Honolulu is the airport everybody flies in when coming to Hawaii.
Here’s what’s confusing about it – the largest of the 8 main Hawaiian Islands is the Big Island, but Honolulu, the state capital and biggest city, is located on Oahu, the 3rd largest. And although six times smaller than the Big Island, most of Hawaii’s 1.4 million population (almost 1 million people) live on Oahu – no surprise people believe they need a passport to come because it’s a foreign country!
Apart from 3 weeks on Oahu, we’re spending a week on Maui and a week on Kauai; we’re leaving the Big Island out this time since we need an excuse to return.
Today is Sunday, and by the look of it, the perfect Sunday for a photo walk – the sky is clear and sunny, though hanging menacingly above the city mountains are rain clouds. They gonna stay where they are, they always do – they’re strange like that. It rains a lot in the mountains but never on the beach.
The backbone of the tourist Honolulu is the Kalakaua Avenue, the main beach strip running parallel to Waikiki and ending in the Kapi’olani park at the base of Diamond Head. This is the area that creates the iconic skyline of Honolulu, a bit tired-looking and run down at a closer look than in pictures.
That’s where I’m heading.
In Hawaiian, Honolulu means ‘calm harbor,’ and the Ala Wai yacht harbor, the largest yacht marina in Hawaii, fits the description fully. Though not a place without its problems (homeless people, plastic garbage, revolting bathrooms), mirroring in the marina’s calm waters are dozens of tall, slender masts below white, fluffy clouds. I take about 135 pictures.
Walking past huge resort complexes that are now closed and oddly empty, I feel like inside an eerie ghost town. Even when operating normally, I wouldn’t swap their designer style suites for our cozy studio, that sports Hawaiian-style, exotic-leaves rattan furniture and has just the right amount of mold in the bathroom (all that for a meagre $82 a night as compared to the usual $245!). That’s the kind of prices you pay for the privilege of catching a glimpse of the beach from your balcony.
Do I need frogs for swimming companions?
Since it’s Sunday, there’s an open-air Christian service with live music going on – ‘are you ready to change your life forever with real Aloha?’ The half-naked sun-worshippers sprawled out in fold-up beach chairs look really tempted.
The best way to see it is from the open-air promenade, called the Waikiki Beach Walk. Lined with restaurants, shops, luxury boutiques, resorts and other tourist facilities (now largely boarded up), it is a nice walk with views of the ocean, beaches and parks.
Are there homeless people everywhere and does it smell here like one big marijuana pot?
Yes – the public showers and bathrooms are a big draw – but the contrast of colors, lights and fragrances make up more than enough for that.
The trees that stand out most in Hawaii are the towering banyan trees. Banyan or Ficus tree is native to India where it is also the national tree. What’s so eye-catching about them is that they grow so large and wide they look like temples. Dropping aerial roots to the ground, that form new trunks, they spread laterally over large areas and resemble groves of trees rather than individual trees. They can be hundreds of years old.
Then there are all the blooming trees and shrubs everywhere – the plumeria with white flowers, the bougainvillea with clusters of purple flowers, the jasmine with tiny yellow flowers and the gardenia with pale yellow flowers. No, hold on, it’s plumeria with yellow flowers, oleander with pink flowers and bougainvillea with red flowers … No, no, the other way around …
Anyway, the flowers used to make the traditional Hawaiian lei garlands are mostly plumerias, also known as frangipani. At the same time, monoi oil, a popular tourist souvenir, is a scented oil made by soaking gardenia petals in coconut oil and used as a skin moisturizer.
A useful piece of information to have before you actually get to the islands (and not after you’re gone like me).
Enjoying the palm-tree promenade, I come across a 9-foot bronze statue of a guy with spread out arms and a lei garland around his neck, standing in front of his surfboard. The statue belongs to Duke Kahanamoku, a Native Hawaiian and a 5-time Olympic winner in swimming, who popularized the sport of surfing.
I try to take a picture of him; it’s not an easy task since his fans among local homeless are just too many.
And the wind – it’s so strong here you have to screw your umbrella 5 feet deep into the sand, if you don’t want to be chasing it around, or, worse even, paying for getting people scalped with it.
Satisfying all tastes and beach preferences, Waikiki has tiny shallow lagoons with no waves for families to relax and swim, concrete piers for teens with boards to jump off and surf, beach volley courts, picnic parks, areas packed with people as well as quiet spots for fishermen.
What does it matter that Waikiki, one of the most famous beaches in the world, is almost entirely man-made?
I’d jump right into its turquoise waters if it weren’t for all the sun-kissed surfers’ bods around!
Is this really America? All these lean, highly sculpted, chiseled physiques?
Turns out, today, the beach road is closed to traffic and reserved for walkers, joggers, in-liners, roller-skaters and bicyclist only.
Advised to practice distancing, wear masks and not congregate, everybody is practicing proximity, mask-free and congregating – I’m liking the Hawaiian spirit more and more!
The Kapi’olani Park at the end of the Waikiki Beach Walk is the largest public park in Hawaii. It holds the ZOO, Aquarium and Waikiki Shell, a venue for outdoor concerts. I have two options now: I can either turn and walk back the way I came, or take a public bus.
Yeah, this island has a public transport system, too!
(Again, is this really America?)
Called TheBus, it is convenient, clean, inexpensive and covers the entire island.
Good ol’ Waikiki is hard to beat!
Koko Crater, East Coast
More than ready to go exploring after two weeks of ‘house arrest,’ we decide that the best way to see the island is with a car and do the most obvious touristy thing – we rent a convertible.
Driving around Honolulu with its one-way streets and Hawaiian names all sounding alike can be a bit tense, but once we’re out of the city, it’s easy to drive. There’s highways (no toll) as well as scenic roads.
Our intention is to see every part of the island, to do a full circle around the coast. For that, we split Oahu into sections, one for each day, including beaches and hikes.
Today, we’re off to exploring the east part of the island, starting the day with climbing the Koko Crater and ending it with relaxing at either Waimanalo Beach, Lanikai Beach or Kailua Beach, all named #1 beaches by various self-appointed, beach-assessing websites.
The Kalakaua Ave that runs along the entire length of Waikiki Beach, merges at the end into the Kalaniana’ole Hwy (more like a two-lane road, really), a scenic cliff road between Maunalua Bay and Kailua town with many landmarks and lookout points such as Hanauma Bay, the most famous snorkeling beach on the island, or
To see what we might own one day if we work diligently and follow the rules, we take a ride through Kahala, one of Oahu’s most expensive neighborhoods, where mansions start at $2 million and upwards.
Koko Crater is an extinct volcano of 1,200 feet located near the residential area of Hawaii Kai. In 1942, the U.S. military built on its slope an incline tram railroad to transport supplies to a bunker and a look-out post at the summit. The trail is a steep, 1.8-mile climb with 1048 stairs that offer some of East Honolulu coastline’s best panoramic views.
That is if you make it to the top.
We do. Swimming in sweat and hyperventilating like like you just got a letter from the IRS, the trail that normally takes 90 minutes to finish, takes us 2.5 hours.
The first warning signs should be the sounds of automatic weapons, shooting at a nearby firing range; scrambling up on knees and hands the uneven ties tilted at steep angles, it’s hard to shake off the feeling of having a firing squad behind your back.
There’s no shade anywhere, and since the climbing side of the crater is sheltered from the trade winds, there’s no wind, either. The whole time, the sun is bearing down on us like a ball of fire over Death Valley (maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all to climb Koko Crater at noon).
Then comes the bridge section with gaps wide enough to fall through, and the constant paranoid sensation of falling backwards – crawling on all fours doesn’t suddenly seem such an embarrassing idea. Just let me get to the top and rest in the bunker, please!
Probably a sunstroke, I assume when the first running guy catches up with me. Military brains, I conclude, when a platoon of Marines passes by, carrying on their shoulders huge rocks. Morons, I decide when dudes blasting hip-hop on their portable speakers start coming down (don’t you just love the lyricism of that music!).
One of Oahu’s best-kept secrets, Sandy Beach, is a beach famous for its firing close-shore break and pounding waves. Sandy beach is the Promised Land for surfers and bodyboarders, craving adrenaline rush and near-death thrill, located just a sneak further up the coast from the crowded Hanauma Bay. Doesn’t it feel great, getting thrashed by waves crashing onto the sand and breaking into two inches of water!
The Makapu’u Point, Oahu’s easternmost point, offers stunning views of Makapu’u Beach, a popular body-surfing beach, the green, luscious mountains above it and the small islands off the coast. There’s a short, paved walkway to a lighthouse around the Point built in 1909 on a 600-foot sea cliff.
The first beach we stay at is Waimanalo Beach, the longest uninterrupted white-sand beach on Oahu, a love at first sight (not for the first 17 minutes I’m trying to change from my sweat-drenched, sticky hiking outfit into a pair of bikini inside the car’s tight space).
All 3 main beaches in this area – Waimanalo, Lanikai and Kailua – are nice, scenic expanses of soft white sand and greenish-blue waters. Waimanalo is the one, we’ll keep coming back to, though – imagine 5 miles of playful, shore-breaking waves just the right size to be fun, hundreds of ironwood trees for shade, a couple of islands in the distance and no people.
Unlike the more prestigious, busy beaches of Lanikai of 1/2 mile and Kailua of 2.5 miles situated in towns where parking might be a problem, the Waimanalo’s Ironwood forest (known as the Sherwood forest) has plenty of parking space and shade.
When the sun starts hitting the horizon, we scrape the sand off our bodies and get going.
There’s 3 highways connecting the east part of the Winward Coast with the Honolulu side.
We take the Pali Highway that runs through the Nu’uanu Pali Valley, a section of the Ko’olau Range; hanging out of the convertible like a kidnapped victim trying to get out, the views of the steep, near-vertical cliffs covered with lush vegetation are jaw-dropping. So much that we get lost and have to return. Twice.
In 1795, one of the bloodies battles in Hawaiian history took place here between the Oahu army and the army of King Kamehameha I, the famous Hawaiian king. The Oahu army was defeated, with hundreds of warriors pushed over a 1,000-foot cliff. After the battle, all of the Hawaiian Islands were united into one kingdom under the rule of Kamehameha I.
Outside of Kane’ohe town is located the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, the best arboretum on Oahu, showing nature at its finest. Backdropped by spectacular emerald-green cliffs, the botanical garden is a vast 400-acre park with plants from tropical regions around the world.
Enough of the shooting references!
Tantalus Drive, Three Peaks Trail
Today, we’re heading up the mountains above Honolulu to do the Makiki Loop Trail, known for some of the best views over the city. Since the Diamond Head Trail is closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, as are most of the scenic lookouts around the island including the Tantalus Lookout, we decide to check out Honolulu’s rainforests instead.
All warmed up, we’ll cross the island back to the east for another hike – the famous Three Peaks Trail.
At least, that’s the idea.
Heading out of the city, the scenic winding road of the Tantalus Drive is taking us through scattered upscale neighborhoods with panoramic views, and nice residences lost in dense tropical canopies (a beautiful setting, if you can drive every day through 180+ head-spinning bends without your breakfast reappearing).
Balancing on a guardrail, I get some nice bird’s-eye views of the Diamond Head Crater, Hawaii’s most iconic landmark. From this height and distance, the crater looks like a flying saucer, buried in the ground, or a chamber pot – a strange shape for a volcano.
No, it looks like a warrior’s shield lying on the ground, says Wikipedia, a shape typical for a shield volcano, a volcano composed of sheets of lava. All of Oahu’s volcanos – the Diamond Head Crater, the Punchbowl Crater and the Koko Crater – are shield volcanoes, no greater than 1,000 feet in height and one mile in diameter, now extinct.
By the way, the Hawaiian Islands are the largest shield volcano chain in the world, followed by the Galapagos Islands and Iceland (still, doesn’t make them look any less of a butt dipper).
We park the car by the gate and get out our hiking gear (1 water bottle and 2 cameras, if you need to know). Then, we head out.
Ten minutes later, we’re back.
The trail is only 0.5 mile long! More a kid walk than anything else. Damn!
At least, we didn’t get lost.
Next time, we’ll do a better research.
To get to Kailua town and the Royal Hawaiian golf course, where the three mountainous peaks of Olomana and the trail that spans them, are located, we take the Pali Highway again gorging the incredible views.
We leave the car in a residential neighborhood and head for the golf course. We walk over a small bridge and sneak past a security guard who turns out to be a mannequin.
So far, it’s been already one mile of walking and we haven’t even started the hike yet!
“This is like a walk in a jungle park,” we can’t but laugh minutes later, when the worst that has happened so far on this reputedly sketchy trail, are ankles caught up in loose roots and a head bang with a fallen trunk because the head was too lazy to bend.
“I don’t know why people online say that the trail is hard!”
Hey, here even comes an amazing pine grove with long, soft needles that cover the ground inches high like a thick, exquisite carpet. The trees’ willow-like branches are dreamily waving in the breeze, encouraging us on.
“You can’t really trust the city reviewers, who’ve clearly never really hiked before.”
And that won’t change for the next two hours it takes to get to the first peak. Leaning into the mountain like Edmund Hillary into the Himalayas, I’m holding onto frayed ropes tied to trees, climbing rock walls 10 feet high (many a hiker on their way down will remember a woman hindering their way and asking them how much further she’s got left. Since trails always get steepest towards the summit, surely, she must be almost there!).
Scrambling up the 4-foot wide ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides, I feel like passing out every time I look down. No, right now, I don’t really appreciate the views of the emerald Kailua coast to the right and the vast lush valley hugging the peaks on the left. No, I don’t wanna look into the camera and smile – I just found out we’re only 2/3 of the way up!
The final, steepest rock that marks the first peak is about 12 feet tall, and about as wide as a baby bath (no way I’m standing up on it!). Grabbing whatever bushes I can get hold of, I squat down taking in phenomenal, 360 degree panoramic views of the most challenging hike on the island.
Definitely. Compared to cases of people falling to their death on the trail, that’s a small price to pay.
Next time, we definitely have to do a better research!
North Shore Drive, Seven Mile Miracle
Feeling every muscle, bone and nerve in my body, we’re taking it easy today. No more hikes – instead, we’re going on a drive around the north coast of the island. And maybe the west, too, if we can make it. Sun, beaches, blue horizons, wind in the hair – that kind of a thing.
Traversing the north part of Oahu is the Kamehameha Highway (Kam Hwy), a two-lane scenic road that starts in the southeast and runs along the coastline up north and around it to the west. Since driving completely around Oahu is impossible – all roads end at the Kaena Point, the inaccessible westernmost tip of the island – it’s back down to Honolulu through the middle of the island.
The Kam Hwy is famous for being flanked by some magnificent geography, produced by two mountain ranges, that form Oahu and create over a hundred ridges with beautiful valleys and stunning mountain vistas. The Ko’olau Range to the east runs along the Windward Coast of Oahu, and is the wetter and greener side of the island, while the Wai’anae Range to the west runs along the Leeward Coast, and is the warmer and drier side of the island. That part we leave for tomorrow.
To get on the Kam Hwy, we take the Likelike Highway (the Hawaiian names!), the second of the three highways connecting Honolulu with the east part of the island. The Ko’olau views are, again, breath-taking.
Mine is 8, hyperactive and always moving. She won’t stay in the car – she has to get out and run along the fence, separating the road from rippling rock faces, near-vertical ridges and steep cliffs. Seduced by the blue shades of ocean and sky, she jumps out of the car and runs around the beaches, lagoons and bays trimming the road, one after another: the Kane’ohe Bay, a large lagoon with barrier reef and five islets; the Waiahole Beach with dark sands and murky waters, towered over by the iconic Chinaman’s Hat Island; the Ka’a’awa Beach, a small, picturesque strip of sand with a shallow shore, used mostly by fishermen to catch octopus.
The beach that really sticks with her is the Kahana Bay, a real gem of a beach. Crescent-shaped and backdropped by rugged verdant cliffs, the Kahana Bay is a long, sweeping curve of smooth sand, lined with palm trees and huge Ironwood trees. The perfect postcard beach.
Though we’re bringing our own pasta and a jar of sauce with us to slurp them down on a park bench somewhere to save time for better things, we decide to stop – these food trucks are famous, and not having a plate of garlic shrimps is like going to a molecular restaurant and not trying a snail porridge in liquid nitrogen!
The Turtle Bay is a famous bay with a couple of small wild beaches named after green-sea turtles, living in the area. Ready to do some serious snorkeling, we stop at the Turtle Bay Resort, the only large hotel on the north shore, and walk down to the beach.
Protected by two limestone points, part of a large limestone shelf that spans almost the entire bay, the lagoon is beautiful, scenic, rocky, absolutely windy, and totally underwhelming for snorkeling – just bare rock bottom with an occasional fish.
Back in the car, we head out to hit the famous Seven Mile Miracle, a long stretch of sandy beaches with the most epic big-wave surf spots in the world, the pilgrimage Mecca for surfers from all over the globe.
The reef breaks, tubular waves and ceaseless rip currents begin at the Sunset Beach in the north and go all the way down to the Haleiwa Beach in the south, holding in between the legendary beaches like Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline or Pupukea, just to name a few.
Waimea Beach is a horse-shoe beach, backdropped by high, forested hills. The popular, 30-foot jump rock at its southern end is a source of a genuine thrill to teen boys and girls (and you, if your emotional age is 13), who throw themselves off the top.
Yeah, the world, not just Oahu or Hawaii!
The Banzai Pipeline is famous for 30-foot high waves in the winter and for being one of the first places where guys rode giant waves back in the 50’s (‘pipeline’ is an expression for a fast, barreling wave).
Parking is easy (thank you, the so called pandemic), and soon, we’re walking down the beach.
Walking! More like staggering through gusts of wild wind slapping us left and right. We find an empty spot and secure all our stuff to the ground, adjusting our umbrella so low, we look like turtle heads peeking out of a shell.
And the water isn’t any more forgiving. Missing the right moment between two breaking waves to dive in, I get grabbed by a sneaky undertow from behind, dragged in, rolled around like a tumbleweed on a South Dakota road in November and finally spat back out (can’t tell at that point where’s up and down anymore). With a casual air, I re-adjust my bikini (almost lost in there) and struggle back through the wind (no building sandcastles here!).
An images of the lazy, sleepy, humane Kahana Beach flashes through my mind – we should have stayed there!
Before heading back to Honolulu down the Farrington Highway, we decide to drive all the way to the end of the coastline road. Passing by are the small surfing towns of Hale’iwa and Waialua, lush fields, remote wild beaches and jagged ridges of the Wai’anae Range. The last part of the road to the island’s westernmost tip of Ka’ena Point is a 3-mile unpaved track with an airfield nearby that ends at a gate; from here, it’s on foot.
We look up at the sky come alive with skydivers and gliders; we look out at the sea come alive with kite surfers; we look over the beach come alive with nude sunbathers, rustling in the bushes. Woohoo! Good for you – what’s the point of hanging out on a secluded beach if you can’t let it all hang out?
Is that a drone in the air?
Pearl Harbor, West Coast
The last part of the island left for us to explore is the west shore, the shore undeveloped and undiscovered by most tourists. This Leeward Coast is home to small local towns and a remote wild coast with an endless string of scenic beaches. Running along it is the Farrington Highway, a narrow, winding road, looking out to the ocean and rugged, lava shore.
To get out of Honolulu, we take the H-1 that runs past the airport located west of the city, and the multi-purpose Aloha Stadium, largest in Hawaii. The first stop we make is Pearl Harbor.
We take 40.
Ten minutes is how long it takes for the red light to turn green.
Ten minutes of sitting in the car and watching the other lights change 3 times, while ours is still stuck on the red. Should we or shouldn’t we?
Isn’t jumping the lights just a linguistic construct, one that, for example, people in China don’t bother themselves with?
But we must follow the law!
Now, we really feel like idiots.
The parking lot at Pearl Harbor is empty. We walk into the visitors’ area, and I pause – this is it?! Is this serene-looking lagoon with manicured lawns and trimmed bushes really the famous Honolulu naval base, the headquarters of the formidable US Pacific fleet?!
Obviously, coming from a land-locked country, expectations fly high.
We check out the Aviation museums that displays 50 aircraft directly related to the 1941 attack and World War II, walk the Remembrance Circle that honors submariners lost in the attack, and visit the torpedo room, engine room and sleeping quarters on the USS Bowfin submarine, one of the four submarines at port at the time of the attack. The 60,000-ton battleship Missouri, the ‘mighty Mo,’ where General Macarthur accepted the Japanese surrender, remains closed, as does the ‘white cube’ of the USS Arizona Memorial, the sunken battleship hit by a bomb that sent it down in 9 minutes, killing 1.177 sailors.
The Farrington Highway begins at Ko’olina, a fancy golf club and a luxurious resort, boasting several man-made beach lagoons, 17 miles west of Honolulu area.
From here, it’s about an hour to drive to Ka’ena Point, the westernmost point of the island, where the road ends. The most scenic is the last part north of Wai’anae and Makaha, though driving through these towns can take more time than the time spent on the beach.
Equally dramatic are the vistas of the partly sandy, partly rocky lava shore on one side, and the Wai’anae Range slopes shrouded in sudden downpours, on the other. And the rainbows!
We drive as far as the road goes and walk even further, until we come to the Yokohama beach, one of the most secluded beaches on the island. Despite dangerous rip currents, large waves and long rocks in the water, it’s the only sandy beach in the area where swimming is possible.
Possible? The huge break is hitting the ground under our feet with such force, we’re feeling the vibrations in the sand. The only people we see out there are boogie boarders who don’t seem to get enough of getting caught in the wrong wave, sucked up by it and slammed into the water.
Should we or shouldn’t we?
Definitely shouldn’t – the lifeguard is already on us, sending us away to a safer spot.
Haole; we just stand out.
A local girl takes a running jump into the pounding surf and almost makes it out of it. The next we see is her, spread-eagled inside a rising wall of water (a frog trapped upside down in a glass bottle, would be the best parable).
And the day continues to be fun – getting rained on one minute, sandblasted the next and beaten down by the sun after that, time goes by fast watching people getting caught in the swell, put into the spin cycle and sent down the face into the sand.
Driving back in the ever-changing weather elements and the traffic moving at a snail’s pace, lofty, arc-shaped rainbows span the road everywhere you look. On entering Honolulu, we feel like Romans passing under multiple triumphal arches.
Even better than shopping at Macy’s!