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Letter from Honolulu

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Waikiki Beach, with Diamond Head. Photo by Karen Glenn.

By Tom Passavant

When we walked down to Waikiki beach the morning after arriving at our rented condo in Honolulu, our first thought was "Where did everybody go?" Our second thought, of course, was "Woohoo–we've got Waikiki to ourselves." Early December is not exactly prime time in the islands, and things have already started to pick up as the holidays get closer. And this past week the whole city was bustling due to Sunday's annual Honolulu marathon, which attracted 20,000 runners. We were fascinated to note that over 60% of the competitors were Japanese, but when you consider the everyday popularity of Hawaii with Japanese visitors, not to mention the weather in Tokyo in winter, maybe we should not have been so surprised. (Turns out that 60% is about average; in 1991 70% of the runners were from Japan.)


 

But first impressions from the beach turn out to be a bit deceiving. The newpapers are reporting that hotel occupancy in Waikiki (which really means all of Oahu, since virtually every one of the 4.3 million visitors to this island stays in Waikiki) is currently about 78%, up some 4% over last year. This may help explain why, even though the average tourist is still spending less per day than before, and the local economy is definitely hurting, there's no sense of fire-sale panic. There aren't any hotels with bed sheets draped out the windows painted with signs saying "Make me an offer tonight!"
 

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Waikiki Beach. Photo by Karen Glenn.

The same seems to hold true on the real estate front. There are plenty of condos for sale in Honolulu, but nothing like the foreclosure frenzy in, say, Las Vegas or Florida. As with, say Aspen, I suspect most owners don't truly need to sell, so they've pulled their units off the market to wait for better times. Prices seem to be off about 20%-30% from recent highs, and some well-regarded buildings, like the big Waikiki Banyan condo hotel, have seen a good number of resales in the past few months. The only thing that has us shaking our heads is the number of condos in the sleek new Trump International Hotel, which just opened last month, on the resale market for about $2,000 per square foot. That's at least double the price of any other building in town. Of course, the owners bought at the height of the real estate frenzy (the building apparently sold out in minutes when the units first went on the market, back in another era). Is it worth it? We hope to check out the place, and its sleek new BLT Steak restaurant (part of Laurent Tourondel's budding dining empire) in the next few weeks.
 

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The Kahala Hotel.

Which is not to say that there aren't bargains. Many of the top-end hotels are offering a free night's stay when you book four or five nights; the classy Kahala Hotel, directly on the ocean in a quiet residential neighborhood, has several such packages, with breakfast thrown in for good measure. Overall, I'd say rates are 20-30% below normal, but you've got to look around a bit for the best deals. Hawaii is one of the few places where tour packagers offer rates that can compete with the hotel's own web sites and front desks (and you should always, always check with the hotel's web site and front desk before you book anything in the islands, just to be sure you're getting the lowest rate).

On line, be sure to consult pleasantholidays.com and pandaonline.com. Also, Hawaiian Airlines has just announced increased service to the mainland (they're the even bigger kahuna here since Aloha Airlines went out of business in 2008) as well as an airfare sale good from January through June that has round-trip tickets starting at $288 from Portland and Seattle. While I haven't done the math, it might actually be possible to fly from the East Coast to Las Vegas or the West Coast on one bargain ticket, then change to Hawaiian and save a bundle. Of course, it's also possible that other carriers will match those fares just to stay competitive. We always use airfarewatchdog.com to keep us abreast of the latest deals.

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Hula dancers. Photo by Karen Glenn.

When we were here last spring, we noticed that rental car rates had been creeping up, then exploding way up. So we thought we'd spend our days taking the bus a lot this time. Lo and behold, rates have come down quite a bit ($30 a day now seems to be normal for a small car–still up considerably from the low $20s that were common a year or so ago). Be sure to check rates via BreezeNet, discounthawaiicarrental.com, and even Costco if you are a member. And note that Enterprise can have very good rates at their branches around town, as opposed to airport pickups. But here's the biggest secret: Advantage. This discount renter was acquired by Hertz after a recent bankruptcy, and has bounced back with a vengeance, offering amazingly low rates at their Honolulu airport location right now. We've been renting a perfectly nice Hyundai Accent for–are you ready?–$80 a week. Sure, the car has roll-up windows and manual door locks, but who cares when the next cheapest rental I could find on-line was over 50% more?

 
Beyond that, Honolulu is still one of the world's great–and underrated–dining cities. Yesterday we discovered a French-Laotian pastry shop and restaurant. The Vietnamese folks at the Saturday farmer's market make excellent fig-walnut bread. We bought local eggs and butter from the north shore at the market today, and Whole Foods is just up the street, past the best juice place (Lanikai Juice) and an always-packed Greek restaurant called Olive Tree. Korean restaurants continue to proliferate–exploring them is our next foodie mission.

Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou,

(That's Merry Christmas and Happy New Year on the mainland)

TOM PASSAVANT is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion
magazine, and is currently that publication's editor-at-large. In addition to
his travel and food writing for Diversion, his work has appeared in Aspen
Magazine, Gourmet, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury
Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of Playboy's Guide to
Ultimate Skiing. A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association,
Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as
judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards.

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