The Real Hawaii

We're in an Oahu mood. It feels real -- probably because it's where three-quarters of Hawaiians lead their day-to-glorious-day lives

Many travelers who rhapsodize about Hawaii feel scorn for Oahu. "It's not Hawaii," they say. "It's just a stopover."

When I heard this recently -- the words came from someone who had been living on Maui and Kauai for a few years -- I could only respond, "How much of Oahu have you actually seen?" Not much beyond the airport, it turns out, other than a quick stop at the Bishop Museum and a surf on the North Shore.

Unfortunately, this is often Oahu's fate. Hawaii has been romanticized for so long that virtually no one visits it without serious preconceived notions. On some of those notions, Oahu still delivers: It has sunny skies, crystal blue water, white-sand beaches, slack key guitars at sunset, and lots of hula dancing. The problem is what visitors don't expect -- the urban sprawl of Honolulu. It's the 11th-largest municipality in the U.S.; almost 400,000 people live in the metropolitan area. Visitors judge Oahu the instant they glimpse the high-rises of Waikiki, and, without a doubt, Waikiki is a different, highly developed kind of paradise (make that ParadiseTM). It's so easy to wistfully imagine the area before the hotels came, when it was just a sandy crescent surrounded by swaying palms and endless green. No traffic, no sunburned throngs, no chocolate-covered macadamia nuts for sale on every corner. 

Oahu is crowded, and Honolulu is a busy city -- now get over it. Don't just get over it, get into it. The island is home to three-quarters of Hawaiians, people who represent more than 25 ethnic groups and make the state one of the most diverse in the country. Oahu may not satisfy clichéd notions of an untouched Eden, but it is, undeniably, where Hawaiians live, eat, drink, and do things. If that doesn't make it the real Hawaii, what does?

Even if you have just a few days on Oahu, it's easy to slip into the casual, unpretentious lifestyle. Rent a car and tune the radio to the traditional and modern Hawaiian music on KINE 105.1 FM. Drive over to Maunakea Street in Honolulu's Chinatown, where refrigerated cases are crammed with wholesale leis (and Hawaiian ladies patiently string together more). Locals buy leis as gifts to celebrate occasions--birthdays, graduations, special visitors. Then go grab a plate lunch. These simple, hearty meals, available everywhere, are an island institution: your choice of a main dish (such as chicken teriyaki or barbecued ribs) plus two sides, usually a scoop of macaroni salad and two scoops of white rice. The Rainbow Drive-In is a Honolulu classic, around since 1961. The Loco Moco, a beef patty over rice, topped with a fried egg and gravy, may not be to everyone's taste.

Diamond Head Market and Grill: An untouristy plate-lunch spot. Order a grilled ahi sandwich ($6.50) to go, or sit inside, which is more foodie-friendly (mochiko chicken bento, $5.25). Midway between Waikiki and Diamond Head. 3158 Monsarrat Ave., 808/732-0077.

Olive Tree Café: Delicious, affordable Greek food (chicken souvlaki, $8). Dinner only, and it can be hard to get a seat. Pick up wine or beer at the provisions shop next door. 4614 Kilauea Ave., 808/737-0303.

Ono Hawaiian Foods: Humble-looking but always packed. Options include pork laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaves and steamed, $4.95) and poke (a seviche-like dish, $7.30). 726 Kapahulu Ave., 808/737-2275.

Ruffage Natural Foods: Terrific sandwiches, from $4.60. Also good for breakfast (papaya half, $1.75). 2443 Kuhio Ave., 808/922-2042.

Volcano Joe's: A friendly coffeehouse near the university. An ice-cold Kauai-blend coffee (from $1.30) and crumbly guava pocket (75¢) is an unbeatable way to start the day. 1810 University Ave., 808/941-8449.

It's the first rule of Oahu eating: Despite all the brouhaha over fancy fusion cuisine, some of the island's most satisfying food is served on paper plates, eaten while you sit on a folding chair in a parking lot. A few of the most popular spots are lunch wagons, with service windows on the side. Giovanni's Original White Shrimp Truck in Kahuku gets all the press, but you'd better go early or late to avoid the mobs waiting 40 minutes for the sole offering, a plate of pan-fried shrimp. A saner option well off the beaten path is the Maria Bonita truck in Waimanalo, where you can devour tacos or burritos (try one with mahimahi) in a rugged location. Waimanalo has long stretches of gorgeous, quiet beach.

Oahu's multiethnic population means there's a veritable we-are-the-world array of cuisines in the Honolulu area. Don't expect fanfare: These are local places that serve delicious, inexpensive food to regular customers. Five dollars buys a huge bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup served with a heaping plate of fresh herbs (add them to taste) at Pho One, behind the Ala Moana megamall. Phuket Thai Restaurant enthusiastically dishes up excellent Thai food in a strip mall -- yes, even Hawaii has strip malls -- near Waikiki. Kozo Sushi, a take-out mini-chain with four locations on Oahu, is so authentically Japanese that many of the staff speak very little English; fresh ahi tuna goes for $1.69 per piece. Leonard's Bakery, an institution since the 1950s, bakes fresh Portuguese malasadas and puffs -- only the latter, which have coconut- and guava-custard fillings, make it clear you're not in Lisbon.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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