This is for those of you who want more out of Hawaii than sun, sea, sand and surfing. For the three of you still interested, I’ll begin.
Oahu is not the island paradise of Maui or Kauai. Its southern-side beaches around Waikiki are too crowded and too small, and, due to the constant re-stocking of their grey sand, lack the shell-collecting opportunities that could make them interesting. Across from the Hyatt Regency hotel, the statute of Duke, famous for bringing surfing from Hawaii to the world, says it all: come here and surf (except not on Waikiki in the winter months, when all the good surfing is an hour’s drive away, on the northern side). Come here to shop, too, as the single main drag (Kalakaua Avenue) is populated door-to-door with high-end stores, such as Coach, Gucci, Chanel, Hugo Boss and Ferrari. But the pricing only works if you’re Japanese, else you can buy all the same stuff for much less in your good old hometown USA.
However, Oahu is full of small treats. Downtown Honolulu is home to a small historic area, consisting of half-a-dozen glorious buildings, spanning three blocks. The Iolani Palace, where King Kalakaua used to live, before the government took it over, has now been converted into a museum. The beautifully-restored building shines in imperial splendor, and the excellent audio tour makes life under the royal family come to life. The banyan tree outside also makes for great creeper swings. Yelling “Tarzaaan” is apparently not obligatory.
Don’t miss the statue of Hawaii’s greatest warrior and leader, King Kamehameha I outside the Hawaiian Supreme Court. This is the most famous of all the statues of the king, showing him dressed in golden robes, with his hand outstretched. The Honolulu Academy of Arts, just down the road, has an excellent restaurant, the Pavilion Café, serving fresh salads and sandwiches. I highly recommend a lunch of tuna nicoise, followed by rich chocolate mousse. The exhibition halls contain a smattering of art from all over the world, and plenty of local artists. The shop also promotes the wares of Hawaiians, with quality pottery and other handicrafts, as well as a wide variety of art books.
The brilliant Bishop Museum is a bit of a schlepp from downtown, but thoroughly worth the drive. The beautiful glass cases covering the history of Hawaii from ancient times through today is superb. Displays of traditional living activities abound. This includes marine life (a giant whale from the ceiling, for example), and even an ancient-style hut (which you aren’t allowed to enter, alas). It’s like a combination of a Hawaiian Natural History and Civil History Museum rolled into one.
Queen Emma Summer Palace is a short drive away. You can see the whole thing in five minutes, as I have personally proved. It’s where the Royal family summered, but you won’t learn much more than you did in the Bishop Museum – in fact, you’ll learn much less. Just up the road, is the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, where two Hawaiian tribes had a giant battle in 1795. King Kamehameha I defeated King Kalanikupule of Oahu, sending his enemies to their deaths over the cliff-face, and thus becoming the first ruler of all of Hawaii. Look down and you can just imagine the screams of the fallen. The view is also glorious. The truly lazy will be pleased to know it is only a ten minute walk from the parking lot to the lookout.
Whatever you do, skip the tiny Waikiki Aquarium. Even the guided tour does not make up for its paucity of that essential aquatic item: sea life.
For an outdoor adventure, head to Manoa Falls, a half-hour drive from Waikiki. A forty-minute very muddy walk brings you to a gloriously high waterfall. You can keep going up the trails for several hours, But be warned: the bugs are out in force. My mosquito spray, of the highest strength known to man, worked just about fine for an hour, and then, I was almost eaten alive in the two minutes it took to renew my solid coating. Tip Number One: take a large bottle of bug spray, not a travel-size container; you’ll go through it all.
If you’re anti-mosquitos and don’t like the jungle, take an easy stroll up Diamondhead Crater. The tiny parking lot gets full quickly, so arrive by 8.30am. The journey takes an hour and a half to two hours, we were warned. I brought 3 water bottles and loads of snacks, so my nine-year-old would not suffer from thirst or starvation on the way. Imagine our surprise, when a mere twenty-five minutes later, we were standing on the lookout. “This can’t be the top!” I remarked. “But there’s nothing here that is higher,” replied my son. Wise words. We were indeed at the high point, and could see for miles in all directions. As we looked over downtown Waikiki, we were rewarded by the sight of a beautiful rainbow. Hawaii has a lot of these. Paradise indeed.
If the above is still too much exercise, take a walk along Waikiki beach to gaze at new hotel after new hotel. Head into the only old hotel on the waterfront, The Outrigger, to get lunch at Duke’s and people-watch. You’ll likely have to wait an hour, but it’s worse at dinner when a reservation is a must, and even then, you’ll be waiting. If you’d like ice-cream and chocolate sauce with your Oreo cookie, go for a giant slice of Hula Pie for dessert. It easily feeds a family of four.
But surely the one reason you came to Oahu is to see Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. The site holds a clearly-laid out exhibition on the history of the war, with many artefacts on display and videos of survivors. I learned more here than I would have in a High School course. I even got to put on, with difficulty, an old diving bell. Were people that much smaller then, or do I just have an unusually large head? Arrive very early to get a seat on a boat out to the Memorial, so you can peer into the clear depths at the Arizona, lying right where she sunk, a living tomb for the 1,177 sailors who died on board when the Japanese bombed the harbor on December 7th, 1941.
It’s also worth a visit to the USS Bowfin – in the same complex but a different ticket is required – a submarine from 1942. You can climb in all the corners, pull a few levers, and imagine what it was like to be cooped up in a few hundred square feet for six months at a time. Today’s submariners have it easy in comparison. Pop into Schooners, a short walk down the road, for lunch between your two visits (or if you have to wait a while for your timed boat ticket to the Memorial, which can book up hours in advance). The food is basic pub grub (burgers and fries), but it will give you the stamina to enjoy the many hours one can spend onsite. Tip Number Two: put your essentials in a ziplock airplane-size plastic bag on entry. If you take in anything more than a camera – and I mean camera, no case allowed – you’ll be sent back out to check in your handbag in the locker room. The plastic bag system allows you to add your cellphone, keys, and other essentials, if your pockets are too small to hold them. (This irritating restriction has only been in place since 9/11.)
If you like pub grub, and don’t want to spend a lot of money in Waikiki, walk behind the Hyatt to Kings’ Village, a collection of eclectic shops selling beach clothes and bags. Rock Diner has mostly edible pizzas, washed down with the usual range of sugary drinks.
If you like kitschy stuff, there are plenty of expensive hula shows available for your evening entertainment. I preferred the hour-long free show on the beach in front of Duke’s statue. Unlike its competition, it doesn’t have knife-throwers or fire-eaters, neither of which I believe were part of traditional Hawaiian rituals. What it does have is hula-dance students of all ages from preschool through retired, with their teacher singing all the vocals herself. The class of six-year-olds is particularly cute, and the backdrop of sunset over the ocean is perfect.