Saturday, October 18, 2014

Oahu, Hawaii: The island that stole my heart

So, I’m sitting here in United Airlines’ lounge in Honolulu, my head still adorned with the floral lei I bought at the local market. Around my neck, I have strings of seashells from the night before. In my mind, images of endless stretch of white sand, big waves, the wind in my hair as I drove the rental Mustang 2014 with its top down, Panda humming a song beside me. 

I wish the road would never end…

A week before this trip, I was still rushing some last minute work and my assignment for the Stanford course. I didn’t have time to plan for our island getaway. There’s nothing to plan anyway, I had thought, we can just chill out by the beach. Read a book. Enjoy the breeze. Have a drink. Follow our church mates Ryan and LeAnne’s itinerary for the first two days. They would be in Oahu for their wedding anniversary and we would shamelessly crash their party.

It was with this dismissive attitude that I landed in Oahu, Hawaii. But I would soon find out I owe this island an apology.

Day 1 - Pearl Harbor, ride along the beach, Duke’s Lane

Ryan and LeAnne picked us up from the airport and we headed straight to Pearl Harbor for  a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial. Unlike USS Missouri Battleship and USS Bowfin Submarine, this is a free tour provided by the national parks. Tickets are still required and you have to stand in line in the morning to grab the 2,000 tickets given out each day. (Thanks, LeAnne for saving us tickets!)

We were first invited to view a video on the history of Pearl Harbor and World War II. Then, from the main visitor centre, we took a short boat ride out to Fort Island where the memorial is located - long and white against calm waters of the harbor. I remember this iconic structure from my school’s history textbook; what I didn’t know was that the actual battleship, together with over 900 of its crew members, were still resting beneath this peaceful-looking memorial.

We were told to keep the ambience respectful - the soldiers who drove the boat dished out a ‘no-talking’ rule. The solemn mood is acceptable, given that it is a place to honor fallen soldiers. As I walked into the memorial and peered down into the waters, I can see the sunken battleship; in fact, parts of it are still visible above water. 

Later, I read that survivors of USS Arizona wore their title of heroism with reluctance; they would rather died serving with their comrades. Some had their prayers answered decades later, when urns containing their ashes are released into the ship by a team of NPS divers.“When I feel that pull, it’s the ship accepting one of its own back,” a diver said. How bittersweet are these words. 


It was impossible to be at Pearl Harbor and not feel the magnitude of WWII; gripping accounts of valiant soldiers, survivors and the lost. As I went through the museum, I thought about the war happening in Syria and Iraq now. Lives being ruined by mad pursuits of ideology and power.

We left Pearl Harbor at around 3pm to appease our rumbling stomaches. Lunch was at the nearby Kuru Kuru Sushi (recommended by Panda’s colleague), where we ate our first mushubi, or spam sushi. Thereafter, we drove by the coast up north, stopping every now and then to check out the beaches. 

Night has fallen by the time we checked in at our hotel at Waikiki. Judging by the crowd though, it seemed like the day has just started for some.

We strolled along Kalakaua Ave, noting the ever-present ABC shops at every street corner. The gem, however, is Duke’s Lane. I love street markets and was overjoyed to find one near the hotel.

The must-have, of course, is that flower in the hair. I stuck it into my hair immediately after purchase, ignoring the now messy, oily mane - result of a day’s worth of sea breeze and perspiration.

Mission accomplished for Day 1.

Day 2 - Halona Blowhole, Makapu’u Point, Giovanni Shrimp Truck, Kekoa the Green Turtle

I couldn’t wake up for breakfast the next morning, so the ever-so-kind Panda brought food up to the room. We hopped onto Ryan and LeAnne’s ride for our first stop of the day: Hanola Blowhole

We had stopped by the day before but it had been too dark to see anything. In bright daylight, it’s much easier to see where the hole is located. We had to wait with our cameras ready, because water only shoots out when the surf is right. Lucky for us, we saw 4-5 spouts during our brief 15 minutes’ stay. Shorter than my wait at the Yellowstone geysers!

We hiked up Makau’u Point after that. The view was worth the one-hour strain on our calf muscles. On one side, you can see Koko Head and Hanauma Bay; On the other side, the coast where you can spot humpback whales from January to March. A quaint little lighthouse at the top extends out to the vast Pacific Ocean. Beautiful. 

We drove further up north after the hike, making a short stop at Tropical Farms to taste macadamia nuts of all flavours. I didn't buy any, but if I did, I would go for Maui onion garlic.

Then, we continued our journey up north to Kahuku where Giovanni's Shrimp Truck is. We saw a long line as we parked and we realised why - the Shrimp Scampi was heavenly, especially when paired with garlic butter rice.

Ryan also bought us corns from Uncle Woody's in the same compound, and I had both the sea salt and baja flavours. It had got to be the best lunch ever. The only thing I would complain about is the free range roosters - I have an unexplained phobia of fowl and it was hard eating lunch with these scary fellas running around.

We looped to the other side of the island, stopping along the stretch of Sunset Beach and Pupukea Beach Park. The beaches are so intertwined, it was tough knowing where we were exactly. We stood for a while on the beach, in awe of the gargantuan waves crashing against the shore. We had to bolt at one time, when water suddenly came gushing up our feet.

Almost everyone was on the beach because of the strong currents; only a few brave surfers, and a couple of kids, ventured into the swirling sea. 

Near Waimea Bay, we saw a surfer jumping off a rock into the billowing waves. God bless him. His friend thought better and stayed on shore.

We drove further down and stopped at Lanlakea Beach, where we met Kekoa the Green Turtle. Joe, the volunteer, told us that these turtles are the only species which comes up on the sand and basks in the sun. They can be identified by characteristics such as a chip on their shell or a missing flipper, and most importantly, by the unique scale pattern at the side of their head.

As many as 14 turtles can be seen on the beach at one time, and their length of stay varies. Kekoa, for instance, has been out since morning and he is in no hurry to return to the ocean. And so, we enjoyed a romantic sunset with him - our highlight for Day 2.

Day 3 - Diamond Head, Dole Plantation, Pearl Harbor, Chinatown, that pineapple shaved ice

It was our first day going solo - Ryan and LeAnne were flying home and they had dropped us at the car rental company the night before. At the rental company, we got a surprised upgrade: a 2014 deep impact blue Ford Mustang convertible! Driving top-down in Hawaiian? It's a dream come true!

So it's with this new baby that we made our way to Diamond Head Crater. We heard horror stories about the strenuous hike, the numerous switchbacks, and the two steep flights of stairs leading to the top, so we braced ourselves for the worst in our quest for the summit.

Much to our relief, it's not as bad as we thought. We did work up quite a sweat, mostly due to the heat, by the time we reached the hilltop fort. 

What I found most amusing are the Japanese tourists. Girls, to be exact. While most people donned sneakers and hiking shoes, they came in kawaii wedges and platforms. Along the way, we heard daijoubus (are you OK?) and distracted nanis (what?) as they try to balance themselves on the uneven ground. I really applaud them for staying pretty and cute, while I was ready to melt like grilled cheese. Yep, guess I would have tasted savory with all the sweat.

At the summit, splendid views of the crater as well as the southeastern coast of Oahu Island. There were signs all around warning people not to climb, but people did anyway. There was no ranger around to bellow at disobedient tourists.

We spent some time admiring the view before making our way down. We were a little lost without Ryan and Le Anne, so we randomly selected our next place of interest - Dole Plantation. Pineapples are The Thing to eat in Hawaii, no? That's what people put on top of Hawaii pizzas.

The drive to Dole Plantation took longer than expected. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Rainbow Drive-in. Panda gamely tried loco moco, hamburger patty with fried egg and rice topped with gravy. I opted for the healthier choice of shoyu chicken. We both agreed the latter tasted better.

Dole Plantation is, as expected, a tourist spot. I hesitate to say tourist trap because the prices for their attractions weren't exorbitant. There are basically three thing to do: i) train ride ($8.50), ii) garden walk ($5), iii) find your way around the world's largest maze ($6). Combo prizes were cheaper.

Unfortunately for me, the maze was a no-no because I heard cock-a-doodle-doos - fowl alert! I was also hoping to see pineapple plants up close but neither the train ride or the garden walk would fulfill that - you can't get off the ride, and there are no pineapple plants in the garden. Boo!

In the end, we still took a stroll in the garden, only because a family of three handed us their garden tickets - they looked like they were going to collapse from the heat. We checked out the pineapple-deprived garden, took some photos, then retreated into the air-conditioned cafe and gift shop. The Dole Whip was so tempting after a day in the sun, but the line was too long. We settled for some souvenirs at the gift shop, then went on our way.

We thought we didn't explore Pearl Habor fully on Day 1, so we made a quick stop before it close for the day.

This time, we had more time to read the plaques at the USS Bowfin Submarine park. I was surprised by the number of submarines used in WWII, and again deeply saddened when I read the write-ups on each submarine. Words like 'On Eternal Patrol' really get me. And some submarines, they were only days away from the end of the war, but they didn't make it past the enemies' depth charges. How sad for the families.

After Pearl Harbor, we checked out Chinatown (disappointingly quiet) before heading back to Waikiki to look for food. Dinner was at the small but highly rated Musubi Cafe Iyasume near our hotel. Their bento-styled food was cheap and good. Musubis came wrapped with bacon and egg on top of spam - so good.

But the cafe's service was plain weird. We got chased out, sort of, halfway through dinner. They closed at 8pm and the staff conveniently switched off the lights, knowing that we were still eating. We had to gobble up our food in the dark and quickly go.

Since it was still early, we went back to Kalakaua Ave for a post-dinner stroll. Instead of the main road, we turned into smaller lanes, arriving at Sam's Kitchen along Royal Hawaiian Ave. While Panda was checking out Hawaiian shirts next door, I noticed a stall by the side.

Pineapple shaved ice, served fresh in the shell!

Even though it cost us 8 bucks, it was the best buy ever - juiciest, sweetest, freshest.

Highly recommended, and one item off our checklist!

Day 4 - Aloha Stadium Swap Meet & Market Place

The cheapo, ahem, I mean budget-conscious, girl in me screamed yay when I read about the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. I love flea markets, simply because they sell such a wide array of goods at low prices. Aloha Stadium Swap Meet only happens on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 8am to 3pm. We paid $1 per pax to enter the market, and the place was so full that it took us a while to find parking.

And thank God we had the sense to note down our lot number. After a while, I lost my sense of location because I was too busy wandering from stall to stall. I supposed you would eventually find your way out given that the market is one giant circle around the stadium. Still, some of the stalls looked the same after a while.

We spent 3 hours at the market, buying loads of things that make us happy (read: things that we don't need but look cute). We bought one shirt and one dress, made in Hawaii,  at 6E - the most promising-looking stall. I also purchased a flower lei - $1 compared to ABC store's $7. Products at the market are so much cheaper compared to Kalakaua Ave, including Duke's Lane. I was tempted to get a ukulele, but reminded myself that I already have a good one back home. 

We completed the circle by 2pm. By then, some stalls were keeping their items. "They need us to start packing up," one of them said, when I asked about the 3pm closing time. Point to note for future shoppers!

After lunch, we drove to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, recommended by my friend, Rosita. Once a volcanic crater, the bay is now a popular location for snorkeling, and for spotting the Hawaiian state fish, Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (what a name!) All visitors have to sit through a mandatory video, which basically states the see-no-touch rule for marine life, before being let into the park. We opted to pay for the $2 tram ride down the beach to save time.

We only had about 45 minutes before the bay closed. I stayed on the beach for womanly reasons, waiting for Panda to bring back reports from the underwater world. Alas, the man reported that he saw nothing at all, probably because he did not swim far out enough.

Before we knew it, the lifeguards announced that the beach would be closing, and we have to take the last tram up. Such a brief visit to the much acclaimed Hanauma Bay. Well, at least I got to enjoy the view.

Koko Head is just nearby so we thought we could check out the famous 'Stairway to Heaven', a steep trail comprising railroad ties that leads all the way to the top.

I read reviews that the trail is a true test of fitness, since you have to either lunge over the ties or play hopscotch. The view is supposed to be unrivaled once you reach the top, but you have get over any fear of height since the last stretch is a sharp incline.

Panda is slightly acrophobic, and we were still dressed in our beach wear. So we settled for staying at the bottom of the trail, admiring the fitness buffs making their way up.

Back at Waikiki, we saw a line forming inside Food Pantry, a supermarket along Kuhio Ave parallel to Kalakaua Ave. Panda interprets queues as good stuff, so he joined the line for Hi Steaks, a fast-food joint for steaks.

And I must agree with the rave reviews - the beef is so tender and juicy, it's hard to believe it only cost $10. Just thinking about it makes me salivate. Argh.

Day 5 - Waikiki Beach

We finally hit the Waikiki Beach on our last day in Hawaii. Kuhio Beach Park, to be exact, since we chose to stay inside the enclosed area. There's a rock barrier that breaks the big waves coming onshore, so that tourists like us, who are lazy to swim in the current, can just laze around the shallow waters.

The ABC stores were selling inflatable mattresses at $2.99, so we got one of those, paid $0.60 more to get it pumped, then joined the beach crowd. That's me looking happy at the prospect of dipping in Hawaiian waters.

But it was not as breezy as I thought. In fact, it was quite hilarious. First, Panda had difficulties climbing onto the mattress because of his size. Then, when it was my turn to climb, I punctured the mattress with my nail in an ambitious attempt to lunge on top. Barely two minutes in the water and we were standing next to a wheezy, floppy green mattress, a stark contrast to everyone else who was floating around us peacefully. 

With much embarrassment, we dragged the limp neon mass out of the water, hoping no one had seen our mini 'accident' or heard our 'Oh no!!' wail. Then, I creeped across the street to get another mattress, making sure to avoid the first shop.

Thankfully, the rest of the afternoon went by without a hitch, and we enjoyed the last bit of Hawaiian sun before going to the airport.

Can life stop at this moment?

End notes

It was Panda who had wanted to visit Hawaii; I didn’t think much of this state, least of all Oahu, dismissing it as just another resort island. Like I said, I owe this island an apology. Great company, awesome food, fantastic weather, interesting places.

I think it is one of the our best trips in US. 

And coming from me, that's saying a lot.

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