hawaii travel guide: pearl harbor

Like many people, I am very interested in World War II. It’s a fascinating, if not completely bonkers, section of history, and I gobble up pretty much anything that has to do with it—be it historical fiction (like All the Light We Cannot See), or actual biographies (like Unbroken), or films (like The Imitation Game or Valkyrie)—the list is endless.

When my husband and I were in Paris, we took a day trip to Normandy, which was intriguing and devastating and breathtaking (more on that later), so when we decided to go to Hawaii, we also decided we couldn’t fly all the way there and not see Pearl Harbor. So we spent our week on Kauai (not nearly enough time) and planned to fly to Oahu just for the day before flying that evening over to the Big Island.

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor

The difference between Kauai and Oahu was immediate and stark: For one thing, Oahu is much more built up than Kauai, with homes tightly packed into mountainsides; the air is also not as fresh (Honolulu is a big and bustling city, after all); and traffic and parking were downright awful. The hubs was almost immediately in a sour mood when we stepped foot in Oahu (not that I blame him); the hustle and bustle stole away any relaxation we felt in Kauai.

We slowly made our way to our meeting point (did I mention traffic sucked?) and then struggled to find a place to park that wasn’t going to take our remaining $20 in cash (we found a structure, went all the way to the top, parked for three minutes to locate a cheaper place to park, went all the way back down, and had to pay $5 for the actual fewer-than-five minutes we were parked there—true story [my husband is still a bit sore about it]).

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor

So we finally found a place to park our car for the day and made our way to the hotel meeting point for our Honolulu Double Decker Sightseeing Tour Including Pearl Harbor. And we waited. And we waited. And finally a bus pulled up, the driver hopped out, and she told us that our tour had been canceled. No, she couldn’t tell us why it was canceled. It was just canceled. No notice, just “Hi, sorry, canceled, BAM.” Strike 2 for Oahu. (Although I will say, the driver was very nice and took us to Pearl Harbor and dropped us off so we didn’t have to mess with parking again. It also looks like the company we [tried to use] is no longer in business, because the link to the tour on Viator is no longer available [big surprise]).

So we ended up exploring Pearl Harbor on our own. And I’ve got to say, we were both kind of disappointed. Okay, maybe disappointed isn’t the right word. We weren’t impressed. Okay, that’s not great, either, because I wholly understand and appreciate the enormity of what happened there. It just didn’t have the emotional impact on me that Normandy did (specifically the American cemetery in Normandy, with its sea of white marble crosses).

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor
WWII submarine, the USS Blowfin

We first bought tickets to explore the USS Blowfin for a “close quarters look at life aboard a WWII-era submarine,” which was actually pretty cool. (Maybe don’t go down there if you’re claustrophobic though.) Even being aboard the Blowfin, though, it’s hard to fathom what it must have been like for soldiers to be crammed in there like sardines for days and weeks at a time. (Shiver.)

Then we checked out the USS Arizona memorial (tours are offered every 15 minutes, and “there are 1,300 free tickets given out each day on a first-come, first-served basis,” per the Pearl Harbor website). You take about a 15-minute boat ride, then see a 20-minute documentary which includes interviews from survivors, and then you see the wall of the names of men who died during the attack. To this day, there is still oil leaking out from the wreckage below the memorial in rainbow circles (which is just insane to me; surely there’s a way to stop the oil from continuing the pollute the water 70 years later?), and you can see the tips smokestacks stacks still poking out of the dark water, crusted over with barnacles.

The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center also features a few museums you can stroll through if old artifacts are your thing (they are ours).

Part of me wonders whether the experience would have been different if we’d been able to do our guided tour as planned rather than exploring Pearl Harbor on our own, but of course, that’s hard to say. Did we feel it was worth the cost and hassle of flying into Oahu for the day just for the experience? Honestly, no. It was interesting to see, of course, but it didn’t have the same transcendent feeling that Normandy did. Of course, Pearl Habor is a bit smaller-scale in comparison and maybe that’s why it had a lesser impact, but again, it’s hard to say. If you’re really into WWII and feel that it’s worth your time, by all means, go there and see it for yourself—but maybe do a guided tour to see if you get more out of it. I’d be willing to bet that would have increased our experience tenfold.

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor
View of the coastline and Visitor Center from on board the USS Blowfin.

We finished the day with a yummy dinner at the Maui Brewing Company in Wakiki before we left for the airport. Although I long to go back to Hawaii, I don’t necessarily have a burning desire to return to Oahu. And perhaps it’s just where we were on the island; if the scenery in Forgetting Sarah Marshall has anything to say about it, Northern Oahu is freaking beautiful, so maybe it was just Waikiki that left a bad taste in our mouths, I don’t know. I think if we went back to Hawaii, we’d spend at least another week on Kauai and maybe check out Maui, too, since it’s the only island we haven’t explored yet…

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