Hawaii is for shopping, water adventures and volcano-chasing but it also remembers its Pacific War heroes in a big way, writes Helen van Berkel.
New Zealand is full of three kinds of people right now: those who have been to Hawaii, those who are going to Hawaii and those who are in Hawaii. That meant no shortage of recommendations from friends, family and colleagues of places to see, shop and eat for my upcoming holiday with my daughter — but also led to the mortification of bumping into the big boss from work at the travel agent as I paid for our fare. It turns out though, according to US Immigration, she's not my daughter so much as "Family Unit 2" or as she will henceforth be known, FU2.
The international dateline means Hawaii is almost 24 hours behind us so you will arrive in Honolulu after an eight-hour flight on the morning of the night you left. Which is great because you don't lose any time. And with a teenager in tow the first stop is the shops.
Ala Moana is the best-equipped mall within walking distance or a short package-laden bus ride from Waikiki. All the big names from American popular culture are there: Nordstrom, Macy's, Target, Victoria's Secret, Bergdorfs, Jimmy Choo, Sephora. FU2 was in heaven, but quickly learned her summer's worth of hard-earned waitressing money wasn't going to go as far as she thought given the price tags typically didn't include tax.
Ross is another must-shop — even Scrooge me got out my credit card and gave it a battering. It offers end-of-line designer clothes, helpfully putting the original price ($278) so you can compare the Ross prices ($70). Americans visiting from Oklahoma recommended we try the Swap Meet at the Aloha Stadium on Sunday which, at FU2's insistence, we did, only to find a largely disappointing collection of cheap souvenirs — gifts for colleagues, sorted. We bought a deliciously garish Hawaiian shirt each, matching of course.
Walmart is a must-do, just to check out the people. Most of the big chain stores in the Target and Walmart space also offer groceries, which is probably why food is so cheap compared to our duopoly prices. We marvelled at the oversized wine and vodka bottles and puzzled in horrified fascination at the packaging that promised "real chicken" (as opposed to what?) or worse, 80 per cent real chicken.
We stocked up on basics such as fruit, milk and cereal so we didn't have to eat the over-corn syruped collections of chemicals masquerading as food at neighbouring diners. We did take the recommendation of dining at Duke's in Waikiki, enjoying a lunch and a cocktail, and we visited the Cheesecake Shop, which offers more than the eponymous dish. And, okay, we might have gone more than once. And try the local dish poke — pronounced "pokay" — which is a divine mix of vegetables, dressings and cubes of raw fish.
The US military is highly visible in Hawaii — a total fail of their camouflage gear — and serving personnel get priority boarding on flights, and tour discounts. That's because Hawaii is home to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, still active despite the events of December 6, 1941. Much of it is a memorial now and entry tickets are free — tours cost — but limited so get in early or book.
Explanatory dioramas take you through the background to the war's outbreak, and a video offers the story of that infamous Sunday morning. Even as a story you've heard before it's a heartbreaking reminder of the futility of war and a shameful reminder of how ghastly we humans are towards each other.
You are quietly herded on to the shuttle boat to the Arizona Memorial. There, under your feet, is the resting place of more than 1000 young men, killed in their beds barely before their lives had begun. They are revered as heroes, but most didn't get the chance to be heroes. They didn't get to say I do to their sweethearts or hold their firstborn in their arms, or graduate university or become captains of industry; their potential was cruelly snatched from them on a warm, sunny Sunday morning.
And so many have died: memorials throughout the Pearl Harbor complex recognise those who died in submarines, in other conflicts in the Pacific. Across the harbour, another bus trip away, the Battleship Missouri is moored for your exploration. Walk the teak deck where the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed, including by New Zealand, which officially ended the war. Explore the crew quarters, the mess, the administration hubs of life afloat, even the bridge. The Pacific Aviation Museum is also here, and back on the mainland is the Bowfin Submarine. On the way back to Waikiki, stop in at the Punchbowl Cemetery, where America has buried its Pacific War dead, a place of row upon row of plaques and memorials, disturbed only by the slow-moving tourist buses.
Long before America decided to use Hawaii as a military base, these eight islands were an autonomous kingdom, and its monarchs lived at Iolani Palace in Honolulu. There had been previous royal residences for the kings and queens of Hawaii but the palace you see today was built by David Kalakaua in 1879. He drew inspiration from the grand royal palaces of the European monarchy. He was also an early adapter, and the palace is fitted with electricity, an indoor toilet and a telephone. But the monarchs only got to enjoy the magnificent state house until 1893 when foreign residents in Honolulu — mainly US citizens — overthrew Queen Lili'uokalani and imprisoned her in her own palace. A poignant quilt she made while a prisoner in her own home is on display in her former suite.
The palace was used in the years that followed as a seat of Government and was poorly looked after until the senators moved out and it was restored in the 1970s. An excellent audio guide leads you through the panelled rooms, your feet encased in little blue Smurf bootees to protect the polished wood floors. You see the throne room where monarchs were crowned, the elegant dining room, the magnificent staircase and the "throne room" where, well they did other business. Even the utility rooms downstairs build a picture of casual elegance without the bloated grandeur of the European ruling families of the time.
The US has since apologised for the annexation of the nation — it became a state in August 1959, and a sovereignty movement is afoot.
But FU2 was getting tired of the grown-up stuff and it was her turn: although, to be fair, chucking her into an ocean full of sharks gave me a certain degree of satisfaction too.
We hired a car and drove up to the North Shore — it was the wrong season for the famed surf, sadly — but we climbed aboard the Abunai and headed into the deep blue in search of Galapagos sharks. Conditioned by crabbers tossing leftover bait, the sharks gather for a feed at the sound of a boat engine. We donned masks and snorkels and climbed into a cage and gazed into the clear so-blue water as the sharks cruised by below. I counted a dozen at one point, the biggest of which about 3m long.
We carried on driving around the coast in the hope of seeing surf but the water was picture-perfect calm.
Rounding Oahu gives a glimpse into the volcanic roots of this island chain. I read somewhere that Hawaii is one volcano and each crater is simply a different eruption. I'm not sure whether that's true or not but that volcano has spent millennia spitting up impressive cliffs rising vertically from flat sands, the ridges of ancient lava flows still clear under thick green foliage.
It's a relatively easy walk to the top of Diamond Head crater. You can join the long line of people — most of them whingeing about how unfit they are — through a tunnel that cuts through the rock edge of Diamond Head and takes you into the crater, then up the path to the top of the rim. It offers expansive views of Waikiki and along the coast as you vie with the dozens of other walkers all pointing their cameras in the same direction. It's been a while since Diamond Head blew, but on Hawaii's Big Island (or Hawaii Island) is the very active Kilauea Volcano, which is still spewing lava. Flights depart several times a day to Hilo and we caught the earliest possible in our search for flowing, glowing lava. Our GPS denied that the gigantic dormant volcano Mauna Kea existed and we ended up instead on a thin ribbon of road that took us through the lava field of Mauna Loa.
Eventually, we noticed Mauna Kea's perfect peak behind us. I was glad I'd hired a 4WD as the road up was metal in places, steep and winding, but with an unexpected bonus: snow.
White patches edged the road as we climbed to more than 4000m, determined to see the observatories in their puffball-like bubbles at the top. It was high enough for both of us to suffer from a touch of short-lived altitude sickness: dizziness, nausea and headaches.
You're above the clouds and it's a popular place to watch the sunset. We only had one night, though, as another night glow was calling us: the crater lake at Kilauea.
Volcano House, the first accommodation to be built here, is on the rim of the Kilauea caldera: a vast crater than has sunk over the aeons leaving rims that step down from a hillside behind us and again to the crater floor about 100m below. Some distance into the crater is another crater quietly smoking in the daylight. Only when darkness fell did we see scraps and ribbons of lava tossed in the air above the lake's surface as if Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, was tidying up the toyroom.
We had hoped to see the legendary lava flows into the ocean but the volcano had been quiet for some time. Instead, we drove through the old flows to the coast, following the black spills that have leaked from Kilauea's numerous vents and fissures like bleeding wounds. The long-dried lava ends abruptly on the coast, the black cliffs a solid barrier against which the wild Pacific hurls and thrashes below. The only disappointing part of the trip was that we missed the eruptions that flowed for three months last year. But there was plenty more to see.
Although we hired cars on Oahu and Big Island, Hawaii has an excellent public transport system that costs only $2.75 each one-way, no matter how long your journey, or $5.50 for a day pass that will get you everywhere. Warning: you need exact change, if you only have a $10 bill that's what your fare will be. The bus drivers are as typically surly as Auckland's, and the bus companies as stingy with information — don't expect timetables or route guides at bus stops.
Car hire is also relatively cheap — but watch out for add-ons. Our $100-odd car hire bloomed to $400 with insurance and GPS. And watch for the prepay at the garage when you refill your car before returning it — they tell you they will refund the difference but they don't. It was only about US$9, but frustrating nonetheless. And watch which shuttle you book to the airport. Avoid Ohana Transit: they didn't bother to show, leaving us highly stressed with an international flight to catch, plus a US$30 taxi trip on top of the shuttle fare. We only got a refund after PayPal intervened.
And now that I'm one of the Kiwis who has been to Hawaii, I recommend you join the club: see Earth's fiery processes at work, pay your respects at the war memorials, shop till your credit card snaps in half and swim with sharks.
Air New Zealand flies daily from
. Return flights and five nights' accommodation from $1799pp, twin share.
flies regularly between the islands, including Oahu to Hilo from $320pp.