From Hawaii Kai to Kailua on Kalanainaole Highway/Route 72 are about 15 magnificent miles studded with volcanic craters, chomped by crashing surf, crossed by ancient lava flows and blessed with unpeopled beaches. This small stretch of road can – and should – cost you a whole day. Count it as an investment in glory.
Go: Begin in Hawaii Kai, where about 35,000 lucky people live along a network of canals and marinas. Head uphill. Brake for scenic lookouts. Wind around the cliffs and lava shelves skirting Koko Head Park. Whales play in the offshore waters November to April. Stretch out along the Kaiwi coastline, which is flat, hot and assaulted by dangerous waves (look, don’t surf ). Round the bend at Makapuu Point, and the whole panorama of windward Oahu explodes on your senses. The green palisades of the Koolau Mountains will be on your left, and beaches, beaches, beaches on your right. Head through the rural, languid town of Waimanalo and on to Kailua, a country town gone cute. Kailua Beach’s two miles of silky white sand is the town’s soul.
Stop: The pullout at Makapuu Point is where the mountains plunge down to the sea in a green fortress of jagged peaks and low-lying clouds. It’s nothing less than astounding. See dramatic offshore islands and more shades of blue than you ever imagined existed. Below is Sea Life Park, featuring a marine mammal show and a 300,000-gallon aquarium with a live coral reef teeming with sea turtles, tropical fish and sharks. The new Sea Trek even lets you swim alongside dolphins, sea lions and rays.
Along the Route: Start the day with a hotcake sandwich at Zippy’s in Hawaii Kai. Indulge in a coconut “snapple,” a flaky turnover.
If there’s one place in the world you must snorkel, it’s Hanauma Bay Marine Preserve. Explore a natural aquarium formed when the seaward wall of an ancient volcano fell away and the ocean rushed in. Coral formed and made a home for thousands of Hawaiian reef fish. Look for the humuhumu nukunuku apuaa, the state fish.
Don’t miss the Koko Crater Botanical Garden. Cradled within an ancient caldera are groves of plumeria trees, rare endemic Hawaiian flora and dryland gardens from around the globe. A paved trail climbs to views of the rugged shore. Breathe deeply — this is the cleanest air on the planet, scoured by thousands of miles of open ocean.
If your version of hiking includes a saddle and horse, horseback ride at Correa Ranch in Waimanalo. Look for the “pony rides” sign on the side of the road. See ranch owner Weston Correa’s carved wooden canoes and kii (traditional Hawaiian god images).
Take a break and get a table at Keneke’s, with the orange-and-white checkerboard façade, in Waimanalo. Order the industrial-strength local plate lunch with a teriyaki beef burger, two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. Indulge in a dessert of rainbow shave ice with adzuki beans. After lunch, go to the Naturally Hawaiian Gallery & Gifts. You can’t miss the big painted horses and the aqua 1961 Ford Falcon out front. Artist Patrick Ching hangs his portraits of native birds and fauna inside.
A few miles down the road you’ll find Ulupo Heiau. It is said that the Menehune, Hawaii’s little people, built this massive temple in one night by the light of a full moon.
At the end of the day, settle in at the Kona Brewing Company at Koko Marina. On a Sunday, you might hear ukulele virtuoso Ledward Kaapana.