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When you're planning a vacation in the Hawaiian Islands, best not to think of Honolulu as a beach resort. Consider it instead as a great Pacific city, and its beach, Waikiki, as the best beach in any city anywhere.

Skyscrapers line up along Waikiki, but stop short of Diamond Head.
Photo caption
Skyscrapers line up along Waikiki, but stop short of Diamond Head.

All the ingredients of a metropolis are here--a gamut of culture and entertainment, high-rises, a terrific public bus system, multi-ethnicity, gargantuan shopping malls, places to sleep and eat at any economic level. And, like most cities, its downtown has its share of noise, grime, and crime.

But unlike most other cities, Honolulu also has the sweetest air, perfumed by tropical flowers, and warm foaming surf, sunsets that joy your heart, and nights so soft they're almost tangible. Even its suburbs are like few others, containing lush green mountains strung with rainbows, waterfalls, rocky shores, sandy beaches.

Honolulu, like other Pacific cities, could easily keep a curious explorer busy for a year; I had a week. Here, for example, is how I spent one recent day there: Climbed Diamond Head at dawn with breakfast in my pack; took a taxi up to Makiki Valley for a strenuous hike on muddy forest trails; walked up to the Contemporary Museum to enjoy the art, gardens, and lunch in the cafe; hopped TheBus back downtown; explored the new Aloha Tower shopping center; rode the shuttle back to Waikiki; toured the Aquarium; dined beachside during a mango sunset at the New Otani Hotel; walked in the dusk along Waikiki Beach; caught the show at the IMax Theater; and ended the evening on my lanai at the Halekulani, listening to faint Hawaiian music drifting up from somewhere and contemplating the starlit waves tumbling on the reef.

On the other hand, I could have slept late and hung at the beach all day.

After all, what are we here for, really? The beach at Waikiki runs for almost two miles, from Hilton Hawaiian Village to Diamond Head. It's possible to walk or jog its whole length, along the sand or sea wall. The northwestern end is walled in by the grand hotels, so you can spy on their pools and cafe&;s. The southeast strand, across from lovely Kapiolani Park, is used by locals and guests in off-beach hotels. It has grass, palm trees, restrooms, showers and lifeguards. In early morning and evening Waikiki Beach is almost peaceful. By midday, it's a carnival of squealing kids, palefaced haoles, Japanese honeymooners, and concessions for boogie boards, catamarans, surfboards, and windsurfers. What's hokey but really fun: going for a paddle in an outrigger—it's so Hawaiian, and it's only $6.

Climbing Diamond Head is a good opener for a day in Oahu. The rising sun was still a low red orb when I set off from the crater floor with a band led by the manager of the New Otani Kaimana Hotel, Stephen "Sir Edmund" Boyle. He's a protector and maven of the extinct volcano that has become the trademark of Hawaii. At his hotel, on the beach at the foot of the mountain, one can pick up How to Get to the Top, a helpful climbing guide.

Ignoring the peddlers of t-shirts and canned drinks, we climbed through the dry kiawe trees. Doves called, and Java sparrows flitted in the brush. It's a good but steep trail, with cement steps and steel handrails.

From the early 1900s to 1950, Diamond Head was a military defense base and off-limits to visitors. We paused at the first overlook to rest and view Oahu's east shore and the army buildings on the crater floor. The top of Diamond Head is hollowed out in tiers of gloomy military lookout bunkers. The expansive view from the summit—760 feet above the sea—is worth the effort.

Only an hour later, up in the Makiki Forest Preserve overlooking the city, I discovered how difficult the mountain trails of Oahu can be. I scrambled up the Maunalaha ridge, grabbing at the tangled tree roots; skidded down rain-soaked gullies; and sloshed through bright creeks. When I finished my 3-mile hike, I was well smeared with gooey mud acquired during several hilarious pratfalls. My new Reeboks were never white again. After washing up in a trailside restroom, I decided it was all worth it--for the views through the flowering trees to downtown office buildings, a bulbul feeding on berries, and encountering a pair of jovial sure-footed Japanese elders gathering guava.

Up the hill, at the Contemporary Museum on Makiki Heights Drive, I returned to civilization nicely with an eclectic lunch of pumpkin soup, scallops over soba noodles, and crème caramel. The museum's lush sculpture gardens are nice for lazing around beneath the mock oranges before checking out the art.

The exhibits are alive at the Waikiki Aquarium, at the southeast end of Waikiki Beach, where you can learn a lot about Hawaiian sea life, especially the reef communities. As aquariums go, it's small but beautifully designed, entertaining, and educational. Learn the names and habits of the pretty creatures you'll see snorkeling. Don't miss the amazing frogfish, which never seems to move, and the Sargassumfish, which looks like a clump of seaweed. The Aquarium is noted for breeding chambered nautilus, cuttlefish, and mahi mahi. The monk seals are fed three times daily.

If you're jetlagged, awake early, and love to walk, an interesting morning can be spent exploring Chinatown and Downtown; ride TheBus. If you can arrive by dawn, catch the excitement at the fish auction beside Kewala Basin (Monday is best). Then head over to Chinatown, a rather rundown commercial area, not a tourist attraction. Savor a dim sum breakfast, explore the Chinese markets (where you'll see produce such as rambutan, star fruit, and fuyu persimmons), shop the florists for a fresh lei, or stroll through Foster Botanic Garden.

For a poignant glimpse into the lives of Hawaiian royalty, visit Iolani Palace, the residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani and Queen Liliuokalani in the late 19th century. It's downtown, in an expanse of green lawns and dark banyans facing King Street, and is this nation's only royal palace. Visitors must be "properly dressed" and wear booties to protect the polished wooden floors and grand koa staircase. Docent-guided tours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 2:15; fee is $8 for adults. For information phone (808) 522-0832.

Other attractions downtown: Kawaiahao Church, built of coral in 1838. On the morning I attended a service here, hymns were sung in Hawaiian; an African American girl read a prayer; a haole in a Mohawk recited a psalm. Across the street are the old Mission Houses, now a museum open Tuesday-Sunday. And, on the waterfront near the Aloha Tower Marketplace, is the Hawaiian Maritime Center with history exhibits, the tall ship Falls of Clyde, and the ocean-going canoe Hokulea.

Shopping is a major tourist activity along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki--especially for the multitudes of Japanese, whose social protocols require them to bring gifts to everyone at home. The big shopping centers are the Royal Hawaiian, Ala Moana, Ward Centre, and the attractive new Aloha Tower, downtown where the cruise ships dock. Terrific for bargains is the flea market out at Aloha Stadium, held Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. It has 1,000 stalls, where one can haggle for the best prices on such things as t-shirts, beach towels and sandals, pareus, seashells, watches, macadamia nuts, household junk--and extra luggage to carry it all home. Best way to go is the shuttle bus, which for $6 round-trip takes you right into the flea market grounds. (808) 955-4050.

Let Them Entertain You
You may not think much of Hawaiian music when you're home on the mainland. But at the source, with the warm tradewinds teasing the palms, it sounds romantic and right. Many of the hotels have fine free performances of traditional Hawaiian song and dance in the afternoons—such as "With Aloha" at the Hyatt Regency, and the show under the giant banyan at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider. On weekdays singers and dancers from the Polynesian Cultural Center perform free at the Fountain Court in the Royal Hawaiian shopping mall. And on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings, there's the free photo-op Kodak Hula Show in Kapiolani Park.

To my mind, the best evening entertainment is a performance by the popular entertainers The Brothers Cazimero in the Bishop Museum. Here, on a stage in the center of the historic Hawaiian Hall, a small troupe performs both ancient and modern Hawaiian songs and hula, featuring the ageless Leinaala Heine Kalama, who dances as lightly as a cloud. All around, and looking down from the balconies, are the trappings of ancient Hawaii: feather cloaks and leis, drums, whale ivory pendants, ceremonial objects carved of koa, the royal coach of Queen Liliuokalani.

The performances are Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights. The museum is on a hill, with long views of city and sea. I went early to enjoy the scene of a passing thunderstorm at sunset and lights coming up downtown--and to peruse museum exhibits of the human and natural heritage of these islands. The museum's shop is well-stocked with books and maps. The show's price of $47.50 includes a picnic boxed supper; it's $32.50 for the show only. For reservations, call (808) 847-6353.

Trips Out of Town
A pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial is moving and memorable, even for those too young to remember the Day of Infamy. A shuttle costs $3 one way from Waikiki; for details call (808) 839-0911.

A few other tourist draws outside Honolulu provide shuttlebuses from Waikiki, such as the Polynesian Cultural Center and Waimea Falls Park.

The best snorkeling near town is at crowded Hanauma Bay, a sunken crater on the southwest shore--but get there early. Closed on Wednesday mornings.

If you feel like renting a car for the day, a nice loop drive is out the Pali Highway through the rain-swept Koolau Mountains. Along the way, stop at Queen Emma's little Summer Palace, a pleasing mix of Polynesian and Victorian styles. Pull into the Nuuanu Pali Lookout for views and a windy walk. Beyond, the road switchbacks down the sheer pali toward Kailua; you can return to Waikiki along the east coast, passing several beach parks and around Koko Head. A rewarding side trip is north to the serene gardens at Byodo In, a replica of a temple in Japan, or up to hike the rugged trail to Sacred Falls.

Across the island on the north shore, the valley of the Waimea River has been turned into a showcase of Hawaiian culture and nature. Trams carry tourists through Waimea Falls Park, stopping at various "stations" for hula performances, drumming, taro farming, and garden walks. At the head of the valley cliff-divers plunge into the pool below Waimea Falls, and afterwards guests can go for a cooling swim. Free shuttle buses run from Waikiki.

At the gate to Waimea Falls is the kiosk of Kayak Oahu Adventures, where I joined the 3-hour mid-day paddle out the river and along the north coast to Shark's Cove. (For information, phone (808) 593-4415.) We hauled the kayaks onto the beach and donned snorkeling gear. This cove is deep and clear with black lava ridges and tunnels. A turtle was sunning on the surface; below, a big school of fish, pale and round as moons, descended to the rocks to feed on algae. Fluttering there by the hundreds, they looked like a convention of butterflies in a spring meadow.

At the end of the week, on the plane headed home, I was surprised by the memories that seemed mundane but played so well in my head. Walking in the slanting light of late afternoon in Kapiolani Park, when the white pigeons flock to the shadowy trees. The blue doves that browse across the lawns, little heads bobbing. Watching the prone population of an entire beach jump into wild motion when a surprise rain squall descends. The way white gauze curtains billow and dance in the sea-breeze at your hotel window, and how you can lie in bed and watch it for a stupidly long time.

Photography courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in May 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.