Discovering Honolulu

By: Jim Byers
HONOLULU – It’s early. Maybe 5 a.m. But I’m determined to see the sun come up over Oahu. So I head out of Waikiki towards Diamond Head, the famously craggy, extinct crater locals call Le’ahi, for the ritual sunrise hike.

I park my car near the entrance to the park, a stone’s throw from the campus of Kapi’olani College, where they hold one of the world’s best farmer’s markets every Saturday morning. I have a flashlight and I’m dressed for what Hawaiians call the morning chill; the temperature having plunged down to a downright frosty 18 Celsius.

I’m far from having gold-member status in the Alpine Club of Canada, but I manage the ascent just fine. It’s a fairly gradual climb, ultimately rising up a series of switchbacks on a trail that’s about 2 km’s long in total. I reach the summit and find a set of stairs leading to an old military bunker or lookout. I find a spot with dozens of other sunrise worshippers. And wait. After five or ten minutes, the deep blue gives ways to lighter shades of indigo and then robin’s egg blue. Suddenly small sparks of brilliant orange flame come shooting up over the horizon. A few people clap. Most of us just gaze in wonder at this daily miracle, which shines the sun’s glowing light on the rugged, green-brown slopes of Le’ahi and lights up the foaming blue ocean and the white cresting waves pounding the shore of suburban Honolulu.

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There’s a lot to like in this city. The sunrise, for one. The market, at which you’ll find deep yellow-orange and blue birds of paradise and fiery red wild ginger, along with homemade lemongrass tea, Portuguese-style donuts called malasadas, fresh lemonade and locally made popsicles at a stand that advertises their product is “from farm to stick.”

Food is a big thing in Honolulu, where the concept of fusion cuisine has been a basic fact of life – and a necessity – for generations. Waves of immigrants have brought their culture and their cuisine to these oh-so-isolated and oh-so-beautiful islands for centuries. Which is why you’ll find saimin noodles and Portuguese sausage on the menu at McDonald’s and why you’ll find a plethora of outstanding South East Asian restaurants, along with that most peculiar of Hawaiian treats, Spam on Japanese rice wrapped in seaweed; something called Spam Musubi.

Honolulu’s food scene has exploded in the past few years, with sensational and surprisingly urban-feeling spots in Chinatown taking major honours. The Pig and the Lady is a sleek affair that feels more like New York than Hawaii, with Laotian fried chicken with lemongrass and other Asian spices perhaps the most delicious dish.

One of the best ways to explore Hawaiian food on a budget is to try one of the mixed plate lunch spots. The Rainbow Drive-In is said to be American President Barack Obama’s favourite, but you might find the Highway Inn more convenient as it’s on the main route from Waikiki to the Honolulu Airport. For a very reasonable $10 or so, you’ll usually get kalua (slow-roasted) pork, plus rice, macaroni salad, potato salad and other delightful carbohydrates that will have you napping on the beach all afternoon long.


And do they have beaches. Waikiki might be the most famous stretch of sand in the world; a gleaming stretch that goes on for miles and fronts a series of the world’s most romantic hotels; the Halekulani with its famous House Without a Key Bar, the Westin Ala Moana Surfrider with its old-style porch and the perfectly pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Starwood luxury property.

The sand near the hotels is great. But for something different and for more of a local (and less crowded) feeling head towards Diamond Head and enjoy Queen’s Beach in Kapiolani Park. The Barefoot Beach Café is a small restaurant that’s a stone’s throw off the water that has good food and table service with fabulous views of Diamond Head. Also nice is the beach at the other end of Waikiki, near Fort de Russy. You might find a great cover band belting out tunes from one of the cafes, and you’ll for sure find some shady trees in the park that will help you keep your sensitive Canadian skin – or that of your kids – out of the tropical sun.

Waikiki might be the easiest place in the world to surf, with long, consistently gentle waves and, in places, almost no reef to smack your knees or elbows on. A lesson with Go Surfing Hawaii might be the best investment you can make, as owner Jo Jo Howard and her staff  are encouraging and engaging and knows every inch of the beach. I hadn’t surfed in years but Howard had me up in almost (well, almost) no time on my last couple visits. If surfing isn’t your thing, be sure to hook up with one of the beach outfits that do outrigger surf rides. For a few bucks, you’ll paddle out into the best waves with expert guides in a long outrigger canoe and experience a ride of a minute or longer back toward the shore. Usually they give you two rides or even three, and it’s a great way to feel the energy of the waves that a surfer enjoys. Great scenery, too.


Be sure you don’t miss Pearl Harbor, the Honolulu military base the Japanese bombed on that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941. The monuments to fallen soldiers is a powerful and sobering experience, no matter your politics or nationality.

History fans will enjoy Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States. It dates back to the days when Hawaii was a kingdom, back before the U.S. moved in and displaced the royal family. It’s a controversial time in the history of this island state, one that many natives believe should never have been inducted into the American fold.

I found two great spots I hadn’t visited before on my last trip to Honolulu. One is the Doris Duke Estate on the slopes of Diamond Head. You arrange your visit through the excellent Honolulu Museum of Art and get a short bus ride from the downtown museum to the estate. There you’ll find a fantastic testament to Islamic architecture and art. It’s a real eye-opener, and you’ll learn a lot about what makes art and design Islamic in the first place. Beautiful gardens and luscious views of the coast, too.


The other spot that had somehow eluded me until recently was a trip to Manoa Falls. It’s about a 15 or 20 minute drive (depending on Honolulu’s infamous traffic) to a dirt parking lot at the bottom of the massive green mountains that form a backdrop to this city. From there you take a walk of another 15 or 20 minutes, strolling past massive tropical ferns. At the end you’re rewarded with the view of a towering, 50 meter waterfall surrounded by black rock and deep green foliage. You’re not supposed to, but there’s no one around to stop you from climbing over small rocks and taking a dip in the fresh, cool water. Let the falls pound a rhythmic massage on your back, drink in the tropical smells and soak up the natural beauty around .

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Photo credits: Jim Byers



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