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Oahu - Attractions


Aerial view of Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

Sheltering beneath the volcanic Koolau range in the naturally stunning southeastern corner of Oahu are the enormously popular turquoise waters of Hanauma Bay, part of the Koko Head Regional Park. Hanauma ('Curved') Bay is bisected by a coral reef and swarms with all manner of fish, making it a snorkeller's wet dream. It could easily have been an ecological nightmare, though, had the bay not been designated a marine conservation district in the late 1960s to counter years of massive overfishing.

Less than 1.25mi (2km) north of Hanauma Bay is Sandy Beach, one of the best bodysurfing beaches on the island. Inexperienced belly-surfers should, however, beware the strong rips and the unforgiving shorebreak, which can dump you into the beach rather than onto it.

Hawaii's Plantation Village

Oahu's current ethnic mix, which besides indigenous Hawaiian islanders includes Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Puerto Rican and Filipino people, can be traced back to the mid-19th century sugar boom, when plantation owners began to recruit and exploit cheap, hard-working labor from overseas. Hawaii's Plantation Village, a 50ac (20ha) site in the former sugar-processing town of Waipahu to the west of Pearl Harbor, is an evocative re-creation of plantation life in the early 20th century, and also provides clues as to how such diverse cultures learned to co-exist during the 100 or so years that sugar was the island's economic backbone. The village comprises several dozen homes and other buildings furnished with period pieces such as a Japanese shrine and workers' tools of the trade.

Southwest of the village is the 6.5mi (10.5km) of restored track belonging to the Hawaiian Railway, a plantation-era icon. For the first half of the 20th century, the Oahu Railway & Land Company ran sugarcane and passengers from Honolulu to Kahuku on the north shore. Only the stretch between Ewa and Nanakuli remains, plied by a diesel locomotive burdened only by a small load of tourists.

Honolulu

Sure, it's got wide beaches, waving palms and balmy weather, but Honolulu ('Sheltered Bay') isn't just a stage-set for beachcombing. It boasts a 150-year history as the state capital and a beguiling multi-ethnicity that emerges most toothsomely in a feast of different cuisines.

Honolulu's downtown is hostile to cars, friendly to pedestrians - so consider walking rather than driving your way around its attractions, which include the grandeur of Hawaii's royal past and a clutch of worthwhile musuems with a maritime emphasis.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor was originally known for its stocks of pearl oysters, which were eventually wiped out by mudslides from surrounding hills denuded by overgrazing. But as of 7.55am on the morning of 7 December 1941, this sheltered harbor on Oahu's southern shore became the geographical and emotional catalyst for the USA's involvement in WWII.

Over 1.5 million people 'Remember Pearl Harbor' every year by visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, still responding to the rallying cry that ushered the US into WWII. The floating memorial perches directly over the Arizona, still lying in the shallow waters where it was sunk by Japanese fighter planes on 7 December 1941. The massive warship took a direct hit in the early morning fighting and sank within 9 minutes, taking with it 1177 sailors.

Today, the memorial is run by the National Parks Service, which maintains the onshore visitors centre and its museum and theatre. The park service's 75 minute program includes a documentary film on the attack, followed by a boat ride to the memorial. Everything is free.

The Arizona Memorial visitors centre is off Hwy 99 (Kamehameha Hwy) on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, west of Honolulu via H-1. Shuttle buses run from all the major Waikiki hotels.

The echoes of war dissipate to the north of Pearl Harbor in the peaceful Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation Area, a 334ac (134ha) park graced by a 17th-century Hawaiian medicinal temple and the Aiea Loop Trail, which yields excellent views of the harbour and of the landmark Diamond Head volcano crater to the southeast.

Waikiki

The largest tourist destination in Hawaii, Waikiki is a long stretch of picture-perfect white-sand beach just southeast of downtown Honolulu. Its shores are lined with swanky high-rise hotels set against the scenic backdrop of Diamond Head. On any given day, the tiny area is thronged with package tourists from Japan and North America: 65,000 of them on average, in addition to some 25,000 residents. It boasts more than 30,000 hotel rooms; close to 1000 restaurants, bars and clubs; and more shops, shams and shysters than anyone cares to count.

If you've come to Hawaii for the luaus, hula lessons and lazy days on the beach, you'll hit the motherlode in Waikiki. But independent travellers needn't be discouraged - if you're one of those with less packagable predilections, you'll be happy to find activities such as outrigger canoe clubs and Japanese tea ceremonies to distract you from the masses. And there's always the natural beauty of the area, with its spectacular orange sunsets, bath-warm waters and night skies overrun with stars.

The stretch of white sand that runs from the Hilton Hawaiian Village to Kapiolani Beach Park is commonly called Waikiki Beach. Although it teems midday with beach boys and betties, sunrise strolls here are downright meditative. By midmorning, the surfers, sailors and swimmers begin to amass, and by noon it's a challenge to get to the water without stepping on somebody. Fronting the Hilton, Kahanamoku Beach is one of the calmer swimming areas, ironically named after one of Hawaii's wildest native sons, Duke Kahanamoku, a local swimmer and surfer who won the 1912 Olympic 100m freestyle. At the southern end of Waikiki Beach, boogie boarders cluster at Kapahulu Groin, delighting onlookers with their daredevil wave riding.

Away from the waves, Kapiolani Park contains the Waikiki Aquarium, an onshore enclave of marine life at Kapiolani Beach Park inhabited by flash-back cuttlefish, sling-jawed wrasse, bearded armourheads and reef sharks; the Honolulu Zoo, which has a large section devoted to native birds like the Hawaiian goose (nene) and the forest-dwelling apapane; a bandstand, and hula show grounds. It's at the Diamond Head end of Waikiki and was a gift to the Hawaiian people from their last king, David Kalakaua.

Waikiki's Hawaiian-style entertainment ranges from Polynesian extravaganzas, with beating drums and hula dancers, to mellow duos jamming on ukuleles or slack-key guitars. Duke's Canoe Club is the most popular venue for contemporary Hawaiian music, while any of the big resorts can provide you with the other stuff. The area around the hotels is the best place to look for nightclubs and bars. Honolulu's gay scene is focused on the venues along Kuhio Ave between Kalaimoku and Kaiolu Sts.

Waikiki has a rhythm and pace that will attract nightowls and singles who like to recover from their hangovers on a decent city beach. The Moorish, pink-turreted Royal Hawaiian Hotel is a survivor from the days when Rudolph Valentino was a romantic idol and people came to Hawaii by luxury liner. South-east of the city is Diamond Head, a tuff cone and crater formed by a violent steam explosion. Its high summit forms the backdrop to Waikiki, and is one of the best-known landmarks in the Pacific. It has a good hiking trail and there are fantastic panoramic views from the top.



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