Hawai`i Travelogue: Part 1

Two Nights in O`ahu (The Gathering Place)

– Back in 2014, when Sankha and I were living continents apart in Australia and United States, we once thought of meeting in a Hawai`ian island to celebrate Christmas together. Somehow that plan didn’t materialize, but since then we have been eagerly waiting to tick ‘vacation in Hawai`i’ off our bucket list.

This year, we finally set out for a “10-day-9-night” long vacation in Hawai`i on 30th June. For our first trip to Hawai`i, we chose three islands from the Hawai`ian archipelago (Ka Pae `Aina O Hawai`i Nei): O`ahu (The Gathering Place), Maui (The Valley Isle) and Hawai`i (The Big Island). Our first destination was Honolulu, the capital of Hawai`i on the island of O`ahu.

By the time we kicked off Hawai`i trip planning (end of March), it was a bit late and flights to Honolulu became exorbitantly expensive during the 4th of July long weekend. So we utilized points from Delta Skymiles (37.5K for each of us) to fly from San Jose (SJC) to Honolulu (HNL), the gateway of O`ahu, with a stopover at Los Angeles (LAX). On 30th June, our flight landed at HNL around 9:30 pm, right on time. Warm, gentle breeze kissed our face as we walked out of the airport, and plethora of bright red Hawai`ian Anthurium plants near the terminal exit welcomed us to the paradise of tropical islands. “Aloha O`ahu!” I uttered to myself inhaling the fresh air, as we headed towards the Enterprise shuttle stop for rental car pick-up. Unlike our umpteen past experiences of ‘rental pick up in a jiffy’ in U.S. mainland, it took us almost an hour and a half of waiting at the rental office though, before we could finally pick up the car and drive to our hotel near Waikiki Beach. For our 2-day-3-night stay in Honolulu, we booked Holiday Inn Resort (IHG) Waikiki Beachcomber (using 80k IHG points + one anniversary night certificate), conveniently located on Kalakaua Avenue at the heart of Waikiki downtown. It was past midnight when we finally reached the hotel after nearly half-a-day of journey, somewhat exhausted but at the same time, super excited to finally begin our long-waited Hawai`i trip!

Dawn at Sandy Beach, Day 1

Dawn at Sandy Beach, Day 1

Day One

In the morning (July 1st), we woke up way before cockcrow and headed towards the Sandy Beach (also known infamously as break-neck beach due to the maximum toll of casualties caused every year by its notorious shorebreaks). Located on the south shore of O`ahu along the scenic Kalaniana’ole Highway, this fine sand beach is a popular destination for sunrise photography, besides being a bodysurfing hotspot owing to its natural, powerful surf breaks close to the shore. We arrived at the beach parking lot around 4:30 am, more than an hour before the sunrise and there were already few cars (mostly of bodysurfers’) parked in the lot. With photography gears and flashlights, we climbed down all the way to the shoreline where jagged reefs and boulders were sprawling off the coast.

We kept walking towards west along the rocky shoreline until we reached a wide-open area, from where we could see the famous Hālona blowhole lookout at a distance.

Tiny streams falling from crevices, Sandy Beach

Tiny streams falling from crevices, Sandy Beach

There were interesting rock formations, coves and tide pools all around. Waves were crashing against the shore, forming myriad tiny streams falling from the cracks and crevices of the rocks. Pounding waves were frequently blowing water through the holes in the lava riffs, spraying up on the rocks close to where we were standing. After scouting the water spray pattern and the surrounding surface for sometime, we chose a relatively stable and out-of-the-probable-drenching-zone boulder to set up the tripod and wait for the break of the day. Soon after, it started drizzling and in no time, the mizzle intensified to heavy downpour! We had to hurriedly pack up the photography gears and take shelter under a jutted rock. We weren’t ready to abort our sunrise trip though. Fortunately, after a while, the rain ceased to intermittent drizzling and we could take out our gears again. By the dawn, patches of hovering, dark rain clouds settled in the east, obnubilating the horizon. Though the sunrise was beclouded, a bright arc of rainbow after the shower compensated for the rain-washed dayspring. Rainbow-in-the-dawn was a spectacular sight.
Rainbow (left), Water spray from Halona blowhole, Sandy Beach, Day 1

Rainbow (left), Water spray from Halona blowhole (right), Sandy Beach, Day 1

While coming back, we stopped at the Hālona blowhole lookout. Molten lava tubes created by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago formed one of the natural wonders of Oahu, the blowhole. During high surf, wave gushes up the lava tube and shoots water above the blowhole, similar to steam spray seen in geysers of Yellowstone. From this lookout, the view of the scenic coastal trail off Kalanianaʻole Highway, adorned with lava rock cliffs is magnificent. Right next to the lookout is Hālona cove. Alongside a small sandy beach washed by the spectacular turquoise blue sea, the cove is a popular place for swimming during low surf. On our way back to Waikiki, we halted at Moena Café for breakfast. The food was delicious.
Breakfast at Moena Cafe

Breakfast at Moena Cafe

Panoramic view of Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki

Panoramic view of Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki

When we reached hotel, it was half past eight. Kalakaua Avenue was buzzing with tourists. From our 10th floor balcony, the panoramic view of lively Waikiki downtown, with the Pacific in the backdrop was lovely. After taking a power nap to get rejuvenated, we set out for a daylong trip. Driving along the southeastern shoreline of Oahu, our first stop was at Makapu’u point lookout. Right off the Kalanianaole Highway and overlooking Makapu’u Beach Park, this lookout offers breathtaking view of turquoise blue ocean surrounded by sprawling cliffs and two small islands at a close distance: Rabbit (aka Manana Island) and Kaohikaipu. Heading further north along the coast, we stopped fleetingly at the beaches of Makapu’u and Waimanalo, before setting out for the famous Lanikai Beach. Due to hot and humid mid-day weather, we skipped two well-known hiking trails on our way: Makapu’u lighthouse and Lanikai pillbox trails. It was past noon when we reached Lanikai, and to our bafflement, all the parking lots within a mile of the beach access were completely full! On the first day of the long weekend, the beach was overly crowded and we had to give up hope of an empty parking spot after waiting for a while.
Crab Shell (left) and View of Rabbit and Kaohikaipu Islands (right) from Makapu'u Beach

Crab Shell (left) and View of Rabbit and Kaohikaipu Islands (right) from Makapu’u Beach

Driving down further north, Kualoa Regional Park was our next stop. Located at Kāne’ohe Bay and right across the Kamehameha highway, this spacious grassy area with ample picnic tables and camping spots is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Hawai`i’s party island. The calm and peaceful beach atmosphere compelled us to take a snack-break and relax for few hours. Being a recommended location for sunrise photography, Kualoa Park’s center of attraction is the view of nearby Mokoli’i Island, which has earned its nickname Chinaman’s Hat due to the shape similar to a coolie’s hat. Soaking in the serenity of Kualoa Park for around two hours, we decided to head off as the gust of wind in the overcast beach was intensifying with passing time. But we were already a bit late! While walking towards the parking lot, it started raining cats and dogs all of a sudden and before reaching the car, we got totally drenched. It was super fun though, running through the rain after ages!
Chinaman's hat (left) and Maui art near the entrance of Polynesian Cultural Center (right)

Chinaman’s hat (left) and Maui art near the entrance of Polynesian Cultural Center (right)

When we departed Kualoa Park, it was already half past two. We were thoroughly soaked and famished. Changing our original plan of driving directly to Haleiwa town in North Shore, we decided to take a small detour and stop at Polynesian Cultural Center for lunch. Glad that we explored the Hukilau marketplace in the premise of the Cultural Center. Brimming with handmade decors, traditional local foods and vibrant souvenir shops with Hawai`ian arts and crafts, this exotic marketplace relivens the golden days of old Laie. We roamed hither and thither for a while and enjoyed the unpretentious atmosphere of a vintage throwback before settling in the Pounders for lunch. The rustic but refined interior of this restaurant was exquisite and we savored distinctive Hawai`ian-style pizzas baked in kiawefired brick oven. In the late afternoon, the temperature was soaring. To quench our thirst on the way, we bought mango otai from a local juice stall in the marketplace. A traditional Polynesian beverage, mango otai is a cold creamy tropical drink that tastes great and is reminiscent of conventional smoothie in texture. Around 4 pm, we left the cultural center and headed towards North Shore.

Driving down Kamehameha Hwy, we shortly stopped at Sunset Beach (a famous sunset spot, as evident from the name), Banzai Pipeline (iconic surf spot of North Shore with notorious waves in winter) and Shark’s Cove (popular snorkeling spot) on our way to Haleiwa town. When we arrived at Haleiwa Beach Park, the sky was leaden and thick. Though the beach was serene and far from the jostling crowd, the gloomy sky didn’t look promising. We checked the weather forecast for next few hours and the chance of western horizon getting clearer by dusk appeared very slim. At this point, we both were exhausted and going back to Waikiki seemed a wiser choice  than waiting here for a beclouded sunset.

Sunset view from Kuhio Beach (left), Sunset, Waikiki Beach (right)

Sunset view from Waikiki Beach

Postponing North Shore sunset plan until the next day, we headed off to Waikiki. On our way back, a perfect half-circular rainbow on Likelike Hwy cheered us up a bit. Around 6 o’clock in the evening, we reached Waikiki Beach. Needless to say, the  Waikiki shoreline was exceedingly crowded. Walking down the peninsula further south for about a quarter mile, we passed by Duke Kahanamoku Statue and came to Kuhio Beach. Nicknamed as “ The Ponds”, there are two back-to-back concrete walls stretching into the ocean that create an enclosure of salt water, ideal for kids to play around. The slippery concrete stretch was relatively less crowded, so we set up our gears on the barrier for sunset photography. Surfing and paddle boating enthusiasts were flocking in  Waikiki seashore near evening-fall. Their slick silhouette in the foreground of western horizon illuminated with the golden lights painted the sunset canvas astoundingly. At the end, it was worth coming back to Waikiki for sunset instead of waiting at overcast Haleiwa. In twilight, we walked back to the hotel through the bustling Waikiki downtown and called it a day, when Kalakaua Avenue was just getting ready for yet another lively and dazzling night. Waikiki is indeed the epicenter of Hawai`i’s party island, befittingly known as “The Gathering Place”!

Day Two

Sankha got up before the daybreak and went to Sandy Beach again for sunrise shooting. The south beach weather was more photography-friendly the next day, with no rain and clearer sky. He was finally happy to get to capture the awe-inspiring O`ahu sunrise. I was too lazy to wake up back-to-back two days before sunup and didn’t accompany Sankha this time. But looking through his shots later made me realize why Sandy Beach is one of the most popular sunrise destinations for photographers in the southeastern shore of O`ahu.

Sunrise (left) and after sunrise (right), Sandy Beach, Day 2

Sunrise (left) and after sunrise (right), Sandy Beach, Day 2

Though we decided to avoid strenuous hiking in this trip due to the scorching heat of Hawai`ian summer, the Diamond Head trail hike of 1.6 miles (round trip) seemed quite doable.  So, we headed out for the 560 ft climb early morning. Considered as hiker’s rejoice and one of the most rewarding trails of O`ahu, Diamond Head trail leads to a breathtaking 360 degree panoramic view of Waikiki shoreline from the summit. Being a popular hiking destination, Diamond Head trail is pretty touristy and finding a parking spot might be quite challenging unless one reaches really early. We had to wait nearly half an hour for parking and by the time we hit the trail it was already crowded. At the beginning of the trail, the walkway is of paved concrete for around 0.2 miles, but afterwards it becomes uneven with innumerable switchbacks followed by steep ascent. The most strenuous part of the trail is undoubtedly the sheer climb of nearly hundred stairways leading to a narrow, dimly lit tunnel near the trail end. I was completely out-of-breath after this climb and reaching at the summit, I felt queasy and giddy. The heat was brutal and there was literally no shade in the summit to take rest. The dizziness got worse and I had to wait at the summit for a while to stabilize my pounding pulse rate, before I could stand up on my feet and climb down. Never before during a day-hike I felt so sick and anxious! Since the hike was rather exhausting, we decided to go back to the hotel and have brunch before heading out for the extended day trip.
Panoramic view of Diamond Head Crater from trail summit

Panoramic view of Diamond Head Crater from trail summit

Panoramic view from Nu'uanu Pali lookout

Panoramic view from Nu’uanu Pali lookout

Late afternoon, we set out for our second day-trip, with the first stop at Nu’uanu Pali Lookout off Pali highway, a 10-mile getaway from the downtown Waikiki. Well known for being extremely windy due to strong and howling trade winds blowing year around, this stone terrace lookout point overlooks steep cliffs of Koʻolau Mountain sprawling along lush green Nuʻuanu Valley. The panoramic view of O`ahu’s windward coast, with sweeping vista of Kāneʻohe, Kāneʻohe Bay and Kailua was breathtaking.

Instead of heading out straight from Pali lookout to Haleiwa for North Shore sunset, we made a small detour to round top drive, leading to Tantalus lookout. This overlook atop Mount Tantalus offers a bird’s eye view of Diamond Head Crater on the left, through downtown Waikiki, and to Punch Bowl Crater on the right. On a clear day, this lookout offers a magnificent view of Manoa valley and dazzling Waikiki skyscrapers at a distance.

View from Tantalus lookout

View from Tantalus lookout

It was half past four when we finally set out for Haleiwa, the town in the north shore of O`ahu that we visited the first day for sunset, but eventually aborted the plan due to overcast. The weather forecast wasn’t that encouraging the following day either. When we reached Haleiwa Beach Park, foreboding dark clouds were hovering over western horizon. In a while, it started drizzling and we thought it was going to be yet another beclouded sunset. Soon after, however, the dense cluster of clouds dispersed and orange crepuscular rays broke through, creating the quintessential aura of twilight.  The silhouettes of paddle boaters and kayakers with vibrant backdrop of western horizon painted with tinges of crimson red, orange and yellow created a surreal ambiance at the onset of nightfall. The sunset was magical! “Aloha ahiahi Haleiwa”, I whispered to myself as we imbibed our soul with the colors of twilight before bidding final good bye to Haleiwa and heading back to Waikiki.
Silhouettes at sunset (left) and Last rays of setting sun (right), Haleiwa Beach, North Shore

Silhouettes at sunset (left) and Last rays of setting sun (right), Haleiwa Beach, North Shore

For the last night dinner, we picked up Maui Brewing Co. located at the lobby level of our hotel. We ordered two small pizzas and sampled local beers. Not only the place was very conveniently located, it had tasty food and good beer collections, marking a perfect end to our O`ahu trip. Overall, it was an enjoyable 3-night stay at O`ahu. Although we explored a significant portion of the island in two days, there are many more things to do in O`ahu that we couldn’t get to do this time, especially exploring the ocean (snorkeling, surfing etc.) and tasting the mouth-watering sea food delicacies of Honolulu.

Next morning, we bid adieu to O`ahu and headed off to Maui (the next Hawai`ian island to be explored), vowing to come back to “The Gathering Place” again in near future.

A hui hou O`ahu!

Next destination: Maui

A hui hou O'ahu

A hui hou O’ahu

Trip summary at a glance:

  • Flight: SJC to HNL (1 stopover at LAX) with Delta Economy using 37.5k/pp Skymiles.
  • Hotel: 3 nights at Holiday Inn Resort (IHG) Waikiki Beachcomber (One anniversary night certificate + 80K IHG points).
  • Places of interest (visited in this trip): Sandy Beach, Hālona Blowhole, Makapu’u Point Lookout and Makapu’u Beach, Waimanalo beach, Kualoa Regional Park, Polynesian Cultural Center, Sunset Beach, Shark’s Cove, Banzai Pipeline, Haleiwa Beach Park, Diamond Head Trail, Nu’uanu Pali Lookout, Tantalus lookout, Waikiki Beach.
  • Eateries: Moena Café, Ponders, Cheesecake Factory (Waikiki) and Maui Brewing Co.

Few suggestions based on our experience:

  • Rental car: We got a Fiat 500x subcompact crossover from Enterprise-rent-a-car, and it was like rock on wheels and literally crying while the accelerator is pressed, be it on flat road or climbing uphill. It might be quite frustrating at times, especially for long drives.
  • Check-in luggage fee: We paid $25 for one check-in luggage in Delta. This could have been waived if Lopa’s SPG platinum status was linked with Delta. For SPG platinum members flying Delta, this is a handy perk!
  • Valet parking: Parking in Waikiki is quite expensive. Most of the hotels on Kalakaua Avenue offer only valet parking. IHG Beachcomber falls into this category and charges up to a whopping $50/day for hotel guests. This was subsidized to $35/day for us for being IHG platinum elite member (a perk that comes with IHG Chase Credit Card). So it’s better to look up for the parking rates while booking the hotel in Waikiki and having a hotel card might save a few extra bucks in O`ahu.

Gallery of O’ahu

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