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Secret Oahu

For many, planning a trip to Hawaii brings visions of secluded beaches, walks through tropical rainforests, hula girls dancing in the sunset, festive luaus… The reality, however, can be painfully disappointing. Instead of the peace and tranquillity promised by travel agents, tourists often find themselves discovering the very essence of the phrase “tourist trap”. Secluded beaches are replaced with strips of sand so dense with people it’s like trying to sunbathe in a mosh pit. Trails through tropical rainforests become busy sidewalks in a concrete jungle of strip clubs and cheesy tourist shops. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What you are about to discover is, for the cost of a car rental, your dreadful holiday on Oahu can be more like the tropical dream world of pre-trip fantasies. So grab your camera, slap on some sunscreen, and prepare to visit the secret spots of Oahu…

South Side: A view of the stars from above and below
This part of Oahu is generally composed of Honolulu and Waikiki. Get out while you still can! But first, be sure to go for a drive up Mt. Tantalus and take in the romantic night-time view Honolulu and Waikiki. There are many stops along the snake-like road, where you can sit on the hood of your car and gaze out at the thousands of city lights dancing over 2,000 feet below. With the right person in your arms, it seems as though you’re looking down at the heavens.

Tantalus can be reached via Round Top drive, which is a nine-mile loop, bringing you back down to a fork in the road after delivering the best city view on the island. If you make the trip in daylight, and are up for a challenging hike, keep a look out for the many paths off the side of the road, which lead into the Watershed Forest Reserve, another of Oahu’s lesser-known treasures. You can also drive into Puu Ualakaa Park, near the top of Tantalus. This is where Elvis had a picnic with his girlfriend in the movie Blue Hawaii. A lot has changed since then, but the view is as breathtaking as ever.

Another favorite local spot is Spitting Cave, located at the point of Koko Head crater, on the South East coast. Neighborhood boys often use this place as a right of passage, jumping sixty feet into the sea at the entrance to the cave, which spits out so much water it sounds like an oncoming train. This is highly discouraged, as people die nearly every year from hitting their head on the cliff, or being sucked into the cave.

The view at Spitting Cave is spectacular, especially at night. Shooting stars streak across the sky, and sometimes the moon shines a path of silver light across the ocean to a huge rock jutting out from the sea. Just make sure you bring a reliable flashlight, as the path down, which runs between two houses, can be hazardous. The entrance is hidden within a maze of suburban streets. Ask around near the Portlock Peninsula for detailed directions, or explore the Koko Head suburb until you come to a dead end with a gate depicting two whales.

North Shore: the surfing Mecca
A trip to Oahu would not be complete without experiencing the laid back surfer mentality of the North Shore. In the summer it is a quiet and peaceful country town. In the winter it’s home to some of the largest waves in the world, and packed with big name surfers.

Haleiwa is a great town to stop in for a few hours and mix with the friendly North Shore residents. Be sure to try a fish taco (tastier than it sounds) and check out the surf museum. Keep driving north to reach Waimea, a bay of multiple personalities. Do not be fooled by the tranquil lapping of waves against the sand in summer; in winter the waves are reminiscent of liquid skyscrapers, which pound the shore with terrifying force. If the water is especially calm, jumping off the big rock (you’ll see it) can provide hours of fun.

At the northern most part of the island is Kahuku point. Before driving around to the East side, stop at the shrimp truck here for an inexpensive, but tasty, seafood lunch. The view is amazing, and the locals are always up for a chat.

East Side: Green valleys and white sand
When coming from the North Shore, plan to spend at least a few hours in Kahana Valley. Just take a kayak down the river, all the way to the back of this pristine gorge, and you’ll be intoxicated for days by its beauty.

A little further south, the botanical garden in Kaneohe is a prime location to get out and have a picnic. Afterwards, continue on to Lanikai beach. Voted the best beach in America by USA Today, Lani Kai is a must for those seeking turquoise saltwater lagoons with Caribbean-style smoothness. The sand is as soft as baby powder, and the scenery is straight off a postcard.

Two rugged volcanic islands protrude out of the water like ancient gates. They are the Mokuluas, wildlife sanctuaries for birds and green sea turtles. Although too far to reach by swimming, these uninhabited islands are within easy paddling distance in a canoe, which can be rented in the nearby town of Kailua. To reach Lani Kai, drive through Kailua towards the multi-million dollar dream homes lining the beach. You can park on the street and walk through the pathways leading to the public, but often serenely unoccupied beach.

On the way back to the South Side of the island, you can stop off at Makapuu lighthouse for a short walk to breathtaking views of the rocky Eastern coastline. Close to the lighthouse are a few old bunkers from WWII, where you can often find used bullet shells dotting the ground nearby. This is also a great place to spot whales in the winter.

West Side: Local territory
The Western coast of the island is seldom visited by tourists. This is the “local” side of the island, home to the world’s largest population of Native Hawaiians. Be on your best behavior, because some of them don’t care much for sightseers. With that said, you will find the reputation of this area to be largely undeserved, as most locals tend to be very helpful and friendly.

It is worth driving to this side of the island just to stop at Makaha and look back at the mountains while standing on the beach. After picking your view-stunned jaw off the ground, continue driving up the road to the park, where you can often see dolphins and whales at sunset. I once counted 127 dolphins here in one day.

There is no way to drive through to the North Shore, but you can hike around the inaccessible point in about an hour if you’re fit. Otherwise, you can get back by driving the way you came, which seems even more beautiful the second time around.

Central Area: the volcanic spine of Oahu
The center of Oahu is one big mountain range, aside from the area of suburbs stretching from Pearl City to the North Shore. There are many great hikes along the ridges of Oahu’s mountains. My personal favorite is the Mariner’s Ridge trail, which is a tough two-hour hike that pays off in the end with a stunning panoramic view of the entire East Coast. On a clear day you can even see some of the neighboring islands in the archipelago.

Going through the mountains via the Pali Highway is a lovely scenic drive, and a quick way to get from Waikiki to Lani Kai and Kaneohe. On the way back, stop at the lookout just before the Buddist temple, which stands guard over the Valley of the Temples Cemetery. Walking up the road a couple hundred yards, you’ll find a trailhead leading to a large rock-face overlooking a swimming hole. Thousands of people drive by everyday, but few even know it’s there. Recently, a jeep was filmed jumping off the cliff into the water for “Helldorado”, a new action film starring The Rock. It is a terrific place to go if you like jumping off cliffs into pools of fresh mountain water. Do not swim if you have open cuts, as the virus leptospirosis sometimes washes down from the mountains in periods of heavy rain. A serious case of “the runs” is about all you’d experience, but even that’s enough to ruin your vacation. Trust me – as with the rest of my suggestions, I speak from experience.

These are just a few of the many lesser-known attractions on Oahu. The best way to find more is by asking the locals. Tourist maps will never replace the wealth of knowledge that can be discovered by asking simple questions like, “where do you go for weekends trips,” or “what’s your favorite spot on the island”. During my first week in Hawaii I asked those exact questions and got invited to a “real” luau, a pig hunt in the mountains, and a deep-sea fishing trip – all thanks to the friendly Hawaiians. Consider this article my way of passing the aloha on to you.

Everett Sizemore writes content for health and fitness web sites. For more
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