White Sands, High Waves


A scantily clothed man sprints along the shore, fire blazing from the stick in his hand. As he pauses to light each of dozens of torches, the sound of ukuleles wafts from a hotel patio, and the flickering fires cast a shimmering golden glow across the lapping waves.

This is Waikiki, part of the vast, mythical tourism complex that is Hawaii’s Oahu island. Scenes like the nightly torch-lighting ceremony — part Hawaiian culture, part kitsch — repeat daily across these vast white beaches, where generations of lei-draped vacationers have come for that intoxicating mix of Pacific exoticism, lavish volcanic scenery and warm-weather escape.

The most urbane of Hawaii’s islands, Oahu is home to the increasingly hip and culturally diverse capital Honolulu, with fabled Waikiki Beach and the sobering history of Pearl Harbor. This winter, it is also home to quite a few travel deals. The economy has taken its toll on a destination literally out of reach for many, and many discount hotel and airfare packages are being offered.

And winter brings plenty of reasons to head to Oahu now: the opening of a new Pearl Harbor Museum and Visitor Center, a popular Jewish film festival, and the chance to watch the world’s greatest surfers ply their craft, to name just a few.

You don’t have to be a honeymooner, though the giggly canoodlers on the plane out of California all seem to be. With lush green mountains visible from everywhere and sultry perfumed air, Oahu’s sensual beauty invites romance.

In contrast to its more remote, rural island sisters, however, Oahu has Honolulu’s buzzy nightlife and plenty of local culture. The Chinatown district, in particular, has evolved in recent years into a trendy boutique neighborhood where the young and stylish mingle in Asian cafes.

Travelers on a budget or non-drivers can make do with a home base anywhere near the water in Honolulu, where the Waikiki resorts — long the heart of Hawaiian tourism — form a high-rise community along the wide, sandy beach. The city itself has a decent bus system and plentiful taxis.

For the Chanukah kick-off last week, Hawaii’s first Jewish governor, Republican Linda Lingle, was the special guest for the Chanukah menorah lighting ceremony. The public menorah at Waikiki’s King Kalakaua Park is one of several holiday events organized by Chabad of Hawaii, where observant travelers can find a daily Orthodox minyan or attend a kosher Shabbaton with the locals.

Chabad’s website, chabadofhawaii.com, has extensive information about Jewish travelers’ resources — and even sells reversible Hawaiian-print kippot, the perfect souvenir. It also supervises the offerings at Oahu Kosher (www.oahukosher.com), a kosher-meal delivery service available throughout the islands.

As on the West Coast of the mainland, Hawaii’s Jewish community is recently established, diverse and low-key in nature. Temple Emanu-El, Hawaii’s oldest synagogue at 51 years, is planning its Ninth Annual Kirk Cashmere Jewish Film Festival for Feb. 12-20 (with details to be announced shortly). In the past, this popular festival has had a distinctly local slant, with films highlighting the intersections of Jewish and Asian cultures.

Just in time for Pearl Harbor Day — Dec. 7, the date in 1941 when Japanese attacked the U.S.S. Arizona and kicked off our involvement in World War II — the National Parks Service is unveiling the new Pearl Harbor Museum and Visitor Center. Pearl Harbor, still an important naval base with stunning views of the Pacific, is an easy drive west of the capital (non-drivers can take a shuttle ride from the Waikiki resort strip).

The visitor center is the central clearinghouse for Pearl Harbor’s memorial complex — and during high season, if you don’t get there early, you may not get into the sights at all. Start with an absorbing half-hour film about the events of 1941, then take a guided audio tour and a boat ride out to the U.S.S. Arizona, still submerged in place after 69 years.

Even farther out of town, the giant waves of Oahu’s North Shore play host to the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, a premier surfing competition through Dec. 20 — and a thrill even for landlubbers. Anyone can watch these daredevils on boards perform at several beach locations, a truly Hawaiian spectacle.

To get a better look at what’s under the sea, head to the Waikiki Aquarium, one of the island’s true highlights. The Hawaiian marine environment is incredibly diverse — from shallow coral reefs to deep-water shark habitats — and it’s all here on display, with exhibits to fill a whole day.

After that, do you dare snorkel? If you prefer to take in the water from above, head out to the legendary Diamond Head, a striking promontory at one end of Waikiki that offers stunning Pacific views. The half-hour hike up to the top of this volcanic crater is easy for most, and rewarding for the hands-on experience of this unique and volatile landscape.