Oahu, the Gathering Place, is a destination for any reason, in any season

Diamond Head, a volcanic tuff cone, towers over Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. Roughly 600,000 people climb Diamond Head each year.
Diamond Head, a volcanic tuff cone, towers over Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. Roughly 600,000 people climb Diamond Head each year. ASSOCIATED PRESS

I lived in New Orleans for 25 years, and the celebration of Mardi Gras was an annual ritual. Since leaving the city six years ago, I have come to realize how much I miss that ritual, bawdy and excessive as it is. So I was thrilled to find myself in full carnival mode a few weeks ago.

Fat Tuesday dawned bright and sunny, and by mid-afternoon the temperature had reached 83 degrees to the delight of the scantily clad revelers.

The party I was attending had the requisite over-the-top celebrants. A bride and groom must have come directly from exchanging their vows, because they were still in formal wedding attire. A woman, whom I learned later was a Japanese pop star, was being trailed by her entourage, who, in turn, were being trailed by a pack of paparazzi intent on chronicling their misadventures. The band — three Alaskans and a Hawaiian — belted out songs of the Southland as if it was Friday night in a Mississippi Delta honky-tonk.

I can't remember when I had a better Fat Tuesday, and that's saying something since I was not in New Orleans.

I was in Honolulu.

Putting an exclamation point on that fact was the surfer, a string of flower leis on his arm, who rode his board right onto Waikiki Beach, tossing the leis right and left, and wishing everyone in sight a happy Mardi Gras.

It might not have been Bourbon Street, but the Banyan Bar at the Moana Surfrider hotel proved a more than capable substitute.

The Gathering Place

I have passionately loved the Hawaiian Islands since my first trip here right after college. Over the ensuing years and many subsequent visits, that passion remains at fever pitch. I love everything about the islands: the mosaic of colors (sky and sea in varying shades of blue; green mountains; pink, yellow and red hibiscus blossoms; multihued rainbows), the cooling trade winds, the jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets, and most of all, the welcoming aloha spirit of the people.

I love all the islands, but there's something about Oahu that makes me always want to stop here first. Maybe it's the familiar silhouette of Diamond Head stretching toward the sea, or the rugged range of the Koolau Mountains separating the windward and leeward sides of the island, or the shimmering blue waters of Waimea Bay, which has to be one of the most inviting snorkeling spots in the world.

Maybe it's the call of the conch shell signaling the nightly lighting of the torches along the beach, or the melodious strumming of a ukulele.

Or it could be the romantic history of Oahu, known as the Gathering Place, where in 1810, the warrior Kamehameha succeeded in uniting all the islands, becoming King Kamehameha the Great.

It wasn't an easy conquest. In 1795, after conquering Hawaii, Maui and Molokai, he met his enemy, Oahu chieftain Kalanikupule, on the windswept slope of the Nu'uanu Pali, resulting in a fierce battle where many of the combatants were sent hurtling to their deaths over the 1,000-foot cliff. After that fierce display of warfare, the last remaining island — Kauai — surrendered to Kamehameha without a fight.

If you visit the Pali lookout today, you'll get a sense of its bloody past, but you'll also get one of the most breathtaking views on the island.

The best place to learn about Kamehameha and the other Hawaiian monarchs (Hawaii had a monarchy until 1893, when the reigning Queen Lili'uokalani was deposed in an illegal coup by the United States military) is in the magnificent Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum.

Reopened in 2009 after an extensive renovation, the museum is spread over three floors and chronicles the Hawaiian experience. The first floor is dedicated to the Kai Akea, or Hawaiian gods, the second represents the land and nature in daily life, and the third examines the lives of the islands' kings and queens and the tumultuous events shaping Hawaiian history.

If you lean more toward military history, a tour of the battleship Missouri is just the ticket. Understandably, most visitors flock to the Arizona Memorial (now enhanced by a new visitors center), but it's worthwhile to spend a few hours aboard the "Mighty Mo."

Part of the force that carried out bombing raids over Tokyo and provided firepower in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Missouri is best known as the site of Japan's unconditional surrender to Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Allied forces on Sept. 2, 1945.

These days, it's also a film star, as the setting for Battleship, the movie based on the naval combat game. The movie will open in theaters later this year.

The Arizona Memorial is free, but history buffs might want to buy the passport to Pearl Harbor, $65 for adults and $35 for children. The two-day pass includes, in addition to the official audio tour of the Arizona Memorial, admission to the battleship Missouri, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and the Pacific Aviation Museum.

A cinematic paradise

The battleship Missouri isn't the only movie star. The Hawaiian Islands in general, and Oahu in particular, is a dream site for movie and television producers.

The remake of the TV series Hawaii Five-O has sparked a new surge of interest in our 50th state, and shooting locations for the popular series include the downtown Hawaii Supreme Court Building — which doubles as Five-O headquarters — and the Rainbow Tower of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel in Waikiki.

But long before Hawaii Five-O, Oahu had been a cinematic destination of choice. You can see why on a visit to Kualoa Ranch, which in addition to being a working cattle ranch is a favorite site for TV and movie crews.

On a tour, visitors might see places that seem oddly familiar. The ranch has been in a variety films, including Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, Godzilla and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, in addition to the TV series Lost.

Getting to Kualoa is half the fun. The drive along King Kamehameha Highway is spectacular. One stop you definitely should make is the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park and its showpiece, the Byodo-In Temple.

Nestled in a cleft of the Koolau Mountains, the temple is a scale replica of one built in Japan more than 900 years ago and is guarded by Amida, a golden Buddha, that at 18 feet is thought to be the largest Buddha carved since ancient times. Visitors are welcome to tour the temple and its lovely grounds.

After you leave Kualoa, if you are still in a celluloid frame of mind, continue on to the North Shore (home to those monster surfing waves) and stop for lunch at Ola at the Turtle Bay Resort, which was the setting for the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Another great lunch spot with a cinematic and literary connections is The House Without a Key at the Halekulani Hotel on Waikiki. The beachside restaurant occupies the spot where a 19th-century sea captain once lived and died under mysterious circumstances.

Years later, the mystery surrounding the murder led Earl Derr Biggers to pen the novel that introduced his most famous character, Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan.

Finally, they might not be in the movies, but they are cute enough to be. Ho'ailona and Maka, two big-eyed monk seals, are the star attractions at Honolulu Aquarium.

Situated at the "quiet" end of Waikiki, across from Diamond Head, the aquarium also has an excellent coral reef display.

Whether you're a history buff, a movie fan or a sand and surf lover, Oahu, the Gathering Place, has something for everyone.