Culture / Travel

Returning to Paradise — Oahu Beckons With a Quieter Hawaii, One Full of Remarkable Stories

Coming Back From COVID to the West Side

BY // 04.28.21

With the literal shot in the arm COVID-19 vaccines have brought, more travel lovers are contemplating hitting the open road and taking to the skies once more. But with international travel still a question, perhaps 2021 has become the year to explore the United States and specifically its most exotic state — Hawaii.

After a homebound year, I find myself still dreaming of my last B.C (before COVID) getaway, a trip to Oahu, Hawaii. Yes, I found a bit of paradise, but now as many find safety by embracing outdoor living, it’s clear Oahu might be the perfect post-vaccine adventure.

For those looking for luxury and privacy, Oahu certainly qualifies. Nonstop flights from Houston or Dallas to Honolulu make it easy to get there and let you begin a Hawaii exploration right away. And in this socially distancing age, Oahu’s west side is perfect for getting away from the crowds of Waikiki.

During my island travels, I stayed at the Four Seasons Resort O’ahu at Ko Olina. For much of 2020, the resort remained closed, but it used the time to do property and safety enhancements in order to welcome guests back now.

The Four Seasons rises like cliff at the first of four human-made lagoons at Ko Olina. A rock barrier protect the lagoons from the crashing Pacific waves, creating calm, natural pools for swimming and water recreation. Each lagoon has its own unique feel, and a mile-long pathway winds along the four coves, perfect for a morning run or evening stroll. Not only are the beaches some of the most beautiful in all of Hawaii, the westside locale makes for an Impressionist-worthy sunset almost every night. 

The distinction between indoors and outdoors truly blurs at Ko Olina and especially at the Four Seasons. “Airy” would be an understated description of the resort. A cool sea breeze blows throughout the open architecture, even as I stood deep in the lobby looking up into the honeycomb-like heights of the main building. 

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The Four Seasons Oahu recently debuted Dr. Mai Tai’s, the new swim-up bar located at the water’s edge of the property’s infinity pool.

The resort’s four pools, its jewel-blue lagoon, world class spa, and my room with an ocean and mountain view, are all tempting diversions. But lounging on my large balcony, the sea, air and land also called me to adventure. Oahu’s west and northwest side offer plenty to explore both naturally and culturally, all without having to brave the east side crowds.

Though only in paradise for less than a week, I took a hike into gods’ realms, snorkeled with green sea turtles, toured an organic farm and rum distillery and even dipped a brush into the ancient Japanese art of Gyotaku, fish printing. 

Hawaii of Songs & Stories

Throughout all my Hawaiian adventures, I heard stories, from tales of Hawaiian deities to flower and fish origin epics to sugar cane histories in rum production. Every Hawaiian I met seemed a teller of fascinating tales that gave the ordinary aspects of everyday life beautiful hidden meaning.

Case in point, the highlight of my whole trip came from a hike through Ka’ena Point State Park accompanied by Kumu Hula La‘akea Perry, an award-winning, master Hula teacher and dancer. 

Ka‘ena Point holds both natural, historical and spiritual significance for the island and its people, from the remnants of the century old railroad tracks that delivered goods and people along the island to the protected Ka’ena Point Bird Sanctuary. Many a birder might have planned a whole trip just around the possibility of catching a rare glimpse of nesting Laysan Albatrosses and chicks, but they were positively thick (and fluffy) on the ground in the Park. 

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A hula performance near Leaping Rock at Ka‘ena Point State Park. (Photo by Tarra Gaines)

Along with such a surprising bird encounter, I spotted humpbacks in the distance and monk seals sunning themselves on the rocks much closer. The culmination of the journey came in the shadow of Leaping Rock, a sacred place for Hawaiians where souls make the final leap into the Realm of the Gods. There Perry and one of his students honored my small group with a Hula performance that though dance and song depicts the story of, Hi’iaka, the favorite sister of Pele, on one of her life quests.

The Four Seasons Oahu offers an array of similar custom experiences along with nature and cultural activities. The popular Ka’aumoana Snorkel & Sail trip became another favorite of mine, not just to spend an afternoon on the water. Between snorkeling times among the coral and green sea turtles the Ka’aumoana crew weaved stories of mo’omeheu Hawai’i (Hawaiian culture) and the mo’olelo (history) along with ecological knowledge about the West Oahu coast. 

Oahu’s Food Power

I also had a chance to trace the farm to table and rum distillery to bar circle of epicurean life with trips to the Kahumana Organic Farm and Ko Hana Distilleries. Even during these excursions that would make the most knowledgable foodie and rum connoisseur tropical-green with envy, I heard stories and histories of indigenous Oahu fruits and sugar cane varieties. 

Dining was its own great Oahu adventure. For those now embracing the added safety of outdoor dining — and in Hawaii why would you not? — everywhere I went during my stay had patio and outdoor seating, from the five star southern Italian Noe at the Four Seasons to the rustic cafe at Kahumana Organic Farm. 

For the ultimate in sandy elegance, consider dining at Mina’s Fish House under the resort’s Hale Wa’a (a grass-roofed open-air house) for special and intimate events. With our toes in the sand, you can learn the unspoken motto in the hale was “no shoes, perfect service.” 

 Mina’s Fish House by Michelin-starred Chef Michael Mina even has its own fish sommeliers, who can offer guests a kind of mini fish schooling at their table, making suggestions based on their taste, while also giving delicious insights into the fishy bounty of local waters. The evening’s catch of Kona lobster, Mina’s Ahi and Pacific oysters certainly sang a lyrical flavor story of its own. 

Over this past year, Hawaii has maintained one of the more stringent travel safety programs, but now visitors from the continental United States no longer have to quarantine when presenting proof of a negative COVID-19 test results taken within 72 hours of arrival. The state is also working on a plan for travelers to show proof of vaccination in order to bypass certain restrictions.  

While I only had a few days in paradise, memories of island life have given me my own stories to tell and savor. 

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