Even paradise has levels. That’s what I’m learning as I wander the elysian west side of Oahu and talk to locals. It reminds me of talking to people in the Valley, actually. “Oh, the west side is boring. There’s nothing going on over there,” say the Honolulu-dwelling east siders, who boast of the capital’s superior culture and, as their raised eyebrows seem to suggest, worldview. “The west side is beautiful and peaceful,” its native defenders rebut. “Not all clogged with traffic like in the city.” Those people don’t get it, they seem to say.
I get it. I’m a West Valley girl who only recently relocated to the North Valley, so I am intimately familiar with cultural delineations and judgments based on geography, and the defensiveness and complexes they stir. But unlike the West Valley of Phoenix, the west side of Oahu has a few massive things at work to boost its profile right now: rapid growth and expansion in the form of two gorgeous new resorts, upscale shopping complexes and the Honolulu Rail Transit project, an elevated rail system under construction that will eventually connect the Ala Moana Center (east of downtown Honolulu) with the eastern edge of Kapolei, the west side’s largest community.
Oahu’s western shore is on a fascinating precipice between its sleepy past and its imminent bustling future. For locals, it appears to be a mixed blessing – the promise of more visitors, more revenue, more things to do, more recognition and more respect, yes, but will the shine be off the gem once it’s no longer hidden?
I set out to explore the west side’s biggest draws – for research, of course.
Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa
Honolulu may have more restaurants, but it doesn’t have Disneyland. Admittedly, the west side doesn’t quite have that, either, but Aulani (92-1185 Ali’inui Dr., Kapolei, 866-443-4763, resorts.disney.go.com) comes pretty close. The resort, which will celebrate its seventh anniversary this year, is an immersive experience that seamlessly blends Hawaiian culture with the Disney universe – with surprisingly minimal hokeyness. Disney Imagineers spent years designing the paradisiacal hotel, which incorporates native Hawaiian life and lore in the form of art made by local artisans, Hawaiian artifacts, fire pit storytelling and culture guides versed in Hawaiian history and language. Disney movie songs done in Hawaiian-language covers play softly throughout the hotel. There’s even a cocktail lounge, The ‘Olelo Room, dedicated to the Hawaiian language. Servers in floral aprons offer vocab lessons over Mai Tais, and the walls are decorated with what amount to ornate wooden flash cards teaching Hawaiian words and phrases. It’s a cool experience, especially for the girl who memorized the Hawaiian lingo section in Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed by Andrew Doughty as a teenager.
It would be easy to write Aulani off as a “family hotel” – it is happily and unabashedly geared toward keiki (children) after all, with a water park, lazy river, several pools, an on-site snorkeling experience, a kids’ clubhouse/daycare, Disney character experiences, a scavenger hunt and a special spa program for preteens and teens. But the resort offers an equally rich menu of experiences for adults. I greet the sun one morning in a yoga class on Aulani’s private beach. I spend an afternoon reading in the Laniwai Spa after a Lomi Lomi massage and intention meditation. And I while away some time at the hydrotherapy garden Kula Wai. Ensconced in a tropical outdoor enclave within Laniwai, it is blessedly adults-only and a terribly romantic spot for vacationing couples or honeymooning newlyweds.
While there are casual cafes and grab-and-go snack bars for the whole family, Aulani’s restaurants cater to adult palates. My favorite is ‘Ama‘Ama, an open-air restaurant overlooking Ko Olina beach. It’s the best place in the resort to watch the sun set while eating the catch of the day and sipping another Mai Tai.
Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina
Adults are definitely the primary guests at the luxurious Four Seasons (92-1001 Olani St., Kapolei, 808-679-0079, fourseasons.com/oahu), which opened in 2016. The resort is all clean lines done in pristine white with metallic accents and an occasional pop of the tropical colors that explode everywhere else on the island. The overall effect is very Gatsby goes Hawaii. You can almost imagine the enigmatic Jay popping out from behind a massive ivory column wearing one of the snow-white leis the Four Seasons staff welcome you with upon arrival.
FS is the perfect retreat for relaxation in paradise, but the resort does have a healthy program of experiences should guests want to engage more with the local color. Cliff jumping, deep free-diving and mountain sports packages are offered for sporty types, but I’m drawn more to meditative offerings like exploring Lanikuhonua. The sacred estate was used as a retreat by Hawaiian royalty, who would pray among its natural rock formations and spring water ponds. Now, spiritual Kahu (keeper) Auntie Nettie Tiffany gives lectures on Hawaiian history at the estate, a popular meditation spot.
The cuisine at the Four Seasons’ restaurants certainly warrants a gratitude meditation. Fish House’s light and refreshing cocktails (I love the fruity and herbal Sunset Smash, with gin, strawberries, Thai basil, lemon, honey and local liliko’i kombucha) pair perfectly with its oceanic fare. The fish charcuterie board is a revelation: an assemblage of cured, smoked, raw and dehydrated fish served with pickled veggies, savory spreads and grilled bread. It’s such a singular, surprising interpretation of the played-out charcuterie board. I wouldn’t mind if some imitators popped up at Valley seafood restaurants.
I continue feasting at Noe, the resort’s contemporary Italian spot, on a stunning patio shadowed by palm trees. Chef Ryo Takatsuka’s “Capri meets Oahu” culinary approach marries the seafood traditions of the Italian isle with the Hawaiian one, with delicious results like the house-made maccheroni with crab, spinach and lemon. The whipped ricotta with truffle and local honey starter is so fantastic that I’m tempted to order a second for dessert.
Off the Beaten Path
Though the two resorts anchor the west side’s activity, life beyond them is well worth exploring. I visit Hawaii’s Plantation Village (94-695 Waipahu St., Waipahu, 808-677-0110, hawaiiplantationvillage.org), an outdoor museum that transports visitors to the early 1900s, “when sugar was king,” our guide says. The museum includes more than 25 authentic plantation homes and buildings complete with actual personal effects, furniture, clothing and more from sugar plantation workers. The gift shop is tiny and tidy, full of local handicrafts and cookbooks.
Around the corner from the plantation village is Sato’s Okazuya (94-235 Hanawai Cir., Waipahu, 808-677-5503) a noodle and Hawaiian plate lunch shop I found on Yelp that is so popular with locals that it frequently closes early because it runs out of food. Luckily I arrive early enough to order a “small” dish of fried noodles topped with minced barbecued pork and green onion that is enough to feed two large adults. Best $6 I’ve ever spent. The noodles are salty, sweet, garlicky, perfectly chewy and unlike any noodle dish I’ve had before – and I’ve eaten a lot of noodles. Sato’s is located in a sketchy strip mall in a neighborhood full of smoke shops and strip clubs, its health code standing is dubious and you will likely be the only mainlander there, but those noodles are well worth leaving your tourist comfort zone.
I take a break from eating only out of necessity and drive up the coast on the Farrington Highway to check out Ohikilolo Beach Park and Kaneana Cave (also known as Makua Cave), which come highly recommended by a local hiking enthusiast I met at the Four Seasons. There are a few legends about the cave, but my favorite is that it was the womb of the earth goddess from which humanity sprang forth. That’s sweeter, at least, than the legend that the shapeshifter Kamohoali’i used it as a place to trap humans so he could transform into a shark and eat them.
If humans tasted as good at the food at AGU Ramen (590 Farrington Hwy., Kapolei, 808-797-2933, aguramen.com), I guess I wouldn’t blame Kamohoali’i. I’ve learned on this visit that Hawaiians take their abundance of ramen options for granted – every time I ask for recommendations, locals tell me they’re not that into it, which boggles my mind. Finally, a sweet Four Seasons employee named Kerwyn gives me a ramen tip from one of his buddies and I head out to AGU, which turns out to be one of the best ramen experiences of my life. I can’t believe this place isn’t crowded. Don’t they know what they have here?
As I slurp my char siu tonkotsu ramen topped with a mountain of frayed, curly green onions and nibble on gyoza made with fresh wonton wrappers, I begin to feel protective of Oahu’s western shore and its people in the same way I am protective of my West Valley roots. Do I want other people to see its wonders so that they can experience it and bring more business to the area? Sure. But I want to keep it to myself for a little longer – maybe just until I finish this bowl.
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