Town and Country

The Hawaiian island of Oahu combines metropolitan sophistication with rural tropical paradise


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Oahu got its name as Hawaii’s “gathering place,” where the tribes once met, the imperial palace was later built and the state capitol now resides. Yet how could they have known back when they named the island that it would be so inviting to visitors?

Those who seek either tropical adventure or relaxation are spoiled for vacation options these days. But add a metropolitan experience to the mix, and only Oahu seems to offer all three. And what an offer — Honolulu can be swanky and upscale, while on the other side of the island, the North Shore is as beautiful and peaceful as the city is bustling.

Honolulu

No other city in the United States blends upscale sophistication with tropical languidness and multicultural flavor quite like Honolulu. For visitors, the energetic vortex of the city is the Waikiki area. The main drag is loaded with hotels, storefronts of all the major fashion houses, surf shops and other tourist traps, plus that most famous of beaches — surfing’s own Field of Dreams. The mix of Japanese tourists, tanned locals and mainland expats really makes you feel like you’re smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

And as for Waikiki Beach: It’s narrow, it’s rather crowded, and it’s fronted by a number of hotels. But for energy, it can’t be beat. It’s a proper city beach, as children play close to shore, while the famously surfable waves are farther out, and outrigger canoes and giant catamarans pass through the channel from shore to sea all day long. The views of Diamond Head mountain are postcard-perfect, and when the tiki torches start lighting up at sundown, there are far worse places to post up than at the Royal Hawaiian hotel’s Mai Tai bar on the beach, the disputed birthplace of the tropical cocktail.

For a rush of adrenaline, climb 762-foot-high Diamond Head, only a few minutes from Waikiki by car. The path to the volcanic crater is crowded, but the Hawaiian morning is the perfect time to scale this easy trail to the top. A few hundred stairs and a concrete bunker near the top are blunt reminders of Hawaii’s wartime status (as is the USS Arizona memorial in nearby Pearl City), yet the view at the top, overlooking the many high-rises of Honolulu as well as the ocean’s horizon, couldn’t be more peaceful.

Minutes from Diamond Head, the Saturday farmers’ market in the parking lot of Kapiolani Community College is a great post-hike stop. It may be teeming with tourists, but the island’s fresh fruit, as well as Japanese treats and local dishes like loco moco, shouldn’t be missed.

And speaking of local produce, James Beard Award – winning chef George Mavrothalassitis has been cooking just that at Chef Mavro, his AAA Five-Diamond signature restaurant in Honolulu, ever since emigrating from France in 1988. He’s the original local-and-seasonal-cuisine torchbearer, and his food is inventive, island-appropriate and incredibly delicious — and hands-down better than many mainland eateries.

Opened in October, the latest “it” spot in Honolulu is the Ian Schrager – designed Waikiki Edition hotel, built from the shell of an old mid-century high-rise relic. The design is South Beach cool and Manhattan sophisticated. Rooms and hallways are bathed in all white, while the lobby bar is all but hidden behind a bookshelf — and Morimoto has a restaurant on the premises. In a nod to Hawaii, the art installation behind the front desk is made up of broken boards from the annual Pipeline Masters surf contest on the North Shore. The pool areas, one surrounded by sand, are ultra-cool — and welcome, considering the ocean is a several-minute walk.

North Shore

In contrast to Honolulu, Oahu’s famed North Shore couldn’t be more green, pristine and serene, for years having fought the overdevelopment that’s taken hold in so many other parts of Hawaii. The only overabundance in this corner of Oahu are bumper stickers proclaiming, “Keep the Country Country!” and quality beaches and waves. If Waikiki is where surfing was born, the North Shore is where surfing came of age starting in the 1950s. World-famous waves along “the 7-mile miracle” come alive each winter — from Waimea Bay to Pipeline and Sunset Beach — and the surf industry invades this parochial outpost with contests, award shows, booze and bikinis galore.

Lots of people rent vacation homes here, but if there’s a resort to stay at, it’s Turtle Bay. With 5 miles of unspoiled coastline to call its own, the hotel offers luxury accommodations, along with activities as varied as snorkeling, golf and horseback riding. The cast and crew of Lost, Pirates of the Caribbean and more stayed here and filmed on the property. There are plenty of restaurants on site, a decent surf break with its own grandstand seating on the nearby cliffs, and lots of slides and activities for kids.

Best of all, Turtle Bay is just minutes from the main points of interest on the North Shore; Haupia pie slices at Ted’s Bakery across the street from Sunset Beach; broken-down shrimp trucks forever parked on the side of the road serving peel-and-eat prawns with two scoops of rice; the sophisticated surf-town charm (not unlike Cardiff) of Haleiwa; boutique businesses now residing in the old Waialua sugar mill; Matsumoto shave ice, the sno-cone-like delicacy of Hawaii; endless beautiful beaches; and the Polynesian Cultural Center, a sort of Hawaiian Disneyland owned, operated and staffed by BYU’s Hawaii campus nearby.

Oahu offers an exciting city and a tranquil countryside. Any place where you can pack this much into a vacation is unique. Put simply: It’s paradise, found.

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