Monday, March 30, 2015

A First Day on O'ahu

Renting a car and exploring at your own pace is the best way to see any of the main islands in Hawai'i. The aloha spirit isn't the polished clockwork of a German village. Behind the tourist facade, many countryside residences are rustic and a little bit weatherbeaten, much like the islands' ancient volcanoes themselves. This is a place where people actually live and pay taxes, not just play in a Disneyfied paradise. And, scheduled excursions are the antithesis of island life. Still, a little planning can maximize your adventure and comfort. 

Honolulu on O'ahu is sprawling, and traffic can be congested. There are a lot of one-way streets, so a GPS or your mobile phone map app will be invaluable. I'll swear the freeway lanes are narrower than I'm used to on the mainland. I was constantly running over the lane-side (warning) rumble strips, which at least kept my wife alert. One good thing, when you leave the city to explore in the morning and return in the afternoon, you will be going against the flow of rush hour traffic.

Maybe this is your first full day in Hawai'i, and you find yourself bright-eyed and ready to go in the darkness of 5:00 am? This was our condition on our first morning. An early morning climb in the crater of Diamond Head was the perfect way to offset the effects of jet lag.

The iconic Diamond Head (Le'ahi in native Hawaiian) was named by 19th century British sailors who mistook common calcite crystals on the adjacent beach for diamonds, proof that English seamen make poor geologists. Considering most of Britain's crown jewels came from overseas conquests, I now have suspicions about their veracity.

Notwithstanding, Diamond Head's volcanic origins are most apparent from the air; the ring-like tuff cone was formed during a prehistoric, explosive near-shore eruption roughly 300,000 years agoMost US visitors will arrive from the east, and the right side of the airplane should afford a good daylight view of the circular crater and the adjoining beach at Waikiki just before landing.

Diamond Head State Monument is a short 15-minute drive from downtown Waikiki before the morning rush via Kalakaua and Monsarrat avenues to Diamond Head Road. Parking costs $5 inside the crater, entered via the Kahala tunnel, which opens at 6:00 am. Get there as early as possible to ensure you will see the sunrise later on. If you're budget conscious, or you're late and the lot is full, you can park outside the crater for free (at the price of a little extra walking), but pedestrians will still be charged $1 each for entry, which seems like a tax on physically fit people with large families, like Catholics who exercise. Fees are cash only.

A 0.75-mile (1.2-km) trail leads up to the crater's rim. There is a fountain near the bathrooms at the foot of the trail in case you need to top up an empty water bottle. Trailhead signage suggests the round-trip hike requires 1.5–2 hours to complete (including a lot of photo stops and time to enjoy the summit), and it recommends hikers bring water. There are no services at the top. No more than a good pair of sneakers is necessary; I comfortably completed the route with a strong pair of sandals.

Before heading up the trail we noticed a string of twinkling flashes that effectively traced the switchbacking trail ahead. We soon realized it was an endless column of narcissistic Gen-Y hikers with "selfie sticks" documenting nearly every second of their personal  odyssey. English was a second language on our ascent, probably since most of us Americans consider exercise to be stretching for the remote. The group of four Japanese girls ahead of us effectively blocked our forward progress as one created a flip movie while the others interacted individually with "social" media. How do these young women stay so lithe when they move so slowly? It can only be diet.

Image from The narcissistick may be the symbol of a generation that's too self-absorbed to ask for a group photo and offer one in return.

The trail is suitable for all but the youngest children and anyone else with a moderate degree of physical fitness, which might exclude a lot of Americans. The steeper sections of the climb have hand rails. My kids weren't winded, and their incessant bickering may even have prompted the selfie-obsessed flock of girls ahead of us to press on a little harder. But we were happy to do the hike in the early morning; the enclosed volcanic walls of the crater must be a sweltering oven in the midday sun. Although the climb is not overly taxing, the largely unpaved trail switchbacks over uneven rock and climbs steeply over a short distance – total elevation gain is 560 feet (171 m).

A narrow, lighted tunnel and a couple hundred paved stairs near the summit access a coastal artillery observation platform built in 1911, which was the original purpose of the trail. From here, still-sleeping Honolulu can be seen to the west as far as Waianae. More modern tourist observation platforms just below the military fire control station allow magnificent sunrise views of O'ahu's southeastern coastline to Koko Head.

Notice the different levels of artillery observation platforms. The men who had to trudge up here in the 1910s probably weren't so thrilled after months of the same daily commute.

Looking west towards Waikiki

Some crumbling bunker structures at the summit are clearly marked as a climbing hazard, but of course they are crowned with potential Darwin Award winners. One hunter could do the world a genetic favor here if only accelerated natural selection was legal.

The trip back to complete the 1.5 mile (2.4 km) circuit is via the same path you come up on, so if you get an early start there will be a lot more sweaty hikers coming up the narrow trail in the opposite direction. Beware their consternation when you cheerfully tell them "it's only another 20 minutes."

Now that it's light, take time to observe the natural, savannah-like bush within the crater's layered walls of volcanic rock and mineral fragments welded in a volcanic ash matrix. The flora isn't what I imagined for Hawai'i. Back down at the trailhead, refresh yourself with a mid-morning shave ice from the Magoo's burger truck and smirk at those just starting up in the sun's heat. Or, if you've had it for the day and can wait for a few minutes, try Hawaii's best from Uncle Clay's House of Pure Aloha on the way back to Waikiki. The park at Diamond Head closes at 6:00 pm and visitors are not permitted to head up the trail after 4:30 pm.

Here we are on the floor of Diamond Head; the summit we just descended is in the background. It's only about 8:00 am and we've already had a full morning.

If you complete the sunrise ascent of Diamond Head early enough, and the hike has only piqued your energy, try some snorkeling at nearby Hanauma Bay, another tuff cone in the string of craters that includes Diamond Head. In the case of Hanauma Bay the crater is largely submerged. The preserve is only another 20 minutes east via Kalanianole Highway (72) from Diamond Head.

Be aware, Hanauma Bay is closed on Tuesdays, and though the park is open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, parking at the popular preserve is closed when the 300-stall lot is full, shortly after 9:00 am on most mornings. Entry fees are $7.50 per person, not including extra fees for parking ($1 per vehicle), lockers ($8), snorkeling equipment ($20), or tram rides between the crater rim and the beach ($1.25). We brought our own gear, and the moderate exercise of a 5-minute climb saved more than $12 for our family of five to indulge in something else.

The staff claim Hanauma Bay has more daily visitors than Disney World, and it feels like it. The snorkeling is only okay for experienced divers, as some of the reef is degraded from over-love and novices. The ten-minute obligatory film on reef conservation and respecting the local fauna went right over the head of some guests and should have been offered in several languages. Folks who eat shark fin soup possibly aren't too concerned about standing on a few coral heads. But the setting--a submerged ancient crater--is very beautiful, and we did see a fair number of fish. The enclosing crater walls make for calm water and safe beachside play for small children.

There are bathrooms convenient for changing down by the bay, and outdoor showers for cleaning salt off from yourself and gear, but no other amenities without a walk or tram ride up to the main visitor center. By mid morning the beach is fairly crowded and very noisy. Shady spots under the palms are at a premium. We left after watching a group of children joyfully pull one too many legs off a live crab while their parents blissfully recorded the vacation memory on their selfie sticks. That family might have benefited from a translation of the wildlife conservation orientation.

After a full morning you might want to relax closer to "home." Waikiki is a decent beach, with yellow, gritty coral sand. Many of the irregular white stubs aren't corals, however, but cigarette butts. With a large international clientele that still smokes like it's 1965, Waikiki might just be the largest ash tray of the Pacific -- a homeless guy's paradise, which might explain why so many sleep on the beach. It's a sad and jarring dichotomy when you see a worker for one of the resorts pound an umbrella, meant to shade a well-fed tourist, into the sand immediately adjacent to a disheveled soul in rags, sprawled on the ground like the dead. The workers do consider the comfort of their guests, however; they make sure the mummy is on the sunny side of the umbrella.

Aside from the low rollers, perfect for beginning surfers, the mostly gentle lappings of Waikiki beach are very good for swimmers and children. My youngest boy enjoyed hours playing on the beach, and he would have stayed until after dark if allowed. We mainly went in late afternoon, and the expanse of sand is long and wide so, though busy, Waikiki never seemed too crowded.

Please let that not be a cigarette butt.

As with Acapulco, Mexico or Bondi beach near Sydney, I've never understood the magnetism of iconic beaches that are choked with high-rise hotels. Clearly, they are not places to see but to be seen. The selfie sticks are out in force here; in places the beach appears to be sewn with a carpet of metallic branches held by arms outstetched like modern-day fascists. But the ever-present profile of Diamond Head to the east almost overcomes the overdevelopment of Waikiki. And the vast Pacific ocean stretches into infinity. We can't make a visible dent in that magnificence.

But the hotels do offer convenient access to the beach and downtown Waikiki. We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, a massive collection of hotel towers and pools amongst other massive collections. A whole generation only thinks of Hilton as a flagship brand-name in porn. They manage hotels too, who knew?

Joe is the proprietor of the Steak Shack. It's a diamond in the rough you shouldn't miss.

Behind the beach there is a nice cement boardwalk connecting the various hotels and attractions. A great place to catch a bite after a long first day on O'ahu is the Steak Shack (2161 Kalia Rd, Honolulu) located on the beach adjacent to Fort Derussy Beach park; a simple, Hawaiian-style steak or chicken plate with rice and salad for $7.50 (cash only) is the perfect thing to set you on island time while watching the sun set on Diamond Head from Waikiki beach. Be prepared for strong evening breezes and hold your plate tightly. Look to the west towards Diamond Head. Earlier, you saw that same sun rise from its summit to a perfect day on O'ahu.