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Highway to Heaven

HAWAII: OAHU

Twenty minutes from the crowded hubbub of Honolulu, a couple find their home away from home in low-key Kailua

March 12, 2000|BARRY VAN WAGNER | Barry Van Wagner is a photographer and writer in Pinole, Calif

KAILUA, Hawaii — These were stress-filled days of business in a land known for pleasure. While children scampered along the sands of Waikiki, I'd spend afternoons in my engineering office by Pearl Harbor, toiling until day turned to night.

I'd drive home in darkness, the harbor shimmering behind me and Honolulu's high-rises and hopping night life ahead. But as my car approached Tourist Central, I'd veer north.

The car would climb dark Pali Highway, and through the open window, cool mountain air carried the raw sweetness of wild tropical shrubs and enticing hints of plumeria. After 10 miles or so, I'd pass Nuuanu Pali Lookout, elevation 1,200 feet, and begin a rapid, twisting descent toward the twinkling lights of home: Kailua. As the town grew closer, worries of work floated away with the wind.

That was five years ago, when I lived in Kailua on Oahu's Windward Coast. My wife, Emily, and I now live in the Bay Area, but Hawaii still beckons. So in October, we booked a weeklong getaway in Kailua, preferring comfortable and reasonably priced guest-house studios near uncrowded beaches over the urban distractions of Waikiki.

Mention Oahu and most people think of bustling Honolulu streets and packed beaches. Indeed, about three-fourths of Hawaii's 1.2 million residents live on Oahu (and half of those folks are in Honolulu). Waikiki accounts for 90% of the island's guest rooms, and about 100,000 tourists pack the hotels, streets and beaches of the southern shore every day.

But a different world lies just 20 minutes northeast. Kailua, with 50,000 residents, and the smaller, more exclusive enclave of Lanikai next door have a low-key, small-town feel. An added bonus: two of Hawaii's best beaches.

The Koolau Range, whose ridges rise to 3,150 feet, protect against Honolulu's sprawl. Here there are no hotels to collect the tourist masses--only scattered studios, cottages and homes that are bargains compared with Honolulu's big, beachfront resorts.

Perhaps the hordes in Waikiki have heard that the sun graces Kailua's beaches a bit less, and that the Windward Coast is so named for a reason. But those are small sacrifices for a stay in a town filled with calmness and warmth, just like the waters of Kailua Bay.

Emily and I arrived at Honolulu International Airport late one evening, rented a car and headed east on Interstate H-1 toward downtown. My memory began to kick in: Kamaaina (local residents) would say we were heading in the "Diamond Head" direction. Ewa (as in the city on Oahu's western coast) was west, mauka meant toward the mountains, and makai meant toward the sea.

With the windows down and a warm breeze blowing, we made the drive I remembered so well: first toward Diamond Head, then mauka. We climbed Pali Highway (Hawaii Highway 61), passing fewer and fewer houses until just the road and its lore remained. In 1795, this route was the last stand of Oahu warriors fending off King Kamehameha's invasion. Outmanned and outgunned, the Oahuans retreated up the mountains but never made it to Kailua. Kamehameha's men cornered them at a pali (cliff) and forced them over the edge.

But as we passed, peace and quiet filled the spot where tragedy once reigned. When we emerged from a tunnel, there it was again. Kailua. Home.

On my first business trip to Hawaii six years ago, I knew I belonged in Kailua after one drive around Oahu. I loved the residential feel, the compact downtown, the fact that only one building rose higher than three stories. These days, it's the only place Emily and I stay on the island.

We arrived after midnight at our first guest house, one of several operated by Beach Lane B&B. We were shown to a bright and spotlessly clean studio with bath and kitchenette ($75 per night), located on a quiet cul-de-sac. The unassuming, unpretentious two-story building lacked the grandeur and glitz of Waikiki--in other words, it was perfect.

Powder-blue-breasted doves awoke us early the next morning with their persistent coo-ca-ca-coo, so we heeded their call and walked to Lanikai Beach with an eye for spots with smaller crowds and good swimming along the half-mile strand.

We couldn't have asked for a better beach day. Cotton-puff clouds floated across a flawless blue sky. Jade waters ran effortlessly up the shore, then slid silently back. I easily understood why Hawaiians chose the name Lanikai, or "Heavenly Water."

Even on weekends, Lanikai offered plenty of space to call our own, coupled with views of Kailua Bay broken only by Hobie Cats slicing through the water and yellow and red kayaks bobbing toward the nearby Mokulua Islands. Windsurfers consider this coast Hawaii's best; our primary exercise, though, consisted of applying sunscreen on hard-to-reach places.

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