Gareth’s Blog

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Hawaii – Oahu

There are very few holiday destinations left that inspire awe in your friends when you tell them where you’re visiting. Very few places still conjure cinema screen ideals and romance novel images with just the sound of their name. In the modern world of travel where holidays of all types are offered, from backpacking to beach bumming, the luxury holiday is still something of which we all dream every so often. And it was with these dreams swimming around my mind that I headed off to the most remote luxury holiday destination on earth: Hawaii.

Born of the Pacific Ocean. Fired, literally, from the belly of the planet. The volcanic archipelago of Hawaii consists of over 120 islands, with only eight actually inhabited. The vast majority of Hawaii’s population, native and tourist, is on Oahu where the legendary Waikiki Beach skirts the edges of Honolulu. It’s also where Hawaii’s main international airport is located and where I began my discovery of the Aloha State.

A couple of miles east of Honolulu, the twin dead volcanoes of Diamond Head and Koko Head stand on guard around a long shallow bay. At the feet of Diamond Head is Honolulu’s Beverly Hills; the expensive residential area of Kahala. It is on the outskirts of this opulent district that the Kahala Mandarin Oriental is located. The Kahala is an unashamedly exclusive hotel that attracts privacy-seeking celebrities from Hollywood. This was where I was going to be enjoying the luxury lifestyle for the next week.

Kahala Mandarin Oriental
The Kahala Mandarin Oriental makes no mistakes when it comes to providing the luxury lifestyle its guests expect. There are four top quality restaurants, two well stocked and well serviced bars, well appointed rooms with views of either the beautiful waters of the Pacific Ocean or the dominating volcanic mountain that overlooks Honolulu, as close as you can get in the States to a private beach and, to cap it all, its own dolphin lagoon. No, really. From the grand entrance to the golden beach at the rear, this is the definition of a luxury hotel.

Being the naturally organised soul that I am not, my girlfriend went about organising all those things that make holidays memorable. She booked the rental car through hotel reception, organised a swim with the dolphins and made sure that I got the chance to see what Hawaii looked like from underwater. I spent approximately that same amount of time fighting to convince my body clock that there had been an emergency daylight saving time change. Jetlag is the only serious downside to a holiday in Hawaii. It was a 24-hour door-to-door journey that included a brief stop off in a time zone different to that of our origin and our final destination. Just for the record, Hawaii is ten or eleven hours behind the UK depending on the time of year, as they don’t observe daylight savings time. A fact my body clock seemed to know.

We rented a Jeep Wrangler, took the top down and headed out from the hotel. Circuiting the island is an easy task. There is little to confuse you, which means that as driver or passenger you get to enjoy the changing environment as you travel further and further from Honolulu. Leaving the city behind reveals the postcard images of Hawaii that we have all seen. You discover the adaptive nature of the small towns as they slot themselves into the irregular landscape sculpted by millennia of volcanic activity and tropical weather. You will find private oases of sandy shores and dominating walls of abruptly built craters. Where as in Waikiki you discover Honolulu, as you continue your tour round Oahu you begin to discover Hawaii.

Chinaman's Hat

Hawaii is sometimes referred to as the endangered species capital of the world, which would explain why I didn’t recognise most of the creatures we saw while we were there. A brief rest taken during our tour of the island found us on the shorefront looking out towards an island known locally as the Chinaman’s Hat. Sat at a picnic table we were surrounded by a flock of skinny white birds with a brilliant shock of red plumage striped across their skulls. I still have no idea what they were, but I have an alarming number of photos of them. Perhaps it was their striking beauty that made me take so many photos of them, but those photos represent what risks being lost from Hawaii and, in many cases, from this world.

We reached the north shore in the early evening. There were still a few dedicated surfers eking out the benefits of the final ripples of the day’s waves. Unfortunately, watching surfing from the beachfront is not like the movies. In the films the surfer glides over the mercury water before rushing past your ears. From our position they looked like shrimp wrapped in rubber bouncing over ever decreasing blue bumps.

The setting, however, was still too perfect to waste, so we headed over to a restaurant that had been recommended to us. Jameson’s is an understated sea food specialist overlooking Waialua Bay from across the quiet shoreline drive. From our table on the front deck of the restaurant we enjoyed the promenading people and cars while watching the sun begin its evening light show. As the sun dropped behind the Ko’olau Range a spectrum of blues and oranges spilled down the sky silhouetting the palms that lined the horizon. With great food, the lapping waves, and the evening aroma gently blowing in over the arid fields from the sleeping giants behind the restaurant, it’s not difficult to understand why people are prepared to drive across Oahu to escape the tourist littered Waikiki front.

After the relaxing driving and dining of the previous day, it was with trepidation I made my way to the far end of Honolulu to meet my scuba instructors. I had only once previously worn diving equipment and that was in the safety of a tank. I was not only nervous about the diving itself, but about spending the next four hours with considerably more accomplished and experienced divers to whom I did not wish to appear the group’s handicap.

Thankfully, the instructors were down to earth and knew how to allay the fears of first time open water divers. They offered realistic instruction and avoided overly technical detail as well as ensuring the all the gear they provided you with fitted correctly and worked properly. Once out of the quay, the instructors demonstrated the knowledge of the island and its oceanic surrounds by answering all our questions. They also made sure we understood the occasionally ad hoc sign language that would be our only means of communication once we were underwater.

As soon as I was down I was mesmerised. The Hawaiian coral may not be up to the much-filmed spectacle of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but it still beats anything you see off the coasts of the British Isles. The visibility almost matched that of the tank in which I had previously dived, which allowed an incredible view of the psychedelic flashes of the various species of fish surrounding us. The fish only served as a distraction while we equalised on our slow decent down the mooring lines, as the real attraction of underwater Hawaii is its reefs. Like tropical plants swaying in a warm breeze, the distended arms of the coral waved to catch our attention.

Me and turtle
Once the gesticulating coral had eventually lost its hold on us, we began to look about for the wilder of the ocean’s animals. We were actually only under for about half an hour, but after the fish and the coral I wasn’t really expecting to see anything else of interest. Whether it was luck or good guidance, however, we stumbled (or whatever the aquatic equivalent is) upon a massive sea turtle. He must have been around a while, as he didn’t appear in the slightest surprised or bothered by the appearance of a troupe of wetsuit wearing aliens. Despite the urge to simply follow his path we did leave him to his own devices after we had indulged in a few holiday snapshots.

Heading for the boat and still enjoying the sensation of seeing something that few will ever see, I was suddenly forty feet underwater and in a situation that has caused children and grown-ups alike nightmares ever since John Williams’ score first played in movie theatres. A twelve-foot reef shark swam past us. Despite the natural instinct to panic, I couldn’t help but follow my instructor’s lead as he shot off after the reef shark, camera clicking wildly. I’m actually slightly pleased to have been no interest to the shark, as it disappeared as swiftly as it had arrived. But it had certainly made my virgin diving experience complete.

I’m sure that I bored everyone around me senseless that evening as we enjoyed our dinner and drinks on the veranda at Tiki’s Bar and Grill. We sat amidst the weekend breakers from Hollywood as they enjoyed their American playground, watching the showboating locals in their suped-up cars displaying themselves, peacock-like, along the Waikiki strip. Their performances strangely reminded me of the hypnotic dance of the coral reef. And likewise, the following day, as I found myself beginning an experience that is regularly listed as one of the fifty things to do before you die, I couldn’t help remembering the day before as our land bound vessel made its journey back and the guard of honour offered us by a pod of leaping dolphins.

The Kahala’s dolphin lagoon is run as a sanctuary for dolphins in need of aid for various distresses and ailments. All sanctuaries need an income to continue their valuable work, of course, and Dolphin Quest is no exception. To ensure their future, this particular care home offers sessions swimming with patients. Our half hour session with the genuinely gorgeous Noah was everything the polls suggested it would be. Dolphins are not only mesmerising creatures, but are simultaneously something to fall in love with and something to revere. They are clearly immensely powerful and probably lined up to be man’s best friend once dogs get bored of the role.

That afternoon I was reminded that while Hawaii may feel a lot like paradise, even paradise has consumerism. There was only so long I could escape the fact that we were still in the United States of America, and even out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean there is shopping. All the international brands are represented, from the bargain to the bourgeois, at the Polynesian tinted Ala Moana Mall. The tint is present not only in the occasional trinket selling tourist trap, but in the relaxed geography of the mall. There’s no obvious attempt to filter the shoppers down preset paths passing every shop on the way. You actually have to seek out some stores. But it is very hard to miss the heart of the complex: the vast food court. A microcosm of Hawaii itself, the hall appears to contain every flavour the seven continents have to offer. Even more impressively, every nation on those seven continents appears to be represented by the consumers refuelling before more frenzied wallet bashing. I have simply never seen a more multicultural crowd of people all focussed on an identical objective.

On our final night it only seemed fitting to dine at the much-hyped Asian fusion restaurant 3660 on the Rise. Renowned among regular visitors to Oahu as being one of the best places to eat, 3660 is away from the Waikiki strip on the outskirts of Honolulu. You are more likely to find professional locals enjoying the westernised eastern cuisine than partying island visitors. It is not a cheap restaurant, it wasn’t a cheap holiday, but as the locals point out, you can’t expect to come to paradise without paying the paradise tax. It was the stylish cap on our bespoke luxury holiday. And as we enjoyed the exquisite meal we began to plan exactly when we would be returning to paradise.

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