In defense of Oahu
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.
The 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.
The city is not visually arresting. (The architecture is predominantly of 1960s vintage, the decade the city was set into motion by the emergence of cheap jet travel.) And Honolulu might not qualify as a great city by measures of industry, history, or high art. But just like ancient Damascus, London and modern Los Angeles, Honolulu is a crossroads with complicated cultural and colonial undertones.
Honolulu, at least a six-hour flight from the closest urban area, lives by the grace of all those departing and arriving jumbo jets. Giant ships bring in fuel and durable goods, but the planes bring the island’s most precious resource: tourists.
The risk in a place so dependent on tourism is that it tends to become less what natives see it to be and more what outsiders want it to be. Tourism keeps the state alive, but it is a monotonous force -- not necessarily good or bad, but ever present.
Occasionally, friction develops between residents and tourists, the kind that comes from a love built on need. Honolulu’s isolation and lack of natural resources limit the population growth, the amassing of intellectual capital, and deeper financial investment, the kinds of ingredients needed to build a great city. It is, like other post-colonial, service economies, a slightly malnourished place.
In the poor and working class neighborhoods of Oahu, you often see signs advertising “free” installation of solar panels. 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 homeowners never own the panels on their houses. The practice is a form of sharecropping, exploiting the fact that these homeowners will never be able to afford the upfront cost to buy the panels.
You see a lot of these arrangements on Oahu’s hot, dry, northwest shore, where air conditioning is sometimes necessary and electric bills can be high. This is also where, not coincidentally, the island’s highest concentration of native Hawaiians live.
Almost all tropical vacations involve some test for the conscience. Let’s face it: if you want to have fun somewhere near the equator, you have to look the other way a little, and agree to some amount of moral compromise.
Visit Mexico, and implicitly condone the narco violence. Visit Jamaica, and look past the crime and poverty beyond the gates. Visit Thailand, and accept the sex trade and the country’s regressive politics. Brazil has favelas, Indonesia religious extremism. An outsized amount of the suffering and strife in the world happens near the equator, often in places where colonial exploitation has taken its toll.
Hawaii strikes the same bargain, but in much gentler terms. Most of the pain is in the past. Yeah, it has traffic, drug addiction and corrupt bureaucracy, but these are typical First World problems. It turns out Hawaii is a very complex place – a visit to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu provides a good primer — but this is a fantasy of paradise I can sleep pretty well in.
IN AND AROUND OAHU
IN WAIKIKI: The reason to stay in Waikiki — three to five days ought to do — is for the kitsch and the cliché of it. It is a rare, classic American experience (crass, cosmopolitan and sometimes surreal) that has changed little. Do it once and don’t dwell too long.
Start early in the morning before the crowds set in. Eat an acai bowl (the fruit and frozen dairy concoction of the moment); drink a pina colada beachside at the Moana Surfrider hotel; listen to live Hawaiian music under the giant kiawe tree at the Halekulani hotel and time your visit for sunset so you can watch it as you listen.
GETTING AROUND: Rent a car. Unless you’re staying in Waikiki. Virtually all tour operators provide transportation in and out of there, as do airport vans. Once in Waikiki, you don’t need to leave. There are plenty of diversions like boat rides, surfing and ukulele lessons, shopping, restaurants and the theater of mass of humanity that is Waikiki Beach.
PARKING IN WAIKIKI: It is Manhattan expensive, although there are loopholes – park in the Royal Hawaiian Center garage and the rates are dirt cheap as long as you purchase something (a cup of pure Kona drip at Island Vintage Coffee was my go-to option) and get your parking ticket validated. Overnight parking is another matter. The only budget option is street parking on Kalakaua Ave., south of Kapahulu Ave.; it’s 50 cents an hour during day, free at night.
LOCAL FOOD: Hawaii was fusion before there was fusion. Everyday food is an amalgam of Asian, Polynesian and American traditions: poke (a sort of Asian ceviche); Spam and seaweed rice balls; hamburger, egg and gravy over rice; oxtail soup with watercress.
A few of the best, and obvious, places to eat the distinct regional cooking of Hawaii are Ono Hawaiian Foods, and both locations of the Side Street Inn. All three are close to Waikiki.
Some that are less visible on the radar are: Nico’s Pier 38 in the industrial port district; Hibachi is a deli in the boutique town of Kailua, probably the most gentrified town in Oahu, where the island’s only Whole Foods is located; the Kahuku Superette in the small North Shore town of Kahuku is a convenience store that happens to make its own poke and kimchi, restaurant quality at half the price; the He’eia Pier General Store overlooking Kaneohe Bay has a lunch counter on the pier that serves Hawaiian style plate lunches done a cut above.
BEACHES: If you’re going to Waikiki, aim a little south for Sans Souci State Park (across from the aforementioned cheap, street parking), where the sand and water are just as lovely but far less crowded. Local residents favor this end of Waikiki.
Lanikai Beach in Kailua is famously known as the most beautiful on Oahu (it fully deserves the title), but the most charming might be Kokololio Beach Park on the northeast side of the island. It is isolated, aesthetically stunning, and uncrowded except for the weekend when locals pitch tents and camp there. It is among the few beaches where camping is allowed with a permit, an experience worth trying at this beach if not at others because it is set back from the roadway, and its beachfront is backed by a wide expanse of trees and shade. The beach has showers, grills and bathrooms.
Another advantage of visiting Oahu in the summer is the lack of high surf on the North Shore (unless your intent is to surf big waves, or watch the surfers). Waimea Bay is dangerous in winter, but tranquil in summer, one of the largest and most beautiful expanses of sandy beach in the state. The plunge into the ocean off of Waimea’s legendary rock is also safe in summer.
Nearby Pupukea Beach Park is also treacherous in winter, but placid in summer, and might be the best snorkeling spot on the island. Don’t bother with the tourist stampede at Hanauma Bay, a famous marine reserve. Pupukea Beach requires a more intrepid entry into the water, but you’ll see just as many fish and scores of the green sea turtles common in Hawaii. The beach is a rock shelf that drops off suddenly, giving way to the deeper water and the dense sea life.
DOLPHINS: Hawaiian waters are home to spinner dolphins, reliably sighted on Oahu’s west shore. Tour boats make a living transporting visitors to favored spots so they can watch or even get into the water with the dolphins. These excursions are costly (about $120), but probably worth the money.
Here’s the free, more aerobic option:
Rent snorkeling gear and drive to the west shore, past the Ko Olina resort. You are now on the highway that dead ends on the northwest point of the island, Ka’ena Point State Park (also well worth the drive if you enjoy nearly empty beaches).
About a mile north of the Ko Olina resort, you will pass Kahe Point Beach Park. You will see an electric plant opposite the water. The beach across from the plant is informally known as Electric Beach. Cooling water from the plant discharges off shore, attracting marine life. Several hundred yards off this beach you can sometimes see spinner dolphins leaping out of the water, and the tourist boats that stalk the pods.
If you can make the swim from shore, about 500-800 yards, it’s worth about $120. Entry into the water is not easy. There is a small beach opposite the electric plant, but the waves tend to be active here, so getting past them will require some strength and timing. A few hundred feet to the south is a rocky cove with no waves, but you will have to climb down a small rock wall.
Local laws prohibit harassing or following dolphins, as if one could swim fast enough to “follow” them. The point is to put yourself in proximity to them, but let them swim to you, which they will, by the dozens, below you, above you and around you. I promise.
Just aim in the direction of the leaping dolphins and keep swimming.