Part 2: Get Out of Waikiki, Baby!
When planning activities on Oahu, the very first thing to bear in mind is: every American needs to see Pearl Harbor and the Arizona—I’m not an overly “Rah! Rah! Patriot,” but it’s sort of the American Hajj. Plus—it’s free. But this takes half a day, realistically—you have to drive to Pearl, park, get in line for tickets (free, but required) to take the boat to the Arizona, sit through the orientation movie (it’s required and VERY interesting), then boat over and back, find car, drive back to hotel. Your concierge may be able to offer you a tour with pre-booked ticket reservations this also saves the papule of driving in Honolulu traffic and parking at a major National Park plunked down smack in a residential section of town. However, it’ll cost you but it might be worth it. You saw the harbor and Battleship Row from the airplane as you came in to land … did you notice how small it is? So much history in such a little space! So knowing that you will be going to Pearl Harbor makes the rest of the plan fairly easy …
I also recommend a drive around the island. I won’t describe what to see and do, except generally, that’s why you buy a guidebook, but it’s really, really lovely. Now, I don’t care what your map says, the road long the West Coast through Wai’anae does not connect up with the North Shore road…the maps lie and there’s no way to get around the Northwest tip (Ka’ena Point) that doesn’t involve backpacking or paddling. Wai’anae is the most beautiful part of the island, but it’s not terribly tourist-friendly to the west and north of Ko’olina.
So, want my advice? You ought to head East out of Waikiki on Kalakaua, which turns into the Hwy 1 or Hwy 72 (depending on how you do this … don’t worry, keep the shore off your right shoulder and all roads merge) past Diamond Head (if you are on a compressed schedule or are not avid hikers, you probably can skip the not-quite-mandatory climb of Diamond Head) and through Hawai’i Kai. Haunama Bay, next, is the snorkeling mecca of Oahu. It’s crowded and unless it’s sunrise, you’ll never get a park—besides, the water is pretty murky and really, there’s much better elsewhere, especially if you are going on to other islands. From Haunama onward, you’re on the windward (rainy) side (in good weather, this is the most gorgeous place ever; beaches, breaches, beaches) all are parks, all are open to the public. Enjoy.
Depending on your schedule, you might want to get a take-away lunch in Kaneohe to eat at either Kualoa or Kahana Bay Beach Parks. You may also wish to wait for lunch in the funky eateries of the surfing capital of the world, Oahu’s famous North Shore. When you turn the corner at Kahuku and go past the Turtle Bay developments, you’re on the North Shore—although most of the touristy stuff is down at Sunset and Waimea. This is old-timey, ticky-tacky touristy stuff; every store needs paint, many restaurants look poisonous, but it’s all wonderful. You will not get in the water here, Okay? It’s just too violent … some of the biggest surf in the world occurs here but even when it’s flat the currents are monster. Hawai’i is the drowning capital of the world … the ocean is warm and seductive … there are better places for the novice elsewhere, hold your horses.
After North Shore you need to decide how you’re going back south to Honolulu/Waikiki. There’s really only one main road, but there’s lots of more “Old Hawai’i” secondary roads. Up on top of the island are fantastic views of both mountain ranges … lots of hiking, mountain biking, but not much get-out-and-do that doesn’t involve dirt and sweat—if that’s not your family’s kind of thing, head on back to town. The middle of Oahu was, up until a couple years ago, the pineapple-growing capital of the world—god knows what’ll be going on there when you get there, but Dole just walked away from its hundreds of thousands of acres of farms there.
You definitely want to plot a course back south that takes you either OVER the Pali at Nu’uanu, or past it, to see the view of Honolulu. The breath-taking view of Honolulu at night from The Pali Overlook is simply breath-taking, but is also an infamous tourist-getting-mugged spot—it’s well-lighted, very public, and mostly safe, just head’s up, okay?
There are several things to do on the North-Shore and the Central Highlands not-involving a circumnavigation trip. For instance, how about sunset at Sunset? This is unbelievable, beautiful, moving … but a long drive for a few minutes of glory unless you do dinner here as well. It makes a good end to the Pearl Harbor day or pre-dinner outing if you are going to the night show at the Polynesian Cultural Center at La’ie—built to subsidize LDS missionaries all over the Pacific, it is a great cultural recreation of Polynesian life and has a nice dinner show (think: Lilo and Stitch meet Cirque du Soliel).
There are so many kayak and raft adventures, helicopter tours, submarine rides, deep sea fishing, sail boat cruises, dinner cruises, surfing lessons, sunset cruises, etc., that it’s impossible to cover them all here. This is what you have a hotel concierge for. They’ll be glad to hook you up with the right activities at the right prices … just be leery of getting hooked into the whole time-share sales shtick—it is not necessary to waste half a day on a time-share tour to get decent prices on Oahu activities.
Having said all that, here’s a list of my favorites you may wish to consider:
Manoa Falls Trail: Short, easy hike through real tropical jungle to an incredible waterfall. Located just outside Honolulu, easy and fast to get to.
Sea Life Park (Windward side): Swim with dolphins, view the great aquarium, rent a diving helmet and walk with the fish, or see it in the traditional way. Spendy but worth it.
Dolphin Quest: The better of the “Swim with Dolphins” parks but they get snotty about adults if it’s crowded. For example, all children present, regardless of place in line, get in before any adult do.
Drive up Tantalus for nights lights of Honolulu: Many people skip this and later regret it. It’s right in Downtown and it’s very beautiful.
Okay, okay, okay—you really do have to schlep up Diamond Head—it’s not as tall or as long as it looks—go in the morning, back to the car before 10. Take a lot more water than you think; apply sunscreen before you leave the hotel and frequently there after. Must take camera! See that view? It really was worth the hike, huh?
Hike the Hawaiiloa Trail: Frankly, this is the finest trail for views and pure amazement in the state. If you are up for this, all or part of it is hugely wonderful. Do you remember those scenes in Magnum PI where T.C. (the helicopter dude, how on earth did I remember that?) would race his chopper down along a knife-edged ridge then break away and flat sink down some impossibly steep slope covered with waterfalls and ferns and you thought it just had to be computer animation because nothing could be that butt-puckering extreme and that heart-achingly beautiful? Nope, turns out those scenes were shot along the Hawaiiloa trail.
Sadly, there are some places you should not go in Honolulu and Waikiki. I’ll be brief because it’s so heartbreaking. Avoid Kapiolani Park, Honolulu Aquarium, and the Natatorium at the east end of Waikiki; homeless village, drugs, crime, and disrepair. Nuff said. Also, there isn’t much for tourists to do in Wai’anae, and not much aloha for outsiders there, either.
Obviously there’s a great deal more to see and love on Oahu; if you don’t get to it on this trip, you’ll just have to come back another time, eh?
(Part 1) | Part 2