Heavenly Highway

The Pali Highway on Hawaii's island of Oahu takes motorists on a route filled with tropical wilderness scenes and spectacular ocean vistas

September 10, 2006|By James Dannenberg | James Dannenberg,[Special to the Sun ]

KAILUA, OAHU, HAWAII // Taking the rise, I am struck by the scene unfolding to my right: the Pacific Ocean -- today flat and aquamarine a mile to the sheltering reef -- seems welded without a seam to the morning sky. It glistens in sunlight as it washes onto the sand, which stretches in turn more than two miles in a graceful palm-fringed arc from Kailua Beach Park to the crocodilian promontory of the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, now peaceful, but the target of Japanese bombs in 1941.

No, this isn't a setting from a Joseph Conrad novel. It's the beginning and end of my commute. Every day I drive Hawaii's Pali Highway, from Kailua Beach on the Windward Shore of Oahu to downtown Honolulu -- no ordinary route to work. Officially designated Route 61, the Pali Highway winds through nearly 11 miles of spectacular scenery and cuts a swath through multiple layers of the island's natural, cultural and political history.

Kailua, where I live, is a quiet town of 36,000 on Windward Oahu. Its modest but pleasant downtown holds a Macy's, movie theaters, quite a few decent restaurants, shops, a couple of shaved-ice stands and even a Starbucks.

I've always thought Kailua a perfect tourist destination, at least for those who want a less-hectic sojourn in the sun than is offered in Waikiki. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, Kailua has no hotels, so it isn't heavily promoted, but rental cottages and bed-and-breakfasts abound.

Pali Highway travelers staying in Waikiki start their journey from Honolulu. Each direction on the Pali gives a different perspective of the island, and in some ways the drive back to Honolulu is more spectacular.

Starting from Waikiki, there are basically two ways to get to Kailua to enjoy the drive back on the Pali Highway, often after a day at Kailua Beach or a lunch in Kailua town.

You can take the Pali Highway exit off the H-1 Freeway west from Waikiki, driving it in both directions. You won't be disappointed. The distant view of Kailua and the ocean as you exit the tunnel, just below the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, can take your breath away.

If you are making a day of it, think about heading east from Waikiki on H-1 and rounding Oahu's eastern edge. Drive until the freeway ends in Kahala and continue along Kalanianaole Highway until you reach the end at Castle Hospital, where a right turn leads to Kailua and a left turn leads to the Pali Highway back to Honolulu.

By all means, stop anyplace along the way. There is lots to see and do, and you may find yourself distracted by the sweeping vistas of open ocean, rough even on the calmest day.

But save most of your time for Kailua, whose best-known attractions are the four miles of Kailua and Lanikai beaches. Favored by a calming reef, Kailua Bay's 80-degree waters are gentle, but when the trade winds blow, conditions are nearly perfect for sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing.

Kailua, nestled between the bay to the northeast and the Kawainui Marsh on the southwest, is on an ancient sandbar. Beyond the marsh looms the Koolau Mountain Range, rising precipitously from sea level as a serrated green wall to more than 3,000 feet.

And when you are ready to head back to your hotel, it's through this spectacular countryside that the Pali Highway will take you. Pali means "cliff" in Hawaiian, and the road is aptly named. There are just two rules to follow: keep your eyes open, and don't carry any pork. Why no pork? Hawaiian legends tell of hungry spirits inhabiting the Nuuanu Pali, and many local folks today believe that your car will stall if you try to sneak that can of Spam back to town.

Island history

Leaving Kailua in the "mauka" (mountain) direction, Kailua road crosses the tiny Kawainui Stream and widens into an expansive boulevard. A few blocks from the stream lies an ancient Hawaiian religious site hidden from street view but accessible from the parking lot of the nearby YMCA. Perhaps 500 years old, this huge site, strewn with volcanic boulders, was used by Hawaiian kings to conduct animal sacrifices.

Not long ago the only road connecting Kailua with Honolulu was the old Pali Trail, little more than a switchbacked horse path across the mountains until it was paved in 1897. The completion in 1961 of tunnels near the Nuuanu Pali Lookout eased the journey, but the contrast between Honolulu and the Windward side is still sharp.

As it abruptly leaves Kailua and enters a tropical wilderness scene, the road dips and descends under the canopy of a huge banyan tree, and through this natural foliage frame emerges the full grandeur of Pu'u Konahuanui -- the highest peak in the Koolau range at 3,150 feet -- and the rest of the corrugated, knife-edged cliffs that seem covered in green velvet. This fleeting image may be one of the most memorable on the island. Weathered more rapidly by windward rains, the sheer face of the Kailua side contrasts with the gentler Honolulu slope.

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