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.
Less universally appealing is crack seed, a snack of preserved fruits and seeds that is sour, sweet, and/or salty. Chinese in origin, crack seed is carried by virtually all convenience stores, as well as specialty shops like the Crack Seed Center. You'll even find pieces of it wrapped up and strung into leis -- a sure sign something has been assimilated into Hawaiian culture.
One restaurant that nicely embodies the state's new mix is the Days of Aloha café, in Kaimuki, decorated with nostalgic Hawaiian posters and photos and run by a young couple originally from Tokyo. The menu is a little bit mainland (bagels), a little bit island (homemade guava jam), and a little bit Japanese (wasabi tuna sandwiches with sheets of nori seaweed tucked inside).
If you're baffled about how Oahu acquired such a diverse population, stop at Hawaii's Plantation Village, an open-air museum in Waipahu. Many Hawaiians have relatives who once lived in plantation villages, and this earnest re-creation provides a fascinating look at the lives of the immigrants (primarily Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Okinawan, Korean, and Filipino) brought over to work on the sugar farms. Restored homes from the early 1900s show how workers lived with a minimum of amenities and cherished precious reminders of home. Besides contributing to the culinary mix, the immigrant groups shaped what is now considered quintessentially Hawaiian. It was the Portuguese who plucked small string instruments and inspired the Hawaiian "jumping flea," or ukulele. And the pidgin language (featuring terms like Shaka brah, which roughly means "Cool, man") developed as a lingua franca among workers. As a tourist, you're unlikely to hear much pidgin -- it's more of a private language for locals -- but the Hawaiian restaurant You Hungry provides a taste. Instead of regular and large, the menu offers "sorta hungry" and "hungry" portions, and a toothpick jar is labeled like pick teet?
Clearly, and mercifully, Oahu doesn't take itself too seriously. While there's plenty of respect for history and culture, there's also an appreciation for the kitsch inextricably linked to Hawaiian tourism. So although true hula bears only a passing resemblance to the tourist variety (grass skirts, never a Hawaiian practice, were incorporated for their sex appeal), Oahu makes room for both. A traditional hula performance may require a trip to the Bishop Museum, but modern hula is on display every night in the pink glow of sunset on Waikiki Beach. Likewise, locals and visitors go for hula-girl bottle openers and aloha belt buckles. Only a coldhearted snob could resist such trinkets. If you have serious shopping stamina, brave the stalls at the International Marketplace in Waikiki. Otherwise, retreat to two surprisingly good sources for cheap souvenirs: Kmart and Longs Drugs. The King Street branch of Longs also carries a wide selection of inexpensive leis, made from fresh flowers, dried kukui nuts, or candy.
These cheerful knickknacks, an integral part of the Hawaiian tourist experience, are talismans; they link us to a simpler time. We long for the era when ukulele-wielding serenaders sang "When My Wahine Does the Poi," when pineapples were the height of exotica. This version of Oahu may exist only in our imaginations -- could it ever have been that pure? -- but nonetheless we're all nostalgic, and the hope of touching even a little of it is what lures many of us to Oahu. A few cherished relics of the era remain. The most pristine and spectacular is Shangri La, the estate built in the 1930s by the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke. The famously reclusive Duke found refuge from fortune-hunting paramours and the media in Oahu. She learned to surf from the Kahanamoku brothers -- Duke Kahanamoku was the father of modern surfing -- and filled Shangri La with rare Islamic art. The house is now open to small tours, which start at the Honolulu Academy of Art (reserve weeks in advance). If you're lucky, you'll meet Jin de Silva, the charming Sri Lankan who was the caretaker and one of Duke's few trusted employees. He usually stops by to answer questions and reminisce about guests like Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson.
A less intimate retro experience can be found in some of the hotels in Waikiki. The hot-pink Moorish-style Royal Hawaiian must have seemed very grand when it opened in 1927; today it's dwarfed by its neighbors but maintains a certain dignity. Having cocktails at the beachfront Mai Tai Bar still feels like a swanky event. Located a few streets back from the beach are a handful of properties that look like nothing has changed since they opened in the '50s and '60s. These time capsules (among the best: the Breakers, Royal Grove, and Hawaiiana) are relatively small, and rooms flank modest swimming pools. Some of the lobby furniture is original; think bamboo lounge sets. The effect is decidedly laid-back.
Things get even sleepier once you leave Honolulu. Beyond the sprawl, Oahu has the quiet countryside, roadside fruit stands, and deserted beaches you expect. Even if you don't rent a car, you can circumnavigate the island on the Bus; a single ride is only $2. The biggest town on the North Shore is Haleiwa, a hippie holdover that looks like little more than a few battered shacks, some surf shops, and an occasional handwritten sign (mango pickles for sale). In the back of Celestial Natural Foods, a health food store, is Paradise Found, a sweet vegetarian café that's a favorite of local surfers. A bit further along is Kua `Aina Sandwich, a beloved burger joint where paper towels take the place of napkins. At the landmark Matsumoto's Shave Ice, the big draw is yet another local specialty -- a version of what mainlanders call snow cones.
The main event on the North Shore is the epic surf at places like Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. During the winter, surfers from all over flock here for the big seasonal swells, when waves can easily reach 20 feet. Surf contests are also held during this time; grab a free seat on the sand and watch the pros rip (surf well), get barreled (ride inside the tube of a wave), and wipe out (no explanation necessary). Swimmers need not despair -- plenty of winter days are flat and waders rule the beaches. There's also prime snorkeling in the non-winter months at Shark's Cove in Pupukea (a good alternative to popular Hanauma Bay, outside Honolulu). In Haleiwa, Surf -N- Sea is the place for gear and surf updates. The shop staked its claim back in 1965 and is now a legend in the community. A small road opposite, home to fuchsia bougainvillea and wandering pet peacocks, leads to the Surfhouse, a lush property offering simple accommodations. The amiable owner, Lee, has spent most of his life in and around the South Pacific.
In the end, despite Oahu's qualifications as a romantic dreamland -- sunsets and starlight, blue sea and white sand -- the most memorable experiences are the ones that fall outside this everyday perfection. On a recent visit I showed up at the Kapiolani Bandstand to watch the Kodak Hula Show, a tourist spectacular since the 1950s that's still listed in all of the tourist publications. I expected another satisfying display of kitsch, but instead I found a few other dazed visitors and, onstage, a small group of women in shorts and flip-flops. I asked one about the Kodak show. "They stopped doing that a long time ago, honey," she told me gently. "But I've been a hula dancer for 20 years." She popped a CD in her portable player, and the women spread out into rows. It was a community group having its weekly hula lesson. They began to dance, swaying their hips and slowly fluttering their hands.
A few of the other tourists hurried away. The rest of us sat under the trees, Waikiki Beach behind us, and enjoyed a private show. Being able to see the ladies dance, purely for their own pleasure, is the kind of experience no guidebook can lead you to. It was the innocence we hoped to touch when we came: an unvarnished moment amid the good-natured artifice of Oahu, an honest bit of genuine joy in Paradise.
The Bishop Museum 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, 808/847-3511, bishopmuseum.org, $15, kids $12
Hawaii's Plantation Village 94-695 Waipahu St., Waipahu, 808/677-0110, hawaiiplantationvillage.org, $10, kids $4
Shangri La 866/385-3849, shangrilahawaii.org, $25 (includes entry to Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St., where tour starts)
Kmart 500 Nimitz Hwy., Honolulu, 808/528-2280, plus two other locations
Longs Drugs 2220 S. King St., Honolulu, 808/949-4781
The Bus 808/848-5555, thebus.org, $2 per ride, four-day unlimited pass $20