Long ago Oahu was nicknamed “the gathering place,” and the name has proved prophetic: today Oahu hosts three-fourths of Hawaii’s population and the largest share of its visitors. But this drive, traveling beyond the bustle of Honolulu and Waikiki, calls attention to another Oahu. Following the narrow shoreline at the windward base of the Koolau Range, Rtes. 72, 61, and 83 trace a journey from one Oahu icon, Diamond Head, to another, Waimea Bay.
1. Diamond Head
An ancient crater towering over Oahu’s southern tip, Diamond Head was named by early British sailors who spied the sparkle of diamond-like crystals on its seaward flanks. Visitors can begin exploring this dormant volcano by skirting the manicured estates along its southern shoulder, then following an old military tunnel into the heart of the crater. Here a short but steep path leads up stairways and through pedestrian tunnels to the 760-foot summit. The view takes in Waikiki and Honolulu to the northwest, the wooded foothills of the Koolau Range to the north, and Koko Head to the east.
2. Koko Head Regional Park
The rugged volcanic rock formations here contrast beautifully with sandy, palm-fringed beaches. One can hike up the lofty promontory called Koko Head, then snorkel amidst lovely corals and the darting, inquisitive fish of Hanauma Bay, a surf-eroded crater that is now a marine preserve. At Halona Blowhole, seawater compressed within an underwater lava tube spews geyserlike into the air. Rising above the blowhole are the slopes of 1,208-foot Koko Crater.
3. Nuuanu Pali State Wayside
Rte. 72 arcs around Oahu’s easternmost reach at Makapuu Point, where bodysurfers ride the waves that roll in past Rabbit and Turtle islands, and marine-life enthusiasts seek close encounters with the seals and dolphins on display at Sea Life Park. Heading northwest between Waimanalo Bay and the steep side of the Koolau Range, the drive climbs Rte. 61 to Nuuanu Pali Lookout, a spectacular cliff-top vista that spans the coast from Makapuu to Kaneohe Bay, taking in verdant forest at the base of the cliffs and an infinity of ocean. Nuuanu Pali is also the scene of one of old Hawaii’s bloodiest episodes. Here, in 1795, King Kamehameha I cemented his hold on much of the archipelago by driving his enemies off the 1,200-foot cliffs.
4. Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens
Off Rte. 83 to the south of Kaneohe, tucked against the base of the Koolau Range’s monumental cliffs, lie 400 acres of gardens known as Hoomaluhia, where botanists nurture a dizzying array of native Hawaiian flora. Visitors can hike on well-marked trails or stroll the shores of the garden’s placid lake.