O’ahu: A Pupu Platter and Paul Theroux
Story & photos by Julie Snyder
Two weeks before we flew to O’ahu, Paul Theroux popped back into my life with a new book.
Never mind that it was fiction, and I prefer his travel books. Never mind that it was about a troubled, aging surfer, and I know or care little about surfing. What minded was Under the Wave at Waimea is set in O’ahu. And that was where we were headed, me with the book loaded on my iPad.
I’ve never met Paul Theroux, but he’s been my companion on many an adventure over the decades. The Great Railway Bazaar traveled with me on my first jaunt to Europe in the mid-1970s. Kingdom by the Sea broadened my understanding of Britain, an oft-visited country dear to my heart. Last year, Dark Star Safari, a sometimes-harrowing chronicle of his travels from Cairo to Cape Town, sated pandemic wanderlust and reignited my desire to travel to South Africa.
And how could I forget my wallet being stolen in a New York City theater while captivated by the movie version of “The Mosquito Coast?” Perhaps I should have read the book instead. Theroux’s latest work seemed geographically suited to our first trip away from the West Coast since Covid barged into our lives.
Our impromptu Hawaiian holiday was prompted by an invitation from my sister and some soon-to-expire Alaska Airlines credit. Janet was living on O’ahu for a short-term work project and happy to share her spacious Makakilo rental home.
We quickly learned that this was no “throw a few shorts, shirts, swimsuits, and flip-flops into a suitcase and go” adventure. Preparations included opening a State of Hawaii “Safe Travel” account and documenting details of our Covid tests, vaccinations, and other travel data. Our due diligence earned us wristbands at the Portland airport that made arrival in Honolulu a breeze.
Our goal, on this, our first time in O’ahu, was to chill and let the balmy, fragrant breezes wash away the residue of Covid cabin fever. And chill we did, lingering over coffee on the lanai as tiny birds chirped and cavorted among the banana leaves. From our hillside perch, we observed the surge and swell of the steely ocean and planes in slow descents. When we ventured out, our pace was relaxed and meandering. I ended most days in a hammock on the lanai.
Post-coffee on our first tropical morning, we drove twenty minutes west to Ko Olina, an oasis of manicured grounds, manmade lagoons, and a quartet of luxury hotels. Translated as “Place of Joy,” Ko Olina brought us plenty. We returned several times to lounge lagoon-side beneath the palms, and I swam until my out-of-shape arm muscles quivered. It was heaven.
That morning, after an enormous breakfast at Eggs ‘n Things, we drove north toward Kaena Point at the island’s northwestern tip. The Waianae Mountains cradle the west coast, where beautiful beaches fringe a string of small communities off the tourist track. Along our route, families were setting up outdoor living rooms along the sand for weekend fun. Intermittent seaside pockets also hosted homeless tent communities.
When the road ended at Yokohama Beach, we tucked our towels up against a dune and savored the spritz from the sea and then the skies in a lickety-split rain shower. On the way back to the car, we spotted our first (and only) mongoose when the weasel-like critter dashed across the road. Once a safe distance from human interlopers, it stood on its hind legs, watching and nibbling.
(Our only other close encounter with wildlife involved a sizable centipede in the guest bathroom. Joe, the designated exterminator, got a nasty, venomous bite for his heroic efforts. When Googling treatment advice, we learned that “some local doctors say the only cure is stay drunk for three days.” Joe will do anything for an umbrella cocktail.)
On the way back to our vacation digs, we rendezvoused with my sister in Waianae at the surfside Beach House on the grounds of an Army recreation center. Over frosty beers and crunchy fish-and-chips, we learned that the military is a major boon for the Hawaiian economy. All five service branches are represented in more than a dozen bases throughout the islands, most of them on O’ahu.
Despite warnings about terrible traffic, we drove most of the coastal and cross-island roads without incident. On Saturday, Janet volunteered to be our tour guide. We skirted Waikiki on our way to a Farmer’s Market at Kapiolani Community College. Joe was the designated chef that evening, and we collected a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables—including a soccer-ball-size avocado—to accompany the Mahi Mahi he planned to grill. Diamond Head’s saucer-shaped crater towered above us, but we declined to join the hordes heading up the steep hillside and kept driving.
Following the coast east from Honolulu, we climbed Koko Head and pulled into the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. The underwater park sits inside a volcano crater eroded on the ocean side by waves. Janet raved about her snorkeling outings there, with fish so tame and curious they swim up to your facemask. She was hooked.
Continuing on, we dipped into turn-outs to absorb the mesmerizing shades of blue that deepened with the ocean. At Lana’i Lookout, we peered southeast at Molokai, Maui, and Lanai, faint swells on the horizon. Directly below, the elements have sculpted whorls and striations and intriguing shapes in layers of compressed volcanic ash.
At Makapu’u Beach, body surfers glided to shore on ocean waves, and paragliders surfed the airwaves. Two small islands offshore are thought to be the last eruptions to take place in O’ahu’s volcanic birth. On the larger, Manana Island (aka Rabbit Island), a resident raised rabbits in the 1800s. Now it’s a seabird haven.
We were too late to find a parking spot at Kailua Beach, but Janet and Joe double-parked long enough for me to take a jealous peek at the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of soft sand speckled with a rainbow of umbrellas and dedicated sun-worshippers. In Kailua town, parking was no problem despite the tourist bustle. The proliferation of masks was the only clue this wasn’t a typical spring Sunday.
A bit further along the coast in Kane’ohe, we waited in line at Adele’s Country Eatery for takeout. The restaurant is famed for its variety of homemade noodles, prepared from breadfruit, avocado, taro, sweet potato, and pedestrian wheat flour. We passed on pasta in favor of garlic butter shrimp and macadamia-crusted fish, and picnicked at He’eia Beach Park overlooking Kane’ohe Bay.
We headed inland through the Ko’olau Mountain Range on H3, a very short (sixteen miles), expensive ($100 million per mile) highway that took thirty-seven years to complete. Although, to be fair, twenty years of that time was spent on environmental impact studies. The route, including a space-age tunnel and deep green swathes that cleave into mountains, is spectacular.
On Sunday morning, Joe and I were up and out with the neighborhood roosters, following the King Kamehameha Highway to the North Shore. En route, we passed acres of spiny pineapple plants under cultivation at the Dole Plantation. Further on, Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate Plantation raises the winning combo of beans with opposite harvest seasons.
We breakfasted in the back garden at a local’s surfers haunt, Café Hale’iwa, in Paul Theroux’s low-key Hawaiian hometown. Sadly, there were no author sightings as we explored the lush neighborhoods bordering the coast.
Nearby, Waimea Valley wowed with more than forty gardens and thousands of unique plants, many stunning in shade and shape. There, and elsewhere on the island, I was mesmerized by Cook pines, rocket-shaped trees with airy horizontal branches named for the ill-fated British explorer Captain James Cook. A refreshing waterfall and plunge pool awaits three-at the end of a three-quarters-of-a-mile lane to the top of the valley. Instead of taking the plunge, we opted for the tea garden with a strutting peacock.
Then it was beach time. We lounged and dodged waves at Three Tables Beach, a snorkelers’ favorite when the ocean is calm, with plenty of nooks and crannies for fish to play hide-and-seek. We were months too late for the twenty-to-forty-foot, tubular waves that roll in on Waimea Bay and nearby Banzai Pipeline. But Paul Theroux describes them deliciously in his new book.
Retracing our route back to Hale’iwa, we passed the Kamananui Orchard where the North Shore Macadamia Nut Company grows its well-regarded crop. Bumper-to-bumper traffic crawled in the opposite direction, making us grateful for our rooster alarm clock. A tart cherry shave ice at the mouth of Hale’iwa Harbor was a refreshing adieu before returning inland.
Pearl Harbor’s proximity to the Honolulu airport made it an ideal last stop before our late afternoon return flight. Movies don’t do justice to the solemness of the setting. In silence, we rode a launch to the Arizona Memorial, where parts of the ship’s hull are still visible beneath the water. On the deck of the USS Missouri, we stood where the Japanese signed a treaty of surrender in 1945. And we walked the deck and peeked into the compact interior of the USS Bowfin submarine, the “Pearl Harbor Avenger.”
I finished Under the Wave at Waimea shortly after we arrived at the airport for our flight home, and was prompted to revisit a quote I’d jotted in my journal from the protagonist, Joe Sharkey. “Here’s the secret,” he said. “I don’t want more than I have—therefore I have everything. It’s the economy of enough.”
Our O’ahu interlude had been just enough as well. A comfortable number of days in easy exploration. Not a full meal but plenty of pupus—appetizers.
Alas, O’ahu wasn’t done with us. Hours of delays, two flight cancellations, and an overnight in Waikiki. More than twenty-fours later, we were finally homeward bound.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.