I have been coming to Hawaii almost yearly for over 25 years; of all the places I have ever been, this is my go-to vacation destination. In the early days, when I was a discontented Manhattanite, it was all about Kauai for the quiet, the remoteness, and the sheer difference from city life. There were more people living in my NYC zip code than that entire island. Then there was my Maui phase. It is where my wife and I went on our first big trip together, hiking and camping the ancient Haleakalā volcano — a highly recommend and rarely touristed part of the world. Paia, Haiku, and upcountry Maui are fantastic. Then we did the Big Island, a wild place filled with wild people. Lately, we have been all about Oahu, and especially Honolulu. Perhaps because we are currently living in a comparatively small town in the mountains that has us wanting to balance it out with some city vibes, or maybe we have come to believe that Oahu is the ideal mix of urban and rural: one can have an amazing food adventure, see world-class art, and within a 30-minute drive be deep in a rainforest.
Honolulu is the city where, if I had unlimited resources to have multiple homes, I would have a home — those ocean-facing condos at the Ala Moana would do nicely, thank you. No matter how many times I have been here, this city never ceases to amaze me. What is this place that is a major Pacific city which also happens to be part of America, with a distinct Asian vibe, and is located directly in the middle of the ocean far from anywhere? The vibe is part Hawaiian hospitality, part Asian honky tonk, part Japanese high end, with a mix of surfer outdoor adventurers. Here is a place where on the same block you could late-night shop for fantastically expensive sparkly bobbles at Harry Winston while during the day on the same spot pass dripping wet barefoot surfers. In true Asian style, it’s got gleaming glass towers mixed on the same block with rundown, ancient, single-family homes; at once entirely modern and historical, both tropical chill and big-city hubbub.
“Honolulu is the city where, if I had unlimited resources to have multiple homes, I would have a home”
I get that HNL is not for everyone, and the disparaging “It is Las Vegas by the Sea” comment is not entirely uncalled for — I felt the same the first time I had a layover here. But if one investigates just a bit, and gets away from the Cheesecake Factory scene on Kalakaua Ave, there is a lot to see and to love.
If you can manage it, check out the Doris Duke museum, Shangra La. Doris was the sole heir to Duke Energy and American Tobacco fortune. An extraordinary woman who, besides her art collecting, was a powerfully influential humanitarian. We have been trying to reserve a tour here for years and, with the help of the Halekulani, we finally got one. It was worth the wait. The art collection, particularly pieces like the intricate Persian tiles and ornate Indian jali screens, was mesmerizing. The building itself, the grounds, and the insanely awesome location are astonishing even without the art. She was no frail flower but an avid surfer and open-water swimmer back in the days when if one got in trouble out there, it was serious. Having considerable resources, she got permission to build her own private sheltered cove below the house, giving her easy access to her favorite surf break. The tour was only 4 of us, with exceptionally enthusiastic and informed guides. If you want to get an idea of the wild, at least for her time, life that Doris led, do a bit of googling. To begin with, at age 14, she sued her mother in order to stop her from selling family assets. Spunky gal.
We stayed at the Halekulani, an incredible place, one of those bucket-list items. It is simply one of the finest hotels in the world. The extraordinary attention to detail everywhere, the incredibly professional staff (50% of the staff has been there 30 or more years), the best views on Waikiki, tremendous food, and an atmosphere of serene elegance is how it gets 5 stars. There were days we did not leave the property; why would we? My fellow guests were stylish, smart, and delightful to be around. People here dressed not in a stuffy way but in an incredibly cool, chic way that the Japanese elders pulled off in a way that I could only aspire to. In a hotel with hundreds of rooms, after a couple of days the entire staff was greeting us by name. As I have gotten a bit older, I have come to realize that the destination is important but the place one stays is even more important. This is one of those places. And let’s talk food: the Halekulani breakfast is the best on the island — a daily 2-hour ritual feast for us. Orchids, one of the in-hotel restaurants, is superb. Several dreamy nights we dined outdoors at Room Without a Key, which has the best sunset vibe on the island. Tremendous, highly-professional, and friendly staff worked all the on-property restaurants seamlessly.
Where to Go (and Not Go) in Honolulu
Here is our mixed bag of HNL experiences:
Sandy’s beach: This is the spot to go to for body surfing. About 30 minutes from Waikiki, a very friendly beach and a favorite beach of locals and of thrill-seeking visitors. The swells come in from very deep water and, when they hit the steep approach to the beach, the wave will wall up vertically. If one is just outside the break, it will bob you gently up and down; go a couple of feet further toward the beach and you will be launched. The thrill is having one’s body horizontal, sticking out of the vertical wave face. However, the next stop will be getting body slammed into the sand. It is a unique experience, very fun, but beware of bikini-wearing as the meeting of body to sand may modify how you intend it to cover your body.
Japanese. Izakaya Uosan Sushi. This smallish restaurant, a 20-minute walk from the hotel, does an excellent job. We have been coming here on the last few trips and it is one of the places we look forward to. Most of the tables are taken by local or visiting Japanese customers, which is always a good sign. Ask the host, who is a fisherman, what is best that day and you won’t be disappointed. You will need to make a reservation, and they only take phone reservations; no online booking. Set a couple of hours to feast here, and then walk it off taking the sidewalk next to Ala Moana Park at sunset for a magical experience.
Nico’s Pier 38. Watch out: don’t do it. We like to give only good reviews but, this place, which more than one local recommended, fails in so many ways it boggles the mind. There were 3 of us eating, and each dish was borderline horrible. Even the bread was bad. How can a restaurant mess up the bread? The ambience is non-existent. The staff was nice, and I don’t fault them; they were trying their best with what they had. It is essentially an after-work bar that has developed a brisk food business. Located directly in the heart of the fishing industry, commercial boats are just in front, one would think this place would rock; it doesn’t. And it’s not cheap, either. You can do better than eating here.
Surfjack is the best coffee on the island. Located a couple of streets back from the beach on the west end of Waikiki, it is an easy stroll from most hotels. Locally roasted coffee, awesome staff, very cool vibe. We would take a 10-minute stroll in the morning over the 3 blocks before breakfast. Surfjack seems to be a bit of a local secret, as we almost never saw any visitors here; it was all people who lived or worked in the area. Also check out the nice shop in the back with a well curated selection of shirts, hats, and sundries.
FitPro Hawaii. If you are in HNL for a few days, you will want to check out FitPro. It is just a 5-minute drive off the Diamond Head end of Waikiki and is run by one of our favorite fitness experts, Bill Maeda, who we profiled here and who has a spellbinding Instagram here. Great guy and, if you are up for it, Bill can show you some of his amazing physical tricks. Most of his regular clients are over 40, Bill is mid 50s, so you will have a very experienced trainer who understands bodies our age. Book him in advance; he fills up quickly.
Tranquil Phoenix Massage. There are a few varieties of massage out there and this one would be clearly in the not-so-fun therapeutic variety, which is exactly why you want to go. Located in a nondescript high-rise 10 minutes from Waikiki, Randall is one of the most highly skilled practitioners of body work we have ever found. He was recommended to us by Bill Maeda as the best body worker around. Need corrective body work? Go see Randall.
Fête Restaurant. Located in the Chinatown area of Honolulu, run by the brilliant Chef Maii who was born and raised in Hawaii, this is a reasonably priced restaurant with a James Beard award. Maii did 10 years working in high-end NYC restaurants, returning to Honolulu to serve the food she most craved. The restaurant has a tight relationship with all their farmers and food sources, which is a very good sign. Great staff and varied seasonal menu. Chinatown is a bit of a wild thing all to itself. A combination of old-school tattoo parlors, military-oriented strip clubs, loft dwellers, and hipster art galleries. It didn’t feel dangerous in terms of street crime, but it was not the sanitized tourist vibe of Waikiki.
HoMA, Honolulu Museum of Art. We missed going this time but, if you are in Honolulu for a few days, check out this hidden gem of a museum. A delightful museum with quality curations and a good permanent collection. Stay for lunch; the restaurant is an oasis in the middle of the facility.