Walking to the beach with my family on a hot Kailua afternoon, let's say 1972. My toy foam surfboard clip-clopping against my knees, towel...
Walking to the beach with my family on a hot Kailua afternoon, let’s say 1972. My toy foam surfboard clip-clopping against my knees, towel scratching my neck, rubber slippers squeaking on steamy blacktop. Around the corner of Kuuala Street, across Kalaheo Avenue, then down the skinny beach path, hugging a cinderblock wall under a thick, shady row of octopus trees and bougainvillea. Footfalls echoing on packed dirt.
Coming out onto Kailua Bay. A field of impossible blue, sky down to water. Squinting in the brilliance of the broad, white crescent beach.
My father swimming, in long, lazy lines parallel to shore. My mother sitting on the sand. Me, pondering the choices: sand castles or sand balls — wet double handfuls smooth-coated with dry sand into hard, sugar-dusted spheres; such a pity to have to whip one at your brother.
Kailua. The guidebooks say it’s basically a beach. But there’s a town wrapped around the beach, and, around that, a whole other side of the 600-square-mile island of Oahu — the windward side, a world away from Honolulu.
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Kailua is barely half an hour from downtown and Waikiki, but separated by a soaring ribbon of razorback mountains, the Koolau Range. The green lava wall is pierced near its summit by two sets of highway tunnels, like airlocks in time and space.
The Honolulu side is dry and sunny, its postcard loveliness folded among high-rises, offices, airport and freeways. The Kailua side, where I grew up, is greener, quieter, lower and slower, with marshes and palms and that perfect bay.
The windward Oahu I know best is three communities: Kailua, Lanikai and their next-door country cousin, Waimanalo. They’re beachy but not snooty. Kailua has a downtown but no night life to speak of. It’s less a spot for touristic stimulation than a place you nestle into, as Hawaiian royalty once did, escaping dusty Honolulu since long before King Kamehameha’s day.
Two Beatles, John and George, mobbed in Waikiki, fled there once, in 1964. They were discovered, and so, eventually, was Kailua, although it and the rest of windward Oahu have managed to keep a reasonably low profile on Hawaii’s well-worn tourist map.
That may be changing, especially now that President Obama has claimed Kailua as his. He grew up in Honolulu, but Kailua is where he returns. This is his place called Hope, his San Clemente, his Texas hill country. Every winter the Obamas stay at the same rented house at one end of the crescent bay, whose waters he knows from boyhood.
Kailua is the kind of little town that makes for good memories. It has the best Fourth of July parade in the state, where Uncle Sam in his long white beard salutes the crowd with the wrist-flicking, thumb-and-pinky shaka sign, and at night there are fireworks over the beach. It has farmers’ markets, with local tomatoes, papaya, torch-ginger blossoms and bananas.
The windward side has local fishermen, dancers, musicians, artists — native Hawaiian families rooted there for generations, with names like Mahoe, Aluli and Pahinui. Like anywhere else in Hawaii, it has the all-American children of immigrants, descendants of the last century’s plantation era.
Kailua gives people who know it a deep sense of belonging, of roots in the sand. I moved away 30 years ago, but get back every chance I get.
Whether you start your drive from the Honolulu airport or Waikiki, leave the freeway at the Pali Highway exit, make the quick turn north for Nuuanu Valley, the steady climb, with the green, fluted mountain walls closing in, silvered with mist and plunging waterfalls when it rains.
When highway builders, in the 1950s, reached the knife-edged Koolau summit, or pali, they punched tunnels through it and all but did away with the meandering mountain-goat path down the other side, with its treacherous winds and rock slides.
Go through the second tunnel and then, ladies and gentlemen: the windward side, lush terrain of old fish ponds, streams, marshes, soft volcanic cinder cones and the blue, isle-dotted bay, all laid at your feet.
You’re looking down from a thousand-foot precipice, a view that dazzled Mark Twain. This is where, in 1795, King Kamehameha’s army, invaders from the Big Island, pushed the army of Chief Kalanikupule to the pali’s brink.
The only way out was to plummet, which hundreds did. That victory gave Kamehameha dominion over all the Hawaiian islands. There is a lookout point and plaque recounting the historic battle.
Once in Kailua, each day begins and ends with the beach. The first morning I’m up before dawn, easily thanks to jet lag, for Pacific-sunrise viewing. . Kailua is a morning town; the bay looks east and first light brings out runners and ambling couples with dogs and cups of coffee.
The waves have shrunk since I was a boy: I wonder why. But the rest is the same. The sand is still cottony and cool by the naupaka shrubs at the top of the beach, sloping down to firm wet velvet under the foam. The beach still wears a light seaweed fringe and is dotted with crab burrows every few feet, like a highly unimaginative mini-golf course.
Overhead, great frigatebirds, ‘iwa in Hawaiian, still hover in the whipping trade winds. Past the gentle shorebreak, Flat Island lies off to the right, close-in, temptingly swimmable. Beyond them, the Mokulua islets, Moku Nui and Moku Iki: a kayak trip away.
Even at 6 a.m. the water is bathtub warm; I lie on my back with my feet pointing at the Mokuluas, and the sun rises behind my toes. After watching the sunrise at Kailua Beach Park, you can take the short walk into downtown Kailua, which hasn’t changed much in 50 years.
There’s plenty of local flavor in the farmers markets, a little independent bookstore, homegrown places for art and antiques. The library, the Chinese and Vietnamese and pizza restaurants, the thrift shop with old muumuus, the public park, with swimming pool and ballfields, all say: This is a real town. Gentrification and tourists are creeping in. Go while you can.
Kailua was a thriving population center before European contact, a playground for chiefs and rich in farming and fish, thanks to its many freshwater streams and wetlands and placid bay. The huge fish ponds and abundant banana, sweet potato and taro patches were mostly gone by the mid-19th century, replaced by cattle grazing and commercial development, but relics remain.
For a plunge into antiquity, you can visit Ulupo Heiau, a massive temple built by old Hawaiians, lava stone by stone, near the YMCA. Once it was neatly terraced with wooden altars and statues and sacrifices. The surviving platform, 150 feet by 140 feet with walls up to 30 feet high, is a staggering work of ancient hand-to-hand rock laying, perhaps 400 years old.
Ho’omaluhia Botanic Garden is richly replanted in native species. A long walk along the levee traverses Kawainui Marsh, a good birders’ spot. BookEnds, a bookstore in Kailua Shopping Center, has an excellent section on Hawaiian history and guidebooks for bird- and fish-spotting.
At some point, you take your books and spend all day at the beach. Kailua Beach Park is the main visitor magnet, where you can picnic, rent kayaks and try kite surfing and paddleboards, long surfboards that you stand on, using a long-handled, wide-bladed paddle to push yourself calmly around the bay.