KOMO MAI E AI
It’s a traditional Hawaiian greeting that means ‘come in, eat,’ because no matter how the island of O‘ahu changes, its ancient hospitality stays the same
It’s a traditional Hawaiian greeting that means ‘come in, eat,’ because no matter how the island of O‘ahu changes, that ancient hospitality stays the same
RIDING OUT OF KUALOA Private Nature Reserve, I duck into groves of wispy tamarind and gnarled monkey pod trees hung with vines. As I round the foot of the Kualoa Range, the greenery parts to reveal the stark beauty of Ka‘a‘awa Valley. The forces of nature are writ large here: volcanic ramparts soar 1,000 metres on either side, fluted ridges and lushness emblematic of almost daily rain, while the sound of the Pacific crashing in Kane‘ohe Bay arrives on the wind. Pausing a moment, my horse ducks its head to chomp grass, offering only the resistance of an extra bite when eventually spurred onward. It has been here before, and its interest in the valley resides firmly at ground level. In a way I’ve been here, too — and no doubt so have you. Still, I’m overwhelmed by the vista. In real life, these verdant, jungle-clad peaks seem surreal, almost prehistoric, easily conjuring their place in the parade of blockbuster films and television shows — Lost, Godzilla, King Kong and the entire Jurassic Park franchise, to name a few — shot here. The original Hawaiians considered Ka‘a‘awa one of the most sacred places on the island of O‘ahu. Somehow, despite the passage of so much garish enterprise, it has retained this aura of untrammelled paradise, such that from the back of an indolent horse one might still feel like an adventurer riding into the unknown. Backtracking, I clop up grassy, windswept hillsides before disappearing again into the tamarind-monkey-pod tangle. Neither of these trees is native, but like O‘ahu’s diverse human cultures, they’ve made a home here, finding landscape, weather and opportunities to their liking.
THIRD LARGEST of the Hawaiian Islands, O‘ahu’s history has played a central role in other large-scale dramas — geologic, biologic and anthropologic — that have seen this land constantly re-imagined. Rising from the ocean as a pair of shield volcanoes a few million years ago, the seamounts have since eroded, leaving only the precipitous Wai‘anae and Ko‘olau ranges that divide O‘ahu into windward (east) and leeward (west) sides. Colonized by organisms carried on wind and waves, Hawaii’s blank-slate isolation (it’s 4,000 kilometres from the nearest continent) resulted in a unique flora and fauna descended from a relatively few forms. The islands filled with birds, bugs and plants, but remained devoid of predatory mammals. That changed when the first Polynesians arrived
around AD 1200, introducing rats, pigs, dogs and various plants, a trend later accelerated by the islands’ central position in the globalization of modern trade and commerce. On the human slate, O‘ahu morphed from the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to the capital of an eponymous American state in a century, its agricultural landscape shifting from taro and sugar cane through corporate pineapple and banana plantations to today’s organic farms raising specialty crops such as cashew, vanilla, dragon fruit and herbs. Farms, however, aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of O‘ahu. That honour goes to beaches. And the first on most people’s agenda is storied Waikiki. I make its acquaintance while breakfasting at Duke’s Waikiki in the Outrigger Beach Resort. Duke Kahanamoku is Hawaii’s most recognizable hero. A four-time Olympic swimming medallist of the early mid20th century, he was also a surf ambassador who helped popularize the sport globally. More legendarily, Kahanamoku once rode a monster wave more than a kilometre and a half from Diamond Head — a volcanic crater at the far end of Waikiki — to where the restaurant now stands facing a turquoise expanse bobbing with surfers, paddleboarders and outrigger canoes. You can sample the revered restaurant’s ample buffet and, as I do, graze the wealth of old travel posters and photos of Kahanamoku’s remarkable life — a visage of old Hawaii lost. Happily, there’s a resurgence of authentic Hawaiian culture that’s claiming the archipelago’s erstwhile heritage from the cartoonish version portrayed by Hollywood. As a result, O‘ahu is changing once again, a renaissance in which “cultural ambassador” is a growing job description and everything from dining to adventure is focused more on the island’s natural and cultural values. With four days to experience what I can, there’s little time to waste. After breakfast, I discover the best way to see Waikiki is by bike, cycling first out to Diamond Head before exploring downtown’s broad boulevards, peppered with high-end shops and eateries. Though Honolulu is in many ways a regrettable shock of skyscrapers, here the concrete canyons are ignited by the smell of flowers and the ring of birdsong. Behind the towers lurk secret gardens and manicured greenspaces that capture the imagination — particularly around the Sheraton Waikiki and venerable Royal Hawaiian, adjacent properties reflecting architecture of different periods of the island’s tourism industry. The l egend of Hawai‘iloa, t he Polynesian navigator who discovered the Hawaiian Islands, holds that he named O‘ahu for a son. A seat of kings, the island became known as “the gathering place” among ancient Hawaiians. Tourism ostensibly began here when other islanders received invitations from the king, who’d constructed overnight cabins for guests. From this sprang a tradition of hospitality; in addition to aloha (meaning hello/goodbye/affection/love) another Hawaiian greeting, means “come in, eat.” Five million visitors a year do just that, ensuring O‘ahu’s economy remains firmly rooted in tourism. But O‘ahu is also home to two-thirds of the state’s 1.4 million inhabitants, 80 per cent of whom live on the “citified” leeward side in Honolulu and its encircling sprawl. As the islands’ only deepwater port, Honolulu continues as a hub for both U.S. military operations and goods arriving from abroad to be redistributed among the other islands.
O‘ahu is changing once again, a renaissance focused more on the island’s natural and cultural values.
Dinner at Mahina & Sun’s in the hip, laidback Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club (what other place hands you a note at check-in stating they’re “stoked” to have you?) provides a first taste of Hawaii’s nouvelle cuisine. The eatery on seemingly every reviewers’ list as one of Hawaii’s best new restaurants highlights awardwinning chef Ed Kenney’s modern farmto-fork take on island fare, with locally caught sustainable seafood anchoring the menu. All life here, it seems, revolves around the sea — or on it.
WITH O‘AHU the de facto centre of global surf culture, one would be remiss not to indulge. I plan to do so on the much-celebrated North Shore. “North Shore” channels such notoriety you almost expect something crazy to be going on there. But outside of its winter fury, when the surf world descends for big-wave riding, it’s a quiet mix of beach and reef breaks. At Turtle Bay Resort, instructor Lance O’connor with the Hans Hedemann surf school begins a lesson with dryland training on the 3.6-metre boards issued to beginners, running through the sequence of moves required to reach a stable standing position — the bugbear for most learners — before paddling out to the break. O’connor confidently locates me to catch a wave (improbably, by placing a big toe on the tip of my board and towing me into position). My years as a failed surfer in California decades earlier pay dividends as I manage to stand up on every wave I try for. But that’s where — as was the case all those years ago — it ends. Of seven waves, I manage only three shaky rides into the shore. No matter, I claim a de facto surf session, fun enough to yield a few stories. I dry out with a sunny afternoon on Climbworks’ ziplines at Keana Farms, a unique operation where eight double lines fly you through ironwood forests and over fragrant plots of fruit and vegetables. Heading back to Honolulu tired and famished, I fret over the lineup outside popular Marukame Udon, already a block long at 6 p.m. But I needn’t worry as I uncover delicious Thai cuisine at tiny Siam Square steps from the Surfjack. This is Honolulu’s charm: though highend shops and chain hotels confront the traveller at every turn, backstreets brim with surprises. Even higher-end properties are undergoing re-invention, such as the refurbished Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina. Here, an extraordinarily airy lobby leads in one direction onto gardens and a stream patrolled by colourful koi, and in the other to a series of ocean lagoons and beaches outlined by a five-kilometre trail. One cool morning, I run the trail to its end, a point where you hop across lava slabs while crabs scuttle diligently away from each footfall. The deep blue of the sea here is cut by a preternatural green line on the horizon where it meets the aquamarine sky. That afternoon I hike to Ka‘ena Point, O‘ahu’s far western tip located at road’s end past Yokohama Beach. Ka‘ena Point was a sacred destination to ancient Hawaiians, the place where newly released souls met those of deceased ancestors and friends — a jumping-off point to the spirit world. The remote trail follows a former rail bed at the base of a mountain, while the ocean continues its relentless assault on the land below, consuming the trail in places. The swell here is large, and occasional blowholes are seen in the lava. After six kilometres you enter a seabird sanctuary through a fence designed to keep out feral predators such as mongoose and rats. Here the world changes abruptly, as if you’ve stepped through a door where all reverts to its natural state. Albatross, frigate birds and shearwaters hang in a stiff wind over dunes concealing their nests. Monk seals lounge on the rocks, and spinner dolphins frolic in the setting sun.
ON MY FINAL AFTERNOON, a two-hour helicopter tour offers a unique perspective on the island. Pilot Carl “Mooch” Reynoso, a former military pilot, proves friendly and chatty with a wealth of knowledge. We fly first over Pearl Harbor, site of the infamous
This is Honolulu’s charm: though high-end shops and hotels confront the traveller at every turn, backstreets brim with surprises.
attack of Dec. 7, 1941. Somehow Mooch has clearance to hover over both a refurbished memorial of the sunken USS Arizona and nuclear submarines in dry dock. We follow the shoreline to Waikiki. As we approach, I trace the line along which Kahanamoku would have ridden his wave. Rounding the island’s southeast corner at Koko Head, we head up the windward side. Mooch points out tiny Moku o Lo‘e Island in Kane‘ohe Bay. Home to a marine biology institute, it enjoyed a previous life hovering on the horizon in the opening sequence of Gilligan’s Island. Soon I’m following my horseback ride into the Ka‘a‘awa Valley, touching down atop an adjacent mountain where I’m dumbfounded by the view. Taking off again, Mooch dives into the valley and banks toward its head before turning back out to sea. We pass remote Kaliuwa‘a Falls, which tumbles 300 metres like a silk thread laid over green velvet, en route to the North Shore, Mooch switching seamlessly from talk of taking enemy fire to surfing the great breaks of Hawaii. I spy not only Turtle Bay but legendary Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay, surfers dotting each. At one point, we pause offshore while tandem skydivers jump from their plane. Finally, Ka‘ena Point comes into view. It looks every bit as rugged and wild from the air, and when Mooch rounds it to aim homeward, I’m sad to think that two circles are about to close — this one-of-a-kind aerial tour, and the four vibrant days on O‘ahu it retraced, begun on a horse in a valley that occasionally fills with dinosaurs.
A sunset surf on O‘ahu’s north shore ( left), birthplace of surf culture. Ka‘ena Point State Park in western O‘ahu ( above). Horseback riding through the sacred Ka‘a‘awa Valley ( opposite); previous pages: Beach-fronted Waikīkī is touristy yet true to its roots.
Winter brings the biggest waves to O‘ahu’s north shore ( above), drawing champion surfers to compete and rookies to surf schools. The view from a trail at Ka‘ena Point in western O’ahu ( opposite).