Hawaii: Oahu, Hula dancers
Hawaii: Oahu, Hula dancers

Hawaii Honolulu and Island of Oahu – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

When the plane touches down in Hawaii, the magic of the eight major Islands in the Hawaiian group begins to infuse the sensibility of a traveler. First of all, a traveler from North America has just made a long voyage, 2,000 miles and fully five hours from western U.S. cities, or longer from Chicago and New York. After traversing long stretches of ocean, the islands suddenly appear, as improbable as they must have seemed to the first Polynesians who sailed and paddled their canoes from the South Seas to this site about 750 A.D. or possibly earlier. From out of nowhere the modern visitor alights into a fully-realized dream, Hawaii.

When you leave the airplane, a lei may be put around your neck, if you are on a tour. If not, you may want to buy a lei at the airport, just to get into the spirit. Leis are sometimes made of vanda orchids or of plumeria. The perfume of the lei and the warm tropical air of Hawaii immediately bathe a visitor. A range of bright flowers can be seen everywhere, starting with bougainvillea or hibiscus, the state flower, giving a technicolor aura to Hawaii. Brightly floral aloha shirts, which appear so ostentatious on the mainland, seem immediately appropriate here.

Then you begin observing people in this airport. The most striking aspect of the people is that their racial origins are diverse and are primarily from the Orient. Aside from the Portuguese, the main groups were Polynesians, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. This mixture of races has produced women of legendary beauty, with coal black eyes and olive thighs, who hula dance through the longings of the male visitor. Of course, the men are handsome also, and, as the woman visitor may eventually learn, while observing the rippling muscles of the beachboy paddling the outrigger canoe, the men were the original hula dancers.

The ethnic groups that make up Hawaii are so different from the mainland U.S. racial stock that the place is truly exotic, almost a foreign country, yet Hawaii is one of our own states. Hawaii is like a foreign country where the exchange rate never varies and where the natives speak your language, plus their own. Hawaii, our most exotic destination within the U.S. and a full-status state since 1959, is the favored state for the so-called Pacific Rim Century we are now embarked upon. The history of Hawaii, a visitor soon learns, is wholly different from the story of the mainland U.S. Hawaii leans culturally toward the Pacific Basin, while the mainland leans toward Europe. In fact, the people of Hawaii flourished without benefit of any Indo-European contact or religious trappings until the 18th century. They developed their own severe and superstitious, but understandable, religious system, the kapu system, that required death for slight infringements. Like Christianity with its confessional, the kapu system provided a few sacred places where forgiveness was possible.

Adding to the exotic feel of the islands are the tropical plants that grow so luxuriously in the warm, bright sun and moist air. A visitor from Minnesota, in winter, who has been thinking of the wind chill factor only a day earlier, suddenly alights in Hawaii, where the temperature at sea level varies only from 63 to 85 all year around. For many visitors, the predictable warmth and benign sun are sufficient to breathe life into the word paradise. While Alaskans suffer a dark night of the soul through the winter, Hawaiians luxuriate in sunlight and warmth. Hawaiians distinguish winter from summer by discerning that the weather is a few degrees cooler and the rains are slightly more frequent.

With a snorkel mask a visitor can realize how this tropical richness extends to the world below sea level. Coral and multi-colored fish present an otherworldly offering. Only Florida, within the U.S., competes with Hawaii as a tropical landscape above and below sea level. In Hawaii there is intense color in the land, sea, and sky. Besides the coral and the fish, anticipate the pleasure of some lava-red sunsets in this land of eternal June. All visitors and natives can enjoy these sunsets from the beaches in an egalitarian celebration of nature. All of the beaches of Hawaii are owned by all of the people, all of the time.


As with other destinations in the tropics, Hawaii is a relaxed place with a moderate pace. Moderate activity level is a matter of prudence in the heat of the tropics. Hawaiians have also been so steeped in a tradition of salubrious sun and abundant food from the sea, an engaging natural environment and an ease with the foreigner, that a traveler feels comfortable here. Most Hawaiians realize that they too were once foreigners. Part of the aloha spirit of Hawaii is a notion that strangers are a gift from the gods.

Another aspect of Hawaii’s charm is the Hawaiian language. The language is so rich in liquid vowels that a face needs to smile to speak. Originating in Polynesia, the language is musical and sensuous, absent of gutturals and spitting consonants, soothing to a visitor’s ear. Like so much in Hawaii, this language came from the East, not the West. Moreover, many of the meanings behind the words come from the beauty of nature and the joy of life. Not only does a word sound beautiful, but when you inquire about its meaning, you are liable to hear that it means something like “a bouquet of rainbows.” The classic greeting of Hawaii, which is aloha, translates roughly as “I recognize in you the breath of life.” Could a more evocative or metaphysically profound salutation be imagined? Honolulu, Waikiki, Hawaii, Oahu, Hanauma–just say the words and try to avoid the hypnotic softness. The Polynesian Hawaiians had no written language before the Europeans arrived in the 18th century (the Europeans and Americans controlled later migration of the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos in the 19th and 20th centuries.) In the earlier Hawaii, with its emphasis on a spoken language, elders enjoyed a special role because in their minds and speech the collective culture of the people survived and passed from generation to generation.

Hawaii also has an air of illusion about it. Part of the illusion is that the economy is supported mainly by unseen resources decided upon far away, namely military expenditures and tourism. Agriculture or fishing on the islands is actually minuscule compared to government spending. The military controls 25 percent of the land mass on Oahu. Because Hawaii occupies a strategic position, its future is secure, though the basis of its security is dependent on the distant military providers. As long as inexpensive gasoline or other fuel is available, Hawaii as a tourism destination looks promising. Concerted efforts strive to market Hawaii to an international audience, perhaps to the Chinese, beyond the current dependence on U.S. and Japanese patrons.

The difference that distinguishes Hawaii begins to strike a traveler who turns on the hotel TV. The news will carry the important information of the day, such as the height of the waves for surfing. Possibly a surfing tournament, a form of sport here since ancient times, will be broadcast. The Japanese presence, in Waikiki, but less extensively in the outlying islands, is another major aspect of the experience. Japanese travelers have dominated Waikiki tourism when the Japanese economy is strong. All information is printed in Japanese. Excellent Japanese restaurants abound. You open your dresser in the hotel room to find both a Bible and The Works of Buddha. You open the refrigerator in the hotel room to find packages of dried seaweed and dried fish. Ethnic Japanese, who are U.S. citizens, are one of the major groups in the complex Hawaiian ethnic mix.

For most of the millions of Americans who visit the state of Hawaii each year, the island of Oahu and its major city of Honolulu, with famous Waikiki Beach, is the gateway. Here the mystique of Hawaii will be felt by most travelers.

For some travelers, direct flights to the state of Hawaii’s biggest island, the Big Island of Hawaii, or to the island of Maui are the initial encounter with the islands.

Getting To and Around Hawaii

The flight to Honolulu, as mentioned, takes about five hours from the major west coast gateway cities. Flights originate in major coastal cities, with several airlines participating in the trade. Some carriers fly directly to the islands of Hawaii and Maui as well as to Honolulu.

(When departing from Hawaii for the return flight to the mainland, be sure to allow plenty of airport check-in time. All luggage must be inspected because of agricultural needs to keep pests from being imported on fruits, vegetables, and flowers. This hand checking requires time and the lines can be long.)

Once in Honolulu, the airport is west of the downtown and Waikiki Beach, where most of the hotels are located. If you plan a rather sedentary vacation soaking up the sun on the beach or if you are particularly adept at taking trolleys or buses, you won’t need a rental car. The Waikiki Trolley can take you around the central area. A bus simply called The Bus makes a full island circuit for a small charge. If you wish to get around quickly and want to see the countryside beyond Honolulu, with flexibility about places to stop and take photos, a rental car makes life easier. All the major and several local rental companies provide cars. When looking at physical or Google maps and planning excursions around the island, keep in mind that the roads are low-speed roads with plenty of twists and turns. Considering this, plus the pleasure of stopping to look at sites, allow plenty of time for excursion trips.

The major Honolulu hotels are in the Waikiki Beach area, with the Hilton Hawaiian Village a typical example. This massive high-rise, with 2,600 rooms, is indeed a vertical village, with plenty of beach accessible below and views of the city, water, and sunsets possible from the higher levels. Several restaurants are located on the premises, including the Bali, a delightful over-the ocean view. Another hotel, The Outrigger, fronts the beach and creates a fun beach-watching scene with its Duke’s Canoe Club restaurant, right on the beach. Still other great hotels, such as The Hyatt Regency Waikiki, are across the street from the beach. The beach, the main Waikiki attraction, is never far away. This was a big factor for us when choosing this island to vacation on. I am used to staying in lush villas in the Caribbean, and although I did want a bit of a change of pace with this one i did not want to be far from the beach and the water either. I typically stay at places that look like this https://enjoymexico.net/villa-rentals/punta-mita/ and I was able to find accommodations more than satisfactory.

History of Honolulu

Upon arrival, your first activity in Honolulu should be an immersion in the pleasures of Waikiki Beach, especially a long stroll along the beach (as described under Main Attractions). Then step back to begin pondering how this paradise was discovered. The best place to answer this question is at the Bishop Museum, which devotes itself to the origin of the Hawaiian people. The Bishop Museum is in the western part of the city at 1525 Bernice Street.

The Bishop Museum building has a tropical and colonial feel, with three levels built around a large courtyard. The first level displays the origins of the Hawaiian people. Feathered capes and helmets are some of the historic artifacts of greatest interest here. The historic kings of Hawaii are a colorful subject. On the second level, which covers the age of whaling and missionaries, artifacts that contrast with the Christian and European temperament are in evidence. A necklace of human teeth, wooden swords with shark tooth blades, and bark cloth garments are some of the ethnic artifacts on display. On the third floor, the many cultures of modern Hawaii are presented, including artifacts showing the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean migrations. (The Lyman Museum in Hilo is the other Hawaiian place at which to learn of these migration stories). A whale skeleton shows the massive size of these behemoths.

Other wings of the Bishop Museum display Polynesian artifacts. At adjacent Atherton Hall you may see women working in crafts, such as feather or fabric designs. The Kilolani Planetarium associated with the museum puts on shows for the public and displays instruments that assisted in earlier star-guided migration across the Pacific.

After the Bishop Museum, proceed toward the downtown. Iolani Palace, west of Waikiki, is a royal residence from the monarchical days of Hawaii. The house was built in 1882 by King David Kalakaua and served as the royal residence until the demise of the monarchy in 1893, when Sanford P. Dole, of pineapple fame, guided events surrounding the formation of a Republic of Hawaii. While imprisoned here in 1894, celebrated Queen Liliuokalani wrote several Hawaiian songs that are still popular today. Guided tours take you through this Hawaiian adaptation of Victorian architecture, where Hawaiian woods, such as koa and ohia, were fashioned into hardwood elegance. In the throne room you can see feathered capes favored by the royalty. Iolani Palace is at King and Richards Streets.

Hawaii: Oahu, Hula dancers
Hawaii: Oahu, Hula dancers

Across the street from the palace is a large statue of the legendary King Kamehameha I, in front of the Judiciary Building. On June 11, King Kamehameha Day, flower leis clothe the statue of this man, who united the Islands by 1795 after subduing rival kings on his native Island of Hawaii and then conquering the other islands, such as Oahu.

One block from the statue is another critical chapter in the Hawaii story–the Mission Houses Museum. There you can see the Christian missionary effort that began here in 1820. The church, built of coral, still addresses the spiritual needs of a modern congregation.

A short walk away from the statue, along the waterfront, you come to the Hawaii Maritime Center. The Aloha Tower Marketplace and Maritime Museum, at Pier 8, offer a glimpse at maritime history, a venue for a shopping center, and a view of the harbor. Hawaii’s importance, historically and today, depends on its safe harbor in the long Pacific waterway.

Adjacent to the tower is the historic ship, the Falls of Clyde, the only surviving fully-rigged four-masted sailing ship used in the sugar trade. The Falls of Clyde was built in 1878 and carried sugar between Hawaii and San Francisco.

Berthed next to the Falls of Clyde is the Hokulea, a square-rigged replica of ancient ships that the Polynesians used to navigate their way to Hawaii. The Hokulea has engaged in many re-creations of the voyages of discovery, epic undertakings in which skilled volunteers re-lived the voyages without benefit of modern navigational instruments. The museum has an excellent taped interpretive program, informing a visitor of Hawaii’s sea heritage, from the era of the Hokulea to the time of early-modern Matson line shipping. (See my article on the Hokulea, including the YouTube video. This is the most popular of all my Hawaii writings.)

The legendary first hotels on Waikiki catering to travelers were the white Moana, with its mammoth banyan tree in the courtyard, and the pink Royal Hawaiian, which opened in 1927. Both remain vital today, upgraded to the modern era. Another early and legendary property, the Halekulani, was a cluster of cottages, but was redone as a modern hotel, and remains a prominent hotel and restaurant choice in Waikiki.

State buildings that govern modern Hawaii reflect all elements of the islands. The State Capitol, at Beretania and Richards Streets, is a rectangular structure rising to an open crown, like a volcano. Pools suggest the ocean and concrete columns simulate palm trees. The exterior stone is volcanic rock. Interior decor are wall coverings resembling bark tapa prints. The Capitol is open at all times.

The grim modern historical story of Hawaii can be witnessed at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial west of Honolulu. The Memorial is a white concrete and steel edifice spanning the 185-foot hull of the sunken ship, in which over a thousand servicemen were entombed during the Japanese air attack on December 7, 1941. Today, of course, Japanese pleasure travelers are the second main market for Hawaii, after North Americans.

Main Attractions of Honolulu

Waikiki’s inviting beach will always rank as a main attraction of Honolulu. The walk along the beach all the way from the Yacht Basin at the Hilton Hawaiian Village to Kapiolani Park is an engaging outing, passing thousands of people enjoying the sun. Aging chess players lounge in the sheltered verandas as you pass the downtown. The major hotels rest directly on the beach.

The beach is tranquil in the early morning, if you jog or walk along it at 6 a.m. up to the New Otani Hotel, then back through Kapiolani Park. The sun rises in the mountains in back of the city.

Outrigger canoes or catamaran sailboats along the beach, available for rides, are especially appealing. Outriggers are paddled out and then can be surfed in to the shore. Some of the large catamaran boats become an impromptu party, with the crew offering your beverage of choice.

Shopping areas of Honolulu are impressive bazaars. Shells and coral, often transformed into jewelry, make lovely Hawaiian mementos. Wood carvings and flower leis are other specialties. Fabrics in bright colors are typically Hawaiian, either in aloha shirts or ladies muumuus. Macadamia nuts, those crunchy, addictive, round nuts that seem to melt like butter in the mouth, are a specialty of the Island of Hawaii. The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, which snakes its way for three blocks on three levels, is a good example of the several major shopping centers in the city. Ala Moana and the Aloha Tower complex are other competing shopping areas.

The restaurants of Honolulu are diverse, with those most original to the place featuring Hawaiian seafood and ambiance. Try the Duke’s Canoe Club, as an example, where you are likely to be entertained with Hawaiian songs, strummed on a ukulele, which was a Portuguese import. Try the ono, a fish from Hawaiian waters, or perhaps the paniolo steak (paniolo being the Hawaiian word for cowboy). For dessert, consider a scoop of macadamia nut ice cream.

The Honolulu Academy of Arts is interesting because it has emerged as an important cultural center for the state. The Academy of Arts contains both an eastern and western wing of art, as if paralleling the historic influences on the islands. The Eastern Wing includes Chinese bronze dishes from the 11th Century B.C. The Western Wing shows some celebrated paintings, including works by Van Gogh and Matisse, plus Maron’s scenic called “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” The Academy is at 900 S. Beretania Street.

Kapiolani Park, at the east end of Waikiki, is a multi-use open area where people fly kites or practice their tai chi exercises. One of the special pleasures here is the Waikiki Aquarium, 2777 Kalakaua Avenue, which has more than 300 species of Pacific fish. Perusing these fish is a prelude to snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. At the Aquarium you will learn of the ancient fish ponds that were so important for raising food fish in the region. The Hawaiians had learned to dry salt from the sea, create nets and lashings from coconut fibers, cultivate certain seaweeds as vegetables, and make effective weapons with shark teeth.

Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park, east of Honolulu, offers good opportunities to view fish in the coral reefs. The extensive reefs, in front of a tan sand area, house abundant fish life. As the tide level changes, different parts of the reef become accessible. A drive out to Hanauma past the Diamond Head State Monument takes you through attractive residential areas of Honolulu.

Inquire where you might see a good hula dance. The hulas are soft-spoken history tales of the islands, records of a people without a written language. The tradition of grass skirts is Tahitian rather than Hawaiian. Old-style hulas involved chant and dance. The hula depends on subtlety rather than gymnastics for expression. The music is soft and soothing, and the sensuousness of the older woman is a main theme. The pride of an older dancer in her skills can be much in evidence.

Within Hawaii, interest is strong in preserving the native culture. At the Kamehameha School in Honolulu, you must have some Hawaiian blood to matriculate. As part of the curriculum in some public schools, children may learn Hawaiian language and lore.

For an overall view of Honolulu, drive the Round Top road starting at the end of Makiki Street. The road circles Round Top Mountain and includes excellent views of the Manoa Valley. Along the drive, flowering trees, mainly hibiscus and bougainvillea, delight the eye. From the top, at Puu Ualakaa State Wayside Park, you get a superb view of Honolulu. The word Honolulu is said to mean hono or “bay” that is “sheltered” or lulu, a matter that is apparent from this promontory. The word Oahu is said to mean “the gathering place.”

An early-morning hike in Honolulu to the top of Diamond Head crater can be highly recommended. Early morning is the cool time of the day for the hike. The hike proceeds about .7 mile to the top, passing various military observation posts and pillboxes for lightly-armed defenses. You see Franklin birds, a tame, quail-like creature. Take a flashlight to pass through a tunnel for part of the outing. At the top you are rewarded with views of Waikiki from this elevated 761-foot perspective. The Hawaiians named the crater originally after the head of the ahi fish, but British sailors, finding crystalline on the shore, renamed it Diamond Head.

Nearby Trips from Honolulu

The main nearby trip to consider from Honolulu is to rent a car and circle the island. This can be done in a day, though you could linger in the outlying areas for several days to explore.

As you leave the city and climb into the mountains, an interesting stop is at Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, where you can see the elegant summer residence of some of the last of the ill-fated Hawaiian Royalty.

On the east side of the island one interesting stop is Senator Fong’s Plantation and Gardens, where a former Hawaii Senator has planted over 700 acres in various native and horticultural plants.

Among the main island-loop attractions to see are the Polynesian Cultural Center and Waimea Park.

The Polynesian Cultural Center is a Mormon-sponsored cultural park at which the public is entertained by islander young people, who come to Hawaii for their Mormon education. The students, from various islands in the Pacific, study in the morning and perform for the public in the afternoon to finance the operation. The interpretive effort has both the vigor of youth and the intellectual rigor of an educational effort. Seven South Pacific Islands villages are re-created here.

Waimea Valley Adventure Park is noted for its impressive Waimea Falls, its elaborate horticultural efforts, the Hawaiian hula performances by men and women, and reconstructed living sites of ancient Hawaiians, including one authentic, restored heiau, or sacred religious site, right at the entrance to the park.

If you drive northeast from Honolulu on this loop, you first pass the Pali overlook, where King Kamehameha pushed the remaining recalcitrant warriors of Oahu over the cliffs in his final drive to unite Hawaii. Then you drive along the east and north shore, past the Polynesian Cultural Center and Waimea Park, passing also the great surfing beaches of the north. Finally, the road curves inland and back to Honolulu, passing through pineapple plantings.


Honolulu: If You Go

A main visitor information site is the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau at http://www.gohawaii.com/oahu.




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