areas and it's always busy so go early. Segway of Hawaii offers various guided tours, averaging $130 per person for about three hours. There are surf lessons, standup paddleboard lessons -- and then there's always the beach. All beaches are public and free.
NEED TO KNOW
For travel information on Honolulu and Waikiki, contact the Oahu Visitors Bureau at gohawaii.com/oahu