HONOLULU — The perfect vacation, viewed with 20-20 hindsight, seems to combine careful planning with a dose of serendipity. It should contain some heady discoveries, along with action and indolence in just the right measure.
To get the most out of a week in Hawaii, I offer a personal seven-day prescription, born of decades as volunteer (and sometimes draftee) tour guide for visiting friends, relatives and other workers of mischief. No guarantees on the serendipity, of course.
Waikiki is still the acknowledged jewel in the crown of tropical resorts, and it has just had a $300-million face lift. Packed into the 1.5 square miles strung out along the sand are 34,000 hotel rooms and more than 240 restaurants. Add to the dining inventory a hundred or so more restaurants in Honolulu proper.
To help you sort through the options, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau (2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 804, Honolulu 96815, (808) 923-1811; 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 502, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 385-5301) offers two free booklets, one on restaurants and the other on hotels. Listings cover all islands. The hotel booklet details amenities, rates and proximity to the beach for each property. Even if you use a travel agent, the booklet is a good check.
DAY 1: DECOMPRESS
This is the I-can't-believe-I'm-really-here cliche day when you look out in astonishment at Diamond Head, the rolling surf, the turquoise water and bright blue yonder. Catamarans are poised on the edge of the sea, waiting to set sail for an hour, half a day of snorkeling and swimming beyond the reef or a sunset dinner cruise.
Sleek outrigger canoes are skippered by bronze men who got their muscles honestly, and who will hand you a paddle and promise you three good waves . . . and deliver.
Other rental toys in the world's most desired sandbox are aqua bikes, surfboards, rubber rafts and Boogie Boards. You can sign up for surfing lessons and find yourself riding the waves in golden glory before the sun goes down.
Option: Anesthetize yourself with a Victoria Holt or Robert Ludlum novel, pause for a mai tai at the beachside Banyan Court of the old Moana Hotel and splash around a little in the gentle shore surf.
Hawaii has no private beaches, so you can claim a piece of sand in front of the grandest hotel, even if you're domiciled blocks away on the Ala Wai.
DAY 2: ISLAND CIRCLE
You'll need a rental car for the circle tour, and it's best to book it before you leave home. They can get scarce.
Set out early, certainly by 8 a.m. Take the H-1 Freeway going east. It spills into Kalanianaole Highway. Pick up a breakfast-to-go at Zippy's in the Koko Marina shopping center at Hawaii Kai. Stop at Hanauma Bay just to see it from the overlook, with the coral reef visible beneath the crystal-clear water.
Next stop, clearly marked by roadside signs, is the Blow Hole. With any luck it will be spouting great geysers of ocean foam. From there you can see the long stretch of Sandy Beach. The swimming, however, can be dangerous, with a strong shore break.
If lunch wagons are parked by the beach this early, pull over for a manapua , a rice-flour bun stuffed with Chinese-style pork, and add it to your picnic inventory.
The road winds through some cactus scrub land and up a hill to Makapuu Point and what I think is the most splendid view in Hawaii. As you round Makapuu, the whole windward coast with its fluted green pali (cliffs) and offshore islands bursts upon the senses. It even smells different, all salty, crisp and clean like cotton sheets hung out to dry on a breezy day. There's an overlook to enjoy the spectacle.
Immediately past the entrance to Sea Life Park on the ocean side of the road is a beach parking lot. As you enter, go to the left and there, on a slight promontory overlooking the sea and the islands, is my favorite picnic table, waiting for your breakfast. It is an occasion for grace, and I would be pleased if you remember me.
World's Only 'Wholfin'
By the time you finish breakfast, Sea Life Park should be open. It's a Sea World type of operation with a definite Hawaiian flavor. The fabled romance of the Islands struck when a performing dolphin and a false killer whale met on the job during the park show. Result: the world's only "wholfin." You have to sign up for the behind-the-scenes tour to see the big baby.
The two-lane highway then continues past some lovely beaches and through the town of Waimanalo. At Castle Junction (Castle Hospital is there) turn right on Pali Highway toward Kailua. Proceed through the town without turning until the road (which has changed names a couple of times) forms a T with Kalaheo Avenue. Turn right and keep going around the bends and past Kailua Beach Park.