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A day trip to Honolulu for a New Year’s Eve hike
A hotel-less trip from SoCal to hike Diamond Head. Plus: American’s quirky but nice HNL Sakura Lounge, thoughts on the dearth of westbound red eyes, and more.
I’ve thought for a while about the logistics of a day trip from Southern California to Hawaii. Obviously, it is theoretically possible (depending, perhaps, on how you define “day trip”). But could it be a satisfying experience? Read on to find out.
I ended up doing it on New Year’s Eve. I was in the mood to go on a jaunt. The week before, the plan had been to join my wife on her work trip to Montana where she had an overnight layover on Christmas Day getting in early evening. Our kids were on a sibling trip to Colombia and Panama. Christmas-at-home was to be on December 27 when we’d all be back.
But then came that massive winter storm that struck much of the country just before and over Christmas. With thousands of flights cancelled, the chances of traveling standby to Montana, a two-leg journey at best, let alone on her flight, and then making it back by the 27th, looked dire. Besides, at times like that, it’s best to save any standby seats that might miraculously appear for airline staff who need them the most. So I stayed home.
As it turned out, my wife’s Christmas Day flight had to turn around half way to its Montana destination after the landing runway was closed due to ice. She had the unenviable task of announcing to a full planeload of passengers trying to get home for Christmas that they were, instead, returning to their point of departure.
A week later, New Year coming up, everyone was gone or occupied again. My wife back at work, the kids doing their separate things. So I thought the time had come for my Hawaii day trip.
I like trips with a fairly specific mission. Since there was no obvious other mission, my day trip to Hawaii would have to involve, if not a run, at the very least some other form of wholesome exercise in order for it to check the boxes. And, even though I would not get home on the day I left, I would at least have to leave Hawaii on the day I arrived. That was how I defined “day trip.” It was a “hotel-less” trip, a return on a red eye — taking me into the new year — substituting for a bed.
I settled on a hike up Diamond Head, the iconic volcano overlooking Honolulu. The Diamond Head State Monument — as the park is known — closes for admissions at 4:30 PM. But once in, people can stay until closer to 6 PM. So my challenge was to leave my home in Santa Barbara that morning, get to Honolulu in time to get to Diamond Head by 4:30 PM, hike to the top, head down, and then be on way way home that night. I figured it was doable, just about. And it tied in with a family tradition of New Year hikes.
Getting to Honolulu, just
A United/Skywest early morning flight got me from Santa Barbara to LAX so that I was in the United Club soon after 7:30 AM to enjoy a hot breakfast. I’ll be posting about that lounge separately before long. For now, suffice it to say it’s among my favorites — better, I think, than United’s lounges at SFO, even though the latter is that airline’s main West Coast hub.
About an hour later, I made it over to the Alaska gates. LAX is quite a good airport in terms of being able to walk from terminal to terminal without going through security again. If you navigate a labyrinth of hallways and tunnels, taking care to avoid accidentally exiting the secure area, you can get between United, Alaska, American, and the Bradley international terminal (in that order). Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit form their own interlocking community on the other side of the horseshoe terminal arrangement.
There was an Alaska Airlines flight leaving LAX at 9:40 AM scheduled to land in HNL at 1:37 PM local time. I figured that should give me time to make it to the park in time.
All my flights on this trip were standby. And the load on the Alaska flight had seemed quite promising. But while I was in the United Club, it began to tighten. By they time I got to the gate, it was “0-0-7” — which is shorthand for zero seats open in First, zero seats in Economy, and seven nonrevs standing by. What’s more, I was ranked seven out of the seven.
So my prospects of getting to Honolulu began to recede. I contemplated switching to a different airline. But none of the alternatives looked great, keeping in mind I couldn’t afford to arrive much later than on the Alaska flight without risking my chance of making Diamond Head. A United flight on a 777 showed 38 nonrevs standing by.
I decided to hang in there at the Alaska gate and wait. Worst case, I’d go someplace else or head home.
I’ve learned not to be too put off by unpromising loads information. It can be surprising how many people don’t show up for flights, including nonrevs who don’t “unlist” themselves. And then, of course, there are misconnects.
So I figured I was in with a chance, although I resigned myself to a middle seat. But the outcome was much better. I kept refreshing the app as boarding progressed. And when the last group was called, the app finally updated. I was in 6D. That’s the first row in Premium Economy on the aisle. It’s the best row on an Alaska B737 if you’re not in First, better than an exit row. I think it has about the same amount of legroom as you get in First.
So a really nice, roughly six-hour flight. We were at the gate in HNL just before 1:50 PM.
Making it to Diamond Head, just
My plan was to take a public bus to somewhere within walking distance of Diamond Head and then walk from the bus stop to the park entrance.
But it took quite a while to get on a bus. Someone told me they were canceling buses that afternoon, maybe a consequence of it being New Year’s Eve. I contemplated an Uber, but wasn’t in the mood to pay the $60 quoted fare. Eventually a number 20 bus showed up. I boarded it headed to Kapiolani Park on the east end of Waikiki for a $3 fare.
The bus took over an hour, further tightening my time remaining. It was an interesting ride, however, giving me a good glimpse of Honolulu. I’ve never been there before. The city seemed larger than I’d expected with more of a “real place” vibe — as opposed to a tourist one — than I’d imagined. Maybe seeing it through the lens of a public bus helps. I’d like to explore it properly on another visit.
The helpful bus driver pointed me in the direction of where I needed to head when dropping me off. It was an uphill walk to the park entrance. By the time I arrived at the entrance kiosk, it was 4:24 PM. So I got there with just six minutes to spare — tighter than I had planned on!
These days, reservations are required for out-of-state visitors to Diamond Head. I’d made one three days earlier when I was hoping, but not certain, I’d make the trip. It cost $5. I signed up for the last 30-minute arrival window of the day. I noticed a day later that all the time slots had sold out for New Year’s Eve. So plan ahead, especially at busy times of the year.
The hike from the park entrance is quite varied. By the time I arrived, hardly anyone else was still heading up, but I passed quite a few people on their way down. I wouldn’t say it is a difficult hike, either in terms of the incline or length, but there are some steep portions, including steps, and it felt like good exercise after a day mostly sitting on planes and a bus. I even felt a bit stiff on the following day, which surprised me. Maybe that was because I headed uphill quite fast. The views from the top — where I hung out for a while — are a reward for the effort.
Diamond Head used to be more than a park. There are the remains of a fort at the top. This went back to the early twentieth century. Heavy artillery was placed there to protect Oahu from attack, although it never saw action. As recently as 2002, the FAA had an air traffic control facility inside the crater — not just a VOR or beacon, but a staffed presence.
After heading down, I was just able — after running a few hundred yards toward the end — to catch the 6 PM bus back to the airport. My Apple Watch recorded a distance of a bit under six miles on foot from getting off the first bus to getting back on the second. Less than half were in the park itself.
On the return, the bus driver — looking at me — surmised, correctly, that I qualified for a senior fare, and so the ride back cost just a dollar. By this time, it was getting dark, and I enjoyed looking out of the window as people bustled about their early evening ahead of New Year.
American’s quirky but nice HNL Sakura Lounge
I’d thought of stopping off somewhere in the city, but decided not to. That will be another trip. My remaining mission at this point was to check out the rather unusual American Airlines lounge at the Honolulu airport before catching an Alaska red eye to Seattle from where I’d connect back to Santa Barbara.
American’s lounge at HNL is not a typical Admirals Club. (It bothers me that “Admirals Club” doesn’t contain an apostrophe, but it is not for me to edit the name.)
Actually, the AA HNL lounge is not even called the “Admirals Club.” It is called the “Sakura Lounge,” and the reason is that it’s a joint operation with Japan Airlines, AA’s One World partner. But if you are entitled to Admirals Club access, you are good to enter this lounge. And, generally, Admirals Club members have lounge access when flying on Alaska — part of the overall alliance between the two airlines (in fact, one that predates most other aspects).
The Sakura Lounge is an unusual arrangement. American has lots of ones where Admirals Club members can access partner lounges (such as Alaska Lounges). But the Sakura Lounge isn’t a partner lounge. It is one that American sort of operates itself, albeit jointly. I’m not sure there’s another in its system that falls in that hybrid category.
The Sakura Lounge is a little hard to find. You turn right after going through security and then it is upstairs on the left near a fast food outlet. It has a slightly makeshift quality in terms of the hard product. It feels as though they were looking to open a lounge, found some random space in the terminal, and just moved in making the most of what was there with some added furniture. It’s almost like a pop-up lounge. Except it isn’t. It has been there quite a while, apparently. There isn’t even a restroom. For that, you have to exit into what is technically a public area (but which, in practice, is highly unlikely to be discovered by any passenger who was not looking for the lounge).
All of this might sound like it’s leading into a negative review. But I liked the Sakura Lounge.
While it is quirky, and a bit drab in terms of the hard product, it has atmosphere. And aspects are actually way better than what you’d get at a regular Admirals Club. The complementary food selection for a start, which was Asian influenced. I enjoyed an excellent chicken curry. I was quite hungry by that point. I had not had a proper meal since breakfast in the United lounge in LAX, and had snacked only on the odd protein bar I brought with me.
But if you want to enjoy traditional Admirals Club cheese cubes, those are there, too. Oddly, at around 8 PM, one of the staff brought out a tray of croissants. Nice, but part of the overall quirkiness for it to be produced at that time of the day (or night). I ate one nonetheless.
The drinks are also better. There is no house versus premium choice here. Everything is on the house. And that included actual French champagne, not some sparkling knock-off, as well as some decent other wines. Sapporo was among the beer options.
So in a way it is a bit more headed up the premium AA Flagship Lounge path, although not as good as a Flagship one on the mainland. And without the same barriers to entry.
The layout is a bit odd. It is arranged in a sort of circular flow. There is a section with a sign saying “The Dining” — maybe the name was trying to be hip or perhaps it was a translation gone wrong — which actually led into an area that was not especially well set up for dining and was in the opposite direction of the parts that were. It was dark outside, and I couldn’t see much looking out through the windows, but I sensed they could have used a clean.
I did not mind any of the quirks, I enjoyed my time in the lounge. The staff could not be faulted. If the choice were between every AA lounge being a regular Admirals Club or something along the Sakura model, I’d go for the latter — but ideally a bit spruced up.
The journey back
As much as I was enjoying the Sakura Lounge, I decided to take the earlier of the two Alaska red-eye flights to Seattle. It seemed highly likely I’d get on either, and both would easily connect with my flight to Santa Barbara the next day, but there’s always a case to take the first available when traveling standby, all other things being equal. You never know what might happen later.
I got a row of three to myself near to the back of the plane. At some point during the flight, the New Year began in whatever time zone I was in. But by then, after nursing a scotch, I was asleep.
I had a few hours in the Alaska Lounge at Seattle, the large one at the N gates. This lounge will get its own review in another post some time, but it is really outstanding. It’s spacious, it has stunning panoramic views, and it’s architecturally interesting. I had breakfast and then found a comfortable reclining spot where I drifted in and out of sleep, taking in the arriving and departing traffic on a cloudy morning when opening my bleary eyes.
Another row of three on the flight back to Santa Barbara, this time back in Premium Economy.
So was it a satisfying experience? Yes. Although the trip was short, I returned with the feeling of a mental break I’d associate with a longer jaunt. I’ve always been a short-trip fan. Working from home for almost 20 years, I have found them a good way to step into the big wide world for a refresh before settling back in. Obviously, you have to be a bit of an aviation geek or airport nerd to enjoy a trip like this. But for those who are, I’d recommend it.
I also liked the fact that I barely spent any money. The frugality became part of the sport of the trip. All my food and bev was in the lounges or on aircraft. The buses set me back $4, and it would have been half that if I’d thought to claim my senior discount on the first one. The entrance ticket was just $5. That’s one benefit of a hotel-less trip. Not paying for a hotel.
I am thinking of other hotel-less trips. But one problem is the fact there are virtually no westbound red eyes. And absolutely none on major transcontinental routes. Nor transatlantic, for that matter. I sort of understand why, in terms of time zones and what are deemed acceptable take-off and landing times. But I wish some airline would figure out a way of making one work. ✈️
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