Waikīkī is a place where the allure of swaying palms, warm ocean breezes, sparkling hospitality and poolside cocktails are set on a center stage and which are a perfect start to a classic sun-splashed escape, writes Mike Yardley.
On a recent swing through Honolulu, I set about reacquainting myself with Waikīkī’s unrivalled ring-side seats on the beach. Bookmarked by the Sheraton Waikīkī and the Sheraton Moana Surfrider, this blue-ribbon strip of beachfront bliss is the ultimate dress-circle. Best in Show cocktail spot would still have to be the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian, the star-spangled hotel that made the drink globally famous. They’ve been toasting sunsets and celebrating romance with Mai Tai’s at the Pink Palace since 1958.
Top drinks in Waikiki
Next door, on Waikīkī Beach’s premium strip, Duke’s Waikīkī at the Outrigger, is also fantastic. Stacked with memorabilia of the surfing god, Duke Kahanamoku, this place blends a proud history with conviviality, at reasonable prices. It’s a top stop for pau hana (happy hour) drinks. Steeped in tradition and old-school grace, unwinding with a sundowner at Moana Surfrider’s Beach Bar under the shady expanse of their century-old banyan tree is a must.
My fourth pick is one of the liveliest after-dark beachfront venues, where tropical fruity libations reign. Sedate by day, RumFire plays to a hip party crowd after dark. Enjoy panoramic views of the ocean and Diamond Head as you watch the sun slump into the sea. It’s a winning spot for inventive cocktails, comfort food and enchanting fire pits.
You’ll find RumFire at the Sheraton Waikiki, just along from their knock-out infinity edge pool. Recommended cocktail? Order up a Fire Runner, a knock-out rum-based concoction including crème de banana, orange and pineapple juices, sweet sour and splash of grenadine.
Speaking of fire, torch-lighting remains a time-honoured tradition in Hawaiian culture burns bright into the night, around Waikīkī. Most hotels and resorts along the glitter strip will ignite their gas-lit torches at dusk, as will the Royal Hawaiian Center, International Marketplace and the Waikīkī Beach Walk, but the most spectacular ceremony takes place at the far end of Waikīkī at the adjoining Kūhiō Beach Hula Mound.
The torch lighting ceremony and free hula show is an hour-long performance that bursts into life at 6pm, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. If you happen to be in town on a Friday, the weekly fireworks display is another exuberant spectacle to add to the check-list.
Top tastes of Waikiki
Fancy experiencing some trademark local tastes? Start with a bowl of ahi poke. When Barack Obama’s in town, he binges on this stuff and arguably helped elevate its global popularity. Poke typically consists of cube-shaped chunks of yellow-fin tuna mixed up with all sorts of seasonings like chilli, seaweed and sesame oil, layered on a bed of rice. Next up, wrap your laughing gear around loco moco, a rice and hamburger patty positively drowned in brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. It’s a staple Hawaiian plate lunch option. What is a plate lunch? This is a go-to meal for Hawaiians that’s both cheap and filling, it’s served at roadside stands, drive-ins, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It can include many different types of proteins but they’re always flanked by a macaroni salad and two scoops of white rice, making the Hawaiian plate lunch a serious carb-loading event. It originates from the late 19th century, when plantation workers would have a carb-heavy lunch prepared and packaged in bento boxes.
Favourite local-eats in Waikiki
My favourite place for loco moco is Rainbow Drive-In, a Waikīkī institution that has been fawned over by locals for 60 years. Follow it up, with a legendary strawberry slush float – or what we could call a spider. You’ll find it on Kapahulu Ave, which is like Waikīkī’s back road, a world away from the bling bling of Kalākaua Ave. Arcing around the foot of Diamond Head, at the east end of Waikīkī, this easily-strollable street brims with Mom and Pop enterprises and over 40 small eateries. Ono Seafood is a great stop for mouth-watering fresh poke, while Leonard’s Bakery is a must for the oven-fresh malasadas. These sweet and airy balls of deep-fried dough, coated in sugar, were introduced to Hawai’i by Portuguese plantation workers in the late 1800s.
They remain a signature treat in Hawai’i today. The famous heat-busting icon of Hawai’i, Shave Ice, universally adored and so soft, it’s like eating fresh flavoured snow, drowned in rainbow-bright syrup is a perfect way to cool like so many other iconic treats, shave ice also has a plantation past, with Japanese workers shaving blocks of ice to cool down from the heat of the day.
Sweet-toothed aficionados, cannot visit O’ahu without devouring a Dole Whip, which is not actually ice-cream, but a dairy-free soft serve pineapple sorbet.
Retail therapy in Waikiki
If you’re up for some retail therapy, it’s hard to go past Ala Moana Center, boasting nearly 300 restaurants and stores – and billed as the world’s largest outdoor shopping centre.
For authentic Hawaiian shirts and locally made gifts, make tracks to Hilo Hattie, Hawai’i’s largest manufacturer of Aloha Apparel, first opening its doors nearly 60 years ago. Adjacent to the International Market Place on Kūhiō Ave, check out to recent arrivals to the shopping scene, Duke’s Lane Market and Kūhiō Ave Food Hall.
A sure-bet gift for loved ones back home is a box of goodies from the Honolulu Cookie Company.
Distinctively shaped like a pineapple, their shortbread cookies are available in a variety of flavours, from white chocolate ginger spice to mango macadamia. I love how you’re always offered a free sample cookie, whenever you walk in one of their stores. Happy grazing!
Top hotel in Waikiki
Few Waikīkī experiences can beat the buzz of waking up to a bird’s eye view of that fabled crescent of silken sands. I had the pleasure of luxuriating within the stylish, vibrant embrace of the Sheraton Waikiki, which has just celebrated its golden anniversary. The property recently unveiled a full refurbishment of all 1636 guestrooms, which proved to be a timely pandemic project. The new room design features soothing neutral hues of cream, taupe and white with vivid pops of aquatic colour.
Capitalise on your location by reserving an oceanfront guestroom, for unbeatable views. My Oceanfront King felt fresh, spacious and contemporary with a magnificent lanai, which is where lingered regularly drinking in that champagne vista all the way to Diamond Head. Creature comforts are laid on thick, from an in-room coffeemaker, mini-fridge and resuable water pouches to a generous supply of power and USB outlets, spa-like bathroom and blissful bedding under the auspices of the Sheraton Signature Sleep Experience.
Getting to Hawai’i
I flew to Honolulu from Auckland with Hawaiian Airlines, as part of a wider trip to mainland USA. They also fly to alluring destinations like San Francisco, LA, Boston, New York, Las Vegas, Seattle and San Diego. Quintessentially Hawaiian, the airline is infused with a true sense of Pacific style and hospitality.
The personable sense of warmth and care is conspicuous from that very first “Aloha”, as you step aboard the plane. I love their disarming, chilled and friendly style of customer service – utterly professional but irresistibly informal. Hawaiian Airlines has been operating out of Auckland for nearly a decade, offering an unrivalled network of services across the Hawaiian Islands, and onward flights to 15 mainland USA destinations. The carrier’s fleet of A330s, which is what they operate from Auckland, is in a 2-4-2 seating configuration. Head to www.hawaiianairlines.com
For more tips and advice on maximising your Hawaiian getaway, can be found here