Windward Coast, Oahu

The last two days that we spent on Oahu would take us away from Honolulu and Waikiki to see some of the other parts of the island. On this day, we'd be traveling to the eastern part of Oahu which is known as the Windward Coast since it's the direction that consistently gets the ocean wind (as opposed to the leeward side of the island on the western coast which is sheltered from the wind). The Windward Coast on Oahu is known for having a series of truly exceptional beaches which helps draw tourists from all over the world to its shores. This would indeed be a beach day for us as well, starting at Hanauma Bay and then stopping at a huge Buddhist temple before finishing the day along the coast once again at Lanikai Beach.

Before we could get to these places, we had to stop and pick up our rental car in Waikiki. We working on a bit of a tight schedule this morning since we had a timed entry at Hanauma Bay which required picking up the rental car at 8:00 AM and then driving over to the eastern coast before missing our entry window at 9:25 AM. As a result, we arrived at the rental car place about 20 minutes before they opened to secure a place in line, and that turned out to be prudent as things quickly filled up and there were about 20 other people who queued to wait behind us by the time 8:00 arrived. Much to our surprise, we found that the rental car agency had given us a convertible for our next two days on Oahu which was definitely not the type of car we requested. I would have preferred something else but Liz found the whole thing amusing and enjoyed the opportunity to drive around in a convertible. She took the above picture of me posing with sunglasses next to our car.

We were traveling to Hanauma Bay which was located about half an hour's drive along the eastern coast from Waikiki. Hanauma Bay was formed about 30,000 years ago during the last period of volcanic activity on Oahu, lying directly beneath Koko Crater and with its own semicircular shape suggesting a volcano's former cone. We stopped at an overlook just before reaching Hanauma Bay to take a few pictures of Koko Crater and the town of Hawaii Kai lying at its base. On the other side of a ridge was Hanauma Bay itself, a beautiful sheltered beach sitting next to a coral reef. These pictures looking down at the bay were some of the best images that we were able to capture anywhere on our whole Hawaii trip.

We arrived at Hanauma Bay with about 20 minutes to spare on our entry time and waited for a short time outside the entrance until our time slot was called. It was already quite crowded despite the early 9:25 AM morning and in fact Hanauma Bay opens to the public pretty much as soon as the sun comes up in the morning. It's worth mentioning again that gaining entry to Hanauma Bay can be a difficult feat; the beach suffered from terrible overcrowding in the last decades of the 20th century which was causing enormous damage to the coral reef. There were as many as 13,000 people arriving every day in the 1990s which was unsustainable for the health of the reef. Therefore the Hawaiian state government implemented major restrictions on visitors: only 720 visitors are allowed daily through an online registration system and Hanauma Bay is completely closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Those online reservations only become available 48 hours in advance at exactly 7:00 AM Hawaiian time and every slot was filled in about three minutes. I had booked our spots from the top of Diamond Head two days before and we were lucky to get into the nature preserve at all. Visitors are required to watch an educational video about preserving the coral reef before entering and there are strict limitations about what can be brought inside to help preserve the bay for future generations.

Liz and I watched the educational video along with the other tourists in our entry group and poked around in the small visitor center near the entrance. Liz had done some work with ocean plastics in her field and enjoyed seeing the materials on display here about preserving the reef. Then we rode in a little open air bus from the entrance area atop the ridge down to the beach itself where we found a spot to set up our blanket and umbrella. The big attractions for visitors were sunbathing on the beach and snorkeling in the waters of the reef; I actually already had a snorkel and goggles that I had brought for scuba purposes but foolishly left them back at the hotel. We would end up renting a set instead which at least gave me a chance to practice using our Go Pro camera for underwater photography. I'm sure that I looked something like this other snorkeler as I headed into the water and began exploring.

I've always loved swimming and Hanauma Bay was an incredible place to do some snorkeling. The waters were mostly shallow here and it was easy going to pass between the various coral formations underwater while looking for wildlife. Unfortunately most of the coral near the shoreline was dead, bleached away due to warming climate and the earlier overuse by tourists, with the living coral reef further out beyond the main swimming area. Their skeletons nevertheless made for fascinating viewing with all sorts of different shapes and sizes like some kind of crazed pottery experiment run amok. Then there were the fish, which were absolutely everywhere and sporting virtually every color under the rainbow. There are supposed to be about 400 different species of fish that inhabit the bay and I couldn't even begin to guess at what type the various different kinds that I saw happened to be. You really had the feeling of being inside an aquarium and able to explore everything close up.

There were more fish further out from shore where fewer of the tourists ventured out with their snorkeling gear. Out there I spotted entire schools of fish swimming together in formation that scattered off in every direction as I approached. Eventually I reached a series of rocks which formed a natural barrier indicating the end of the swimming area, with the undersea floor dropping off to a much deeper depth beyond this point. That's when I made the highly unpleasant discovery that I was caught in a rip current that was pulling me out to sea, one strong enough that I couldn't make progress back towards the shore. I fought down panic and remembered what to do in these cases: don't fight the current, swim parallel to the shoreline until passing beyond the reach of the current. Sure enough, swimming about 50 feet to the side brought me back into calmer waters where I could make my way back towards the beack again. I would absolutely still recommend Hanauma Bay to anyone reading this but I would caution those who aren't strong swimmers to remain closer to the shoreline. This is a living reef and it can be unpredictable out away from the beach.

We stayed at Hanauma Bay for about three hours and I could have stayed for the whole day if we hadn't had other destinations to see. Both of us had a chance to spend some time snorkeling in the water and I was in there long enough for my back to get pretty sunburned. (Something I didn't think about ahead of time: you're staring straight down into the water while snorkeling which leaves the whole back exposed.) We also had a decent if not great lunch here by purchasing food from the small cafeteria before we left. Hanauma Bay is a tough ticket to obtain but completely worth the hassel of getting inside. I think this would be an incredible place to visit with kids who are old enough to take part in the snorkeling, maybe we'll be back sometime down the road with our son (who was technically along for the ride inside his mom during this trip).

After departing Hanauma Bay, we continued driving eastward on Hawaii state road 72 which curled us around the eastern tip of the island. This is the location of the narrowest passage between Oahu and the neighboring island of Molokai which was visible as a hazy shape off in the distance. These pictures were taken looking out over the ocean from a series of scenic highway stops that we encountered while driving. With no urgent need to make it to our next destination, we were happy to stop at several of these to enjoy the views. The blue waters of the Pacific were churning up foam as they crashed into the rocky shoreline and there was a consistent breeze worth of the Windward Coast name blowing in our faces. The two little offshore islands visible in one of the pictures were both uninhabited, by humans anyway, both of them protected areas used as seabird sanctuaries for nesting. If we'd had more time, we would have walked the short trail up to Makapu'u Lighthouse at the eastern tip of Oahu. This was about as pretty of a drive as anyone could possibly ask for.

And now for something completely different... These pictures were taken at the Byodo-In temple, a non-denominational Buddhist place of worship located near the town of Ahuimanu on the northern coast of Oahu. We had seen this temple advertised in some of the Hawaii travel guidebooks and made the drive over from the eastern edge of the island. Byodo-In is replica of a 900-year-old Buddhist temple at Uji in the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan, reproducing the same details on a slightly smaller scale. It was built in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese arrivals in the Hawaiian islands and has become a popular tourist destination in the area. The setting for the temple couldn't have been much more picturesque, set against the backdrop of the mountains of central Oahu, and it was easy to imagine that we had somehow been transported to the Japanese home islands.

We spent some time walking around the temple grounds and soaking up the ambiance of a traditional Buddhist place of worship. There was a gigantic three-ton bell for visitors to ring along with a number of smaller shrines that dotted the walking path around the main temple. We had to remove our shoes to enter, of course, where we were able to get a closer look at the 18 foot / 5.5 meter statue of the Buddha in the center of the pavilion. The pond in front of the temple was teeming with koi fish along with a series of swans sporting black feathers that we enjoyed watching. For a place that was a bit out of the way, we felt it was worth the drive over to Byodo-In since it was so different from everything else that we visited on this day.

For our last major stop, we headed back to the coast again by visiting Lanikai Beach. This is a small half-mile stretch of sand located just outside the town of Kailua which is consistently rated as one of the best beaches in the world. We found that it was difficult to get parking in the area (even though it was a Wednesday) and had to circle several times around the local neighborhood before finally finding a place to leave the car. Once we arrived though, we were treated to a pristine expanse of white sand that ran along a coastline of green and blue ocean waters. Lanikai Beach stands out from the many other beautiful beaches in Hawaii due to the presence of two small islands about half a mile offshore. These are known as the "mokes", Moku Nui and Moku Iki, where sea birds make their nests undisturbed by people. The mokes were easy to see from the shore and made for a dramatic background to any pictures taken along the beach. There was even some kind of canoeing competition taking place nearby where we could watch the rowers against the backdrop of the two islands.

Our second stop of the day at a beach meant more opportunities to go swimming in the clear waters of Hawaii. We traded off time spent in the water (with one of us having to stay on shore to watch our stuff) and I had another chance to test out the Go Pro with more underwater photography. Lanikai Beach had its own coral reef with living coral that was still alive and growing down on the seabed. While I lacked any scuba gear to remain underwater, I was still able to entertain myself by taking a deep breath and then swimming down roughly 6-10 feet / 3-5 meters to investigate the coral formations at the bottom of the water. They were growing in all sorts of bizarre shapes, many of them looking like brains or sponges or bundles of grapes. There were fewer fish to spot here but the coral patterns kept me entertained for well over an hour of bobbing up and down in the water. This was a great test for the underwater camera before I would be scuba diving a few days later and for once I managed to avoid breaking anything.

We stayed at Lanikai Beach for several hours until the sun began setting in the west and our stomachs told us that it was time for dinner. We ate in nearby Kailua at a local barbeque chain named Kono's which specialized in pulled pork; I thought that their food was pretty good while understandably falling short of what we'd experienced the previous night at Duke's Waikiki. From there it was a drive of about an hour back to our hotel in Waikiki which didn't include any further stops. I think we would have stopped at the Nu'uanu Pali Lookout when crossing the central mountains but the turnoff was located on the other side of the road and there was no easy way to get over there. Overall, this was more of a relaxing day with a lot of time spent enjoying the waters at Hanauma Bay or Lanikai Beach. This meant that we didn't see as many tourist attractions but that was just fine; I was probably pushing Liz to see too many places as it was. Next up we'd be heading to the north shore for our final day on Oahu before heading on to the next island of Hawaii.