Oahu, Hawaii: So Much More Than Sun, Sand and Surf

Photograph courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority

“Although I can now understand the allure of Hawaii’s beaches, it’s the spirit of its people, more than anything, that makes the islands so special.”

I never expected to visit Hawaii. For me, the sand and the sea do not a vacation make. Give me an overcast day on the craggy cliffs of Ireland! A whisky by the fireplace, not a mai tai by the ocean! My aversion to all things beach-y (and to heat and sun in general) is common knowledge in my circle, which is why a few days into my trip to Oahu, a friend who was following along on my Instagram from back home in India messaged me, “Somewhat surprised, nonetheless happy, to see you enjoying a tropical place.” But no one was more surprised than me.

A few months earlier, when an invite to the Aloha State first popped up in my inbox, I figured this might just be the perfect opportunity to visit a place I was unlikely to venture to on my own—and a place I knew embarrassingly little about (beaches, volcanoes, Obama…and I’m out).

On day one, we are greeted by the pristine sands and tall waves of Waikiki, on the south shore of Oahu. The weather in April on the third-largest island in Hawaii tends to be warm, not hot, with a pleasant breeze. Still, I am slightly dreading the activities—hiking and canoe surfing (an Austronesian tradition involving an outrigger canoe and furious paddling)—we have scheduled for a couple of sunny mornings later in the week. Outrigger canoe racing is the official team sport of Hawaii, and surfing is its official solo sport, the earliest known written accounts of the latter dating all the way back to the 1700s. Waikiki is where legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku honed his skills, but there’s a lot more to this sandy stretch than that. The hotels here are some of the oldest on the island; they were built in the early 20th century, when wealthy foreign travellers arrived on its shores by steamship.

The Moana Surfrider, an oceanfront property that opened in 1901, is an integral part of the island’s hist­ory. More than one current employee tells me stories of grandparents attending dances at the hotel or sitting on rocking chairs on the hotel’s porch and watching the island celebrate the end of World War II. Icons from Frank Sinatra to Lucille Ball to Shirley Temple have stayed in its rooms, and radio dispatches from Hawaii were broadcast right from the hotel’s courtyard for 40 years, starting in the mid-1930s. But the bit of the hotel’s history that captivates me the most is its majestic banyan tree, planted back in 1904. Almost 23 metres tall and 46 metres wide, it has a network of branches and aerial roots that stretches out over the entire courtyard overlooking the ocean, casting enchanting shadows everywhere you look. The best way to take in its immense beauty is over afternoon tea on the hotel’s veranda, which wraps around the courtyard. Be sure to sample the scones with passion fruit (called lilikoi in Hawaiian) curd, the tropical tea blends and the best truffle fries you’ll ever taste.

For our mid-morning hike a couple of days in, we make our way over to Waianae, on the west shore, whose rugged mountainous terrain was formed from a single volcano four million years ago. It’s warmer and sunnier on this side of the island, the landscape alternating between desert-like deep-red sand and lush green hills, but in the shade, it’s surprisingly chilly (as we realize during our hike on the Palehua Trail). The dense forest cover along much of the trail means that the air is mercifully cool for our trek up to the lookout point for sweeping views of Pearl Harbour, Waikiki and Diamond Head, the island’s famous 300,000-year-old volcanic crater. (Pro tip: If you’re hiking Diamond Head, which I highly recommend for its spectacular views of the coastline, be sure to get there at sunrise. A couple of hours later, it will be far too hot and crowded to be enjoyable.) Before leaving Waianae, we make a stop at MA’O Farms, a 10-hectare organic farm that teaches sustainable agricultural practices to local underprivileged youth and helps them reconnect with the land.

When I speak with people who grew up on the island, their desire to honour the ancient customs and practices of their people comes up often.

That connection is very important to Hawaiians. When I speak with people who grew up on the island, their desire to honour the ancient customs and practices of their people comes up often, along with the worry that their culture’s practices and ways of life are being lost to commercialism and mainstream commodification. “Community, culture, land—these things are sacred and alive and need to be kept going,” says Kekai, our Hawaii Forest & Trail guide. It’s a fear that is no doubt exacerbated by the state’s tumultuous history. Hawaii’s painful past—the overthrow of its monarchy in 1893 and subsequent takeover by the United States—remains a sensitive subject, the specifics of which I was unfamiliar with until my visit to Iolani Palace in Honolulu.

The palace is where Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was kept under house arrest by annexationists and all but forced to abdicate the throne. It’s both moving and unsettling to see the remnants of her time in captivity carefully preserved—a reminder of the unceremonious usurping of power from Hawaii’s original inhabit­ants and leaders. Most of the original furniture, fixtures and textiles in the palace were auctioned off after the coup, as the palace transitioned into a government Capitol building. When it reopened as a museum in 1978, curators began the laborious process of trying to locate those long-gone artifacts, scouring auctions, estate sales and ads in search of pieces of Hawaii’s history. “We’re still looking for the king’s bed and his dining room chairs,” says our museum guide. “A chair once ended up at Goodwill, where our curator recognized it.”

This pushback by native Hawaiians against the erasure of their culture started long ago and continues today, evident in the encouraging of younger generations to learn ancient practices like hula and in the concerted efforts to promote Hawaiian artists and artisans through events like the Honolulu Biennial. When it comes to food, though, pinning down what constitutes Hawaiian cuisine is a challenge thanks to the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and myriad other influences over the course of the archipelago’s history. But that’s also what makes dining in Hawaii exciting. Oft-recommended local favourites include loco moco (a rice dish topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy); slow-cooked kalua pig; and shaved ice doused in fruit syrups like guava chili, passion fruit and pineapple.

By the end of my week in Hawaii, I had officially gone from being “not a beach person” to “a beach-at-sunrise person.” Thanks to the six-hour time difference between Oahu and Toronto, I was up before dawn each day; it’s how I discovered there’s really nothing quite like sitting on cool, untouched sand at daybreak, in silent communion with the early-morning surfers already dotting the water, patiently waiting for the sky to lighten from indigo to pale blue and pink. Although I can now understand the allure of Hawaii’s beaches, it’s the spirit of its people, more than anything, that makes the islands so special. Theirs is a rich, compassionate and deeply spiritual culture that—powered by the essence of aloha, a way of life for Hawaiians that means “to share the breath of life”—they’ll gladly share with vis­itors to their land.

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