Aloha! Hawaii has been on our wish list for a very long time, because it has everything one can dream for a perfect vacation: postcard beaches, active volcanoes, endless possibilities for outdoor activities… all excellent reasons to go visit… After long thought (and a significant amount of saving for vacations) we finally decided we had to go. Dreams do come true…
The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight major islands (and many smaller islets), 7 of which inhabited. We planned our itinerary to visit 4 islands: O’ahu, Big Island, Kaua’i and Maui.
In this first post about Hawaii, we will share our arrival to this amazing place, starting with O’ahu, nicknamed “The gathering Place”. It is the most important island of the archipelago, the most populous one, and it has the highest population density. It’s capital, Honolulu, is the capital of the 50th state of the union (and the last one to join it), known as Aloha State.
Landing in Honolulu was a thrill. After long hours flying, the expectation was huge. Would it be as it looks like on TV? We saw Hawaii – Five O, The Descendants, and many others shows and movies shot here, so we were about to find out if what we saw on the screen is what we would get… First impression, the airport is small, people seem to be nice, but as we arrived in the evening what we really needed was a good night sleep to adjust to Pacific time (11 hours difference!)
The real excitement was waking up, leave the hotel and be by the sea side in less than 2 minutes, in Waikiki, with a great beach right over there (and we soon found out than it was far worse than many other beaches of the island). Yes, Honolulu is quite like on TV: dense, urban, busy, but we are never far from that awesome sea… After any stroll in town, before you know it, there you are back at the beach 🙂
It has everything any other big city has, and we clearly felt we were in America: behaviours, shops, restaurants, we found the same as in any other American city. There was one aspect that shocked us though: the number of homeless people we saw on the streets. What a contradiction, after all this is supposed to be paradise! (but even paradise also has its issues).
By chatting with the locals, reading the newspapers and watching local news, we quickly understood that there is some degree of social tension here. Tourism is a major activity (and a high revenue generator), but it makes house prices rise very high values many people can’t reach. As a result, many homeless are people with jobs who simply can’t afford to pay a rent and hence choose to live on the street (or in tents, in communities which change their location every time they are forced to by authorities), while they continue to work and lead an almost normal life. It does make you wonder…
During our trip we also realized that coexistence between island natives and non-natives isn’t always easy. Hawaiian natives are keen to preserve their culture, and they call white people (or any other non-native) haole – sometimes (but not always) in a depreciative way. Despite all cultural and social issues, every one we had the opportunity to talk to showed great passion and love for their home islands. After all, they do live in paradise!
People are very nice and welcoming (in all islands we visited), everyone likes to chat and all have a huge respect for family, for the elderly, children, nature… They have a calm demeanour in all circumstances, and it was a great pleasure to have conversations with everyone we came across with. They were always keen to share their experiences, stories about their children, their life in the islands, their culture… The contact with Hawaiian people was great, it made it really difficult for us to leave. We have visited many extraordinary places before, but few where we felt such warmth and welcome.
We came across many references to Portuguese people, as the Ukulele (traditional Hawaiian guitar with Portuguese origin), and lots of Portuguese dishes in the menus: Portuguese sausage, Portuguese puddings, Portuguese bread…We found out that a significant Portuguese community established itself here at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly in sugarcane plantations (many as foremen, we were told), and left its legacy. Along our journey we met many Portuguese descendants, who all received us with great pleasure and hospitality, keen to speak about their grandparents (or great grandparents), what their names were, where did they come from… Many of them dream to visit Portugal and get to know their roots. We found out that a Portuguese can be recognised by its big nose (!!!), and there are many anecdotes about us… But with lots of appreciation: haole refers to any non-native except if Portuguese.
After spending some time in Waikiki, we visited to Pearl Harbor. It is an impressive place, very well documented about events both before and after the attack, which was a turning point in the second world war: the museums and exhibits include descriptions of the political tendencies during the period leading to the tragic day, the divergent opinions about what USA’s role in the war should be (should it enter the war or not?), the latent conflict with Japan after China’s invasion, the concern with what was happening in Europe, where Germany seemed to be on the verge of winning the war… the dominating feeling was that USA shouldn’t interfere, since it was far away from the conflict, and because no one believed an attack could occur on USA’s soil (a congressman even affirmed that no one would dare to take action against USA). Until the day everything suddenly changed. According to the information on display, troops were far from alert to the imminent risk, and no real measures were in place in case such an attack could occur. The obvious history lesson is very present during the visit. The memorial and USS Arizona’s wreckage (where many soldiers remains rest) are very emotional, it is impossible not to feel touched by everything they mean.
The events following the attack are also very well depicted: the sudden transition to a state of constant alarm and fear of new attacks. Everyone was obliged to carry a gas mask at all times, a curfew was imposed and no lights were allowed after dark, Hawaiians were suddenly in complete darkness. The unjust way Japanese Americans (Hawaiian residents with Japanese origins) were treated is also focused. They were summarily sent to “internment” camps, with no rights whatsoever, and the role those who decided to fight the war for their country (despite the way they were being treated) had is also described: their unit was the most decorated one, receiving the highest award that a unit can earn.
There is also lots of information about the atomic bombs and their effects, long after the war was over. The all museum is very instructive, with many stories narrated in the first person. For us Europeans it is particularly interesting to have a completely different look at the Second World War and to understand its meaning outside our continent, where we usually tend to center all the action: the conflict is here known as the Pacific War, such a lot happened overseas.
We spent the next days exploring the island. As soon as we leave the urban and densely populated city of Honolulu, everything changes: beautiful views, paradise beaches with golden sand and turquoise waters, mountains with luxurious vegetation (full of mosquitoes, they also like to live in paradise, don’t forget to take the repellent!). The landscape is very diverse and invites to hiking, followed by a bath in another lovely beach we just happen to pass by…
The North Shore is famous for its impressive swells: surfers’ mecca, there they were by the dozens riding the waves and showing their art at the end of the day, what a show! Waves are known to be huge and unpredictable, as our photographer realized when he was caught by an enormous one and got wet from head to toes (and he was at an apparent safe distance from the sea!). He wasn’t the only one, another photographer who was there and thought this was really funny didn’t laugh for long 🙂
Those were wonderful days and the island was a very pleasant surprise, as expectations with O’ahu weren’t too high (when compared with what we expected of the next islands to visit). Coming back to Waikiki at the end of each day always felt really good. Streets filled with people, restaurants and bars by the sea, those are a nice contrast after a day hiking and nature exploring.
Places not to be missed in O’ahu:
- Lanikai and Kailua Beach (beautiful, gorgeous beaches).
- Ho’omaluhia Gardens (Botanical Garden), where we can see endemic species and hike easy and comfortable trails around
- Hike through Ko’oloau range, on Hau’ula trail
- North Shore (surf surf surf)
- Diamond Head, to have a unique perspective of Honolulu city
- Hanauma Bay, beautiful and prime snorkelling spot (it is a preserved area with limited visitors number, so go early!)
Next stop: Big Island, where the mighty Kilauea continues active… but that will be on our next post…