March 13, 2010
HONOLULU, HI, Mar. 13, 2010/ Bon Voyage / — Sitting in the surf of Waikiki Beach, watching the sun set over the Pacific, you’d be forgiven for thinking “there’s nothing else I’d rather do.”
Forgiven, but if you go all the way to Honolulu and do nothing else, that would be a genuine shame. Yes, Oahu is home to Waikiki, arguably the world’s most famous beach. Yes, it’s undeniably gorgeous. Yes, there’s a lot to see and do on Waikiki – but there’s so much more to Oahu than the beach.
For starters, there’s Honolulu itself. Visitors expecting or planning nothing more than a beach vacation are often surprised by the city they have to land and drive through to get to Waikiki (not just the beach but a ritzy neighbourhood of Honolulu.) With a metro population of around a million, Honolulu is surprisingly cultured, diverse, and cosmopolitan.
The Bishop Museum
Most tourist guides direct visitors to the city’s Chinatown, which is worth the trip. Less often, curious visitors are directed to the fabulous Bishop Museum. They should be. Philanthropist Charles Reed Bishop founded the museum as a tribute to his late wife, who was the last heir of Hawaii’s royal family. (American merchants seized power in a 1872 coup) Today it’s the largest museum in Hawaii, holding the richest collection of Polynesian artefacts in the world – a worthy tribute indeed.
The museum has outgrown its original, gorgeous stone building – a former school – and now includes several different halls and buildings; today, it’s more of a museum campus. Everything is well worth inspecting, but some things are not to be missed: the complete sperm whale skeleton; room of Hawaiian royal Kahili (royal feather standards of the native monarchy); and the adjacent Mamiya Science Adventure Center, which is aimed at kids, but no adult can fail to be awed by the walkthrough volcano and magma demonstrations. Yes, you read that right.
Of course, just as there’s more to Honolulu than Waikiki, there’s more to Oahu than Honolulu. Even if you don’t have a destination in mind, it’s well worth getting outside the city for a look. Oahu is essentially circled by one road, which (more or less) follows the beach around the island. Car rentals are relatively cheap and convenient, but Oahu is well-served by public transportation; residents and long-term visitors often eschew cars in favour of the cheap and reliable bus system, which goes everywhere. Public transit also saves you the frustration of driving in Honolulu itself. For all its charm, Hawaii’s capital is easily one of the most frustrating and ill-designed driving cities in America. Traffic is horrendous (rush hour is essentially impassable), lanes have a habit of suddenly becoming must-turns with no warning, and worst of all, far too many intersections are unsigned. A GPS is an absolute must.
Luckily for stressed-out drivers, the very soul of peace and tranquility lies about 45 minutes from Honolulu: the Byodo-in Temple, in the Valley of the Temples. A scale replica of a 900-year-old Uji temple in Japan, Byodo-in may not be original, but bows to nothing. Despite tourists eagerly ringing the gong outside (it’s considered in poor taste not to ring it before entering the temple), the site has an eerie and palpably powerful tranquility.
A functioning temple
For one thing, it’s a functioning temple. As with any breathtaking place of worship, it has an air of the supernatural. This sense is greatly aided by the geography, as it is set against a breathtaking mountain spine Tourists snapping shots of the massive Buddha inside somehow don’t distract or annoy the handful meditating and contemplating the mysteries of life. Admission is by a suggested donation of $2.00, making this perhaps the best bargain in Hawaii.
On the far north of the island, near the town of Laie, is a rather different cultural attraction – not as good a bargain, but worth investigating nonetheless: the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). A “living museum” where natives of six different Polynesian island groups (Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Hawaii, and Aotearoa (which you may know as New Zealand) perform for tourists in authentic dress, the PCC is famous for several reasons. It’s been around for a very long time, Elvis Presley filmed there, and the performers and displays are excellent, but, even more interesting, it’s owned and operated by Mormons.
Specifically, the center is owned by the church, but operated by the adjacent Brigham Young University-Hawaii. Most of the performers are BYU students, and their jobs pay for their tuition, room, and board – which they remind you of quite frequently. There’s no ambivalence among the performers about first contact with the outside world, which sounds quite unusual to North American ears. They’re quite thankful for Christian missionaries making their lives better and ending constant warfare. Performers in bark cloth chat good-naturedly about being happy to leave their islands behind for apartments and new appliances. To these students, it seems the idyllic island life isn’t really anything to reminisce about.
This in no way detracts from the performances, which are amusing, interesting and, for the most part, very well done. Be warned, though – this isn’t something just to “check out” for an hour or two; it’s too big and there’s so much to see but, most of all, it’s far too expensive. Admission varies based on which shows and which dinner package (if any) guests choose, but we paid substantially more (almost double) at the door than the PCC’s website indicates we should have. The PCC is best done as a half-day trip, at minimum.
Honolulu’s outskirts have their attractions too, none closer or more iconic than Oahu’s most famous and recognizable landmark – Diamond Head. Visible from just about everywhere in the city – especially Waikiki beach, where it looms to the east – Diamond Head is to Honolulu what Mount Rainier is to Seattle, or Fuji to Tokyo. Technically, it’s a “volcanic tuft cone,” but such a bald description can’t help but sell it short.
Diamond Head wasn’t what the native Hawaiians called it (Laeahi, or brow of the tuna, which I confess puzzles me), but was named by British and American sailors who thought the walls must be filled with diamonds. The lava rock is rich with calcite, which indeed sparkles, but sadly for prospectors has next to no value. The high crater walls block the trade wind moisture that keeps the rest of Hawaii so green, creating a unique and distinct microclimate inside, where it is noticeably hotter and (especially) drier, and the vegetation resembles Arizona more than a Pacific island.
Walking to Diamond Head’s summit
Later, Americans found other uses for the high walls and panoramic views, and turned Diamond Head into a coastal defence installation. Remnants survive, including parts of the tunnels and observation decks, one of which marks the end of the dizzying hike to the summit.
The summit hike is justifiably famous. Considered “moderate,” it’s best attempted with ample water, and a hat – there are no facilities, and almost no shade. Part natural path, part narrow and steep stairways, and part unlit concrete tunnel (there’s that military pedigree again), it’s a long and hot climb – but the views from the top are more than worth it.
Once at the top, you notice the crater is bizarrely and almost perfectly spherical -and suddenly see where all those postcard-perfect shots of Honolulu are taken. This, truly, is one of the most spectacular viewpoints on the planet.
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