Hawaii isn’t just one tropical paradise, it’s many. Sure, each island has its own distinct personality. But that personality is the sum of each island’s diverse offerings and experiences. Oahu, for example, is one visitor’s high-end shopping paradise while it serves as another visitor’s remote jungle escape. And the Big Island offers some of the most surreal, moon-like terrain in the world that’s just a short drive from lush jungle waterfalls. Here we tour these two most distinctive Hawaiian Islands, searching for the essence of each.
Oahu, Hawaii’s most popular island, is home to the state capital — Honolulu — as well as the bustling beach at Waikiki, the dramatic Koolau Mountain range and the unique energy of the North Shore. Honolulu is energizing in the way that many big cities are, with its shops, restaurants and five-star hotels. At shopping centers such as DFS Galleria and the Royal Hawaiian Center, shoppers can find ukuleles and Hawaiian crafts along with name brand fashions, jewelry and décor.
Oahu is home to some of Hawaii’s most famous chefs — Alan Wong of Alan Wong’s Restaurant, Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Waikiki and Philippe Padovani of Padovani’s Grill. These chefs are among the founders of the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement, which blends Hawaii’s ethnic flavors with cuisine of the world, taking advantage of the freshest local ingredients: cattle raised on the islands’ upland pastures, fruits and vegetables grown in volcanic soil, and tasty local fish.
When it’s time for sightseeing, many Oahu visitors head to Pearl Harbor, a stirring World War II historical site that’s home to the USS Arizona memorial. Downtown Honolulu is the place to find Hawaiian landmarks such as the Iolani Palace, the only official state residence of royalty in the United States, the King Kamehameha I Statue and the Kawaiahao Church, known as the “Westminster Abbey of the Pacific” and the first Christian Church built on Oahu.
Of course, the classic Hawaiian vacation activity is a luau. The Samoan Fire Dance at Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Waikiki Starlight Luau is especially captivating, allowing visitors to experience the colorful heritage of the Pacific Islands with live music, drums and Hawaiian, Tahitian and Samoan dance.
The young and young at heart get their thrills at Wet ’N Wild Hawaii, with its 25 acres of beautifully landscaped water rides.
There’s the four-story half-pipe called “The Shaka,” tube slides twisting down a 4½-story cliff, a white- water rafting experience and a wave machine for surfing. (hawaii.mywetnwild.com)
Surfers and spectators who prefer the real thing head to Oahu’s North Shore. This side of the island is home to Sunset Beach, where the thundering waves are known to reach 20 feet, and breathtaking Waimea Bay, where they often reach 30 feet. In the summer, these treacherous waters become a tranquil retreat with swimmable surf and great snorkeling.
Oahu puts its cultural heritage proudly on display. The Bishop Museum offers a time-capsule peek at the Hawaiian Islands’ fascinating past. And the Polynesian Cultural Center is among the most popular tourist sites on the island, with shows and exhibits that give visitors a taste of history enhanced with a dash of excitement.
Big Island: Inspiring
Natural beauty abounds on the Big Island, home to Kilauea Volcano and glorious waterfalls. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park showcases 70 million years of volcanism, plant and animal migration and evolution. The park spans diverse environments that stretch from sea level to the summit of the earth’s most massive volcano, Mauna Loa, at 13,677 feet. Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, offers scientists insights on the birth of the Hawaiian Islands while giving visitors dramatic views of volcanic landscapes.
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau is one of Hawaii’s most famous and best preserved ancient sites — a place where violators of sacred kapu (taboo) once fled to escape punishment. This 182-acre national historical park has temple platforms, sledding tracks and preserved coastal village sites visited by more than 375,000 people every year.
Guests and visitors at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa on the Kohala Coast need only walk toward the beach to experience the ancient wonder of the royal fishponds located near the water’s edge at breathtaking Anaeho’omalu Bay.
The Big Island is also a place to walk among mysterious ancient petroglyphs, many just a short stroll from upscale resorts. Puakõ Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, located just north of the Mauna Lani Resort on the Kohala Coast, lets visitors see petroglyphs that still lie where the ancient Hawaiians once left them. These carvings in stone, whose full meaning remains shrouded in mystery, depict turtles, archers, dancers and even deity symbols.
The Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort is another property built amid sacred and historical sites. Fascinating glimpses into the past here include King Kalakaua’s vacation home and bathing pond, the fish god lava rock monument, the ali’i (royalty) birthing pond and several heiau (temple) ruins near the shoreline. Just south of the property, a number of important heiau ruins are being restored as part of a cultural center and public park.
Guests more focused on the wonders of the here and now head to the Dolphin Quest interactive program, which brings visitors face to face with some of the ocean’s most intelligent creatures. On a swim guided by marine mammal experts, visitors learn about the dolphins’ fascinating abilities and the importance of preserving the world’s oceans. (www.dolphinquest.com)
With its mostly rocky coastline and relative geologic youth, the Big Island isn’t famous for its beaches. Yet, ironically, it’s home of some of the state’s most spectacular stretches of shoreline, especially on its sunny Kohala Coast.
Hapuna Beach, adjacent to both the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel and an expansive public access area with restrooms and parking, is breathtaking. Visitors who stay on the sand are often treated to the acrobatics of playful spinner dolphins. Folks who take to the water are just a few breast strokes away from excellent snorkeling, sometimes among not-so-shy sea turtles.
Anaeho’omalu Bay, known as A-Bay Beach, is a place for stunning seascapes, friendly waters and gorgeous sunsets. Its natural beauty makes this stretch of shoreline a perfect place for intimate beach wedding ceremonies or just strolling and marveling at the magic that is Hawaii.