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.
5. Kahekili Highway
Known as the Kahekili Highway, this stretch of Rte. 83 between Kaneohe and Kahaluu embraces a series of lovely stopping-off points. At the 19th-century estate called Haiku Gardens, breadfruit trees, lily ponds, and a great sheltering banyan are the backdrops for a restaurant and secluded thatched huts that attract local wedding parties. The Byodo-In Temple, two miles farther north, is a detailed replica of a 900-year-old Kyoto shrine, set against the lofty cliffs of the Koolau Range. Here colorful carp drift though a placid pool, and peacocks strut past a great statue of Buddha. Two miles farther down the road is Senator Fong’s Plantation and Gardens, named for the first U.S. senator of Asian descent. Some 725 bougainvillea-drenched acres represent Oahu in miniature, with sugarcane fields, nearly 100 varieties of edible fruits and nuts, and 27,000 orchid plants.
6. Kualoa Regional Park
Rte. 83 hugs Kaneohe Bay along a four-mile stretch north of Kahaluu, and side roads lead inland to the farm country of the Waiahole and Waikane valleys, where tree-ripened papayas are offered at roadside stands. North of Kaneohe Bay are the sugary sands and nodding palms of Kualoa Regional Park. From this windswept point visitors can hike, at low tide, about 500 yards to the cone-shaped island whimsically dubbed Chinaman’s Hat. As you gaze back at the beach and distant cliffs, look for shorebirds flitting overhead.
7. Kahana Valley State Park
Like a stony sentinel, a natural rock formation called the Crouching Lion signals the approach to Kahana Valley State Park, where a lightly traveled five-mile path meanders through more than 5,000 acres of ironwoods, coconut palms, and other trees. On the ocean side of the road, a county park offers a glimpse of the Huilua Fish Pond, a watery enclosure used long ago by Hawaiians to corral fish.
8. Malaekahana State Recreation Area
Remote from Waikiki both in spirit and in miles, serene Malaekahana appears just as the drive begins its gentle westward curve around northernmost Oahu. The park invokes an older, simpler Hawaii, where sea breezes stir the fronds of coconut palms along a sunny crescent of sand. You can rent a campsite or rustic cabin and enjoy a peerless Pacific sunrise (for campsites, use the area’s southern entrance, near milepost 17). At low tide, you can wade out to Goat Island, a seabird sanctuary with two exquisite beaches.
9. Waimea Bay
At Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline, enormous tubular waves challenge the world’s most daring surfers. Just ahead lie the creamy sands of Waimea Bay, where in winter the stout of heart ride thunderous 30-foot waves. A more serene venue can be reached by following Pupukea Road to the ruins of Puu O Mahuka Heiau, the largest of Oahu’s sacred sites. Just south of Rte. 83 and the town of Waimea, follow the banks of the Kamananui Stream on Waimea Valley Road to the lush green landscapes of 1,800-acre Waimea Valley Audubon Center. Well-marked hiking paths at the center wind through botanical gardens. Long ago a Hawaiian village stood on these grounds, and the heritage of that time is recalled in displays of archaeological artifacts and the opportunity to view rare and endangered Hawaiian flora and fauna, providing a lively link to Oahu’s storied past.
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