A First Timer’s Guide to O’ahu, Hawaii
by Christian Vetter | March, 2008
I decided it would be in my best interest to move to Hawai’i. There wasn’t much of a reason for it, really. I’ve been obsessed with the Pacific since I was a little kid. I watched too many Looney Tunes episodes, I suppose. Remember the outrageously stereotypical savages of the Pacific that were always trying to throw Bugs Bunny and his buddies into the boiling cauldrons? You could argue those savages were actually based on Melanesia and not Polynesia but let’s not argue semantics. The fact of the matter is that cartoons warped my brain and at twenty years old, I’m still living in a fantasy world of pirates, savages, and delicious rabbit soups.
So I suddenly find myself in Hawaii. I’m technically going to college (bogus), but I have plenty of free time to kill. What does one do in such a situation? No bearings, no vehicle, no bus pass … just island. I arrived a few days before the semester started to try and conquer the land. Turns out, I laid on Waikiki every day and read Into the Wild. Chris McCandless and I share the same birthday, in fact. That is wild.
If you’re traveling to O’ahu, odds are you’re going to get sick of Waikiki pretty quick. It took me three days of local exploration to discover said fact. The people are endless. If you decide to walk the strip of Waikiki – Kalakaua Avenue and a couple others – it’s not likely to hold your attention for long. People painting themselves metallic and standing unnaturally still for extended periods of time just isn’t very interesting. So where do you go?
Transportation is an absolute must. If you’re going to stay on the island for just a few days, pick up a bus pass (a 4-day pass is $20.) And if you really have the means, pick up a rent-a-car. In my case, I met a local friend. She has a car. Righteous! The island suddenly became much smaller and manageable. After a month of living here, I’ve visited some wonderful spots. Sure, they may be pretty well known to anyone familiar with Hawai’i, but for someone just passing through, these are four must-see spots.
#1 – Hike Diamond Head
It might be a contradiction due to the amount of tourists that are also interested in Diamond Head, but the sights really are beautiful. And it’s close to town! Bike, run, bus, car … it’s all manageable from Waikiki. Anyway, Diamond Head is a now dormant volcano. You see the crater on the walk up – a crater of a once explosively active volcano. Try and tell me that isn’t badass and I’ll tell you you’re wrong with a slap of my white glove.
Parts of the path are paved which is kind of a bummer, but it’s still gorgeous. Also, I saw numerous overweight middle-aged men struggling up the 173 stairs to the top, so be careful. The trail may be more daunting than I give it credit for.
Regardless, with whales breaching in the distance the sights of the island are truly breathtaking. The water has this fantastically surreal blue hue, as though someone painted it. It’s like The Truman Show. I kept waiting for Ed Harris to beg me not to leave.
#2 – Sand Beach
After you’ve descended the great heights, you should head over to Makapu’u or Sandy Beach on the eastern side of O’ahu. Either makes a great place to lie prostrate on the sand and pass out from sun exposure. Bring a big blanket and you’re done. The waves at both beaches have a very steep break on the shore, so be careful. People have gotten hurt from the intensity of these large waves.
Makapu’u has some wonderful little islands to gaze at and fantasize about. I kept daydreaming of dancing around a giant bonfire on the tiny, deserted islands. If you want to make it a reality: bring drums, I’ll grab the headdresses.
Makapu’u is also a nice place to body board. If you’re ill-equipped, just launch yourself into the waves. You will get pummeled and fun will be had. Once again, be careful as the current gets pretty powerful.
The Pacific is an awe-inspiring place. This is the most relaxing of the locations I’ve been to thus far. I brought along my iPod, a copy of Treasure Island, and a giant towel. Gazing at the waves and listening to Grizzly Bear is a good route to take. I’d recommend it.
If you’re looking for a good place to grab some dinner, on the way back (in Hawaii Kai) head to Kona Brewing Co. They have unbelievably delicious pizza, and they brew ten beers as well. From what I’ve sampled, you can’t go wrong. Go. Enjoy. Let it happen.
#3 – Head Towards Electric Beach
It’s twenty-five minutes from Waikiki or Honolulu by car; by bus, a little over an hour. Electric Beach takes its name from the power plant right across the street. Okay, the plant is really ugly. But it works! The plant pumps out warm water exhaust into the Pacific. Sounds terrible, right? It’s not. The warmer water has allowed for marine life to flourish in the area. Strange, I know, but trust me. Grab your snorkel and fins or your BCD and tank and get out there. The surf and current are typically calm.
When I went, it was pouring rain and the conditions were still wonderful. Within five minutes of snorkeling, sea turtles were spotted. I waved to the turtles, blew them kisses, and loved them with my entire being. As we moved on, we saw some great fish and incredible coral. The visibility is seemingly infinite and the depth is only about thirty feet.
As we continued to swim around, we saw some divers. I wished I was with them, but all I could do was give them the Okay! to which I was greeted with a Hang-loose! They are my people. I love them dearly.
As we continued to swim through their bubbles, we heard squealing. My comrades and I surfaced. Dolphins? Precisely! Spinner dolphins, at that! I got as far out of the water as I could and saw them jumping a few hundred yards away.
“Dolphins!” I exclaimed.
“We should go after them!” I was excited.
“Really, dude? You want to swim after dolphins? That’s brilliant,” was the response.
Cynics. I began swimming after them. The dolphins must have sensed my presence for they began swimming towards us. Out of the blue, two dolphins and their baby swam at us. It was unbelievable. We were suddenly surrounded in a pod of 30 or 40 dolphins, diving and swimming around us. After ten minutes of this ecstatic affair, they disappeared as quickly as they had come. Going to Electric Beach is a wise choice.
#4 – Lastly, Visit the North Shore
Waimea Bay is stunningly beautiful. From the Waikiki area, it’s forty-five minutes by car or approximately two hours by bus. But during the winter months in Hawai’i, Waimea Bay’s waves get into the “Oh my God, that wave is gigantic!” range. As a matter of fact, as I’m writing this, the waves are said to be in the 30+ foot range for the next three days. That’s damn big – the kind of waves that few expert surfer bros can handle, let alone a jackass like me.
I went when the waves were calmer so I could jump off the giant boulder in the bay. I’m no mechanic, but my guess is the boulder is nearly thirty feet high, larger than it may look from a distance. As I fell through the air, all I could think is “%&*$ shouldn’t I have hit by now?” And I did. It’s a rush!
There isn’t much to see in the snorkeling department, but if you wander far enough along the beach, you’ll find countless rocks and crag-like structures to explore. I saw dead crabs, stagnant pools of collected water, and people passionately making out. I either looked like a stalker or paparazzi: walking around shirtless with my camera around my neck. Creepy.
Anyway, stick around for the sunset. It’s marvelous. Afterwards, pick up some of Manny’s huli-huli chicken. This dude grills the finest chickens after they’ve basked in delicious spices over an open-pit coal bed. Everyone stands around the pit and rids themselves of the cool night air.
We met some wonderful folks from Utah in the few minutes we waited for the food. Manny’s great too. Conversation rolls around the grill freely. After a day at Waimea Bay, it’s a great way to wind down and see some friendly faces.
After you have savagely chomped your meal down (I’ve transcended utensils), grab some shave ice. Aoki’s Shave Ice is the bomb. Literally. I got a Volcano shave ice. Make sure you get the ice cream in the bottom – otherwise it isn’t even worth it.
On the ride home, listen to the Beatles’ White Album. Or Devendra Banhart’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. Trust me. They’ll do you right.
By the time you stumble back to your hostel or public bench, you will conk out instantly with pleasant thoughts of volcanoes, dolphins, giant waves, and shave ice coursing through your soul.
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About the Author
Christian Vetter is the web producer for Honolulu Magazine. He knows a thing or two about the Interwebz, tech trends and living on islands.