It’s been four decades since the TV show Hawaii Five-O introduced us to Honolulu. Viewers were surprised to see that the state’s capital looked simultaneously exotic and cosmopolitan. Back then you could shop for evening wear at the “World’s Biggest Outdoor Mall” or, less than 15 minutes away, hike through torch ginger in the Manoa Valley. But then Oahu went on a building binge. Giant malls, new resorts—heck, even entire cities—seemed to crop up every month. All the development has put more people on the trails, but it also has turned urban areas like Waikiki and downtown Honolulu into meccas of shopping, dining and nightlife. And however crowded it gets, the seas off Waikiki are still wide and deep.
WHERE TO WATCH A HULA, LEARN TO HANG 10, BUY A LEI AND MORE
If you know where to look, free (and not at all hokey) hula shows abound in Waikiki. A daily show happens at sunset on the eastern end of the beach, near the Duke Kahanamoku statue. There’s no real seating, but it is literally on the beach, so you can turn up in your swimsuit after a day in the water. Moving west up Kalakaua Avenue, you’ll hit the Royal Hawaiian Center, owned and run by the Kamehameha Schools, a native-Hawaiian educational entity. It runs mid-morning shows three times a week, and also gives free hula, ukulele and lei-making lessons. Around sunset there’s live Hawaiian music. Finally, the new Waikiki Beach Walk presents a “Sunday showcase” of island entertainment, with popular Hawaiian musicians, hula halau (hula school) productions and other island-themed diversions.
So you’ve always longed to surf? Waikiki, with a surfing legacy that’s said to date back to the days of Hawaiian kings and queens, is an ideal place to fulfill that fantasy. Laid-back surfers-to-be can find low-key surf stands (no phones, and not even names) behind the Duke statue on Waikiki Beach. Here you can rent a long board and go it alone, join a group lesson (for around $65) or hire a private instructor (around $75). Those ultra-tanned beach boys and girls pretty much guarantee that after a couple of hours they’ll have you up and riding.
If you prefer to reserve lessons ahead of time, call the Hans Hedemann Surf School (2586 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-924-7778; $80), which schedules three classes daily. Surfers who are more experienced (and more flush) can arrange private lessons farther afield at Tongg’s or Diamond Head.
Run—don’t walk—downtown for some shopping. On the first Friday of every month, the downtown area turns into an open-air evening party with live music, gallery openings and crowds munching on finger food bought from stalls. (For details, check out firstfridayhawaii.com.) Don’t miss the housewares store called INTO (40 N. Hotel St.; 808-536-2211) for the most stylish souvenirs. You’ll find bags made out of recycled beach mats, jewelry inspired by Hawaiian flora, and bowls carved from koa, a local hardwood. There’s also cool stuff made by national and international artists and designers.
To shop for lei, locals cruise downtown to Maunakea Street. A string of hole-in-the-wall shops (each named for the owner/lei maker—Sylvia, Violet, Lina, etc.) sell the city’s most beautiful and least expensive lei. Options range from cheesy painted-kukui-nut lei, which will last forever, to ones made with fragrant pikake blossoms, which will last the night if you’re lucky. Lei rules are easy: You can have one that’s sturdy or one that smells amazing, never both; a pregnant woman shouldn’t wear a closed (tied) lei—it’s bad luck for the unborn child; and if you want one to take home, choose orchids. Friendly inquiries might even lead to an impromptu lei-making lesson.
WHERE TO SAMPLE 101 RUMS, SEE A HAWAIIAN CROONER AND MORE
Recently, the old-school Sheraton Waikiki received a $55 million facelift. Included in the bargain was the super-chic Rumfire, a new bar encased in floor-to-ceiling windows. The payoff: views of the iconic Diamond Head usually only seen in postcards. If you prefer your tropical ’tinis and tapas (think citrus-rum-rubbed hamachi) outdoors, head to the lanai (Hawaiian for porch) where you can listen to the waves slap at the seawall while you recline on comfy couches around a glowing fire pit. Or you could always let the bar’s 101 types of rum keep you warm (2255 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-922-4422).
Despite its location (on the third floor of the Ala Moana Center mall), Pearl Ultralounge packs in hipsters, tourists and wheeler-dealers alike with its fetching combo of live music, refined bar food (the mini Kobe burgers are worth the trip alone) and a lengthy happy hour that lasts from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Plush banquettes and lots of mirrors assure you a spot to see and be seen (1450 Ala Moana Blvd.; 808-944-8000).
On a once-gritty street, Bar 35 draws beer lovers (it serves more than 100 varieties) and hip young things. Either a band or a DJ performs most nights, but neither dominates the room. It’s a nice downtown spot to settle in amid the exposed brick and neon, grab a gourmet slice (toppings include prosciutto and lamb gyro) and meet a local (35 N. Hotel St.; 808-537-3535).
Natives and visitors in various states of fresh-off-the-beach (no shirts or shoes required) flock to Duke’s, a beachside haunt that serves up happy-hour mai tais, the beloved voice of Henry Kapono and the occasional green flash at sunset (2335 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-922-2268).
WHERE TO BUY FENDI, FIND COOL ALOHA SHIRTS AND MORE
If serious shopping was your thing 20 years ago, Hawaii might have been your 49th favorite state in the nation. But the recent $115 million renovation of the Royal Hawaiian Center, smack in the heart of Waikiki, has turned the strip into Rodeo Drive West. Big-name stores like Bulgari, Cartier, Fendi, Hermès, Kate Spade, Ferragamo, Tourneau and 7 for All Mankind give deep-pocketed visitors plenty of opportunities to drop some serious cash (2201 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-922-0588).
Ala Moana Center, Honolulu’s longtime outdoor mall, recently added a wing anchored by the state’s first full-fledged Nordstrom. Most of the new shops are national chains, but some mall tenants are real local finds, such as Martin & MacArthur for fine Hawaiian-hardwood home decor and furniture, and the Honolulu-based Tori Richard for updated men’s and women’s aloha wear that works anywhere there’s a beach (1450 Ala Moana Blvd.; 808-949-5858).
In complete but enjoyable contrast to that new wave of Waikiki shopping is the venerable, but indisputably kitschy, International Market Place (2330 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-971-2080). A quick stroll through transports you back to Honolulu in the 1970s, when Don Ho reigned supreme and the Brady Bunch roamed Oahu’s beaches on vacation. The market’s open-air space is chock-a-block with wooden carts overflowing with garish shell jewelry, coconut-shell purses, tacky aloha-print luggage, and those ornate candles with loud colors and endless curlicues carved into them.
Extra fun for the keiki (kids) can be found at the market’s Pearl Factory carts, where you can choose your own live oyster and crack open its shell, hoping for a pearl. If nothing else here appeals to you, at least take time to appreciate the massive banyan tree that dominates the market’s center.
Anyone who aspires to visit Asia one day should stop by Maunakea Market Place, in the heart of Chinatown (1120 Maunakea St.). The market starts off familiarly enough: You pass under ornate Chinese arches topped with dragons and enter a courtyard filled with typical Chinatown tchotchkes—gold-painted oxen, cheap silk tops, garish toys that break before you even get back to the car. But press on and you’ll be transported into a pan-Asian food court with few rivals. You can feast on Filipino quail eggs, Korean mandoo, Thai green papaya salad, Vietnamese French bread sandwiches and more.
After you’ve eaten your fill, head through the back doors and into the proverbial belly of the beast: the open food market. Here you’ll see massive tanks full of live Dungeness crabs, vats of Manila clams, fuzzy red bunches of rambutan (a spiny fruit that’s a favorite in Southeast Asia), cases of pig heads and oxtails, elegant strands of long beans and twisted purple eggplants. Virtually none of it will travel home with you, but it’s the memories you want to take back, not the pig’s head, right?
HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY
Waikiki has plenty of places where you
can watch the Pacific between bites, but
this informal indoor/outdoor spot at the
Halekulani hotel is the best. 2199 Kalia
Rd.; 800-745-8883; dinner for two, $85*
LITTLE VILLAGE NOODLE HOUSE
What at first seems kitschy—the interior
is made to look like a Chinese village—
becomes totally legit once you start eating.
Be sure to try the dried string beans and
honey walnut shrimp. 1113 Smith St.;
808-545-3008; dinner for two, $45
A downtown landmark where you can sit
outside and enjoy the trade winds while
sampling dim sum and the week-night $4
martini special. 1121 Nu’uanu Ave.; 808-
521-2900; dinner for two, $75
This down-home Filipino eatery’s can’t-miss
dish is the Halo Halo dessert, a riotous
concoction of shaved ice, coconut,
condensed milk and ice cream made from
ube, a Filipino purple yam. 1049 River St.;
808-545-1956; dinner for two, $30
* Prices cover a meal for two without drinks, tax or tip.
RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS IN HONOLULU INCLUDE:
IMPERIAL HAWAII VACATION CLUB
LIFETIME IN HAWAII
For more information, visit RCI.com or call
This bastion of gentility on
Waikiki Beach offers quiet
green outdoor spaces to relax
in, comfortable interiors and
an ocean view from nearly
every one of its 453 rooms.
2199 Kalia Rd.; 808-923-2311;
halekulani.com; doubles from $425
A half-block from the beach,
this 72-room gem offers stylish
peace and quiet on the east
side of Waikiki. The prices are
equally easy on the mind.
129 Paokalani Ave.; 808-687-7700;
hotelrenew.com; doubles from $165
ROYAL HOTEL HAWAIIAN
The beloved “Pink Palace” was one
of the first hotels on Waikiki Beach.
Its 528 vintage rooms and grounds
have delighted generations of sun
worshippers. Don’t fear the word
vintage, as the hotel just underwent
a major renovation. 2259 Kalakaua
Ave.; 808-923-7311; royal-hawaiian.com;
doubles from $333
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.