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O’ahu, which means The Gathering Place, is the commercial, residential, and industrial center of Hawai’i. The state capital of Hawai’i, Honolulu, is on O’ahu.

O’ahu is the most developed and populated island. 908,000 people (70% of the population of the state of Hawai’i) call the city and county of Honolulu home. Hotel accommodations are centralized in Waikiki, the tourist center of Hawai’i.

Waikiki offers hotels, restaurants, shopping, a sandy beach, and battalions of tourists, some of whom never leave Waikiki. If you plan to stay in a hotel, I highly recommend staying at the southern end of Waikiki, near Kapahulu Avenue and the Honolulu Zoo. That area is quieter and near the zoo, the excellent small aquarium Waikiki Aquarium, and San Souci/Kaimana, a small and calm swimming beach next to the New Otani Hotel. It is easier to enter/leave Waikiki from the southern end to explore the rest of the island. Condos are also available in Waikiki and selected other parts of the island. The advantage of a condo is having a kitchen to prepare some meals – a great way to save money.

Some visitors choose to bypass O’ahu entirely and go straight to the neighbor islands for a more “authentic” Hawaiian experience. I grew up on O’ahu, and I enjoy its urban attractions very much.  The fine small art museums are worth a visit. Culinary options on O’ahu have exploded in recent years. And O’ahu is also the only island with any real nightlife to speak of.

Even hiking options in Honolulu are wonderful and accessible, and O’ahu boasts many lovely white-sand beaches, good for swimming, snorkeling, and surfing.   

Some highlights of natural attractions in or near Honolulu:

  • Lyon Arboreteum or Manoa Falls State Park
  • Foster Botanical Garden
  • Snorkeling/swimming at Hana’uma Bay – famous for tropical fish. Parking fee and viewing of a brief educational film required; these measures help to fund and protect the park, which is a national marine sanctuary.
  • Hiking Honolulu
  • The beautiful sandy beaches of the Southeastern shore: Makapu’u and Sandy’s, for boogie boarders and surfers; Waimanalo;  Kailua Beach, where you can rent kayaks.

Urban attractions:

  • Walking tour of Historic Downtown Honolulu, including I’olani Palace, Mission Houses Museum, and a stop at Isamu Noguchi’s deceptively lovely sculpture “Skygate”
  • Visit Honolulu’s Chinatown and have dim sum or noodles.
  • Try Hawaiian food at Ono’s Hawaiian Foods. For dessert, don’t miss haupia, or head out for malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) at Leonard’s Bakery.
  • Get shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice, a favorite stop for locals, and the best shave ice on the island.
  • Ala Moana Beach Park – great urban park & beach, nice place to have a picnic – and Ala Moana Shopping Center – mostly high end shops
  • Take a morning to visit Kapi’olani Community College Farmer’s Market for a smorgasbord of flavors and people.
  • Historical attractions: Pearl Harbor WWII Memorial; Bishop Museum (a Hawaiian history museum)
  • Check out the Honolulu culinary scene

In your O’ahu itinerary, include a one-day driving tour to the Northshore of O’ahu:

  • Waimea Falls Park and Waimea Valley
  • Waimea Beach – famous and beautiful swimming beach in spring/summer, surfing beach in fall/winter, good place to watch the surf or to snap photos
  • Visit the Kahuku shrimp trucks for lunch
  • Stop in Hale’iwa town for shave ice and shopping

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Kaua’i, The Garden Isle, is aptly named. It is the oldest of the main Hawaiian island chain. It is largely undeveloped and has a country-like feel outside of the touristy hotel areas. Kaua’i is famous for its magnificent scenic attractions, primarily the Na Pali coast, Waimea Canyon, and Hanalei Valley. The island also has gorgeous white-sand beaches, though many are unsafe for swimming during the winter months.

The main tourist & hotel areas are Po’ipu Beach and Princeville. But Kaua’i also has many rental condos, B&Bs, and lovely small hotels all over the island.

Kaua’i boasts Na Pali, which means “the cliffs”. They are spectacular, looming over the Pacific Ocean, graced with secret waterfalls and deep valleys. Na Pali covers a large portion of the northern coast of the island. You can enjoy the sights and sounds of Na Pali in numerous ways:

  • Drive to Na Pali Lookouts. Na Pali means “the cliffs”. You can drive to two scenic lookout points. Drive to the second and final lookout point to do the Pihea hike, a short and easy hike with views, birds, and native plant life. The Pihea hike is accessible from the second Kalalau lookout (Pu’u O Kila) in Koke’e State Park. The drive through Kokee State Park is also very pretty.
  • Take a helicopter or boat tour to view Na Pali from the water – if you are up for this and can afford it, it is not to be missed. Because the cliffs are largely inaccessible, the best way to view Na Pali is by water or air. Tours leave from both the Northshore and the south; the best are from the northshore, but weather and time of year will largely determine from where you can depart.
  • Hike part (4 miles round-trip) or all (22 miles round-trip) of the well-traveled Kalalau Trail. You’ll get unparalleled views of Na Pali along the trail. Even the shorter hike is strenuous, but is well worth it.

Note: If you hike the Kalalau Trail, be aware that hiking in Hawai’i is probably a lot harder than what you’re used to, even if you are an experienced and fit hiker. The Kalalau trail is narrow, steep, muddy, rocky, and rooty. You will likely need twice as much water as you think you will. Protection from the strong tropical sun is critical. Be sure to consult a hiking guide, such as Stuart Ball’s guides, before attempting this hike.

Additional highlights of Kaua’i:

  • Scenic drive to northshore, with stops in Hanalei town and Ke’e Beach, at the end of the highway/gateway to Na Pali coast hiking trails
  • Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Hawai’i. You can stop at scenic lookouts for Waimea Canyon on the way to the Na Pali Lookouts. Hikes in Waimea Canyon are also possible for the more adventurous.
  • Poipu Beach Park – pleasant and central place for a picnic and swimming
  • A kayaking trip on the Wailua River
  • Snorkeling at Tunnels Beach
  • Visiting other beaches – there are many to choose from.

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When friends learn that I spent the first 17 years of my life in Hawai’i, the reaction is twofold. First, they typically ooh and ahh with undisguised envy. “That must have been an amazing place to grow up,” friends say. And I enthusiastically reply in the affirmative. Hawai’i was and is a wonderful place for children and adults alike, with a safe, clean environment, abundant nature, rich diversity, and a unique culture and history.

The second reaction, one that often comes much later, is a request for advice. Which islands should I visit? What are the best places to eat? What sights should I see?

If you are the type of visitor who likes to plunk down by the pool and never leave your fancy resort for the duration of your stay, the information I offer will be of little use to you. If, however, you want to see all of what Hawai’i has to offer, as a natural, cultural, historical, and culinary destination, read on.

For first time visitors who have just one week in Hawai’i, to get a good feel for the islands, I recommend 3-4 days on O’ahu and 4-5 days on either the Big Island (island of Hawai’i) or Kaua’i. This itinerary offers a taste of the best of both urban and scenic delights.

For a less hectic itinerary, another option is to choose a single island and explore it really well. This allows time for both sightseeing and ample relaxing.

You’ll want to rent a car; public transportation is extremely limited and slow. You’ll also need to fly between the islands.

Here are summaries of my favorite three islands: O’ahu, Kaua’i, and the Big Island

A BRIEF WORD ABOUT THE OTHER ISLANDS

Maui is also very beautiful and boasts Haleakala, a famous, dormant volcano. Like O’ahu, Maui is highly developed and populated and is very popular with tourists. Maui has a number of large and luxurious resorts, like The Four Seasons and the Grand Wailea. My feeling about Maui is if I want the highly developed urban experience, I’d rather go to O’ahu, but many people love Maui and many mainlanders have made it their home. 

Lana’i is a rather exclusive island, a former pineapple plantation, that was opened to the public only very recently and has only one hotel and limited accessibility. Bill Gates got married there.

Moloka’i is known as the island of paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys). It is not a very popular island for tourists, as it lacks resorts, entertainment, the fine beaches of the other islands, and shopping. Its primary tourist attraction was the ranches, the largest of which closed in 2008 for financial reasons.

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The Big Island is the newest and largest island in the southern Hawaiian island chain. The island has two distinct population centers: Kona and Hilo.

Kona, the main tourist center and the dry side of the island, offers snorkeling, swimming, some sandy beaches, hotels and resorts and shopping. Most tourists fly into Kona, though you can also fly into Hilo.

Hilo, the lush, green, wet side of the Big Island, is the home of Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea Volcano at Volcanoes National Park has been actively erupting since 1983. If you are lucky, you will see lava flowing and pouring into the ocean during your visit – it is the creation of new land happening before your eyes, the way all of the islands were formed. The park itself offers a glimpse into life (and the lack of it) after volcanic activity, like an eerie moonscape.

The drive between Hilo and Kona is 3-4 hours, most of it on a two-lane road.

Because of the volcanic activity and newness of the island, white-sugar sandy beaches are a rarity on the Big Island. The Hilo side of the island has almost no sandy beaches. The beaches tend to have coarse black or black-and-gray sand. However, this also means that snorkeling and scuba diving are phenomenal on this island.

Highlights of things to do on the Big Island:

  • Volcanoes National Park. The quaint town of Volcano boasts very nice bed-and-breakfasts and small inns. Kilauea volcano has been in continuous eruption (flow) for a number of years and it is amazing to witness geographical activity happening before your eyes. Spend at least one day driving and/or hiking around the park and witnessing the different impact the volcano has had on the landscape.
  • Akaka Falls. Take a short, paved stroll through a misty botanical landscape, ending with a view of majestic waterfall. After visiting Akaka Falls, be sure to stop by Ed’s Bakery in Honomu, a charming mom-and-pop operation with scrumptious baked goods. Mr. Ed and his wife also make a wide assortment of the most delicious tropical jams and jellies I’ve ever tasted (and having grown up on the islands, that’s saying something). Starfruit, white guava, Surinam cherry, and jaboticaba (a Brazilian plum) are some of the more exotic flavors.
  • Warm springs: natural lava rock pools with geothermally heated spring water mixed with ocean water.
  • Waipio Valley. At the northern end of the island, Waipio Valley is excellent for hiking. You can do a short hike down to the black-sand beach from the lookout point or longer hikes into the valley.
  • Snorkeling. While the beaches aren’t soft and sandy, the snorkeling is probably the best on the main Hawaiian islands. The best snorkeling happens on calm days and in the early morning. On windy days, it can be difficult for beginners to navigate in the current, and waters can be murky. Please don’t walk on the coral or feed the fish!
  • Circle-island drive. It takes a solid day to drive from Kona to Hilo, but it’s a lovely drive and gives you a great sense of the scale and majesty of the Big Island. If you drive north, you pass through Waipio Valley as well.
  • The Mauna Lani Hotel. For our honeymoon, my spouse and I spent three heavenly nights at the fabulous Mauna Lani on the Kohala Coast before heading to Volcano National Park. A few things make this luxury hotel extra-special and distinguish it from resorts that have no Hawaiian feeling or respect for the history and natural beauty of Hawai’i. The open-air architecture of the hotel means you can enjoy the wonderful tradewinds all day. The extensive and beautiful grounds of the hotel include a shark pond, turtle pond, and protected ancient Hawaiian fishing ponds and petroglyphs. A short walk past the fishing ponds takes you to a tiny beach with rare white sand, sparkling water and decent snorkeling (we saw sea turtles and (harmless) reef sharks there). And, the breakfast brunch is first-class. Even if you don’t stay at the Mauna Lani, if you are in Kona and feel like doing something low-key, consider having brunch or taking a walk through the grounds of this exquisite and uniquely Hawaiian hotel.

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Hiking Honolulu

Just minutes from downtown Honolulu, Ala Moana, and Waikiki, the Honolulu Mauka Trail System offers a superb variety of beautiful walking and hiking trails. This system is part of Na Ala Hele, the State of Hawai’i Trail and Access System.

Na Ala Hele trailhead marker

Na Ala Hele trailhead marker

On the Honolulu Mauka system, eighteen well-maintained trails provide locals and visitors with easy access to the Ko’olau Mountain Range, one of two mountain ranges on the island of O’ahu. The trails range in distance from 0.25 miles (0.4 km) to 3.4 miles (5.5 km) and cover valley to ridge to summit. Enjoy a valley walk along a stream, a gentle hike meandering along the side of a mountain, or a pulse-pounding climb on a ridge to a summit. Experienced and fit hikers can combine several trails for longer and more intense hikes. See trail descriptions and a trail map of the Honolulu Mauka trail system.

Note: Before you do any hiking on O’ahu, I recommend that you go to the Forestry and Wildlife department, which is just past the Hawai’i Nature Center on Makiki Heights Drive in Honolulu (see map). There, you can pick up trail maps and longer descriptions of hikes on all of O’ahu’s trail systems.

During a recent trip to Honolulu, I hiked the Manoa Cliff and Pu’u Ohia trails and the Pu’u Pia trail. All are recommended for novice hikers, which includes those new to hiking in Hawai’i. Read Stuart Ball’s excellent Hawai’i hiking books, such as The Hiker’s Guide to O’ahu, for more information about what you need to know when hiking on the islands. Believe me, it’s not just like hiking on the U.S. mainland. Hiking in Hawai’i is harder for a variety of reasons. Certain precautions are crucial to maximize safety and enjoyment of your hike. But hiking in Hawai’i is also an amazing and less-traveled way to experience the pure and ancient magic of the Hawaiian islands. 

Manoa Cliff Trail

During my childhood growing up in Honolulu, many hiking trails on the island were overgrown and difficult to follow. Manoa Cliff changed my perception of hiking in Honolulu. The trail had been recently weed-whacked and cleared of overgrowth (in fact, I caught up to the weed-whacker towards the end of my hike). Like other trails on the system, the trail is clearly signed at junctions, well-graded, and easy to follow. And it’s a beautiful and easy introduction to the Honolulu Mauka Trail System, with plenty to recommend it.

The Manoa Cliff trail starts on Round Top drive, in the 4005 vicinity, about 2 miles past Pu’u Ualaka’a State Park. The small dirt parking area for the trail is on the makai side of the street (going up Round Top Drive, that’s the ocean or left side). The drive itself is very pleasant, showcasing expansive views of Honolulu, from Diamond Head Crater to downtown. Once you start seeing the brown-and-yellow Na Ala Hele trailhead markers, look out for the parking area. Park in the parking area and cross the street to the Manoa Cliff trailhead.

Views of Manoa Valley and Koolau

Views of Manoa Valley and the Ko'olau Range from Manoa Cliff trail

A brief initial climb through mahogany and guava forest was followed by a short descent down a rooty and muddy hill. Just 1/2 mile in, I started to see lovely views of Manoa Valley and the Ko’olau Range.

The trail leveled out and meandered along the side of the mountain. Native vegetation such as ohia trees, Hilo holly, and clumps of hala trees, as well as a dense bamboo grove, flourishes along the trail. Look for markers indicating the names of plants. The delightful sounds of birdsong filled the air (and drowned out the occasional roar of a garbage truck or whine of a moped from Manoa Valley below).

About a mile in was a small bench and overlook. After the bench, I passed through a native-forest restoration gate erected to keep out wild pigs, and shortly thereafter I reached the junction for the Pu’u Ohia trail.

The Pu’u Ohia trail seemed interesting, so I followed it to find peekaboo views of Kaneohe and the misty peaks of the Ko’olau range. I continued on the Pu’u Ohia trail 0.25 miles through a short but thick bamboo grove to the top of the Mt. Tantalus, where there is a Hawaiian Telephone service station and tower. From here, I was graced with a spectacular view of the Ko’olaus and Kaneohe in the distance.

view from Puu Ohia

View from top of Tantalus, on Pu'u Ohia trail

I chose to backtrack to finish the Manoa Cliff trail rather than taking the service road down on Pu’u Ohia. Back on the Manoa Cliff trail, shortly after the Pu’u Ohia junction, I reached another junction, this one for Pauoa Flats, complete with a map of the entire trail system. Continuing on Manoa Cliffs, after two downhill switchbacks, I was rewarded with views of the southwestern side of the island, looking out towards Ewa Beach and Barber’s Point.

View of southwestern Oahu

View of southwestern Oahu from end of Manoa Cliff Trail

The Manoa Cliff trail ends at a junction with the Kalawahine Trail, which leads back to Tantalus Drive. Since I was parked on Round Top, I headed back the way I came on the Manoa Cliff trail. From the Pu’u Ohia junction, with minimal photo stops, it was less than an hour’s walk back to my car. Next time, I’ll hike the Manoa Cliff trail to the Pauoa Flats trail, which ends at the Ko’olau summit and offers views of Nu’uanu Valley.

Puu Pia hike

The author surrounded by koa trees, near the summit of Pu'u Pia

Pu’u Pia
Stuart Ball describes the Pu’u Pia trail as a “short, delightful walk”, an apt and succinct description. As far as Hawai’i hikes go, it’s a shorty: only about 2 miles round-trip. This mini trail offers a pleasant hike through lovely vegetation, some of it native, and leads to the top of a hill, or pu’u, with wonderful 360-degree views of Manoa Valley, Manoa Falls, and Honolulu. It offers a unique perspective of Manoa Valley. It’s a perfect morning jaunt if you want to be back in Honolulu in time for lunch. Speaking of lunch, I have a few recommendations on that front, too. <Coming soon!>

 

 

Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail (Waia’lae Iki ridge)
Note: This trail is not part of the Honolulu Mauka Trail system, but is part of Na Ala Hele, the trail system on O’ahu, and is also easily accessed from the center of Honolulu.

Wiliwilinui Ridge trail (~5 miles roundtrip) combines a pleasant, moderate hike along a wide trail with a challenging summit ascent. In my childhood, the most exciting thing about this trail was the ascent, up the steep and slippery side of the mountain, which could only be made with the aid of ropes. When I hiked the trail in June 2010, trail workers and volunteers were setting black plastic boards in the hillside, which work to prevent erosion and serve as stairs to offer a marginally easier route to the top.

Summit ascent of Wiliwilinui

Summit ascent of Wiliwilinui trail, with ropes

Even with the stairs, the hike to the summit requires a great deal of exertion, but the reward is a panoramic view of Honolulu, Waimanalo, and Kaneohe.

The trail starts at the end of the Waia’ale Iki subdivision, off of Laukahi Street. For detailed information on this and other wonderful hikes, on O’ahu, see Stuart Ball’s excellent Hiker’s Guide to O’ahu.

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AB 1998, the bill to ban single-use plastic bags, has passed the California State Assembly. Next, the bill heads to the state Senate, and if it passes, California will become the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bags. Read the text of AB 1998 and why California needs this bill.

According to Dan Jacobson, the legislative director of Environment California, which has undergone a massive campaign to help pass the bill, AB 1998 passed narrowly in the Assembly, with the minimum required number of votes. That means public support has been and will continue to be crucial to making this bill law. It’s all about consumers; if we the consumer are willing to make a change, we really can make a positive impact on the environment.

So get the word out, contact your state legislator to show your support, and check Environment California’s campaign page for more info.

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This week, KQED airs a repeat broadcast of Saving the Bay: The Story of San Francisco Bay. This fascinating four-part series is a must-see event for all residents of the San Francisco Bay Area and anyone who has ever been enchanted by the geographic wonder that is San Francisco Bay. Narrated by Robert Redford, the program covers many different aspects of the Bay and its development. With an impressive roster of passionate scientists, historians, activists, and other experts, you’re certain to learn something you never knew about the Bay around which we live and on which so much life depends.  

View of Bay from Coyote Hills park

View of the Bay from Coyote Hills park

Saving the Bay inspired me to start writing about issues facing the San Francisco Bay. I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 20 years. When I first moved to the Bay Area from my tropical paradise home of Honolulu, Hawai’i, I was young, alone, and eternally chilled by the cool, moist climate. I found a respite on the large and often unfriendly Berkeley campus under the Campanile. There, on sunny afternoons in between classes, I would find a grassy spot under the clock tower, warm myself in the sun, and gaze out at the water, with the Golden Gate Bridge elegantly strung at the mouth of the Bay. Looking at the Bay, I comforted myself in the knowledge that life-giving water, the Pacific Ocean, the ocean of my childhood, was not far away. Walking and biking by the Bay, viewing the life and beauty that surrounded it, simply watching the sunlight sparkle on the water kept me from utter despair when I first left my island home, and the Bay continues to this day to be an important part of my life.

Yet in all my years of enjoying the special quality of life by the Bay, I have to admit that I had never thought of its history, how it has been profoundly altered by human development and industry. Even though I walked or biked Bay trails countless times, I never contemplated how many wetlands and marshes have been lost from the Bay, how many species of animals and plants have disappeared from its shores.

Egret at Hayward Regional Shoreline

Egret at Hayward Regional Shoreline

I never took the time to understand how many different kinds of birds populate the marshes and beaches, how complex life is in and around the Bay. While I knew from my many walks along the Bay that the Bay contains fish contaminated by mercury, I never asked where that mercury came from in the first place (toxic runoff from industrial mines in the eastern hills). I knew that certain areas in San Francisco were composed of landfill – most infamously the Marina district – but failed to consider what was lost when “land” was gained to expand shoreline development. The word “watershed” was one I never used when describing the San Francisco Bay area, despite the fact that our home is one of the largest watersheds in the country. The Saving the Bay series is the beginning of my education on the San Francisco Bay, and I urge it to become yours as well.

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