“Kupanaha” means “amazing” in Hawaiian. Oahu, home to 2/3 of all Hawaiians (and, it seems, 90% of all vehicles with Hawaiian license plates!) sometimes gets a bad rap because of its routinely congested interstate highways (how does an island have “interstate” highways, anyway?). Because of the notorious traffic as well as high prices for gas and rental cars, I wrote about how to have a kupanaha vacation using only public transportation (see “Practical Travel Tips: Oahu without a Rental Car”). Of course, anything described in that destination report could also be done with a rental car.
Our lodging in Waikiki
On our most recent (December 2021) visit, I opted to rent a car but focus on day trips using a condo in Waikiki as the base for my exploration of lesser-known but no less fabulous food and attractions on the eastern two-thirds of Oahu (Disney’s Aulani Resort is the best known and pretty much self-contained attraction west of H-2). Here is where I become conflicted. Do I share the lodging treasure I found or do I keep it to myself to improve my chances to reserve it again in the future?
The average price for a hotel room, double occupancy, in Honolulu was $292 in October 2021 – and that usually doesn’t include parking. If you plan far enough ahead, you can reserve Waikiki Banyan 2209 at Waikiki Beach for almost 40% less! This 1BR/1BA, 600 sf. condo includes a parking spot, WiFi, a multitude of TV channels, free local calls, beach paraphernalia, a full kitchen, and the couch pictured here converts into a queen bed for additional sleeping. Located just a block from Waikiki Beach; dozens of great restaurants are just a short walk away! The hosts are most responsive; the check-in packet they send contains all kinds of information to help you get the most out of your stay.
H-2 runs from Pearl City (northwest of Honolulu) to Wahiawa where one continues to the North Shore on Kamehameha Highway (Route 99). There are a couple sites worth a stop along the way:
One of 5 Honolulu Botanical Gardens, parking at and admission to this 27-acre “tropical jewel” in the town of Wahiawā is free. You can download a self-guided tour of the garden’s main terrace but downloading a free plant identification app could greatly enhance your experience. It only takes about 30 minutes to walk through the main terrace but that is only a portion of the entire botanical garden; see the map of the entire site if you have the time and interest.
The Dole Plantation is an obligatory stop on many “whole island” tour packages, so it can get crowded – and it is kitschy. Still, it is worth a stop if for nothing more than a cone or cup of the soft serve, dairy-free Dole (pineapple) whip ($6.95) which has a cult following at Disneyland and Walt Disney World resorts. Because my wife and I love puzzles and gardens, we stopped to experience the world’s largest maze covering 3 acres with almost 2½ miles of paths created by the strategic planting of over 14,000 Hawaiian plants.
Sadly, this attraction ($8.25/adult, $6.25/child up to age 12) did not appear to have been well maintained and the reality bears little resemblance to the lush pictures on the Dole Plantation website (although, in all fairness, the time of year we visited could have had something to do with the relatively sparse foliage). You can also take a 20-minute, 2-mile narrow gauge narrated train ride through the plantation which we thought was a bit pricey ($12/adult, $10/child up to age 12).
The Fabled North Shore (Haleiwa to Waimea Valley)
In my book, no trip to Oahu is complete without visiting the raw, laid-back beauty of the North Shore, which stretches from Ka’ena Point in the west to Kahuku Point in the east. But be advised, it is a full hour’s drive (in ideal conditions, and traffic on H-1 is often far less than ideal!) from Waikiki Beach to Waimea Valley. Staying a night or two on the North Shore would seem like a good idea but lodging options are limited and, for the most part, run on the more expensive side.
On your way to the North Shore, turn right immediately after crossing the bridge on Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa (if you get to McDonald’s, you’ve passed the one-way entrance and will need to turn around). Parking, which now costs $2 (cash only), is limited but turns over quickly. $15.00 gets you a full dozen large shrimp and 2 scoops of rice (swimming in garlic and butter if you order the scampi).
What do you get when an ethnobotanist, a cultural anthropologist and an endangered species ornithologist come upon an ahupua‘a (a traditional Hawaiian subdivision of land stretching from the mountains to the ocean like a slice of pie to ensure adequate and equitable distribution of natural resources) turned into a tacky commercial venture? You get a renaissance of one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited!
What was once an adventure park where actors playing cowboys and Indians peddled 75¢ stagecoach rides and cliff divers entertained crowds by plunging 45’ into the pool at the base of Waimea Falls is now a living homage to the religious and cultural significance of this valley for over 1,000 years and a haven to endangered wildlife and plants.
The paved and well-maintained path through the Botanical Gardens to the falls is one of the most popular walks in all of Hawai’i. Swimming in the pool at the base of the falls is allowed, depending on water flow. Life jackets are required and included in the admission fee ($20/adult, $16/senior or student, $12/child up to 12). Along the way, you pass a heiau (worship site) dedicated to the Hawaiian god Lono, a kauhale (traditional compound for a chief or priest), and what was probably a burial temple.
A daily “history walk” (included in the admission fee) explores the Valley’s history, archaeological sites and cultural significance. Waimea Valley is also a refuge for the endangered ‘alae ‘ula (Hawaiian Moorhen). Found only on Oahu and Kauai, only about 500 of these water birds with bright red frontal shields are left in the wild. According to legend, the ‘alae ‘ula (which means “burnt forehead” in Hawaiian) gave humans the secret of fire, burning its white forehead red in the process.
Also included in the admission fee is a daily tour of what’s blooming in the gardens led by one of the Valley’s horticultural staff. If possible, schedule your visit for Thursday, when David Orr, Waimea’s Botanical Collections Specialist for more than 3 decades, leads this tour. We were absolutely spellbound as he explained the astonishing adaptations of plants like the Cannonball tree (the flower of which is pictured here being held open by David Orr).
Luaus are an almost obligatory activity on any Hawaii itinerary; each is similar in format but different in setting, theme, quality of food, etc. Toa Luau, which receives 97% 5-star ratings from over 500 reviews on Viator and TripAdvisor, is the best I’ve ever attended! A relatively recent addition to the luau scene, having only started in 2017, Toa Luau is run by a Samoan family who used to perform for other luaus but wanted to offer a more authentic experience.
Silver, gold, and VIP packages are priced according to proximity to the stage, number of drink tickets, and whether a souvenir is included; children under 5 are free. The experience begins with family-friendly, hands-on activities like opening coconuts, peeling green apple bananas with wooden knives (pictured here), roasting cacao beans, and later sampling the hot chocolate made from them, etc.
Before dinner is served, the cast enacts a Fijian kava ceremony observed since ancient times to mark the installation of a new chief, seal agreements between communities, welcome visitors to the village, and other important occasions. In keeping with Toa Luau’s audience involvement, a couple guests are chosen to participate in the ceremony and taste real kava, a mild numbing relaxant.
After dinner, the cast explains the meaning of and performs traditional dances from Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, and New Zealand (Aotearoa). The night ends with a mesmerizing Samoan fire knife dance. Money-saving tips: Enter the coupon code “best luau” when making your reservation for a 10% discount; tickets include same-day admission to Waimea Valley.
Kaneohe, the commercial center of windward Oahu
Didn’t expect to include a cemetery on your itinerary? Rethink your itinerary! Turn left off HI 83 (Kaheliki Highway) onto the entrance driveway for Byodo-In Temple 1½ miles past the street leading to Windward Mall. This centerpiece in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park is a smaller replica of one of Japan’s most revered temples (featured twice on Japanese currency) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Oahu’s Byodo-In Temple was built in 1968 as a tribute to the Japanese inhabitants of Hawai’i on the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants. Surrounded by a koi pond (kids enjoy feeding them with the food for sale) in the shape of the Chinese character for “spirit” and positioned at the base of the Ko’olau Mountains with their dramatic, angular, deep green folds, the Byodo-In Temple makes an unforgettable photo stop.
But (as I find so often to be the case), what goes on behind the scenes is even more impressive than the images and content on most travel sites. Helena Ratzlaff-Bauer, Community Service Supervisor, took us into the columbarium behind the 9-foot, seated Buddha statue to see the glass-front niches which can accommodate multiple urns so the cremated ashes of entire families can be interred together.
These niches can be personalized in any manner meaningful to the family; we saw everything from Snickers to alcohol miniatures complementing flowers, photographs, and cards. The respect with which staff regarded the remains and the families visiting them was inspiring. “Byodo-In” means “Temple of Equality” in Japanese; interment is open to all faiths.
The corner business in a small string of stores behind the Aloha Island Mart gas station at the corner of Kamehameha Highway and Lilipuna Road in Kaneohe is take-out only. The concept is unique: select a pasta made from Hawai’i-grown produce, add sauce (everything from marinara to coconut crème), a “topping” (everything from chicken breast o macadamia-crusted fish) – and enjoy! A single order easily feeds two.
If you have room after Adela’s for dessert, stop at the “factory” founded in 1905 as you head north on Kamehameha Highway for warm kulolo (mashed taro, coconut milk, brown sugar and honey). It’s what I imagine a warm fudge paste (almost like mochi) would taste like.
This stop on many guided island tours offers free samples of 9 varieties of macadamia nuts along with Kona coffee, some macadamia nut-flavored. Enter slowly and be careful; the parking lot is not paved and has many fairly deep ruts.
Another of 5 Honolulu Botanical Gardens, Ho’omaluhia means “a peaceful refuge.” The Garden offers weekly classes in seasonal crafts ($25 supplies fee) and its “Catch and Release” program (unavailable at this time due to COVID) can be fun for children. Bamboo poles with barbless hooks are provided; you bring the bait (fresh, white bread is suggested).
Tips: Download the detailed garden map from the Garden’s website before your visit; the blue pre-printed maps available in the Visitors’ Center lack the detail needed to identify trees and plants in additional garden areas). Again, a plant identification app can help you get the most out of your visit.
You can drive around the southeast corner of Oahu (and Diamond Head) from Waikiki in a circle using H-1, the Pali Highway (HI 61), and Kalaniana’ole Highway (HI 72). Stops along this route could, depending on your time and interests, include:
Leonard’s Bakery, on the way to H-1 from Waikiki, at 933 Kapahulu Avenue serves the wildly popular (if you don’t believe me, believe the line!) malasadas a hole-less Portuguese donut. Like Krispy Kreme donuts stateside, they are best fresh.
Manoa Falls: Scenes from Jurassic Park and Lost were shot along this 1.6-mile trail through a rainforest just a few miles from Waikiki. The reward at the end of the trail is a 150-foot waterfall.
Harold L. Lyon Arboretum: Just a few hundred feet beyond the parking for the Manoa Falls hike is this public botanical garden that is part of the mauka (toward the mountains) campus of the University of Hawai’i. Tickets are free but reservations are required; visit the Arboretum’s Eventbrite page on the Friday before the week you want to visit to secure your admission – they sell out quickly! As with the Manoa Falls hike, the reward at the end of the trail is a (smaller) waterfall.
Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail: This popular, well-maintained trail climbs gradually (but relentlessly!) from an ample parking lot to a viewpoint looking down on Makapu’u lighthouse. In season, humpback whales can sometimes be seen from viewing stations along the hike. Take water, suntan lotion and a head covering as there is no shade along the trail.
Koko Crater Botanical Garden: Yet another of the 5 Honolulu Botanical Gardens, this one (as the name indicates) was established wholly within an extinct tuff cone (you can see where a vent erupted from a viewpoint on the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail). Tip: The best time to visit is spring when the plumeria grove near the entrance is in full bloom.
Halona Blowhole Lookout: On the makai (toward the ocean) side of Kalaniana’ole Highway is this underwater lava tube that sends plumes of water skyward when the surf is up. You can also see the beach in the famous love scene from the 1953 movie, From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr from the right side of the turnout along the highway.
Rainbow Drive-In: End your day enjoying a plate lunch (although, in this case, it may be dinner) from Rainbow Drive-In at 3308 Kanaina Avenue. For an iconic dish at this Oahu institution, order the Loco Moco Plate (2 hamburger patties, topped with 2 eggs cooked to order served on top of 2 scoops of rice with a side of macaroni salad): $9.25.
Aloha and mahalo for reading!