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.
The catamaran moves farther into the Pacific, into deeper water, now a dark blue, well off the other side of Diamond Head. In swells that are 8 feet or more, the open ocean beckons, and the catamaran surges through the whitecaps, then comes about, and we ride several large waves as if on a double-hulled 50-foot surfboard.
The coastline of Waikiki is a gleaming host of hotels at the base of brilliant green mountains. The Pink Palace stands out like a gem among its towering neighbors. We glide through a flotilla of surfers catching the outside break before reaching the shallows and the beach.
We reluctantly leave the Royal Hawaiian and head up the rural coastline of windward Oahu from Kaneohe through Kahuku, past Kaaawa and rugged, exotic Kahana Valley, the windward cliffs rising like jagged emerald knives to the sky. We pass scattered houses and the occasional general store along the scenic highway. The North Shore lies ahead, the gold coast of Oahu, a 10-mile stretch of beaches with indisputably the best surfing on the planet.
We stay at Turtle Bay Resort at the tip of the North Shore. Turtle Bay is a stunning complex built around a series of pools and surrounded by two championship golf courses, and it is the only luxury hotel at this end of the island. We are in a beachfront bungalow, just steps from the ocean. The pounding surf rolls in across the crescent bay in this tropical wonderland, which is splendid in its isolation and beauty. Our bungalow has hardwood floors, sumptuous platform beds, 20-foot ceilings and a sunken sitting room leading to a private lanai overlooking the beach, which curves along the bay for about two miles on each side of the hotel.
Dinner is in the hotel's 21 Degrees North, a beautiful room with sweeping views. Waimea greens with macadamia-nut-crusted goat cheese is fantastic, and Wailua tomatoes with Maui onions and spicy crab in a mango-cilantro vinaigrette leaps across the palate.
The main courses are works of art. Kona lobster on an arborio risotto is amazing, but the peak is Kona kampachi (Hawaiian yellowtail) wrapped in nori and served with a coconut-curry sauce with jasmine rice. Delicious.
Chef John Armstrong has created an innovative, tasteful and not overly indulgent cuisine; 21 Degrees North is a magnificent restaurant and is among the best on Oahu.
The surf is pounding outside our bungalow as the sun rises for a picture-perfect morning. After breakfast, we enjoy an excellent deep-tissue massage at the Spa Luana on the grounds of the hotel. Then we're off to a surfer's paradise.
Ocean swells cross thousands of miles and hit Oahu's North Shore unimpeded — winter waves can be 20 feet or more. Beach after beach lies in close to the other. Often just hundreds of yards apart, each has dramatically different breaks and waves.
These legendary shores draw hordes each December for the Triple Crown of Surfing, including the epic Pipeline Masters. We stop at famous Sunset Beach, a wide stretch of sand beside the road. The surf is small, but the scene is beautiful. Half a mile farther down Kamehameha Highway is Ehukai Beach Park, best known for the Banzai Pipeline. Here, literally down the beach from Sunset, the waves are breaking 4 to 8 feet, and surfers are out in two packs at different spots, riding the crisp surf in staccato bursts that explode with the fury of the ocean. It is mesmerizing.
Down the road at the mouth of idyllic Waimea Valley is Waimea Bay, with one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, a wide sandy expanse on an emerald-green sea that also is a legendary big-wave surf spot. It is flat today, with barely a ripple, but in winter, the waves can rise to 30 feet and more, beckoning the most audacious surfers. A giant rock at one end of the bay is calling out to be used for leaping into the shimmering water, and a cluster of locals is doing just that.
We continue past the surf spots Laniakea and Chun's Reef to Haleiwa, a lovely place that once was a sleepy sugar-cane town full of locals. These days, it is the center of the North Shore surfing industry and is filled with quaint shops, restaurants, boutiques, old tin-roofed buildings and general stores with stands selling shaved ices.
We hear a blues band pounding out incredible music from Resurrection City, the art gallery of Ron Artis, a musician who has relocated to Haleiwa with his wife and 11 children and paints old surfboards, turning them into works of art. He also has painted numerous beautiful large-scale murals around the island. We have lunch at Haleiwa Joe's, an iconic restaurant that has stood for decades at the foot of Anahulu Bridge, an art-deco landmark built in 1921.
Returning to Sunset Beach and the Pipeline at — when else? — sunset, we watch the surfers take the last waves at day's end in the glistening twilight.
Dinner is at Jameson's by the Sea in Haleiwa, a restaurant that has been here 25 years and never fails to delight. The signature curry chicken salad, served in a papaya, is always sensational, and we both have the fresh ono, my wife's with a mild Cajun seasoning and mine with black-bean sauce. Our waiter, Pam Farr, a junior staff member, has been here 16 years. The casual atmosphere is very North Shore. The food is excellent, the view wonderful and the ambience superb.
We leave Turtle Bay, riding past Haleiwa and through the last remaining pineapple fields on Oahu, through Wahiawa and past Schofield Barracks.
The central plains between the Koolau and Waianae mountain ranges are fertile and lovely, particularly Kipapa Gulch, before the road descends past Pearl Harbor and back into Honolulu. We cross the causeway to Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
Here, set several hundred yards apart, are the symbols of the beginning and end of World War II for the United States. Entombed under the water in the USS Arizona are 1,600. Above the ship is a beautiful memorial sitting like a gleaming white mausoleum over them, while anchored nearby is the USS Missouri, on which Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
We travel through Halawa Valley, an untouched, unspoiled, undeveloped valley accessible only by an elevated road. Lush jungle with wild papaya and passion-fruit trees line both sides. We visit the Bishop Museum, named for Bernice Pauahi Bishop, granddaughter of Kamehameha and namesake of the powerful Bishop Estate, which has vast land holdings throughout the islands.
Here, in a massive stone building, is a treasure trove of artifacts from the Hawaiian kingdom, including Kamehameha the Great"s feathered cape signifying his rank as alii, or chief. Hawaiian history is a complicated melange of conquest by Kamehameha, a fending off of the great powers, cultural destruction and assimilation in the 19th century, culminating in the overthrow of the monarchy and Queen Liliuokalani when she tried to reassert royal and indigenous authority.
Britain, Japan, Russia and the United States vied to dominate Hawaii. The coup gave way to the Republic of Hawaii under businessman Sanford B. Dole and annexation by the United States in 1898.
We visit Iolani Palace, built by King Kalakaua in the 1880s. It was here that Queen Liliuokalani was held prisoner for two years after the coup and was forced to abdicate. It also is where she wrote "Aloha Oe," variously described as a farewell song about departing lovers or an ode to the end of the monarchy and to Hawaiian control of the islands.
The beautiful palace sits on a large, open, manicured lawn in the heart of Honolulu. Across the street is the majestic Supreme Court building and the famous statue of Kamehameha the Great.
We check in to the Halekulani Hotel, an elegant five-star enclave just down from the Royal Hawaiian. We are in a lovely 14th-floor oceanfront suite with glorious views of the enclosed lawns, swimming pool and also the Pacific Ocean. Once a series of sleepy bungalows dating to the 1920s, the Halekulani now is a destination of choice for upscale travelers in the heart of Waikiki.
We dine at sophisticated La Mer, the award-winning oceanside restaurant in the hotel; many say it is Oahu's best restaurant. Chef Yves Garnier has created food that is as amazing as it is elegant and superb. Hamachi medallions, sauteed scallops and scampi on black risotto make up a trio of earthly delights.
Venison with foie gras in a bold red wine sauce is a triumph. A plate of homemade sorbets — cassis, guava, mango, pineapple and raspberry — completes the meal. The service is impeccable.
The next morning, we take a helicopter tour of Oahu, courtesy of Heli USA. Our pilot, Greg James, shows us the island in a unique way, sweeping over the precipice of the Koolau cliffs, suspending us over the hidden Sacred Falls and the jungle haven at Kaaawa where "Lost" and "Jurassic Park" were filmed.
The exciting and fascinating ride takes us along the expanse of the North Shore, flying directly over Pearl Harbor and hovering above the Diamond Head crater. The stark beauty of an island still largely unspoiled is revealed from the air.
We visit the offices of Mountain Apple Co. records to meet the Ahmet Ertegun of Hawaiian music, Jon de Mello, who for 30 years has guided the careers of Israel Kamakawiwoole and many other artists, distributed Palm Records, and helped preserve Hawaiian culture by releasing beautiful music by artists no other label would touch, much less enthusiastically support.
An intense, witty, articulate man, Mr. de Mello lets us know about a new release, "Wonderful World," from the late Mr. Kamakawiwoole, who is best known for his ukulele version of "Over the Rainbow," and other, promising artists.
We drive up to Punchbowl National Memorial, the Arlington National Cemetery of the Pacific, where thousands of the fallen find their resting place in idyllic serenity. We then go up Tantalus Drive, high into the mountains above Honolulu for the spectacle of jungle and hidden mansions.
Upon descending, we drop by Leonard's Bakery and buy a box of its famous malasadas — doughnuts without holes.
Dinner on our last evening is at Chef Mavro, an exquisite multicourse affair from the man who is reshaping the face of pan-Pacific cuisine. Chef George Mavrothalassitis has established himself as one of Oahu's premier chefs by using local ingredients in brilliant combinations. Ahi with Sumida Farms watercress is exceptional, beignets of oyster with a white gazpacho explodes with taste, and foie gras wrapped in nori is amazing.
The courses keep coming, paired with wines that complement each dish, opakapaka (pink snapper) and hamachi, Sonoma duckling and Keohole lobster, perfect-size proportions, exceptional ingredients. Kobe beef filet with Kobe short ribs stops the show, while loin of lamb with chickpea puree is a sweet and juicy delight. The service is exquisite and precise, thanks to a brilliant, young and energetic staff. A melange of deserts is capped with a lilikoi (a fruit) malasada that is perfection.
With all that we have done, there is much left unexplored. Oahu beckons with a depth of wonder and attraction found nowhere else in the Hawaiian Islands. An active city life set in paradise gives way to unspoiled countryside in minutes.
The history of the islands is written here. The vibrancy of a restored downtown and a gleaming redeveloped Waikiki gives way to the warmth and tranquil lifestyle of Haleiwa or a North Shore surf scene unchanged in 40 years.
Oahu is a treasure box of the Hawaiian Islands waiting to be explored. Before jetting off to Maui or Kauai, discover — or visit again — Oahu and find paradise where it always has been.
n n n
Delta Air Lines and other carriers have connecting service from Washington to Honolulu. We found Delta's first-class service very comfortable and roomy, with a choice of many films and excellent food. Delta Air Lines: visit www.delta.com or phone 800/221-1212.
Royal Hawaiian Hotel, www.royal-hawaiian.com; 808/923-7311 or 866/716-8109
Turtle Bay Resort, www.turtlebayresort.com; 808/293-6000 or 800/203-3650
Halekulani Hotel, www.halekulani.com, 808/923-2311 or 800/367-2343
Heli USA, www.heliusahawaii.com; 808/826-6591 or 866/936-1234
Alan Wong's Restaurant, www.alanwongs.com; 808/949-2526
Hoku's, www.kahalaresort.com/dining/hoku.cfm; 808/739-8780
21 Degrees North, www.turtlebayresort.com/Dining/21Degrees_North.asp; 808/293-6000
Jameson's by the Sea, www.jamesonshawaii.com/jamesonshaleiwa.htm; 808/637-6272
La Mer, www.halekulani.com/dining/la_mer; 808/923-2311
Chef Mavro, www.chefmavro.com; 808/944-4714
Mountain Apple Co, www.mountainapplecompany.com; 808/597-1888 or 866/597-1888
Jake Shimbukuro, www.jakeshimabukuro.com; 808/221-1865
Abhasa Spa, www.abhasa.com; 808/922-8200
Spa Luana, www.turtlebayresort.com/Spa_Luana/Spa_Luana.asp; 808/447-6868
Maitai Catamaran, www.leahi.com; 808/922-5665 or 800/462-7975
Resurrection City: Ron Artis, www.ronartis.com; 808/261-8118
Bishop Museum, www.bishopmuseum.org; 808/847-3511
Iolani Palace, www.iolanipalace.org; 808/522-0822