Hanging loose in Hawaii

By | Category: Travel destinations

It shouldn’t take much to make you hop on a plane to Hawaii in search of some winter sun, but there’s a lot more to O’ahu  than sipping Mai Tais on the white sands of Waikiki. From world class surfing to traditional luaus (feasts), Kaye Holland has the low-down on the top 10 experiences that should be on every traveller’s Hawaiian hit list…

Go surfing

While the rest of the world might view surfing as a sport, in Hawaii surfing is about much more than merely catching and riding waves: it’s considered a social activity and a time honoured ritual (in ancient Hawaii, surfing began with the selection of a tree, from which a board would be carved). For the best waves, head to the  North Shore – a surfing mecca approximately two hours by bus from Waikiki – that draws pros from around the world, as well as local legends like Pancho Sullivan, owing to its waves which are as high as houses. O’ahu’s north shore is where you’ll find the biggest waves but pretty much every beach boasts great surfing. Bottom line? Get ready to hang loose, brah!

Snorkelling Hanauma Bay

Of course, as enjoyable as activities above the water are, it’s what lies beneath that is of real interest… If you want to see Hawaii’s colourful underwater world – think giant mantra rays, sea turtles and tropical fish – head for Hanauma Bay (a short bus ride from Waikiki), which has a reputation for the best snorkelling. So much so that flying to Hawaii and not snorkelling at this beloved, bowl shaped  bay, is akin to visiting Sydney and failing to see the Harbour Bridge or touching down in Cape Town and not climbing Table Mountain.. you get the drift. Once you’ve passed the ticket booth at the entrance to this protected marine life park, watch the 12 minute video – aimed at educating you about the environment – before descending down to the beach, donning a face mask and plastic feet and facing the fish…

Leis and luaus
O’ahu is all about leis (popular garlands of plumeria flowers) and luaus (a big feast with singing, dancing and other merriment) and no trip to Hawaii is complete without ticking off at least one luau. Just About Travel can vouch for Germaine’s, over on O’ahu’s east side. The sounding of a conch shell signals the beginning of the evening’s festivities: expect an entertaining evening of Hawaiian history, culture, culinary delights (chow down on kalua pua’a aka roasted pig, poke – raw fish marinated in soy sauce and haupia – coconut custard) and Polynesian dancing, all presented by  hospitable hosts. You may arrive as a malihini (newcomer/visitor) but you’ll leave as family… Other noteworthy O’ahu luaus include Chief’s Luau, Waikiki Starlight Luau, Royal Hawaiian Luau and Ali’i Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Plan a visit to Pearl Harbor
Waking early to head out to Pearl Harbor – the target of a Japanese attack that thrust Hawaii into America’s history –  and pay your respects to those who lost their life on the 8 December 1941 at the USS Arizona Memorial, is a rite of passage for any visitor to O’ahu. After sailing undetected for 4,000 miles, including difficult at sea refuelling, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor pushing America into WW11. Destruction was massive – five battleships were sunk and 2,500 American lives were lost – but could have been worse. The Japanese failed to damage the harbour’s submarine base, huge stocks of oil, naval piers and dry docks. More importantly none of the Pacific fleets and three aircraft carriers were in port on that fateful day, leaving the US with its most potent weapon in the Pacific. Today Pearl Harbor is home to an active US naval base.

Head to Honolulu

For further Hawaiian historical insights, head into the heart of Honolulu where you’ll find Iolani Palace – the only official state residence of royalty in the whole of the United States. Close by lies the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, so called in honour of the great granddaughter and last descendant of King Kamehameha unifier of the Hawaiian islands. The museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural and scientific artefacts, but it was Pacific Hall that appealed the most to me. This newly renovated two story gallery celebrates the cultures and people of the Pacific and explores the early settlement of Hawaii.

Hiking Diamond Head
However if you’re more about hiking than history, don’t miss Diamond Head Park – arguably the most famous site in all of Hawaii. The trail to the summit of this 475-acre crater, which was formed by a violent explosion long after other volcanic activity on the island had ceased, was built in 1908 as part of the US Army Coastal Artillery Defense System. The network of tunnels, bunkers and observation posts was strengthen again during the Second World War but to date no guns have ever been fired. Allow around an hour to hike to the top of the crater rim and back and don’t forget to bring your camera: climbers will be rewarded with spectacular views of the Waianae Range (to the west) and Koko Head (to the east).

Get inked

Tattoos are a Hawaiian tradition (Polynesians have been decorating their bodies with ink for hundreds of years) and a common sight on O’ahu. Make no mistake: pretty much every Hawaiian I met during my sojourn sported a tatt viewing them not only as an art form but also a guard of a person’s health and spiritual well-being. I was consumed with the idea of getting a tattoo (as a bubbly blonde, I’d like to look a little tougher plus saw it as a souvenir that would last a lifetime). So much so that I even booked an appointment at Victorian Tattoo, where I discovered that a good tattoo isn’t cheap (and a cheap tattoo, as we all know, isn’t good).

Snap up an aloha shirt


Casual aloha shirts – often incorrectly called Hawaiian shirts – are the norm on O’ahu, the ali (chief) of Hawaii’s 136 islands. Wondering where to purchase your printed shirt? Say aloha (the most important word in the Hawaiian dictionary) to Avanti on Kalakaua Avenue where pictures of Hawaii’s most famous export – pint sized music maestro, Bruno Mars – adorn the walls. If you want to make like Mars, pick up the ‘Palms Aloha’ – a silk shirt worn by the Grammy Award winner on his Moonshine Jungle World Tour. Other options at Avanti – whose high profile fans include Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Jon Lovitz,  Adam Sandler et al – include shirts showing old Hawaii scenes, flowers and points of interest. Unsure of which shirt to select? The uber helpful Royce is usually on hand to dispense advice and style tips.

Wandering around Waikiki

Waikiki gets a bad rap, largely due to the fact that its white sands are invariably packed with sun burned tourists in flowered shirts sipping Mai Tais (Hawaii’s favourite drink). However  locals are keen to make sure that cultural traditions aren’t forgotten either. Subsequently Waikiki is the site of complimentary arts and craft, hula, ukulele and lomi lomi (indigenous Hawaiian healing massage) classes plus a stage for performances by O’ahu storytellers and musicians who are keen to share with visitors, the history and heritage of their homeland.

Eat like a local
Want to eat like a local? Make for Matsumoto – a tin roofed 1950s style general store on the North Shore to indulge in shaved ice (a beat the heat treat whose famous fans include current US President Barack Obama). Aoki’s is another popular shaved ice spot – and as an added plus, the queues are shorter – but my money is on Matsumoto. Don’t miss island flavours include Mango, pineapple and liliko (passion fruit). Hawaiians are also crazy about canned meat (called spam) and consequently an entire festival – take a bow The Spam Jam – celebrating everything spam has sprung up. Loco moco (a satisfying comfort food dish of rice, fried eggs, patty and gravy) is another ono grind (good eat) that’s served all over O’ahu. Ditch the diet, for resistance is futile.


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