- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

HAUULA, Hawaii — How did I end up here? The stifling heat, the sickening motion, a herd of people struggling to keep from falling on one another. It’s one of those moments when a traveler would do anything to be home.

I’m convinced I’m in hell, but a glimpse outside to the Pacific reminds me otherwise. I’m riding a public bus on Oahu.

A $2 tour of a chunk of American paradise, I’ll admit, sounds incredible. And it is. At times. At others, it seems a never-ending nausea-inducing journey through the roads of Hawaii’s most populous island, a jaunt far more restrictive than a car trip, but still an inexpensive link to some of Oahu’s storied shores.

The circle-island public bus tour is not right for everyone. It is, however, an experience unlike any other, one whose merits you might consider when planning a Hawaiian vacation.

My day begins just after 10 a.m. with all the hope that comes with a morning in paradise — sun beaming, ocean breeze sweeping through. I have lived here more than 1½ years, but with a car the entire time; this is my first trip on Oahu’s bus system.

My departure point is Ala Moana Center, the hulking king of commercialism in Honolulu, an open-air mall with brand-name boutiques sure to scare away any bargain shopper. After struggling to understand some bus maps, I await the arrival of No. 52. It shows up 15 minutes late, but I don’t mind.

By day’s end, I’ll have traveled a loop from Oahu’s southern shore through the center, then up and around the northern tip and down the eastern coast. I’ll change buses a few times, fork over $2 twice and finish one of the cheapest outings in one of America’s priciest getaways.

When I board, the show begins: a chorus of languages and accents as tourists and locals alike pile in.

The bus edges away from Ala Moana, past the open-air state Capitol and toward downtown Honolulu, giving a glimpse of Chinatown before taking to the highway known as the H-1. Some pass the time with a sweetheart, others with a favorite CD.

Tim Schlusener and his wife, Daniela Wolf, have made their way to Hawaii from Stuttgart, Germany. They say they enjoy the bus because they get to people-watch.

“It takes a little more time,” Mrs. Wolf says, “but we’re on vacation, so we have it.”

Our driver, Esther Aweau, has been doing this for 31 years. She’s back from three weeks of vacation, with a warm smile and homegrown yellow and purple orchids in her hair.

Miss Aweau says sometimes more than half of her passengers are tourists.

“I kind of look forward to them catching the bus,” she says. “You see their faces light up.”

We wind through prim suburbs, fields of pineapple and the center of the island toward Oahu’s North Shore. It takes an hour and 35 minutes before we arrive in Haleiwa, the funky seaside surfer town where we’ll break our day.

Haleiwa is laid-back and fun for wandering.

“What’s not to like about it?” asks Denise Jacob, taking a break from blowing vases at North Shore Glass, which she runs with her husband, Tracy. “It’s so beautiful.”

The North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum, a colorful collection of surfboards and other memorabilia, happens to be closed. Nearby, though, Crossroads, an eclectic mix of art, vintage clothes and regular musical performances, catches my eye.

Surfers have brought more than 200 broken surfboards to the owner, Travis Talamo, this year alone. He transforms each board into art.

“It’s got soul,” he says. “It’s been in the waves.”

Nearby, we grab a bite at Grass Skirt Grill, which boasts fresh mahi mahi and ahi as well as salads, burgers and other items. Other choices for dining include Mexican (try Cholos); Thai (Haleiwa Eats opened recently); fast-food outlets; and perhaps my favorite island burger spot, Kua Aina, which recently moved into new, roomier digs.

There’s plenty more to explore in Haleiwa, including the famed shaved-ice spot, Matsumoto’s, as well as small surf shops and other stores. After two hours wandering around, it’s time to board the bus again.

The second leg of the journey begins harmlessly enough. We ride along the North Shore, past stretches of sandy beaches and famed surf spots. There are green mountains and blue waters, and all seems OK.

A little boy next to me nods to sleep, his head repeatedly coming to rest on my arm. I’m fighting slumber, too, as the vibrations of the bus urge an afternoon nap.

Also, next to me, 19-year-old college student Emily Bitton tells me she attended a high school in my hometown. She favors hitchhiking over the bus, which she says has passed her by a number of times, but she still thinks it’s a decent ride.

“I got to see more of Hawaii on the bus than just walking around,” she says. “You always meet interesting people on the bus.”

As we head along the coast, the bus keeps filling up. I offer my seat to a Canadian woman, Carole Steffen of Oshawa, Ontario, who chose the bus tour for her final hours in Hawaii. She’s enjoying it, but she laments the difficulty of soaking in the landscape.

“They go pretty fast by anything you want to look at,” Miss Steffen says.

Before long, dozens of people are standing, and potholes are making it difficult to stay that way. Friendly conversations continue, and a lighthearted spirit prevails, but my enthusiasm is fast draining.

I’m being bumped and pushed, and the temperature on the bus has steadily risen. I spend most of the 2½ hours of the trip’s second leg standing and begin to feel sick.

I’m missing the passing scenery because of the crowd, and I struggle to keep my composure. The adjectives I used earlier in the day — charming and insightful — must be replaced with words such as torturous and toilsome. I want out. Now.

Kailua, on Oahu’s eastern shore, can’t come soon enough. We get off in search of a new bus, No. 57, to follow the shoreline. It requires a short walk along a busy roadway — but the bus arrives soon, and it is cool.

Still, my thoughts are focused on getting a cold drink. We ride into town and hop off to grab iced coffees and fresh fruit smoothies.

I feel better. We head back to the bus stop, intent on completing the route.

Our next bus holds just a few passengers. It weaves mostly through suburban neighborhoods, missing out on one of the most impressive stretches of coastline this island offers.

We hear seals at Sea Life Park, then make our way near Diamond Head and through Waikiki.

We arrive back at Ala Moana too late to catch a glimpse of the sun sinking into the horizon, but as we trek through the grass, its cool blades brushing at my feet, a melancholy sky is painted with strokes of pink and purple.

I feel sweet redemption. It might just be the best part of the trip.

n n n

To travel Oahu by bus, take bus No. 52 from Ala Moana Center. The fare is $2 for adults; get a transfer upon boarding. The whole loop should cost no more than $4. A four-day bus pass costs $20 and is available at all stores in the ABC chain.

Route 52 hits many major sites, though it would be difficult to incorporate more than a couple in a day trip. If you get off the bus, you’ll have to wait about a half-hour for the next one.

Among the stops along Route 52: Dole Plantation, a glorified gift shop and snack bar with all things pineapple, as well as a small garden, a train ride through the fields, and a maze that bills itself as the world’s largest; Turtle Bay, a resort and popular snorkeling spot; the Polynesian Cultural Center, which offers visitors a taste of Pacific island cultures and a nightly luau; and a multitude of beaches, including Haleiwa Beach Park, Sunset Beach and Kaaawa Beach Park.

You can switch to Route 57 in Kailua if you would like to ride farther down Oahu’s eastern coast as you return to Ala Moana, though staying on No. 52, which crosses over the island, is probably a better idea unless you have a specific spot you would like to hit. A number of beaches and Sea Life Park are along the way.

For more information: Oahu’s public bus system has a Web site, www.thebus.org. Recorded information is available by calling 808/296-1818.

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