My Paradise: Hitching a ride to Bellows
Editor's note: This story appeared in 2015 edition of Destination Paradise. We are now accepting stories for the 2016 edition, which hits the streets in February. Submit your story and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org by Jan. 8, 2016, and we'll make you famous!
Paradise is not usually cheap, but I will let you in on a little secret called Bellows.
This is our fourth winter in Korea, and the impending cold is bearing down on us. There had been Thanksgiving stress and then an early snowstorm but an intense base-wide exercise is really what put the kids and I in mind of escape. Never one to mope and complain, we hopped a Space-A flight to Hawaii.
Such a feat is easier said than done sometimes, but in early December we had luck and got selected for a few seats on a C-17. I love flying Space-A; it’s a bit of a roulette wheel and a strategy game rolled into one. My two kids are also good sports about it. So, seeing a lucky flight to Hickam a couple days after a big snow storm encouraged us to pack and hustle to the terminal for an impromptu bit of sun.
Another reason I enjoy Space-A is that it is a money saver. However, going to Hawaii rarely strikes anyone as a cheap holiday. It’s true! The place is expensive, but I needed to keep costs reasonable. We were, after all, just trying to get away for a bit and not break the bank before Christmas. As such, my travel backpack included one change of clothes each, swimsuits, a towel, two sleeping bags, and our backpacking tent. We were on our way to camp on the beach!
After arriving at Hickam I rented a car; this was the largest expense of our trip and was unfortunately costlier than I hoped since there was only a minivan available That minivan turned out to be money well spent, though, when I needed to shove two surfboards inside. From Hickam terminal we promptly headed east over the central mountains of Oahu to the windward side of the island.
Oahu is the most populous and third-largest island of the Hawaiian chain. It is just under 600 square miles large and shaped a bit like a stretched out diamond. The southern “city-side” of the island is where Honolulu sprawls along the coast. It is also where Hickam Air Force Base and Naval Station Pearl Harbor rest. A massive ridge of volcanic rock separates that part of the island from the “windward” northeast part of the island. The thin stretch of land on the windward side is where to find Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe and also Bellows Air Force Station. There are 15 military bases on Oahu!
Tired, and reliving the day we departed across the international date line, we rolled into Bellows where we were treated with much island kindness. They allowed me to check in early; I suppose it was only 11 a.m. though my body kept saying it was midnight. We were assigned a campsite in the “lettered” campground, set up the tent and took a nice long nap in the warm fresh air.
Bellows Air Force Station is a small recreation base just for the military on Oahu. Their reasonably priced cabins and condo’s are frequently sold out a year in advance and it’s easy to see why. The cute duplexes look like remodeled base housing that sit just above the beach. The water is crystal clear tropical blue. The waves are mild and the sand is soft. Instead of faux landscaping and palm trees, the fuzzy-looking conifer trees give it a natural feel. It is a great place! Lucky for us, the campground does not usually get sold out a year in advance like the cabins, at least not in the middle of a week in early December.
Back at Osan while we waited to depart, I quickly got on the convenient Bellows website (www.bellowsafs.com) and booked us for four nights camping in their letter campground. This campground is not on the beach as the cabins are, but instead the campsites sit back in a forested loop across the street from the beachside area. I counted this as a benefit. While being on the beach would be nice, it would also offer no privacy and nor protection from constant wind - here on the windward side of the island. Bellows does have an ‘oceanview’ camp area which allows you to pitch your tent in an open space along the beach between some of the rentals. I found it much more pleasant to camp and sleep tucked back a little ways.
The base has everything you need to enjoy a stay. There is a small AAFESS shopette with food for cooking, beach supplies, and even souvenirs. We bought a few super cheap blow-up swim loungers that doubled as camping mattresses at night. A great reason to shop with AAFES is the prices. One evening we drove out of Bellows to the nearby town of Kailua to get a little sampling of American grocery shopping, but the price of food was so high we just got some snacks and kept to our camp meals at Bellows. I’m saving money for Christmas, remember!
In addition to the shoppette there is a Subway, a laundromat, gas station, and (best of all) a place called Turtle Cove. This is the heart of Bellows. Inside is not only where you check in but also has ITT for any excursions around the island. They offer discount tickets and also guided tours at great rates. We were on a tight budget, though, so no attractions for us. Instead, we spent a small amount on some boogie board rentals from the Outdoor Recreation desk.
The waves at Bellows beach are perfect for boogie boards. They break over nice soft sand and seemed to be the ideal size for my 7-year-old daughter to ride herself. We spent all of our first and second days riding wave after wave. My 4-year-old son even joined in; I would take him to the breaks and push him onto a wave to ride in. He had a blast. We built sand castles, we let the water demolish them, we sat and stared at the mountains and the sun and the trees.
In the evenings we played board games borrowed from Outdoor Rec. They also have a wonderful disc golf course and mini-golf, too in addition to a great playground. Turtle Cove has Wi-Fi, as well, so I was able to sit on their deck any time of day and keep in touch with family.
When we tired of the sand and the beach we ventured out to see more of Hawaii. We visited the Thursday evening farmers market in nearby Kailua. We drove to the top of the mountains to peer over the Pali lookout. We even travelled back over to Pearl Harbor for a day visiting the National Parks and monuments at World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. My children were so involved in the story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that they drew connections between it and our living in Korea. We spent a long day visiting the memorials and even driving out to those on Ford Island. Again, being budgetminded was easy as the memorials and museum are free.
There are plenty of other free things to do on the windward side near Bellows as well. You can hike to beautiful Maunawili waterfall, visit the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens, see the Byodoin temple for some Asian influence, or walk the pathways at the Kwai Nua wetlands. There is a wonderful map available at the Turtle Cove building that shows many of these and other free sites in the area. While the big ticket attractions may advertise the best, there are plenty of low cost wonderful things to do on Oahu. Bellows is the best base for budget exploration.
We loved our little winter break. The air was clear, the shower in the campground always had warm water to wash off sand, the water was blue and warm, and our days were relaxing. Getting home from paradise was not as easy as arriving, however. Space-A flights coming to Asia are focused on something more important than transporting my family home from their winter break. After a few misses, though, we hopped a C-130 to Andersen Air Base on Guam. It was slow but free and the crew made it memorable. From Andersen we lucked out with an Osan flight the following morning.
Monday – Friday, 6:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Bellows Air Force Station facilities and services are open to active duty Military, Military retirees, Reservists, National Guard, current and retired DOD Civilians with authorized ID.
Eligible patrons may sponsor family members and friends as their guests. Sponsors must obtain a visitor’s pass for their guests – military identification and/or DOD civilian identification required.
For more information, got to www.bellowsafs.com
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