Back at 35,000 feet in route to mainland USA…after 48 hours pursuing an unprecedented and forecasted double whammy of hurricanes on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
Jamie and I were drawn from adventures in cosmopolitan Europe to the pursuit of risk, storytelling, and a heightened sense of alarm from residents as Hawaii braced for the first hurricane landfall since Inikki smashed the islands as a Category 4 hurricane in 1992.
As fortune and the trade winds would have it, Hawaii was spared yet again and saved by the locals’ legend that hurricanes turn from Hawaii because the islands are too beautiful for destruction.
As Hurricane Iselle and Hurricane Julio loomed upon landing on the island, our 48-hour objective was set on navigating the island of Oahu and exploring life as lived outside the capital of Honolulu. Armed with tips collected on social media from those who’ve called Oahu home, Jamie and I landed on island and were met by a dynamic sister duo who grew up farming in Kansas. With Aubrie and Adriane on our team, we would be able to harvest local crops, milk cows for sustenance, and use their charm on the surfer boys in the event we found ourselves isolated.
We set out with no maps, no agenda, and “shrimp chips” that I purchased for $1.18. Packed into a Fiat that made a Mini Cooper look big, we ventured south from Honolulu towards Koko Head Park. I was immediately enveloped in a world of verdant green unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in the world…to include the jungles of Suriname, Sri Lanka, and Costa Rica. It was as though we’d raced our Fiat onto the set of Jurassic Park. Sharp landscapes of falling precipices and razor-edged rock jutted from the middle of the island. I was struck by the knowledge that all of this before me was once below the Pacific Ocean—that is until volcanic activity brought these dramatic features to life above the ocean surface.
We made our first stop along the eastern shore of Oahu at a locals surf break known as Sandy’s. Momentum was building for rolling sets of hurricane-induced waves as we looked down from an overlook on Highway 72 into a sea of surfers. If headed north along the eastern side of the island, add this stop for a beautiful vantage point to islands in the distance of blue hued seas. We trudged north in a Fiat made for two while stopping only for Flaming Hot Cheetos and a McDonald’s McFlurry in Kaneohe. We passed villages far removed from the busyness of Honolulu and enjoyed the slower paced lifestyle of locals who greeted us with, “Aloha.” We passed on overpriced “shrimp shacks” and “Huli Huli chicken trucks” that were renowned for being featured on television shows like Beach Eats and Eat Street. We were in search of the seldom-recognized shacks and food trucks. We’d be thwarted in our quest for local Hawaiian chicken or shrimp until the next day as we turned back for Honolulu and settled into a plan for sipping Mai Tai’s by sunset on Waikiki Beach.
Always one to sprint from the well worn path of tourists, I had no choice but to check out the famous beach of Waikiki and compare it with the likes of Copacabana Beach which I visited last month in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Having walked it now, Waikiki has lost the lore that once made it famous and it has been overrun with the commercialized hotel and restaurant industry that so often shoulders its way into something so beautiful. The towers of Trump, Hilton, and Marriott have moved in on a mission to suck up the tourist dollars. If only Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the pioneer of international surfing and the ambassador who once made Oahu and Waikiki famous could see the beach today. At the recommendation of locals, we set out for Duke’s of Waikiki, a now chained restaurant with locations across Hawaii and California. I had my doubts as the crowds moved in but held out hope as the waitlist for a table grew to 90 minutes. Surely this restaurant had capitalized on something more than just great marketing, right? Sure enough, Dukes delivered with an outstanding meal of miso glazed local fish at sunset in the open breeze.
Waking rested, day two adventures took us to the famed North Shore of Oahu. While it wasn’t big wave season for the world’s best surfers, we hoped the building hurricanes would bring some swells. We navigated the beach towns of Haleiwa, Pupukea, and Hauula. We made a pit stop at Kaiaka Bay Beach Park for my first look at a volcanic beach with jagged and hardened magma from volcanic eruptions long since cooled. We passed on Oahu’s most notable shaved ice stand, Matsumoto, due to a line out of the door, but it’s on the list for my Hawaii return trip.
As a state known for surfing, I had plans to find a local surf break and pay homage to the generations of Hawaiian surfers who have made the sport popular. We pulled off the looping Highway 83 that runs the North Shore and found ourselves at a local’s only body boarding break known as Pounders in La’ie Beach Park. The rain from Hurricane Iselle’s outer bands moved in during our visit and the guys in the water paddled with excitement as anticipation for bigger waves built. We worked our way up onto cliffs above the action and had a front row seat to boarders doing barrel rolls and flips as the less experienced got crushed in the surf. From where we stood, the rain poured and the crashing waves against the cliffs left spray soaring ten feet high while crashing down on our band of Hurricane Hunters. I talked to a local about the conditions of the surf and his hopes for even bigger waves in the aftermath of both hurricanes. I crafted what I thought sounded like a Hawaiian name, “Luakakani”, and christened our vantage point this name while saying it meant powerful surf in the local language…I doubt my name for this locals spot will catch on as well you know, I don’t speak the locals language.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon trying to find our way inland to the jungles of Oahu but were met with dead end roads and Googled newspaper articles of state parks now closed due to landslides that had killed hikers. While not wanting to test our luck, we set out for what Aubrie had named “Secret Beach” during a previous visit to Oahu. It was from here that adventure unfolded. We pulled off on a quiet stretch of road and parked as the only car around. The unassuming Fiat with Hawaii license plates would help us keep this place a secret. Here, Aubrie walked us to a lagoon encircled with mangroves that met the sea in a blissfully calm area of singing birds, coconut trees, and colorful flowers. Jamie and I made bets about who could better skip rocks and in the end, the loser (Jamie) had to cross the lagoon and land on a deserted beach. Here, Robinson Crusoe style, we spent 25 minutes determined to free coconuts from their home 12 feet up in the trees. We threw rocks, we tried climbing like locals in the movies, we swung from branches, and we said we wouldn’t give up. Finally, after a carefully plotted plan using driftwood, we freed coconuts from their perch and after working to crack them open with beached coral, we found the nectar of life (coconut milk) needed to carry on with our evening. It was here that we celebrated like we’d just found gold and coronated Jamie as king of our new island hideout. I christened this place, “Kolookukai”…another made up word for the garden of the jungle king. We discovered a rope swing that had weathered the years of fun for select locals and spent the next half-hour swinging from the branches of the low hanging tree while the surf lapped the shores below us. This is exactly what I’d hope to find in Hawaii…my own oasis in the midst of jungles meeting the sea.
As the storm clouds moved in on our position and the weather apps continued to push Tropical Storm Warnings our way, we wrapped back around towards Honolulu for our final mission…a local’s dinner. We’d asked around the island, done our research, and settled on Maui Mike’s Fire-Roasted Chicken in Wahiawa, north of Honolulu in the center part of the island. Here I tasted, in all truth, the absolute best chicken of my life. Seldom do I rave about the food of a particular place because so often I find myself eating on a budget and going way outside a standard taste palate to try local dishes. However, in the case of Maui Mike’s, I am sharing a local’s secret that this is the best chicken I’ve ever tasted and it’s only found in this small corner shop of Hawaii. I went with a whole chicken covered in BBQ Smokey and Teriyaki sauce. If you go, the upgrade to Cajun fries is well worth the dollar you’ll pay. Head to Maui Mike’s, talk to locals in the line while you wait, and feast on Hawaiian chicken. You’re welcome.
As murmurs started echoing around the beach bar back on Waikiki, we knew the local legend would prove right yet again…the cataclysmic event of a double whammy slam of hurricanes would come to pass and the islands would be spared as forecasters backed down from the bold predictions we’d been hearing for the previous 40 hours. Tourists had called vacations short, swamped the international airport in Honolulu, and high-tailed it out of the path of storms that only skirted the islands. Meanwhile, the four of us ate free breakfast at an IHOP in Honolulu and plotted the next destination back on mainland USA. It felt good to patiently wait and watch while the weather developed.
Looking back on 2.5 days spent roaming Oahu, I’m glad we pursued the storms and am glad the islands were spared a direct hit by two powerful hurricanes. I’d never wish the devastation I saw firsthand when Hurricane Hugo barreled into my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina back in 1989 on anybody. This time on Hawaii gave me an appreciation for the beauty of the islands, the local stops that can be found when wandering, and a newfound trust in the lore of Hawaiians….something so beautiful can never be met with destruction.