The perfect vacation, viewed with 20-20 hindsight, seems to combine careful planning with a dose of serendipity. It should contain some heady discoveries, along with action and indolence in just the right measure.
To get the most out of a week in Hawaii, I offer a personal seven-day prescription, born of decades as volunteer (and sometimes draftee) tour guide for visiting friends, relatives and other workers of mischief. No guarantees on the serendipity, of course.
Waikiki is still the acknowledged jewel in the crown of tropical resorts, and it has just had a $300-million face lift. Packed into the 1.5 square miles strung out along the sand are 34,000 hotel rooms and more than 240 restaurants. Add to the dining inventory a hundred or so more restaurants in Honolulu proper.
To help you sort through the options, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau (2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 804, Honolulu 96815, (808) 923-1811; 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 502, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 385-5301) offers two free booklets, one on restaurants and the other on hotels. Listings cover all islands. The hotel booklet details amenities, rates and proximity to the beach for each property. Even if you use a travel agent, the booklet is a good check.
DAY 1: DECOMPRESS
This is the I-can’t-believe-I’m-really-here cliche day when you look out in astonishment at Diamond Head, the rolling surf, the turquoise water and bright blue yonder. Catamarans are poised on the edge of the sea, waiting to set sail for an hour, half a day of snorkeling and swimming beyond the reef or a sunset dinner cruise.
Sleek outrigger canoes are skippered by bronze men who got their muscles honestly, and who will hand you a paddle and promise you three good waves . . . and deliver.
Other rental toys in the world’s most desired sandbox are aqua bikes, surfboards, rubber rafts and Boogie Boards. You can sign up for surfing lessons and find yourself riding the waves in golden glory before the sun goes down.
Option: Anesthetize yourself with a Victoria Holt or Robert Ludlum novel, pause for a mai tai at the beachside Banyan Court of the old Moana Hotel and splash around a little in the gentle shore surf.
Hawaii has no private beaches, so you can claim a piece of sand in front of the grandest hotel, even if you’re domiciled blocks away on the Ala Wai.
DAY 2: ISLAND CIRCLE
You’ll need a rental car for the circle tour, and it’s best to book it before you leave home. They can get scarce.
Set out early, certainly by 8 a.m. Take the H-1 Freeway going east. It spills into Kalanianaole Highway. Pick up a breakfast-to-go at Zippy’s in the Koko Marina shopping center at Hawaii Kai. Stop at Hanauma Bay just to see it from the overlook, with the coral reef visible beneath the crystal-clear water.
Next stop, clearly marked by roadside signs, is the Blow Hole. With any luck it will be spouting great geysers of ocean foam. From there you can see the long stretch of Sandy Beach. The swimming, however, can be dangerous, with a strong shore break.
If lunch wagons are parked by the beach this early, pull over for a manapua , a rice-flour bun stuffed with Chinese-style pork, and add it to your picnic inventory.
The road winds through some cactus scrub land and up a hill to Makapuu Point and what I think is the most splendid view in Hawaii. As you round Makapuu, the whole windward coast with its fluted green pali (cliffs) and offshore islands bursts upon the senses. It even smells different, all salty, crisp and clean like cotton sheets hung out to dry on a breezy day. There’s an overlook to enjoy the spectacle.
Immediately past the entrance to Sea Life Park on the ocean side of the road is a beach parking lot. As you enter, go to the left and there, on a slight promontory overlooking the sea and the islands, is my favorite picnic table, waiting for your breakfast. It is an occasion for grace, and I would be pleased if you remember me.
World’s Only ‘Wholfin’
By the time you finish breakfast, Sea Life Park should be open. It’s a Sea World type of operation with a definite Hawaiian flavor. The fabled romance of the Islands struck when a performing dolphin and a false killer whale met on the job during the park show. Result: the world’s only “wholfin.” You have to sign up for the behind-the-scenes tour to see the big baby.
The two-lane highway then continues past some lovely beaches and through the town of Waimanalo. At Castle Junction (Castle Hospital is there) turn right on Pali Highway toward Kailua. Proceed through the town without turning until the road (which has changed names a couple of times) forms a T with Kalaheo Avenue. Turn right and keep going around the bends and past Kailua Beach Park.
From the hill beyond the park there’s a good view of the beach. Continue into the community of Lanikai. Take any street to the left to Mokulua Drive where there are a number of public access lanes to the ocean. Lanikai is one of the most dramatic little beaches anywhere, with the two Mokulua islands looming offshore.
Backtrack up Pali Highway to Kamehameha Highway going toward Kaneohe. At Kaneohe turn left on Likelike Highway, and then right onto Kahekili Highway going toward Kahuluu.
Next stop is the Valley of the Temples and the Byodo-In, a replica of a Kyoto temple set at the base of the towering green Koolau Mountains. It’s completely unexpected in the Islands. Our fathers (mine and my husband’s) repose here in the utter serenity of the place.
Continuing toward Kahaluu, Kahekili rejoins Kamehameha Highway, which then meanders past banana and papaya farms. You’ll find lonely beaches, little coves and shady Kahana Bay, but no great lunch stops. Pat’s at Punaluu has a nice seaside setting or you can push on to Kahuku and stop at the Country Kitchen in the old Kahuku Sugar Mill or try the Turtle Bay Hilton.
Have a Snack Lunch
You’ll be passing the Polynesian Cultural Center, and it’s almost a shame to include it on the tour, because the center, with its shows and seven distinct villages, deserves at least half a day all to itself. If you don’t have the time, squeeze in what you can today, and grab a snack lunch there.
The famed North Shore of Oahu begins around Kahuku Point. If it’s winter, the giant surf may be rolling in like thunder-powered armies assaulting Sunset Beach, Ehukai, Pipeline, Waimea. In summer it can look like a lake.
Just past Sunset Beach, Pupukea Road climbs a hill to Puu O Mahuka Heiau, the remains of an ancient Hawaiian temple where human sacrifice was performed. It commands a spectacular view of the shoreline, and is one of the few remaining relics of the old religion on Oahu. People still bring the traditional offering of a rock wrapped in ti leaves.
Depending on how long it has taken you to get this far, you can stop at Waimea Falls Park for their drive-up waterfall. This is another park that deserve some time. It’s a place to see the hula kahiko (ancient hula), participate in old Hawaiian sports and games, and swim beneath the falls.
Biggest little town on the North Shore is Haleiwa, center of the surf cult. It’s also famous for shave ice, the Hawaiian version of the snow cone. Matsumoto’s gets all the press, but neighboring Aoki’s gets my vote. Try lime, coconut or lilikoi.
From Haleiwa it’s practically a straight shot home across the pineapple fields.
DAY 3: CATCH UP
This is the day to go back to Hanauma Bay, not to look but to snorkel. You can rent equipment there, but take a bag of frozen peas--the fish love them. The bay is a marine-life sanctuary teeming with colorful tropical sea creatures.
Other options: Return to Waimea Falls Park or the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center also has a luau and surprisingly good dinner show.
DAY 4: MAUI
Get an early flight out so you can enjoy a good day at the beach. Wear your swimsuit in case your room’s not ready. Maui probably has the best beaches in the state, and the best of the best are at opposite ends.
Just past the Wailea-Makena resorts of East Maui, just past the Kapalua resort, are the five bays of Piilani. You’ll have to trek down the side of the hill, but the beaches are worth it. Take some snorkel gear from your hotel.
Option: Stay at your hotel and enjoy an easy beach.
DAY 5: RIDE INTO THE HOUSE OF THE SUN
It’s one thing to look down into the immensity of Haleakala volcano’s crater, with its eerie cinder cones and sweeping lava dunes. It’s quite another experience to descend 3,000 feet by horseback into the lunar-like landscape and be enveloped by the silence and the strangeness. It looks like a “Star Trek” setting on the Universal lot, yet we enter this world not by rockets and technology but humbly on horseback with a sandwich and a can of juice.
Pony Express Tours conducts a four-hour guided ride that includes lunch. Write to P.O. Box 535, Kula, Hawaii 96790, or call (808) 667-2202. The cost is $90 per person, including lunch. There’s also a seven-hour ride, but it can be grueling if you haven’t been on a horse in a while . . . or ever.
DAY 6: COPTER SPLURGE AND OLD LAHAINA TOWN
So many parts of Hawaii are virtually inaccessible that a bird’s-eye view is the only view. Maui Helicopters runs a tour that rides through circular rainbows, probes the heart of Ukumehame Gulch and sings along the falls of Honokohau, exploring the misty reaches of the West Maui Mountains.
The experience is a gift you give yourself, a memory that won’t wear out like the T-shirt souvenirs. Call toll-free (800) 367-7095. Cost is $95 per person for a half-hour “flightseeing” tour of the West Maui Mountains.
The rest of the day you can spend prowling the streets of Lahaina, the lusty old whaling port of the Yankee fleet. Much of the town has been declared a National Historic Preservation District. It’s full of galleries, boutiques and restaurants.
Good dining bets: Gerard’s at the Plantation Inn and the new Avalon. Take a little time to visit the Lahaina Jodo Mission and confront the biggest Buddha outside Asia.
DAY 7: BY LAND OR BY SEA
The whale months are November through March, when the humpback whales, the gentle giants of the deep, gather in the offshore waters of Maui to sing their haunting songs and give birth to their young.
The Pacific Whale Foundation, the only group in the world exclusively dedicated to researching the humpback, conducts whale-watching excursions by either power or sailboat.
On a recent outing our captain--who was also a research scientist--sailed to a likely area, dropped the sails and we sat drifting on the blue. More than a dozen whales swam around, one of which cavorted within 30 yards of our boat.
There are other whale-watching excursions, but when you book this one your money goes toward research projects designed to protect this endangered species. For more information, contact the Pacific Whale Foundation, 101 N. Kihei Road, Kula, Hawaii 96753, (808) 879-8811. Cost: $25.
Fertile Farm Belt
The land option is a drive through Upcountry Maui, the fertile farm belt on the midslopes of Haleakala Volcano. The protea, orchid and carnation nurseries welcome visitors. Best routes are 37 and 377.
Young farmers David and Lisa Morrison have set up a picnic table in their garden of beautiful monsters. Their farm is at the end of Upper Kimo Drive, which begins 50 yards down the mountain from Kula Lodge.
Also in Upcountry, Tedeschi Winery, makers of Maui Blanc de Noirs, a fine brut champagne, runs a free tour of its facilities at historic Ulupalakua Ranch. There’s a tasting room, too. Call (808) 878-6058.
Seven days fly by in a flash, but they can leave a contrail of memories that hang around a long time, the way a jet path lingers in a desert sky.