Photo by Yi Chen-Chiang/Shutterstock
Ala Moana Beach Park is far less crowded than nearby Waikiki Beach, even in the middle of summer.
A former Honolulu resident reflects on the complicated realities of living in paradise.
The last time I was in Hawaii, I took a photo of ocean foam receding from the sand at Ala Moana Beach Park and posted the image on Instagram with the obnoxious caption: “You guys, I’m so happy right now. I kind of can’t even.” Sandwiched between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu with a popular park and two large shopping centers within walking distance, the beach should be a crowded mess. Instead, it’s a quiet, half-mile strip of white sand where I ground myself at the beginning of every trip to Honolulu.
I haven’t always been fond of Oahu, in spite of the island’s abundance of sunshine and photogenic stretches of surf. The first 13 years of my life took place in Northern California, where I found easy access to big cities, peaty redwood forests, snow-covered mountains, beaches, theme parks, deserts, and just about every environment a kid could want to visit.
My mom also introduced my tiny self to so many worlds outside the Golden State—Washington, Vermont, New York, Mexico—that I caught the travel bug before I knew what that meant. My mom ventured further and came home with photos of places like Jamaica and France—places that I was sure I’d see when my trips weren’t bound to school breaks and holidays.
Then we moved to Hawaii.
“It took about three years to find my groove at school and another three to feel at ease with my peers. Even then, I despised the monotonous weather and being stuck on a rock in the middle of the Pacific.”
People often assume island life is all paradise, all the time. But as someone who had grown up on “the mainland,” I went stir-crazy. My scenery options had been drastically narrowed, and the fact that a minimum of a four-hour flight was required to go anywhere but another island put a damper on travel. Most of the family I grew up with was more than 2,000 miles away, and cultural differences made it more difficult to find new friends than when I’d switched schools in California.
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In classic teenager fashion, I hated everything. Living in Hawaii was no vacation, especially at an intensely competitive prep school where the seventh grade orientation guide stated that our sole purpose was to get into an Ivy League college. Like every other kid there, I was used to being the smartest in my class, but since students were also expected to participate in artistic, athletic, and philanthropic activities, I stretched myself impossibly thin while feeling like nothing I did was enough. It took about three years to find my groove at school and another three to feel at ease with my peers. Even then, I despised the monotonous weather and being stuck on a rock in the middle of the Pacific.
My senior year of high school, a friend and I realized that an experimental class schedule and lunch-adjacent free periods would grant us four hours to ourselves—no classes, no band rehearsals, no club meetings, nothing. Our school was just a couple miles from Ala Moana, the nearest beach. As seniors with off-campus privileges, it didn’t take long for us to do the figurative math.
On the big day, we wore bikinis under button-down blouses and dress code–friendly jeans. The moment our free periods began, we dumped all our textbooks in our lockers and practically skipped to the bus stop, carrying backpacks stuffed with beach towels, sunscreen, and sandals that were distinctly not dress code–friendly. We disembarked less than 10 minutes later at Ala Moana Shopping Center—Alaz, as we called it back then—and made a beeline for the food court to stock up on mochi and water before heading to the beach across the street.
Until that moment, beaches had played a weekends-only role in my life. Monday through Friday, my mom worked a nine-to-five office job, and I had school and sports practices until at least 6 p.m. Any given week, we spent more time driving by the ocean on our daily commute than we did getting our toes wet.
But for that one glorious afternoon, my friend and I lounged in the sun and waded in clear, teal water. We talked about boys; the lack of tourists on the beach; what we hoped for life after graduation. I can’t tell you how many times we laughed about doing this all in the middle of a school day. For the first time, I felt I was spending my youth on the island in a way that could have made me happy. Less successful, perhaps, but happy. It was easily the highlight of my high school career, better than any award or aced exam.
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Our schedules never again aligned so perfectly. My friend and I rode out the rest of the school year without any other midday beach runs and, as intended, I left for California the moment I could move into a college dorm. For years, I returned to Hawaii with a bad taste in my mouth; the memories of isolation and exhaustion far outweighed the joy of that afternoon, and I blamed the place, not the circumstances. But on one summer visit in my late 20s, that finally began to change.
“For years, I returned to Hawaii with a bad taste in my mouth.”
On that visit, my dad was buried in meetings downtown and couldn’t pick me up from the airport, so I took a cab to Alaz to wait until he was done. I soon grew bored with the air-conditioning and lugged my duffel bag across the street to Ala Moana Beach Park.
The beach was . . . not swamped? When most of the south shore was packed with families taking advantage of their children’s summer break? I was surprised, but by no means complaining. I took off my T-shirt to have something other than scorching-hot sand to sit on, tanning in a sports bra and not giving a damn what the surrounding strangers thought of me.
Listening to the waves lapping at the shore and passing time without any specific intention, I started to remember how much I had enjoyed Hawaii before living there. I used to look forward to going to the beach, not grumble about how difficult parking would be. I used to smile at the prospect of spending a week in predictable weather—lows in the mid-70s, highs in the low 80s, with a chance of morning showers. I used to like being there. My emotional muscle memory had made it easy to abhor Oahu after moving back to California; it had taken years to realize that I didn’t disdain the island, I just had a miserable time navigating life there. Now that I see the difference and don’t need to deal with the realities of being a Hawaiian resident, I can better appreciate the place again.
When my dad picked me up, he was surprised at how chipper (and sunburned) I was after a five-hour flight. The sunburn faded, but the lesson stuck—now I always rent a car at the airport and give myself time at Ala Moana Beach Park to ease into being in Hawaii. Contending with dense traffic, over-touristed destinations, and whatever personal reason prompted the trip is far more palatable after relaxing on the beach where I’m reminded of the good that Hawaii has to offer.
Even now, when I sunbathe in my driveway thousands of miles from a Hawaiian beach, I imagine the warm sands of Ala Moana beneath me and comb my memory for the distant murmurs of beachgoing families and six-inch waves. It’s ironic: For all the years I spent wanting to leave Oahu, I find myself taking real comfort in this one, tiny slice of the island.
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