Hooray for Oahu:
Insider's Tips to an affordable vacation
By Kathy Chin Leong

A wooden placard in Oahu's North Shore gift shop reads, "Take time to smell the plumeria," and that's exactly what we did on our recent 8-day trek in Oahu, Hawaii. And not only did we smell the plumeria, our motley family of four swam with the turtles, scaled Diamondhead volcano, devoured shaved ice, and much, much more. The highlight of our vacation, however, was getting insider's touring tips from my good buddy, Liz Kong, a 3rd-generation local whose blood runs thick with Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese ancestry. Thanks to "Auntie Liz," we did what real locals do when they eat, shop, and play.

. In Oahu, the operative word is "Big." Big food rules on the Main Island. And when we say Hawaii has great food, we mean great quality and quantity. Fast-food chains such as L&L Drive-In , feature a dizzying menu that offers everything from hamburgers to teriyaki chicken to saimen noodles. For under $7, you get a filled Styrofoam to-go container, consisting of two scoops of rice, macaroni, and several slabs of Korean beef, and pot stickers to boot. At the couple of L&Ls we frequented, everything was fresh and tasty. One night our family of two adults and two kids wolfed down dinner at L&L for under $14. And we had leftovers!

Another popular hangout with food served on real plates is Zippy's , a restaurant chain with clean tables and booths rampant throughout Oahu. Mo beta' in food selection and quality than our Marie Callendar's here, Zippy's serves up island treats and traditional American fare with an Asian twist. Korean chicken nuggets, for example, are tender pieces of thigh meat, soy-marinated with herbs, then deep-fried. A major step up from L&L in ambiance, Zippy's claim to fame is its dessert list which features a haupia or coconut cake and its dobash cake, a light chocolate sponge cake layered with a equally light chocolate pudding. At Zippy's, I ordered teriyaki ribs for $6.50, and for an extra $2.50, I got a mountain of mash potatoes, corn, warm roll, a drink, and dessert. Try to beat that in the Bay Area.

And what Hawaiian vacation would be complete without awesome sushi? The high-elegance Sansei Restaurant , in Waikiki, isn't just a restaurant, it's an experience. As you partake in specials such as the rainbow sushi and fresh sliced hamachi, you'll swear you've gone to Sushi Heaven and back.

At Liz' insistence, we ate our way through the island, gorging ourselves on local favorites: authentic shaved ice from Wailoa's Shaved Ice in Waikiki and Matusumoto's on the north shore; Korean b-b-q ribs ranked best at Kim Chee II , according to Liz; malasadas, Filipino sugar donuts without the hole, which she says are the yummiest at Leonard's Bakery on Kapahulu Ave. Don't forget afternoon tea at the Royal Hawaiian , referred to as the Pink Palace of the Pacific.

And if you are celebrating a birthday, go to the dinner buffet at the Oceanarium Restaurant. inside the Pacific Beach Hotel. While the seafood buffet is a treat, the real attraction is the 3 story, 280,000 gallon, mega-fishtank smack in the middle of the restaurant. For $25, a divers will write a special message on signs to surprise your guest of honor, and feed the gigantic stingrays while you dine. Book early, find out about feeding times, and be sure to secure a table right in front of the fishtank.

Local stuff
: An inexpensive thrill is hiking to the top of Diamond Head, the dormant volcano and former military bunker, located on the southern tip. Arrive early to get parking. A relatively easy, but steep hike with two staircases and a couple of dark tunnels, this jaunt can leave you dehydrated, so visitors are warned to bring water and flashlights. The multi-hued, turquoise views of the water take your breath away along the switchbacks. This adventure is a definite must-do if you are in decent physical shape, for the 360-degree panoramic vista at the summit is the hiker's reward for a job well done.

If you really want to meet local folks, go to their place of worship. We attended the Mountain View Community Church on the west side of the island to get a feel of how Hawaiian's worship. The small congregation of less than 50 meets inside a school auditorium, and my kids thought it was cool to see parishioners come in their aloha shirts, shorts, sandals and flip-flops. During the worship, only my family gawked when we saw two small birds fly in through the doorway, but the rest of the congregation kept on singing. Local hotels such as the Hilton offer non-demoninational church services right on the beach.

Tourist Stuff
. To satisfy everyone's comfort level, we signed up for the 45-minute Atlantis Submarine excursion. The $64 adult and $40 child entrance fee also gets you a boat ride to intercept the submarine, built especially for touring. This 48-passenger sub takes you to as low as 125 feet and cruises along a path passing two downed planes and sea vessels which Atlantis purchased and sank deliberately. Through circular port windows, guests view coral, schools of fish and sea animals such as tangs, trigger fish, and Moray eels. We were thrilled to witness a couple of divers who flippered down to swim among the marine life. This trip is ideal for the snorkeling-challenged!

If you have to splurge on one tourist attraction, do the Sea Life Park SeaTrek adventure. In size, Sea Life Park pales in comparison to MarineWorld. However, its exquisite oceanfront location and emphasis on interaction with the fish and mammals compensate for what it lacks in rides and jaw-dropping shows. The $89 SeaTrek adventure lets visitors plummet into the park's 300,000-gallon aquarium. SeaTrek participants don a specialized 65-pound, fiberglass helmet with a tube connected to oxygen tanks above water. The helmet rests above your wet suit and becomes light as a feather once you are submerged.

Although a tad nervous about suffocating, we dunked ourselves three fathoms into the tank with two experienced Sea Life Park divers next to us every moment. Our aquamarine tour guides gave us cameras for snapshots which were developed within the hour. They also photographed us in our sexy underwater headgear, and gave Gwen a slate to write a message to her Dad and brother. Inside this gargantuan fishbowl, tropical fish of every ilk swam past us nonchalantly, pausing only to graze upon the lettuce from our fingertips. Down under, we could communicate only through hand signals, and in this silent, fluid world, I wish I had a microphone to express my awe.

. Too bad Liz couldn't stack our family like four dominoes against the wall of her Waikiki studio apartment. Thanks to the invention of the Internet, we secured a two-story house on Lopaka Place for $150 a night on the west or "windward" side of Oahu.

Compared to other places that rented for twice as much, we lucked out when the agent told us the owners were away on a six-month vacation and wanted the house occupied at minimal cost. They left the upstairs master bedroom locked, and we had the run of the remaining 2,200 square foot area comprised of three large bedrooms, two bathrooms, a formal living room, dining area, full kitchen, enclosed patio, and family room. With a view of the Ko'Olau Mountain range, we didn't mind being sequestered in a prime residential neighborhood far from the beach.
My advice: if you don't require beachfront property, consider a rental away from tourist hotspots where you get a better value. To find out what's available in apartments, homes, and townhouses, check out web sites such as www.inheavenhawaii.com, Hawaiianbeachrentals.com, and bebackhawaii.com.

Vacations can be stressful if you don't pace yourself. One day we stayed put at another basecamp: the Hilton Hawaiian Village . Aptly named, the 5-tower hotel sits on a 22-acre megaplex with 90 shops, 18 restaurants, 8 lounges. While its not in the center of Waikiki activity, we enjoyed meandering through the array of koi ponds, a penguin arena, caged macaws and pink flamingos. With room rates starting at $200, the Hilton offers every bit of luxury imaginable with superb service.

Relaxation . In Oahu, cruising the coast via car without a deadline is an exciting way to explore the island. On the west side, there are plenty of scenic sideouts for picture taking such as the Halona Blow Hole and Makapu'u Point . Even driving through the small towns, I enjoyed spying botanical and ocean-themed artwork and murals on public school exteriors and store fronts. For the complete Hawaiian experience, you must turn on your radio to KINE/ FM , Oahu's local station which plays nothing but island music, especially the tunes of the late "Brahdah" Iz, the beloved Hawaiian musician whose claim to national fame came with his airy vocal rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

And at the Hawaiian Hilton , relaxation comes with a price tag. You can treat yourself to "aahs" at the on-site MandaraSpa . This 33,000 square foot slice of heaven comes complete with 25 treatment rooms, including special rooms for couples. Asian decor is tastefully executed down to the floating plumeria in a bowl that you see when face down on the massage table.

Part of its unique offering is its specialty in Balinese and Hawaiian facials and massages. Ocean-scented treatment rooms underscore the island theme with music and flowers. As one of the pampered guests, I received the Hawaiian Lomilomi, a 50-minute, $115 massage with emphasis on long, gentle strokes accompanied by body oil galore. To maximize your afternoon delight, set aside several hours to enjoy the facility's fitness center, steam bath, sauna, whirlpool, lounge, and pool.

. Because Hawaii was its own colony before statehood, its roots run deep with culture and tradition. And Hawaiians love to share their music and dance any chance they get. Every Friday, the revered Royal Hawaiian Band, founded in 1836 by King Kamehameha III, plays at the Iolani Palace, and throughout the island, visitors can find outdoor concerts at shopping centers, malls, parks, and hotels.

Unique to the Hilton Hawaiian Village locale is its Friday night King's Jubilee Show , a free hour-long evening held poolside complete with firedancers, various type of hula dancing, music, and a fabulous fireworks display. We found this free entertainment every bit as good as shows offered at pricey hotel luaus we have frequented in previous years.

If you want to find out about the islands in concrete detail, The Bishop Museum is the place where you spend at least half a day reading about the island's history, artifacts, and people. But if its the abbreviated island history that interests you, the Bishop has an exhibit at the Hilton, where you can spend about one or two hours in the small area looking at authentic feathered capes, early weaponry, huts, and a vareity of displays that will give you the Hawaii-lite version.

Walking . If you like walking, taking in the local color is great to do in Chinatown . We compared this Chinatown to ours in San Francisco. Unlike the small fish and poultry shops in San Francisco, Honolulu's Chinatown is home to several indoor markets with miles of aisles. Seafood and fish snacks indicative to the area such as slipper lobster and tuna jerky are plentiful. The lei-making business thrives in Chinatown, and on several streets we saw men and women sitting around tables, stringing beautiful orchid blossoms, readying them for airport and hotel greeters.
Another place for hoofers is the Dole Pineapple Plantation, $5 adults and $3 children, where you'll find the world's largest maze. The maze is comprised of 11,400 plants and hedges, and for fun, you get your entrance ticket time-stamped at the beginning and end of your trek to see how you rank with the rest of the visitors that day. To keep thing interesting, visitors must get their tickets stamped at six different booths inside the maze. We loved splitting off into two teams to see who could get through labyrinth first. Afterwards we purchased fresh pineapple juice and smoothies at the snack shack.

Shopping . Just as you can spend as little or as much as you want on food, the same goes for shopping on this island of plenty. Compared to my last visit to Oahu twenty years ago, the good news is that Hawaiian souvenirs have moved beyond kitschy battery-operated hula dolls to detailed Hawaiian quilts, multi-hued sea glass earrings, hand-painted tiles, affordable Hawaiian print backpacks and beach bags. Tasteful arts and crafts can be found in gift shops at the Ala Moana Mall , the Ward Warehouse shopping center.

Whenever we wanted to buy a souvenir, Liz wagged a finger at us and said to wait until we got to the swap meet. She was right. At the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet , we were so enamoured with the deals we went there twice. With a coupon for free parking, our adventure in bargain-hunting heaven began with ten-cent postcards, $5 sarongs, and $2 T-shirts. Fresh and dried fruit from local vendors was inexpensive, and we found find stalls upon stalls of Hawaiian quilting fabric, dresses, backpacks and purses at attractive prices. While haggling isn't as welcomed as in Hong Kong or China, you can shave costs when you buy several of one item.

Of course we didn't get to go every place that we wanted during our stay. We missed snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, we couldn't squeeze in the free outdoor movie on Waikiki beach or visit Pearl Harbor before heading for the airport. There is a good reason why "aloha" means hello and goodbye because, for our crew, when it comes to Hawaii, there will always be a next time.

Places to hit:

Aloha Stadium Swap Meet-Highway 1, Stadium Exit, North Shore, HI. Sat., Sun., Wed. 808/486-6704
Hilton Hawaiian Village, 2005 Kalia Road, Honolulu 808/949-4321
Leonard's Bakery-933 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu 808/737-5591
Matsumoto Shave Ice-66-087 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa 808/637-4827
Mountain View Community Church-45-510 Halekou Rd., Kaneohe 808/236-4144
Oceanarium Restaurant-2490 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu 1800/367-6060
Sea Life Park-41-202 Kalanianaole Hi., Waimanalo 808/259-7933
Zippy's- 666 N. Nimitz Hwy, Honolulu 808/532-4205

Kathy Chin Leong's favorite place for vacation is Hawaii, and her family has been there three times. They still cannot master the hula.

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