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Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, though iconic for all things Hawaii, is always busy with sun worshipers, surfers, outrigger canoes and catamarans. Most of Oahu’s luxury and historic hotels are located on its shore.

Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, though iconic for all things Hawaii, is always busy with sun worshipers, surfers, outrigger canoes and catamarans. Most of Oahu’s luxury and historic hotels are located on its shore. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

Hawaii had me at aloha. More than anything, it was the glorious clarity and colors of the water, ever changing in gemstone tones of sapphire, emerald and aquamarine. From flying into Honolulu from over the Pacific, to riding in a helicopter over its stunning beaches, and to driving its beachside roads, Oahu, edged with the clearest of water, is visually spectacular.

The trip was my first to Hawaii, but for my husband, Roy, it was a return to a place he called home when he was a young Marine stationed at Kaneohe Bay and then again years later when he went back for training with the Air National Guard. We had always wanted to visit the islands together, so armed with saved-up frequent flier miles, we booked the flights and off we went in search of the romantic paradise of Oahu.

The smart thing to do if you’re going to spend any time at all exploring Oahu is rent a car. We didn’t use it for the first day or so as we wanted to fully experience the Moana Surfrider, the first of two hotels where we would stay and one of the island’s most historic that first opened its doors in 1901. At check-in, we were adorned with leis, beautiful ones intricately woven with fresh, fragrant orchids of deep amethyst and white. As it was gently placed around my neck, I laughed aloud remembering that Will Rogers once stated, “Hawaii is the only place I know where they lay flowers on you while you are alive.”

The Beaux Arts-style Moana Surfrider, known as the “First Lady of Waikiki,” appears all colonial with its stately columns, distinctive porte-cochere and long verandas. It fronts on Waikiki Beach, probably the most well-known beach in the world.

Most travelers choose to stay at one place during a getaway, but because travel is all about experiences, and because Honolulu practically heaves with historic hotels, we elected to go through the trouble of packing and unpacking to switch hotels and stay additional nights at the Royal Hawaiian, just down from the Moana Surfrider and which also beachfronts on Waikiki.

The Royal Hawaiian, built in 1927, has a well-deserved nickname, the “Pink Palace of the Pacific.” Among the treasures behind its flamingo-pink exterior and Spanish-Moorish design are the Mai Tai Bar, where the first Mai Tai in Waikiki was created by Trader Vic Bergeron in 1953, and the Royal Hawaiian Bakery with home-baked pastries including its signature banana bread and pink snowballs.

To anyone not living in Hawaii, it seems as if Hawaii and Waikiki are essentially synonymous, but you can put that notion out of your head entirely because it’s as far from the truth as it gets.

While we did briefly walk on Waikiki’s sparkling arcs of amber-hued sand, the iconic volcanic crag of Diamond Head towering in the distance, we didn’t travel to Oahu entirely for the beaches. Waikiki, we discovered, is crowded with sun worshipers, surfers, outrigger canoes and catamarans, and it is certainly the place to see and be seen, but beyond its beaches we found Oahu to be verdantly lush, authentically Hawaiian and quite beautiful.

The beach at Waikiki at sunrise provides dramatic views of Diamond Head. Oahu, while well-known for its beaches, is an island of forested mountains, waterfalls and tropical rainforests.

The beach at Waikiki at sunrise provides dramatic views of Diamond Head. Oahu, while well-known for its beaches, is an island of forested mountains, waterfalls and tropical rainforests. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

After maneuvering the traffic of Honolulu, which can sometimes be as notorious as that of Atlanta, we drove all over Oahu, marveling at its greenness and beaches-to-mountains geographical diversity. Among our favorite points of interest was Sunset Beach on the North Shore, where we were lucky enough to find a parking spot and watch winter’s monstrous if not translucently colorful waves, with some of the more powerful breaking at 30 or 40 feet high.

I’ve read that Hawaii’s surf begins in Japan, some 3,500 miles west, and after seeing the waves, unending rolls and rolls and rolls, I can understand why carloads of tourists and locals alike line the roadside of Kamehameha Highway for miles just to witness the unmistakable power of the Pacific waves. It is a remarkable, thrilling sight to see.

We passed through towns and communities with vowel-laden names, among them Hau’ula, La’ie, Waialua and Kahuku, popping in to places including Waimea Valley, an 1,800-acre series of rainforests, botanical gardens and waterfalls that I likened to the Garden of Eden, and Diamond Head State Monument. I loved the Shangri-La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design, the former home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke that’s now an utterly fascinating center for learning about the global cultures of Islamic art and design, with the pieces collected by her throughout her travels in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. We made a brief yet emotional visit to Marine Corps Base Hawaii, passing the barracks where Roy lived so long ago and his pointing out landmark after landmark.

The big splurge of the trip was a helicopter ride with Paradise Helicopters at Turtle Bay Resort. Our tour was entitled “Valleys and Waterfalls Explorer,” which I thought sounded as if it would be the most scenic. Just before takeoff, our pilot asked if we wanted the doors on or off, and the inner 12-year-old in me snapped to attention.

“Off!” I giddily shouted.

As the helicopter rose higher and higher, I had second thoughts about taking a jacket that had been offered to me at check-in. Even in warm, humid Oahu, the air grew colder and colder as we ascended into the blue sky, but even so I forgot about it momentarily as we buzzed over the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, the 1,000-foot Kaliuwa’a waterfall that has been closed to the public for years, the spectacular ridgelines of the Ko’olau Mountains, and finally over the North Shore, its waves, churning with marshmallow-white foam, looking every bit as dramatic as they do from above as from sea level.

A bird’s-eye view of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, as seen from a helicopter tour of Oahu. A tour of the stirring memorial is a must-do for anyone visiting Oahu.

A bird’s-eye view of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, as seen from a helicopter tour of Oahu. A tour of the stirring memorial is a must-do for anyone visiting Oahu. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

The must-dry dining experiences are Duke’s Waikiki for fresh seafood but especially its Kimo’s Original Hula Pie, the legendary dessert concoction of macadamia nut ice cream piled high with chocolate fudge, whipped cream and more macadamia nuts. We also opted for having afternoon tea, a local tradition, at the Veranda at the Moana Surfrider (I felt so princess-y), and on the Kamehameha Highway between Waimea Valley and Turtle Bay, ate the garlicky, flavor-blasted shrimp scampi from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.

Kimo’s Original Hula Pie, served at Duke’s Waikiki, a beachside restaurant that’s the ideal place for watching the sun go down, is a rich concoction of macadamia nut ice cream piled high with chocolate fudge and whipped cream.

Kimo’s Original Hula Pie, served at Duke’s Waikiki, a beachside restaurant that’s the ideal place for watching the sun go down, is a rich concoction of macadamia nut ice cream piled high with chocolate fudge and whipped cream. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

After 30 years of marriage, Roy and I might not be quite the amorous lovebirds as are Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr passionately kissing at Oahu’s Halona Beach Cove in the classic movie “From Here to Eternity,” but our trip, with its golden sunsets, amazing water and ever-present ambrosial scent of plumeria and orchids mixed with salty sea air, contained all the right elements for an anniversary getaway.

If you go

For more information on Oahu, visit the Hawai’i Visitors and Convention Bureau at www.gohawaii.com/oahu. For the most up-to-date information on COVID restrictions, visit www.gohawaii.com/travel-requirements.


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