Rediscovering Oahu's Unmatched Travel Experience - P. 4


Haleiwa and Kono’s Big Wave Cafe

Just before Kamehameha Highway cuts left and inland into the town of Haleiwa we passed through the lively surfers’ colony of Waialua Bay. The bustle of tourist-oriented water-sports activity there reminded me of Malibu, Venice Beach or Huntington Beach during summer tourist season. It was far too busy and commercial to appeal to us, so we continued inland into the town of Haleiwa.

Haleiwas began as a small hotel by that name opened in 1898 by a businessman named Benjamin Franklin Dillingham, an ex-sailor who had made his fortune by building a railroad to link Oahu’s various plantation towns. Haleiwa itself became a plantation town, and today is the only one that maintains something of its rustic turn-of-the-century look and feel. One reason is that, despite its status as the biggest population center on the North Shore, Haleiwa’s population comprises only about 2,200 permanent residents.

Matsumoto's Ice
Tourists line up to buy shave ice at Matsumoto’s Grocery Store, the most famous landmark in the tiny, quaint former plantation town of Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore.

Standing in line to buy shave ice at Matsumoto’s Grocery Store is the quintessential tourist stop in Haleiwa. But it being a Sunday and the line being long, we chose instead to park in the lot of a big old languorous strip mall on the north end of town. After perusing a souvenir shop offering a wild assortment of plastic flowers of all sizes, shapes and colors, we strolled out to the highway and back down south in search of a place to eat lunch.

The entire downtown area is only about three blocks worth of humble — not to say ramshackle — wooden structures lining two-lane Kamehameha Highway. Most are fronted by fading hand-painted signage. If not for the steady stream of cars cruising by in both directions, it would be easy to imagine how it must have looked during the days when it was populated by workers from the island’s sugar cane and pineapple plantations. When we reached the south end of the strip of shops and restaurants, we crossed over to the east side of the highway and settled on Kono’s Big Wave Cafe.

Plantation Town Haleiwa’s brief strip of quaint tourist-oriented eateries and shops still looks much as it did a century ago as a town catering to laborers at nearby sugar plantations.

Kono’s is a Haleiwa institution in its own right. It has become known as a surfer’s hangout but is actually caters more to tourists who come for its mouth-watering pulled pork sandwiches, salmon bagels, homemade granola, huge breakfast burritos and an excellent tropical iced tea. The place exudes surfer vibes, not only because of the faded hues of its wooden signs and walls but the surfer dudes and dudettes staffing the place. It’s exactly the kind of ambience that appeals to both locals and visitors there to soak up the leisurely ambience of old Haleiwa. The prices are also a welcome change from those that prevail around Honolulu and especially Waikiki.

We passed up the tables in the somewhat cramped interior and seated ourselves at one of the handful of picnic tables outside. While enjoying lunch in the shade of the building, we contemplated the unbroken stream of cars rolling slowly past as its occupants enjoy Oahu’s favorite Sunday drive and communion with history rolled into one.

Rainforest Hike to Waimano Pools

When I was living in Hawaii the Sacred Falls trail on the island’s windward side up north of Kaneohe Bay was the ultimate rainforest hike to a waterfall-fed swimming hole. That trail was shut down after a major rockslide in 1999 killed and injured a couple of dozen hikers. It isn’t likely to reopen due to the constant hazard of more slides caused by the rains that can hit that side of Oahu practically any day of the year. Today the Waimano Pools trail is the only one among Oahu’s dozens of hikes that offers a waterfall and a swimming hole within a convenient distance of Waikiki.

Waimano Hike
The Waimano Pools hike begins on a broad path on a gentle incline along a scenic ridge overlooking Pearl City.

To get there from downtown Haleiwa we drove a short distance south on Kam Highway, then turned east for a short jog to the turning circle just outside of town. We continued eastward on a wide, high-speed stretch of Kamehameha Highway to Waihawa where it merges into southbound H2 Freeway. In about 8 miles, precisely at the interchange of H2 and H1, is the very tricky transfer from H2 to Farrington Highway which quickly segues into eastbound Kamehameha Highway (yes, Kam Highway appears and disappears practically everywhere on Oahu). A quarter mile later, just before the Pearl City Shopping Center, we turned left to go north on Waimano Home Road toward the mountains. After a mile and a half we turned left onto winding Komo Mai Drive.

After about two miles Komo Mai Drive dead ends in a quiet residential neighborhood. Deciding not to take a chance on a ticket by parking in the no-parking zone at the end of the road, we backtracked a half block and parked the Jeep front of a house.

Rainforest Trail
The final section of the Waimano Pools hike follows a steep, winding and often muddy path through a dense rainforest.

The trailhead is easy to find because it begins where Komo Mai Drive ends, continuing in the same general upward and northward direction. The first third or so of the 2.7 miles to the pools is a broad albeit badly pitted asphalt fire trail that winds up along a ridge. The remaining distance is a narrow footpath that snakes down steeply through a dense forest of trees with roots exposed in a criss-cross network. The morning squall had wet the trail and made it muddy in patches. The roots angled along the fall line were slippery like greased rails but those angled crosswise were invaluable footholds. Fortunately, both the branches and the trunks of the trees were thin, smooth and amazingly strong, providing excellent handholds during that last steep and slippery mile to the pools. The hike may not seem long in the abstract, but it took nearly two hours, partly because we had to take pains to negotiate many steep, slippery sections.

Waimano Waterfall and Pools

Waimano Pools is a series of three pools fed by the waterfall. Because it was mid April, near the tail end of the rainy season, the pools were well filled. It was already 4:30 when we got there, and the sun had moved behind the steep ridgeline to the west. The day had cooled to about 73 degrees. We suspected the water was likely to be a bit too cold for comfort, but after the sweaty hike down, we were eager to plunge in.

The trail is separated from the middle pool by an eight-foot rock face. Fortunately someone had left a short stretch of rope tied around a tree at the top of the face for use in rappeling down. The only other people at the pools were a pair of local teens who had reached the pool a few moments before us. The water was a shade warmer than we had expected, maybe 72 degrees. But the weak indirect light didn’t penetrate deep enough to reveal the bottom. That made footing a bit tricky and painful on the pools’ uneven rocky bottom.

The local boy showed our teen how to climb a section of rock to get from the middle pool up to the top pool with the waterfall. He also showed her the path to a small ledge from which we could jump into the middle pool. We swam around for a while, venturing near the waterfall, and took a couple of jumps from the ledge for some video footage.

Before long the desire not to be climbing up a slippery trail in the dark without a flashlight prompted us to change out of our swimsuits and hit the trail. Surprisingly the hike back up the mountainside was easier than the hike down, thanks to the excellent handholds offered by the trees. The trip back up took about the same amount of time as the trip down.

As we were about to reach the final rise before the brief descent down the fire road to the trailhead, we all saw a white figure move briefly into view about thirty yards ahead of us at the top of the rise. It seemed to hesitate for a moment, then disappeared toward the left. We naturally assumed the trail must turn to the left at the top of the rise. But when we got there, we saw there was no left turn, no fork, nor any sign of the figure — just the thick rainforest off to the sides of a relatively straight and broad trail. There is probably a sound explanation for the sighting, but as we drove down toward the lights of Pearl City in the safety and comfort of the Jeep we enjoyed a conversation about the island’s abundance of Hawaiian ghosts. It was a nice finale to a satisfying rainforest experience.

JP Serrato Italian

The hike had left us thirsty and hungry. After some cruising around Pearl City, we settled on a casual restaurant called JP Serrato in a newish strip mall a couple blocks south of the shopping center. It was after eight pm by the time we walked in and the place was empty. It was apparently run by a Chinese family, with two teenage boys out front taking orders while apparently doing their homework. From the kitchen came the complaints of a middle-aged Chinese woman. We were famished and expected nothing more than a hearty meal, especially at the takeout prices the place was charging.

We were in for a pleasant surprise. The marinara sauce on my chicken parmigiana and the accompanying side of spaghetti was red, robust and memorably zesty, being spiked with an abundance of fresh garlic. I asked for more marinara and was given another plastic container’s worth that tasted like it had just been cooked up fresh. The caesar salad, veggie sandwich and garlic toast were also reported as beating expectations.

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