Highlights of Oahu

interstate highway H1

Hawaii might officially be the fiftieth state of the USA but somehow I have a hard time seeing this little slice of tropical paradise as part of America, just as I can't really believe that all of those far flung French colonies around the world are actually part of Metropolitan France.

It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense that these distant places are supposed to be one country, and the unsavory way Hawaii was acquired from its original inhabitants makes things even more difficult to swallow.

This sign which confronts new arrivals as soon as they step outside Honolulu international airport sums up this nonsensical situation very nicely - an interstate highway which doesn't lead to another state!   Of course this is just another legal fiction, cashing in on federal government assistance for the American interstate highway system.

inside Diamond Head

Well, what's done is done and I don't expect this piece of land grabbing to be undone anytime soon, so there's nothing for it but to sit back and enjoy the ride - meaning in this case to enjoy the scenery and other attractions that make Oahu such a popular place for tourists.

Most visitors stay in Honolulu, and one of the nearest attractions is Diamond Head, which is not just scenic on the outside but is also worth visiting on the inside.   It's the shell of an old volcano, you can take a 10 or 15 minute walk across the arid interior and then climb up to the rim where there are some old military gun emplacements.   The interior of Diamond Head is still a military reservation, which might go a long way towards explaining why you must leave before it gets dark, a great pity since it must have excellent views of the sunset.

Some of the first European visitors to Diamond Head thought they'd struck it rich, mistaking calcite crystals on the volcano's slope for the diamonds which still give the place its name.

step 99

You should carefully consider whether it's a good idea to bring grandpa and grandma along for the trip, since it can be a hot and dry walk across the crater floor and the haul up all of those steps to the top is quite strenuous.

The reward is an excellent view over the flesh pots of Waikiki, which I studiously avoided in favor of some decidely lower rent accomodations slightly further up the hill.   Over 75 percent of Hawaii's visitors stay at Waikiki, but I decided to venture a little further afield by driving around the island and also spending a few days on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Waikiki   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

That emerald-green water is very nice to look at and swim in, but hard-core fans of Hawaii's underwater sea life would be better off on one of Hawaii's other islands where the water really is crystal clear.

Diamond Head shoreline
Diamond Head lighthouse

The Diamond Head lighthouse is very scenic, it was originally built in 1899, then rebuilt  using reinforced concrete in 1917 - though the iron lantern room, together with the fresnel lens imported from France, are still from the first structure.

The lighthouse was put on the national register of historic places in 1980 and is still active today, though the original kerosene light source has been replaced by modern equipment.

As well as continuing in its original function as a navigation aid, it's also used as the finish line for the biennial Transpac Yacht Race, which begins at Long Beach in California.

As well as Diamond Head, Oahu has several other military installations, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Pearl Harbor.   At the start of world war two Pearl Harbor was the headquarters of America's Pacific Fleet, and it was here on December 7, 1941 that Japan launched its infamous raid which brought the United States into world war two.   It's well worth a visit to the iconic memorial built in 1961 which straddles the remains of the battleship USS Arizona.   It's interesting to view the memorial from the outside and also to go inside where you can look out over the ship and see the names of the 1177 sailors who died on the USS Arizona during the attack.

USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

If the USS Arizona symbolizes the start of America's involvement in the war, then the USS Missouri moored nearby represents its end.   The Missouri can also be toured, and you can see the place on its deck where the Japanese signed the surrender documents at the end of the war while it was anchored in Tokyo Bay.   It's the last battleship ever built by the United States, and as well as pounding Japan during world war two, its huge guns were also used to great effect during the Korean war.   Decommissioned and put into mothballs, it came as a great surprise to many people when she was recommissioned 30 years later during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and fitted with numerous modern weapons systems.   In 1991 she fired her main guns and her cruise missiles during the first Gulf War against Iraq, but high maintenance costs led to a second decommissioning in 1992.

USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The USS Arizona memorial lies close by, adjacent to the white mooring berths along "battleship row" at Ford Island.

USS Missouri foredeck   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

There's a third military museum at Pearl Harbor, far less well known than either the USS Arizona or the USS Missouri, but every bit as interesting.   This is the USS Bowfin submarine museum, directly adjacent to the USS Arizona visitor center at the end of the bridge leading to Ford Island.   The Bowfin was launched a year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and became known as the "Pearl Harbor Avenger" after sinking 44 Japanese ships.   You can tour below the deck, and also see other artifacts from the US navy's submarine service, including nuclear missiles and even nuclear torpedoes from the cold war period, as well as exhibits like a small Japanese "kaiten" kamikaze submarine.

the submarine USS Bowfin

After the high-rises of Waikiki and the military museums at Pearl Harbor, it's nice to have a change of pace and experience some of Oahu's more natural attractions.   One very popular spot is Hanauma Bay, an old volcanic crater near the south-eastern corner of the island, where you can snorkel with many of the colorful tropical fish that are found only in the Hawaiian islands.

Hanauma Bay   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Unfortunately Hanauma Bay is in danger of being loved to death because so many people visit and damage the corals.   In spite of signs telling people not to stand on the reef, they continue to do so, like the person you can see in this photo.   With around 3000 tourists coming here every day, limits have been put on how many visitors are allowed in at any one time, which means that if you arrive late in the morning then you run the risk of not being allowed in the gate.

Hanauma Bay

The news can't be all bad, because Hanauma Bay is still a good place to see turtles in their natural habitat.   Viewing underwater wildlife does add another dimension to a trip, and if it makes ordinary people care more about the natural environment then it's probably worth the damage they inflict.

green turtle   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)
Java sparrows

It's also possible to see quite a bit of birdlife, though again there's trouble in paradise, since about half of all endemic Hawaiian bird species have been wiped out since Europeans arrived, and therefore almost all of the birds visitors will see are foreign.

The birds in this photo are Java sparrows, but among other introduced species you can also see khalij pheasants from Pakistan, mynas and red-vented bulbuls from India, northern cardinals from North America and red-crested cardinals from Brazil.

It's thought that several of these species were deliberately released cage birds whose owners probably thought they made a welcome addition to the local fauna and didn't know or care that they compete for the same food as native birds and therefore crowd them out.

gold dust day gecko

The introductions aren't restricted to birds, either.   Many species of reptile, including chameleons and no fewer than seven species of gecko, like this gold dust day gecko, have been released into the wild.

Nature Strikes Back and is exacting some revenge on careless humans, however.   Tiny but incredibly noisy coqui frogs were introduced from Puerto Rico in the 1990s and have spread quickly, driving many people to distraction with their relentless high-pitched nocturnal calling.

It's well worth taking a drive around the rocky coastline past Hanauma Bay.   One of the first sights is little Halona Cove, the place where waves broke over Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr as they were locked in an embrace in the famous scene from the movie From Here to Eternity.   I imagine that several thousand replays of the scene are made each year!   Right next door is the Halona blowhole, which spits out a fountain of water when the surf is running high.

Halona Cove

After the rocks, the sandy beaches - in fact this one is actually called Sandy Beach!   It's one of the more dangerous beaches on the island and lots of people have to be rescued from the riptides that happen here.

Sandy Beach
Lanikai Beach

Just a little further along the coast you'll find Lanikai Beach, which has a shallow, gently sloping sandy bottom and is much safer for swimming.

In the background, the small offshore islands of Mokumanu and Mokulua are sanctuaries for sea birds like sooty terns, black-footed albatrosses and frigate birds.

Not all of the historic sites on Oahu are from the brutal and colonialistic European era.   Some date all the way back to those idyllic times when the native Polynesians lived here in peace and harmony with each other and all of nature.   Only, this isn't one of those sites - instead, this is Nu'uanu Pali, where King Kamehameha I of the Big Island defeated the warriors of King Kalanikupule of Oahu and had thousands of them brutally thrown to their deaths over the high cliffs.   Kamehameha's victory resulted in the political unification of all of the Hawaiian islands.

Nuuanu Pali

From the Nu'uanu Pali lookout you can see Kualoa Point, which has the same sort of scoured volcano cliffs as Nu'uanu Pali, but with the added attraction of a waterside location.

Kualoa Point   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

There's a state park at the base of Kualoa Point, and Mokolii Island, otherwise known as Chinese Hat Island, is just offshore, as are the remains of a very large fishpond built from rocks hundreds of years ago.   This was once a sacred place where the children of the chiefs of Oahu were raised.

Kualoa Point

There are a few other picturesque sacred places around the island, though I can't remember exactly where this one was.


But now to a different type of religion with many local devotees both young and old - surfing.   This sport was invented by native Hawaiians well over a thousand years before Europeans arrived, but it was only during the early 1900s that it made the leap from Hawaii to California and then on around the world.   This photo is from the east end of Waimea Bay on Oahu's famed North Shore, still the Mecca of international surfing.

Waimea Bay

And the Banzai Pipeline is the Kaaba of this Mecca.   The North Shore is at its most spectacular during winter when waves reach 30 feet or more high, however even though I was there during summer when the surf is at its most tame, it's still a good spot to spend a few hours watching the skilled practitioners of this art do their thing, including classic moves on big waves, cutbacks and top turns, aerials and, if you can lower yourself for such a non-traditional activity, even boogie-boarding on the big waves.   It's enough to make you want to retire here and take up this surfing life.

surfer inside the Banzai Pipeline   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)