Oahu is the first stop for most visitors to the islands, and with good reason. Home of Hawaii’s capital, and steeped in history and culture, the populous island paves the way for your enjoyment of everything Hawaii has to offer. King Kamehameha the Great realized Oahu’s importance in the hierarchy of islands when he moved here to rule from his kingdom’s strategic center, its heart. Later monarchs followed suit, building royal enclaves such as `Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu, and Queen Emma’s Summer Palace in the cooler uplands of misty Nu`uanu. The first New England missionaries, sugar-plantation barons with their diverse ethnic workforce, and the U. S. military confirmed Oahu’s prominence, establishing vibrant communities in what had become Hawaii’s fulcrum of politics and power. Such multifaceted beginnings explain the island’s cosmopolitan appeal. Where else can you find so much in one place and within easy reach? To take it all in, you might find yourself joining a musical jam session in the park and trying your hand at playing a four-string ukulele, hiking through a forest of bamboo, horseback riding along a deserted beach, learning to dance the hula or hang ten on a surfboard, wandering through an orchid garden or papaya plantation, touring Hollywood movie sites in a Jeep, kayaking to an offshore island, sipping a mai tai at sunset, indulging in palate-pleasing Hawaiian fusion cuisine, attending a made-in-Hawaii craft fair or just basking in the sunshine on a golden-sand beach. Historic palaces, churches, missionary houses, museums and cultural events are all here, too—in abundance. Once you begin to explore, you’ll find that one visit to Hawaii’s gateway is never enough. It’s a conundrum: You have limited time to spend on your vacation and there is so much to see and do. How do you choose? Well, it depends on where your interests lie. Attractions Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St. 808- 847-3511. The island’s principal museum offers an in-depth view of the history that created the culture and customs of today’s Hawaii and Polynesia. At the planetarium, learn how the Polynesians used the stars to navigate the islands; and explore the interior of an erupting volcano at the Science Adventure Center. `Iolani Palace, 364 South King St. Tour Information: 808-538-1471. Built by the last Hawaiian king, David Kalakaua, this beautiful palace dates back to the 1880s. His majesty’s architects used only the finest materials in this graceful building, which features a lovely staircase built entirely of rare koa wood. Mision Houses Museum, 553 South King St. 808-531-0481. Prefabricated in New England, this white frame house was put up in 1821 to house the first Christian missionaries to Honolulu. Considered the oldest Western structure in the islands, it was brought around Cape Horn. Sunday services are held in historic Kawaiahao Church, across the street, and the sermon always includes at least a few traditional phrases in the Hawaiian language. Polynesian Cultural Center, 55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie, near the north shore. 808-293-3333. This showcase of Polynesian life, built by the Mormon Church, features 42 acres of manicured gardens and seven villages built around a lagoon, where traditionally costumed students from Brigham Young University re-create the lifestyles of their native islands. Learn about Fiji, Hawaii, New Zealand, the Marquesas, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) through authentic dance and musical performances, arts and crafts and demonstrations of still-practiced ancient skills. Sea Life Park, 15 miles east of Waikiki via the coastal Kalanianaole Highway. 808- 259-7933. See and hear an astounding variety of sea life that swims and breeds in 300,000 gallons of seawater. Hand-feed green sea turtles; swim with sharks, dolphins and stingrays; and enjoy the antics of the resident sea lions, false killer whales and penguins. USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor. 808-422-0561. December 7, 1941: 2,340 servicemen lost their lives during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The sunken remains of the USS Arizona—the watery grave for many of these men—now lies beneath a special memorial, accessible only by Navy shuttle boat. USS Bowfin, Pearl Harbor. 808- 423-1341. World War II comes to vivid life as you enter the cramped quarters of a vintage submarine. An exhibit and museum completes the submarine experience. USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor. 808- 423-2263 or toll free 877-644-4896. Step back through history as you stand on the deck where General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of Japanese Imperial General Headquarters on September 2, 1945. Waimea Valley, 59-864 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa, on the north shore. 808-638-7766. Take a stroll through the botanical gardens of this magnificent valley, preserved to show the Oahu of years past. Family hikes, cultural demonstrations, arts and crafts fairs, Hawaiian games, entertainment and special events are just some of the Valley’s offerings. Haleiwa. Well known as the north shore’s surfing mecca, this historic town has grown over the years but is still true to its local heritage, with small, colorful shops chockfull of creative handmade goods, casual restaurants serving oh-so-delicious grinds (food), and even a festival or two at the beach park. SPORTS OCEAN SPORTs. Visitors to Oahu will find an outdoor playground laid at their feet; in fact, Waikiki itself was once the Playground of the ali`i (Hawaiian kings, queens and chiefs). Soak up the rays on Waikiki Beach, take a surfing lesson from a real Hawaiian beach boy, ride the waves to shore in an outrigger canoe or hop aboard a catamaran that cruises Waikiki’s coastline. DIAMOND HEAD BEACH PARK, on Diamond Head Road. Swimming is not ideal here, but a picnic by the sea is just the ticket on the wide, tree-dotted lawn, especially at sunset. A weathered rocky staircase leads down to a small beach pocketed by rocks and tidepools, and you may even see an island wedding. HANAUMA BAY BEACH PaRK (officially Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve). Internationally known as the beach where Elvis Presley filmed Blue Hawaii, this is the first Marine Life Conservation District in the state. Visitors are required to view a short, interesting film at the Education Center before winding their way down to the bay to swim and snorkel amongst the colorful reef fish. Feeding the fish is no longer allowed, as that resulted in more aggressive species driving away much of the marine life and actually nipping the hands that fed them. Sandy-bottom pockets in the coral reef create calm and shallow swimming areas, while outside the reef in deeper water, scuba divers can come face to face with sharks, turtles and other larger marine life. SANDY BEACH (officially Koko Head Beach Park). Bodysurfers and boogie boarders love this long, open beach on Oahu’s eastern tip, where waves break very close to the shore. But shorebreaks can be dangerous for both wave riders and swimmers, so it’s best to spend your time here picnicking and watching the local hotdoggers. Also a marvelous place for kite flying on the beach’s spacious grass apron. MAKAPU`U BEACH PARK. Under the watchful gaze of Makapu`u’s lighthouse, this beach is popular with bodysurfers, but large waves and riptides can make swimming hazardous. Nearby tidepools will have you fascinated for hours. BELLOWS FIELD BEACH PARK, on Oahu’s scenic windward side. Long stretches of soft sand, shallow turquoise water with a gradually sloping ocean bottom, shade trees and picnic areas make Bellows a coveted getaway. It’s on a military reservation, but opens to the general public on weekends. Stinging Portuguese manof- war jellyfish show up here at times, so watch for posted warning signs. KAILUA BEACH PARK. Expect to see colorful windsurfing and kitesurfing sails along this beach anytime the wind is up. The plentiful soft sand, gentle surf, shallow wading and wide picnicking lawn attract locals, especially on weekends. You may even catch one of the island’s many festivals here. SUNSET BEACH. Internationally known as a site of competitions that feature such top surfers as Andy Irons, Sunset Beach is big-wave city during the winter. It’s a fun place to swim, surf and play in smaller waves during the summer months when parking is much easier to find. WAIMEA BEACH PARK. In the summer, the beach is often placid as a lake and a popular place for kayak tours and deep-sea fishing charters. During winter, waves here can reach 30- to 50-foot monster heights and crowds of onlookers often get drenched by rogue sets washing up over the beach. GOLF. North shore, south shore, windward, leeward and everywhere in between, golfers can find whatever type of course they’re looking for on Oahu. There’s even an edge-of-Waikiki course bordering the Ala Wai Canal, although locals book up most of the tee times the moment the phone lines open. Your Hyatt Regency Waikiki concierge can help you with choices, details and bookings. HIKING. A 15-minute drive from Waikiki and you’re at a well-marked network of forest trails on Tantalus, a section of the Ko`olau Mountains. Or stroll along the Ka`ena Point coastline, a shorebird nesting area. There are dozens of backto- nature hiking trails, and many offer fabulous island vistas from mountaintop ridges. Although quite crowded, one of The best is the 1.4-mile-round-trip climb to the top of Diamond Head with its sweeping views of Waikiki and the whole leeward coast. The starting point at Diamond Head Road and 18th Avenue is easy to reach from the resort. HORSEBACK RIDING. For a densely populated cosmopolitan island, Oahu can be quite “country” in places. You don’t have to look far to find a stable where you can mount a well-trained steed and clip-clop for miles past lovely beaches, through forests, or to cliff tops with IMAX-type views. SHOPPING An abundance of art, jewelry, apparel and souvenirs is found in the resort shops or within easy walking distance down Kalakaua Avenue at the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center and the DFS (Duty Free Store) Galleria. For even more variety, you can stroll through the International Market Place with its famous banyan-covered kiosks or amble around the British-themed King’s Village. Ala Moana means “path to the sea,” but you may consider it the “path to shopping,” since it’s the name of Oahu’s largest mall. There you’ll find major department stores, upscale clothing houses and one-of-a-kind specialty shops and kiosks— more than 200 stores in all. Another shopping complex, Ward Centers, is within one mile of Waikiki and only a 10-minute walk from Ala Moana Center. In addition to offering 120 retail stores, 23 restaurants and a farmers market, it also has the closest movie theaters to Waikiki—a 16-screen megaplex. A bit farther down Ala Moana Boulevard, where Nimitz Highway begins, look for Honolulu Harbor’s landmark tower anchoring the Aloha Tower Marketplace. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, you can ride up to the tower’s 10th-floor observation deck for a bird’s eye view of the Marketplace’s one-ofa- kind stores and restaurants bordered by the clear blue waters of Honolulu Harbor. Honolulu’s Chinatown is the place to find colorful imported merchandise and unique produce in an authentic Asian atmosphere, and there are many thriving art galleries in the district’s historic buildings. It’s anchored by the historic Hawaii Theatre Center, a classical theatre for live performances. Wai`alae Avenue, in the district of Kaimuki, is home to offbeat and funky specialty shops and restaurants, while a few blocks farther east, the air-conditioned Kahala Mall has traditional department stores, shops and movie theaters. For the freshest produce and flowers, as well as arts, crafts and local food, visit area farmers markets. Remember, the USDA enforces restrictions on agricultural products coming from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, although pineapples, coconuts, onions and fresh flowers (except gardenia, jade vine and the Mauna Loa flower) are permitted after passing inspection. Some popular farmers markets take place in Waikiki, downtown Honolulu’s Fort Street Mall and at Kapi`olani Community College, near Diamond Head. DINING Dining on Oahu is about as cosmopolitan as it gets anywhere in the world, thanks partly to waves of Asian immigrants who came to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations in the 1800s. Descendants of those resourceful workers opened up mom-and-pop eateries that are still tucked into neighborhoods around Oahu. A new, modern wave of chefs followed from Europe, making the island home to dining establishments specializing in the cuisines of China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Italy, Greece, the Mediterranean and Middle East, France, Germany and many other places. This cornucopia soon led to a delectable blending: You will find Asian spices and flavors mixed with European sauces and products at hundreds of island restaurants. And let’s not forget the island-host’s contribution: Hawaiian culture emphasizes simple foods such as fresh fish, crab, octopus and limu (seaweed) from the ocean, a whole pig wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over hot stones in an earthen oven (imu), as well as homegrown vegetables and that all-important staple, taro, from which poi is made. Over the past 15 years or so, a new dining genesis has taken place in the islands. Several classically trained chefs got together and created what is now known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine. They take the choicest fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats and fish from island farmers, then add tastes and techniques from Pacific Rim and European cuisines to create a fusion of flavors that is distinctly island-grown. The result is world-class fine dining that will leave you dreaming about such delectable dishes as kalua pig pizza, and macadamia nut-crusted opakapaka with fettuccine in a sweet chile sauce. You might want to try a few popular specialty foods while on the islands. A hot bowl of saimin noodle soup makes a quick and delicious lunch, a couple of iglooshaped manapua (steamed sweet dough filled with spicy meat or vegetables) are great for a breakfast or snack on the go, and, like everyone else, you’ll probably become addicted to the sinful malasadas— warm, fluffy and sugar-sprinkled doughnuts minus the holes. It goes without saying to plan a luau in your schedule. There are many fine options, both within and outside urban Waikiki. Hawaii resident Jennifer Crites is a writer and photographer who documents lifestyles and travel destinations around the globe. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous books, travel guides and magazines, including Travel + Leisure, Islands and The New Yorker. Her website is www.jennifercritesphotography.com.
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