Couples can get away from it all at Kailua Beach. // © 2013 Oahu Visitors Bureau
Every Christmas season since Honolulu native Barack Obama took office, Oahu’s windward coast has claimed America’s First Family among its visitors, and it’s easy to understand why. The slender strip of eastern coastline, named for the trade winds that cool its shores, rewards its visitors with scenery that’s hard to beat.
The windward coast begins in the south at Koko Head and hugs the Koolau Mountain Range all the way up to Kahaluu. Far removed from the bustle of Waikiki and Honolulu, it has a reputation for rural tranquility replete with lush greenery, idyllic beaches and — thanks to the wind — some of the best surf around.
No question about it: Visitors seeking the famous surf of Oahu should not fail to hit the windward coast. Both Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach Park have been named America’s Best Beach by Dr. Beach — Lanikai in 1996, Kailua in 1998. For body surfers, the topography of Sandy Beach makes it an ideal destination as well. Just offshore, a 10-foot drop-off along the bottom creates especially steep, hard-breaking waves.
The northeastern trade winds also make these waters perfect for sports such as kitesurfing, parasailing and, more recently, wakeboarding. Those less athletically inclined can still take in the splendor of such sites as Makapuu Beach, setting of the John Wayne movie “In Harm’s Way.”
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, which Elvis Presley fans know from scenes in “Blue Hawaii,” teems with tropical fish that swim among the bay’s coral reefs. A favorite snorkeling site, Hanauma Bay is family-friendly, with free admission for children under 13 and sea life exhibits at its Marine Education Center.
A little farther up the coast, watersports meet nature appreciation in kayak tours, both guided and self-guided. Departing from Kailua Beach, these tours take visitors out to the nearby Mokulua Islands, a sanctuary for Oahu’s many tropical bird species.
Athletic visitors have no trouble staying active along the coast. Rainforest hikes and mountain biking rank as favorite activities, as do the horseback rides and ATV tours offered by the Kualoa Ranch. Those seeking culture and exercise at once may enjoy a hike along the Makapuu Lighthouse path, which passes a lava outcropping known as Pele’s Throne. It would be near impossible to overstate the importance of Madam Pele, the volcano goddess, to Hawaii’s sense of natural and cultural heritage. Pele’s power of creation and her turbulent emotions are said to be felt with every volcanic eruption, and local legend holds that her throne is the site where she last rested on Oahu before departing to work on other islands.
In addition to the island’s native cultural heritage, the legacy of Japanese sugar plantation workers who immigrated to Oahu in the 19th century continues as well. Nestled in the windward coast’s Valley of the Temples is Byodo-In Temple, a replica of a Buddhist temple in Uji, Japan, which was built in the shape of a phoenix to symbolize life and hope. Reflecting ponds hosting thousands of carp are spread over the grounds, and inside the temple is the largest wooden Buddha carved by hand in 900 years. Nature lovers and aficionados of Japanese culture will relish visiting this sanctuary of hushed beauty.
Because of the windward coast’s seclusion, most visitors stay in Waikiki or on the North Shore and take day trips to this side of the island. However, the coastal town of Kailua offers cozy bed-and-breakfast accommodations ideal for couples who want to avoid the urban bustle but still stay in a lively environment. Famous not only for its postcard-perfect beach but also for its culinary offerings, Kailua invites its visitors to enjoy eateries such as Cinnamon’s, Kalapawai Cafe and Crepes No Ka Oi.
With the Obama family’s love for the windward coast becoming better known, Oahu tourism is enjoying a growing interest in this lively yet serene stretch of coast — a memorable retreat not only for the First Family but for island visitors from near and far.