Oahu Journal: A winter visit, 2011

Many times when reading about events in some faraway place, I’ll stop to take notes thinking I might someday travel there.  I got to thinking about Oahu and the Kialua area after reading accounts of Barrack Obama’s holiday here shortly after he won the presidential election in 2008.  He came back this winter in December and departed in early January.   He and his family stay north of the Kialua city center on Kaneohe Bay, on an estate I believe that the entertainer, Cher, considered buying.  Although spurred by the Obama visits to the Windward shore of Oahu, this trip as planned has little do do with him.  It is my third travelogue for “Long Row.”  I first wrote last year about a snowy trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.  I followed that one with daily accounts of a summer trip to England.   Each time I struggle with the journal’s order.  Have the   first day on top or the last one, that is the question.  For this one, I chose doing it in chronological order.   

January 22, SaturdayPhoenix.  We leave at noon on a flight to Honolulu and from there take a short drive to Kailua on the eastern or windward shore.  We’ve rented a room there in a residential neighborhood, three miles from the beach.   It is an anniversary trip of nine days.  Nebra and I will commemorate 25 years together on the 28th.  It is my first winter trip to the island, having last been there in summer 1983.  For Nebra, it is her first trip to Oahu, period, though we have been to the Big Island and Maui in recent years.  This trip is crazy in a way.  It is here in Phoenix, not amid the blue Pacific, that we have found near perfect weather of late. . . . Kailua.  Flight took 5 hrs, 50 mins, lift-off to touchdown.  U.S. Air nips you to death with extra charges:  $25 per extra bag, $7 for a sparse meal, $5 for a headset, $7 for an alcoholic drink.  A mai-tai or pomegranate martini is an added dollar.  Did not watch the in-flight movie, Wall Street,  but did cough up the dough for a reuben sandwich.  Nebra took the other “meal” offering, a fruit platter.  Hate the flying part of our trips.  Four hours elapsed from last land in California until Mauna Kea poked up four hours later on the southern horizon, then Maui, dark little stepping-stones among the clouds.   Arrived in Honolulu a little after 3, local time.  Three-hour time difference from Arizona.  Picked up our rental car, a black Volkswagen, navigated the maze of airport streets and at long last headed east toward Kailua.  For a while we chased an elusive rainbow, almost driving under it before the arc jumped ahead a bit.  Rose on Highway 3 into a heavy mountain rain and coolness.  Temps dropped 15 degrees or more from sultry Honolulu.  Arrived at our week’s home in Kailua shortly before 5.  Our hostess, Nancy, met us at the front door and showed us around.  A cramped but adequate bedroom, a living room-kitchentte with nearby bathroom.  One big problem.  The wireless internet we’d been promised was on the blink.  Nancy knows nothing about computers.  She doesn’t even use email.  She called her son, Mike, to come over and take a look at it later.  In the meantime we had a large meal at a popular seafood place for locals, Kim Chee’s in the Enchanted Lake Shopping Center about a mile from our lodging.  The owner, a youthful looking Hawaiian woman, said she’d been in business 19 years.  “And these are all my friends,” she said, sweeping her hand around the room of filled booths, mostly families.  Good food,  huge portions.  Couldn’t say what I ate other than it was squid and shrimp somewhere in the tempura.  The little mall is very mainlandish.  A McDonald’s, Starbucks and Safeway seem to be the anchors.  Went back to the room about 8 and Mike showed up a short time later, coming to the same conclusion I had.  The router was on the fritz.  He promised to bring a new one in the morning.  Very tired.  We went to bed early.

January 23, Sunday.  Kailua.  Day 2.  Arose at 8:30.  We sat outside in the gazebo for a while.  Partly cloudy, warm and breezy.  Mike came at 9 with the new router.  We now have wireless internet.  Made by day.  Mike said he’s Italian.  His mother, Nancy, was born in Calabria, his father in Sicily.  They met in New York City.  Didn’t ask where the father was.  Drove in to the small city center on Kailua Drive for brunch at Crepes No Ka Oi.   It’s a small place but popular and we had a 10-minute wait to be seated.  The manager at a used book store, Book Ends, recommended it.  Nebra and I ordered the same thing, a Popeye Power Crepe, with turkey and ham, onions, cheese and of course spinach.  Pretty good.  I could feel my Popeye biceps swell.   We drove down to the beach at the end of Kailua Road.  Kailua Beach is rated one of the best beaches in the world, though you wouldn’t guess it by the few numbers of people we saw today.  Fine, white sand, turquoise sea and on this day low surf.  We stretched out on towels and soon discovered why this eastern shore is called the windward side.  A steady cool wind blew inland Hawaii being that way.  Stopped nearby on our way toward town at Island Snow,  said to be President Obama’s farovite shave-ice place on the island.  He dropped in three times on his recent visit, the last time on January 3.   We bought a couple of medium cones, each with two flavors (Nebra’s strawberry and orange, mine strawberry and pina colada), and sat on a curb to eat them.  There’s no seating inside.  Feeling adventuresome, we motored north to Kanehoe, Kailua’s larger sister city, following the main drag to the indoor Windward Mall with its Borders, Macy’s and Sears stores.  It was near dark when we arrived back at the house.  Ate supper at Zia’s, a very average Italian restaurant in Kailua.  Our most expensive meal, $53, but our least enjoyable.  We’re thinking of traveling to the North Shore tomorrow.

January 24, Monday:  Kailua.  Day 3.   On a map, Oahu looks like a large island.  In fact it is small.  That fact hit home today when we drove up to North Shore on the far end of this beautiful island.  At the most it is 40 miles and less than an hour’s drive from our lodging here.   Our jaunt began shortly past noon as we snaked up the eastern coastline 27 miles via the 83 highway and many beach parks to the Polynesian Cultural Center at Laie thinking we’d take a quick tour and be on our way.  But once we discovered the cost — $100 admission for two and $8 for parking more than an hour — and on top of that the length of the show we did a U-turn and continued north.  North, as a brief but heavy shower struck,  past a Mormon college, BYU-Hawaii, the big white LDS temple that sets back off the highway and  later, turning west,  past the oft-troubled luxurious Turtle Bay Resort.  Traffic grew increasingly thick as we approached the little town of Hale’awi. where we had a late lunch at open-air Jameson’s By The Sea.  Best dining experience of our trip so far.  My meal of Cajun-blackened Ahi was spicy, delicious and filling.  The only regret was that I didn’t bypass the slaw for the seasoned fries as Nebra did with her Ulua.   And dessert, chocolate coconut cream pie, was likewise terrific, making our $48 bill seem more than reasonable.  The place also sports a bar and a small boutique.  Seen from our table, a mist rose in the distance from the bay where big breakers crashed.  This is, after all, surfing territory.  World-class surfing in winter.  From ‘the restaurant,  you can travel northeast on 83 for seven miles and hit surfer’s paradise at numerous beaches all the way up to Sunset Beach.  This stretch is known to surfers as The Seven-Mile Miracle, and is said to contain “the highest concentration of world class surfing spots in the world.”  After lunch we drove halfway up this stretch to Waimea Bay Beach Park.  Waimea, along with Ehukai (Pipeline) and Sunset beaches, play host to the Triple Crown of Surfing.  Waimea was not crowded, and we quickly found parking.  The beach runs about a quarter-mile in length and is 50-100 yards in width, white sand.  The surf was average, about 15 feet, and a dozen surfers bobbed in the water on the west end waiting for the perfect wave.  The east end was reserved for swimmers and boogie boards.  I read the surf here can get as high as 40 feet:  “(Waimea) has no off-shore reef and deep water thus causing the surf not to break until it is a minimum of 15 feet.”   There is one big competition remaining sometime before February 28.  It is the Quicksilver Big Wave International, featuring 24 of the world’s best surfers.  It is to be held here at Waimea Beach when and if the surf reaches 40 feet.  We stayed an hour and drove back to Hale’iwa for some shopping.  Dense smoke rising from the harbor, likely a big fire.  We headed home around dush and reached our rental after dark, only a 56-minute drive from North Shore.  A small island, yes.

January 25, Tuesday:  Kailua.   Day 4.  Not all is perfect out here in paradise, as I read in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser this morning.  The smoke we saw yesterday at Hale’iwa on North Shore was an arson fire.  A shark-tour boat was burned.  This is just three weeks after a fire on another of the company’s boats.  No arrests, but a group of surfers and environmentalists are protesting the company’s use of meat to attract sharks, a violation of Hawaii law.  Also a huge landfill on Oahu’s leeward, or western side, was flooded by the 100-year storm on the 13th.  Medical waste including syringes were later found washing up on shore.  For Nebra and I this was a lazy day built around President Obama’s State of the Union speech at 4 o’clock, local time.    Before the speech, we spent an hour at Kailua Beach.  It was much busier than on Sunday.   No trade winds today.  And no sail sports.  After the speech, we drove over to the Windward Mall in Kaneohe.  It is a large two-floored, three-winged mall with Borders, Sears and Macy’s the anchors at each end.  I purchased some running shoes at Champs.  The store, like the rest of the mall, seemed starved for business.  We ate an unexceptional supper of club sandwich and chile at Zippy’s, a family restaurant outside the mall, and came back to our rooms after dark.

January 26 , Wednesday:   Kailua.  Day 5.   This is the day we’ve been putting off.  A trip to Waikiki.  This little spit of land with its long  beach a few miles east of downtown Honolulu is the engine that makes Hawaii what it is.  It is to Honolulu what The Strip is to Vegas.  It is a fantasy, an island pipe dream.  Without it, economic failure.  I hate it.  Too garish, too commercial, too many highrises, and most of all too may people in flip-flops.   Waikiki strikes me as a female place, a shopping mecca.  The men play golf.  Take away the women, and Waikiki sinks in sand.  Maybe reluctance caused our late start.  Almost 1: 30 when we left here.  Traveled the Pali Highway through with its grand views of Honolulu, through the steep mountains on another gorgeous day.  It will be same weather as yesterday, the day before and the day before that:  80-82 degrees, light breeze and mostly sunny sky.   It didn’t take long to reach our first destination, the state capitol, just east of downtown.  Only 10.3 miles from our place in Kialua on the “far” east side of the island.  The capitol is built to symbolize a volcano.  Big “crater” rises through the center of the building into blue sky.  You have to use your imagination.  Also before going to Waikiki, we did a very unusual thing.  We attended a lecture in the State Supreme Court building.  U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Alito spoke on “The Top 10 Things You May Not Know About the U.S. Supreme Court.”  Very interesting.  Finally we eased over through the  glut of late afternoon traffic into Hell.  Waikiki was throbbing with energy as usual.  We found the free parking zone by the Honolulu Zoo and walked back to the beach.  It was not crowded now as dusk descended.  Gone, was the huge mob with its cameras pointed to the horizon, all eagerly awaiting “the green flash,” at the very moment the sun sets.  Tide was rising as we wade the warm water by the beach.  In the distance a half-dozen surfers bobbed in poor surf and farther out was a cruise ship its lights lit.  Above, Jupiter appeared with Orion not far behind, then bright Sirius.  On the main drag I joined the crowd, purchasing my own flip-flops.  Nebra bought a beautiful and tasteful sarong of purples.  It was then that I sinned and ate a giant teriyaki burger at a Wahaloha fast food place.  That was enough of Waikiki for one day.  Think we’ll come back later in the week.  Want Nebra to get a daytime blast of the place.

January 27, Thursday:  Kialua.  Day 6.  We headed to North Shore beaches again in search of giant waves.  Watching TV last night, I heard the surf was up at Ehukai Beach Park, home to the Bonzai Pipeline.  At the turnoff to Hale’iwa, Nebra steered the VW northeast up the Kamehameha Highway along the coastline for several miles, past the rocky Pupukea Beach and its sanctuary for humpback whales, and finally a short distance to Ehukai.  Or what we guessed was Ehukai.  No signs visible.  You drive along this busy, two-lane road until you find a slew of cars parked helter-skelter on one side or the other.  Then you know it’s one of the big beaches.  We slogged through a quartermile of ankle-deep sand, spread our towels down in the sun and adjusted eyes to the sea.  What magnificent waves, one marching in after another from the north, some as high as 20 feet, I estimated, cresting, crashing in whiteness, splashing foam in every direction. A dozen surfers or more bobbed on the huge swells like flotsam, out about 200 yards, waiting to catch the perfect wave.  A cluster of spectators was stationed farther down the shore.    A PA system blared, undecipherable to my ears.  Some sort of competition was under way out there.  For a few moments, the sea’s barrage softened and I asked explanation from a  young photographer with a telephoto lens trained on the surfers.  “It’s pulsing,” he said.  And I thought, yes,  how human this wild winter sea is.  I know little about surfing.  But one thing seemed clear as I watched a surfer head out to sea, fighting the incoming waves for 10 minutes before getting out far enough to do his thing.  The surfer really has this boarding stuff in his blood.  He is driven.  I watched one surfer slip down a giant wave on his board and under the curl.  I thought he had wiped out.  But suddenly he emerged from the curl, still on his board, eased down the wave, then spun back over it as pretty as you please.  In some future life I know I’ll come back as a surfer.  Nebra was mesmerized by the waves and their  roar.  She said she couldn’t image giving this up for Waikiki.  “What a treat,” she said.  We hadn’t eaten, and so drove back to Hale’iwa Joe’s for a late lunch, a fish sandwich  for me and for Nebra an avocado crab salad.  The waitress told us the surfers rent houses on the beach and stay on North Shore all winter.   After lunch we drove back past the Pipeline to another big beach, Sunset.  Again no signs.  Just cars parked along the highway.  It is a picturesque beach, right out of a postcard.  Palm trees, black rock in the distance, crashing surf.  Again, a dozen surf riders, only these were out farther, maybe a quartermile.  And they stayed out there as darkness arpproached.  About 6:15 Nebra and I both hoisted our camera to the ready in anticipation of “the green flash,” at the moment the sun sets.  Almost  everyone else on the beach did the same.  They do not call this Sunset Beach for naught.  You see it all.  No obstacles between you and the sun. But if there was a flash, the two of us did not see it.  Oh, well.  Still, a nice end to an unbelievable  day not everyone could appreciate.

January 28, Friday:  Kailua.  Day 7.  Ours was an office romance.  It started when I composed a short email note to her in French.  Nebra spoke the language fluently, I not at all.  I looked up a few meaningful words, nothing special, and sent them out into the ether. She responded favorably, and on this date 25 years ago, in 1986, we had our first date.  We went to a bar in Phoenix, drank a few beers and played pool.  The date of that first date was etched in tragedy.  That very same morning, the Challenger spacecraft exploded shortly after lift-off.  A sad day for many, and an ominous beginning for us.  But here we are, all these years later, together and seemingly going strong.  Amazingly we had nothing special planned for today.    We set out in early afternoon for Hanauma Bay, to snorkel and view colorful fish among the reefs.  But we stopped too long at Numuanu State Park in the mountains for splendid views of the Kailua area and to read up on history of the Pali Road, and by the time we got to the bay, parked, paid the $7.50 each for admission and watched the mandatory film, it wasn’t worth it to rent the snorkel gear for a half hour.  So we layed out on the beach under a cloudy sky, did some wading and walked back up the steep incline and drove on east.  I wanted to see Sandy Beach where my friend Bob and I had been body-slammed by big waves in 1983 to the point of uncontrollable laughter.   On the way east on highway 72 we dropped by the Halona Blowhole.  The ol’ Hole was having a bad day here at low tide.  No ocean water shot up sky-high through the lava tubes.  It was more like a wheeze and a puff of mist.  But it was on the right side of the Blowhole that caught my interest.  Peering over the railing, you can see a rough lava path leading down to a very small beach almost hidden among the rock.  This is Halona Cove Beach Park, and on the far side of it is a small opening to the sea where waves move in and out.  It was here, I read, the famous love scene was shot for the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.  That was the shot with  Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, lying in the sand in swimsuits, their passion and the ocean sweeping over them.  The highway, 72,  leads back to Kailua around the southeast corner of Oahu, and it is an awesome drive, especially at sunset.  It’s along this stretch, at Lanai Overlook, that Obama tossed the ashes of both his mother and grandmother.  Coming north I saw two islands far off shore.  Molokai and Lanai, I believe.  I had not forgotten yesterday’s trip to North Shore, and I purchased a biography of the great surfer, Eddie Aikau, “Eddie Would Go,” at Book Ends.  We later had supper across the street at Saeng’s, an attractive Thai food eatery.  My garlic shrimp was wholesome and ample but too bland.  I like it hot and had to pour chile on it.  Tomorrow we move north to a resort on Kanehoe Bay for our last night on the island.

January 29, Saturday:  Kahalu’u.  Day 8.  We would have spent more time on Sandy Beach this afternoon if we’d sooner found our lodging for the night  at a “resort” on the eastern shore, about four miles north of Kanehoe.  As Nebra steered the VW up the 83 Highway, it became apparent after a while we’d overshot the turnoff.   Forget that informative  signage is a lost art outside of Honolulu.   Maybe we’d lost focus.  Much of this area is feral, a beautiful part of Oahu with  cloud-draped mountains, rain forests, verdant valleys and white-sand beaches.  A part of Oahu, I imagine,  few vacationers want to think about.  A kind of backwoods and authentic way of  life exists over here.  Much like Appalachia without coal mines.  The REAL Hawaii unseen to the dreamers who flock to Waikiki.    But enough sermonizing.   We stopped to make a cellphone call to the resort from Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre cattle spread that has served as film locations for Jurassic Park, Magnum P.I. and the new Hawaii Five-O.   A young woman answered and supplied these directions:  “You’re not that far away.  Turn back with the ocean on your left, cross a bridge and look for a 7/11 and an orange building, the Hygienic Store, and make a left.  Look for Lihikai and take another left.  We’re not far down the road.”  At the described intersection we found no sign, no indication any sort of lodging was in this neck of the woods.   The “resort” was set amid a small community of very modest houses landscaped with junk.  Everyone seems to be in midstream on some household project.  An old cement mixer stared at our new home for a night from across the street.  Chickens crowed, and a bevy of children ran around screaming.   Carpenters toiled in front of the resort on as yet undefinable remodeling.  Power tools yammered away.  And, as Nebra checked us in, I eased over to inspect the view.  Below the spectacular rise of the Koolau Range, and right in front of our room was a stream lined with long-rooted banyan trees, a floating dock, a houseboat and two power boats.  “Think Everglades,” I told Nebra as she came over to see too.  As night approached and we were the only known guests I had another thought.  Bates Motel.  But, you know, later I came to see a charm in the place that I can’t explain.  So it was 4 o’clock by the time we arrived 20 miles down the road, past Kailua and around high Makapu’u Point on Oahu’s southeast corner, at crowded Sandy Beach.  A big surf of five-foot waves rolled in from the south and confronted a wall of boogie boarders, none I’d guess over the age of 12.  I counted 28 of them in a length of about 25 yards.  Eventually Nebra and I found our own space in the water, surfing into shore and being smashed into the sand, then fighting a fierce rip tide.  When I finally staggered out of the sea, I felt huge lumps at my sides.  My pockets were bulging with sand.  We  didn’t last long, and as darkness set in and everyone began to leave, we walked over to the showers to further unburden our loads of sand that seem embedded into every pore of our bodies.  A warm shower back at our room  and a nice supper at a great restaurant, Haleiwa Joe’s  in Kaneohe, put me in a good mood again.   Another trying day, our last on Oahu, awaits.  Nebra wants in the worst way to see the U.S.S. Arizona monument and exhibit in Pearl Harbor.  That means, I suppose, fighting our own war with the hordes who also want to understand our nation’s past and World War II.

January 30, Sunday:  Day 9, our last on Oahu.  At the resort’s complimentary breakfast of juices, cereal, milk, yogurt and toasted waffles, I was surprised to see a half-dozen other guests.  Most were young, affluent Caucasians I estimated in their 20s and 30s.  More adventuresome and serious than you might find on the South Shore.  It’s not such a bad place, this resort, after all.  No 5-star for sure but okay.  From the lanai, the mountain view was stunning, the steep Koolaus lit by morning sun, their deep vertical scars dark with shadow.   Glimpses of blue sea to the right, a rooster crowing.   So we set out in mid-morning for Pearl.   The real battle to reach the Pearl Harbor historic sites and the sunken Arizona memorial was not a crush of spectators at the gate.  It was  the annual NFL Pro Bowl traffic.  We inched along through  noisy vehicles and loud music until we passed Aloha Stadium.  Still two hours before kickoff.  I like football but all-star games of any sport are not my bag.  Entrance  to the Pearl exhibits is free and only a short distance from the stadium.  The site is so close to Aloha that later, as we left, the roar of the Pro Bowl crowd thundered down to us.  Nebra had paid $3 to stow her purse.  That was all.  No bags allowed.  We headed out in a light rain among a modest party on a small boat to the Arizona, which has rested for 69 years in the shallows of South Channel a good rock-throw to Ford Island.  A bomb from a Japanese plane struck the ship’s ammo magazine on December 7, 1941, causing a huge explosion and loss of life.  U.S. war on Japan was soon declared, and our nation’s history changed forever with the start of World War II.  The concrete monument stands across the ship’s beams.  Parts of the Arizona protrude above water.  Oil oozes still from the ship, floating in rainbow hues like a warming spirit on the water’s surface around this solemn place.  The whole trip took no more than 30 minutes.  Back at port, the historic site is rife with wonderful exhibits about the surprise attack on Pearl, the Arizona,  the Japanese military machine, and even those unfortunate Japanese-Americans caught in between.  After a  sumptuous meal  of ahi at Longhi’s in the humongous Ala Moana shopping center with an open-air, 4th floor view of the Pacific, we drove out to Diamond Head hoping to hike the park trail of 8/10 mile to get a view at sunset.  Sorry.  No sunset views.  The trail closes at 4:30. We were too late.  So finally on the crater’s south side we parked the VW and walked out to an observation point.  A grand panorama of the Pacific stretched in front of us.  About two dozen surfers were wrestling with modest swells.  As sunset loomed, more cars showed up to view the colorful gathering of clouds, sea and sky.   Some were there with long-range cameras shooting humpback whales cavorting about a mile off shore.  Nebra thought she saw flukes.  We strode down on the paved path to Diamondhead Beach to watch the sunset.  A heavy, young man from New York City was seated on a rock and adopted us for some reason.  He said he’d lived two years on Hawaii, yet he talked with pride as if he were a native.  He was there with his camera, he said, to attempt a rare photo of the green flash.  But I think mostly he was just lonely, far from home, looking for something to fill an empty existence.  Hell, maybe he was a serial killer.  Anyway we didn’t stick around long after sunset.  Again, no green flash caught our eyes.  We wormed our way eventually back to the airport for our 11:15 red-eye to Phoenix.  All in all it was a nice break, these nine days, though I’m sure many would say, “All that, and you guys didn’t do much.”   I beg to differ.  We saw a lot.  It just wasn’t at Waikiki of other popular tourist traps.


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