Waikiki
March 2016

Honolulu Reboots

Discover the old and new in Waikiki and beyond

BYBob Cooper

During a five-day getaway last fall, my wife and I embarked on a mission to explore all things new in Honolulu, while still finding time to revisit places that make it a classic getaway destination. We generally succeeded, although another week or two sure would have helped.
 
Dining and Nightlife
New has not replaced old in Waikiki, it’s just added a scoop. The dessert analogy is fitting because our first “meal” upon arrival at the stately Moana Surfrider, Honolulu’s oldest hotel (1901), was at its new dessert bar. The Kona coffee tiramisu and mango mousse were pure Hawaii, but the dessert bar trend hails from Japan.
 
This experience really set the tone for dining on our trip. We set out to find the best restaurants where we could sample locally caught seafood, while sipping on creative cocktails at some of the top spots overlooking Waikiki’s teeming Kalakaua Avenue. First was Buho, a 280-seat rooftop cocina y cantina with a Miami Beach vibe and fusion dishes like Kauai shrimp ceviches and pineapple-pico pork belly tacos. The next night brought us to the Tommy Bahama rooftop restaurant/bar, where the beachwear downstairs was paired with flavorful tapas (mac-nut-crusted goat cheese and seared scallop sliders). Later, we visited the highest rooftop spot, the 19th-floor Sky Waikiki, an open-air club overlooking Waikiki boasting cuisine by an award-winning chef. All three restaurant/bars have been open less than two years on a street where, in past visits, time seemed to stand still — and where rooftop hot spots didn’t exist. An even bigger surprise was that all are unashamedly contemporary, from the fusion fare to dazzling design features and ukulele-free live music.
 
If you have a sweet tooth like me, you don’t want to miss the rum-drenched lollipops and s’mores macaroons at Wakiki’s beachside RumFire, named for its nightly fire features and the biggest selection of vintage rums in America. For the musically inclined, the new Outrigger Waikiki’s 326-seat Blue Note Hawaii Showroom entertains with two nightly jazz performances.
 
Formerly frivolous Waikiki may have grown up, but don’t worry, it’s still about having fun. Now, it’s just more fun for all ages.
 
Honolulu Action and Attractions
Most of our time at Waikiki was spent people watching and sun worshipping on the hot sand or in the warm water. Looking to burn off calories from all of the delectable indulgences, I took a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) lesson. While surfers began using paddles to reach Waikiki’s waves at least 60 years ago, only recently has the SUP phenomenon exploded worldwide.
 
“We rent as many SUPs now as surfboards,” Faith Surf School’s Tony Moniz told me while demonstrating correct form on the beach. He noted that unlike surfing, you can learn to ride a SUP on your first lesson, as I did that day — well, after a few sideways tumbles into the froth. Later, I joined five women and a guide in an outrigger canoe, which we surfed to shore alongside real surfers four times in a half-hour. What a rush!
 
Waikiki is also a shopper’s paradise, bursting with international stores along Kalakaua, with 75 more to come when the International Market Place opens in August. Also in Waikiki, Kapiolani Park’s zoo and aquarium are sure to be hits with the entire family.
 
If you don’t rent a car, you can visit downtown Honolulu with a 20-minute ride on the frequent #2 city bus (TheBus). Stepping off the bus at the Honolulu Museum of Art, we discovered that nearly half of its 28 galleries are devoted to Asian art and artifacts, and the others feature Western artists including Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, O’Keeffe, and Warhol.
 
We also took free shuttle buses from the Honolulu Museum of Art to its sister museums: Spalding House, a hillside modern-art showcase with botanical and sculpture gardens (free with Honolulu Museum of Art admission) and Shangri La ($25 for a guided tour), an ocean-bluff mansion with America’s second-largest collection of Islamic art.
 
Later, a short walk from the museum led to downtown’s other main attractions: elegant Iolani Palace (America’s only former royal palace), the State Capitol, Kawaiahao Church (built of coral in 1842), and Chinatown.
 
Oahu on Wheels
If you haven’t ventured beyond Honolulu on past visits to Oahu, rent a car or reserve a tour-bus trip to check out the coastal and mountain scenery.
 
Highways 72 and 83 wander along most of Oahu’s 112-mile coastline, past beach parks, hiking trails, and a blowhole that spouts with each arriving wave. We stopped to hike to Makapuu Lighthouse, a breathtaking 1-mile climb on a paved path beside volcanic ocean cliffs. Continuing the drive past Sea Life Park Hawaii (dolphin encounters) and Waimanalo Bay Beach Park (named America’s Best Beach in 2015), we soon reached Kualoa Ranch.
 
We took the Ranch’s “Backlot Tour,” a 90-minute school-bus ride on dirt roads past locations seen in “Lost,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic World,” and many other Hollywood productions. The 4,000-acre cattle ranch, which reaches all the way to the island’s jagged peaks, hasn’t changed much since King Kamehameha III sold it to a missionary doctor in 1850. Horseback, ATV, and zipline tours are available for the more adventurous.
 
Continuing northwest along the coastal road, consider visits to the Polynesian Cultural Center (the Epcot of the Pacific), Waimea Valley Park (with a 5,000-species botanical garden), and Waimea Bay’s monster-wave beaches before returning to Waikiki.
 
Of course, no trip to Waikiki is complete without paying a visit to Pearl Harbor (special observances are planned throughout 2016 for the 75th anniversary of the attack), Bishop Museum (with the one of the world’s best collections of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultural artifacts), and iconic Diamond Head (hike to the top).
 
We left Oahu feeling we should return soon — both for the beaches and other attractions that never get old and for the joys of seeing what other new attractions we might have missed.
BOB COOPER, an award-winning travel writer, has made 16 trips to Hawaii. 
If You Go
When To Go: Several daily nonstops connect Phoenix and Honolulu year-round, but skip summer dates if you can. Besides lower fares and hotel prices, a spring or fall visit means lower temperatures. The air and water both hover around 75 to 80 degrees during those months.
 
Getting Around: Renting a car is not essential on Oahu. Take a cab or pre-arranged Hawaii23 van ($23 for two) from the airport to Waikiki’s hotels. You can then visit most of the island’s attractions on TheBus or the Waikiki Trolley — and skip the approximately $25/day for Waikiki hotel parking, rental-car hassles, and traffic stress.
 
 
For More Information
Call your local AAA Travel professional at 1-888-870-9392 or visit AAA.com.
 
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