As the sun sets over the Waianae range, an electric wave of city lights washes across Honolulu — a night light for its tropical slumber. I absolutely love this moment at the day’s end, particularly from the vista point — a few minutes from my house — atop Tantalus. The view extends well beyond one’s peripherals and takes a very long moment to digest. From Manoa to Waikiki to Ewa Beach, the panorama provides a unique perspective of just about the entire South Shore of Oahu.
Coming from the Windward side of Oahu — where the backdrop of misty rains against the lush, green Koolau Mountains create a laid-back attitude — I enjoy driving up here to escape the busy urban life of downtown Honolulu and reconnect with my mellower roots. The drive is a nine-mile loop that goes from Round Top Drive to Tantalus Drive with a multitude of mountainside nooks for one to check out.
Map of Tantalus-Round Top Loop
It’s probably best to rent a car or take a cab to the top because walking would not only be tiresome but also pretty dangerous. The road can be narrow at some parts, creating blind spots for drivers and does not have a sidewalk. A cab ride from Waikiki takes less than 20 minutes and would cost about $20 one way. But to really get the full experience, rent a car and have the freedom to explore the area. If you can only afford one stop though, you must stop at Puu Ualakaa State Park: a premier picnic location as well as a spectacular lookout.
The park is located about halfway up Round Top and is opened from 7 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. (April 1 to Labor Day), but after Labor Day, it closes at 6:45 p.m. Huge pine trees usher visitors into Puu Ualakaa, which means rolling sweet potato. King Kamehameha I planted thousands of sweet potatoes in this area, and each time he attempted to pick them, they would roll down the hill. Picnic shelters, restrooms and drinking water can all be found at the park. It’s not usually crowded during the day, but at sunset, the lookout platform gets pretty packed and nearly everybody has a camera in hand.
Turn left out of the park, and you will notice how quickly the atmosphere changes; this is my favorite part of the drive. Natural tunnels of trees shading the road provide a cool and fresh breath of air for travelers while sweet scents of guava and eucalyptus pleasantly overwhelm the senses. Jacaranda and shower trees color the roadway in the fall with yellow and purple flowers. If you want to work off some of the lunch you had at the park, stop at one of the trailheads and go for a quick hike. Most trails lead into Puu Ualakaa State Park or the Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve and vary in level of difficulty. Hiking may not be the only way to exert some energy but also biking. Decked out in fluorescent spandex attire, bikers share the roadway with cars. Some companies offer a combination of both hiking and biking tours down Round Top Drive for about $100 a person.
Once the road turns into Tantalus Drive, you have begun your descent back into Makiki. It does not get any less curvy but does offer another view of the city below, including a unique perspective of Punchbowl Crater. The end of the drive holds the hidden jewel of the hills in the form of the Contemporary Museum of Art. One can enjoy the Spalding Estate and the many art collections it offers or just explore the gardens.
There’s lots of life on Tantalus, but it’s a different kind of life. Yes, the zooming cars and excerpts of conversations I often hear from passing bikers and runners can be somewhat distracting, but it’s the relaxed vibe I get when driving up to the top that makes me happy to call Tantalus kuu home, my home.
Source: Place Names of Hawaii by Mary K. Pukui