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The "Other" Side of Oahu

As is true of any vacation destination, there can be an invisible 'us' and 'them' barrier between visitor and resident on Oahu. Here are the insider tips on where the locals go, whether it's shopping at a farmers market or meditating in a Korean Buddhist temple tucked in the back of a valley. Tourists are rarely in sight.

As is true of any vacation destination, there can be an invisible "us" and "them" barrier between visitor and resident on Oahu. Here are the insider tips on where the locals go, whether it's shopping at a farmers market or meditating in a Korean Buddhist temple tucked in the back of a valley. Tourists are rarely in sight.

A good place to get a taste of local culture is Diamond Head Cove Health Bar (3045 Monsarrat Ave.; tel. 808/732-8044). By day it's a casual lunch-and-smoothie spot -- owner Marcus Marcos makes delicious salads and burritos with fish he catches himself -- but in the evening it turns into an awa (or kava, as it's known in Fiji and in diet supplements) bar. It's a nightly party, with jam sessions and banter. People like virtuoso guitarist Makana sometimes drop by. Surfboards and art hang on the walls as people perch at the few small tables and at the counter, drinking awa from paper bowls and munching on snacks.

The old Polynesian tradition of drinking awa is making a comeback in Honolulu. Awa is made from the plant's root and mixed with water. Warning: Don't drink awa if you've had alcohol (you'll get an upset stomach). The liquid has an earthy flavor and lightly numbs the lips, eventually yielding a floaty feeling after a couple of bowls.

Started in 2003 by local food writer Joan Namkoong and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation as a single Farmers Market at Kapi'olani Community College (4303 Diamond Head Rd.;; free), across from the entrance to Diamond Head State Monument, the program has been so successful it now has three markets. The main one is still the original, which happens every Saturday from 7:30 to 11am. While I don't expect visitors to stock up on the great organic produce (vine-ripened tomatoes from the North Shore, arugula from Waianae), the market also has food booths and good gifts that you won't find in any department store. Each week, a selected vendor makes a breakfast special, and other regulars sell fried green tomatoes, lumpia (like spring rolls), beignets, burgers, and Japanese plate lunches. Before going on trips, I like to stock up on gifts of Made in Hawaii jams, honey from the Hawaiian Beekeepers' Association, spice rubs from Kaiulani's Spices, and PacifiKool's ginger syrup, made from Big Island ginger. PacifiKool owner Cheryl To also makes fresh ginger ale at her booth, and it's the best I've ever tasted -- she's made fans of visitors from Australia to France. To check specials and see who'll be in the lineup, go to the website. The no. 3, 22, and 58 buses stop here. The other markets are in Kailua (behind Longs on Kailua Rd.; Thurs 5-7:30pm) and Mililani (Mililani High School, 95-1200 Meheula Pkwy.; Sun 8am-noon).

Jazz thrives in Honolulu, with young bands finding homes at the hot nightspots. But hard-core fans and musicians go to the Hawaii Musicians' Union (949 Kapiolani Blvd., entrance on Waimanu St., second floor; tel. 808/596-2905;; $7) on Tuesday at 8pm for its weekly Studio 6 live-music night. Here you can hear top local talent such as saxophonist Gabe Baltazar and trumpeter DeShannon Higa play for their peers. It's a no-frills room -- it's all about the music.

The visual-arts scene is concentrated in Chinatown, with galleries by established artists such as Pegge Hopper and newcomers like Bethel Street Gallery. In 2003, the community, led by nonprofit group ARTS at Marks Garage (1159 Nuuanu Ave.; tel. 808/521-2903;; free), banded together to launch First Fridays, a gallery walk that runs from 5 to 9pm on the first Friday of each month. Now hundreds of people roam the blocks, looking at paintings, stopping in at events, shopping (many stores and other businesses stay open for the event), and eating at one of the many restaurants in the area. Want to meet some local creative types? This is the place to go. Walking maps are available at ARTS at Marks Garage.

Hiking is popular on Oahu, which is riddled with valley-to-mountain trails. A good way to go is with the local chapter of the Sierra Club (tel. 808/538-6616;; $5), which organizes group hikes led by certified guides who are knowledgeable about local plant life. To go a step further, sign on for a day project and help restore a trail or clear an area being developed into a park. It's a great way to rub elbows with locals who really care about the island, and do something for the place you're visiting. Sierra Club hikes all over the island, from right in Honolulu to the far reaches of sleepy Hauula. Participants meet at 8am at the back porch of Church of the Crossroads (2510 Bingham St.), which is near the University of Hawaii. Call ahead to sign up for hikes and day projects; you'll find the hike schedule and descriptions on the website.

Honolulu is home to a lot of bad community theater that dredges up old musicals. But we have one saving grace: Kumu Kahua Theatre (46 Merchant St.; tel. 808/536-4441;; $16). Its mission is to produce plays by local writers about local life. If a Lee Cataluna play is on stage during your visit, go. The spunky columnist of the Honolulu Advertiser writes works that are half humor, half social commentary. Her biggest hit has been Folks You Meet at Longs. Longs is the Walgreens of Hawaii, and everyone goes there. The cast of characters -- cashiers and customers -- will give you a good idea of prototypical Hawaii residents and their foibles. Housed in an 1871 building that was originally a post office -- and the first building in the country made with precast concrete block and steel reinforcement -- this 100-seat theater sells out fast.

For a day on the water, like a lot of locals, I kayak to the Mokulua Islands (called the Mokes for short) off of Lanikai Beach. The bay is a big blue expanse filled with sea turtles, and, in good conditions, the 2-mile round-trip paddle to the twin islands (the one on the left a sanctuary for blue-footed boobies) is pretty easy. On a windy day, though, I don't recommend it for first-timers. I don't kayak often enough to invest in my own vessel, so when I get the urge, I go to Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks (Kailua Beach Center, 130 Kailua Rd.; tel. 808/262-2555;, a 2-minute walk from the beach. The trip takes 1 to 1 1/2 hours one-way, so be sure to pack some water and perhaps a snack with you in a dry bag. Staff will fill you in on the journey so that you can navigate on your own (a single kayak is $49 for a day, doubles are $59), or you can take a guided tour ($89 includes transportation from Waikiki and lunch). If you go on your own, you'll tow your kayak to the beach on a dolly, drag it over the sand into the water, and take off. You're in the open ocean, passing over reefs, yet always in sight of land. When you're done and blissfully worn out, reward yourself with a shaved ice (snow cone) at Island Snow a few doors down. I like the lilikoi (passion fruit) syrup the best.

For a taste of a backyard kanikapila -- when musicians get together and jam Hawaiian-style -- head to the weekly Sunday jam at the Koolau Golf Club (45-550 Kionaole Rd.; tel. 808/247-7088;; no cover) in Kaneohe. Slack-key guitarist Mike Kaawa is the regular headliner, but he's always oined by old-school legends like ukulele master Eddie Kamae and Analu Aina (who played bass for Israel Kamakawioole). The party happens from 3:30 to 7:30pm. You'll be sitting with real-deal old-timers, eating pupus like poke (cubed ahi in soy sauce) and mochiko chicken (breaded in rice flour and fried) and throwing back the beers.

Waimea Valley, now an Audubon Center (59-864 Kamehameha Hwy.; tel. 808/638-9199; $5), is a sacred spot, and on the center's monthly moonwalk, you can really feel the mana. Held on the Friday closest to the full moon, the 1-1/2-hour walk, led by experts on the botanical garden's prize plants, attracts locals who want a glimpse of rare night-blooming flowers. Bring a flashlight and be there at 7:30pm. The entrance to the valley is across the street from Waimea Bay. Gregory Pai, a former chief economist for First Hawaiian Bank, is a longtime student of famed Burmese Buddhist monk Sayaew U Kundala. He passes on his teachings at a free Vipassana meditation class every Saturday at the Mu Ryang Sa Korean temple (2420 Halelaau Place; in Palolo. The grand, ornate temple alone is worth a visit. The sittings are held in the Memorial Hall, where you'll see a lavish altar and photographs of the dead who have had services there. Take off your shoes before entering, grab a pillow, and make yourself comfortable on the cranberry-colored carpet. Pai welcomes beginners and seasoned meditators alike. Pai talks participants through to "the point where you're not constantly editorializing or judging; you are at a point of pure awareness," he says. After an hour, whether you reach epiphany or not, you feel calm and relaxed. And maybe you'll make some enlightened friends. To get to the temple, coming from town on Waialae Avenue, turn left on 10th Avenue, drive all the way to the back of the temple, and turn right on Halelaau Place. Although the sitting is free, a small donation is welcome.

This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Hawaii, 1st Edition, available in our Online Bookstore now.

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