Oahu Island

O‘ahu: land of myths

We’re not talking about ancient Hawaiian myths. We’re talking about the myths that exist about this island, both for visitors and for those who live on the neighbor islands (including me before I moved here to do this guide.) The biggest myth is that O‘ahu is Waikiki and Waikiki is O‘ahu. Nothing could be further from the truth. O‘ahu has all the wonder, adventure and discovery that a person could ever ask for—and far more.

Most travel publishers send a writer or writers to a given location for a few weeks to become “experts” and to compile information for guidebooks. To our knowledge, we at Wizard Publications are the only ones who actually live what we write about.

We hike the trails, ride the boats, eat in the restaurants, explore the reefs and do the things we write about. It takes us two years, full time, to do a first edition book, and we visit places anonymously. We marvel at writers who can do it all in a couple of weeks staying in a hotel. Wow, they must be really fast. Our method, though it takes much longer, gives us the ability to tell it like it is in a way no one else can. We put in many long hours, and doing all these activities is a burdensome grind. But we do it all for you—only for you. (Feel free to gag at this point.)

Where Should I Stay?

The vast majority of visitors to O‘ahu stay in Waikiki. It’s where you’ll find the lion’s share of all resorts. It’s on the world famous Waikiki Beach. It’s the home of a zillion restaurants. And it’s where the government originally decided they wanted visitors to stay. Yeah, there are a couple of exceptions. One resort out in Turtle Bay near the northern tip of the island. It’s a nice place on a pretty cove, but you are a captive of the resort because there are few dining options nearby (mostly in Kahuku). And east of Waikiki is the Kohala Resort. It’s also by itself and on a nice beach. It’s quiet and pricey and there are additional restaurants not too far away.

Then back in the mid 80s, a local developer backed by a Japanese investor decided to build a new resort area near the southwest corner of the island, calling it Ko Olina. They built four incredible manmade lagoons with white sand beaches and a marina and had plans to build a number of resorts. But when the Japanese economy tanked in the late 80s, their money dried up. At the turn of the century new investors resumed building, and today you have several huge, high end resorts around those lagoons, and it’s not a bad alternative to Waikiki if you want less bustle.

Finally, you have B&Bs and vacation rentals. Airbnb and HomeAway/VRBO have lots of choices available online.

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The different Hawaiian islands have different geographic infrastructures. Kaua‘i is made up of one giant extinct volcano. Maui has two (one of them still barely alive). The Big Island lives up to its name, consisting of a staggering five volcanoes, only one of which is extinct (though only two of them are active enough for us to see in our lifetime). On O‘ahu, it took two now-extinct volcanoes to create this paradise. (The second one is probably extinct.) Wai‘anae in the west poked above the water 2.2 million years ago, followed a million years later by its younger sibling, Ko‘olau, in the east. Ko‘olau (called the Ko‘olau Mountains locally, even though it’s really only one long mountain) is shorter—peaking at 3,150 feet, but it’s over 30 miles long. What’s most impressive is that it’s only half the original mountain. The other half has been erased by ceaseless erosion. The top of the older volcano, Wai‘anae, is called Mount Ka‘ala and towers 4,025 feet above the ocean.

Ancient forests dripping with life still abound on O‘ahu.

The Different Regions

Honolulu and Waikiki

Honolulu is the central hub of the Hawaiian Islands, and Waikiki is the center of tourism. Lots of people work, live and play in this part of the state, and odds are overwhelming that this is where you’ll be staying. That’s because there are around 90 resorts on the island of O‘ahu, and all but less than a dozen of them are in Waikiki. At any one time, 44 percent of visitors in the entire state of Hawai‘i are spending the night in Waikiki.

Imagine an area of less than one square mile that has over 30,000 hotel rooms. Imagine that this area is blessed with one of the most user-friendly beaches in the world. Where just about anyone can take a surfing lesson and ride their first wave. A place with more restaurants than most decent-sized towns. A place with limitless shopping. Well, this place actually exists. Waikiki is the essence of carefree. Visitors here tend to feel safe, warm and happy.

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Waikiki is about walking and gawking, eating and shopping, surfing and soaking up the sun. You don’t come to Waikiki to get away from the action; you come here to get a piece of the action. This is the place where you and 4 million of your closest friends each year embrace the tropics and each other. If you’re looking for a quiet, out-of-the-way destination, look elsewhere. Waikiki is a humming, happening visitor mecca.

There is almost nothing natural about Waikiki. A century ago the land behind the beach was a swampy sponge. Three rivers emptied into the ocean here, and the beach, though still a great place to swim, was hardly a must-see destination. Then in 1921 they started draining the swamp. People often wonder, how do you drain a swamp? Simple—you dig a canal to cut off the source of water and let nature dry it out. This they did by creating the Ala Wai Canal. And the rest is history. Waikiki, now backed by land suitable for development, was ready to take off. Throughout the 20th century, resort after resort sprang up, and visitors began coming here in droves.

East O‘ahu

The main town in east O‘ahu is an awesome beach town called Kailua. And talk about an embarrassment of riches. You have several ways to get to Kailua on the windward side from Waikiki, all of them pretty. Odds are you’ll want to take the coastal highway (Highway 72) because there are a number of not-to-be-missed sights along the way. But even if you take the coastal road this time, you should definitely find the time during your stay to take one of the highways that punch though the Ko‘olau mountains—the best being the H-3, which is arguably the most beautiful stretch of freeway in the world.

The North Shore

When you leave Kailua’s neighboring town of Kane‘ohe along the shoreline, you’re committed to the drive to the town of Hale‘iwa, the biggest town on the north shore. There’s no way to cut through the island between the two towns. This is the prettiest drive on the entire island. Forget the big city and its multi-lane highways. This is a place with only a few traffic lights and a two-lane road that hugs the shoreline, embracing the Hawai‘i of yesteryear. Along the way you’ll find yourself constantly drooling over the beaches and mountain scenery.

When surfers talk about the North Shore, they generally mean the 7 miles of surf breaks from Sunset Point to Pua‘ena Point near Hale‘iwa town. Other islanders consider the North Shore to be everything from Sunset Point all the way out to the westernmost tip of the island at Ka‘ena Point.

The population of the North Shore doubles during the winter surf season, and traffic often backs up near beaches visible from the road as rubbernecking drivers find wave-watching irresistible. (Residents are the worst offenders.) During those times when the waves don’t materialize during the winter, you’ll see them bumming hard core, brah. The pulse rate of the North Shore slows considerably when the surfing season dies down in the spring. Laid back and casual becomes the order of the day.

Central O‘ahu

The center of the island is defined by the large plain between the two volcanoes that created the island. It’s dominated by two things—large pineapple fields and even larger military bases. Most people simply blow through on their way to and from the north shore. But one part of it remains on almost everyone’s bucket list, Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor is named after the many pipi (Hawaiian oysters) that used to grow here. Visiting ships from the late 1700s described abundant pearls found in this harbor. A visitor in 1810 wrote that the king had discovered the pearls’ value to the outside world and employed numerous divers to pluck the oysters from their shallow beds. By the end of the 1800s over-harvesting and runoff from nearby cattle operations had virtually eliminated the pearl oysters, but the name Pearl Harbor lives on, and its Hawaiian name, Pu‘u-loa (long hill), is scarcely known, even among Hawaiians.

The deep harbor lagoon is separated into three lochs protected from the open ocean by a channel. Even those without any military knowledge can see the strategic importance of controlling such a vast, sprawling, protected harbor to safely park numerous large ships of war. The large island inside the harbor is called Ford Island, which houses some officers and crewmen stationed at Pearl Harbor.

In ancient times, Ford Island had an entirely different purpose. It was called Moku‘ume‘ume, meaning island of the sexual game. In those days, if a commoner couple had trouble conceiving a child, they came here. Large groups gathered around a fire, couples sitting apart. A master of ceremonies would go up to a man, tap him with a maile wand, then tap a randomly selected woman, and together they went off into the darkness to share the night. If a child was conceived, it was regarded as the offspring of the husband, not the biological father. If no child was conceived, they’d head back to this island to give it a whirl again.

You can’t do a driving tour of Pearl Harbor—it’s still an active Navy base, and access is restricted. But the most popular visitor attractions on the island—the USS Arizona Memorial (temporarily closed ) and the Battleship Missouri—are available for touring.

Wai‘anae and the West Side

Wai‘anae is the name of a town, but it’s also the name generally used to describe the western coastline leading all the way to Ka‘ena Point. Wai‘anae is one of the poorer sections of the island, and it has a reputation for being a rough place. In the ’70s that was certainly true. A number of violent crimes against visitors created an image among island residents that persists to this day. Don’t go to Wai‘anae, they say. You’ll get beaten up. Well, frankly, that’s ridiculous, and those who espouse that attitude need to come out here more often. Because it’s so dry, Wai‘anae has some of the nicest ocean water on the island, and you shouldn’t let its reputation dissuade you from partaking of its delights. We’ve gone to the police to confirm that today, violent crimes against visitors are extremely rare here. It’s mainly petty theft—frankly, a lot of it. That means some dirtbag breaking into your car to steal your camera while you’re at the beach, or even stealing your stuff right off your beach towel. In the past the beach parks here were often “taken over” by homeless encampments. Years ago authorities enforced the “No Camping” rules at all but one beach, creating nicer environments at most beach parks and a dense concentration of homeless campers farther north at Kea‘au Beach Park. In 2012 they also evicted the homeless campers from this park.

When H-1 ends, it becomes Hwy 93. This part of the island is often warm and dry. Before the towns start rolling by, the resort area of Ko Olina is the main resort out here. Their four manmade lagoons offer super-protected swimming and some surprisingly good snorkeling in lagoon number 2 on occasion. By the way, the speed bumps at Ko Olina will mess you up if you don’t respect ’em.

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