After sailing across the Pacific Ocean for the better part of a week, we were delighted to cast our eyes upon the beautiful people and Island of Oahu.
The happy sounds of ukulele music filled the warm morning air as our cruise ship sailed into Honolulu Harbor. At the end of the pier we could see the source of our musical welcome – dancers in grass skirts were waving “Aloha” while singing local ballads and doing the hula. After four and a half days at sea en route from Los Angeles, it was the perfect introduction to Oahu and our first port of call in the Hawaiian Islands.
Oahu, like the rest of Hawaii, was settled by western Polynesians who crossed the Pacific in doubled-hulled canoes from islands like the Marquesas and Tahiti as early as 300 AD. When British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, he found an agrarian society governed by numerous chiefs where religion played a major role. One of the ways ancient Hawaiians showed respect for their gods and goddesses was through the hula dance, various forms of which were performed as prayers.
Called “The Gathering Place” ever since Hawaii’s royal families assembled here, Oahu is the third largest and most populated of the 19 islands and atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago. Like its sister islands, Oahu sits on the exposed peak of a submerged mountain range than runs across a hot spot in the earth’s crust. Since there is so much to see and do on Oahu, we decided to rent a car and get to as many of the major attractions as possible.
We made our first stop at nearby Pearl Harbor, the site of the Japanese sneak attack on America’s key naval base in the Pacific on December 7, 1941. There are several things to see in Pearl Harbor, including the USS Bowfin submarine museum, and the USS Missouri, the battleship upon which the Japanese signed the terms of surrender to conclude the Pacific war. But the main attraction is the Arizona Memorial, the white structure that straddles the wreck of the battleship that bears its name.
It’s best to arrive at Pearl Harbor early, because while tickets to the Arizona Memorial are free, they get handed out starting at 7:30 am and are often gone by noon. In addition, the tickets are given out in small allotments for various tour times that start anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours later, depending on demand.
After spending a few hours at Pearl Harbor, we drove through the island’s central plain on the Kamehameha Highway between the Waianae and Koolau mountain ranges towards Waimea Bay on the north shore. Along the way, we stopped at the pineapple kingdom’s version of Disney Land, the Dole Plantation, where we found the world’s largest maze, toured the grounds on the Pineapple Express Train, and sampled pineapple-flavoured treats including whipped ice cream and pineapple upside-down cake.
By now we were getting hungry, so we drove further north to the pretty coastal town of Haleiwa where we stopped at Jameson’s by the Sea (since sold and remodeled as the Haleiwa Beach House) for a lunch of fresh Mahi and Opakapaka. As we sat on the restaurant’s charming wooden patio overlooking the water, cars filled with weekend surfers made their way past us on their way to nearby Haleiwa Alii Beach Park and Waimea Bay.
Popularized by the old Beach Boys song “Surfin’ USA,” Waimea Bay is home to some of the world’s best surfing, especially in winter when giant 30-foot waves come crashing ashore from storms created in places as far away as Alaska. We were lucky enough to be in town during an international surfing competition, and got to see some of the world’s best big-wave surfers take some fantastic rides.
It was now early afternoon, so we got back on the Kamehameha Highway and headed southwest to the Polynesian Cultural Center near Kahuku. Founded in 1963 and still run by the Mormon Church, the 42-acre centre showcases the traditions of Polynesia including tribal tattooing, fire dancing and ancient customs. At night, the center hosts the best luau on the island complete with fire-pit roasted pig, and traditional Hawaiian entertainment. However, if your schedule doesn’t permit a late evening outing, most cruise ships offer excursions that include a buffet-style lunch version of the luau.
By now it was getting late, so we got back on the highway and headed for Honolulu where we had to return our rental car before 6:00 pm. Luckily, our ship wasn’t leaving town until 11:00 pm, so after returning the car, we made our way to nearby Waikiki for sunset cocktails and dinner at Hula’s Grill in the Outrigger Hotel. We were seated on the grill’s balcony patio, which overlooks beautiful Mamala Bay and a spectacular section of Waikiki Beach that stretches from Diamond Head Crater to the tony Ala Wai Yacht Harbor.
After dinner, we watched Honolulu’s Thanksgiving Day parade complete with Hawaiian-style Santa Claus before returning to our ship at the Aloha Tower Marketplace. It had been a long day, and we had barely scratched the surface in terms of what Oahu and Honolulu had to offer us. But we had seen enough to know that we would return again to experience more of this Hawaiian paradise – and next time, for a much longer stay.