Beyond the reach of Hawaii's excess

Caroline Berdon and Michael Wayne

There are worse ideas than diving into Waikiki Beach with three kilos of pancakes in your stomach, but not many.

After attempting the world famous (or should that be infamous?) MAC Daddy Pancake Challenge at Hilton Waikiki Beach, it seemed like a good idea to swim it off. Don't worry, we waited half an hour.

It goes without saying, however, that given we attempted the challenge at all - sharing three giant pancakes, plus topping, in less than half an hour - our judgment when it comes to good ideas is severely impaired.

And it's the kind of judgment that's constantly tested by the delights and temptations of Hawaii, and in particular the island of Oahu. Home to the capital Honolulu, Oahu is also home to the state's highest concentration of American commercialism.

Everything is done to excess. Hilton Waikiki Beach doesn't just have a pool, it's got a 10th floor rooftop pool. Hilton's other venture in Honolulu, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, is the size of a village.

Even the International Marketplace, at the heart of the Waikiki shopping scene, would be more aptly named the Multinational Marketplace given the abundance of big name boutiques and outlets. It's everything, all the time.

For many, that kind of overwhelming environment prompts a yearning to get in a car and get out of town. Does Oahu have secret pleasures lurking in its shadows?

We're told that Hanauma Bay, on the island's southeastern tip, is one of the world's best snorkel spots. Located in an ancient crater now open to the sea, today it's a famed marine sanctuary. For many visitors to Oahu, the bay is a day trip, a breath of fresh air after Honolulu's commercial smog.

Unfortunately, the beach is plagued by a litany of rules designed to protect the environment. After paying the entry fee (!), beachgoers must sit through a 10-minute video that explains the parameters within which they must have fun, like a constant set of red flags.

After all that, the beach is a dud - a flat, grey allotment of sand with a puddle of water full of even greyer coral. People swim half-heartedly; the water is cold. As is the underwater vibe. A few pretty fish seem to glide about aimlessly, trying to find their lost kingdom.

Not only has the excessive policing sapped the fun from this place, the excessive amount of sun-screened bodies has sapped life from the reef.

We live in hope for our own Hawaiian paradise. Eastern Oahu is said to boast some of the island's most stunning beaches. We've seen the postcards of white sand lapped by a turquoise expanse so it must be true.

Not a long drive from Hanauma Bay, we arrive at Lanikai by lunchtime, grab a burger from a roadside barbecue and head down to the sand.

The gleaming ocean does indeed look delightful but our souls remain a little heavy. The limitations of the area quickly become apparent: there are bodies everywhere, hour-long queues for cafe tables and traffic jams to enter car parks.

Locals in Eastern Oahu, a place close enough to Honolulu to be classed a commuter belt, have been grumbling in recent years of higher prices, choked streets and rubbish on beaches. Hardly the Hawaii of our dreams.

"We have one afternoon left in Oahu, where should we go?" we ask a woman in mild desperation as we paddle in the water. She's from the American mainland but enjoying her second stint here at the nearby Marine Corps Base.

"Oh, the North Shore," she says with a smile, without thinking. "You can't be this close and not see it. It's famous all over the world."

In our experience, fame hasn't boded well for Hawaii. But we take her point and head northwest along the Kamehameha Highway towards Oahu's northern tip.

As we near Ka'a'awa - a word meaning yellow wrasse fish in Hawaiian - the road becomes lonely, wild beaches lie quiet and buildings become shacks - delightful, colourful, wooden homes with open decks facing the ocean. They'd offer the perfect sanctuary for some languid days, while tables set up at shrimp trucks provide welcome oases of chatter over some Bikini Blonde lagers.

We've finally penetrated the web of packaged holidays and excess. We exhale and smile. The North Shore, Oahu's countryside, is a revelation. Mass commercialisation, genuinely unwanted, has managed to stay away.

In its place are pro surfers' waves, supposedly perfect in winter, pristine beaches and lush green hillsides sweeping up towards the mountainous interior, always and mysteriously shroud in mist.

For dinner we stop at Hale'iwa, whose buildings reflect its old plantation town character. People walk around barefoot. We eat at Hale'iwa Joe's, a restaurant with a chilled, kitsch vibe loved for its island-inspired food and potent, fruity cocktails.

It feels a world away from Honolulu, which is reachable only by continuing along the lonely coast road, or going back the other way. Despite the isolation, there's plenty up here - for some, everything they could ever need.

The downside is that for some people, it might be a bit too quiet. There's no big shopping scene, and luxury, as subjective as it is, is limited. Luckily, there's always the big city.

The next morning, we're back at Kuhio Beach in Honolulu. Plenty of bodies, but no car park traffic jams - it's just five minutes' walk from our room at the Hilton Waikiki Beach. Cafes and eateries are so plentiful that queues can't exist; not that we need them after another rich Hilton breakfast.

It's easier to get a spot on Kuhio than it was in Eastern Oahu. With so much going on, it takes the pressure off the beach.

Excess serves a purpose and has its place, and for better or worse, that's here.

We stop and admire the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. The famous waterman, forever donned in colourful leis, put Hawaii on the map before dying here in 1968, aged 77.

But Duke's Honolulu is long lost, a victim of the art of excess. Duke's Hawaii, however - that laid-back, pineapple-flavoured, palm-tree paradise scored by the gentle lilt of a ukulele - still exists. It's easy to imagine him hanging ten on Oahu's North Shore if he was alive today.

And it's here where the genuine delights and temptations of Hawaii live on.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: For flights to Honolulu, and travel all over the Hawaiian archipelago, Hawaiian Airlines is your one-stop shop. For more: www.hawaiianairlines.com.au.

STAYING THERE: It's hard to find a more convenient and comfortable place in Waikiki to lay your head than Hilton Waikiki Beach. But if you're after a more inclusive experience right on the beach, Hilton Hawaiian Village is for you. Rates vary. For more visit:

http://www.hiltonwaikikibeach.com/

http://www.hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/

For more information on Honolulu and travel around Oahu, visit www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/

* The writers travelled as a guest of Hilton and Hawaiian Airlines.