Oah’u: beach surf hike snorkel memorials family

Oah’u is the verdant tropical paradise of your vacation daydreams.  It’s vertical fluted green mountains drop into the Pacific where golden sand separates the volcanic land from seas of every shade of blue imaginable.  The landscape is punctuated with the biggest versions of every vivid tropical flower, while long thin waterfalls plunge hundreds of feet down the mountains. The entire scene is enclosed within a deep blue sky.  It is quite simply, beautiful.


We were greeted with purple orchid leis, a shriek, and an enormous hug from my cousin, Mille, who currently lives in Kailua, a tidy little island town on the windward side.  

As we drove across the island from Honolulu, and punched through the tunnels in the ridge that bisects Oah’u, we were treated to one those “wow” scenes, as we looked down the mountain, across the narrow coastal plain, and out to the blue blue Pacific. “You get to live here?,” we asked.  “Oh yeah! Can you believe it?” No, we could not! If the drive home from the airport was this spectacular, what did the rest of the island have in store?

Over the next nine days we were spoiled with the tastes of “home” including Poffenberger sausage shipped rom Texas, outstanding meals, an unstoppable flow of cocktails, and the hospitality of two of the greatest hosts we’ve ever been privileged to stay with.  There were stories, laughs, and the comfort of being with someone who knows you – who shares your blood, and understands what drives you – because they have it too. It’s like living within a big hug for your mind, body and soul.

We ate, drank, and made merry in their mid century gem of a house, with a garden and a view that was just unreal.  Their house sits on the edge of a deep valley, covered in tropical forest. Framed by a huge old mango tree, the uninterrupted view across to the Ko’olau mountains was amazing.  I thought I would sit and contemplate the planet from that spot every day.

Unfortunately, the billions of aggressive (and apparently insect repellent resistant) mosquitoes had other plans.  Even after dumping buckets of bug spray all over ourselves, you couldn’t stay out there for more than a few minutes without being utterly attacked.  Austin got more than 25 bites in four minutes once, and no amount of spraying the grass, garden etc. has put a dent in the colony of little beasts. Everything comes with a price, and for them, this is the price they must pay for one of the best views any home could ask for.  Fortunately, whoever designed the house knew what he was doing, because the entire scene is framed with floor to ceiling windows. The view belongs to Mille and Daniel. The garden belongs to the bastard mozzies.

So what do you do on a Hawaiian island with Haole (mainlander)?  You beach, you snorkel, you surf, you watch waves and the brave surfers who dare to attempt them.  You hike, meet locals, visit memorials, drive around the island, try poke, relax in a resort, watch fireworks, and squeeze every last inch of beach time you can out of your time in Hawaii.  And you chase chickens.

Yes, chickens.

Wild chickens roam free on the Hawaiian islands.  As you might guess, they’re not native to the island, and the genius who introduced them didn’t think about the fact that they’d have no natural predators.  Beyond that, they’re inexplicably protected, and there are millions of chickens crossing the road, wandering under your table while you eat, marching along the beach, and nesting absolutely anywhere they please.  If you close your eyes and imagine an island full of chickens, you still haven’t even fully accounted for how many chickens there are – everywhere.

They seemed to run around in family groups – one big beautiful proud rooster, with two or three hens, each with their own brood of 10 little chicks trailing behind them.  They nest in the grass, under trees, next to your mailbox – anywhere they can find a spot. In theory, they keep the mosquitoes under control – I don’t buy that one bit – and with no snakes on the island, there is nothing to stop them hatching.  Who rules Hawaii? Chickens. And mosquitoes.


I’m not even sure how many beaches we visited on Oahu, but we did our best to fit as much beach time in as we possibly could.  The sand was consistently deep and golden, and the water faded from the white of the breaking waves on the shore to every shade of turquoise, green, and blue until it finally met the horizon as a deep navy of the the deep Pacific Ocean.  The water was the perfect temperature – cool enough to be refreshing, but not so cold you had to brace yourself for a swim. Crystal clear, and full of fish, you’d be silly not to bring a mask and snorkel every time you went to the beach!

We initiated ourselves in the Pacific at Kailua beach, where we sunned, sanded and swam, and Austin found a “sand cliff” to jump off of with the other boys on the beach. Just down the beach from Kailua is a more “local” beach, accessed by a nondescript car park, and hidden by trees.  The surf shop recommended Kalama Beach for its clean but gentle breaks, where Austin could feel comfortable surfing. It was the perfect spot to surf a bit, build a sandcastle or two, and watch the chickens with hardly any one else around. Kalama Beach was so good we went back for one last beach trip just hours before it was time to leave for the airport!

The North Shore

We took a drive to the North Shore to see the waves of the World’s most famous surf destination.  The waves can get as high as 20-30 feet here (monsters!), and this is where the pipeline contest is held each year.  The drive from Kailua took a couple of hours through beautiful “country” on a road wedged between the mountains and the sea.  It was classic Hawaii, including the persistent rain that followed us from one end of the island to the other.

When we got to the North Shore, it was pelting down, and didn’t show any signs of letting up.  The sea was also flat.


The waves get big in the winter, and we were there in late Spring.  We heard a couple of days later that the normal weather was back, and so were the waves.  Apparently Hawaii has also been hit by this year’s nasty El Niño, causing unseasonable rains and even flooding on Kauai.  

It was too cold to brave the beach in the rain, so we found a little cafe in Haleiwa, and warmed up at Fatboys over a typical Hawaiian plate lunch of chicken and rice, a Bento Box for Austin that included fried Spam, and a Poke Bowl for me.  The rain wasn’t showing any signs of abating, so we turned South to drive down the other side of the island, where we found Honolulu to be gorgeous and sunny. Apparently that’s just Hawaii!


Waikiki is Oahu’s oasis of resorts, restaurants and tourism on speed.  The Hale Koa hotel services US Veterans, Military and their families. Even if they aren’t staying at the hotel, they still enjoy access to the pools and beach, and a discount at the bar.   It’s prime location on Waikiki beach makes it a popular choice for visiting families, and Mille treated us to an afternoon of poolside tropical drinks and fireworks in the sand, put on by the Hilton every Friday.  It was a bit cold and rainy that day, so we did more beach bar activities (eating hot dogs and chili fries, and seeing how many tropical drinks we could drink until we were sugared out.).

We went back to Waikiki beach on another sunny day, and joined the throngs of people soaking up the rays, bodyboarding, and just enjoying their day at the beach.  It’s backed up by a lovely shady park, and we bought a picnic lunch from a cafe across the road, and ate in the grass so we didn’t have to eat half lunch / half sand.

Austin surfed a bit, I snorkeled a lot, and Mark worked hard on his tan between trips into the water with Austin.   It’s a fantastically lively beach, and tourists mixed with locals to make a brilliant Sunday afternoon. I had wanted to stay away from Waikiki to avoid the usual tourist traps, but the beach was excellent, and we loved it!

Having a local show us around really made a difference, and Mille didn’t disappoint. Our favourite day of our visit to Hawaii was definitely snorkelling at Hanauma Bay.   


Hanauma Bay is a snorkelers paradise.  You have to play a little game to enter the park, and that’s called, “get here before everyone else.”  When the parking lot is full, they close the entrance off at the road, and only open it up again after enough people have left to make it worthwhile to open up again.  Mille has the system down to a science though, and apparently a perfect record of first getting rejected, driving about 5 minutes down the road before turning around, and then returning just in time to be admitted into the park.

You have to sit through a 10 minute video lesson about the the park, the reef, and how not to be the guy who ruins it for everyone, and destroyed the reef because you walked all over it or wore the wrong kind of sunscreen.  Given the level of idiocy we saw walking all over the reef or snorkeling with ritz crackers in their pockets, I can only imagine how bad it would be if we weren’t forced to watch the lecture first!

The visitor’s centre (and parking lot) is set on a high cliff above the beach, which gives amazing views of the reef below all the way out to sea.  It’s a stunner of a view, and I found it hard to tear myself away! Mille had advised us to stay to the back of the video presentation and then bolt out the doors to the trolleys parked outside ready to take people down the crazy steep hill.

The hill is so steep that they’re pulled by big 4WD trucks.  Mark thought that was lazy. I thought it was genius – especially with all of our stuff in tow. Some people don’t travel lightly to the beach, and my lovely cousin is one of them! After months of going minimalist to the beach while travelling, it was nice to have a chair to sit on, an actual mat to keep the sand off, and various other beach accoutrements — hence, the ride down the hill (and of course back up again).

The snorkelling was outstanding.  Within feet of the shore, there were dozens of varieties of tropical fish – ranging from tiny to huge technicolour parrot fish at least 4 feet long.  I even saw a white eel snaking its way out of its hiding place. You didn’t have to go more than 50m off shore to enjoy the abundance of life below the surface, and we lost track of time and space wandering around with our faces in the water.  The surf was a little rough, and the reef a little shallow in places, but that just added a bit to the fun of the place. We played with the GoPro, and chased the friendly fish around trying to take selfies with them – with very little success.

It was hard to tear ourselves out of the water, but at one point, I noticed that Austin had taken off his swim shirt, and had burned across his back.  He refused to put it back on, and I recognised the tone of that particular whine. It was time to go home. So back on to the trolley went Mille and I, while Mark and Austin huffed it up the cliff road.  We all arrived at the same place, only two of us weren’t out of breath and sweating at the top.


We had planned for Austin to have some surf lessons on the North Shore, but day we set aside for surfing, it was pelting down rain all over the island.  We had no choice but to wait out the rain, and hope the waves would come back. On the advice of a local, we heard that the Kona winds and clean waves were due back in two days.  It was an excruciating wait for our little grommet, but the local was right. The weather cleared, and rumours of waves rippled through the island. We rented a surfboard for Austin in Kailua from Kimo’s Surf Hut <www.kimossurfhut.com> a laid back surfers institution, and followed his precise instructions to get to a local beach with a clean gentle break, perfect for a beginner grommet.


They weren’t there on the North Shore.  They weren’t there in Waikiki. But Hawaii’s famous pipeline waves were certainly there on Wai’ale Beach, and we watched as hundreds of surfers took their turns at riding the perfect waves.  From high on a cliff, you could see clearly out to the break, about 200m from shore where experienced surfers with massive cajones dropped into huge wave after huge wave.

The shore line was broken up with a nasty looking reef and lava rock, and it was immediately clear why they were so far out – apart from the break.  It was a sunday, and everyone was out, either surfing, loading up their boards, waxing their boards, or biking up the steep hill with a surfboard under one arm, and the other steadying the bicycle as they slowly pedalled up the hill.  It was a cracking day, and one of the first really good ones in a week.

The whole island was out just “being” Hawaii.


We love a good hike, and it had been a little while since we’d last had a nice long challenging one.  Vietnam was too flat, Cambodia too hot, and Thailand just too beachy to bother ourselves with our hiking boots,  But Oahu has some pretty serious hiking trails up lush green mountains, or, as we found – down old abandoned highways.

The guidebook said to take the trail to the right of the Pali lookout, ignoring the “Danger, do not enter” sign, and head down the old single lane road linking Honolulu and Kailua over the mountains.  The gate blocking the path and the huge Danger sign were somewhat daunting, but just as we were puzzling over how to get around it, a group of hikers came up from the other direction, and squeezed through the impossibly small gap between the fence and the cliff.  They were like cats morphing their way through the space – four little girls, followed by two men and two women. If they could get through that gap, then so could we.

We started chatting with them, and found that the two men live on the island, and his to mainlander cousins were visiting their mutual grandmother who was turning 101 that week.  They had followed the old road from the bottom up, and were heading back down, so we joined them, and made some new friends along the way.

Austin adored being the centre of attention with four giggly girls around his age.  I could hear him regaling them with tales of his travels, including his 12 day trek in Nepal.  Those curly haired little blond ladies hung on every word, and he walked a little taller, chest puffed out a little further — for days.

Jason was the guy’s name, and he had done four years of backpacking through many of the places we had been and were going.  He had grown up on Hawaii, but wasn’t Hawaiian, which is a clear distinction among islanders. We traded travel stories, and he gave us some great tips about where to go on Oahu, what to do, and even better – some great advice about the South American leg of our journey.  He even invited us to his grandmother’s house for a BBQ, which we declined due to plans with our own family.

The moral of the story is to always mix with the locals, even in the most touristy of areas.  Their wealth of advice, and warm hospitality are priceless – and you just might get the chance to impress a gaggle of girls.

Diamond Head

The quintessential hike on Oahu, and the closest you’ll get to a volcano on the island is Diamond Head.  Named thus because of the quartz like rocks found in the crater, it sits conveniently on the Waikiki (tourist) end of the island, and is an easy but steep hike up to the summit of the rim to look out over Oahu in three directions.  

We were advised to get there early, and our 8:30 am arrival was clearly already too late.  The parking lot was full, and we were put into a waiting line that was efficiently managed by a parking attendant on a walk-in talkie, who directed you to the next available space.  If people had been left to prey the lot for opening spaces, it would be mayhem. Instead, it was orderly and organised – and thankfully quick. We waited only about 10 minutes before we were guided into a space behind us that otherwise would have been grabbed by the closest parking lot vulture.  Impressed!

The drive into the crater is somewhat dramatic when you consider the context of what you’re driving in to.  Anywhere from 500,000 to 400,000 years ago (a baby in geologic terms), this one time mountain blew its top in a cataclysmic eruption that formed Oahu and it’s minor islets surrounding the island.  What’s left is a round crater with high pointy sides, and a peak on one end. In the wet season, there’s a swamp in the middle, but Oahu’s pocketed microclimates means the crater itself gets only about 25 cm of rain all year.  Wish we had known that on the day we went to the North Shore!

The trail was crowded, and steep in places, but the views at the top were certainly worth it.  You ascend the last 100m into a concrete bunker, crawling out of the narrow gap onto a little perch that looks out to sea.  People jostled to take selfies and photos – and not fall off the cliff! We could see down to Honolulu, out to the reef where the deep waves break, and watch surfers ride their way in.  It was spectacular, and worth the sharp elbows and tired legs.


No visit to Oahu is complete without the pilgrimage to Pearl Harbour.  We happened to be there over ANZAC Day, and decided that visiting Pearl Harbour in the morning before the ANZAC services later would be an appropriate way to spend a somber Memorial Day for Australians and New Zealanders.

What struck me most after watching the half hour documentary before our boat ride out to the site of the USS Arizona was just how tightly packed into the harbour the battleships were.  Their concrete mornings still where they once stood in the harbour, with the names of the ships painted clearly on the sides.

The entire US fleet of battleships had been stacked end to end, sometimes two or more deep, in shallow harbour with a narrow opening. The mental picture I had held for a lifetime about  “Battleship row” suddenly became real. They were meant to be safe there, but instead they were trapped.

It was easy to see how the surprise attack by the Japanese on that Sunday morning in December was so successful.  The thousands who died there on that day fought in impossible circumstances. That there were stories of heroism that day is no surprise.  It was a battle in the extreme, and one in which threats came from many more possibilities than a simple sniper’s bullet. It would have been a loud, chaotic, gruesome battle where the soldiers must have known that they were fighting for much much more than their own lives that day.

The island is filled with memorials of the war in the Pacific, and its military legacy is evident everywhere you turn.  From the scores of clean cut soldiers streaming out of the bases at the end of the day, to the serene cemeteries that dot the hillsides around the island, Hawaii’s position as a military outpost is hard to escape.  

And so, the beautiful National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific formed a fitting backdrop for the Anzac Day services on Honolulu.  Attended by no shortage of Antipodean dignitaries, active military and honoured guests, and hosted by the USMC band, flag corps and gun corps, the speeches and wreaths were accented by a Maori Haka and a 21 gun salute.  It was Austin’s first ANZAC day service, and possibly the only one he’ll attend in “paradise”. Or maybe not.


Mille and Daniel were the warmest hosts one could hope for.  They scooped us up into their home and their life with wide smiles and unexpected generosity.  We laughed, we drank, we cooked, shared stories and bear hugs.  Austin adored getting to play big brother to their darling little boy, and I cherished the time I got to spend with my closest cousin.  We could have been in the ugliest, dullest place imaginable, and would still have had a fantastic and memorable time.  But we weren’t somewhere dull or ugly.

Oahu treated us to all that she has to offer.  Nine days was the longest we had spent in any one spot for the entire duration of our trip, and it was amazing to get to spend it with family.  At one point we thought we’d be alone out in the world, but that’s been far from the case. We’ve met up with family and friends all along the way, and having the luxury of just spending time with them is part of what has made the trip so special.

From Hawaii, our journey would take us through Houston for just 14 hours, where we’d spend the day with my family an hour and a half’s drive from the airport.  By the time we boarded our flight to Santiago, we were exhausted but excited about exploring a new continent in a new way – with our very own 4×4 Montero. It would be our home for the next leg of our journey, and consequently the first car we’ve owned in the last nine years, or ever as a couple.  

We were headed from the endless summer, straight into the Austral autumn, and were now racing against time to get to Patagonia before winter set in.


About the author: Shalena

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