ISLANDS ARE LIKE FRIENDS. They come into your life just when you need them. Each is different, offering different gifts. Meet O‘ahu, the friend that goes dancing, is sophisticated and urbane, yet dresses up in gaudy tangerine sunsets accessorized with coconut palms and rainbows. O‘ahu is paradise on speed dial, with a hundred white-sand beaches, including the world’s dream machine: magical, manic Waikiki. The island claims two mountain ranges, the Ko‘olau and Waianae, as well as national, state, and county parks crammed with legend, waterfalls, history, and hiking trails.
Author Rita Ariyoshi Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY ONE / Behind a door carved with the seal of the Hawaiian kingdom, you are ensconced like royalty in the historical wing of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Moorish fantasy known affectionately as the Pink Palace of the Pacific. The Royal opened in 1927, closed in June 2008 for a $110 million renovation, and will reopen in January 2009. You’ll be among the first to enjoy the rebirth.
If you’re tempted to linger at breakfast in your beachside cabana, resist. All of O‘ahu is waiting for you. Take the Pali Highway north through Nu‘uanu Valley, draped in wind-tossed waterfalls that flash among jagged volcanic peaks. Exit at the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout. Brace yourself for a mighty and cold wind as you stand at the mountain pass gazing over windward O‘ahu, the view that Mark Twain called the most beautiful in the world.
The Pali once rang with war cries as the army of the conquering King Kamehameha I drove the defenders of O‘ahu over the cliffs to their deaths. It was a decisive battle in uniting the Hawaiian Islands into one nation.
Continue on the Pali Highway through the tunnel to Kailua town. The road will change names a couple of times, but just keep going straight until it ends in a “T” at Kalaheo Avenue. Turn right, pass multimillion-dollar beachfront homes, and go to the group of stores at the intersection with Kailua Road.
At Kailua Sailboards and Kayaks, sign up for a guided kayak adventure in Kailua and Lanikai bays.
Even beginners can paddle along spectacular coastline and out to the dramatic Mokulua Islands. It is here you’ll realize that O‘ahu, the tourist center of Hawai‘i, just may be the most beautiful island in the archipelago.
Your post-paddle lunch is at the vintage Buzz’s Steakhouse, across from Kailua Beach Park. Reserve a table on the rickety porch in the shade of the big, old “family tree” carved with names and hearts. The burgers are noteworthy, and there is a wide selection of well-dressed forage, such as the Thai beef salad.
Before leaving Kailua, drop in at Island Treasures for local art and gifts, reasonably priced. Hawai‘i-themed pillows and linens are especially nice—and packable.
As you head back to Waikiki via Kailua Road, watch for the YMCA. Behind it, Ulu Po Heiau, a massive temple of the old Hawaiian religion, broods in verdant splendor. The name means “night of inspiration.” It’s said to have been built in one night by the Menehune, Hawai‘i’s legendary “leprechauns.” The 30-foot-high, flat-topped pyramid is an impressive and sacred relic.
Get back to the Royal in time for a swim at the best strip of Waikiki Beach, right in front of your hotel. After a shower, you have a cocktail date at the Halekulani Hotel’s seaside House Without a Key for music and hula with the setting sun as a backdrop. Nostalgia nuts will remember that the House Without a Key was immortalized by author Earl Derr Biggers in his famous Charlie Chan novels.
Dinner is at Alan Wong’s, the famed chef’s eponymous restaurant. Wong has won international awards for his creative cuisine based on Hawai‘i-produced food. Try Maui strip loin, dredged in a Kona coffee crust and served with roasted vegetables, Big Island goat cheese, and roasted garlic. Don’t miss the Waialua chocolate sampler featuring three chocolate desserts, each made from O‘ahu chocolate, a newly discovered sensation. The chocolate itself has a natural hint of raspberries and cherries. Let the day go out in glory at Rum Fire, a newish waterfront nightspot at the Sheraton Waikiki. It features more than a hundred kinds of rum, straight or concocted into exotic drinks—the kind with paper parasols and wedges of fruit. Enjoy the drink of your choice while lounging around a blazing cauldron outdoors and let the tradewinds caress you. A good night? The best.