I could hardly believe I was actually there: standing in the warm waters of Waikiki beach with my wife and daughters. Surfers and outrigger canoes harnessed the waves nearby and the iconic Diamond Head crater loomed in the distance. That picture postcard moment is now etched in my mind some ten years later, but it seemed too good to be true at the time. This was not a lifestyle to which we were accustomed. It was only the second time our 9-year-old daughters had ever been to a beach, let alone one of the most famous beaches in the world. We were an ordinary middle-class family struggling to make ends meet. So how did we end up on the trip of a lifetime?
The short answer is we were there on the company dime. The long answer starts when I began working for a major insurance company. Industry designations were highly valued by the company and they paid for employees to not only take the classes, but also for the employee and spouse to attend the conferment ceremonies upon completion. The conferment ceremonies were held in different locations around the country, including Hawaii every ten years or so. As you can imagine, many employees timed their classes to coincide with that conferment trip. I began taking classes at the rate of one or two per year and could have finished in time to go to Nashville. Nashville is a wonderful city, but I had been there and it was within driving distance if we ever wanted to go again. Hawaii represented a trip of a lifetime for us, so I planned my classes accordingly, along with over hundreds of other employees from my company alone.
If this was a trip of a lifetime for us, it certainly was for our daughters as well and we wanted them to go with us. The travel agent found us the least expensive flight possible so we could afford to pay for their airfare out of pocket. Interestingly, the route went through Atlanta. So we flew east to Atlanta before catching a connecting flight back west to Hawaii and ended up spending about 12 hours in the air. But it was well worth it as we touched down in Honolulu and took a cab to our hotel.
If this trip had been on our dime, we would have found the least expensive hotel available that would still be minimally acceptable to my wife, but the company put us up in the Sheraton Waikiki, with an ocean-view room no less! Have I mentioned that we’re not used to this kind of lifestyle? But this was our home for the next six days, four of which were paid by the company, and two of which we scrimped and saved to pay ourselves and extend our visit. In addition, the company paid meal expenses for my wife and I the first four days, which we could leverage to feed all four of us by sharing entrees. The next two days we survived eating out one meal per day along with some PBJ sandwiches and cheese and crackers bought from the ubiquitous ABC stores. That’s the way we usually roll on our trips!
Although certain parts of the trip are still vivid in my memory today, some of the day to day details have faded. I’ll share the main attractions we visited with some commentary on the things that stand out even now.
This was destination number one on my list and we started there on day one, riding the bus from Waikiki. The museum was interesting to me and although our daughters were probably a little young to really understand, they enjoyed climbing on an anti-aircraft gun and looking through a periscope.
But the memorial itself is one of the sacred spaces in America and moving in a way that is difficult to explain. The memorial is accessed from across the harbor by Navy boats. Visitors who had been talking and enjoying a boat ride suddenly spoke in hushed tones as we approached the memorial. It feels like entering a church or visiting a graveyard–which it is–and elicits a similar reverence. One cannot help but be moved by the lives that were lost in this watery tomb and the events that were set in motion by their deaths. Surrounded by tropical beauty and yet simple, if not stark in appearance, the memorial captures well the conflicting emotions that still ring out from the “Date Which Will Live in Infamy.” The Arizona Memorial lived up to its place as our number one destination.
We did not tour the other exhibits around Pearl Harbor, such as the USS Bowfin submarine, or the USS Missouri battleship, but one could certainly spend the day here immersed in World War II history. Upon returning back to shore, we caught what we thought was a bus back to Waikiki. After riding for about 30 minutes in the wrong direction, we realized our (my) mistake and asked the bus driver who instructed us to get off and wait for another bus going back the way we came. It took about 45 minutes for the other bus to come by and this certainly wasn’t the part of Honolulu advertised in the tourist brochures. I was a fan of the “Dog the Bounty Hunter” TV show and I imagined that this might be where he would find some of his wanted criminals. Or maybe it is where we would have found affordable lodging had we been paying the bill. My wife was not amused. But the bus finally came and delivered us to downtown Honolulu (which wasn’t much better) where we could catch a connecting bus back to where we were temporarily living like the rich and famous in Waikiki. It wasn’t the way we intended to spend those three hours, but it certainly gave us a story to tell.
Our family loves hiking, so the next destination on our list was to climb Diamond Head. This 1.5 mile round-trip hike with 500 feet of sea-level elevation gain was not as difficult as what we are used to in Colorado, but then there aren’t any extinct volcanoes with ocean views in Colorado. After visiting the Arizona memorial, our girls were in full World War II mode and pretended to be watching out for Nazis on our way up the trail. They may have been confused about the combatants involved, but the abandoned bunkers were fun to explore. And the view from the top is certainly one-of-a-kind. Diamond Head was well worth the time and effort as our number two destination.
Our animal-loving girls were really the driving force behind our next destination. The Honolulu Zoo was within walking distance of our hotel with the bonus of some landmarks along the way down Waikiki beach. In addition to the usual lions, tigers, giraffes, and elephants, the zoo features an impressive variety of tropical birds. We also got a kick out of the gibbons who were very interactive with zoo guests. While it was enjoyable to visit with our elementary-age girls, the zoo would probably rank lower on our list under other circumstances. There are some unique animals and birds, but most of the exhibits can be seen in any other zoo. On a related note, our girls loved Build-a-Bear Workshops and already had more than one. But the souvenir they most wanted from Honolulu was another Build-a-Bear animal. Sometimes as a parent you do what your kids want to do and seeing their joy is just as great as anything else you could do.
Next on our list was snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. The bay is a protected area with its own reef which provides a habitat for a myriad of tropical fish. We only took a disposable waterproof camera with us here, so the picture quality isn’t great. But seeing these fish up close, including the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, Hawaii’s state fish, was amazing. Most of the fish were fairly small, but it was a bit startling when a Trevally swam up behind us. This was another destination that was well worth the time to visit.
The bus system in and around Honolulu is very efficient (as long as you get on the right bus), but after four days we were ready to explore more of the island, so we rented a car. The first day we drove the Pali Highway over the beautiful Ko’olau Range. The contrast between mountains and sea level here is truly dramatic and I wish I had taken more pictures. Our destination was Lanikai Beach with its gorgeous white sand, blue water, and gentle waves. The girls loved playing on this beach so we spent a good part of the day there. On the return trip, we followed the Kalanianaole Highway around the coast that I remembered from the TV show “Magnum PI.” We stopped briefly at the Halona Blowhole Lookout, but after spending the day at the beach we were tired by this point and again I only took one picture that didn’t really capture it. There’s no way for pictures to capture the experience anyway but this entire loop was well worth the cost of renting a car.
Our route the next day took us on the Kamehameha Highway toward the North Shore. We stopped at the Dole Plantation to do the pineapple maze. Again, this was probably something we would skip under other circumstances, but it was fun because our girls enjoyed it.
The North Shore
Continuing on, we drove up the North Shore, stopping a few times for pictures (again not enough) and venturing as far as Laie before turning back. We wanted to end the day watching the sunset fade into the ocean and chose Waimea Bay Beach Park. We didn’t dress for swimming that day, but that didn’t keep the girls from playing in the surf. The sunset was everything we imagined and more, again well worth the drive. A late dinner at a quaint place in Haleiwa rounded out the day.
On our final day we asked our daughters what they wanted to do. “Play on the beach,” they said without hesitation. So we spent the last morning on Waikiki Beach soaking up the last bit of sun and sand before the evening flight back to the mainland. After all, we don’t usually get to live like the rich and famous, right? Although, we did notice a couple of people–I’m assuming homeless–who had spent the night on the beach. Or maybe they were just ordinary tourists like us who couldn’t afford the exorbitant hotel rates. But just like that, the trip came to an end and it was back to reality. Our girls asked when we could come back and were sad when we said not any time soon. It’s been ten years now and with two girls in college I still don’t think we’ll get back there any time soon. We have been on a number of other great trips in the continental U.S. since then, but because of the circumstances of this one and the age of our daughters, we will always remember our stay on Waikiki Beach as our trip of a lifetime.
One other memory from this trip: I’m sure I reminded the girls to make sure they had packed all of their stuff before we left. But somewhere over the Pacific we realized that something had been left behind. I had bought a nice little ukulele at the Ala Moana Center and I left it in the room. Maybe the girls should have reminded me to pack all my stuff. The staff at the Sheraton Waikiki was kind enough to mail it to me and I still have it to remind me of that great trip.