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In defense of Oahu

The thinking person's guide to a Hawaiian vacation.
Paradise exists in Honolulu

Paradise exists in Honolulu Photo: Flickr user im me

Counter to the logic of supply and demand and warmth, summer is the time most from the moss empire visit the country’s only tropical state. Florida is prone to cold snaps, but high temperatures in Hawaii vary less than 10 degrees from winter to summer — not much hotter than 85, not much cooler than 75.

Passenger volume from Seattle to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines, which peaks in summer, is dominated by travel to Oahu -- by a ratio of almost two to one. Oahu is always the cheapest island to fly to, by an average of 20 to 30 percent.

Still, the visitors to Hawaii that I know avoid prosaic, gritty Honolulu and the city's overrun beaches. Naturalists and mystics appreciate the big island, corporate climbers Maui, romantics Kauai. The other, less inhabited islands have more obvious, uncomplicated charm. They are more true to the album cover of this state.

I have been to all the major islands of Hawaii — this is where my father’s side of the family set its American roots 125 years ago — but the one I’ve gone back to the most is Oahu.

In Hawaii, a fine line separates icon from cliché -- of images so embedded in our imagination (hula dancers, tiki torches, paper-umbrella cocktails), we think of it as a place with nothing to be discovered. Honolulu in particular, Oahu’s biggest city, suffers a bit from that problem.

Honolulu harborThe greatest concentration of Honolulu’s lodgings is in Waikiki, the state’s busiest beachfront, which is great if you enjoy the spectacle and the Times Square bustle of the Waikiki strip. The island also has Marriott and Disney mega resorts on its sunnier, warmer and drier leeward (west) side.

Yet, the crush of Waikiki aside, the island also possesses nearly empty beaches and is, by far, the superior eating destination. (Hawaii’s regional cuisine might be the most overlooked in the country.)

The state’s history and diversity are more apparent here than on the emptier islands, addressing a common complaint: ‘Hawaii is beautiful, but there’s not much culture.’ In contrast to the cloistered world of resort Hawaii, Oahu is layered enough to be surprising, ugly enough to be interesting.

A sovereign kingdom until 1893, Hawaii was ostensibly ruled by a native monarchy. In truth, the real power was held by Western businessmen who ran the sugar and pineapple industry. The oligarchy orchestrated a coup, overthrew the Hawaiian queen and instituted a provisional government. Five years later, the U.S. annexed Hawaii without official consent of the native Hawaiians. (If you hear echoes of Iraq and Ukraine in that story, you're not alone.)

Already valuable for its agricultural capabilities, Hawaii was also becoming valuable for its strategic military location.

Hawaii’s evolution as an American state came at a bloody cost to the island’s first inhabitants, but the result is a Pacific creole culture unlike any other in the country. Hawaii’s native population, close to half a million 200 years ago, is about 80,000 today if those of mixed ancestry are counted. The rest of the state's 1.4 million people are predominantly of Asian ancestry, descendants of the contract laborers mostly from Japan and the Philippines, who came to work on the plantations.

About 1 million of those people live on Oahu. It is that singular American metropolis where your Congressman, your teacher, your dentist, your barber are more likely to look Asian than not.

Ironically, the only American city the Japanese bombed is now their favorite one to visit. Japanese tourism and capital investment is so strong in Honolulu that the city is a wormhole into that country.

One benefit of the inflow is the quality of Japanese food you can eat here — from the low end (udon and curry joints) to mid-range (shabu shabu and sushi) to the very high end. Nanzan Giro Giro, near the Ala Moana shopping center, serves only traditional kaiseki meals, the height of Japanese culinary art. Nanzan Giro Giro has only two other outposts — one in Paris and the original restaurant in Kyoto.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 4, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Given how little Kugiya wrote of the rest of the island, shouldn't this have been called "In Defense of Waikiki"? I'm frankly flabbergasted by this story -- Waikiki hasn't changed? I was there last January and yes, you can still wander through the kitsch of the International Marketplace, but the last time I was there, there wasn't Luxury Row on Kalakaua Blvd., featuring Tiffany, Coach, Gucci, and more. (By the way, we also easily found metered parking on the street -- but it was January.)

And how can you defend Oahu without talking about getting the heck out of Waikiki and heading up to Waimea Falls or the little town of Haleiwa on the North Shore? That was like stepping back into rural Hawaii, and the only thing that would get me back to Oahu (which, as Kugiya rightly notes, has cheaper fares, as well as bigger planes and better flight schedules).

I am absolutely with Kugiya on defending Oahu, but I'm disappointed at how much he left out.

Posted Mon, Aug 4, 5:11 p.m. Inappropriate

"The electric bills of customers who get these panels do go down, but a cut of what they pay goes to the installers in perpetuity, a de-facto rental fee. " The fact that the customers don't own the panels may be a good thing. Technology changes and usually improves so I would assume (and hope) the house owner can terminate the lease and go on to more efficient panels. Great article; makes Hawaii much more appealing than the usual travel promotion.

kieth

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