Fifteen miles from Waikiki, on Oahu's windward shore, I wake to the cooing of doves and the whisper of trade winds outside my bedroom window. Nearby, a ribbon of palm-fringed beach stretches two miles, with white sand, aquamarine water and lush green mountains as a backdrop. The temperature of both air and water hover in the low 80s. There are no crowds.
This is Kailua. It is all that visitors to Hawaii dream of, but often fail to find.
Kailua -- not to be confused with the resort community of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii's Big Island -- is just a 40-minute drive from tourist-clogged Waikiki, yet it is a no-show on most tourist itineraries. And that's what has saved it.
Crossing the Koolau Mountains via the Pali Highway takes you to a world reminiscent of Hawaii's smaller islands -- more rural, set apart from the tourist world and relatively self-contained.
People in Kailua are genuinely friendly. They greet you with a smile as you walk the beach in the morning, and the merchants don't see you as a human dollar sign.
But Kailua's location is a large part of the appeal, too. Situated on a sandbar formed perhaps 6,000 years ago, the town is nestled between Kailua Bay to the northeast and Kawainui Marsh on the southwest. Beyond the marsh looms the Koolau Range, the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera, rising precipitously as a serrated green wall from sea level to more than 3,000 feet. The trade winds provide natural air conditioning, meaning that when summertime temperatures hit 89 degrees in Waikiki, it is probably closer to 83 in Kailua.
I discovered Kailua by accident when I first visited Hawaii about 30 years ago. I had come to Oahu with some reluctance, imagining the entire island as a giant Waikiki, all crowded beaches flanked by huge hotels. Fortunately, I didn't have to stay in a hotel but instead bunked with friends living on the other side of Oahu, some 15 miles from the tourist hordes. That was Kailua.
The town is not exactly an architect's dream, but it is compact and relatively uncluttered. The small downtown has a department store, movie theaters, restaurants, shops, a couple of shave-ice stands and (of course) a Starbucks. There are no hotels in or near the town, but there are lots of short-term rental cottages and a thriving bed-and-breakfast industry.
Kailua's best-known attractions are the more than four miles of Kailua and Lanikai beaches, each of which has recently been "ranked" as America's best. Who am I to argue?
Favored by the protective reef, Kailua Bay's warm waters are generally calm, unlike those off many other island beaches, some of which face the open ocean. When the trade winds blow, which is most of the time, conditions are nearly perfect for sailing, windsurfing and kite-surfing. Waves are generally too small for board surfing, but Kailua Beach has some fine boogie board spots, and kayaking is always an option, maybe out to the offshore Mokulua Islands.
These are safe swimming beaches, but there are sharks in the bay, including hammerheads and tigers reaching upward of 18 feet. Fear not, though: They rarely come close to shore, and the last recorded attack was out near the reef in 1958. You are more likely to meet a sea turtle than Jaws, and the most dangerous beast you might encounter is an acorn-size blue Portuguese man-of-war.
Access to Kailua's -- and all of Hawaii's -- beaches is easy, especially since the state Supreme Court ruled years ago that no landowner could own the beach itself, at least below the vegetation line. The most visible point of access to Kailua Beach is at the public Kailua Beach Park, with lifeguards and shower facilities, but there are also access paths every few hundred yards for the length of both strands, off Kalaheo Drive for Kailua Beach and Mokulua Drive for Lanikai Beach.
There are plenty of land-based opportunities for fun, too, including miles of bike paths. Most of the town is flat, so you can ride the loop around Lanikai or along the levee that runs on one side of the Kawainui Marsh. Most of the town is flat. Or you can go climb a mountain. Ascending 1,643-foot Mount Olomana, about a mile from downtown Kailua, is a minor adventure. The climb starts out as a hike and gradually leads to a slightly scary scramble up a cable to the peak. At the top, there's a spectacular view of the Koolau mountains and the windward shore.
Kailua offers plenty of less demanding walks and hikes as well, if you're not up to hanging off mountains. On the bluffs behind Lanikai, you can see the World War II pillboxes set up in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. This wasn't as far-fetched an idea as it may seem: A Japanese midget submarine washed up on Lanikai Beach a few days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and if you had been on the bluffs Dec. 7, 1941, you could have watched the Japanese bomb the Kaneohe Naval Air Station (now the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base) across Kailua Bay.
There are plenty of good restaurants in town. Ask Bill Clinton, who ate at Buzz's Steakhouse, at the entrance to Lanikai, during one of his visits here. You can also find decent Italian, California, Pacific Rim, Thai, Mexican and Moroccan places. If you're cooking in, you may get sticker shock at Hawaii supermarkets, as food is easily a third pricier than on the mainland. Just resolve to eat a little less. Or try the Thursday farmers market downtown.
As for nightlife, there's not much in Kailua -- or if there is, I can't tell you a lot about it, for I do as most locals do: Go to bed early and rise with the sun to take advantage of the beautiful days. Life is slow in Kailua, as it should be, and you will probably find your days here governed by the sun more than the clock. Stay a week, and you will wonder how those poor souls can take the crowds and costs of Waikiki. Stay a month, and you may find yourself figuring out a way to move here permanently. Just as I did.
James Dannenberg, a freelance writer and retired judge, lives in Kailua.