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Last Updated: February 9, 2017
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For spring break, I went to Hawaii for my fourth time. It was my first trip to Oahu, though. I have never heard a positive trip report about Oahu before, which has kept me away until now. However, I think the sour experiences I've heard were based on tourists familiar with Honolulu only. So I took a chance and rented a nice beach house on the more tranquil north shore. I went with my extended family, so we needed something with at least three bedrooms. This blog entry covers what I did, with the intent of giving suggestions of what to do, and what not to do, on Oahu.
My proofreader Kristi suggested I add a paragraph to explain the difference between Oahu and Hawaii in general. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Hawaii has eight major islands. Oahu is one of them, with 75% of the population of Hawaii, yet only 6% of the land area. I figure it has the largest population of the islands because Pearl Harbor is a naturally convenient harbor, has a nice climate that is neither too wet nor too dry, and is comparatively flat. Besides hosting the state capitol, Honolulu was also the last capitol of the kingdom of Hawaii, before the United Stated conquered it. I've noticed that often when tourists visit Oahu and you ask them which island they went to they don't even know, but say "the one Honolulu is on." So there you have it.
If you are looking for a thriving nightlife, or just like being around thousands of people, then you should probably stay in a Waikiki hotel in Honolulu. However, that isn't me. When I go to Hawaii, I want beautiful weather, white sandy beaches, a quiet place to stay, and as few other tourists as possible. Of course, such places tend to attract tourist-hating tourists like me, so you can't have your cake and eat it too. However, in the case of the North Shore, you can have your cake, and still eat most of it. I'm not saying the north shore is an unexplored paradise, but it is very long, thinning out what tourists do make it there, with one beautiful beach after another, and most of it still is pretty rustic.
Waialua beach house.
In my case, I did an Internet search and somehow stumbled upon hawaiianbeachrentals.com. I was helped by Jody Lyon, who was very nice. I picked an outstanding beachfront home in Waialua. It was a good location for having quick, easy access to Honolulu, about 40 miles away, and close to the surfing capital of the north shore, Haleiwa. In case you're wondering how to pronounce that, in Hawaiian the w makes a v sound. Don't worry though, I'm not one of those linguistic perfectionists who insist on trying to pronounce Hawaii as have-i-e-e.
Going further north from Waialua, you get even more rustic. I thought my choice of location was a happy medium between convenience and solitude. The house was not cheap by the way, but lodging in Hawaii always hurts the wallet. Still, it was a lot cheaper in my case, and more enjoyable, than the alternative of three separate hotel rooms for our large group.
With the generalities out of the way, let's discuss some particular beaches. As I mentioned before, the North Shore is one postcard-perfect beach after another. It is fine to just drive down the Kamehameha Highway and pick one at random. By the way, don't be fooled by the word "highway," it is just a two-lane road. I think it has one traffic light only north of Waialua. It can be stop and go at times. For example, once a pretty girl was trying to cross the road and a car in one lane of traffic stopped to let her, while the other lane didn't. So she stood there waiting for a break the other way, causing an enormous backup caused by the "good Samaritan" whose vehicle blocked traffic while waiting for her to cross.
Pupukea Beach Park
This is a large beach park, just past the one traffic light I mentioned above, across the street from Food Land. The waves break close to the shore, making it a poor choice for boogie boarding and body surfing. It would be a good choice for a long walk along the beach or to just sit and enjoy the scenery. There are bathrooms and showers on the opposite side of the highway.
This is just south of Pupukea Beach and is outstanding for snorkeling. Certainly the best snorkeling I found on Oahu. My guidebook also mentions it is a good spot for scuba diving, and I saw several people doing just that. It can seem a little dicey as you maneuver between rocks to reach water deep enough to swim , but it's worth the risk. The rocks are not that sharp, and you'll be rewarded by an endless supply of tropical fish. It is not very wavy either. I saw lots of children having a great time there. There are bathrooms and showers just south of the cove on the same side of the highway.
I had to visit this one since it is mentioned in the Beach Boy's "Surfing USA." In all fairness, Sunset Beach is also mentioned in the song, which is just a few miles to the north. At least my guidebook says the Beach Boys were referring to the Sunset Beach on Oahu, although there is another one just south of where I grew up in Seal Beach, California.
Speaking of surfing, my guidebook says the time to go for the really huge waves is in winter. When I went in late April, they were still about three to four feet high and bigger than what I usually see in southern California.
Waiamea Bay is one of the more most crowded beaches on the north shore, but there is still plenty of room for everybody. Parking can get tight. The beach itself looks like something out of the imagination of Christian Riese Lassen. Just a perfect bay overlooking clear blue water. The waves are bigger than at Pupukea and more frequent. I went body surfing for about half an hour, which was all I could stand; it was exhausting. Shortly after I quit, the lifeguard put out a bunch of red flags and made a public announcement that the water conditions were dangerous for swimming and getting deep in the water was ill-advised. Towards the south end are rocks jutting out of the water where some boys were jumping off, into the water. The lifeguard also warned against that, but he didn't specifically prohibit it, so they kept on jumping.
I think this was supposed to be a sandalwood tree.
La guardia de la playa es muy guapo.
This is the only big, fancy resort on the north shore. We went there because the bay itself is very calm, safe, and a good spot for snorkeling. I chose to go there because I thought it would be a good spot to introduce my two older kids to snorkeling. While the conditions were very conducive to a first lesson, the fish viewing was mediocre. There is another beach just south of the resort with what looked like outstanding surfing. What made it noteworthy is the waves broke very far from shore and could thus carry a surfer a long ways before petering out.
The bay is surrounded by the resort, but the beach and water are still state property, so the public is welcome. At the time I didn't know this, but a friendly woman in the gift shop told me if you tell the parking lot booth attendant, "public beach access," he will let you in for free. I didn't know the magic words, so didn't get a pass, but the shop lady validated my parking anyway, despite the fact that I didn't buy anything.
Hanauma Bay Beach Park
This is a lovely beach in southeast Oahu. It is within easy driving distance of Honolulu. There is plenty of parking, and the beach is about a ten minute walk away. The bay is protected by high cliffs, giving it a hidden feeling. My guide book mentioned it is a great spot for snorkeling, but I found Shark's Cove much better. In all fairness, I set foot in the water about half an hour before the sun went below the cliffs, so maybe I was disappointed due to the poor lighting. Otherwise, it was pretty crowded, but still well worth a visit, especially if you're staying in southern Oahu.
You can't visit Oahu without going to Waikiki at least once, just to cross it off the list. To go to Oahu and not visit Waikiki would be like going to Las Vegas and not visiting the Strip. It is a long beach with plenty of soft white sand. The water is clear blue, and the surfing conditions are about as good as they get for non-professionals. There were lots of places for activities, like outrigger rides and surfing lessons. It has everything you could want. The only downside is that Waikiki is CROWDED. Lots of people obviously like this kind of scene, but I'm not one of them. I'll take any north shore beach, with one-tenth the crowd per square foot, any day.
I must admit, I was apprehensive about visiting Pearl Harbor after facing the huge crowds of Waikiki Beach. However, I was very glad I went, and I would recommend a visit to anyone. The Park Service does an outstanding job of organization, and there are a number of things to do. By far the most well known sight is the USS Arizona Memorial. Besides other memorials and a museum, when I was there they had four survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor signing autographs and chatting with people. I spoke with one of them at length. He said he enjoyed playing the slots in Vegas. I tried to convert him to a video poker player, but I doubt it worked. It never does.
My first piece of advice is to get there EARLY. We got there about 9 a.m. and went straight to get tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial. They ration tickets for that, and the earliest time available was 12:15 p.m. I would recommend getting there by 8:30 a.m. to avoid a long wait.
When your allotted time arrives, you're supposed to gather at an auditorium, where your ticket will be collected. They then show you two films. The first is a park ranger explaining what would happen on the tour, the rules and etiquette. Then they show a film of the history of the Japanese attack in the early morning hours of December 7, while most sailors were still asleep. I won't rehash the whole history, but the film is very well done. At times you could hear the audience crying. Even if you already know the story, the film does an outstanding job of bringing the experience to life on a large screen, and right where the attack actually happened. It is very moving.
After the film, they silently lead you to a ferry for a short ride to the memorial itself. The memorial rests above the sunken USS Arizona battleship, with most of its crew still entombed within it. Some parts of the battleship still rise above the water level, because the harbor is not that deep. PacificHistoricParks.org has a good areal picture of both the memorial and the sunken ship, to give you a better idea. I remarked to my son that you could still see oil leaking out from the Arizona, which you can see from my picture. Another tourist overheard this and remarked to his companion, as if I couldn't hear, "Actually, it is diesel fuel."
On the opposite end of the entrance is a wall listing the 1,177 men who lost their lives that day. Their average age was just 19. Other battleships were also sunk that day, but the Arizona had the most casualties and is one of only two that were not salvaged, the USS Utah being the other. The design of the memorial is high on both sides, representing American strength and pride before and after the war, but sunken in the middle to symbolize the war itself. The Arizona still flies the US flag, which rises above the water right next to the monument.
If you have more time to spend in Pearl Harbor, and you probably will due to the rationing of tickets for the Arizona, there are three paid excursions: the USS Missouri Battleship, the USS Bowfin Submarine, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. The only one of these we had time for was the USS Missouri.
After buying tickets, a bus takes the tourists from the main entrance, across a bridge, to Ford Island, which is still an active Naval base. This is the same bus that goes to the aviation museum. The driver said not to take pictures from the bus. As you may know, the USS Missouri is famous as the site of the Japanese surrender of World War II. The treaty itself is still there where it was originally signed. The Missouri's was in use through the first Gulf War, where it shelled the Iraqi army as it occupied Kuwait, helping to win the shortest war in U.S. history.
Japanese surrender contact. Somebody told me it is a replica, and the original is in Washington DC.
Both personal and audio tours provide such information as they lead the public through much of the battleship. Given the choice, I always go with a live tour. Our guide went through the standard material but also was very good at engaging the audience with trivia and humor. He mentioned several times how millions of dollars were spent in 2009 to repaint the Missouri, and you could already see the new paint peeling off. You don't get insights like that from the canned audio tours. I certainly learned a lot from my visit to the Missouri, and was very glad I spent the time. I would allow about two hours for it.
Summiting Diamond Head has got to be the most popular hike in Hawaii. As most people know, it is the prominence to the east of Waikiki Beach, seen in countless postcards. You don't realize it from the ground, but Diamond Head is the tip of a volcano. It is easier to visualize the entire thing from an aerial photo, such as this one. It is a short drive from Honolulu, and the fee to park is $1. Once at the parking lot, you are already in the middle of the volcano and part of the way to the top.
The trail from there is 3/4 of a mile only but has 560 ft. of elevation gain. In other words, it is pretty steep. The trail was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1908 as a defensive outpost. In World War II, it was reinforced. Today it is open to the public but is no ordinary trail. It starts out like most hikes as it winds back and forth up the side of the crater. However, as you get closer to the top, you find yourself entering a long tunnel. Then you're outside again for a short time, followed by another tunnel, which leads to a spiral staircase that takes you up three levels of bunkers. My book said to bring a flashlight, but the tunnel and staircase were lit. Finally, you have to crouch down to get back outside again where you're rewarded with outstanding views of Honolulu and southwest Oahu.
The trail is a bit crowded, but not as bad as I thought it would be. At the summit, for example, there were about a dozen people at any one time taking pictures. Most reasonably fit people between the ages of 6 and 66 should be able to manage this hike without too much difficulty. I'd recommend going early in the day before it gets too hot. When you get back to the bottom, reward yourself with a shaved ice from the chuck wagon in the parking lot.
This is the western-most point on Oahu, which lies in an undeveloped part of the island. There are two ways to get there, from highway 93 on the west side or highway 930 on the north side. My guidebook said the hike along the north side was much better. However, in my case, that would have been very inconvenient, so my son and I did it along the north shore.
I was hoping the hike would be along deserted sandy beaches. Unfortunately, it is along a rocky part of the Oahu coastline, necessitating walking a bit further inland along or near a very rugged dirt road. The hike got blazing hot by 9 a.m., and the scenery was pretty much the same most of the time.
While most of the hike is a level slog in the blazing sun, you are rewarded when you get close to the end. A very sturdy fence, which must have been erected at great expense, protects a large area in the northwest corner of the island. A double set of doors allows walkers to get in. Once inside, there is a designated walkway and plenty of signs asking you not to disturb the wildlife, especially the albatrosses and monk seals. That reminds me of one of my favorite trivia questions, what is a three under par called in golf? From a distance I saw three nesting pairs of them.
Towards the end, the trail opens up and allows access to the western tip of the island. My son and I scrambled down a sand dune and came within about 10 feet of a monk seal. For those who don't know, monk seals are found only in Hawaii and are extremely endangered. A sign nearby said fewer than 100 have been sighted in Hawaii. So I took a few quick photos and left him to his sunbathing.
The sign had a phone number to report sightings, which I did when I returned to the house. The gal with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (http://www.noaa.gov/), a government agency I never heard of before, seemed interested to get my picture. Later she wrote back with information about the seal I saw, based on the serial number bleached (N26) on his back. He is a male named Benny, born on Kauai in 2002, who likes to travel between the western Hawaiian islands but spends most of his time in Oahu.
State Capitol Building
Usually state capitols look like scaled down versions of the national capitol in Washington DC. Not so with Honolulu. The capitol building there is a nondescript building that could be mistaken for an office building. However, they had the good sense to have open space in the middle, allowing cool breezes to mitigate the hot mid-day sun.
As I stumbled into the middle, there was a crowd gathering, so I went to see what the fuss was about. Just at that moment, governor Neil Abercrombie, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, was being introduced. He then started a speech in favor of green energy to a group of elementary school children. I thought his speech probably had two minutes of preparation put into it and the rest was ad-libbed. However, he did a good job. He started with a few jokes and then seemed to be fishing for words. He seemed to find the right tone as his speech turned into something more like a sermon, saying several times to the kids that he was fighting for their future, but they had to help him with the fight for green energy. I think he was channeling Bill Clinton. Coincidentally, on my last U.S. Vacation, I not only saw, but met, the governor of Alaska. No, not Sarah, the one who replaced her. I wrote about that in part 3 of 4 in my Alaska blog.
After the speech, I sat in the legislature for about five minutes. Some members were making statements, but most of them looked bored. Then I took the elevator to the fifth floor for a view and popped into the governor's office, which has a vestibule for curious tourists like me, and what is probably a showpiece office with a big desk and flags.
This is the former royal residence of the king and queen of Hawaii. It has a long and interesting history, which you can learn about if you take the tour. The building has been restored well and allows both guided and audio tours. I always prefer the guided tours, but on the day I was there, they offered them only in the morning, and I showed up in the afternoon. Sorry, I have pictures of the exterior only, as photography is not allowed inside. This is definitely worth visiting if you're in Honolulu. The price of a ticket includes an informative video in the building where the tickets are purchased.
I've been to several Chinatowns in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and I have to say that the Honolulu one does not rank high, in my opinion. It doesn't have that rugged, crowded Chinese feel that you get in the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York. It is more like the Las Vegas version, which does not impress me either. We tried to find a good restaurant for lunch, but the place we stumbled into I was mediocre at best.
I should probably mention gambling somewhere in this travelogue. It isn't easy to do in Hawaii, which is one of only two states in the country with no form of legal gambling. The other is Utah (of course). On some picnic tables, along the river, a crowd of all Chinese people were obviously gambling on something. I sent my spies in to see what they were playing. One table was pai gow (tiles), and the other was a 13-card version of Pai Gow Poker. I'm not sure what it is called in English, but a simplified version at the Gold Coast in Las Vegas is called Asia Poker.
By the way, why do people call the pair of so-called lions that are a ubiquitous form of Chinese decoration "Foo Dogs"? Are they lions or dogs? Another good trivia question is which one of the pair is male and female? Everyone always looks in the obvious, but wrong, place. The answer is that the male has his paw on a ball and the female on a baby dog/lion.
Dole Pineapple Pavillion
Normally I wouldn't have visited this place, but it is fairly close to Wailua, and we passed it coming from Honolulu, which piqued the curiosity of my kids. When I read aloud from my travel book that it had a train ride and a hedge maze, there was no avoiding it, as it became their number one priority.
The sign at the gift shop on the Strip and Sahara in Las Vegas promotes itself as the "largest gift shop in the world," but I wonder if they know about this place. The gift shop is enormous. It sells pineapples in every form imaginable plus a wide range of your usual Hawaiian and Hello Kitty souvenirs. Aside from that, you may buy tickets for the botanical garden, train ride, and hedge maze.
I'm not much into botanical gardens, but this was nicely done, albeit a little small. I always wish my brother were at hand for such times, because he is a professional botanist for the forest service. I'm just proud to know the difference between a Mexican Palm and a Pineapple Palm. Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing a pineapple palm there. In the unlikely event I ever go back, I'll have to ask about it.
The train was on one of those little trains that fit four people per car, like the one at Bonnie Springs, outside Las Vegas. It takes you around the grounds of the Dole plantation while a prerecorded narration tells all about it. I'm not sure they are actively growing pineapples on those grounds, as I didn't see a single field worker, nor any pineapple plants that I could tell. At the end of the ride, they give all the passengers a piece of pineapple. Overall, definitely an attraction for young kids.
I must admit, my older two kids and I enjoyed the maze. In 2008, the Guinness Book of Records declared it as the world's largest maze. Here are some other bits of information about it:
- Created in 1997
- Expanded in 2007
- Area 3.15 acres
- 2.46 miles of pathway
- Made of 14,000 local Hawaiian plants.
The hedges were not as high and thick as those in the movie The Shining, which I think was just a studio prop anyway. People obviously cheated in places by cutting through the hedges. At times it was hard to tell if a passage was legitimate or the result of too many people taking shortcuts. In some places, they put up wire to discourage this, but I think they need to go through the whole thing and repair more holes.
As you enter, they give you a time-stamped card and offer an optional solution card. I put the solution in my back pocket, hoping to not resort to taking it out. The object of the maze is to find eight hidden stations. At each one there is a slot to put your card in and trace a picture, such as a fish or a pineapple. After you find all eight stations and make it back to the entrance, you may say you completed the maze.
I, unfortunately, am not among those people who can say that. After a solid hour, I still had only six of the eight stations. My kids and I agreed in advance that if none of us finished within an hour that the person who found the most stations would be declared the winner. That glory goes to my 13-year-old daughter who found seven. At that point, we cheated and used the map to finish up.
It was after I returned home that I read the passage saying the average person takes only 15 to 30 minutes to complete the thing. Say what?! Now I felt like a complete doofus. After an hour, I had six stations of the eight stations only. So my self-esteem was in shambles. I'm one who loves a good puzzle and a physical challenge, so had high expectations for myself. Ever since I saw The Shining some 25 years ago, I've wanted to do a hedge maze. When I finally have the chance, I completely crash and burn. However, I then read the book more carefully and it mentioned six stations only and 1.7 miles of paths. The book was published before the 2007 maze expansion. That made me feel better.
I just have three words for you regarding eating on the north shore ? Nui's Thai Food. As you can see from the picture, it is sold out of a chuck wagon, next to the Waialua Library. I must say it is the best Thai food I have ever had.
Here in Vegas, the Lotus of Siam often appears on lists of the best restaurants in the city, but it doesn't hold a candle to Nui's. I especially recommend the Pad Kai Maow. "What about the atmosphere?" you might ask. There is a picnic table just outside the van. I chose to take it home and enjoy it on the patio with a beer; life just doesn't get much better. Nui herself is also a joy to chat with. My only complaint is she keeps skimpy hours and was often closed when I came by.
The best small town library in America.
Here is the sign that proves it.
So, that is my report on Oahu. Sorry it ran so long. I didn't realize I had so much to say until I finished it, as usual. Prior to this trip, I have been to Maui twice and the Big Island once. The neat thing about Hawaii is that each island has its own feel. It is hard to say one is better than another, because each has its own pros and cons. Even on the same island, different parts will be as different as night and day.
This old bank was converted into t-shirt business.
Mural on the side of a computer business.
The best things about Oahu is that it has outstanding beaches, especially compared to Maui and the Big Island. You also can choose between the thriving energy of Waikiki or the relative tranquility of the rest of the island. While Maui and the Big Island have their advantages, the ratio of tourists to locals is very high, and both can feel a bit like Disneyland at times, Maui in particular. On Oahu, there are a lot more locals to blend in with. Never once did I have to ward off a pesky timeshare salesman, which are a real annoyance on Maui.
All things considered, I'm very happy with the decision to finally visit Oahu, and I'd love to go back to do some things I missed this trip.
Written by: Michael Shackleford