Take a scenic drive on Oahu’s ‘country’ side
Spam sushi, snorkel heaven, a Buddhist temple replica and more await you on this road less traveled.
Seattle Times NWTraveler editor
Northwest travel guides
In the tiny, ramshackle Waikane Store, on Oahu’s east shore, a cheerful woman in an old-fashioned hair net offered up Hawaiian-style sushi. And that means Spam.
The canned meat long has been a Hawaiian favorite, morphing into all kinds of dishes including Spam musubi — slices of grilled Spam draped on little blocks of rice. At this store, it’s made in the back along with hot-dog rolls, slices of hot dog encased in rice.
You could, if you prefer, get traditional Japanese sushi all around Oahu, including at fancy restaurants in high-rise Waikiki. Or try the local version at a down-home, little place like Waikane, part of the essence of “country” that still endures along the island’s lush east coast.
Storms roll in from the Pacific, dumping about 100 inches of rain a year on some of this windward east coast and helping keep much of it rural and less-touristed.
I drove a scenic route out of Waikiki that hugs the coast all the way, ending up at the island’s wave-pounded North Shore. You could easily drive up and back in a day trip (my route from Waikiki to the North Shore was about 60 miles one way), but why hurry?
There’s much to see along the way, from beach parks to a big Buddhist-style temple and the sprawling Polynesian Cultural Center — plus old-time slices of Hawaii life such as the Waikane Store, which proudly proclaims on a hand-lettered sign that it opened in 1898. So go slowly and spend a night (or more) at the North Shore.
Here’s a sampling of what to see on this very scenic drive, going east then northward from Waikiki, mostly on Routes 72 and 83 (see map for details).
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Get going early in the morning to get a parking place and beat the crowds that flock to this protected bay that has some of Hawaii’s best snorkeling. There’s a bonanza of tropical fish, and sometimes sea turtles, to be seen in the steep-walled, collapsed volcanic crater that’s now ocean-filled.
Walk down to the beach (a 2,000-foot-long stretch of white sand) or take the park’s tram. Hanauma has a visitor center and natural-history exhibits; snack bar; and locker and snorkel-gear rentals.
Info: About 11 miles from Waikiki, just off Route 72. Admission $7.50, parking $1. See honolulu.gov/parks/facility/hanaumabay.
Stop here to see the daredevil bodysurfers and bodyboarders at this beach just off Route 72. They ride and frolic in the short, steep waves, making it look easy. It isn’t. The waves and current are extremely powerful, so don’t go into in the water unless you’re very experienced. Waves toss and tumble people here, causing frequent injuries or worse. A University of Hawaii football player, Willis Wilson, formerly a UW Husky, died in the Sandy Beach waters in November.
Info: About 2 miles from Hanauma Bay, with parking lot right off Route 72.
Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail
If you’re able to do a gentle hike, don’t miss Makapu'u Point. Walk to the top of a bluff on a paved trail with outstanding views of towering headlands and islets, humpback whales and paragliders. Some paragliders soar so close to the end-of-trail lookout platforms that you can say hello as they swoop past.
Makapu'u Point is at Oahu’s eastern tip, and the mile-long trail winds 500 feet up amid low scrubby plants to the lookout. It can be hot in the middle of the day; lots of locals walk the trail at sunrise or late afternoon. A red-roofed lighthouse perches postcard-perfect on a ledge part way up (although it’s closed to visitors). At the top are some abandoned military bunkers and views, views, views.
Want more walking? Makapu'u trail is part of the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline, and lower trails branch off near the parking lot and wind out to the beach.
Info: About 2.5 miles from Sandy Beach. Parking lot is several hundred yards off Route 72 as it climbs between tall bluffs. No fee. See hawaiistateparks.org/hiking/oahu/index.cfm?hike_id=23.
Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden
Going northward from Makapu'u, Route 72 skirts the ocean with sheer headlands looming above. If you want to see President Obama’s regular family-vacation destination and lovely white-sand beaches, detour into Kailua, a commuter beach-town (with a fast route over the mountains to Honolulu). I wanted to stick to the more rural side of life, so I drove on northward, stopping instead at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden.
This 400-acre garden is a botanical wonderland of tropical rain-forest trees and shrubs (and serves as a flood-protection buffer for the area). A road winds through it, but park at some of the half-dozen themed areas to walk short trails among gardens of Polynesian, African, Native Hawaiian and other plants and to a small lake.
Info: About 13.5 miles from Makapu'u Point. Watch for signs to the garden turnoff in the suburban area of Kaneohe. No fee. honolulu.gov/parks/hbg/hmbg.htm.
Now for something rather surreal. Hook into Route 83 — the two-lane meandering route to the North Shore, also called the Kamehameha Highway — and veer off it to the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park.
The 200-acre cemetery, spreading over rolling green hills, contains a Japanese Buddhist temple nestled at the base of a greenery-cloaked ridge. It’s a replica of an ancient Japanese temple, with a pagodalike roof, a gleaming statue of Buddha inside and a pond in front where big orange koi swim.
Built in 1968 to commemorate a century of Japanese immigration to Hawaii, it’s the grandest of the replica temples that dot the cemetery. Many Buddhist Hawaiians are buried near it; busloads of Asian tourists come to see the temple.
Info: About 4.5 miles from Ho'omaluhia garden. It’s also in suburban Kaneohe, alongside the highway. $3 admission. byodo-in.com .
There’s nothing much for visitors in Waikane except a glimpse of local life at the little Waikane Store and low wood houses tucked into masses of junglelike greenery. For miles on either side of Waikane, the route skirts the ocean and is dotted with roadside beach parks. Choose the one you like best and pause for a beach stroll or a picnic, perhaps with the store’s Spam musubi for a snack. (For the record, both it and the hot-dog roll were tasty.)
Info: About five miles from Byodo-In Temple.
Polynesian Cultural Center
Now for something completely different, a Polynesian cultural theme park run by Mormons in small-town Hawaii.
Utah’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1963 to highlight Polynesian cultures and provide employment for students at its adjacent Hawaii branch of Brigham Young University.
More than 50 years and 33 million visitors later, the Polynesian Cultural Center, in the tidy Mormon-dominated town of Laie, is going strong and is one of Hawaii’s top tourist attractions.
Themed performance areas or “villages” of thatched-roof buildings are surrounded by emerald-green lawns and palms and stretch along a man-made stream. At each area — Hawaii, Samoa, Maori New Zealand (Aotearoa), Fiji, Tonga, Easter Island, Tahiti and the Marquesas — fresh-faced staff perform traditional songs, stories and dances. They show (and let visitors join in making) traditional handicrafts. Or buy souvenirs in the many themed shops.
Hundreds of cheerful student employees, from all over the Pacific, Asia and mainland U.S., are adept at handling the crowds. The place is polished, but not slick, and you’ll come away having seen and learned about everything from the traditional Hawaiian hula to the crowd-pleasing Maori “haka,” the fierce, stomping, tongue-thrusting traditional war dance (which the New Zealand national rugby team has raucously adopted).
You’ll also come away with a lighter wallet. Day admission is $39.95 for an adult (which includes a short film on Hawaii in the impressive new theater). An evening show of songs and fire-dance special effects is an additional $39.95. (There are package discounts plus some discounts for seniors and children.) Or go deluxe with a luau or prime-rib dining package.
Info: About 15 miles from Waikane. For a daytime visit to the villages, get there right when it opens, or even before, to beat the tour buses that come rolling in. See polynesia.com.
Beyond the Polynesian Cultural Center, Route 83 veers inland past small communities and shrimp-farming ponds where a dozen roadside food trucks serve up big plates of shrimp — garlic shrimp, lemon-butter shrimp, curried shrimp.
Soon you’ll spot Turtle Bay Resort, the only big resort hotel along the east and north shores of Oahu, with a manicured golf course and fancy villas. But as in all of Hawaii, beaches are public so you can park in the hotel lot and stroll past the right side of the hotel to the lovely little Kulima Bay, one of the few North Shore beaches where it’s usually safe to swim in winter when dangerously big waves pound many beaches. Loll in the water; rent a beach chaise from the hotel kiosk; or walk onward for miles on an undeveloped beach.
And go see more of the North Shore, a surfer-lifestyle place of beachside houses (some with “keep it country” signs protesting a planned Turtle Bay expansion); a scattering of funky shops in Haleiwa; and seven miles of glorious white-sand beaches including Sunset Beach, the surfer mecca of Banzai Pipeline; and Waimea Bay, where 50-foot waves sometimes come thundering in.
Savor this wilder side of Oahu before backtracking along the east coast, or take the fast and not-nearly-so-scenic 45-mile interior route, including the H2 freeway, back to big-city Honolulu.
Info: About 7.5 miles to Turtle Bay from the Polynesian Cultural Center. See gohawaii.com/oahu/regions-neighborhoods/north-shore.