September 19, 2008

Windward Coast Less Crowded Slice of Oahu

By Chuck Barney

It's another absurdly gorgeous day in Hawaii. The sunlit sky is a neon blue. A gentle breeze caresses the tops of the palm trees. And the turquoise ocean is calm and inviting.

But just off the eastern shore of Oahu, in a cramped, two- person, rented kayak, a storm is brewing.

"We're never going to get there if we don't row in sync," mutters my wife, Diane, her voice tinged with exasperation.

"There" is tiny Moko Nui island, one of two picturesque atolls anchored beyond the beguiling swath of powdery sand known as Lanikai Beach. It is located about only a mile and a half from our departure point in Kailua, but considering that we are paddling against the tide, that we aren't exactly in Michael Phelps-like shape and that we possess not a lick of ocean-kayaking experience, it might as well be somewhere near Japan.

And now, with Diane growing tired and cranky, I can sense that I'm about to get an oar upside the head and that 25 years of mostly blissful marriage may possibly culminate with me sleeping with the fishes. Aloha oe, indeed.

"I'm proud of us for doing this," I offer weakly, trying to hide the fact that I'm feeling like a lo-lo (Hawaiian slang for "crazy" person) for ever suggesting we leave our plush Waikiki hotel and trek across Oahu to make like the water jocks we aren't.

To that, Diane replies with a bitter "harumpf," which I think might be Hawaiian for "buzz off."

Bring on adventure

It wasn't supposed be like this. The plan was to spend our 25th anniversary being sinfully inert, plopped on a beach with a mai-tai in one hand and a juicy novel in the other, possibly with someone dropping grapes down our gullets.

But I tend to get antsy and I also tend to be constantly drawn to the side of Oahu known as the Windward Coast. It's an area most oblivious tourists overlook -- an area teeming with lush green mountain landscapes, serene beaches, sleepy towns, small farms, and roadside fruit stands where you can sip ice-cold milk straight from a coconut.

And so our Hawaiian vacation pretty much evolved into a split- personality experience with mornings and evenings reserved for the sensory pleasures of Waikiki (dinner, drinks, shopping, spa sessions and lots of loafing) and the bulk of our afternoons spent partaking in more rigorous adventures on the Windward side.

Among our favorite was a rollicking tour of Kualoa Ranch via all- terrain vehicles that sent us bumping and grinding across rugged trails, through incredible valleys and under narrow canopies of greenery that opened up to wide, breathtaking vistas of the sparkling Pacific.

The family-operated Kualoa Ranch, tucked into the base of the pleated emerald ridges of the Koolau Range, is Oahu's largest and oldest cattle ranch and site of the island's first sugar mill. It is said that the ancient Hawaiians considered Kualoa to be one of the most sacred places among the islands and it's easy to see why.

"The 'ah' factor is off the charts here," Diane pointed out.

Even if you've never been to Hawaii, you have probably seen this place. Much of the ranch's 4,000 acres have served as a backdrop for feature films and television shows from "Jurassic Park" to "Lost." And yes, movie and TV tours are available here, along with horseback riding, jungle expeditions and even a visit to an ancient fish pond.

From Kualoa, we roamed up a windy two-lane road in our rental car to Heeia Pier. There we hopped aboard the Coral Queen, a modest glass-bottom boat that has plied the waters of wondrous Kaneohe Bay for more than 40 years.

Our fellow passengers that afternoon included a class of wide- eyed kids from a day-care center, some of whom talked eagerly of wanting to spot Spongebob Squarepants amid the briny deep. Alas, no Spongebob (or Mr. Krabs), but we were treated to schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish as we glided across a beautiful bay spiked with islets, including the one where the S.S. Minnow ran aground in "Gilligan's Island."

Next to the sleek and modern cruisers that roam the waters off Waikiki, the 40-foot wooden Coral Queen is an old-school clunker. But we didn't care. It got the job done and our tour guide, Rhonda Smith, was an affable host who schooled us in the creatures of the bay -- from the hammerhead shark to the diamond-shaped state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. (Try saying that fast three times).

Calmer waters

Back on the kayak, we were much more concerned about beating the clock than the specifics of marine life. We had been told, after all, that if we didn't return by 5 p.m., they'd send out the rescue helicopters.

"Keep me off the 6 o'clock news," Diane sniped, while, in my head, the sounds of the "Jaws" theme song accompanied an ominous headline: Squabbling California Couple Swept Out To Sea.

We considered turning back, but defiantly forged on. And it was a good thing, too. Eventually, we slipped into a good rowing rhythm and then we found ourselves floating over an astonishing reef, where the water was so glassy and calm that we could see the ocean's bottom without a mask. Again, the "ah" factor.

And then, our tensions completely melted away when we spotted several large green sea turtles, one of which stuck his round head out of the water and stared at us, as if to say, "What are you landlubbers doing out here?"

And, yes, we did reach the inviting little beach of Moku Nui, where only a handful of people were chilling out. Moko Nui and its twin, Moko Iki (which isn't open to visitors), are both protected bird sanctuaries and the nests of the Wedgetail Shearwater line their rocky slopes.

On the weekends, local residents will paddle out to Moko Nui to have picnics and to do some snorkeling. The island features several lava caves and tide pools to explore and a hike around back leads to a gorgeous lagoon. The hustle and bustle of Waikiki never felt so far away.

While we explored the island, a portly, sunburned local fellow who called himself "Gully" wandered up and offered us a beer.

"You look like you guys could use one," he said.

We gladly accepted his Hawaiian hospitality and, as we downed the beer, we drank in all the splendor of Moko Nui. The return to shore, we figured, could wait a while.

Reach Chuck Barney at [email protected] Also check out his "TV Freak" blog at You Go-- GETTING THERE: To reach the Windward Coast from Waikiki or Honolulu, take Highway 1 West to Highway 61 (Pali Highway) into Kailua. For a scenic drive that traverses the Windward Coast, follow the Kamehameha Highway.-- WHERE TO STAY: The Windward Coast lacks the kind of beachside hotel properties you find in Waikiki. So you can commute from Waikiki or perhaps rent a house. A good place to start your search is Hawaiian Beach Rentals ( or Pat's Kailua Beach Properties ( and 808-262- 4128). Country-inn style lodging is also an option, including Schrader's Windward Country Inn in Kaneohe ( or 800-735-5071) and the Laie Inn in Laie ( or 800-526- 4562). -- WHERE TO EAT: Buzz's Original Steakhouse (808-261-4661) has been a hot spot in Kailua since 1962. An upscale beach shack, it specializes in burgers, steaks and seafood. Cinnamon's Restaurant in Kailua (808-261-8724) offers continental cuisine with local touches. The Crouching Lion Inn (808-237-8511), just off the Kamehameha Highway in Kaaawa, is a 1927 vintage wood-shingle eatery that offers an extensive menu and is popular on the tour-bus circuit.-- WHAT TO DO: Peaceful Kailua Beach Park and nearby Lanikai Beach routinely are listed among the best beaches in America, or even the world. With usually calm waters, they're safe for children. They are also popular destinations for kayakers, windsurfers and snorkelers. Check out Kailua Sailboard and Kayaks ( and 808- 262-2555) for all your rental needs.

The 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch ( and 808-237-7321) provides stunning, up-close views of the Windward Coast's mountains and valleys and has been used in a number of movies and TV shows. (A poster signed by the "Lost" cast adorns the ranch store.) The facility offers horseback and ATV tours, jungle expeditions, buffet lunches and more.

The Coral Queen (808-292-8470) is the only glass-bottom boat on Oahu. Operating off of the Heeia Pier in Kaneohe, it offers one- hour tours of beautiful Kaneohe Bay. Kids can learn about marine life and feed the fish.

'Other' Hawaii

See a slide show of photos from the Windward Coast at

Originally published by Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times.

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