HONOLULU — My alarm clock says 5 a.m., an hour when I'm usually happy to be asleep. This morning, however, I'm wide awake — perhaps because it's 10 a.m. in Lexington, according to my body's clock.
I brew myself a pot of coffee and take a cup onto my balcony at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It is pitch-black now, but I'm content to wait for the sun's ascent over Waikiki Beach.
At first, it peeps shyly over the rim of Diamond Head. Those first rays cast a pearly pink glow, followed shortly by a burst of orange and gold, illuminating the ring of surfers sitting on their boards, waiting to ride the first wave of the day to shore. It's a sunrise worth getting up for.
Most of us have our travel happy places — places that are utter bliss when we're there, and that dwell in our minds and hearts when we're not. The Hawaiian Islands are my happy place.
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From the moment I land at the Honolulu airport, feel the trade winds and hear the strum of the ukuleles, all my cares melt away. This time I was here to meet my two best friends for a girlfriends' getaway — three days in Honolulu and two days on Oahu's North Shore.
Pat and Cilla have arrived several hours before me. Their airline connections from Boston and San Diego, respectively, were not the zigzag across the continent that mine was. I am envious of my friends' extra hours in paradise. No doubt they are sitting at the Royal Hawaiian's oceanfront Mai Tai Bar having one of its eponymous cocktails and wondering what airport I am stranded in.
My angst at being late to the party is forgotten the next morning at breakfast in the hotel's beachside restaurant as we plan our day. There are places in Honolulu I can't resist going back to, regardless of how many times I've been before.
One is 'Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on American soil — a place of joy and celebration; of intrigue and sorrow. Ghosts from the past linger. Some of those ghosts are festive — the Royal Hawaiian Band tuning up on the lanai during one of the lavish balls thrown by King David Kalakaua, dubbed the "Merrie Monarch."
Other ghosts, not so much. I can imagine the anguish of the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, imprisoned in an upstairs bedroom after a takeover by pro-American forces. During her nearly one-year incarceration, the queen wrote the beautiful Hawaiian melody Aloha 'Oe (Farewell to Thee).
Trying something new
Still, as much as I love revisiting old favorites, there always seems to be something new to do. This time it was a walking tour of Chinatown with chef Glenn Chu of Indigo Restaurant. Don't expect the trendy Chinatowns of San Francisco and Vancouver, with their elegant shops and restaurants; this is a grittier, more working-class version.
The neighborhood was started by Chinese laborers who arrived during the 19th century to work on sugar plantations. In 1901, an attempt to burn down a single dwelling where bubonic plague had been found resulted in a blaze that destroyed the entire area.
A rebuilt Chinatown became Honolulu's most colorful neighborhood. The fictional detective Charlie Chan was modeled on a real-life Chinese-Hawaiian policeman, Chang Apana, who patrolled the area; its notorious red-light district was used as a setting for the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, and the villainous character Wo Fat from the TV series Hawaii Five-O, both the current and 1968-80s versions, got his moniker after the series creator happened across a restaurant of the same name in Chinatown.
Today, the eight-block area abutting Honolulu Harbor is home not just to Chinese, but to Hawaiians, haoles (mainlanders), Vietnamese, Laotians, Filipinos and Japanese. After our tour, we headed back to Indigo, a restaurant that looks as if it could be found in Saigon or Hong Kong, where Chu and sous chef Buddy Hunter prepared a pu pu, or appetizer, platter the likes of which you won't find at any luau (think plump won tons filled with goat cheese).
Speaking of food, in a cosmopolitan city such as Honolulu, there's something for every taste. Forget overcooked pork and tasteless poi; this is the city that gave us fusion cuisine, courtesy of celebrity chefs Sam Choy, Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong.
If you want to eat as well as you will in New York or San Francisco, book a table at Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas (for an Asian slant on the classic Spanish offering) or Chef Mavro (you can have a four-course, six-course or "Grand Degustation" dinner in this elegant eatery far off the Waikiki tourist path).
For a completely different experience, have lunch at Café Julia across the street from 'Iolani Palace. It's in the YWCA, but, with its conservatory ceiling and tropical foliage, it's unlike any YWCA you'll ever see.
North Shore beaches
Leaving Honolulu, we headed out Kamehameha Highway en route to the North Shore, home of super-size waves and shrimp trucks. We must have counted 10 of them on our way to Hale'iwa (pronounced hol-e-a-va), a town that looks as if it never made it out of the 1960s.
Surfboards outnumber automobiles; bathing suits and bare feet are acceptable attire anywhere; and artists and artisans have set up shop in boutiques along the one main street.
From here, you can easily detour to the famous beaches of the North Shore, where in winter, waves can be as tall as a three-story building. We arrived too late for what the surfers describe as the really big waves, but the ones I saw seemed plenty big enough.
Then it was on to the breathtaking Waimea Valley, a rich and culturally significant spot that for centuries was home to the ali'i nui (kings), ali'i (chiefs) and kahuna nui (priests). Today, it is home to world-class botanical gardens and Waimea Falls, a famed beauty spot.
The solemnity of a sacred place remains. Before hiking to the falls, our guide, Coco, did a chant, asking the spirits for permission to enter. The hike up to the waterfall offers a cultural tour of the valley, while the hike down focuses on the botanical aspects.
The falls and the pool beneath them are lovely and serene, and once were used by warriors who believed this sacred spot would heal the wounds suffered in battle. I can't promise it will heal your wounds, but it is a perfect place for a cool swim.
We made a stop at Ted's Bakery, known island-wide for its coconut pie, before arriving at Turtle Bay Resort, which would be our home for two nights. The first night, as we watched a sunset that was another pyrotechnic display, the three of us raised our mai tai glasses in a salute to what was, indeed, our happy place.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay:
■ The Royal Hawaiian, Waikiki, Honolulu. One of the world's most iconic hotels, it's the second- oldest property on Waikiki (after the Moana). Known as the Pink Palace of the Pacific, it was built in 1927 during the golden age of ocean liner travel by the Matson Line as a fitting resort for its passengers. Its colorful history includes champion surfer Duke Kahanamoku and his Waikiki Beach Boys, who frequented the hotel, and as one of the settings for the popular radio show Hawaii Calls, which ran for 40 years (1935-75). The hotel's Spanish-Moorish architecture is stunning, as is the inner courtyard, which was once a royal coconut grove for Queen Kaahumanu. Now owned by Starwood, it has 528 rooms and suites, including many with beach views, and an excellent seafood restaurant, Azure. Royal-hawaiian.com.
■ Turtle Bay Resort, Kahuku, North Shore. The only resort on the North Shore, it has 5 miles of beachfront overlooking Turtle and Kawela Bays. There are 443 accommodations, ranging from rooms and suites to beach cottages and villas. Among the resort activities are hiking, horseback riding, two pools, Fazio & Palmer golf courses, a surfing school and Spa Luana. About one hour from Honolulu, Turtle Bay is a good base for visiting Waimea Valley and the Polynesian Cultural Center. Turtlebayresort.com.
Learn more: Gohawaii.com/oahu