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Steve and Monika’s Hawai’i

Part 3—Oahu


Many consider Oahu not to be as interesting as the other islands, thinking that the most populated Hawaiian island consists of downtown Honolulu with its skyscrapers, hundreds of offices, dozens of shopping malls, and commercial Waikiki, etc. Most assume that they will not find anything not found in other major U.S. cities. Nothing could be further from the truth! Oahu has a lot to offer with respect to peace, tranquility, wilderness, and nature. You just have to know where to look!


Oahu is the most populous island in Hawaii, with about 70% of Hawaii’s 1.3 million residents. It also has the largest city and state capital, Honolulu. Surprisingly, most of Oahu’s population is outside the city, which has a population of about 380,000. With all that is going on here, we will miss many important and interesting facts about Oahu simply because it would take volumes to cover every aspect of Hawaiian life on this island. We will continue to adhere to the spirit of the previous entries by focusing on what has sparked our imaginations on Oahu.

Geography. This island is shaped roughly like an asymmetrical rhombus, bent inward on all sides. Oahu was formed by two giant volcanoes that came together millions of years ago and have eroded so much that only the base of the inner slope of each volcano remains. The eastern side of Oahu is the longest side, with the Koolau Range extending for 37 miles, running from the southeastern corner of Oahu to the northeastern corner. This mountain range displays the effect of wind and weather erosion over the millennia. The winds usually hit Oahu from the East, so the eastern side of the Koolau range presents a magnificent series of vertical cliffs rising 2,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level. The highest, most picturesque of these cliffs is near a population center comprising the towns of Kailua, Kaneohe, and Waimanalo. The beaches in these cities offer spectacular views of the cliffs and crystal blue ocean. The western slope of the Koolau range, in contrast, consists of a series of deep valleys formed by the rain from the clouds caught by the mountains as they are blown in from the ocean. Each valley, and some of the ridges themselves, have become distinct neighborhoods in Honolulu. The University of Hawaii at Manoa resides in the largest of these valleys, Manoa. This is where Dr. Ryuzo Yanagimachi has worked for more than 40 years on reproductive biology. On the opposite side of the island is the smaller Waianae Range, though this range boasts Oahu’s highest peak at just over 4,000 feet. The west side of Oahu gets much less rain than the east side.

Two other general features of Oahu’s geography merit comment. The first is a series of eleven smaller islands off Oahu’s eastern coast. Each one is a nature preserve for birds. Most of these islands are accessible by ocean kayaks, which can be rented at many different places. We have seen nesting petrels with chicks in burrows dug in the ground on at least two of these islands. The second feature is a series of dormant, small (by Hawaii’s standard) volcanoes that have become international landmarks for Honolulu. Diamond Head is the best known, but others offer very interesting tours. Punchbowl houses Hawaii’s military cemetery, which contains a beautiful mausoleum decorated with tiled frescoes of all America’s Pacific military campaigns, and offering wonderful views of Honolulu. Koko Head Crater and Koko Head, where the famous Hanauma Bay is located, are other examples. These volcanoes erupted long after the two major volcanoes that made up Hawaii began to grow cold.

Honolulu. Honolulu is the most isolated large population center in the world. It is the 47th largest city in the U.S., but has a truly international flavor. East meets West in Honolulu, a feature that underlies much of life in this city. The University of Hawaii at Manoa even has an institute called the East-West Center devoted to bringing together the diverse cultures of Asia and the Western world. The population of Hawaii is roughly a third Japanese-American, a third Caucasian, and a third Polynesian and mixed Asian. Japanese tourists find many Japanese-speaking services from shopping malls with Japanese signage to hotels and travel agents comfortable with their language.

Honolulu is, in many ways, though, just another large American city. You will find most of the stores in which you are used to shopping on the mainland. We also have plenty of lawyers and doctors, and big businesses, and a large international airport. Enough said about all that.

The complex and often controversial history of Hawaii is well documented in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. It is well worth a visit when you are on the island. Other very nice areas of the city are Kapiolani Park, on the east side of Honolulu, in the shadow of Diamond Head crater. There is a surprisingly nice zoo in this park, and the famous Waikiki Beaches begin here.


Driving around the island. When we have visitors, we always try to drive them around the island. Only then can one get a full taste of all the many flavors that Oahu represents. Such an excursion can easily take a whole day when done with many stops on the way, and this is probably the best way to get an overview of the island. A good place to start is Waikiki, proceeding along the South shore heading east. You may wish to stop at the lookout under Diamond Head to observe surfers. Then, continue driving along the ocean through the Kahala neighborhood where many Hollywood stars own property. Next, you will reach the H1 highway, which later becomes the Kalanianaole Highway, and drive towards Hawaii Kai. Just after Hawaii Kai you will pass Hanauma Bay on the right and enter what National Geographic considers one of the most beautiful coastal drives. The road is guarded by sharp cliffs dropping to the ocean on one side and Koko Head crater on the other. Two lookouts are well worth a stop. On the first lookout, a short walk down the rocks will take you close to the ocean and the trail offers nice side views. Below the second lookout is Halona Blowhole. Beware! A few years ago a careless teenager was taken by the ocean after being sucked into the hole. On the other side of this lookout is a little bay that was described in James Jones’s “From Here to Eternity.” Continuing East along the ocean, you will pass Sandy Beach Park which is, as the name indicates, truly sandy. It is not really suitable for swimming because of a strong shorebreak (waves breaking directly on shore), and boogie-boarding on Sandy, although popular among locals, is quite dangerous (many broken necks!). Despite the dangers in the water, Sandy Beach Park is a great, all-around family beach park, with superb beachcombing, frequent kite-flying competitions, and wonderful swimming—when the surf is calm.

The next potential stopping point is Makapuu Point (described in detail by Steve). The Makapuu Peninsula separates the South and East sides of Oahu. A lookout is located above Makapuu Beach and Sea Life Park. The East side of Oahu, also called the Windward side, has very scenic, deeply carved mountains and offers a view of the beautiful, deep color of the ocean (at least in the beginning). Waimanalo is a little local village and Waimanalo Beach Park offers a scenic, uncrowded, and very nice beach that is often shaded because the mountains are close to the shore. Continuing East/North, you reach the point where we can either go to Kailua or continue to Kaneohe. Choosing Kailua and forgoing the drive around the island is a viable option; the beach is so inviting that one may decide to stay there longer. However, if you are determined to have a taste of the whole of Oahu, you must keep going! You will pass Kaneohe, the biggest city on the Windward side of the island, and then continue on the road North along the shore. It is both more and less scenic, but allows visitors to experience some of the less civilized parts of Oahu. During the drive, you are likely to see local people spear-hunting octopuses and fish in the shallow waters, local families picnicking on the beach, poor houses on poles in constant danger of being flooded by the ocean, and lonely bus stops on the empty road, barely a few feet from the water. You will see distinctive Chinaman Hat Island, varying mountain scenery, an assortment of little villages, the famous Polynesian Cultural Center, and the big, white Mormon Temple. The road passes Kahuku with its old sugar mill, posh Turtle Bay Resort—where you can stop at the beach, and finally reaches the famous surfing beaches of the North shore: Sunset, Bonsai, Pipeline, and others.

Next on the road comes Sharks’ Cove, which offers snorkeling quite different from that in Hanauma Bay. Sharks’ Cove is wilder, and if you are brave enough to jump off the rocky platform straight into the deep ocean, you will be rewarded with wonderful underwater views. Kids, if they have reef-walking shoes, can explore the many tide pools to see marine life in its natural environment. Snorkeling gear can be rented in one of the nearby shops. Continuing along the ocean, you will reach charming Haleiwa, the biggest little town of the North shore. It has some galleries, shops, and a few restaurants. When driving around the island, we often stop in Haleiwa for pizza. I forgot to mention that there is a famous shrimp shack in Kahuku: it looks ugly but is known to offer the best shrimp on Oahu. It is easy to recognize by the line of people and cars (including out-of-place limousines). The shrimp are indeed tasty but you do have to take into consideration the long wait and rather crude service. From Haleiwa, there are two options. If time is getting tight you can head straight to Honolulu via the middle of the island, or, if you have more time, you may take a detour and drive to the end of the road to see the North side of Kaena Peninsula. After that, you will have to turn back to Haleiwa. The drive through the middle of Oahu is not particularly scenic but you will pass many coffee and pineapple fields, and perhaps spot some wild pigs on the side of the road (I once did). The only attraction is the famous Dole Plantation where you can stop to learn how pineapples are farmed, try pineapple ice cream, buy pineapple souvenirs, and let the kids explore the biggest maze in the world. From the Dole plantation, you will drive on towards Honolulu, avoiding Wahiawa, a middle island town. From my experience, you should be so tired by now that you will dream about getting back home.

Beaches. Oahu has many nice beaches. Waimanalo Beach Park and Kailua Beach Park both offer sandy shores and unforgettable turquoise-colored water. Kailua beach is considered the most beautiful. Both locals and tourists love to go there, so it can be crowded. It is also the beach of choice for wind surfing and kite surfing. Sea turtles are easy to spot from the beach when the ocean is calm. As a bonus, there is also a tiny island not far from the shore with a bird sanctuary that you can visit either by swimming or kayaking. A nice sandy beach on the North shore of Oahu is found in Waimea Bay Beach Park. This is the place where the highest waves (> 35 feet) are noted in winter. In summer the water in Waimea Bay is nice and calm. There are plenty of other beaches on the North shore, some sandy and some rocky, such as the famous Sunset Beach and Bonsai Pipeline Beach. On the West side, there is Yokohama Bay Beach (see following description of Kaena Point) and a variety of beaches along the road heading towards Kaena Point. There are also very touristy artificial mini bays/beaches called Ko’Olina. In Honolulu, there are two major beach areas, Waikiki and Ala Moana Beach Park. Both are crowded and not spectacular. East of Waikiki and still in town there is Kapiolani Beach Park, more local and less touristy than Waikiki. It is a good spot to try boogie boarding. There is also a nice, family-friendly beach at the very end of Kapiolani Park, just in front of the New Otani Hotel. This beach is partially shaded for most of the morning (which can be a plus) and it has a reef-free channel from the shore to the marking flag out in the ocean, which swimmers use for exercise. Under the Diamond Head crater there is the wild Diamond Head Beach. It is frequented by wind surfers and surfers. There is no lifeguard and the atmosphere is relaxed (including occasional topless and sun-bathing nudes). It is a rocky beach, not particularly suitable for swimming. It is also very windy so it is almost never too hot there.


Hanauma Bay. Hanauma Bay is a very popular tourist attraction and with good reason. It is located in Koko Head, a small peninsula on the southeast corner of Oahu, and is essentially half a volcano that has eroded into a beach. After parking in the visitors’ lot, and watching a mandatory video about protecting the preserve, you walk down a paved road into a crescent shaped cliff with a nice beach and protected swimming area. This is one of the best places to snorkel in Hawaii—but you have to know what to do! The bay is filled with coral reefs. The coral in the shallow area close to shore is mostly dead, but there are still many fish there, despite the numbers of tourists. For about 200 feet, there is very shallow water, rarely deeper than 4 feet, and this a wonderful place for a new snorkeler to learn to use a mask. You are not supposed to feed the fish, but generations of visitors doing so have taught the fish to come close just in case. You can rent snorkeling gear right on the beach, which also has a very large grassy area in case you prefer not to lie down in the sand. There are also plenty of mongoose that are comfortable stealing food.

But the real magic of Hanauma Bay lies beyond this shallow area. Check with the lifeguard about the conditions “beyond the reef” and if okay, and if you are a comfortable swimmer, head out to the middle of the bay. The water becomes very shallow as you approach the larger reef that acts as a wall to the shore, but in between the large orange buoys is a narrow passage way that leads out to deeper ocean. As you pass through this, you will notice an old set of cables that are lying on the ocean floor, and you will use these to find your way back (but even if you can’t, it is not that hard to get back). Then you suddenly find yourself in deeper water, 30 feet or so. Here, you will find beautiful, live coral. You are very likely to see a sea turtle, and we have also seen octopus, moray eels, and squid. You will see many schools of fish, and generally have a great time. John McCarrey and I saw a turtle here once when he was visiting to work with Dr. Yanagimachi on a collaboration. This is one reason why we do not have difficulty finding collaborators.

Makapu’u Point. This is a rather unpopular tourist attraction, probably much more used by locals than visitors, but very interesting for personal reasons. Makapu’u Point is the southern end of the Koolau Range. It is a small mountain right on the sea that rises above the main (and only) road that goes around this corner of Oahu, the Kalanianaole Highway, as it cuts through the southern end of the range. Two years ago a small parking lot (and a gate!) was built at its base, but for many years before that a short paved road, about a mile or so in length, has existed for the Coast Guard to access a lighthouse it maintains on this hill. The road is shaped like a V, and begins on the west side of Makapu’u Point so that hikers get views of the valley, Koko Head Crater and a distant Diamond Head as they climb up the first leg of the V. At the corner, you turn around and walk along a cliff, about 200 feet high, right on the ocean. Here, the views are spectacular! Most often, you can see Molokai, the closest neighboring island about 30 miles away, and very often, you can even see Lanai. At the end of the hike, you find a lookout at which you can view the eastern side of the Koolau Range, with its wonderful sheer cliffs falling out of the sky. It was here where I first saw humpback whales in Hawaii in February of 1999, on a visit to Dr. Yanagimachi’s lab before I moved here. Fellow SSR member and then student Kellie Tamashiro hiked with me specifically to look for whales, and we found them! We saw a whale breach, and watched from the top of the cliff as one floated just below the surface, directly underneath us. I will never forget this sight.

But that is during the middle of the day. If you are willing to get up an hour before sunrise, as Monika and I learned to do years ago, you will be treated to one of Hawaii’s most unique sunrises. The sun rises above Molokai in the winter and from the sea horizon just north of that island in the summer. But, the secret here is that often one can also see the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala on Maui 100 miles away. This view, on the rare occasions it occurs, only lasts about 10 minutes. As the sun rises, the mists obscure the view, and Haleakala disappears for the day. These sunrises are awesome spectacles that we have enticed many visitors to see. It is particularly easy on your first couple of days in Hawaii when you are waking up at 4 a.m., anyway, from jet lag!

The spot from which we watch sunrises is a small grassy plateau about half way up the second leg of the V on the ocean side of the hike. The road takes a temporary twist around a rocky peak, and most visitors miss this point, so it has some privacy. I cannot help but mention that on 4 May 2003 Monika and I were married at this point at sunrise. We actually talked about 30 of our friends into joining us for a 5 a.m. hike to the site, and we all witnessed the sun climb from behind Molokai to greet that day. I guess we are both rather biased, therefore, about our favorite spot on Oahu, so you may take these praises of this little mountain with a grain or two of salt.


Kaena Point. Kaena Point is a peninsula connecting the West and North shores of Oahu. It can be reached by walking from the end of the road on the West (or North). On the West side, there is the very pretty and wild Yokohama bay, with nice sandy beaches, magnificent mountains, dolphins—known to reside there (not always easy to see), and no civilization (no range for cell phones). The initial drive from Honolulu to the West side of the island is not too thrilling—mostly on highways. However, once you reach the road stretching along the ocean, it will become more interesting. The west shore of Oahu is very local, and you will see very few tourists there. When walking to Kaena Point you may see local fishermen and mountain bikers. The walk takes ~ 1 hour and is not difficult except for direct sun exposure (put sunscreen on!). There is a bird sanctuary on the peninsula and if you are lucky you will be able to see nesting or courting albatrosses. If you decide to walk to Kaena Point you should leave your car near the lifeguard and not at the end of the road (break-ins are common there).

Hiking. Oahu has many wonderful hiking trails. Perhaps because it is our home island, we know many of them. The length of the hikes vary from short (1–2 hours), through a bit longer (3–4 hours), ending with day-long hikes. Our personal favorite short hike is Mariners Ridge, in the Hawaii Kai area. To get there, take H1/72 Hwy East from Honolulu, turn left onto Keahole Street, drive just over one mile, pass the post office to your left and immediately after, turn left into the Mariner’s Ridge subdivision, drive to the very top of Kaluanui Road, and park at the end. It takes ~ 30 to 40 minutes to get to the top. The hike is not too arduous, and any relatively fit person could make it easily. Our 2.5-year-old son walked half of it, and my father reached the top not long after bypass surgery. The view from the top is rewarding, you will see the windward side of Oahu and the turquoise waters at Waimanalo Beach. My personal favorite mid-length hike is Hawaii Loa, located between Manoa and Hawaii Kai, in Honolulu. The trail starts at the Na Ala Hele trailhead sign at the top end of Paka Nahele. Paka Nahele is the exclusive-use park at the top end of Puu Ikena Drive above the private Hawaii Loa Ridge residential subdivision. At least one of the persons in your party will need to be a Hawaii Resident to enter the gated community leading to the trail. I like Hawaii Loa because it is a ridge hike and offers nice views almost the entire walking time. There is also some steep climbing with ropes and cables. I will not go into detailed description of all the hikes that we know and like but will just offer a few names of hikes within the Honolulu city limits that you may want to consider: Kuliouou Ridge (middle length), Waahila Ridge (short), Manoa Falls (short), various Tantalus hikes (mostly short).

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