THE CHARM OF OAHU
Get off the plane in Honolulu and it's easy to forget about everything else in the world. The ocean is that dreamy turquoise color, the weather is sublime and the opportunities to have fun are seemingly endless. Whether your idea of paradise is swimming with the dolphins, paddleboarding among the turtles, sipping cocktails on the beach or hiking up Diamond Head, Oahu's combination of climate, warm water and lush, tropical beauty make the living feel easy.
Within 12 hours of arrival we were on the water in a catamaran, looking out for spinner dolphins. When a pod of 60 was spotted two miles from shore, we pulled on our flippers and masks and jumped in to watch their graceful movements. With a visibility of 30 feet it was like stepping straight into an episode of National Geographic. Around us the dolphins vaulted out of the water, spinning and somersaulting before diving back into the depths. They performed a mesmerizing underwater ballet as they swam massive concentric circles around and below us. Only the trickle of water slowly fogging up my mask assured me the experience was real.
Later, after we'd clambered back on the vessel, a pod of bottlenose dolphins put on a second show for us, playing, jumping and cavorting in the wake of the catamaran. A few chased the bow, moving so close that we could hear their breathy exhalations as they broke the surface of the water. Their symmetry was exquisite, their movements graceful, deliberate and smooth.
Our home base for a quick Hawaiian getaway is the Kahala Hotel & Resort, a property whose mere mention elicits a look of longing in the eyes of locals. Situated away from the rush and bustle of Waikiki, close to Diamond Head mountain, the Kahala somehow manages to be luxurious, classy, welcoming and comfortable - without a hint of pretension - all at once. Built in 1964 on the ocean shores, the 338-room resort underwent a $50 million renovation a couple of years ago, adding Toto toilets that make going to the loo an exciting new experience for your derrière.
Aside from its loos, the Kahala is well known for its five bottlenose dolphin stars, who swim in a pool of their own on the property and perform dutifully for guests who sign up for educational dolphin encounters. The dolphin pool is steps from the swimming pool, which in turn is a frisbee's throw from the beach at the Kahala. When you need a reprieve from the water, the hotel offers complimentary bike rentals, perfect for exploring the mansions along Kahala avenue.
Over the next few days we explore the tourist-encrusted beaches of Waikiki, climbing cautiously onto paddleboards and learning to balance our way through the gentle swells without toppling off. We wake up before sunrise to hike the steep switchbacks of Diamond Head Mountain, a volcanic crater formed four million years ago. And later, we join the throng of locals at the KCC farmers' market, where we taste fried green tomatoes and witness island-grown avocadoes and mangoes twice the size of anything comparable back home.
Different parts of the island have their own unique personalities, we soon discover. One of my favorite parts is the North Shore, an hour's drive from Waikiki, where homes are fewer, the beaches emptier and more pristine and the mountains lush and heavily forested. We peek into the gift shops and art galleries in the charming, rustic town of Hale'iwa, and grab a healthy lunch at a local bakery. Then it's on towards Waimea along a coastal road that divides spectacular beaches on one side from a thick jungle that blankets the hills and mountains on the other.
We surrender to the muggy Hawaiian heat and gratefully take a swim at Waimea Bay Beach Park. A light rain is falling but the beachgoers don't seem to mind. They know that in minutes, the tropical rain will turn to sunshine - because that's how it goes in paradise.
IF YOU GO:
" Wild Side Specialty Tours offers "Best of the West" whale watching and snorkel sails out of Waianae Harbour, with lunch, drinks and snorkel equipment included at $215 per person. Info: www.sailhawaii.com; (808) 306-7273
" Rates at the Kahala Hotel & Resort start at $475 per night. Info: www.kahalaresort.com; (808) 739-8888.
" The 1.75-mile hike up Diamond Head Mountain is best done early in the morning, and takes less than an hour to complete, round trip. The view from the top is well worth the elevation in heart rate on the way up and the cost is $5 per car, or $1 per pedestrian.
" Culinary Pleasures: Hoku's at the Kahala Hotel & Resort offers fine dining Hawaiian cuisine with local favourites like Hoku's Ahi Musubi and the crisped whole island fish. In town, try Chef Mavro for a three, four or six-course meal of French-Hawaiian food. Rated one of the top 10 restaurants in the world by Fodor's Choice, the chef is a bastion of artistic creativity. Caution: this ain't no quick, cheap meal. www.chefmavro.com; (808) 9444714.
PHOTOS: By Lauren Kramer
2. The Kahala Hotel & Resort
3. Diamond Head
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