Waikiki and Beyond
Oahu means “gathering place,” and from the early days when Hawaiian royalty chose Waikiki Beach as the location of their first modest homes, to the mid-20th century when Pearl Harbor was a base for the American Pacific Fleet, to today, when the sandy 2 ½ – mile crescent has grown into the world’s most famous city beach, Oahu has been a magnet. Kalakaua, the last Hawaiian king, ruled here from the Victorian-style Iolani Palace, the only royal residence on U.S. soil.
Following WW II, builders usurped every last grain of then-empty Waikiki Beach, resulting in today’s side-by-side cornucopia of tropical resort hotels. The beach is famous for its generally mild surfing and world-class people-watching, all set against the dramatic backdrop of Diamond Head, Hawaii’s most famous landmark.
The sumptuous, intimate Halekulani (House Befitting Heaven) is the premier hotel in the Hawaiian Islands and one of the best in the United States, a 5-acre oasis of elegance that opened in 1917. For the most romantic (and expensive) dining in town, visit its world-class La Mer restaurant, whose superb preparation of fresh fish and island ingredients reinterprets the tenets of classic French cuisine.
Downstairs, the hotel’s less formal oceanfront Orchids dining room is probably the city’s best, with a Sunday brunch that offers more than 200 delicious dishes served buffet style, and draws as many Hawaiian families as visitors. The hotel’s beachside House Without A Key restaurant has long been a favorite sunset rendezvous – most nights an old-time trio, the Islanders, plays and sings classic Hawaiian tunes like “Hilo Hattie” beneath a century-old kiawe tree while a hula dancer mesmerizes.
There’s plenty of yesterday’s charm at the Royal Hawaiian, the “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” a beloved institution since its founding in 1927. It long ago nabbed the broadest stretch of beach in all of Waikiki, and today remains true to its time, though carefully updated. Its beachside bar serves the best mai tai in town and its famous Monday luau is a classic.
Being in the very heart of Waikiki is what Oahu has always been about. Its plethora of restaurants bespeaks the city’s exciting ethnic diversity and its place at the crossroads of the Pacific.
Alan Wong’s is the shrine of Hawaiian regional cuisine, the place where the most original practitioner of the city’s gastronomic scene shows off his magic with native ingredients in an otherwise unremarkable office building. Another wonder chef is Roy Yamaguchi, Hawaii’s biggest success story, with a string of eponymous restaurants that stretches from Guam to Pebble Beach. Some of them may stray, but this original site – loud, hectic, and fun – has never faltered since opening in 1988.
Then there’s the unassuming Ono Hawaiian Foods, a favorite local dive featuring island dishes you’ve never heard of – from kalua pig wrapped in laulau (taro) leaves to sweet haupia pudding made of coconut milk – as well as that old-time Hawaiian favorite, Spam.
In western Oahu, forty minutes and worlds away from the hubbub of Waikiki, the Ihilani Resort and Spa proves to be the best escape from big-city clamor, with a roster of five-star amenities, a spa inspired by ancient Hawaiian healing therapies, an oceanfront setting, and inimitable, inspirational sunsets – and that’s not to mention its adjoining KoOlina Golf Club, one of Oahu’s best.
Honolulu reminds you that Oahu is the most densely populated of the islands (with nearly ten times the density of Maui, the second most crowded), and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor reminds you of the city’s place in 20th-century history.
But the Oahu experience can also mean the deserted beaches, spiky cliffs (pali), and lush vegetation located only minutes outside of Honolulu. Surfers agree that the monster waves of the island’s legendary North Shore, from Haleiwa to Kahuku (including Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and the Banzai Pipeline) guarantee some of the world’s best surfing during the “winter” months of November to March. The waves calm down substantially in the summer.
For less extreme sports, try Hanauma Bay (Curved Bay), a gorgeous palm-studded crescent that offers the best snorkeling in all the Hawaiian islands. (Tip: arrive early.) Idyllic Lanikai, a scenic twenty-minute drive from Honolulu, and its neighbor Kailua (a world-class windsurfing spot) are considered among the best beaches in America for their exquisite turquoise waters and powdery white sand, and for the jaw-dropping scenery along cliff-hugging Kalanianaole Highway, which takes you there.