Looking for soothing tropical breezes and a beach to call your own? Try a different side of Oahu.
Hawaii's Lanikai Beach on the windward coast of Oahu proves we're a country that saves its best for last: This is among the final places where the dawn makes landfall in the United States each day. The morning light reveals palm trees that could be posing for a postcard and a beach made of sand so perfectly granulated it looks like sugar with a tan. Only 11 miles from Honolulu's high-rises and the crowded beaches at Waikiki, Lanikai is still a world away. On some days, if you arrive soon after the sun does, it can feel as though it's yours alone.
And that's the beauty of Oahu's entire windward shore. Few traditional hotels or motels can be found anywhere on that side of the island. Instead you'll discover beachside bed-and-breakfasts, rental homes, and cottages in the coastal village of Kailua, where by local decree no building may rise higher than the tallest palm tree in town.
To get here, you drive east from Honolulu on 61, the Pali Highway. The city congestion quickly melts away as you ascend a mountain that appears to be draped entirely in green velvet. At its peak is the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, from which you encounter a view of windward Oahu that Mark Twain described in his Letters from Hawaii as "a revelation of fairyland itself."
A decisive battle to unify all of the Hawaiian Islands into a single kingdom was fought on the craggy face of this lookout in 1795. Kamehameha the Great drove Oahu's army over the edge, literally: Some defeated warriors leaped off the cliff to their death rather than allowing themselves to be taken prisoner. . . although they might just as easily have been blown off. This is the spot where the island becomes seriously windward. Atkins dieters may want to consider stuffing extra quarters in their pockets before visiting the windy Pali Lookout.
Another good vista lies southward at Makapuu Point, where almost all of the windward coast opens up in front of you. No sign marks this attraction, just some cars parked outside a closed gate along Kalanianaole Highway. This gate and another one along the trail are meant to keep out cars, not visitors on foot, though you have to slither around them as if you were breaking and entering. Your reward for a two-mile uphill hike comes when you reach the two viewing perches above the Makapuu Lighthouse: From here it looks as though miles of shoreline have just sprung newborn from the sea.
Your view includes beautiful Kailua Bay, its deep-blue waters protected by a barrier reef. Baby waves wash up on Lanikai and Kailua beaches, the best places to watch kite surfers and windsurfers rocket across the water as if propelled by silent jets. Kite surfing was practically invented at Kailua by local legend Robby Naish, and the sky is filled with his airborne disciples hoisted 30 or 40 feet in the air as they pirouette their boards to a new tack.
The fast-moving craft are occasionally a problem for the green sea turtles who bob to the surface of the bay to breathe. When Captain James Cook sailed into Hawaiian waters in 1778, legend has it he could have walked ashore on the backs of turtles. Though they are now an endangered species, you're still likely to see three or four during an afternoon of paddling a kayak to Popoia (Flat Island), a designated seabird sanctuary.
The island's windward side can get as much as 80 inches of rainfall a year. The benefits are evident when you take a drive north on Kahekili Highway to Oahu's loveliest Edens. The Haiku Gardens offer a rich bounty of Hawaiian flowers, including birds of paradise and heliconia. Farther north, Senator Fong's Plantation and Gardens—built by Hiram Fong, the state's first U.S. senator—mix 725 acres of banana and papaya groves with fragrant gardenias and ginger plants. And speaking of Ginger: From nearby Heeia State Park, you can gaze out across Kaneohe Bay and glimpse Coconut Island, the castaways' deserted home that appeared in the opening credits of the TV favorite Gilligan's Island.
It's a short trip from there to the Byodo-In Temple, a re-creation of a 900-year-old Buddhist temple in Japan. Designed in the shape of a phoenix landing like a shorebird, it was built in 1968 to commemorate the arrival of the island's first Japanese immigrants 100 years before. While you're there, it's a good idea to ring the three-ton sacred bell, an action believed to cleanse the mind of evil temptations.
There are blessedly few of those at the Polynesian Cultural Center, a 42-acre, Mormon-run nonprofit educational theme park devoted to preserving the native traditions of Pacific island cultures from Fiji to Tahiti. Each is represented by a "village," where, for example, Maori from New Zealand demonstrate the intricate art of twirling poi balls and Tahitian dancers give tips on hip shaking. In the evenings you can attend a luau and Hawaiian folkloric floor show—probably the most authentic of its kind on Oahu—followed by a 90-minute South Sea musical spectacular. It's a bit touristy, which is not surprising considering it's Hawaii's most popular paid attraction, drawing 31 million visitors in nearly three decades.
After a vigorous night under the tiki torches, you can relax at the spa at Turtle Bay Resort, just beyond the tip of the windward coast where the north shore begins. The papaya body polish will leave you gleaming like a Lexus. Or there is a limu (seaweed) wrap that turns you into giant human sushi—in a good way. This will be useful in preparing you for 36 holes of golf, a horseback ride along the beach, or a lesson at the hotel's surfing school, run by Oahu wave-meister Hans Hedemann.
But that can wait until tomorrow when the sun returns, the breezes begin their gentle flow, and Oahu's best coast presents you with yet another windfall of a day.
This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.