January 2017 launched an adventure of sand and sea on the Hawai’ian island of Oahu. For over a year my husband and I have enjoyed a kind of an extended vacation for work. As with any vacation, weekend getaway or year-long sojourn, I find myself looking for things to do away from people. Crowds stress me out. Unfortunately, some of the best sights are packed with tourists, precisely because they’re worth every bit of mob-jostling to see. During our time on Oahu we’ve discovered a few activities we do over and over and have learned some of best way to enjoy (mostly) crowd-free. We’ve learned ways to make each experience better every time we go.
The Makapu’u Lighthouse trail is one of my favourite spots on the island. The stunning views are easy to access, no special equipment required. Sunscreen, a backpack with plenty of water and a snack and I’m good for the day. It’s entirely paved and winds at a steep, but not entirely uncomfortable incline. That being said, 3.3 miles round trip climbing 800 feet is not a walk in the park. Definitely challenging. Add to that virtually no shade, I do find the periodic “viewing spots” a good excuse to take a break. Any time of day is beautiful and clear skies reveal a turquoise coast and azure open ocean. Even cloudy days are special as they seem to hush the noise of wind, water and well, people.
Just a hint, take a bathroom break at Waimanalo Beach Park as there are no facilities on the trail. I’ve also found parking can be tricky, especially on weekends. I take my time driving to the bottom of the hill to the trailhead and hope to get an empty spot. If no luck, there’s room to turn around at the bottom and I just head back to highway 72 and park on the shoulder. Easy peasy.
Ironically, access to the lighthouse is restricted. I always see people jumping the fence anyway, but I’m fine to see from a distance. It’s cool, with lots of great history. Built in 1909, it was automated in 1974. You can see remnants of the small community that first ran the lighthouse scattered along the trail. That all said, I simply go for the view. The winding path reveals a new perspective around every bend. Even with a processional of people, strollers and dogs, there’s enough nooks and crannies to find a pocket of solitude to take in the view. It’s truly a beautiful part of the island where access is so easy.
This past February we took our own binoculars (there are mounted ones along the way) to whale watch. At a secluded outcropping of rock that provided some shade we spent two hours watching baby whales and their parents spout, breach and wave their tails. Definitely an exercise in patience; whales are on no schedule and do their own thing. Which is what makes them so fascinating and sightings so enchanting. I’ve seen a whale come so close we could hear her spray and see details along her body as she waved her flipper at us. But most are further out, so the binoculars were handy.
There are two amazing side trips here. The beach at Pele’s Chair and the Dragon’s Nostrils at the Makapu’u tide pools:
MAKAPU’U TIDE POOLS
I check the tides before I go. Call me a nervous Nelly, I just don’t trust a craggy shore and unpredictable waves. I use My Tide Times App. There may be differing opinions, but I find going at high tide, but when the tide is going out to be the best. When the tide is coming in, it’s easy to get swamped. I’ve had friends lose valuables, and people have lost their lives. If there are high surf warnings, just skip it. While beautiful, it’s not worth risking safety and I would never enter the water here. The trek requires climbing over sharp lava rock (most unforgiving to tender skin), skidding over small pebbles and a scramble down vertical facing. There are some rough switch-back trails with white arrows giving some direction, but they’re easy to miss and once or twice I’ve blazed my own trail. All this in zero shade. But totally worth it! At the bottom there’s plenty to explore.
Just north of the tidepools I remember when I first heard a low and threatening blast of air. With very little imagination it’s easy to envision a sleeping dragon just beneath the rock. On closer inspection I found twin blowholes perfectly positioned to sound and look like dragon’s nostrils forcing vapor out of the crevasse. I totally expected the ocean spray to feel like hot steam.
“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
-Smaug, The Hobbit
The pools are crystal clear and beautiful. I brought snorkel gear down once but found getting in and out without pulverizing the delicate moss, coral and tiny creatures impossible. Plus, it’s not really worth it. There are plenty of great snorkel spots on the island and this isn’t one of them. The appeal is just hopping from pool to pool and watching the inhabitants from above. It’s a unique and captivating location. I’ve shared the experience with a few quiet groups of strangers and made my way around an entire Boy Scout troop. It seems to be a crap shoot on how busy it can get. Regardless, I always seem to find a reserved spot carved out just for me.
Madam Pele, a key figure in Hawai’ian mythology, is said to have sat here before her departure from the island of Oahu. The rock formation resembles a giant armchair overlooking the ocean. The short trail to get there is easy and as of this writing recently rehabbed with new rock to prevent erosion. Despite the nice new rock, I found water socks were not enough protection. And after a recent rain we slogged through some serious puddles and ruined a pair of shoes. But it is rarely busy with a few fun things to do. The first time I went I was disappointed by how cloudy the water was at the beach. It wasn’t until the second time when I did a bit more exploring that I found an aquatic treasure. To the left of the beach over the rocks there is a nice place to jump into clear water. We spent an afternoon snorkeling and swimming. There’s a short tide break that calms the water, but there are days where it still seems a bit iffy. Again, I err on side of caution if I don’t feel 100% confident.
Directly under Pele’s chair, adjacent to this cove is a nice place to get out of the sun and have a snack. The waves are too rough to get into the water, but it’s beautiful and almost no one goes over there.
If you swing right of the beach you can explore a stretch of tidepools and climb over rocks, again, relatively people-free. Another good place and alternate perspective to keep an eye out for whales during the November to March time-frame.
I don’t know how many times we’ve said “this never gets old” while we’ve lived here. Snaking along the Kam Highway to the North Shore, driving on the H3 to see the slender waterfalls cascade down the mountains or strolling Kailua Beach at sunrise have never faded in appeal nor charm. Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is another trek that never gets old.
- Arrive early and during the week. This is fairly obvious and pretty much goes for any activity.
- Bring binoculars and enjoy away from the “photo opp” areas. The established viewing areas take advantage of less obstruction, but you can stop along the path at any time. You can also go around the stone barrier just to the other side and have a little elbow room.
- Be patient. Kind of like the lines at the grocery store, the people seem to come in waves. If you wait around you’re bound to have some time to yourself.
- There are some trees at the top. Bring a blanket and have a picnic in the shade.
- Search out your own space. There is much to see and you can wander away from the crowds to your own piece of paradise.