Rediscovering Oahu

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There was a time when traveling to Hawaii meant visiting Oahu for Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Today, it is just as likely that visitors fly direct from the mainland to Maui, Kauai or Hawaii, the Big Island, bypassing Oahu. That’s their loss, because Oahu is one of the most beautiful, exciting, interesting, important and, yes, unspoiled of the Hawaiian Islands.

Most of all, Oahu has the finest beaches and the best surf in the whole Hawaiian Islands, if not the planet. So we are rediscovering Oahu, from Waikiki to the North Shore, Haleiwa to Makapuu, to find out why Oahu is a Hawaiian destination too amazing to pass over.

We arrive in Honolulu, a beautiful, bustling city, and make our way past the Aloha Tower, where cruise ships dock, and into the heart of iconic Hawaii, Waikiki Beach.

We are staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the Pink Palace, a jewel in the Starwood chain. Opened in 1927 and restored to perfection, the Royal Hawaiian is, in many eyes, the symbol of Waikiki, dominating photographs of beach, ocean and mountain for most of a century. We are on the sixth floor of the Historic Building, in an oceanfront suite overlooking Waikiki Beach with a perfect view of Diamond Head.

The beach sweeps in a dramatic arc along the bay. We stroll around the grounds in awe. Some destinations transcend their myth, and this is one of them. A famous destination during the golden age of cruise ships in the 1920s and ‘30s, a military barracks during World War II and an elegant presence throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the Pink Palace — for its signature rosy stucco — is again an oasis of luxury.

Dinner the first night is at Alan Wong‘s, whose chef-owner has revolutionized cuisine in this city in the past dozen years. A Kahlua-pig-and-foie-gras sandwich is a superb starter. Ginger-crusted onaga (ruby or long-tailed red snapper) on Hamakua mushrooms, a signature dish, bursts with flavor. What steals the show, though, with sweet, tangy, innovative flavor are short ribs, double-cooked in a Korean miso chili sauce and served with fragrant jasmine rice. Alan Wong’s makes pan-Pacific cuisine serene.

We rise with the dawn, looking down at the sea as the sun glints over Diamond Head. We ride on Kalanianaole Highway toward Koko Head and Hanauma Bay, a massive collapsed volcanic cone that has become a nature-sea preserve and snorkelers’ paradise. On the CD player, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro is playing the “Dragon-Heartbeat” medley from his new “Gently Weeps” album.

Passing above Hanauma Bay, normally a tranquil cove, we see the ocean is a fury of large, raging waves smashing against the rocks. For the next three miles, the road twists and turns through some of the most beautiful highway on Oahu: dark blue water sweeping against jagged cliffs in a surreal scene of tropical beauty, ending at the famous Halona Blowhole, a point of land where the surging waves cause a large spray of water to blow through a hole in the rock like a whale spout.

Just past Blowhole is famous and infamous Sandy Beach, home of perhaps the finest body-surfing beach on the planet. A pounding surf pummels as locals, with fins and boogie boards, ride the waves with startling audacity.

Around a barren point of land, we come to Makapuu, a fantastic beach at the base of steep cliffs under the gaze of a towering lighthouse. The Koolau ridges rise to several thousand feet like a serrated knife edge into the sky, clouds shrouding their peaks as we come to the rolling farmland and the rural local lifestyle of Waimanalo. We reach the Pali Highway and cross over the daunting peaks to the Pali Lookout, where King Kamehameha drove the warriors of Oahu off the cliff in the climactic battle that secured his rule over the Hawaiian Islands.

Back at the Royal Hawaiian, we enjoy a couple’s massage in the outdoor bungalow at the elegant Abhasa Spa. Midway through the massage, a squall of rain pounds rhythmically on the roof of our bungalow. It is a magical escape.

Dinner at Hoku’s in the Kahala Hotel and Resort takes us into a beautiful room with high ceilings and an elegant atmosphere. Hoku’s excels with starters such as roasted beets with crispy goat cheese and lobster salad with hearts of palm. Salmon wrapped in phyllo is terrific, and broiled onaga is simply wonderful. Chef Wayne Hirabayashi specializes in a clean, uncluttered approach to food and has made Hoku’s a part of Oahu’s stellar fine-dining tradition.

Morning is glorious, Diamond Head glows as the sun peeps, then rises from behind the mountain. Breakfast is in the sparkling decor of Mac, an innovative 24-hour dining spot in the Hilton Waikiki Prince Kuhio Hotel.

With Maitai Catamaran, we sail from the beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian on a wondrous adventure. Several miles offshore, well beyond the surf line, a large group of porpoises joins us, spinning out of the water, flapping their tail flukes and playing off our bow and in our wake. The water is emerald green, clear and lustrous.

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