Oahu: Where the Action Is

Whatever the charm of the Neighbor Islands may be, the island of Oahu and its city of Honolulu are where the people are and where the action is, now and probably for many more decades to come. The reason intensive development started here, rather than elsewhere, is that Honolulu and contiguous Pearl Harbor are the only safe deep-water ports in all the islands.

By 2000, the population of Oahu reached 876,151. The 2006 Census indicated 377,357 people in the city of Honolulu itself, growing more slowly than the remainder of the island. Many consider Oahu's development dangerously fast and helterskelter -- a subject to which we will return later -- but the fact is that a fantastic amount of human activity has been crowded into this relatively small island (about 40 miles long and 20 miles wide), with the natural environment still largely intact.

Honolulu could be seen gleaming white in the distance, with the familiar bulk of Diamond Head just beyond it. Ranging from the city northward was the spiny ridge of the Koolau Range, dividing windward Oahu from Honolulu. A constant veil of clouds on the mountains mixed with sunshine splashing across the island's central valley of sugar cane and pineapple fields in their distinctive verdant mantles. More southerly, the three great fingers (lochs) of Pearl Harbor could be seen and, beyond that, the emerald green at ocean's edge leading into the cobalt blue of Pacific sky and water.

A drive around Oahu quickly reveals a land heavily touched by civilization but still beautiful and varied in the extreme. Within an hour or two, one can come on smooth white beaches and rocky foam-swept coast, placid lagoons and an anomalous section of "interstate" highways, massive sugar cane and pineapple plantations and smaller farms that grow coconut palms and bananas and avocados, precipitous cliffs and raw jungle, the ominous beginnings of California-style subdivisions and condominium apartments but also flower-bedecked villages on low stilts.

The Honolulu metropolitan concentrate is still largely confined to a comile stretch of Oabu's southern plain, anchored by Pearl Harbor on the west and Koko Head (beyond Diamond Head) on the east. The settlement pokes fingers into the mountains that rim it, but basically the Koolau Range is too massive and craggy to be violated. It may be the very ruggedness of Hawaii's volcanic mountain terrain, in fact, that holds back the worst kind of metropolitan sprawl.

Moving west to cast along the coastal strip, here are some of the principal features:

Pearl Harbor, a reservation of some 100,000 acres, combines not only the vivid history of December 7, 1941. Honolulu Harbor, just a few miles cast of Pearl, remains the fulcrum through which passes most of that vast array of goods which Hawaii cannot or will not make for itself. There is still a color and pageantry that no jetliner's arrival can match when one of the big passenger liners steams into port or away, its coming and going punctuated with an outpouring of hula troupes, flowers, and music of the Hawaiian. (Modern life seems too short of those moments, with their delicious sentimentality.)

A block or two to the east one comes on Iolani Palace, a wonderful old Victorian extravagance completed by the last of the Hawaiian kings, Kalakaua, at a cost of some $350,000 in 1882, The old palace, all done up in the iron and grillwork considered so elegant in its time, fairly reeks with history. Queen Liliuokalani ( 1891-93) ruled from its chambers until her autocratic ways led to the overthrow of the monarchy; two years later, after an attempted counterinsurrection, she was held prisoner in the palace for nine months. Sanford Ballard Dole, the son of a missionary who led the republican revolution in the Islands, ruled from the palace first as president of the independent republic of Hawaii (starting in 1893) and then as the first Presidentially-appointed governor of the new territory. (Ceremonies to mark Hawaii's annexation to the United States were held on the front steps of the palace on August 12, 1898, with an emotional moment when the Stars and Stripes were first raised.)

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