Kailua: Undiscovered among high cliffs and big surf, it's where the natives go


March 14, 1993|By Alan C. Miller | Alan C. Miller,Contributing Writer

KAILUA, HAWAII — Kailua, Hawaii--Led by irrepressible 6-year-old Lilia, we race the setting sun along a winding dirt path up the hillside known as Lanikai Ridge. Beneath us, the turquoise ocean stretches beyond a crescent-shaped beach -- the cradle for the sport of windsurfing. Kayakers paddle back from the offshore Mokulua islands. We scan the horizon for the spout of humpback whales.

Behind us lies the bedroom community of Kailua. Looming over the homes and Enchanted Lake is Mount Olomana, the stately peak that, legend has it, once was a giant who jumped from Kauai. Cars climb the Pali Highway like ants crisscrossing the verdant Koolau Mountains that separate this windward side of Oahu from the urban crush of Honolulu. From these heights, King Kamehameha I drove enemy forces over 1,000-foot cliffs in the decisive battle for Oahu.

Soon we arrive at the first of two concrete bunkers. Fifty years ago, these were military lookouts for enemy planes during World War II. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the guns stationed here stood silent as the attackers streaked past. The reason: The ammunition was locked up due to a "sabotage alert." We, however, are well-fortified. Stu and Vicky, hospitable Kailua residents and Lilia's parents, pop open a bottle of champagne to welcome us back to Hawaii after an absence of far too long.

I had become an admirer of the windward side of Oahu as a graduate student in Hawaii in the late '70s. On a return visit with my wife, I found it reassuring that, even as much of the archipelago continues to be overbuilt, this outpost retains its allure.

It remains a relatively undiscovered jewel on an island too often equated with Honolulu's hustle and bustle and the ticky-tacky excesses of Waikiki Beach. For those who prefer staying in bed-and-breakfasts or rental homes to high-rise hotels and resorts, Kailua and its environs offer easy access to golden beaches, abundant water sports, idyllic trails and, just over the mountains, the museums, restaurants and night life of the leeward metropolis. This can be a gentler, kinder and more economical way to go, especially for families.

Indeed, this is where kamaainas, or islanders, go to get away. About 80,000 residents, or 10 percent of Oahu's population, can be found on the windward side. The majority reside in the suburban communities of Kailua and nearby Kaneohe, site of a Marine air base. Many of those who live here work in Honolulu and climb the Pali each day. Kailua is 12 miles from downtown Honolulu and 17 miles from the airport.

Accommodations for visitors here are strictly da kine, which, in this case, means a part of, not apart from, the local communities. Kailua has no hotels. However, it does have 85 licensed bed-and-breakfasts and 47 rental homes and cottages. Homeowners concerned about an influx of tourists have put a lid on these units as well, winning a moratorium on new licenses in 1989. If you go, especially during peak winter months, you should book well in advance.

"Families don't want to be chasing their kids around elevators and the bustle and night life of Waikiki," says Pat O'Malley, a bearlike man in an aloha shirt who has rented out residences for the past nine years. "They want a quiet family vacation where the kids can enjoy it."

Mr. O'Malley, who is past president of the Kailua Chamber of Commerce, and his wife, Elizabeth, handle 30 to 35 homes and cottages in Kailua. They offer everything from small studios to million-dollar beachfront estates. A recently renovated five-bedroom, three-bath home on the beach goes for $2,730 a week; a small cottage with a view of the bay for $70 to $100 a day.

We stayed at a remodeled apartment with a private bath in the exclusive residential community of Lanikai, two blocks from the beach. The state Health Department prohibits cooking at B&Bs, so breakfasts tend to be continental or do-it-yourself. We dined each morning on fresh papaya, pineapple, bananas and English muffins with macadamia nut butter on a patio overlooking brilliant purple bougainvillea and a coral-colored African tulip tree.

Our first morning we took a pre-breakfast snorkel with a giant puffer fish and an elegant yellow and black Moorish idol. The setting offered privacy, tranquillity and convenience -- all for $50 a night.

But for those who prefer the luxury and conveniences of a top-flight hotel, the Turtle Bay Hilton is up the coast on the North Shore -- about 48 miles from Honolulu. This 808-acre hotel, with an 18-hole golf course, 10 tennis courts and two pools, is set on a beach with surf that produces huge waves during the winter. For local residents, this is truly "the country" -- about as far away as you can get and still be on the island.

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