The hidden Oahu and the Pali Highway

In the beginning, many might say, the gods created Waikiki, that highrise hotel and shopping mecca with a beach beside it on Oahu.  The haole, or visitor, never has to leave the area to get what may be seen as the “real Hawaii experience.”   And, for the adventuresome, a luau, North Shore’s giant winter waves, the Polynesian Cultural Center are just a tour bus away.  There is no time to immerse yourself in the other Oahu before you’re back home, safe and snug with a beach rug, on Waikiki.

The real Oahu, or as close these days as the traveler may come, is on the far side of the Koolau mountains, on the Windward or eastern shore.  And even then, you must drive north, away from the military towns of Kane’ohe and Kailua, to find anything close to the remnants of the old island culture. 

This narrow strip along the Pacific is the most beautiful part of Oahu, yet raw and still hidden.  It is a land of spectacular green mountains, rain forests and small but attractive beaches that are mostly used by locals.  So far there are no hotels or resorts here, no tourism of consequence.  The Koolaus have protected it.   We discovered the history one early afternoon driving down to Hanauma Bay to snorkel. 

Near the mountain pass of the Pali Highway connecting Honolulu with Kane’ohe, there is a turn-off leading to a windy lookout point at Nu’uanu State Park.  It is a short drive of about a mile and a quarter through dense forest to a $3 self-pay parking lot.  From there, it is an easy walk up to the lookout that offers a grand easterly view of Kane’ohe and Kailua far below.  The park rests near the site of the Battle of Nu’uanu where King Kamehameha won unification of all the Hawaiian islands.  As a bonus we found in signs and plaques a history of the Pali Highway, the most modern version with its tunnels being built in 1957.

For the longest time the only way to get to the Windward shore from Honolulu was by canoe or treacherous mountain trail.  The Rev.Reuben Tinker wrote of his harrowing experience on the trail in 1831:

The pass was almost too fearful to be enjoyed.  I suffered from apprehension lest I should fall from the rocky steep.  I took off my shoes and by setting my feet in the crevices of the rock, I worked myself along, assisted by a native who saw nothing but to wonder at my awkwardness and fear of passing this grand highway.

The first Pali road to the Windward was completed in 1898.   By then, commercial development was all around Honolulu, and even to this day Kane’ohe and especially Kailua are quiet residential towns. 

One sees changes coming, though.  The Pali Highway is now only one of three arteries leading from Honolulu to the Windward.  Tour buses ply the once-lonely Kamehameha Highway (83) to the expensive Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie.  The Mormons have taken a toe-hold nearby with a large temple and the sect’s Brigham Young University-Hawaii.  And not too far away on North Shore rests the high-dollar Turtle Bay Resort with its rich-green manicured golf course running along the highway. 

The beauty and solitude of the Windward shore has not been lost on film-makers.  Kualoa Ranch has been location to the likes of Jurassic Park and TV dramas.  This week’s  episode of the new Hawaii Five-O had scenes supposedly set at Kahuku, the most northern town on the Windward side.   

Locals cry out in futility.   Hand-written signs dot the highway north.  No more development, says one.  Another pleads for island sovereignty, like the Native American tribes on the mainland. 

The inevitable building of the Pali Highway was a blessing to some.  But it is a symbol too of the curse of commercialization that seemingly awaits this still mostly pristine part of the island.

It is all reminiscent of a line in the old Eagles song, “The Last Resort:”   You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.


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