It is early afternoon a week ago, and we’re driving along North Shore on Oahu. We’re looking for Ehukai Beach Park. It is there that world-class surfers are trying to ride the giant waves of Bonzai Pipeline. Though it is an elite competition mentioned on the 10 o’clock news on the South Shore in Honolulu, no signs are visible up here as we travel the busy two-lane Highway. Nothing would even tell you this is Ehukai Beach.
While North Shore is only about a 40-mile drive from Waikiki, it is in a very real sense much, much farther away.
Away from Honolulu and its tourist mecca along Waikiki beach, you often have to guess to find pristine places on the island. Or ask. Or take a tour bus. If you are not a local, Oahu makes it rough on you away from the small confines of Waikiki. The other Oahu is, charmingly, a land of jungle drums and word of mouth. It’s as if Hawaii’s “powers that be” want the beautiful Oahu kept hidden and would enjoy nothing more than caging tourists on Waikiki.
Kiailua, the city where we stayed on the eastern shore, is home to Kailua Beach, which has been rated as the No. 1 beach in the world. But you can not find it easily. In town, there are no “To the Beach” signs. To get there, you have to travel jagged streets, follow your instincts. Of course. Locals know how to get there. That’s what is important. Kialua, like much of Oahu beyond Waikiki, is not a big tourist destination. It has no big hotels or beachfront inns. It is largely a military town. A Marine Corps base is on the north, an air force base to the south. We stayed at a small suite of rooms in a home in a very residential part of the city for $100 a night.
Kailua’s recent claim to fame comes from President Obama’s holidays. He and has family have vacationed in the area at least twice. He stays a few miles north on Kane’ohe Bay. But even Obama’s favorite shave-ice place, Island Snow, in Kailua, does not try to capitalize on his business. The little store in a tiny shopping center not far from the beach does not sport a single photo of Obama and his daughters ordering up a shave-ice. There is not even a sign saying “Obama ate here.”
The island’s only freeways — H1, H2 and H3 — all come together in a jumble northwest of Honolulu, creating a Great Barrier Reef of its own. Many tourists, I imagine, find their vehicles spun around in this unclearly-marked mess and heading back toward Waikiki, Aloha Stadium, the airport or Pearl Harbor.
Just to find our lodging in Kailua, Yahoo maps presented us with 14 tedious turnoff points in the 18.96 miles from the Honolulu airport. If you travel to Waikiki, no problem. Plenty of signs.
For our last night in Oahu, we took a room at Paradise Bay Resort, in Kahalu’u, four miles north of Kaneohe. You likely won’t find this rural community on a map. And we had to call for directions to the “resort,” which was more like a motel. No signs on the highway. We were to turn off at an “orange building” and wend our way around half-paved streets. We even drove past the resort, failing to notice the small sign in front. But it was nice, clean place with a breath-taking morning view from the lanai of the tropical Koolau mountains.
On North Shore, the beaches are best marked by parked cars along the highway. The more cars, the bigger the beach. Waimea Beach Park has no road sign but is distinctive with a nearby bridge, stream and secondary bay. But the other two big surfing beaches, Ehukai and Sunset?
Two heavy middle-aged white men with long beards leaned up against a car, apparently admiring the surf as dusk approached. “Is this Sunset Beach?” I asked one of them. “You found it,” he said. It shouldn’t have been even that difficult.
I suspect the confusion and lack of signage are by design, driven by two forces. One, Waikiki commercial interests who want you to spend all your money on their little spit of land, every trip to North Shore, say, taking dollars out of their greedy pockets. Two, Oahu locals who do not want to see their land destroyed by rich haoles, or foreigners, and highrise development.
Paradise has its limits.