Oahu road trip: Must-see places to go

Turtle Bay Resort is the only big hotel Turtle Bay Resort is the only big hotel along the east and north shores of Oahu in Hawaii. The luxury 452-room resort recently underwent a massive renovation of guest rooms and public spaces. Photo Credit: MCT / Kristin Jackson

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In the tiny, ramshackle Waikane Store, on Oahu's east shore, a cheerful woman in a old-fashioned hairnet offered up Hawaiian-style sushi. And that means Spam.

The canned meat long has been a Hawaiian favorite, morphing into all kinds of dishes, including Spam musubi -- slices of grilled Spam draped on blocks of rice. At this store, it's made in the back, along with hot dog rolls, slices of hot dog encased in rice.

You could, if you prefer, get traditional Japanese sushi all around Oahu, including at fancy restaurants in high-rise Waikiki. Or try the local version at a little down-home place like Waikane, part of the essence of "country" that endures along this part of the island.

Storms roll in from the Pacific, dumping about 100 inches of rain a year on some of this windward coast and helping keep much of it rural and less touristy. I drove a scenic route out of Waikiki that hugs the coast all the way, ending up at the island's wave-pounded North Shore. Here's a sampling of what to see as you drive east, then north from Waikiki, mostly on routes 72 and 83.

1. HANAUMA BAY NATURE PRESERVE Start early in the morning to get a parking place and beat the crowds that flock to this protected bay that has some of Hawaii's best snorkeling. There's a bonanza of tropical fish, and sometimes sea turtles, to be seen in the steep-walled, collapsed volcanic crater that's now ocean-filled. Walk down to the beach or take the park's tram. Hanauma has a visitor center and natural-history exhibits.

INFO About 11 miles from Waikiki, just off Route 72. Admission $7.50, parking $1. See bit.ly/1oxljCt

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2. SANDY BEACH Stop and see the daredevil body surfers and bodyboarders at this beach off Route 72. Don't go in the water unless you're very experienced. Waves toss people here, causing injuries or worse.

INFO About two miles from Hanauma Bay, with a parking lot right off Route 72.

3. MAKAPU'U POINT LIGHTHOUSE TRAIL Walk to the top of a bluff on a paved trail with outstanding views of towering headlands and islets, humpback whales and paragliders. Makapu'u Point is at Oahu's eastern tip, and the mile- long trail winds 500 feet up amid low scrubby plants to the lookout. A red-roofed lighthouse perches postcard-perfect on a ledge part way up (although it's closed to visitors). At the top are abandoned military bunkers and views, views, views.

INFO About 2.5 miles from Sandy Beach. Parking lot is several hundred yards off Route 72 as it climbs between tall bluffs. No fee. See bit.ly/1k3w6b2

4. HO'OMALUHIA BOTANICAL GARDEN Going north from Makapu'u on Route 72 is this 400-acre botanical wonderland of tropical rain forest trees and shrubs. Park at some of the half-dozen themed areas to walk short trails among gardens of Polynesian, African, native Hawaiian and other plants and to a small lake.

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INFO About 13.5 miles from Makapu'u Point. Watch for signs to the garden turnoff in the suburban area of Kaneohe. No fee. See bit.ly/1fAguHU

5. BYODO-IN TEMPLE Hook into Route 83 -- the two-lane meandering route to the North Shore -- and veer off it to the surreal Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. The 200-acre cemetery, spreading over rolling hills, contains a replica of a Japanese temple, with a pagoda-like roof, a gleaming statue of Buddha inside and a koi pond. Built in 1968 to commemorate a century of Japanese immigration to Hawaii, it's the grandest of the replica temples that dot the cemetery.

INFO About 4.5 miles from Ho'omaluhia garden. It's also in suburban Kaneohe, along the highway. $3 admission. See byodo-in.com

6. WAIKANE Get a glimpse of local life at the little Waikane Store and low wood houses tucked into masses of junglelike greenery. For miles on either side of Waikane, the route skirts the ocean and is dotted with roadside beach parks. Choose the one you like best and pause for a beach stroll or a picnic, perhaps with the store's Spam musubi for a snack.

INFO About five miles from Byodo-In Temple.

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7. POLYNESIAN CULTURAL CENTER And now for something completely different, a Polynesian cultural theme park run by Mormons in small-town Hawaii.

Utah's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1963 to highlight Polynesian culture and offer employment to students at the Hawaii branch of Brigham Young University.

Themed performance areas or "villages" of thatched-roof buildings are surrounded by emerald-green lawns and palms that stretch along a man-made stream. At each area -- Hawaii, Samoa, Maori New Zealand (Aotearoa), Fiji, Tonga, Easter Island, Tahiti and the Marquesas -- fresh-faced staff perform traditional songs, stories and dances.

Day admission is $39.95 for an adult (which includes a short film on Hawaii in the impressive new theater). An evening show of songs and fire-dance special effects is an additional $39.95. (There are package discounts plus some discounts for seniors and children.) Or go deluxe with a luau or prime-rib dining package.

INFO About 15 miles from Waikane. For a daytime visit to the villages, get there right when it opens, or even before, to beat the tour buses that come rolling in. See polynesia.com

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8. NORTH SHORE Beyond the Polynesian Cultural Center, Route 83 veers inland past small communities and shrimp-farming ponds where a dozen roadside food trucks serve big plates of garlic, lemon-butter and curried shrimp.

Soon you'll spot Turtle Bay Resort, where you can park in the lot. Stroll past the right side of the hotel to the lovely Kulima Bay, where you can swim without fear of dangerously big waves.

After your dip, check out more of the North Shore, including several funky shops in Haleiwa; seven miles of white sand beaches; and Waimea Bay, where 50-foot waves sometimes come thundering in. Savor this wilder side of Oahu before backtracking along the east coast, or take the fast and not-nearly-so-scenic 45-mile interior route, including the H2 freeway, back to Honolulu.

INFO About 7.5 miles to Turtle Bay from the Polynesian Cultural Center. See bit.ly/1mDVqkZ

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