For some travelers, the mention of Hawaii’s pristine beaches and balmy, sun drenched weather will inspire a search for little else than perhaps a cozy lounge chair and the nearest poolside cocktail bar. And who can blame them amid the winter doldrums? World-class resorts and simpler accommodations alike on the island chain excel at this type of carefree relaxation. But those in search of a little adventure will find that Hawaii’s astoundingly diverse environment offers far more than just a place to plant an umbrella in the sand.
Hawaii is brimming with unique wonders, but to boil its best attractions down into a manageable week and a half itinerary (the paltry vacation time typical to we overworked city dwellers) can also be a challenge. The state is comprised of an archipelago of eight main islands and each among them boasts its own character. The long flight to get there won’t exactly leave you in the mood to shuttle in search of splendor, but island-hopping flights are readily – and relatively cheaply – available.
The first question is: which islands make the cut? Unless you’re bent on seeing black sand beaches and active volcanoes, stunning but somewhat narrow trip ambitions, Hawaii (the island, not the state – confusing, we know), known as the Big Island, offers little else. Kahoolawe and Niihau are nearly deserted and difficult to access. Molokai is pristine but out of the way, with little tourist infrastructure. Maui, of course is a well-traveled destination, but for this trip, our first stop will be Oahu. Oahu doesn’t have quite the diversity of Maui’s geography, but since most travelers will want to see at least two of Hawaii’s islands and flights into Honolulu are most accessible, pairing it with Kauai, one of the most stunning among the chain, makes sense. Arrive in Honolulu and you might find the capital’s snarl of traffic during rush hours an unwanted reminder of home. But you’ll discover that spending a few days there affords the experience of cosmopolitan, strangely juxtaposed to paradise.
Hotel Renew, in the heart of Waikiki
The Hotel Renew, a boutique in the heart of Honolulu’s trendy (and touristy) Waikiki neighborhood, is an excellent choice. Bars, restaurants, nightlife, shopping and the beach are all right there. The private, relaxed atmosphere of the hotel itself and its friendly, helpful staff is also a great way to transition into Hawaii’s laid-back attitude and nurse a bad case of jet lag. You’ll find comfort in the contemporary but inviting interiors complete with plush bedding perfect for a much-needed rest. Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main drag, is a minute’s walk from the Renew’s front door. For guests hungry and in the mood to stretch their legs, head northwest up Kalakaua Avenue to Duke’s Restaurant and Barefoot Bar, one of the area’s legendary eating spots. For those in need of a quicker fix, Lulu’s Waikiki Surf Club is right around the block and has good bar food, fish and salads but don’t bother with the cocktails (sorry if you’re fixing for a typical tropical treat – patience…)
While Honolulu hardly offers visitors a wilderness experience, few other spots on the island offer as many options to head out to sea and witness the teaming wildlife in Hawaii’s waters. Reef Pirates Diving is one of many outfits in the area for scuba diving, an incredible way to get up close with Oahu’s giant sea turtles, which frequent “cleaning stations” just off Honolulu’s shores, where fish and other species eat away algae and other debris that collect on the shells and fins of these gentle giants. If you can finagle his services, try to lock down Will as your instructor. Any reservations you may have about sub-sea level breathing will be quickly appeased under his tranquil and experienced care.
Reef Divers instructor, Will, gets ready to scuba dive
Though the waters here generally don’t offer the glass like visibility of world famous dive spots like the Cayman Islands, seeing a Green Sea Turtle, which can weigh up to 600 pounds, calmly cruise by is an experience you won’t soon forget. They are completely fearless, placid and gentle – yet resist the urge to touch them, they’re endangered.
After one or two nights’ stay in town, get a taste of the private and exclusive accommodations Oahu has to offer with a visit to the legendary Kahala Hotel and Resort on the eastern fringe of Waikiki. Don’t expect to be able to walk down the street to city hotspots here; the Kahala is cloistered in an upper crust residential neighborhood. But after your city stint, you’ll be in search of that chaise lounge and you’ll need look no further. Spend a day in the resort’s spa. Float sleepily in the pool. Jump in the ocean. Go to Hoku’s, one of the resort’s restaurants, for fresh fish and worthy wine (although here too, the cocktails are strangely lacking).
Dolphin swimming in the Kahala’s dolphin pond
But there’s more to the Kahala than just pampered living. The resort is the only one in the area that has resident dolphins. Unlike the native and diminutive Spinner dolphins that populate Hawaii’s waters, the Kahala keeps the huge, more spectacular Atlantic Bottlenose variety. Kept in an inner swimming pen, they can be cajoled by their handlers into performing impressive acrobatics for guests. Visit their enclosure after hours to watch them gliding smoothly through the water or even upon occasion piling up on one another in something akin to an underwater wrestling match. Guests can also sign up to swim with them through Dolphin Quest, an educational marine experience.
Another advantage of the Kahala is its strategic location just a minute or two from the Kalanianaole Highway, the southern part of the island’s main thoroughfare. Stop by the Whole Foods near the Kahala to load up on snacks and delicious local produce like dragon fruits, apple bananas and avocados. The beauty of being south is that the traffic on the Kalanianaole eases here and visitors can cruise to the island’s east coast, its more scenic side. Take a day drive up the coast, hike to the lighthouse at Makapuu Point, and definitely make sure you stop at Hanauma Bay for snorkeling, even if you’ve already been scuba diving. This is a tourist hotspot, so try to get there early, around 9 a.m. Few other places offer such an accessible and impressive maze of coral to swim through and schools of colorful tropical fish.
The south and east sides of Oahu can be perused in two or three days, but save an extra day or two to visit the North Shore for a more rural slice of life on Hawaii. Don’t let yourself be sidetracked by the Dole Pineapple Plantation on the way north, which inexplicably remains a tourist magnet (even its legendary pineapple ice cream is worth skipping). The clock is ticking so get to the North Shore where the real fun and scenery awaits.
Waimea Bay, a legendary surf spot renowned for its 40-foot plus surf, is as flat as a bathtub in the summer and fall months, with the big swells only coming in the winter. If you’re brave, climb up the large table of rock on the west side of the beach and jump 15 feet into the water below, though always be careful of rip tides and powerful surf anytime you go into the ocean on the islands. After a dip, take a stroll through the nearby Pupukea Paumalu Forest Reserve, an arboretum of sorts that offers a view of lush sculpted forests and jungle as well as a waterfall.
Visitors can also enjoy a scenic hike at the Kuaokala Forest Reserve on the western tip by parking behind the Dillingham Airfield and taking the trailhead up into the hills. The trail ends after a few miles at the top of the hill, but bushwhack along a well-trodden footpath into the forest to access stunning ridgelines and ocean and mountain vistas. Don’t hesitate here to pick up fallen passion fruits, crack them open and suck out their delicious citrusy sweet and sour insides.
Views from your hike on the North Shore
The North Shore has some of the best food anywhere in Hawaii, so stay away from fine dining and sample the local favorites. Go to Bonzai Sushi Bar in Haleiwa for the best fresh fish and creative sushi rolls you’ll ever try… ever (we invite you to tell us a place that’s better.) If you can charm him, get sushi chef Lennon to concoct something imaginative and we’ll be shocked if it doesn’t exceed your expectations. Great live music and a jumping social scene at Bonzai also helps to set the mood.
Shrimp trucks and stands proliferate here and are also worth a stop, but make sure you pass about four or five on the strip and stop at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck for a Shrimp Scampi lunch. Farmer’s markets abound as well and they are the North Shore’s real gems so don’t hesitate to pull over if you see one. Snag some of the spectacular local fruits and veggies, produce that is hard to find anywhere else. Among the worthwhile finds are purple sweet potatoes, rare ice cream bananas, which are thick, velvety, smooth and sweet, and the best of all – ripe cooking bananas. When steamed (if you’ve got access to such equipment on your journey), these offer a succulent fusion of tangy sweetness and starchy firmness. And don’t forget to snag a coconut – they’ll usually run you about $5, but are worth every penny for their unparalleled refreshment abilities. At Haleiwa’s farmer’s market, try and find three handsome young gents and a pick up truck from Aina Food Farm, who will be your coconut connection. After you’re done sipping, have them hack the shell in half so you can scoop the sweet, gelatinous and delicious coconut remains.
Find these three men at Haleiwa’s farmer’s market for the best coconuts
Before leaving Oahu, take a stop at Pearl Harbor on your way to the airport, but again, make this an early one as lines stretch into the parking lot even 30 minutes before the gates open. It’s worth seeing the Arizona, but unless you’re a diehard history buff, the rest can be passed in lieu of getting to the Garden Isle, where a lush paradise awaits you, as does that perfect Tiki cocktail you’ve been jonesing…
Stay tuned for the April issue and Part II: Kauai.