Aloha From Oahu
1 April 2016
If paradise existed surely it would be Hawaii: perfect beaches, breathtaking mountains and Mai Tais aplenty, writes Tatyana Leonov.
A young couple step out of the taxi and into the foyer of the The Royal Hawaiian (royal-hawaiian.com). Their luggage is whisked away, chilled welcome drinks magically appear before them, and a staff member with a dandelion of frizzed hair and a kind smile presents them each with a lei (flower garland). Cool drink in hand, the woman loops her slender fingers around the fresh flowers of the lei, holding it to the light to admire the handiwork.
Introduced by early Polynesian explorers, today lei are a universally-recognised symbol of Hawaii. They’re a fitting introduction to the islands; a paradise of fragrant flowers, beautiful beaches and majestic mountains. Travellers come expecting paradise – and they get it – but there’s also so much more to America’s 50th state.
Mountain high, river deep
Although Hawaii is made up of eight major islands (plus several atolls and smaller islets), Oahu, home to the island capital Honolulu, is the most popular and the most populated. In fact, Oahu boasts more citizens and visitors than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. Home to white-sand beaches perfect for sun-drenched strolls (180 kilometres of sandy coastline to be exact), world-famous surf breaks, forest-clad mountains made for the sort of treks that leave you breathless (often, literally), and the majestic dormant volcano Diamond Head, Oahu delivers the goods.
Visiting isn’t just about surfing the beaches by day and sipping Mai Tais by night (although by all means, allocate at least a couple of days to doing exactly that), being in Oahu is about soaking it all up – the natural attractions, the rich history, the fusion food, and, of course, the aloha vibe.
Traced back to the Polynesians, “aloha” is used as a greeting – like hello and goodbye in English. On a deeper level it’s a way of life. Aloha literally means “the presence of breath” or the “breath of life” and signifies a meaningful interaction with the natural world. Aloha is a way of life, of treating others with love and respect
The Polynesians were the first settlers to arrive in Hawaii in the third or fourth century; the Tahitians came several hundred years later; the first Protestant missionaries arrived in 1820; 1898 saw Hawaii become a territory of the US after American colonists overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom; and then Hawaii officially became a state of the US in 1959.
A flood of nationalities travelled to Hawaii in search of work in the 20th century, most finding employment in the sugar and pineapple plantations. They came from Japan, China, Portugal, Korea, Philippines, Puerto Rico – and it’s this medley of ethnicities that makes Hawaii’s population so eclectically diverse today. This cultural fusion is evident wherever you stay, but especially in lively Waikiki.
This vibrant tourist hub is an intoxicating cocktail of all things Hawaii. You can spend the morning dozing on Waikiki Beach (after getting your photo taken by the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of surfing), then learn to ride the waves like a pro (try Waikiki Beach Services, waikikibeachservices.com). You can pick up a takeaway box of the best-tasting garlic shrimp you’ll ever find for lunch from one of the many food trucks (make a beeline for Blue Water Shrimp) or enjoy a lavish seafood feast at one of the many beachside restaurants with surfers bobbing up and down in the waves as your backdrop.
Come nightfall, calm Waikiki is transformed. Street performers breakdance on pathways, partygoers spill out of bars and into the streets, and families amble around nursing dazzlingly-coloured shave ice treats so big that you can’t see their faces.
Venture out of the party hub, however, and discover a storybook island paradise. Volcanic mountains carpeted in lush forest soar skywards, turquoise water twinkles in the sun, fine-grained sand trickles between your toes; and on cloudless nights, an inky black sky flooded with stars seals the I’m-in- paradise deal.
A great way to really get to know paradise is to book a Blue Hawaii Photo Tours’ Island Tour (bluehawaiiphototours. com). Founder and photo buff, Marie Turner, takes a maximum of seven people on a tour of the island, stopping often to take photos of the stunning views. Marie describes how best to capture the various scenes on camera and guests walk away with photo proof that paradise really does exist. Also on the itinerary is a visit to the 2.5-million-year-old lava rock beaches with swooshing tide pools, and the tranquil North Shore coastline where Marie takes guests to see the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles shuffle out of the sea to luxuriate for hours in the blowtorch sun.
Oahu’s North Shore is a world away from the energetic hum of Waikiki. The bulk of the accommodation comprises cute condos (the plush Turtle Bay Resort is an upmarket option); bars are housed in funky beachfront shacks; even the main hub, Haleiwa, is home to just a smattering of casually elegant restaurants, funky boutiques and old-school surf stores. Oahu’s largest food truck congregation is found here, too.
The North Shore is known for its enormous waves (they can swell up to over nine metres) and this is where the world’s premium surfing competitions are held. Surfers travel from all over the globe to ride the epic breaks at Waimea Bay, Pipeline, and Sunset beaches. They only retreat back to solid ground when the waves die down or the sun sinks into the horizon, with wrinkled fingers, rumbling bellies and blissful grins.
You could spend weeks in Oahu and still have more to discover. And then there are all the other islands too, but that’s the beauty of Hawaii. You arrive expecting sand, surf and sea and you leave planning to return to explore so much more
Take a history lesson
There’s a lot to take in when it comes to Hawaii’s history and plenty of ways to get clued up. Here are a few of our favourites:
The Bishop Museum has a wealth of exhibitions spanning Hawaii’s history, culture and island heritage and it’s the go-to place for anyone looking to learn about any aspect of Hawaii. Recently the museum has undergone a revamp and the space has been developed to better showcase the displays. bishopmuseum.org
Learn about Oahu’s plantation past at Hawaii’s plantation Village. Over 400,000 migrants worked in the plantations around Oahu and a narrated tour of the grounds (guides espe at 10am and Gary at midday are both superb) offers an insight into what life was like for the labourers during this challenging time. hawaiiplantation village.org
Historian and author George Kanahele designed the Waikiki Historic Trail walking tour to promote and share Hawaii’s rich culture. The self-guide walking tour is free, with bronze cast surfboard- shaped indicators marking points of interest. waikikihistorictrail.org
Have a few days to spare?
Take the short flight to Kauai and discover an awe-inspiring landscape straight out of Jurassic Park.
Sure, chunks of the 1993 movie were filmed in Kauai, but the smallest of the four major islands is the opposite in terms of experiences. You can hike for days serenaded by the sound of the wind and the sea without seeing another soul; you can cruise (try Capt. Andy’s Sailing Adventures) past the dramatic Na pali coastline gawking at the jagged rock faces that jut out of the coastline like crooked teeth; and you can soar over the island in a helicopter and see why the Waimea Canyon is described as The Grand Canyon of the pacific. Kauai is enchanting and well worth the trip.