From the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, near the summit of the Pali Highway (Hwy. 61), you get the first hint of the other side of Oahu, a region so green and lovely that it could be an island sibling of Tahiti. With its many beaches and bays, the scenic 30-mile Windward Coast parallels the corduroy-ridged, nearly perpendicular cliffs of the Koolau Range, which separates the windward side of the island from Honolulu and the rest of Oahu. As you descend on the serpentine Pali Highway beneath often gushing waterfalls, you'll see the nearly-1,000-foot spike of Olomana, the bold pinnacle that always reminds us of Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, and beyond, the Hawaiian village of Waimanalo.
From the Pali Highway, to the right is Kailua, Hawaii's biggest beach town, with more than 50,000 residents and two special beaches, Kailua and Lanikai, begging for visitors. Funky little Kailua is lined with million-dollar houses next to tarpaper shacks, antiques shops, and bed-and-breakfasts. Although the Pali Highway (Hwy. 61) proceeds directly to the coast, it undergoes two name changes, becoming first Kalanianaole Highway -- from the intersection of Kamehameha Highway (Hwy. 83) -- and then Kailua Road as it heads into Kailua town; but the road remains Highway 61 the whole way. Kailua Road ends at the T-intersection at Kalaheo Drive, which follows the coast in a northerly and southerly direction. Turn right on South Kalaheo Drive to get to Kailua Beach Park and Lanikai Beach. No signs point the way, but you can't miss the beaches.
If you spend a day at the beach here, stick around for sunset, when the sun sinks behind the Koolau Range and tints the clouds pink and orange. After a hard day at the beach, you'll work up an appetite, and Kailua has several great, inexpensive restaurants.
If you want to skip the beaches this time, turn left on North Kalaheo Drive, which becomes Kaneohe Bay Drive as it skirts Kaneohe Bay and leads back to Kamehameha Highway (Hwy. 83), which then passes through Kaneohe. The suburban maze of Kaneohe is one giant strip mall of retail excess that mars one of the Pacific's most picturesque bays. After clearing this obstacle, the place begins to look like Hawaii again.
Incredibly scenic Kaneohe Bay is spiked with islets and lined with gold-sand beach parks like Kualoa, a favorite picnic spot. The bay has a barrier reef and four tiny islets, one of which is known as Moku o loe, or Coconut Island. Don't be surprised if it looks familiar -- it appeared in Gilligan's Island.
At Heeia State Park is Heeia Fish Pond, which ancient Hawaiians built by enclosing natural bays with rocks to trap fish on the incoming tide. The 88-acre fishpond, which is made of lava rock and had four watchtowers to observe fish movement and several sluice gates along the 5,000-foot-long wall, is now being restored.
Stop by Heeia Pier, which juts onto Kaneohe Bay. You can take a snorkel cruise here, or sail out to a sandbar in the middle of the bay for an incredible view of Oahu that most people, even those who live here, never see. If it's Tuesday or Thursday through Sunday between 7am and 4pm, stop in at the Deli on Heeia Kea Pier (tel. 808/235-2192). They have served fishermen, sailors, and kayakers the beach town's best omelets and plate lunches at reasonable prices since 1979.
Everyone calls it Chinaman's Hat, but the tiny island off the eastern shore of Kualoa Regional Park is really named Mokolii. It's a sacred puu honua, or place of refuge, like the restored Puu Honua Honaunau on the Big Island of Hawaii. Excavations have unearthed evidence that this area was the home of ancient alii. Early Hawaiians believed that Mokolii ("fin of the lizard") is all that remains of a mo'o, or lizard, slain by Pele's sister, Hi'iaka, and hurled into the sea. At low tide, you can swim out to the island, but keep an eye on the changing tide, which can sweep you out to sea. The islet has a small, sandy beach and is a bird preserve, so don't spook the red-footed boobies.
Little poly-voweled beach towns, such as Kaaawa, Hauula, Punaluu, and Kahaluu, pop up along the coast, offering passersby shell shops and art galleries to explore. Famed hula photographer Kim Taylor Reece lives on this coast; his gallery at 53-866 Kamehameha Hwy., near Sacred Falls (tel. 808/293-2000), is open Thursday to Saturday, noon to 6pm. You'll also see working cattle ranches, fishermen's wharves, and roadside fruit and flower stands vending ice-cold coconuts (to drink) and tree-ripened mangoes, papayas, and apple bananas.
Sugar, once the sole industry of this region, is gone. But Kahuku, the former sugar-plantation town, has found new life as a small aquaculture community with prawn farms that supply island restaurants.
From here, continue along Kamehameha Highway (Hwy. 83) to the North Shore.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.