The turtle cleaning station is just 750 metres off Waikiki Beach. Around a dozen placid reptiles are gathered in sweet suspension just four metres below us as algae-eating fish go to work, bobbing in and out of the coral, cleaning carapaces and other hard-to-reach places. Here, at the aptly-named Turtle Canyon, green sea turtles surface periodically right beside snorkellers for a gulp of air and photo-ops before descending again for more attention. Of more interest to some of the passengers on this excursion aboard the Holokai Catamaran, is Josh, the shirtless crewman. He stands on the bow and his six-pack tightens as he blows a hearty note on the puu, or conch shell. Sunnies are lowered, cameras are raised, cougars form queues for selfies and the tip jar fills.
This is all somehow emblematic of Waikiki. Natural wonders, islander culture, bodies beautiful, plenty of photos and a mercantile imperative.
Waikiki Beach is wedged between luxe hotels and top-end shopping on one side and sweeping, gentle Pacific waves on the other. The recognisable Diamond Head volcanic cone looms away to the left, completing the postcard. Tourists from everywhere are crammed together cheek by towel on the thin strip of sand catching rays, sipping fruit drinks, gazing at waves.
It's easy to understand how surfing, long-boarding in particular, originated here. An appropriately bronze statue of local legend Duke Paoa Kahanamoku and his long board stand on the sand at Waikiki central. His arms are extended in welcome and drip with fresh leis. The Duke took surfing from here to the world and he was even the local sheriff for 30 years. It is said he once rode a Waikiki wave for 1.8 kilometres. Apocryphal or not, the waves at the main break – known as 'Canoes' – are perfect for beginners and those looking for an extended, easy ride. We catch a couple in an outrigger canoe with Faith Surf School and our flurry of furious paddling is rewarded with serene glides along mellow breaks. As we de-canoe, Captain Isaiah gives us the shaka, as does just about everyone during our visit. The now universal "hang loose" hand signal of extended thumb and pinky finger with the three middle fingers curled underneath was invented here and is steadfastly Hawaiian zeitgeist.
One of many places named for Kahanamoku is Duke's in the Outrigger Waikiki hotel, where the mai tais are another local legend. The Barefoot Bar at Duke's is the place to be on the weekend and Hawaiian recording star Henry Kapono plays the Sunday session unless he is touring. This is also the home of Hula Pie, a sumptuous share dessert of ice cream, Oreo cookie crust, hot chocolate fudge, macadamias and whipped cream.
Another top spot for a bevvy is the Maui Brewing Co. in the Waikiki Beachcomber hotel. Hawaii's largest craft brewer boasts an 'all local ingredients, all organic' line-up and we take on a tasting of four flagship beers, including the award-winning Coconut Hiwa. MBC is a gastro pub too, proclaiming they make everything from scratch every day. "The only freezer we have is for the ice cream." The food is excellent too, especially the Pork Belly Bao in plum sauce and The Silversmith pizza with local macadamia gremolata.
We are staying at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, right on the sand. The sublime location is away from the busy part of the beach and the blue expanse is more alluring without the crowds. The hotel makes a point of showcasing traditional culture, and guests can join lessons in Hawaiian petroglyphs, folklore, wood carving, lei and bracelet making, ukulele and hula.
Hula instructor 'Aunty' Luana's fluid undulations are hypnotic and she shows us how to sway, step and wave to the 'hukilau' (pulling in the fishing nets) song. She explains the significance of the moves, including the hands to the heart. "Everything Hawaiian comes from the heart." I complete the steps successfully, as defined by not treading on the three-year-old next to me. It's actually an unexpectedly calming experience, except for the hukilau ear worm I suffer for the remains of the day. Luana says Outrigger Reef's attitude and respect for traditional culture attracted her to work here and 17 years later she is still pleased.
Our ukulele lesson begins with the correct pronunciation (oo-koo-lay-lay) and the slightly disappointing factoid that the instrument is actually Portuguese. We learn a song called Ulupalakua, about a pretty place on a mountain. Most ukulele songs are about pretty places somewhere or other.
Another cultural highlight is our trip to Nutridge Estate, where manager David Millwood gives us a Honi Honi greeting, a forehead-to-forehead welcome that comes with a kukui nut lei. The kukui is the state tree of Hawaii and were used to make the first candles. Hence, this is a lei of light and David explains they can be filled with our own mana, or spiritual energy. Nutridge is a homestead built in 1925, half an hour up the hill out of Honolulu. Mist covers the mountain at this 305-metre altitude and clouds pass through the property, rather than over it. Nutridge is the original macadamia farm on Oahu and boasts some of the largest macadamia trees in the world. Elvis, Marilyn and Frank stayed here during its golden age. These days, among impossibly lush greenery, beneath giant mango and avocado trees, guests enjoy a traditional welcome and Polynesian performances, cut pineapples, throw spears and roll rocks down the steep hill. They de-husk macadamias, help with the imu (underground cooking oven) for the luau and then tuck into an island feast. The tour ends at the Puu Ualakaa lookout with wide-angle views of Diamond Head, Waikiki and Pearl Harbour.
We take another road trip up through the middle of Oahu to the North Shore in search of the famous shrimp at Giovanni's food truck near the town of Kahuku. Our driver, Carlos, is thrilled this is our destination and talks excitedly the whole way. Halfway across the island we find Dole Pineapple Plantation near Wahiawa, where kids ride the Pineapple Express train, run around the Pineapple Maze, gulp pineapple ice cream and beg for pineapple souvenirs at the pineapple gift shop. We pass coffee plantations and beach shacks, take a tourist photo beside the Hale'iwa town sign and check out Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline Beach and Sunset Beach, all millponds at this time of year in spring and summer.
Carlos licks his lips as we locate Giovanni's at Kahuku. Signs inform us: "Graffiti on truck welcome. Cash only. No refunds on our award winning Hot Sauce." I have some shrimp with my garlic and Carlos polishes off a healthy plate of Hot & Spicy. Other trucks here include Kalena's Teriyaki, which is doing a roaring trade and Aunty Lil's organic, gluten-free kombucha hut, which is not.
Hawaiian Airlines flies to Honolulu from Sydney daily and from Brisbane three days a week. See hawaiianairlines.com.au
Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort is a 635-room beachfront property at the quieter western end of Waikiki. An emphasis on traditional Hawaiian culture extends to daily activities, wedding vow renewal ceremonies and local musicians performing at Kani Ka Pila Grille and The Reef Bar & Market Grill every night. Rooms from around AU$316 plus taxes a night. Direct bookings carry a 'best rate guarantee'. Sister properties in Waikiki include Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, which specialises in ocean activities and Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger, which is undergoing a floor-by-floor modernisation to make it into a "more millennial-friendly property." See outrigger.com
Mal Chenu was a guest of Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON OAHU
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Poke (pronounced poh-keh) Bars are everywhere, serving up bowls of traditional raw-fish salad. Originally consisting of sliced ahi tuna, sea salt, seaweed and kukui nut, bowls now typically come with avocado, cucumber, onion, tomato, kimchi and soy or wasabi sauce. Hawaiian shave ice is also big here and favoured flavours include guava, pineapple, coconut cream, passionfruit, lychee, kiwifruit and mango. Spam is popular too. Seriously. The annual Waikiki Spam Jam street festival attracts thousands and restaurants risk their reputations by creating Spam specialities.
HIKE DIAMOND HEAD
This volcanic crater (aka Le'ahi) looms large at the eastern end of Waikiki and is a very popular hike. The steep rocky climb winds up a 1.3-kilometre slope through spindly forest before stairways push on to the summit bringing views of Oahu's south-eastern coastline and the islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Maui.
There aren't many beaches where you can wander off the sand and into Tiffany & Co., Coach, Gucci, YSL, Chanel and more. Lesser shops knock out Aloha shirts, jewellery, macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, dried pineapple and mango treats and various surfboard-themed kitsch. Not far away, in downtown Honolulu, is Ala Moana, the biggest open-air shopping centre in the world. Bargain hunters should head to Waikele Premium Outlets, about an hour from Honolulu.
The place where they filmed the Jurassic Park movies and the latest Jumanji offers movie set tours aboard all-terrain vehicles, on e-bikes and horseback or in the back of jungle vehicles. Other adventures include farm tasting tours, water activities, zip lines and hiking trails with suspension bridges. See kualoa.com
Known as "The Valley of the Priests" due to its spiritual significance and abundance, Waimea Valley's modern draws includes walking tracks, waterfalls, distinctive botanic collections, cliff diving and swimming. Today, the mission of the Valley is to "Preserve and perpetuate the human, cultural and natural resources of Waimea for generations through education and stewardship".
See also: The best places to shop in Hawaii
See also: Twenty reasons to visit Maui