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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Going Off the Beaten Path in Hawaii

For many people, the idea of a vacation in Hawaii evokes images of resort hotels in Waikiki, surfing lessons, and luaus. There is certainly nothing wrong with those things, but if they are not of interest to you — or you already got your fill of them during a previous visit to the islands — then there are plenty of other fun and interesting way you can spend your stay on Oahu, the Hawaiian island on which Honolulu is located.

Just getting out of the resort and urban areas and hitting the road can be a great way to discover and then explore new places but, while it is my preferred method much of the time, it can also be kind of hit or miss. For those with time constraints or less of an adventurous streak, finding a reliable local guide can be a good shortcut to discovering the best of what the islands have to offer outside of the most touristy areas.

Back in 2002, during my first trip to Oahu, that guide ended up being the friend of a friend who was a fan of the classic Hawaii Five-O television series. She knew where all the locations that had been used in the show were located and it was a lot of fun having her point out buildings that appeared in the opening credits and talking about the episodes that had been filmed at picturesque sites like the Diamondhead volcanic crater.

During my last trip to Oahu, in March 2011, my guide was Lopaka Kapanui, proprietor of the Mysteries of Honolulu tour company, which specializes in visits to haunted places and those associated with the royalty, culture, and legends of old Hawaii. The time I spent with Kapanui also emphasized another advantage of having a knowledgeable local guide, namely that they are going to know things about sites that go way beyond the information available in guidebooks and on historical markers.

Suffice it to say, Kapanui recommends that visitors get out of the cities and into the heart of the islands.

“Once you get outside of Waikiki, there are things only a few people know about,” Kapanui says. “You may never look at paradise the same way again.”

The first place Kapanui took me and my wife and friends was the ruins of the summer palace of Kamehameha III (1813-1854), located in the wooded highlands above Honolulu and the only remaining structure associated with the famous monarch. Kamehameha used the isolated home — which was poetically known as Kaniakapupu, “the singing of the land shells” — as a retreat from the pressures of the throne, especially those brought by foreign businessmen and diplomats. It was also used for lavish entertainments.
“Completed in 1845, it was the scene of entertainment of foreign celebrities and the feasting of chiefs and commoners,” reads a plaque at the site, its bronze surface green with damp and age. “The greatest of these occasions was a luau attended by an estimated ten thousand people celebrating Hawaiian restoration day in 1847.”

Kaniakapupu is largely hidden today and would not be likely be found by many visitors, certainly not by those unaware of its existence. Turning off the Pali Highway, a major thoroughfare across the island, Kapanui led us up into the hills along Nuuanu Pali Drive, a winding road completely enclosed in an overhanging canopy of trees. We pulled off to the side of the road, at spot that was not marked in any way, and then followed our guide on foot up a narrow path into a bamboo forest that led further into the hills (shown at the top of this page). 

Coming out into a hilltop clearing, we saw spread before us the ruins of the palace complex, the main feature of which was the crumbling walls of the main hall. Kapanui explained to us that the place was kapu, or very sacred, and asked us to wait while he sang a prayer to the spirits that guarded it. As he uttered the final syllable of the brief ritual, the heavens opened up and rain began to pour down on us and he told us it was OK to go ahead and explore it, which we proceeded to do.

Our next stop took us over the mountains to the eastern end of the island and the town of Kailua, where I was somewhat surprised to have Kapanui pull into the unassuming parking lot of a YMCA. We walked a short distance, however, and there, tucked into a little valley just a few hundred yards from the main thoroughfare of Kailua Road, we were stunned to see the remains of a massive, black stone pyramidal structure!
Ulupo Heiau is a thousand-year-old sacrificial temple said to have been built in one night by the menehunes, a mythical race of little people similar to the fairies and dwarves of European folklore. The remains of this massive structure are still an impressive 30 feet tall and 140 feet wide, pointing to impressive architectural capabilities. While we were there, Kapanui told us some of the stories associated with the place — including one about a reptile woman who preys upon young men and is said to dwell in a nearby sacred grove — and explained the significance of some votive offerings that had been placed on a makeshift altar.

A few days later, a friend of mine and I went on our own to visit what may very well be one of the most beautiful places on Oahu, the Byodo-In Buddhist temple, located at the back of the Valley of the Temples memorial park. Completed in 1968, it is a half-sized replica of a 10th century temple in Japan and is located in a lush valley, enclosed by the cliffs of the Ko’olau Mountains and surrounded by gardens and koi ponds. Features of the temple include the central Phoenix Hall, the focus of which is the immense, nine-foot tall golden Amida Buddha, the largest such statue outside of Japan; a bell house containing a five-foot-tall, three-ton bronze bell, which visitors can strike for good luck; and a meditation pavilion that visitors can use for private prayer and reflection. We spent a relaxing afternoon at the site, feeding the resident fish and birds, meditating in the sanctuary, and even participating in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony (a first for me and an unexpected treat!).
Other sites we visited during our stay on Oahu include Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau, a ruined mountaintop temple on the North Shore, and an ancient fertility site that royal women used for birthing, both as part of a nighttime tour with Mysteries of Honolulu; the idyllic Waimea Valley, which we stopped at during a drive along the North Shore; and Bellows Beach Park, a gorgeous shoreline located on a military base that is frequently much less crowded than other public beaches.
Those are just a handful of the many off-the-beaten path sites on Oahu, not to mention the “Big Island” of Hawaii, Maui, or any of the others. If you go, they and many others will be there for you to explore yourself.

The Big Island
A good way to get off the beaten path on the “Big Island” of Hawaii is to hit the notorious Saddle Road, Hawaii Route 200, the mountain highway that runs between the looming peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. This isolated road connects the western and eastern ends of the island, running from the intersection with Highway 190 north of Kona to Hilo, and is a dramatic alternative to the coast roads the predominate on the island.
For years, Saddle Road was one of the most dangerous roads in the state, with many sharp curves, poorly-paved stretches, and crossings over one-lane bridges, and many rental car companies flat-out refused to let people take their vehicles onto it. Major renovations on the road began in 2009 and, by 2010, one of the worst segments had been bypassed and replaced and overall it had been upgraded to the point where it was a good as any other rural highway. Rental car companies still discourage customers from driving on it but there is now no legitimate basis for this and to some extent this is just a matter of them needing to update their maps and literature.

From its western end, Saddle Road passes first through parts of the sprawling Parker Ranch and then past the Pohakuloa Training Area — which includes an artillery and bombing range — and Bradshaw Army Airfield, ultimately ascending to about 6,500 feet above sea level. Then, about midway along its length, it intersects with two smaller, rougher roads.

The first, Mauna Kea Summit Road, goes north up the mountain for which it is named to 9,300 feet and the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, a support center for the Mauna Kea Observatory, located another 4,500 feet up at the summit. Sightseers can drive most vehicles up to the first site, which includes a visitor center, but four-wheel-drive vehicles are needed to continue to the mountaintop, and some people opt to simply hitch a ride the rest of the way.

The other road, the unmarked Mauna Loa Observatory Road, goes south and winds its way through immense blackened lava fields and up the slopes of its namesake mountain. It is rough but paved for about the first quarter of its 17 miles and then very rough and hazardous after that, making it accessible only to people with four-wheel-drive vehicles and sufficient nerve.
I opted to visit the atmospheric observatory on Mauna Loa and, having no similar desire, my wife and friends dropped me off at the southbound road to make the rest of the way up on my own. After about three miles I was able to hitch a ride with a Navy technician from Maryland who, along with his wife, was heading up to check his instruments at the observatory, something he did just once a year and which I was fortunate to have coincide with my own visit. Once there, I met with site administrator John Barnes, who gave me a tour of the facility and talked to me about its mission. Then, the couple from Maryland graciously gave me a ride back to the western end of the island and dropped me off, back on the beaten track, at a spot where my own wife and friends could pick me up.

If You Go
When To Go: Anytime! April through May and September through October are considered optimum but are commensurately more crowded and expensive.

Where To Stay: On Oahu, anywhere but Honolulu and Waikiki if you want to get off the beaten path. Located at the eastern end of the island, the town of Kailua allows easy access to many great sites throughout Oahu and has many amenities and places to stay, including timeshares and vacation-rentals-by-owner.

What To Eat: Be sure to have one meal at a traditional luau! Zippy’s is a family-style restaurant chain similar to Denny’s that specializes in Hawaiian cuisine. Bento boxes at takeout places and convenience stores can be a fun option for lunch and typically include little cakes of rice and spam wrapped with seaweed, macaroni salad, and bean sprouts. Pok√© is the Hawaiian answer to sushi and many varieties can be found in shops and grocery stores everywhere. And casual shrimp eateries are a feature of the North Shore of Oahu.

Climate: Tropical. June through August can be hot and muggy and November through March is the rainy season.

Language: As a U.S. state, English is official language, but key Hawaiian words it does not hurt to know are aloha for “hello” and mahalo for “thank you.” 

Going Off the Beaten Path: Having a car is probably the easiest way to get off the beaten path on Oahu and make the most of the time you have there, although for the more adventurous public buses are available. Mysteries of Honolulu, a tour company that specializes in sites associated with the culture and legends of Hawaii, has many day and nighttime options available.