Along Oahu’s North Shore, 64km from Honolulu, Junior Ah You sat at a picnic table outside Tita’s Grill, the modest diner he runs, talking about “town”.
To people on this rural part of the island, “town” means Honolulu, a place they’d rather avoid.
“I try not to go,” Ah You said. “Only out of necessity do we get out there.”
I hear that sentiment over and over during my stay. World-famous Waikiki Beach may be only an hour or so away, but people along the North Shore think their time is better spent right here. And they think a lot of tourists would agree if they’d just pry themselves away from Honolulu’s high-rise hotels.
The tallest building in these parts is a seven-storey assisted-living centre in Hauula. It sits along the Kamehameha Highway – natives just call it the “Kam” – which loops around the island. The two-lane road passes quaint towns and dozens of pristine beaches, some of which don’t even have names. Uncrowded and unspoiled, these serene strands of sand are where locals come to surf and sun.
The North Shore’s one and only large hotel, the Turtle Bay Resort, is hugged on both sides by idyllic beaches. The salt spray from the sea coated my glasses as a gorgeous orange sky merged with the ocean. Beside the Surfer bar, Kahokulea Haiku delivered a traditional sunset chant called an oli.
“Hawaiians used oli to connect with the gods and their ancestors,” he explained. “Tonight, we’re going to celebrate the end of a beautiful day.”
Haiku, a self-described “cultural practitioner”, said the North Shore provides a very different vacation experience from Honolulu.
“You’re almost forced to slow down,” he noted.
“People are tired of the pre-packaged Waikiki tours,” he added. “They want to explore. They want to get involved with the host culture.”
That sentiment is shared by Alan Bank, a Florida physician who makes yearly visits to the resort.
“Turtle Bay offers exactly what I want: Lots of open space,” he said.
Each year, Bank rents a car so he and his family can explore the sleepy villages along the “Kam”.
“Every little town has its own character,” he said. “Every corner has a beautiful beach.”
Heading north out of Honolulu, that unique character is first obvious in Haleiwa. Before being discovered in the 1960s by surfers – the world-famous Banzai Pipeline is just up the road – the town was simply a place to live for the Japanese immigrants who harvested sugar cane in the surrounding plantations.
Dotted with boutiques and T-shirt shops, Haleiwa is best known for shave ice, Hawaii’s version of a snow cone. There are various places to buy one, but most visitors join the queue at Matsumoto Shave Ice, where the 30-something syrups are homemade.
Employees don’t call a name or number when an order is ready; they simply shout out the requested flavours.
“Coconut, strawberry, mango,” Taylor Konishi said, holding two colourful cones. “Cherry, banana, lilikoi (yellow passionfruit).”
Owner Stanley Matsumoto was born four months after his parents set up shop in 1951.
“It started as a grocery store,” he recalled. “Shave ice started maybe five years later. Back in the ’50s, the town was kind of dead. There weren’t as many people, so somebody suggested we try and sell shave ice.”
From Haleiwa, the two-lane highway leads north past stunning beaches. A turn inland leads to the lush Waimea Valley, at which visitors explore places where ancient natives once lived, worked and worshipped.
Guests can stroll or take a tram past botanical gardens and a re-created village at which Kawika Au makes netting using lauhala, a centuries-old method of leaf-weaving.
Three-quarters of a mile from the ticket booth, the road ends at a waterfall. Beneath the 45ft (13.7m) drop, visitors splash about in a deep pool.
Directly across the island in Laie, the Polynesian Cultural Center – a visitor attraction owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – provides several hours of entertainment and education.
In replica villages, guests learn not only about Hawaiian culture but that of other Pacific lands. The customs of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, among others, are shared by natives of the various islands. Many of the interpreters also are students at the neighbouring Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
Farther down the eastern side of Oahu, several tour options await at Kualoa Ranch, a sprawling spread bordered by blue ocean to the east and green mountains to the west. On horseback, atop ATVs or in old school buses, visitors can explore the working cattle ranch at which scenes from this summer’s blockbuster Jurassic World were filmed. The mountains have formed backdrops for several movies, including the original Jurassic Park.
Along the two-lane highway, seemingly limitless places to eat abound: From stalls selling fresh fruit and macadamia nuts to food trucks serving locally caught shrimp.
Day and night, people stand at the small window at Tita’s, waiting to order the killa moco. The massive meal – it must weigh at least a couple of pounds – consists of two eggs, Portuguese sausage, Spam and Junior’s massive, handmade hamburger patties, all slathered in gravy and served over rice. As if that weren’t enough, on the side there’s fresh bread, which locals dip in “cocoa rice”, a concoction of hot chocolate blended with coconut milk, sugar and rice.
Piled high in a foam container, the killa moco could easily feed two. The US$12.50 (RM53.50) cost is far from Waikiki’s wallet-busting prices.
“People here still live pretty much off the land,” Junior Ah You pointed out.
So why don’t more tourists escape Waikiki to absorb the other Oahu?
Bank, the annual visitor from Florida, has an answer.
“They don’t know any better,” he said. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Services