Story by Jules Older. Photos by Effin Older.
Ask any ten sophisticated travelers where they go in Hawaii, and here’s what they’ll answer:
Four will stay on The Garden Isle, Kauai.
Three will fly to The Big Island, Hawaii.
Of the remaining three, one will be on Maui, one on the North Shore of Oahu, and one on an outer island.
What’s missing from this picture?
Oh, yes — the state’s capital and biggest city by far, Honolulu. And the Honolulu neighborhood where Hawaiian tourism began, Waikiki.
Look. Sophisticates have a long history of getting it wrong.
The Eiffel Tower? So despised by French sophisticates that some threatened to leave Paris unless they tore the ugly thing down.
The Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco? Reviled by local sophisticates when it was built in 1972, it is now the most revered building in the city.
The Giant Ferris wheel in Vienna? Sophisticates’ joke:
“Where is the best view in Vienna?”
“The Giant Ferris wheel.”
“Because it’s the only place in Vienna where you can’t see The Giant Ferris wheel.”
And so it is with Honolulu and Waikiki. Here’s the knock on them:
- Waikiki is full of hype and glitz
- Waikiki is a tourist trap
- Honolulu is just a big city, not a place to spend precious vacation time
Let us consider these arguments, shall we?
Waikiki is full of hype and glitz. This is absolutely true. But it begs the question, What’s the matter with that? Sure, if you live in Las Vegas, you might want to escape to a more bucolic spot, but if you spend fifty weeks a year in La Jolla or Little Rock or Lexington or Louisville, you just might wish for a little more hype and glitz in your life. Me, I’ve lived in the South Island of New Zealand and the far north of Vermont, and I fair basked in Waikiki’s hype and glitz.
Waikiki is a tourist trap. Yes, it sure can feel that way. There’s a guy on every corner hawking snorkel tours, catamaran rides, scenic flights and … and what’s the problem with snorkel tours, catamaran rides and scenic flights, again? In Las Vegas, they’re hawking views of nudie pictures, not views of colorful fish swimming past your snorkel mask.
Honolulu is just a big city. The only word I have trouble with in that sentence is “just.” Honolulu is a big, multi-ethnic, palm-studded city marked by bold architecture, rich history, astonishing views, world-famous beaches, outstanding Asian restaurants and gorgeous people. The gorgeousness stems from Asians and Polynesians, Portuguese and Germans, Black and white Americans breeding across the spectrum.
Honolulu is also America’s southernmost and westernmost major city, and the nation’s second safest. (OK, it also boasts America’s worst traffic jams.)
Honolulu houses Ala Moana Center, the world’s must humungous open air shopping mall; Iolani Palace, once home of the Hawaii’s monarchs; Pearl Harbor and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific; and the planet’s most famous landmark mountain, Diamond Head.
Looking for culture? The Bishop Museum is the Smithsonian of the Pacific. Waikiki Aquarium is a working marine biology center. Foster Botanical Garden is a living lesson in Hawaiian botany. Plus, there’s opera, slack-key guitar, symphony, rap, opera, ballet, and hula, hula, hula. Mahalo for that.
And while we’re at it, Honolulu has had a more than its share of famous residents. Among them, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin; Syngman Rhee and Sun Yat-sen; Imelda Marcos and Doris Duke; Don Ho and Bette Midler.
Thus my issue with “just.”
Here are a few of my own Honolulu and Waikiki faves.
The Hula Pie at Duke’s. Pure depravity. We split one, then ordered another. And went back the next night for two more.
Hawaiian music at the Outrigger Reef’s Kani Ka Pila Grille. Much loved local artists play nightly, and sometimes, spontaneous hula dancing adds to the free show. Want more? How ‘bout the best fish and chips in Waikiki.
First Friday Art Walk in Chinatown. Even in Paradise, artists help transform a seedy ‘hood. It’s not gentrification; it’s hipification. And it’s free.
Free music and hula in the Royal Hawaiian Center and outdoors at the beachside hotels. Mahalo for that.
The brilliant indoor-outdoor architecture and design of the Royal Hawaiian Center. It may be a shopping mall, but with its trees and ferns, ponds and grassy spaces, it looks like Paradise.
The fact that you may be staying in El Cheapo Hotel but can still access the beach through the historic halls of the Pink Hotel, a.k.a. The Royal Hawaiian. You’ll feel like a better person than you are.
Lunch at Marukame Udon. Join the long but fast-moving line for a taste of Tokyo in the heart of Waikiki. It’s cheap, fun, filling and educational (you watch your lunch being created from wheat flour to piping hot broth).
Farmers markets, Honolulu style. The most convenient are Waikiki Farmers Market at the Hyatt Regency and King’s Village Farmers Market at, um, King’s Village. The locals’ fave is Diamond Head Farmers Market at Kapiolani Community College. All specialize in tropical fruits, exotic treats, food booths and super-fresh veggies.
The fresh leis draped around the bronze neck of surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku by Kuhio Beach.
The outrigger canoe surfing ride on the beach in front of the Outrigger Waikiki. It’s an affordable, self-propelled thrill.
The fact that you save $100 a night for every block your hotel is away from the beach. And these are short blocks.
An ABC store on every block for sunblock, beach towels, aspirin, shades and everything else you meant to pack but didn’t.
So. You’ve no doubt noticed that much of the hype and glitz in Honolulu and Waikiki turns out to be free. As in no charge. Mahalo for that.
Three Honolulu mini-movies by Jules Older
TEN THINGS TO DO IN HAWAII WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK
BEACH MUSIC WAIKIKI
DUKE’S GREEN MACHINE
Jules Older’s ebook of travel misadventure is DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love.
Effin Older is an author, writer, photographer, editor, videographer and app-creator.