Sunset Beach, approaching the North Shore. Renting a car to get here is a must.
You knew it was coming: the inevitable comparison between Miami Beach and Hawaii. I wasn't your typical tourist as I was staying with locals in Kaneohe, which is about twenty minutes from Honolulu.
The first thing that comes to mind is what seemed like an immense respect for the earth, which stems from old Hawaiian beliefs that seem to still hold fast -- an innate sense about the interconnectedness of all things, including the land and the people who live on it. Even the motto on the royal Hawaiian coat of arms spells it out: Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono roughly translates to "the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness."
As seen from the Punchbowl lookout, Honolulu and Waikiki are dense urban areas. That's Diamond Head in the background.
Outside of popular Waikiki, which is crowded with high-rise hotels, condos and shopping malls, you'll see no tall buildings anywhere. Seriously! On mile after mile of the scenic Kamehameha Highway that leads to the world famous North Shore beaches where surfers congregate in the winter, you'll find nothing but mountains and ocean without a building or billboard in sight. Try doing that on A1A -- I drove yesterday from Boca to Fort Lauderdale and couldn't see the damn ocean once, my view blocked by miles of endless ugly condos and timeshares.
It took me a few days to realize how wonderfully underdeveloped everything was beyond Honolulu -- if you want to stay there, you're shit out of luck unless you find a B & B, vacation rental or book a room at fancy Turtle Bay Resort.
And the beaches were clean. Oh-my-god clean. I had to look for the occasional cigarette butt on sand and was hard pressed to find one. While it is a Hawaiian tradition to picnic in grand style with the whole family on the beach, sometimes even overnight, you won't see the garbage from such weekend-long feasts on the beach.
And that's perhaps why these beaches really are like paradise -- not just because they're postcard perfect, but because the humans who enjoy them don't leave their trash behind. Locals in Miami who trash the beach make our ocean side playground feel like a cesspool.
There is a certain grace and elegance about the landscape in Oahu that's hard to explain; after all, it's not like those areas beyond Honolulu are deserted. Some towns are quite urban even yet the beaches are unspoiled. Maybe it's the love of the land that I was sensing. Or maybe it was the beautiful, spiritual words like aloha and mahalo that were spinning their magic in the air as I dozed off in my brother's house, with no air conditioning and fresh tradewinds lulling me to sleep.
A random flower found on the deck at Coconut Island.
But enough about comparisons! Things are what they are. Here are some tidbits that you'll hopefully enjoy if you are blessed with the opportunity to visit.
- Eat shrimp in the Kahuka area.
- Visit Chinatown on a busy Sunday morning.
- Take in the sweeping views at the Punchbowl Cemetery lookout (and honor the military service men and women, too).
- Stop at Buzz's for a wickedly strong Mai Tai and calamari "steak" after strolling and bathing in Kailua Beach Park (the "steak" is unbelievably tender, served panko-coated and with beurre blanc and capers).
- Visit the Makapu'u lookout and hike to the lighthouse for a breathtaking sunrise.
- Have a picnic at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden (pick up some Huli Huli chicken at the local Foodland at the Windward Shopping Center on the way).
- Eat Vinha d'Alhos (roasted marinated pork chunks) for breakfast at Koa Pancake House.
- Kayak in Kaneohe Bay and laugh your ass off every time you tip over.
- Visit the 'Iolani Palace, Bishop Museum and Mission Houses in Honolulu.
- Appreciate the Hawaiian language; it's so beautiful, melodic and rhythmic.
- Enjoy words like aloha and mahalo ... the former means thank you and embodies gratitude (you'll hear it a lot, people are friendly) and the latter is used as a greeting; ha means "breath of life" and combined with alo it signified affection, love, compassion, peace and mercy.
- Visit the Nu'uanu Pali lookout for great views and fresh air in the Ko'olau mountain range.
- If you walk around Waikiki at night, try to catch performer Troy Fernandez on the sidewalk and maybe even see some spontaneous hula dancing.
It's a good thing I have family in Hawaii. I was so lucky to not have to do the hardcore touristy thing. I can't wait to go back! As my brother put it while we were driving to Honolulu through the mountains one morning: "I have to pinch myself sometimes. I can't believe this is my commute to work."