By Sara Benson – Check out her custom guide for more tips and recommendations!
You can’t easily touch the heart of Hawaii staying in a high-rise hotel on Waikiki Beach. But even near Oahu’s busiest oceanfront resort, you can deepen your island sojourn at local-flavor spots overlooked by visitors. Wandering Honolulu’s historic backstreets or cruising two-lane highways into the island’s green countryside? Even better.
Waikiki Away from the Crowds:
Start by ambling down the beach to the Waikiki Aquarium, a university-run educational center with tanks of floating moon jellies, rare South Pacific nautiluses, and out back, an endangered Hawaiian monk seal or two. Inland, get creative with aloha spirit at the Waikiki Community Center, which offers low-cost community classes in hula dancing, lei making, ukulele playing, and other arts and crafts. Or get schooled at Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii, an indie bookshop and cultural revival classroom near Ala Moana Beach. On Waikiki’s locals-only Kapahulu Avenue at Na Lima Mili Hulu Noeau workshop, generations of women artisans will teach you how to craft rare, prized feather lei.
Circling the Island & Camping Out:
Ready to get outside? Hop on Oahu’s cheap, public The Bus and in less than an hour, you could be unrolling your beach mat and splashing in the calm, aquamarine waves at Waimanalo Beach Park. Measuring almost 4 miles long, Oahu’s longest stretch of sand is popular with neighborhood families, who come here with the ohana (extended family and friends) after school and on weekends. Join the locals for lunch at Sweet Home Waimanalo, an island-style cafe just up the highway. Known for its slow-smoked barbecue, they also grow some of their food and buy from local organic farmers. Nearby in Kailua, Lanikai Juice Company blends up tropical smoothies and bowls, made mostly from organic, Hawaii-grown fruit. If you’re eager for more sun and sand, join the ranks of daredevil expert bodyboarders at Sandy Beach Park, where Barack Obama used to hang out as a kid. It’s another easy ride from Waikiki on TheBus.
To forget about all of Oahu’s vacationing crowds, rent a car and head up the Waianae Coast to lonely Kaena Point State Park. Hike for 5 windy, wave-splashed miles round-trip out to the island’s remote northwestern tip. If you’re lucky, you’ll pass a Hawaiian monk seal hauled out on the rocks or a pocket beach along the trail. Free to enter, this park pulses with mana (spiritual power), and Native Hawaiian tradition says that some souls have departed for the afterlife by jumping from this wild, remote point.
To bed down within earshot of breaking surf, take TheBus around Oahu’s board-crazy North Shore past the famous Banzai Pipeline to Laie’s Malaekahana State Recreation Area, where pine trees drop their shaggy needles on golden-brown sand (campsites and rustic cabins are available by reservation). Get up early the next morning and take a scenic drive down the Windward Coast, then find your footing on the slick trail up to Likeke Falls, which you may have all to yourself (no swimming, however).
Honolulu, Day and Night:
If you’re a diehard urbanist, genuine opportunities to get to know Hawaii better happen right in Honolulu, a quick bus ride from the plasticky coconut bikini bras, fake grass skirts, and neon-colored tiki drinks cluttering up Waikiki. For a moving history lesson, witness the legacy of the Hawaiian monarchy and its tragic downfall at downtown’s Iolani Palace. Make reservations for a private guided tour of the Manoa Heritage Center, enfolding a small heiau (temple) and ethnobotanical garden flowering in the verdant Manoa Valley, high in the hills above the UH Manoa campus.
Make your way back down toward the ocean and Ala Moana Beach Park to take a sunset walk around Magic Island, watching the rainbow-colored sails of Ala Wai Harbor’s boats. Hungry yet? Yup. Head inland to taste what Hawaii’s barrier-breaking chefs are cooking, for example, at farm-to-table Alan Wong’s Restaurant, Japanese fusion kitchen Nanzan Girogiro, and the Side Street Inn sports bar, where star chefs hang out and literally chew the fat after-hours. Cruise the pau hana (happy hour) and late-night bars and clubs of Honolulu’s Chinatown, once a red-light district and now setting the alternative scene for First Friday Gallery Walk art exhibitions and street festivals with food trucks and DJs.
But Wait, There’s More!
Planning a trip to Oahu soon? Join the party at the Waikiki Spam Jam on April 28, Hawaii’s statewide celebration of Lei Day on May 1, or Honolulu’s giant Pan-Pacific festival of Asian and Polynesian food, music, and performing arts from June 8-10, 2012.
Got a fave insider spot or outdoor adventure on Oahu? Tell us by leaving a comment below! Curious about other Hawaiian Islands? Check back soon for the second blog post in Sara Benson’s series on local and eco-travel in Hawaii.
Next up: Maui on Travel Tuesday, April 10.