Oahu (“O-wah-who”) is the most developed of the Hawaiian Islands, and has some 75% of the state’s population. It’s also the most frequently visited of the islands. For many visitors and armchair travelers, Oahu is Hawaii. Honolulu is a major cosmopolitan city with all the advantages (numerous things to do) and disadvantages (crowds and traffic congestion) that go with it. But once you get outside the urban sprawl, whether by rental car or using the island’s excellent mass transit system (“The Bus”), Oahu has many unspoiled scenic attractions.
The meaning and origin of Oahu are lost to history, but the island is often called “The Gathering Place.”
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A good place to begin a tour of Oahu is fabled Waikiki (“Why-key-key,” meaning spouting water). Actually, you don’t have much of a choice. Oahu lacks the proliferation of rental condominiums found on the other islands, and there are few hotels or resorts outside Waikiki. Waikiki has effectively become a tourist “gathering place” that’s very nearly an island itself. It’s surrounded by a canal on two sides, the ocean, and the Diamond Head crater.
Waikiki can get very crowded, with unbelievable hordes of visitors from the US Mainland as well as from Japan in the peak season (generally November through February, and July and August). Just about every square centimeter of Waikiki is built up with some kind of high rise hotel or shop.
Even so, Waikiki is an “essential Hawaiian experience” not to be missed. It’s best explored on foot; you can ride “The Bus” back to your hotel if you or your feet get tired. Get up early to begin your walk while the crowds are still sleeping. You might be rewarded with a blazing sunrise from the window of your high-rise hotel room. It also helps to visit in the spring or autumn.
South-facing Waikiki is not Oahu’s best surfing beach. The north shore, with its Banzai Pipeline, gets the famous waves. But many visitors still feel like catching whatever waves there are. So plenty of surfboards are available for rent, in whatever color you might want.
One traditional bit of local color is now gone. Beginning in 1937, the Kodak Hula Show offered a colorful display of graceful hula dancing, accompanied by live Hawaiian music. At the end of the show, the dancers provided titles for slide shows and photo albums (and later, for videos and Web pages).
Unlike the high-priced packaged luaus and “Polynesian revues” continually touted to tourists, this free show charmingly captured the balmy Aloha spirit without bombast or spectacle. Kodak discontinued its sponsorship in 1999, possibly because the financially-beleaguered company’s bean counters realized that more of the audience were using camcorders and Fuji film than Kodak products. The tour operator Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays took it over and renamed it (perhaps more accurately) the Pleasant Hawaiian Hula Show.
The show’s 65-year run ended in September 2002, after Pleasant Hawaiian decided their
money could be better spent elsewhere. In this age of sensory overload, nobody seemed to
consider this gentle anachronism worth sponsoring. But if you do find such a thing
appealing, you can still see a smaller-scale free hula show on Waikiki Beach. The
Kuhio Beach Torchlighting and Hula Show, with
sponsorship from Hyatt Regency and the state and local governments, is performed on
Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings.
Tucked almost inconspicuously amidst the glass-and-concrete high-rise hotels is the Royal Hawaiian, with its distinctive Pepto-Bismol pink exterior. Built in 1927, it’s a vestige of the days before jets when Waikiki was a luxury resort destination for well-heeled ship passengers.
If you’re among the many people for whom a “successful” vacation means coming back with a suitcase full of souvenirs and knickknacks, Waikiki is a cornucopia of tchotchkes. There are at least three stores on every block selling garish Hawaiian shirts, along with the ubiquitous beach mats, plastic hula dolls and ukuleles made in China, and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.
And in the center of Waikiki is the
sprawling “International Marketplace,” replete with multi-ethnic fast
food. You’ll also find artisans who make and sell wood carvings, painted
coconuts, and colorful hand-dipped candles.
Waikiki might be at its best in the early morning and late afternoon. In the morning
you can wander the uncrowded beaches and pause to quietly contemplate some outrigger
canoes. By late afternoon, the throng who mobbed the beach during the day are in their
hotel rooms nursing their sunburns. The trade winds are cool and refreshing, and the
beaches are again tranquil.
Many visitors to Waikiki make a trip to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, Oahu’s most visited site. The official brochure and the introductory video explaining the history of Pearl Harbor insist that the Memorial— built directly over the sunken hull of the U.S.S. Arizona— is intended as a place for “quiet contemplation.” A wall at the far end of the Memorial lists the names of Navy and Marine servicemen on the Arizona who perished in the Japanese surprise attack on 7 December 1941.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of visitors shuttling to and from the Memorial on tour boats makes quiet contemplation all but impossible. The presence of many Japanese visitors also adds a somewhat surreal note to the experience.
You need not let the tour companies or your hotel sell you one of the many tours to Pearl Harbor. For $2.50 each way, you can take the No. 20 or 42 bus from Waikiki. The driver will tell you where to get off; from there it’s a short walk to the entrance, where you can join the queue for the next tour departure.
The tours, on Navy boats piloted by genuine Navy personnel, provide the only access to the Memorial. The cost: Free— it’s one of the few items in the defense budget that ordinary citizens (and foreign visitors) can enjoy. But if you’re visiting during peak times (Christmas break, spring break, and throughout the summer), it might be worth the $1.50 “service fee” to make a reservation up to two months in advance.
The other popular excursion from Waikiki is the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, on Oahu’s north shore. It’s a Disneyesque theme park and “living museum” devoted to the “traditional cultures” of seven Polynesian island groups. Visitors can wander around “villages” demonstrating the traditional handicrafts, architecture, and foods of each culture. The Hawaiian “village” was where I had my first taste of poi, the pasty Hawaiian staple made from mashed taro root. (I much prefer taro chips, available at any grocery store in Hawaii.) You can also join the throng standing along a canal to watch a floating pageant of canoes, on which traditionally-garbed “natives” perform dances from the various Polynesian islands.
This theme park is run not by Disney, but by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “natives” are actually faithful Mormon students at the nearby Hawaiian campus of Brigham Young University, in a work-study program that defrays their tuition. Though undeniably a tourist trap of the first water, many first-time visitors to Waikiki nonetheless consider the Polynesian Cultural Center an “essential Hawaiian experience.”
(Hotels sell tour packages that include transportation, but here again “The Bus” could save you money. It’s easy enough: Take one of several bus lines from Waikiki to Ala Moana Shopping Center. Then transfer to the No. 55 bus, which stops across the street from the Polynesian Cultural Center.)
Also easily accessible by bus from Waikiki is Honolulu’s Chinatown. Its funky buildings, authentic restaurants, and stores selling exotic herbs and vegetables are about as close to a trip to Asia as you can get without leaving the United States. There are also Buddhist and Taoist shrines, including one in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza where people pause to light incense.
When you get back to Waikiki after an excursion to Pearl Harbor, the Polynesian Cultural Center, or Chinatown, Hinaea (“Hee-nah-ay-ah”), the ancient Hawaiian goddess in charge of sunrises and sunsets, might treat you to a spectacular sunset.
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