The reefs at Oahu's Hanauma Bay make it arguably Hawaii's best snorkeling spot.
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At his inauguration in Washington, D.C., last winter, President Barack Obama did something you rarely see from a suit-and- tie politician: He shaka'd.
That's right, the soon-to-be Leader of the Free World, on perhaps the most important day of his life, flashed the pinkie-and-thumb surfer salute, a common greeting on his birth island of Oahu and the ultimate symbol of aloha. With a wiggle of the wrist it says, Hang loose, everything is all right.
In the annals of presidential hand gestures–Nixon's awkward V, Clinton's emphatic thumbs-up–this was by far the coolest. And in a way, it captured everything we love about the Aloha State. Yes, we visit Hawaii for the weather, beaches, fishing, leis, golf, umbrella drinks. But deep down, what we really want, what we crave, is that island cool. The one that allows us to don outsize floral shirts unselfconsciously and to smile on our own attempts at hula. The same cool that Obama brought to our nation's capital with that one simple shaka.
"We call him keiki o ka ‘aina," says our tour says our tour guide, Ernie Rabago, as he snakes the minibus through downtown Honolulu. "It's Hawaiian for ‘child of the land.' Illinois can try to claim him, but he was born here. Obama is ours."
Ernie leads the President Obama Tour, a 4½-hour sightseeing romp through some of the president's favorite island haunts. If I wanted a true taste of island cool, I'd need to get away from the crowds, swim where the prez swims, eat where he eats. And Ernie was the guy to show me how.
We stop at Hanauma Bay, an underwater preserve 11 miles east of Honolulu on Highway 72. This ancient caldera is now one of the preeminent snorkeling spots on the planet, and perfect for first timers. The shallow reef swells with up to 450 species of brightly colored fish, so it's no wonder Obama brought his daughters here last summer. Even the most Pixar-addled 8-year-old goes drop-jawed on glimpsing a butterfly fish or an Achilles tang before it darts off into a crevice of coral.
After a long day in the water, few things feel better than slurping down a cup of Hawaiian shave ice. Tucked into a nondescript mini-mall down the road from Hanauma Bay, Kokonuts Shave Ice & Snacks hosted the first family last December. When I march up to the counter and order "whatever President Obama had," the cashier doesn't miss a beat. "One small lemon, lime, cherry," she barks. It tastes nothing like the chunky snow cones of my youth. The ice is delicate and fluffy, the consistency of good sorbet. And it's a fine example of Hawaii's multiculturalism: Shave ice was brought here in the 1920s by Japanese plantation workers.
As we follow Highway 72 around the southeast corner of the island, Ernie calls out various points of interest. There's the Halona Blowhole, a lava tube that shoots water as high as 30 feet in the air, close to where Obama scattered his grandmother's ashes last winter; Sandy Beach, where the prez sliced through shore-pounding waves and high-fived giddy surfers; and Sea Life Park, a marine amusement park where he took his daughters on a date to see a dolphin show.
Curling north, we approach Oahu's windward coast. Sandwiched between the pleated emerald Koolau Range and 2.5 miles of wide, white sandy beach is the coastal village of Kailua. It's the kind of low-key spot most tourists overlook when planning day trips on the island. Missing are the beefy hotel towers that dominate the skyline in Waikiki.
But with sand this soft, why leave the ground? Walking the length of Kailua Beach—from the kiteboarders' park down to the $9 million oceanfront estate the first family rents–fills me with a deep peace. It's easy to see why the president-elect came here last Christmas for what the Washington Post called the "calm before the term." If you're looking to relax and reenergize, this is the place to do it.
That night I visit Makiki, the Honolulu neighborhood where the president grew up. Ernie has told me that Obama sometimes enjoys a meal at Alan Wong's, an upscale restaurant on South King Street, two doors from Zippy's (where young Barry polished off plate lunches of sticky rice, fried fish, and Spam).
My waiter, Ryan, appears, all smiles and crisp white creases. He introduces himself, then launches into a soliloquy on the menu's finer points: steamed Kona Kampachi in a dried scallop–risotto flan, nori-wrapped ahi tempura with a tangy soy-mustard sauce, tender lamb chops encrusted with macadamia and coconut. The words run together like music, an ode to the glorious bounty of the Hawaiian Islands. I allow him to finish, close the menu, and order "whatever President Obama had."
Request the Hawaii TourBook and map at AAA.com or any AAA branch office. For more information, contact the Oahu Visitors Bureau at (877) 525-6248 or go online to visit-oahu.com. Area code is 808 unless noted.
TO DO AND SEE
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Admission $5. Closed Tuesdays. 7455 Hwy. 72, 396-4229. President Obama Tour Book at Polynesian Adventure Tours. $40. (800) 622- 3011, polyad.com.
Alan Wong's 1857 S. King St., 949-2526, alanwongs.com. Kokonuts Shave Ice & Snacks Located in the Koko Marina Center, 7192 Hwy. 72, 396-8809. Zippy's For lunch, order the Zip Pac: fried chicken, fried fish, teriyaki beef, Spam, and sticky rice, all on one plate. Then cancel your dinner plans. 1725 S. King St. (and 24 other locations), 973-0877.
Beach Lane B&B and Studios From $115 for AAA members. Cozy accommodations on an unmarked road, footsteps from Kailua Beach. Kailua, 262-8286, beachlane.com . Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa From $214 for AAA members. The president stayed here in October. 2424 Kalakaua Ave., Waikiki, 923-1234.
Photography courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority/Heather Titus
This article was first published in November 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.