For someone who writes these little travel stories, I don’t often dip my toes into the world of travel culture or commercial travel reporting. However a few months ago, on a whim, I thought I’d accept Netflix’s recommendation and watch “Parts Unknown”, Anthony Bourdain’s most recent travel/food series.
I’m not here today to get into what I think of the show (spoiler alert: I love it). But for the purposes of this post, on his Hawaiian episode, I was particularly impressed with how Bourdain summarized the complexity of modern Hawaiian history:
It doesn’t take much trekking beyond the towers of Waikiki to begin to explore those layers. One drive around Oahu, for example, satisfies such an investigation. Encouraged to get out of Honolulu and see the northern and windward (eastern) sides of Oahu, Cindy and I would embark on such a journey.
Our day began when we picked up our rental car, a Fiat 500, and departed from Waikiki. As Honolulu peeled away, each layer of Hawaii revealed itself: Aloha Stadium, America-Hawaii; Wheeler Army Airfield, military-Hawaii; the steady ascent across the island’s center, volcanic-Hawaii; Outback Steakhouse, Australi...erm, more American-Hawaii. Soon we were at the next layer: corporate-imperialism-turned-tourist-trap-Hawaii—The Dole Plantation.
There’s a lot that could be said about the Dole Corporation's complex, exploitative relationship with Hawaii. My American guilt compels me to mention this and yet I won't dive into it here. After many attempts to explain this complicated history (I have personally rewritten this section of the post three or four times), I've simply resigned myself to the fact that there are better sourced, better written sites to get that information. And so, in this post, I’m going to just stick to the lame, touristy elements of the Dole Plantation.
Today, the Dole Plantation is a somewhat whacky tourist trap in the center of Oahu. It features a gift shop, a pineapple shaped maze, and of course, the famous Pineapple Express train tour. If you ever wonder how annoyingly methodical I can be when planning my trips, we arrived (precisely as timed) to board the very first train of the day.
The Pineapple Express experience is a short, out-and-back train ride that chugs a mile up the the plantation’s length before looping back and returning along the same span of track. On the journey, you get to see rows of pineapples in various stages of growth. However, what caught our fancy most was some of the beautiful vistas the little train offered of Oahu.
Back from our train ride, we took photos of the well manicured grounds and the famous pineapple stand before purchasing a ticket to the Pineapple Maze. The maze experience, a trudge through rows of hedges surrounding a landscaped image of a pineapple, comes with a little sketch-card. The objective is to find the eight checkpoints in the maze and use the checkpoint's stencil to draw a figure onto the sketch card. Your progress in the maze is timed—for personal pride, I suppose.
After finding our way through the maze (we may or may not have cheated by using a few bypass-gates!) we emerged with a completed card! There was only one way to celebrate: A Dole Whip! The famous pineapple soft-serve was even better with chilled chunks of pineapple served around the swirl. Cindy opted for the float.
We couldn’t have been more than an hour into our visit to the Dole Plantation, but we were ready to leave. We returned to the Fiat and took off down Highway 83. Now on the other side of the island’s center, we began to coast down the steady volcanic slope—a welcomed breath of relief for the Fiat’s little put-put engine. We soon coasted into the little town of Haleiwa. We parked at a L&L Hawaiian BBQ for lunch and then explored the town's main street.
With charming, colorful buildings, quaint general stores, and some classic Hawaiian Shave Ice, the little town was a cute outpost that is trying its damnedest to siphon off some of the tourist dollars from the other side of the island. We were happy to stop, shop, and pose dramatically against a lava rock building. But soon, we returned to the road. Back on the highway, we were startled by the piercing cry of sirens—the weekly test of the tsunami warning horns, momentarily blaring across the coast.
The sirens soon stopped and we made it to our next our next turn-out, the Waimea Bay Beach.
Stopping on a curious whim, we pulled off at Waimea Bay to get out and check out the beach. What we found was terrifically different than what is found at Waikiki! The beach was attended, but empty enough to feel private and secluded. Stepping in the sand and watching the waves was a soothing sensation until the realization of how big the waves were. It’s that kind of beach; after all, this is the north shore.
We watched the surfers and boarders do their thing. I haven’t ever personally witnessed such successful riding and was transfixed by the visuals. Cindy and I remained under a tree, watching those on the water perform feats of skill (and by my standards, bravery). It was an impressive stop-over.
We returned to the road, now reaching the area of the famous “Banzai Pipeline” surf spot. However, it was fully parked and we were forced to skip it. We continued up the coast until deciding to turn out at the Waiale’e Beach Park. Far too rocky to wade about, we hopped from rock to rock looking for shells and watching the tide roll in and out of the shelf.
Having reached the furthest point north on the island, we accepted the highway’s pull to the east and, eventually, the return to the south along the greener, windward side of the island. This eastern coast of Oahu is the first to accept the trade winds blowing from the east and thus, has the first mountains to wring out the rain from the clouds. This leads to a more heavily vegetated and lush region. And with that comes yet another side to Hawaii.
We passed the Turtle Bay resort area (private, tourist Hawaii), the Mormon’s Polynesian Cultural Center (Hello!—the missionary-turned-tourism Hawaii), and a few state parks along the way. It was one of the longer stretches of drive and we were ready for a quick break. Cue the Kualoa Regional Park and the island across from it, Mokoli’i, or the Chinaman’s Hat.
We pulled over and spent a few minutes walking along the park's beach, appreciating the stunning landscape. With dramatic, razored bluffs, swaying palm trees, and brilliant, blue water, the area appeared more like the Hawaii we know from TV and films. Upon further research we determined that, well—it is. Just a few feet north of this park is the Kualoa Ranch, used as the backdrop of famous projects from Jurassic Park, to 50 First Dates, to Lost.
For me, as I've been assembling this post, the area has become even more recognizable: Just a year after our visit, my good buddy TJ would kayak out to that politically incorrect-nick-named island and propose to his beautiful gal, now fiancee, Jess.
Naturally, we didn’t know that kayaking was an option and, to be honest, we’re far less adventurous than those other two. Instead, it was back to the road where we continued into the more populated stretches of the windward shores. The little two-lane highway would turn into a four lane one—nearly making it to the width of a freeway before again branching away from civilization to the less populated eastern tip of the island. There, we parked once again and got out for our final stop, the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail.
Gently weaving its way up a coastal bluff on the easternmost point of Oahu, the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail is a marvelous little public space. I’m not one to ask for advice when traveling—I’m far too arrogant for that, admittedly—but it doesn’t mean that I’m not watching others. And when I saw photos from my friend Cyle’s visit to this spot, I knew I had to check it out for myself on our visit!
The trail earns its name from an old-looking lighthouse (the Makapu'u Point Light) that’s perched a 150 feet on the cliffside, looking dead east out to sea. It was actually so clear out that we could see Moloka’i, 30 miles to the southeast. The trail also affords some pretty stunning views up Oahu’s eastern coast and out to the windswept bluffs of Rabbit Island.
But the view that most caught our imagination was the one we weren’t expecting—that of whales. From the top of the hill, we grabbed our selfies and prepared to descend when we saw the regular intervals of white splashes about two or three miles out to sea. Humpback whales! I affixed my zoom lens to my camera and through it, looked out to the infinite blue plane, hoping that another whale would make the jump in my field of view. After 20 minutes of waiting, shooting, and missing, it finally happened—I found one in my viewfinder and snapped!
I would end up getting some pretty amazing photos of whales just 4 days later in Kauai, but when you consider the distance and the story, I’m tremendously proud of these photos. The high received from having your patience pay off is unmatched. I imagine it’s the same type of glory that a hunter feels, although this type of shooting is clearly different for the animal. Still, we sauntered down the hill glowing from the experience (and from the final golden rays of a sunset reflecting across the western depth of the island).
When we arrived back at the Fiat, the sun was essentially down but there was still a glow in the sky. We made our way along the southern coast to residential-Hawaii. Just miles from where we saw whales dancing in the sea, we passed a Costco and a Walgreens. We parked and walked into our dinner establishment (the Kona Brewing Co.) and reflected on our day over a scrumptious meal and a few brews.
Soon after, we returned to our hotel in Waikiki. We had one more day with the Fiat and intended to spend it around Honolulu—which would reveal yet another side to Hawaii. But I’ll save that for another post.
Thanks for reading about our drive around Oahu! For some more photos of this stunning world, check out the gallery below!