Monday, October 10, 2011

Hawaii, Honolulu – Book ‘em, Dano!

Honolulu from Diamond Head Crater

Day 1: Aloha!
Flowers, flowers everywhere! Streets lined with Monkey Paw trees, Bougainvillea, and your normal houseplants, but on steroids. Blue sky and fabulous beaches! Hawaii is exotic without being foreign. Exciting and different, but still comfortable and familiar.

Lolipop (Pachystachys lutea)
It’s like Mexico without the touts, Montezuma or the language barrier. It’s like Singapore – clean, English speaking and familiar –  but Japanese instead of Chinese. In fact, Honolulu seems more Japanese than American. Japanese signs dot the store windows and the service industry speaks Japanese as easily as English.  Every store, restaurant and tour group is full of Japanese tourists. And it would appear, Honolulu is even more popular with Japanese honeymooners than Niagara Falls. We visited the first hotel built in Honolulu the Moana Surfrider Hotel (circa 1910) and there had to be 10 wedding parties on and around the grounds, all with smiling, young Japanese couples.

Today is Saturday, and we started with a city circle tour on a hop-on, hop-off bus, the Waikiki Trolley. We only have one day here, so we thought a quick circle tour of the city, with Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head Crater and everything else in between would be a quick way to get the flavour of Honolulu without wearing out too much shoe leather or tiring ourselves out too much after a full day of flying.

It was kind of like a drive-by shooting without having to do any driving and it actually worked out pretty well, especially given the 85 degrees and high humidity.

We started out early enough to see all the city highlights and still have time to hike up to the top of Diamond Head, one of the most famous volcanic craters in the world. The climb wasn’t as bad as it looked from the bottom. Although the 99 stairs at the top to get to the gun emplacements almost did us in.

Diamond Head is actually a huge volcanic crater and you hike from the base up one side of the bowl to a point overlooking the ocean. The climb takes you up many switchbacks that traverse the steep slope of the crater, followed by an exhausting set of 99 steep stairs and through a lighted 225-foot tunnel to enter the Fire Control Station completed in 1911.

At the peak of the climb is a four-level underground complex with a reinforced bunker and a narrow spiral staircase that winds its way up to a concrete gun emplacement. Navigating the tight turns of the narrow staircase with hundreds of other tourists was difficult and we had to wait several times on landings to let others descend.

The same was true once we reached the bunker where egress to the summit was through a narrow, low portal with lineups on both sides. It was so low that Carolann banged her head on the overhanging concrete ceiling as she was crouching down to climb back inside.

The view from the top, however, was worth the effort. In the distance, you could see all of Honolulu wrapped around the golden sand of Waikiki Beach with tiny surfers dotting the white waves offshore.

Later on, the Waikiki trolley took us through “Millionaires Row” where houses ranged in price from $1 million to over $5 million dollars and one rental property boasted making three cars, a Bentley, a convertible and a Lincoln, available to short-term renters at $1,500 per day.

Waikiki Beach
After a lengthy wait at a trolley transfer from the Green Line to the Pink Line, we headed off to Ala Moana Shopping Mall, the largest open-air mall in the world, for a quick bit of shopping. Prices seemed high, by Canadian standards, but there were some interesting jewelry shops with handmade artistic pieces that caught Carolann’s eye.

The mall’s food court reminded us of a typical open-air Singaporean food court, but the stalls were all American-style chains, with lots of Japanese noodle bars thrown in. Prices here too were high by our standards and the heat and humidity were difficult to handle, but lunch was calling and we were on a tight schedule to get back to our hotel to prepare for a special dinner to celebrate Carolann’s birthday. But she didn’t know about it.

I had prearranged a surprise dinner on a sunset cruise with Atlantis Cruises on the Navatek catamaran to see the Waikiki skyline lit up like diamonds from the water. Shrimp cocktails were followed by Maine lobster and beef tenderloin, with a chocolate mousse chaser. Lovely! 

At one point the MC identified honeymooners (most of them from Japan) and those who had a birthday. I couldn’t resist singling out Carolann because I had told her this was her surprise birthday dinner. By coincidence, a Polish couple next to us was also celebrating the woman’s birthday and her name happened to be Karolina.

We all had a good time watching the hula dancers. But I think the Mai Tais may have gotten to me because somehow I ended up on the dance floor showing lovely Hawaian maidens how to do the hula. Unfortunately someone took pictures, so I can’t say I wasn’t there. By the way, I’m the pretty one in the middle without the coconuts (see photo at bottom below).

After sunset, we went back to the Moana Surfrider Hotel to stroll along the famous Waikiki Beach by moonlight. But the gorgeous, soft sand and crashing surf weren’t the stars of the show tonight. No, we stumbled upon a private party just down the beach at the Westin, where a troupe of dancers right out of Cirque de soleil – but a little bit naughtier – were cavorting around jets of water with gold-painted bodies, and swinging from high trees on silk ribbons with flashing coloured lights and a sensuous, throbbing musical backdrop. The Iona Dance group was hosting a fundraiser and had taken over the entire pool and patio area on the beach. The whole affair was extravagant at $250 a plate and totally bizarre! Some of the costumes and gyrations of the scantily clad dancers made my hula performance in a grass skirt look pretty tame.

Well, all in all, we packed in a lot and it wasn’t bad for our first day in Hawaii. Tomorrow we’re off to the island of Kauai, where I’m told things will be a little quieter. Although we’ve heard that hundreds of wild roosters roam the island and wake people up in the wee hours of the morning.

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