Paradise lost, Hawaiian style

Waikiki Beach is no longer the idyllic fantasy setting it once was. Overcrowded, overpriced and unremittingly bland, it's become a package holiday hell. But Oahu still has its compensations

You have to watch your step on Waikiki beach. Watch your step, because that rough patch of sand-covered rock you think you feel beneath your flip-flopped feet might just be someone's suncream-smeared head. Watch your step, because the lure of surf tugging you away into the great Pacific yonder is actually a lot less treacherous than the swirling rapids of human flesh arrayed in tight but ever-changing formation before you.

You have to watch your step on Waikiki beach. Watch your step, because that rough patch of sand-covered rock you think you feel beneath your flip-flopped feet might just be someone's suncream-smeared head. Watch your step, because the lure of surf tugging you away into the great Pacific yonder is actually a lot less treacherous than the swirling rapids of human flesh arrayed in tight but ever-changing formation before you.

One false move and you might trip over the outstretched abdomen of a Japanese tourist, or a beach bag stuffed with silk wraparounds and John Grisham novels, or a Mai Tai half-submerged in its plastic cup in the hot Hawaiian sand.

Ah, Waikiki. The name conjures up so many romantic images, of idle stretches of golden beachfront gently licked by the deep blue waters of the Pacific, of Polynesian women in grass skirts swaying to the mellifluous rhythms of island guitars, of surfing hunks clutching their boards and sprinting out into the cresting waves.

These are certainly the images Waikiki uses to sell itself. The most famous beach in the world, it tags itself immodestly "the closest thing on earth to Paradise".

The reality, unfortunately, is somewhat less idyllic. If this ever was the Garden of Eden, it's worth reflecting that paradise probably wasn't designed to accommodate Adam, Eve and 60,000 of their closest friends - 60,000 being the number of people staying in Waikiki's narrow strip of hotels and holiday apartments on any given day of the year. And these are hardly the backpacking crowd. Almost all of them are on package tours, bussed in from the airport, parked in one of the monster hotels with their hundreds of identical rooms, left to drink, dance and burn in the sun for a week, and then whisked back out again with all the charm and personal attention of a factory stamping machine.

Around half of all Hawaii's tourists are to be found converging on this tiny stretch of coast, ignoring not only the rest of the island of Oahu but the rest of the Hawaiian archipelago, too. The sheer numbers invading Waikiki have pushed the architecture ever upwards, with the result that the skyline is a tangle of soulless, concrete high-rises interconnected by mezzanine walkways and conveyor belts that would not look out of place in downtown Tokyo. In fact, one of the first intelligence tests that any visitor faces when landing on Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main drag, is figuring how to get through the maze of concrete alleys, shopping malls and hotel service entrances to reach the beach just one block away. Quite a few people give up and retreat to the relative safety of their hotel swimming pools.

Once reached, the beach itself is another disappointment. This is not some vast field of golden sand, like Venice Beach in southern California, but a strip, or rather a series of strips, of narrow ocean front that barely seem to constitute a beach at all. If you clamber over a few rocks and take a few concrete walkways in front of the main hotels, you can walk end-to-end in half an hour or so - assuming you aren't waylaid tip-toeing between the bodies along the way.

It's not all bad. The water, like the water throughout Hawaii, achieves depths of blue that habitués of dirtier seas such as the Mediterranean can only dream about. And, unlike so much of the wilder Hawaiian coastline, the tides are relatively benign, making it safe for bathing for all ages.

But that's where the charm ends. The local tourist office optimistically touts Waikiki as a great "people" place, with lots of shops, bars, restaurants and discos. "If you're looking for members of your own species, you've found the mother lode," one of the more forthcoming official brochures announces. The acid test for enjoying Waikiki is determining whether you consider the assorted crowd's members to be of the same species as you. Most of them fall into one of two categories: the Spring Break crowd, college kids; and general ground-zero package tourists, either puddingy Middle Americans seeking to fulfil a holiday fantasy in their loud T-shirts and white sneakers, or else Japanese groups more interested in finding decent golf courses and eating ramen noodle soup than in worrying too much about the gross overpopulation of their surrounds.

Perhaps the gravest sin Waikiki commits is in its unremitting blandness. The tourist shops are not so much overpriced (although they are) as utterly devoid of any imagination. The restaurants, with a few notable exceptions, offer little better than a gloss on fast food. On Kalakaua Avenue, a brass band gives a lame rendition of the theme from Hawaii-Five-O and other cringing pieces of ersatz Hawaiian culture. Even the discos, apart from the obligatory leis, Mai Tais and " aloha" greeting you at the door, feel no different from a thousand similar places in any US resort town.

All of which is a great pity, because Waikiki - like all paradises gone sour - was once a place of genuine charm and natural beauty. The nobility that ruled the Hawaiian islands in the latter half of the 19th century were first drawn to it because it was secluded, free of mosquitoes, balmy and only a few miles east of their seat of power in Honolulu. Great tourist palaces sprung up early in the 20th century, notably the Moana (now part of the Sheraton chain) and the Royal Hawaiian, an extravaganza in pink whose faux oriental outrageousness is unfortunately muted these days by the white concrete blocks that crowd it out. Even the beach used to be more impressive.

The great consolation of Waikiki is how easy it is to escape. Just a short bus or car ride away is the crater of the extinct Diamond Head volcano. Waikiki, Honolulu and the military-industrial complexes of Pearl Harbor and beyond stretch away to the west; to the north, are the soft hills and lush greenery of Koko Head and the lower end of the Koolau mountains. One well-trodden tourist path heads north from Honolulu to the North Shore and its famous surfing beaches. Oahu's greatest natural wonders, though, are to be found on the eastern, windward coast, which is dotted with the settlements of Hawaiians and mainlanders but remains blissfully free of tourists. Just five miles east of Diamond Head, the landscape grows rugged and mountainous. Beyond Makapuu Point, with its precariously perched lighthouse, lie the wonders of Waimanaio Bay, with its deserted sandy beaches and views of a rocky archipelago of smaller islands. At the north end of the bay, Kailua and Lanikai have two of the most idyllic beaches anywhere, with palms and other exotic trees hugging the yellow sand.

Oahu has other, better-kept secrets, like a tortuous mountain path called the Stairway to Heaven, and rocky, near-deserted beaches on its leeward coast around Yokohama Bay. Even Honolulu has its charms; Chinatown, in particular, offers real insight into the workings of a community and boasts outstanding hole-in-the-wall style restaurants.

All of which are reasons to feel better about Waikiki. That may sound like the most back-handed of recommendations, but if you do find yourself in Paradise Lost, at least it will be easier than ploughing through Milton to achieve Paradise Regained.

Getting there: there are no direct flights from the UK to the state of Hawaii, but plenty of connecting services via the mainland US to Honolulu - the main airport for the state, just a half-hour, $1.50 bus ride from Waikiki. From January, expect to pay £400-£450 for a return from London to Honolulu through a discount agent such as Trailfinders (020-7937 5400). A fare of £407 applies to a British Airways/American Airlines combination via Los Angeles (a free stopover is possible in one direction), for travel between Christmas Day and the end of March. You have to book at least a week in advance. On Air France, you can travel from London, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow via Paris (free stopover) to San Francisco for around £430. Honolulu is easily incorporated in round-the-world itinerary, eg on the Star Alliance (United, Air New Zealand) or Oneworld (British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas).

More information: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Avenue, Suite 801, Honolulu, Hawaii USA 96815 (001 808 923 1811, www.go-hawaii.com)

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