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Unexpected Oahu

When temperatures rise, so does the possibility of adventure and romance. The zone just south of the Tropic of Cancer has an ideal and inviting climate, hot enough year-round to maintain water temperatures that beckon swarms of turtles, whitetip reef sharks and flocks of other finned denizens — yet cool enough each evening to enjoy a walk on the beach.
Image: Scuba diving
Peering around the screw of the San Pedro.
/ Source: Sport Diver Magazine

It’s massive, I think to myself. I’m still 80 feet above it, slowly descending, but it looks as big as a dining room table, even from here. Then I notice it’s not alone. There are two other giant green sea turtles snoozing on the submerged deck of the 175-foot YO-257. By the time I make it to the deck, they’ve become even bigger. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many big sea turtles in one place, and none of them seem bothered that I’ve now settled about two feet away. The biggest one opens an ancient eye, and I can almost hear its thoughts: Oh, one of you. I wish your bubbles were a little less noisy; I’m trying to get some rest here.

If I were still on the surface, I could see Waikiki and its famous beach. I could see Diamondhead and the Honolulu skyline. Mist-shrouded mountains tower above this, the most-visited city on the most visited island in the Pacific. In fact, I could probably swim to the boat from shore if I was feeling that much athletic swagger.

But, I’m on a shipwreck and being ignored by a pile of sea turtles. One more drops in from above and nestles in a favorite spot next to a hydroid-covered cleat near the pilothouse, closing its eyes almost immediately. They’re used to the attention, it seems. I realize why they’ve got so much nonchalance when I hear the whir of a screw and the Atlantis submarine emerges from the edge of visibility. A bunch of tourists have their faces pressed against the window as the sub eases in for a closer look at the wreck, the turtles and, now, me. I swim over and do a fin-by, waving at all the tourists. I see the flash of cameras and realize that I’ll probably be in a photo album in a week. But I quickly turn my back on the sub and return to the wreck when I see a spotted eagle ray slip over the stern, its long, elegant tail trailing behind it.

When the Atlantis sub moves away, I can see the wreck of the San Pedro about 100 feet away from the YO-257. It’s an easy swim, and soon I’m getting a two-for-one wreck deal. Both wrecks are impressive, but the San Pedro’s screw is covered in orange and red encrusting coral and explodes with color as I sweep my light over it. I slip into the shadows of the companionway of the San Pedro and there’s yet another turtle asleep in on the deck.

Back on deck after the dive, I’m a little stunned. The wrecks of Oahu, and especially off Waikiki, tend to get overlooked because they’re smack in the middle of the busiest spot in the Pacific, a city where it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of tourist distractions. In the back of my head, I almost begin to think that I’ve just been shown a little Hawaiian secret. The best spot in the islands for giant sea turtles and inarguably the best wrecks in all of Hawaii. I can’t wait to explore more.

But right now I’m off to an even more unheralded part of this famous city — Chinatown in Honolulu.

While exploring the resurging streets of Chinatown, I come across what seems like an impossible shop. Tea at 1024 (1024 Nu’uanu Avenue). The shop is filled with locals, all having tea and all women. But this is not a proper English tea. No, this is Hawaii, so everything comes Hawaiian-style, and here in Chinatown, there’s an Asian twist. Here, you come for tea and put on a feather boa and fancy hat, or for men, a top hat (the feather boa is optional for men), and you sip orange pekoe and nibble scones in this outlandish attire. Otherwise, the shop looks the part. The tea, cucumber sandwiches and scones would all be right at home in an English garden. But the owner has taken all the pretense and stodginess out of this tradition and infused it with a bit of wild abandon. I sit for tea, chat with the local women and have a grand old time in my top hat. Afterwards, the owner takes me for a quick tour of the dragon-shaped garden in the back and tells me about the resurgence of this important part of Honolulu’s dynamic history. As I wander the streets I can sense the pride locals have taken in this part of their town and the desire to retain the roots of their history on Oahu.

Image: restaurant interior
The inviting glow of Cassis by Chef Mavro, the hottest new restaurant and wine bar in Honolulu.

That night, I’m back in the wonder that is Waikiki. Perusing the stalls of the International Marketplace, watching local surfers, shopping at one of the dozens of ABC stores and stocking up on macadamia nuts. A full moon rises over the bay, casting a silver sheen on the shore and the famous beach. I leave my window shades open at my Resort Quest room and fall asleep, basking in the magical glow of the Hawaiian night.

The next morning, I’m headed back to the bay, still within site of my hotel, and soon I’m descending upon the fairly new wreck of the 168-foot Sea Tiger. Sunk in 1999 in 107 feet of water, the upright ship looms dramatically up from the sand. The deck is covered with a massive aggregation of snapper. A couple of sea turtles rest near some deck gear, and two green morays slither among the growing coat of red hydroids that have begun to carpet the surface of this artificial reef.

For the second dive, we head to a nondescript dive site called Turtle Valley. Here, we just drop below the boat. I soon find it is the perfect place if you like to see sea turtles up close and even more personal than on the wrecks (and I do). Cleaning stations abound, and the turtles come in, splay their fins and close their eyes in deep bliss as cleaner fish scour their skin and shells for parasites and dead skin. The show takes place in about 30 feet of water, so I watch the parade in this turtle haven at my leisure.

At the end of the day, I head to Wyland’s signature hotel on Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki for a drink. The famous artist’s signature paintings cover the walls, and his sculptures decorate the grounds. Each room has more signature art. The hotel itself is almost like a museum of Wyland’s work. But mostly when I go there, I think of it as a new landmark for the celebration of the sea. I hope that the hotel will somehow inspire more people to experience the ocean, to look beyond the sands of Waikiki and the surf shops in the marketplaces, and come face to face with a sea turtle, witness the majesty of a spotted eagle ray, or see the coordinated cloud of color that is a school of snapper or bigeyes. I hope more people will at least explore and in some small way care about the vast ocean at the footsteps of the world’s most famous travel destination.