For many first time visitors to the Hawaiian island of Oahu, their first view of the capital city Honolulu comes as a shock. Years of endless promotional campaigns, movies, television shows and books featuring golden beaches, verdant rainforests, dazzling sunsets and grass-skirted hula dancers have inevitably created the impression that the islands are an idyllic tropical Eden. Unfortunately, such misty-eyed romanticizing gets a rude jolt when it meets reality. Honolulu is no sleepy tropical settlement, lazing quietly by the beach — it’s a big, thoroughly modern city, bustling with life and noise, its skyline jagged with gleaming high rises and roads busy with traffic.
For some people, the disillusionment is too much. The whole city — maybe even the whole island — is dismissed as a cardboard tourist trap, to be left as quickly as possible in search of ‘The Real Hawaii’. For those who are willing to look past their visions of an untouched Eden, however, Honolulu offers many beguiling possibilities. Despite its ugly urban sprawl, the city still exudes a captivating sense of warmth and character, its people fascinatingly varied but joined by a common love of the island, its laidback culture thriving and embracing everyone in a generosity of spirit that is wonderfully, characteristically Hawaiian.
The great foods of Hawaii
There are many things to do in Honolulu — going shopping, relaxing on the beaches, visiting the attractions like Bishop Museum or the Hawaii Plantation Village, the beaches again, and of course, watching the hula dances. There are countless ways to empty your wallet, but probably the most interesting way to do it would be to eat.
There’s an amazing number of eateries in Honolulu and even on a month long stay, you could eat at a different spot every meal for your entire stay without repeating yourself. There are all the usual fine dining spots of course, and Hawaii has a well-deserved reputation for showcasing some of the most exquisite cooking in the world. Unfortunately, its extremely unlike that the average visitor will have pockets deep enough to enjoy an extravagant fine dining spree, but fear not – there are even more eateries offering reasonably priced meals.
In fact, its more of an adventure doing things the local way in between all your other activities: grabbing a lunch served on paper plates from one of the numerous lunch wagons making their rounds, and finding a spot to sit and devour it. A chair on the sidewalk will do, but for added ambience, you can carry your meal onto the nearest beach. Or for more ethnic fare, there’s places like Kozo Sushi, a take away restaurant so authentic you’ll have an easier time ordering in Japanese, or Pho An, a Vietnamese restaurant that’s popular for its beef noodle soup. It being Hawaii, probably two restaurants in five will be serving Asian cuisine, but almost all diners will offer fusion cuisine, Hawaiian style — burritos with mahimahi, puff pastries with guava custard fillings, and an assortment of other delicious dishes which let you know, emphatically, that you’re in Hawaii.
Doing the Beach Thing and Living the Aloha Way
Once stuffed beyond the restraining limits of your belt buckle, its time to hit the beaches, and there’s plenty to choose from. Most people will head to the Waikiki Beach. Touristy, packed with busloads of tourists and hardly the deserted island beach of anyone’s dreams, it is nevertheless THE beach to visit while you’re in Honolulu, at least once. Around sunset, the beach hosts a not-so-traditional hula dance performance, which is quite popular. Speaking of sunsets, the end of the day is euphemistically known as ‘feeding time’ and it would probably not be a good idea to swim in the ocean when the sun is sinking. Still, as long as you’re sensible and take the usual precautions associated with going to the beach, there’s certainly no reason to avoid the water. Other places like Hanauma Bay are also popular spots to enjoy the beach life.
Honolulu offers plenty of distractions, but if the hunger for some of that idyllic tropical experience is still gnawing, then heading out to the Oahu countryside might just be the way to satisfy the craving. The countryside is a whole other world, one of quiet roads and colourful fruit stands, empty beaches and cozy wooden beachfront homes. If you don’t have car, the bus takes you around the island for a whole two dollars. Its an easy, lazy way to see the beauties of the island.
There’s plenty of places to stop off and explore, but most people will head directly to the North Shore, where the biggest town is Haleiwa, favourite haunt of the surfers who make the North Shore their first destination on their pilgrimage for the best waves. Places like Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach are famous for their almost perfect waves, which can reach 20 feet. There are plenty of surf competitions going on almost every week, and reserving a spot on the sands is the only price to pay for watching the show. Joining in can also be a blast, as long as you don’t encroach on the pros, and make a sensible estimate of your actual abilities. Most people wisely admit their ineptitude on the surfboard and cheerfully leave North Shore’s challenging waves to the surfers.
While making the rounds of the attractions and beaches in Oahu, one word likely to be heard over and over again is Aloha. Most people know it through movies and cheesy brochures, but in Hawaii, Aloha is much more than just a greeting – in many ways it is a whole way of life. Living the Aloha way is about being warm and tolerant and gentle, about showing respect and consideration to others, about valuing relationships and the land. It is the working philosophy of the Hawaiians, their own Golden Rule, adopted by all who come to the islands as the best and only way to live.
The Aloha spirit manifests in a myriad of ways. It is there in the way the locals will smile at total strangers, just to see a smile in return. It is there in the countless sunset barbecues, when friends and family gather to reaffirm their ties and have a good time. It is even there on the roads, when even in a traffic jam the cars keep considerately to their lanes and refrain from honking, so that they don’t inconvenience and irritate other drivers. Even in the middle of the crowded city, the warm spirit remembered from the Hawaii of yesteryear still holds sway.