HONOLULU -- It is the iconic image of the island of Oahu, perhaps of Hawaii itself: Diamond Head jutting majestically from the eastern curve of Waikiki Beach, like the prow of a clipper ship, rising above a swath of white sand and a forest of high-rises. Cameras frame this romantic scene from hotel balconies and unfurled beach mats, and the postcard racks are positively festooned with it.
Many Hawaii visitors are content with this view, and don't think of venturing to the other side of that mountain -- other than for a hasty drive around the island.
They're missing out on the understated appeal of southeast Oahu. This part of the island is primarily residential, and can't match such tourist treasures as the Bishop Museum,
Among them: a state park where a trail wends to the top of Diamond Head itself, an all-but-deserted beach punctuated by a glistening lighthouse, a marine park that is nirvana for the snorkeler, the former Islamic-themed retreat of a reclusive heiress, and arguably the most scenic road on the island. There is also an upscale hotel, the Kahala Resort, with deep roots -- it was founded by Conrad Hilton just a few years after Hawaii became a state (see sidebar, below).
All can be found on the back side of Diamond Head.
To the summit
Just after the turn of the 20th century, military strategists realized the value of Diamond Head, a volcanic ridge that soars at Honolulu's edge. Artillery batteries and an observation post were established at the top, so that this triangulation point could be used to direct fire at incoming hostile ships.
Its impotence was exposed in 1941, though, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor from the air (and from the other direction). At about the same time, the development of radar rendered the triangulation post obsolete.
There are two straight staircases, one infamously called 99 Steps, plus a metal spiral one in the observation tower.
But the reward for enduring them is considerable. When you crawl out through the
You'll snap a photo, of course -- to get an inverse image of that postcard that sells so wildly down below.
Among the fishes
Hanauma Bay is another volcanic cone that lies just up the coast, but it contrasts sharply with Diamond Head's in that it's filled with water.
This has been Oahu's best snorkel spot since swimmers first donned masks and began peering beneath the ocean's surface. But there was a time 20 years ago when it was being loved to death. Tourists poured
The city parks department ultimately stepped in and regulated visitation. Now, when the paved parking lot fills up, that's it; subsequent visitors are turned away. So it's wise to get to this place early, too.
The intervention is welcome, but the pendulum seems to have swung pretty far in the opposite direction, in that Hanauma Bay now has a Disneyland feel to it. Before heading down to the water, visitors are
And the money drip is continual: $1 to park your car, $5 to enter the park, 50 cents to ride the shuttle down to the beach, $1 to ride it back up, a staggering $5 for a locker for your personal items, more to rent fins, snorkel and mask.
The astonishing diversity and abundance of marine life in the preserve make all of this tolerable, though. Locals can't fish here, so the tropical fish grow to big sizes, and they are resplendent in their natural colorings -- all the more so if you luck into a sunny day. You'll routinely see butterflyfish, surgeonfish, tangs, rainbow wrasses. Inexperienced swimmers will feel perfectly comfortable here, too, because a stout reef renders the inner bay bathtub-calm. Wade out to waist-deep, put on a mask and simply float on the surface.
The cliff road
Hawaii's highways tend to hug the coastline, because that's where the passage is easiest. But in southeast Oahu, Koko Head and the Koolau mountain range rise steeply from the water's edge, and the Kalanianaole Highway had to be cut along the flanks. Accordingly, the views from the road are sensational -- black lava rock plummeting to deep-blue ocean, picturesque Makapuu Point, Rabbit and Turtle islands just offshore.
The around-the-island tour vans careen through here, providing, oh, five or so minutes at any given turnout. If you're touring independently, linger a while longer at the Halona Blowhole, and peer (or climb) down to the pocket beach at Halona Cove, where Burt Lancaster smooched with Deborah Kerr in the rushing shore break in the 1953 movie "From Here to Eternity." (In fact, it's now widely called From Here to Eternity Beach.)
Makapuu Beach is kind of a locals hangout, but it's a good spot for a picnic. Venture into the surf at your peril, though, as it is rough and unpredictable (as I learned on an ill-fated body-surfing experience a few years back, when I was tossed like a rag doll onto a submerged rock shelf).
There is some exclusive real estate along the Kahala Coast on the back side of Diamond Head. It was here that Doris Duke, a tobacco and hydroelectric power heiress, established a Hawaii retreat in the 1930s.
She called it Shangri La, and furnished the home with Islamic art that was the passion of her world travels. When Duke died in 1993, her will stipulated that the home be opened to the public on a limited basis. The Honolulu Academy of Arts conducts small tours, which originate at the downtown museum (you can't drive up to the mansion itself). At the heiress' hideaway, it's fascinating to peruse 13th-century prayer niches, ceramic vessels and textiles; a foyer where lights come on only if the sun goes behind a cloud; and a wall of windows that descends into the basement with the touch of a button.
This was one eccentric woman. Who else would build a 14,000-square-foot house with a boat moorage, a competition-length pool . . . and two bedrooms?
Two decades ago, Roy Yamaguchi pioneered the concept of Hawaiian fusion cuisine -- European cooking techniques for the delectable ingredients of the South Pacific and Asia -- and now oversees an empire of 35 Roy's restaurants that reaches from Japan to New York.
It can be a challenge to maintain quality when a celebrity chef stretches himself so thin, and I've found the execution of the dishes uninspired at the Woodland Hills restaurant and have been rushed through dinner at the Kauai one.
Fortunately, the original Roy's -- right here in southeast Oahu -- maintains the attention to detail and pride of originality that gained this chef so much renown when he first opened it in 1988. The dining room is on the second floor of a huge building in a shopping center, and the broad, open kitchen imparts the energy of the cooking staff to the room.
The high quality of Hawaii's fish and produce contribute mightily to the dishes produced here -- tender, moist, flaky opakapaka fish, for example, with Roy's signature jade-pesto steam preparation.
We resolved that we might just order off the appetizer menu next time, however, because that's where we found the most interesting items. One was a dim sum canoe for two, with crab cakes, tempura ahi, pork ribs, chicken spring rolls and chilled shrimp. But our favorite was the heavenly Sunrise at Haleakala, a tempura roll stuffed with tuna, salmon, asparagus, avocado, rice and seaweed, prepared with an inside-out rolling technique and finished with a crispy exterior.
Beat the crowds
Diamond Head Road skirts the mountain on its way from Kapiolani Park to the Kahala Coast. Few visitors seem aware that there is lovely stretch of beach just below the bluffs. Park in the turnout just up from Beach Road and nearby you'll find a paved pathway leading down to Kuilei Cliff Beach Park.
Where'd all the people go? We walked half a mile down the beach to Black Point, beyond which is the Duke mansion. Upon returning, a stroll in the other direction revealed a memorable view of the Diamond Head Lighthouse, brilliantly white and capped with a red dome, gleaming in the sun at the cliff top.
A few surfers and body-boarders were scattered about, but otherwise there were long stretches of open beach.
And to think that only a couple of miles away, Waikiki Beach was jammed towel-to-towel with tourists. Many of whom, no doubt, were at that moment pointing a camera vaguely in this direction.
IF YOU GO
DIAMOND HEAD HIKE: Diamond Head State Monument is off Diamond Head Road. It is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fee is $5 per carload. Trail to the summit is eight-tenths of a mile one way, with a 560-foot elevation gain. Administered by the Division of State Parks, (808) 587-0300.
HANAUMA BAY: Off the Kalanianaole Highway, 10 miles east of Waikiki. In winter, open daily except Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Open until 10 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month. Expanded hours in summer. Parking fee is $1 per vehicle, entrance fee for the nature preserve is $5 per person for ages 13 and up. Masks, fins, snorkels and lockers are available for rental at the beach. Recorded information line: (808) 396-4229. Web: www.hanaumabayhawaii.org.
SHANGRI LA: Tours of Doris Duke's former home in Kahala are conducted by the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Advance reservations are required, and it's a good idea to book this well before you leave the mainland. Tours meet at the art museum, 900 S. Beretania, Honolulu, and you're driven to the home in a shuttle vans. It's about 2 1/2 hours in length, with 1 1/2 hours spent at Shangri La. Cost is $25 per person for ages 12 and up (under 12 not permitted), which includes admission to the art museum. Tickets may be purchased at (866) 385-3859 or on the Honolulu Academy's Web site: www.honoluluacademy.org (you'll find Shangri La in the pulldown menu under "Museum" in the top bar).
ROY'S: The original restaurant is at 6600 Kalanianaole Highway in the Hawaii Kai neighborhood, east of Honolulu proper. (808) 396-7697; www.roysrestaurant.com.
STYLE AND SERENITY AT THE KAHALA RESORT
HONOLULU -- Oahu's hotel guests consider it a given that they're going to have lots of company from fellow tourists. That's just a fact of life along the famous stretch of Waikiki Beach, where the hotels soar skyward and daily spill their occupants onto a narrow strip of sand.
It's assumed that elbow room can be found only by fleeing to Turtle Bay on the North Shore or, better yet, one of Hawaii's outer islands. But this conventional wisdom overlooks a wonderful resort chestnut called the Kahala.
The upscale hotel is tucked away in a residential neighborhood on the back side of Diamond Head, and has been around for a long time; Conrad Hilton established it on the Kahala Coast in 1964, just 4 1/2 years after Hawaii became the 50th state. When hotel guests settle onto this beach at any time of the day, they pretty much have it to themselves.
The Kahala has one offering that is particularly novel: the opportunity to swim with dolphins. A few of the playful marine mammals live in captivity in a lagoon on the hotel grounds, and guests (and other visitors) may join a trainer in the water to pet them, pose with them for photos and swim alongside them. It's not a bargain attraction -- $210 for adults for half an hour (and adulthood starts here at age 11), $175 for 45 minutes in the kids' program (ages 5 to 10). But one of the most popular diversions at the hotel is simply to linger alongside the lagoon and observe a session.
I was more partial to a wild marine encounter, and wasn't disappointed in the waters just offshore. Long ago, the Kahala built jetties at each end of its beach to minimize erosion of its imported sand, and the effect is a calm swimming cove, complete with swimming raft just offshore. Snorkelers will find a shelf of reef just off the beach -- and perhaps some surprises.
One day, I spotted a seahorse out here. The beach attendant, who said he'd been swimming off Oahu for six years and had yet to see one, couldn't hide his envy. The next day, I encountered a well-camouflaged slipper lobster.
A hotel with this many years on it must upgrade continually, especially given the proximity of all that ravaging ocean salt. We were impressed with our spacious room and bathroom, parquet wood floor, four-poster bed, and the generally fresh, modern feel of the place. Recent renovations of the main tower replaced windows, wood floors, carpets, curtains and furnishings. The Dolphin Lagoon Wing and the lobby are next in line for improvements, a hotel spokeswoman said.
The Kahala's most appealing dining venue is the casual Seaside Grill, where tables are set up in the sand, sun shades are lashed to the palm trees and bamboo wind chimes provide the mood music. Hoku's is the hotel's upscale restaurant. Here, we found the seafood to be outstanding -- notably the hamachi sashimi, the opakapaka sashimi, and a local fish, onaga, in lobster sauce and topped with lump crab. Much less impressive were short ribs done osso bucco style. Let that be a lesson: Stick with the fish in Hawaii.
-- Kahala Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave., Honolulu. Room rates from $395, with many packages and specials available (see the Web site). Dolphin Quest reservations: hotel concierge or (808) 739-8918. Hotel reservations and information: (800) 367-2525, (808) 739-8888; www.kahalaresort.com.
-- Eric Noland