A misty haze cloaked the view from Nuuanu Pali lookout, muting the normally vibrant greens of the Koolau range. We tourists did not mind the threatening weather. Ominous clouds only heightened the drama and gusting winds seemed eerily fitting for the telling of a ghastly event that played out on this spot.
I was on a circle-island day tour listening to our guide Charlie explain that here, in 1795, Oahu warriors had made a futile last stand against invaders from the Big Island. Chief Kamehameha's forces had already conquered Molokai and Maui before instigating battle on Oahu. More than 500 skulls have been recovered from the base of the cliff, some 1,000 feet below where we stood.
I give you that gruesome tidbit to emphasize that as well as stunning volcanic vistas, gorgeous tropical vegetation, aquamarine waters, and graceful hula rhythms, Oahu has a long and fascinating history, which is one reason why this Hawaiian island tops my list of so-called sun and sand destinations. Furthermore, Oahu has Honolulu – a good thing in my mind, odd as that may seem to some whose idea of a beach holiday means getting as far away from city life as possible.
Escaping to balmy breezes is as alluring to me as anyone who endures winter rain and sleet, but truth be told, I no longer care to sit and sizzle on the beach as I once did, especially if I'm all alone among a frolicking crowd of couples and families. As for snorkeling, surfing, sailing, or scuba diving, I would be tempted if I were with someone who enjoyed any of those activities. On my own, probably not. But, if I wanted to, I could easily arrange any such pastimes on Oahu, specifically in Waikiki, as well as practically any other sport you might mention.
In days gone by when I used to go with family to Hawaii, I hurried away from noisy, brash, Waikiki to the relative peace and quiet of Maui or Kauai, but now I travel alone, and Waikiki suits me better.
If I wanted to spend a quiet day away, on Kailua Beach, for example, or go snorkeling at Hanauma Beach, I could go there on "The Bus." I could go around the entire island of Oahu for two bucks if I wanted to. Of course, I could also have rented a car if I wanted to, but I didn't want the added expense, and besides, taking public transport kept me in touch with other people, locals and tourists alike.
If I felt an attack of solo travel blues coming on, I could take myself shopping, or go get a manicure, a hairdo, a massage.
If I wanted to attend an evening concert or play, the theaters and entertainment venues of Waikiki were just a short walk away and Honolulu only minutes away by bus – or taxi should I prefer.
Be it golf, tennis, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, or whatever I wanted to do, I'd have an easier time arranging it in Waikiki than anywhere else. So I just made up my mind to get used to the hubbub, commercialization, and din that once drove me away from Waikiki.
And din there was I have to say. Added to the usual people clamor along with tour and city buses coursing up and down Kuhio Avenue day and night, numerous noisy renovation and rejuvenation projects were underway along Kalakaua Avenue – Waikiki's main street. Not that I'm implying it was raucous every minute, everywhere I went. Not at all.
A typical day began with coffee and a donut poolside; occasionally I might converse with other hotel guests but more often than not I sat alone perusing my guidebook or the free tourist pamphlets I'd picked up to help plan my day, which might be either a leisurely walkabout or a more energetic excursion that required comparing routes, schedules, and costs for a self-guided or guided tour. The hardest part was actually settling on a plan. I never ran out of numerous choices during my two-week stay.
A leisurely outing would begin with a morning walk along Ala Wai Canal either toward Kapiolani Park at Diamond Head end or in the opposite direction toward Fort DeRussy. Crossing the street to the pedestrian walkway, I'd see beyond the canal to the lush golf course and mountains framing the background. Traffic noise was easily blocked as I became absorbed in canal activity. Canoe teams streaked silently along its mirror-like surface. Strollers, bikers, and dog-walkers gave me a nod and a smile in passing. I'd note the sign indicating the canal is polluted, but I could see thousands of small fish flitting near the surface, mouths agape. Are they waiting to be fed I'd wonder, or gasping for air?
A plaque at the canal's east end reminds those who stop to read that they walk in the footsteps of royalty. Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917) frequented this area when it was still a wetland of fish farms and taro patches. As tourism gained a footing, the canal was dug in 1922 to drain water and reclaim the land for resorts. The Hawaiian farmers who lived here lost their traditional livelihood to progress.
Just past the canal, at the junction of Paki and Monsarrat Avenues, Queen Kapiolani Garden is a quiet oasis where I lingered one day photographing its collection of yellow hibiscus, Hawaii's state flower. The only other people there were four seniors playing cards in a shrubbery covered grove – not far from the business end of Waikiki but worlds away in feel.
Across the road is the zoo section of Queen Kapiolani Park, which I always bypassed, though I made a mental note to come back on a Saturday or Sunday when art exhibits and free concerts may be scheduled in the park. By the time I had walked the park's periphery and crossed to beach side, I'd be feeling the heat and looking for a place to sit.
One day I found a shaded bench at the edge of Sans Souci Beach, opposite Kapiolani Park. Sharing the bench with me was Mike M. A Hawaii resident for 30-odd years, he gave up reading his paper to be sociable, and chatting with him left me with some food for thought. He told me how the Hawaiian islands came to be annexed to the USA, in 1898, after abusive foreign influences and imported diseases had decimated the indigenous population and a business-backed revolution had dethroned and humiliated Queen Liliuokalani.
I enjoy the company of others I meet along the way, and, happily, after these brief interludes, I do not yearn after lost romance as I might have done in younger years. I was content to carry on my solitary way pondering the conversation, imagining life as it was against as it is now on these islands. But these were somber thoughts for a tourist, and it was impossible to dwell on them long with tender breezes whispering in the palms and aquamarine waters benignly lapping the shore – especially when my grumbling stomach announced lunchtime.
The stretch from Kapiolani Park to Kuhio Beach is fine for a picnic or a fast food stop, but it became my habit to lunch in upscale hotels that I could not afford to sleep in, such as the venerable, elegantly maintained Royal Hawaiian with its unmistakable pink exterior, or the nearby Moana Surfrider, the first hotel built on Waikiki Beach in 1901.
It gets busier the closer you get to Waikiki, but every step brings a point of interest into view. First up is an imposing but deserted monumental structure rising from the ocean, a natatorium or salt-water swimming pool dedicated to World War II veterans. It has been in disrepair but is supposed to be scheduled for renovation soon.
Next is the Waikiki Aquarium where I stopped one afternoon and spent a pleasurable couple of hours watching a training session of a pair of indigenous Hawaiian Monk Seals and learning about the local marine life – useful, I thought, for identifying creatures if I should decide to go on a snorkeling outing.
Local lore is commemorated in three Kuhio Beach landmarks, the first is a statue of Prince Kuhio, the park's namesake. The Stones of Kapaemahu represent four men legendary for healing and wisdom. The Duke Kahanamoku statue pays tribute to Hawaii's great sports hero who is recognized as the father of surfing.
This sort of meandering day would take about six hours, after which I'd call it quits. Aiming for my hotel, I'd stop at the nearest ABC store (ubiquitous convenience mart) to pick up a newspaper, a sandwich, and a dish of papaya for my supper, then I'd crash poolside until dusk approached somewhere around 5:30.
Taking the canal walk in the opposite direction you can go all the way to its western end at the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, or you could circle back toward Waikiki center via side streets along the way. At this end the magnificent gardens of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel front Duke Kahanamoku Beach and adjoining Fort DeRussy.
Fort DeRussy is a recreation area for the US military but the beach walks and facilities are open to the public. Next to tourism, military pursuits form the largest part of the Oahu economy and are responsible for much of the island's service infrastructure.
The Army Museum at Fort DeRussy offers a glimpse of the warrior side of Oahu history. Exhibits detail pre-European Hawaiian warrior culture followed by the 18th century Kamehameha unification campaigns, the 1898 annexation by America, and the 1941 Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.
Admittedly, partying at bars, clubs, and discos hasn't the appeal for me it once did, but if you are so inclined, you can find whatever action your comfort level dictates in Waikiki or Honolulu. Just ask around or check the newspapers for current hot spots. Me, I felt comfortable and safe strolling with the evening crowds checking out restaurants or absorbing the festive spirit emanating from hotel-sponsored luaus.
I somehow missed the hula dancing said to be scheduled nightly at Kuhio Beach at 6pm. Likewise I didn't catch the free movie night at Queens Surf Beach, so I was determined to make the Aloha Friday King's Jubilee at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Every Friday around 6pm, people gather near the hotel's Super Pool for a Polynesian music and dance tribute to King David Kalakaua followed by fireworks on the beach. As serendipity would have it, I got cheerfully waylaid on Kalakau Avenue where thousands lined the street anticipating a parade. Local families with kids and dogs mingled with tourists, everyone waving and cheering under a crescent moon and starlit sky while dozens of marching bands and floats filed by, and the Hilton provided a dazzling finale of booming fireworks.
From upscale hotel boutiques and duty-free centers to the crammed booths in the International Market Place to the ever present museum gift shops, every turn of the head brings forth a shopping opportunity in Waikiki and Honolulu.
Retailers go to great lengths to get a hold on your holiday dollars, even to giving you a free ride to their premises. Famous Hilo Hattie, for example, provides a free shuttle from Waikiki to its Honolulu outlet. I went along one day to have a look-see and found prices there for such souvenir standards as Kona coffee and macadamia nuts compared favorably to Waikiki shops, plus I got a free coffee mug.
Maui Divers' Jewelry Design Center, also operates free shuttles from Waikiki or Hilo Hatties', and you get a free 6-ounce box of chocolates along with a short factory tour before going through the shop.
Ala Moana Center, the island's largest shopping center, is a 15-minute ride from Waikiki on Bus 8, 19, 20, 42, or 58.
Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, 99-500 Salt Lake Blvd. Tel. 1-808-486- 6704. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday 6am-3pm. Admission: $1. Take Bus 20 or 42 to Kamehameha Highway and Salt Lake Boulevard.
When tourist trappings fail to inspire, the soul of Oahu still awaits discovery.
>> From Mary Pfister: I am going to Oahu solo and appreciate the information in these articles very much. Thank you; I'm sure they will add to the enjoyment of my trip.