Getting out of bed before dawn for an excursion that calls for flashlights and water bottles isn't everyone's idea of how to vacation in Hawaii, but my goal was to see as much...

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HONOLULU — Getting out of bed before dawn for an excursion that calls for flashlights and water bottles isn’t everyone’s idea of how to vacation in Hawaii, but my goal was to see as much of Honolulu as I could in a day, and a sunrise hike seemed like a good way to get a head start.

Is there a Honolulu beyond the beach?

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I was forced to find out when a trip to Asia was cut short and I had a day to spare while waiting to arrange a flight home to Seattle.

Swimming was out. I needed to stay by the cellphone. So I walked to an Internet cafe, checked a few Web sites and came up with a plan. The only catch: It called for setting the alarm at 5:30 a.m.


For information on guided hikes to Diamond Head, contact Oahu Nature Tours, 808-924-2473 or see Tours are $20. They leave at 6 a.m. (sunrise tour) and 9:30 a.m. and include hotel pick-up and drop-off, water and flashlight.

The Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association hosts historical walking tours of Waikiki daily from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. Walks are led by one of the association’s four cultural historians. Tickets are $35 (children under 12 are free) and can be purchased at any Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays desk in Honolulu.

The walks used to be free, but the association lost its funding, and a decision is pending on whether or not to continue them during the rest of this year. If the tours are suspended, plans are to restart them in January, either at no charge or for a nominal fee. For information, call 808-737-6442 or see

For bus information, timetables and suggested routes for sightseeing, contact Oahu Transit Services at 808- 848-4500 or see One-way adult fares are $1.75.

Joe Coleman steered his van through a darkened Waikiki and motioned toward the tip of Diamond Head, a landmark most visitors view from a beach chair while sipping a cool drink.

“That’s where we’ll be standing,” Coleman told the 14 of us who had signed on with Oahu Nature Tours for a 40-minute, three-quarter-mile sunrise hike to the crater’s rim.

Defensive “gem”

We began our walk along a concrete and dirt trail built in 1908 as part of the Army coastal defense system. With its panoramic views, Diamond Head was positioned to protect the island from attack during World War II, but no artillery was ever fired. Today it’s a state monument and houses a National Guard base and FAA and civil-defense facilities.

Coleman handed out orange flashlights and bottles of water and led the way as he helped us identify native grasses and wildflowers and the calls of doves and red-vented bulbuls. From the trailhead to the summit, the elevation gain is 560 feet. It made for a steep climb along switchbacks, through tunnels and bunkers and up several flights of concrete steps and metal stairs.

Rock and concrete camouflage a former military observation station inside the crater at Diamond Head.

From the observation station at the top, we could see past the high-rise hotels in Waikiki all the way to Pearl Harbor. The trail would be crowded with tourists in a few hours, but just after dawn, most of the visitors were locals out for morning jogs or walks.

It was a perfect Hawaii morning. The best part was that it was only 7:15 a.m. when we finished. I still had the rest of the day ahead of me.

8:15 a.m.

The poshest hotels in Waikiki have beachfront locations, and while the rooms and restaurants are expensive, the bars and cafes have the best views. They’re open to anyone willing to pay the price of relaxing in style.

Coffee, a kiwi pastry and a fruit bowl was $8.50 on the patio of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I like to think of it as the price of admission to one of the best public living rooms in Waikiki. With its comfy couches and glass-topped coffee tables, the open-air lounge was ideal for lingering over the morning papers sans suntan oil and a wet bathing suit.

9 a.m.

I had second thoughts about a walking tour that started inside a shopping mall, until I met Ili Ili Puna, a man with a deep voice and silver hair who wore a cape of yellow cloth knotted over one shoulder and string of polished nuts around his neck.

Ili Ili Puna, 64, a native of Honolulu, leads visitors on a walking tour that explains the history of Waikiki.

Puna, 64, born in Honolulu, is a cultural historian and guide with the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. The group hosts historical walking tours that trace the history of Waikiki’s evolution from a vast marshland to a destination resort.

From inside the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, a mega-mall that stretches along Kalakaua Avenue in the heart of downtown, Puna led seven of us past gardens and into the courtyard of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, built in 1927 by the Matson Navigation Co. for passengers on cruises from San Francisco to Honolulu.

“This was cow pastures and fish ponds,” Puna told us. Waikiki was one of Hawaii’s most productive agricultural areas, and the gardens surrounding its hotels and shopping centers are filled with native plants and trees with an abundance of practical uses.

Puna urged us to touch his necklace made from candlenuts, white, waxy nuts known for their high oil content, used for everything from waterproofing canoes to making sunscreen. Then he passed around the leaf of the ti plant, which grows everywhere in Honolulu. The broad, green leaf makes an excellent natural flyswatter or fan, he explained, and has been used for everything from curing headaches to making hula skirts.

A surfboard historical marker indicates sites on the new Waikiki Historic walking trail.

We learned more about pre-resort Waikiki by stopping to read the surfboard-shaped historical markers scattered about town, and noticing statues such as the one at the King’s Village shopping complex dedicated to King Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king.

Major influence

Decades of repression by missionaries and growing Western influences eroded Hawaiian traditions. Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891, was considered a revivalist.

“It was King Kalakaua who helped reintroduce a lot of Hawaiian culture including the hula dance,” Puna said.

Anyone with the interest could put together an educational afternoon just walking through hotel lobbies.

The staff of the colonial-style Sheraton Moana Surfrider, Waikiki’s oldest hotel, gives daily tours of what was Hawaii’s first turn-of-the-century resort. In the lobby of the Waikiki Outrigger, there’s a century-old canoe made from Koa wood; and in the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, a photo display tells the story of Hawaii’s last princess, who died at 23 in 1899 of pneumonia.

11:30 a.m.

Lunchtime, and I was in the mood for something ethnic. Bus No. 2 was my ticket to a quick tour of downtown Honolulu. It’s possible to go almost anywhere on the island by bus, and the No. 2 travels a handy tourist route with stops at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts; the Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawaiian royalty; and the state capitol building with its open-air rotunda.

Penny Pimtong, owner of Penny’s Ice Desserts, roasts boiled peanuts at her stand inside the Oahu Market in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

Along Hotel Street, past the Nothing Over $6 Store and Tiger and Smooky’s Morning Star Ballroom and Karaoke Cafe, modern Honolulu gives way to rough-around-the-edges Chinatown.

At Penny’s Ice Desserts inside the Oahu Market, I assembled a lunch of papaya salad, boiled peanuts and a honeydew melon pearl drink, and sat at the counter taking in sights and smells that transported me to Asia.

Honolulu has excellent public transportation, and with more time, I found out I could have taken Bus 55 on a four-hour circle tour of the island, Lee Bouchard, 85, from San Diego told me as we sat together on the bus back to Waikiki. She asked me where I was going, and I mangled the name of the street.

“Thirteen years here and I still can’t pronounce all the words,” she confided. Our driver overheard the conversation and volunteered a quick language lesson : “Pronounce every syllable. Kal a ka ua. Say it. Kal a ka ua. See. Easy.”

6 p.m.

Diamond Head, on the island of Oahu, looms over Waikiki Beach, still one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist destinations.

My day ended with Diamond Head once again in view, this time at sunset and sea level, as I gripped the railing of a friend’s sailboat.

Honolulu beyond the beach? I barely scratched the surface. On my list for next time is the Iolani Palace, the former royal residence; the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ new guided tours of Shangri La, the home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, now a museum housing her collection of Islamic art; and the Foster Botanic Garden at the north end of Chinatown.

Who knows, next time I may not even pack my bathing suit.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or