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Oahu Beyond Waikiki

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View overlooking Makapuu Beach

Waikiki has so many tourist and resort attractions that many visitors spend their entire time in Hawaii there. They might get the impression that all of Oahu is paved over and densely packed with high-rises. In reality, much of the island is as rural and Picture of Hanauma Bay splendidly scenic as any of the other Hawaiian islands. A rental car offers the most convenient way to escape the urban sprawl and explore the rest of Oahu. But if you don’t want to deal with Honolulu traffic on the way, many scenic spots are also accessible through Oahu’s mass transit system, “The Bus.”

Hanauma Bay (“Ha-now-ma,” meaning curved bay) is about 15 kilometers past Diamond Head (the eastern boundary of Waikiki) via Kalanianaole Highway. The bay is a coral reef, where snorkelers can view abundant fish. The clear shallow water creates turquoise and aquamarine colors. Get there early, since the bay also has a nice beach that’s quite popular.

Photograph overlooking Makapuu Beach Picture of Makapuu Beach
Picture of Rabbit Island, Oahu
Picture of Mokolii from Kualoa Park Photograph of Kualoa Park beach and Mokolii
Picture of Mokolii, the Chinaman's Hat

Further up the windward (east) coast are several lookouts over Makapuu Beach (“Ma-ka-poo-oo”). The beach itself is famous for body-surfing, with waves reaching 4 meters and higher during the winter. That might explain the name of the beach, which means bulging eyes. But it’s a nice calm swimming beach during the summer. It’s also a popular place for hang gliding.

Offshore is an old volcanic crater formally called Manana (“Ma-na-na,” meaning buoyant), but popularly known as Rabbit Island. An entrepreneur brought rabbits to the island in 1890. As Hawaiians were not particularly fond of either rabbit stew or bunny slippers, the business rapidly failed. But the rabbits multiplied until 1994, when biologists removed the rascally lagomorphs to create a seabird sanctuary.

Several other beach parks north of Makapuu offer different views of the ocean, Rabbit Island, and the adjacent island known only by its tongue-twisting Hawaiian name, Kaohikaipu (“Ka-o-hee-ka-ee-poo,” meaning hold back the container, probably referring to a belief that the islet somehow protected the beach from stuff floating in the ocean).

Another scenic beach park on the windward coast is Kualoa (“Koo-ah-low-ah,” meaning long back). It has been featured in numerous advertising photos because of its distinctive off-shore islet. The little island is is officially called Mokolii (“Moe-ko-lee-ee,” meaning little lizard). But it’s more often called by its politically-incorrect popular name, the Chinaman’s Hat.
View of windward coast from Nuuanu Pali Picture of mountains at Nuuanu Pali

The Pali Highway is an inland route from Honolulu to the windward coast. The main attraction (for which the highway is named) is the Nuuanu Pali (“New-oo-ah-new Pah-lee”) Lookout. The name means cool high cliff, and it’s exactly that: 361 meters above sea level and very windy. The constant winds can be brutal, but the sweeping view of the windward coast is worth risking the loss of your hat.

Looking the other way, it also offers a very nice view of the Koolau Range (“ko-oh-l’ow,” meaning windward), part of Oahu’s mountainous interior. (Koolau is not actually a mountain range, but the remaining section of an ancient collapsed volcanic crater.) Nuuanu Pali was where the defenders of Oahu made their last stand against Kamehameha in 1795. Kamehameha’s warriors threw hundreds of Oahu warriors over the cliff in a decisive victory that completed his conquest of all the islands.
Bridge to Byodo-In Temple Picture of Byodo-In Temple, Oahu

Buddha statue in Byodo-In Temple, Oahu Detail of Byodo-In Temple
Koi at Byodo-In Temple

A bit inland from the windward coast in Kaneohe is an exact but smaller-scale replica of the 11th-century Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Japan. The temple represents a Japanese form of Buddhism that venerates Amida. Amida is the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit Amitabha, which means the “infinite light” of universal love.

Amida Buddhists believe that Amitabha was a previous incarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, the first Enlightened One (Buddha). Amitabha created a Pure Land in a cosmic realm beyond the ordinary world. Anyone who sincerely calls upon him can be reborn in the Pure Land after they die. There they can receive his instruction in Dharma (Buddhist teachings), become a buddha, and then return to our world to help others attain Enlightenment.

Like the Japanese original, the Byodo-In Temple is built of precisely-fitting wooden beams and blocks without the use of nails. Metal nails are associated with industry and war, and are thus inimical to the meditation necessary for Enlightenment.

Inside the temple, a 3-meter-tall Buddha clad in gold leaf sits in meditation on a lotus flower. Outside is a Japanese garden, complete with a pond full of koi (fancy carp that are essentially overgrown gluttonous goldfish) that swarm in a feeding frenzy when visitors give them bread crumbs.

Picture of Malaekahana Beach and Goat Island Beach and coral at Malaekahana Beach
Picture of lifeguard station at Haleiwa Picture of young coconuts

Malaekahana Beach (“Ma-lye-ka-ha-na”) is near Laie, at the northern end of the windward coast. Besides the usual sand, this beach has an exposed section of coral reef and rocks with green algae.

About 300 meters offshore is an islet called Mokuauia (“Moe-koo-ow-ya,” meaning island to one side). It’s also called Goat Island, though there are no goats on it. It’s possible to walk on the reef between the beach and the islet at low tide, if you have appropriate shoes to protect your feet from the sharp coral rocks. Like most of the little islands off the Oahu shore, Goat Island is an uninhabited seabird sanctuary.

Continuing up the windward coast leads to the northern tip of Oahu, and then to the leeward (west) side of the island. During the winter, big waves off the beaches around Haleiwa (“Ha-lay-ee-vah,” meaning home of attractive people) makes that area one of the world’s best places for surfing. Even in the off-season, the waves on Oahu’s leeward north shore can be dangerous enough to keep the vigilant lifeguards busy.

Although Oahu is the most developed and urbanized of the Hawaiian islands, much of its land is either agricultural or undeveloped. All kinds of strange and interesting plants and trees from all over the world grow throughout Hawaii. You can see them growing wild along the road, cultivated as crops, or in a pickup truck on their way to someone’s dinner table.

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