Disney, surf and sand on West Oahu
Source and Image Source:ocregister.com
It's the hot, dry side. The sunset spot. The leeward shore, downwind from all the cool and wet. But among each of the six major Hawaiian islands, the "west side" has its own personality. Big resorts on the Big Island. Sea cliffs and funky towns on Kauai. The best beaches on Maui. Cowboys on Molokai, and a lifeline to the outside world on Lanai.
Over the more than two decades I have visited Hawaii, I've toured all these west sides except one – the easiest to reach, the most populous and the most historic of them all. Oahu. The west side of Oahu always got a bad rap – too crowded, too much traffic, ugly towns and not-so-friendly locals. I never took the time to see if that was true.
Then came Mickey Mouse.
When Disney opened the Aulani resort at the southwest part of the island, I decided to check in for a few days and use it as a base to explore the west side of the island. Would the folks who ran "the happiest place on Earth" settle in to a less-than-stellar spot? How would the spirit of aloha mesh with "hey there, hi there, ho there, you're as welcome as can be"?
It has been a year since Disney opened its $800 million Pacific Ocean playground in Ko Olina, a planned community and golf resort 22 miles west of Honolulu Airport in the opposite direction from Waikiki. Before Aulani, a man-made lagoon was shared by the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa and a pair of timeshare operations – the Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club and the Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort. There's golf, a few shops and an outpost of the popular Roy's restaurant chain. The only time most visitors would come out this way is if they signed up for the Paradise Cove luau, which has its grounds just north of the hotels.
The first thing that struck me as I drove in on the Farrington Highway was the skyscraping feel to it all. After miles of flatlands and the sprawl of Kapolei with its Walmart and low-slung houses, the collection of towers that make up the Ko Olina complex appear to the left on the coast. Most are white boxes of the kind you'll find in resorts from Cabo San Lucas to the coast of Spain. But in the middle is Aulani, with its distinctive, brown-accented Polynesian motif, the high-rises crowned with canoe-shaped tops – a kind of King Kamehameha meets Donald Trump look.
No small world
There have been complaints about Aulani – too distant and isolated, too big. It has 359 hotel rooms and 481 timeshare units, with more to come after a nine-month construction project beginning this month. All squeezed into 21 acres. Sticker shock at the starting room price of $399 is not unusual, nor is the fact that doesn't include $35-a-night parking and hundreds of dollars of extras. It can all easily push the daily tab to more than $750 per family.
But the best way to think about Aulani is to think of it as Disneyland with bedrooms and a beach. At Disneyland, you snake past some not-so-attractive spots on Katella and have to deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The price is high and the lines can be long. But once inside "the Magic Kingdom," everything changes. You are in the embrace of Disney. And for the kids, especially, it's magic.
Aulani is like a miniature Disneyland with unofficial lands. There's Hide From Mom Kids Waterpark Land, Dad Sports Bar Land, Movies in the Pool Land, Fancy Restaurant on the Beach Land and Parents-and-Kids Family Massage Land (a friend raved that the massage with her husband and kids was the best family experience she'd had anywhere in the world). I'm just hoping they add Decent Espresso Bar Land soon – the coffee is the theme park equivalent of "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln." Zzzzzzzz.
But back to the fun stuff. There are the official spots – the man-made Rainbow Reef with its scuba diving, the Character Breakfasts, the matronly "tutu" who watches over the kids and tells stories. Think of the extra costs – the diving with stingrays, the lunch with Chip and Dale, the lomi lomi massage – as variations of the Fast Track Pass. A quick way to get deep into a Disney vacation experience. While many resorts seem to want to separate mom and dad from the kids, most of the activities at Aulani are geared toward the whole family having fun together – a choice more families are making.
Orange County visitors will hardly feel out of place. During my April visit, the start of the baseball season, there were dozens of guys and a few women in Angels caps. My friend visiting at the same time ran into two neighbors she didn't know were there. Orange County is Disney-crazy and Hawaii-crazy, and here's a spot to indulge in both. A lot of it is your ability to slip into the mood of the place. If you can find the charm, irony or both of sipping a strong mai tai next to a firepit with a guy dressed like Goofy, you'll do just fine.
After a day and a half in the cocoon of Disney, I pulled my car out of the garage and ventured up the coast. At first, my low expectations were easily met. An eyesore power plant on a bluff overlooking the ocean; a crowded, potholed highway that flanked ugly shopping centers and run-down homes in Nanakuli. But beyond, the road gave beautiful views up into the Waianae Range, with its scalloped green tops against a bright blue sky. Then came a series of pretty beach parks – Ulehalawa, Maili and Pokai Bay. Maybe it was because it was fairly early on a weekday, but most were empty, with easy parking and no sense of a locals-only vibe. I took a long detour into Makaha Valley, one of the widest and most beautiful, lush valleys in the islands, marred only by a concrete box, high-rise apartment complex built on the north side. The ghostly remains of the Sheraton Makaha Resort sat in the hot sun, with only the golf course still operating.
Legend of 'Da Bull'
The loop road led me to one of the grails of my trip – Makaha Beach. Generations of surfers know the North Shore beaches of Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay. Big winter surf spots where there's competition for hundreds of thousands of dollars in pro surfing prize money every year. But before all that, there was Makaha, where monster winter swells churn up waves the size of apartment blocks. It was here that one of the legendary surf rides occurred on Dec. 4, 1969. Greg "Da Bull" Noll of California swallowed hard and took off on a 35-foot monster, riding an old-school board that might be closer to a house door than a surfboard today. Though some of the grander aspects of the feat have been challenged over the years, Noll's ride fired the imagination of big-wave riders, who flocked to Oahu and never left. Makaha today is very much a locals-only spot where visitors better have a local friend to help them get into the lineup. It's where surfing legend Sunny Garcia learned his big-wave moves.
The Rights Stuff
It's also the onetime home of Israel "Iz "Kamakawiwoole, the giant of a man who remains the most popular recording artist in the islands. This is the home turf of the native Hawaiians' sovereignty movement, and you will see many upside-down Hawaiian flags – a signal that means distress. The groups want more public land returned to people of native Hawaiian heritage. It's also the unfortunate home of huge shantytowns of homeless people who live among the ironwood trees next to the beaches north of Makaha – a permanent community of the displaced that is either a symptom of hard times turning on the weakest people or of squatters despoiling public lands. The camps have been limited, but the long string of them just before Kaena Point can be sad or even scary.
A sleepy beauty
Just when things seem depressing, the crowds drop away and you drive through rolling seaside cliffs into Kaena Point State Park. I felt a little queasy as I drove to the parking lot across from Keawaula Beach, aka Yokohama Beach. I couldn't believe I had stupidly missed such a beautiful place for all these years. It was easily a top five beach in the islands. A long golden strand, with plenty of room for anyone. Water that went from green where the light could reach the sand underneath to a deep blue. The high green hills of the pali stretched almost straight up, topped by radar beacons for the U.S. military and space researchers. The road narrowed to the top of the park, where the pavement abruptly ended and a muddy off-road vehicle path wrapped up into the hills, a rugged drive over to the west side of the North Shore near Army Beach and Dillingham Field airport. I had arrived too late – I had dinner plans back at Aulani with friends. There was only enough time to dip my toe in the water and promise to make up for lost years by returning soon.
I returned to Aulani after dinner. On the long walk from the parking garage to my room, I fell in step with a couple from Canada returning from dinner, their 5-year-old daughter asleep over Dad's shoulder. As we reached the elevators, the little girl's head slowly rose and she eyed me, a stranger in her midst.
"Who's your favorite princess?" were the first words out of her mouth.
For a veteran of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of Disney heroines on DVDs with my own daughter, now a tween, this was a tough question.
"I like Belle a lot because she is so feisty and Snow White because she is so kind, but my very favorite would have to be Ariel," I offered. "Even though she disobeyed her daddy."
Surprised at such an in-depth response, the girl pushed herself up on her dad's shoulder.
"I like Ariel, too. But my favorite is Cinderella. I think she's the most beautiful."
I saw my opening to throw a little work into the conversation.
"How do you like the Aulani resort?"
She settled her head back on her dad's shoulder.
"It's the best place ever."
That little exchange wiped away any doubts I had that Aulani would be a hit. The funky location, the high prices, the sometimes overstretched staff all went "poof" and I imagined legions of little girls and little boys who, for a big window in their lives, would want nothing more, would settle for nothing less, than a return to the Magic Kingdom By The Sea.
Perhaps in time they would branch out and fall in love with the rest of Hawaii. With Hanapepe, the tiny town in Kauai that was the inspiration for "Lilo & Stitch," or the winding road to Hana on Maui. See the real volcano on the Big Island and forgo the hotel water slides for bodysurfing at Hulopoe on Lanai or riding a longboard at Canoes surf break at Waikiki. Or maybe not waiting too many decades to get to Yokohama Beach.
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