Less than a 10-hour flight from Sydney, Hawaii offers both a dream Pacific island getaway and US shopping to rival Fifth Avenue or Sunset Boulevard. Its capital and largest city, Honolulu, has transformed from its meaning of “calm port” to a glitzy beachside metropolis. While plenty of waves break on the shoreline of Waikiki, you can ride the Aloha spirit all the way from the beach to the hidden treasures of downtown and the North Shore with this guide.
Halekulani more than lives up to its translated name, “house befitting heaven”. White shutters and lush, tucked-away gardens award privacy so strong you’d never guess the hustle of Waikiki is less than 20 metres away. Its beauty haven, the “SpaHalekulani”, is consistently voted one of the best zen spots in North America with massage and facial treatments drawing inspiration from Tahiti, Japan, Thailand and Hawaii. With a beachfront bar (see “Drink”), decadent Sunday brunch at Orchids and top-notch French restaurant La Mer, the furthest you’ll want to stray from this oasis is the aquamarine pool with the hotel’s trademark orchard etched on the bottom.
Its sister property the Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani opened across the road in October 2019 and is also only footsteps from the beach. Prices are not as sky-high as the more glamorous counterpart, and you can enjoy daily beach sunsets from your private balcony. Among its special touches are beach bags with laundered towels and chilled water and its onsite bakery opens from 6am, meaning you wake up to the incredible smell of ocean breeze mixed with freshly baked croissants.
If you don’t mind walking or driving around Honolulu, consider staying away from the Waikiki oceanfront strip where premiums and resort taxes cans sting at checkout. The Modern Honolulu is almost exactly halfway between the beach and Ala Moana, and a great option if you’re looking to give both your swimmers and your credit card a workout.
Honolulu is not a destination known for fine dining or Michelin stars. But the constant influx of tourists – many of them hungry swimmers and surfers – means there are plenty of casual, fresh flavours to be savoured.
The Pig and the Lady in Chinatown has become a local favourite; with light Vietnamese fare that goes down a treat in the Hawaiian humidity. The dried Aku XO Spaghetti is an umami sensation with crunchy dashes of chilli, garlic, bacon and Vietnamese herbs, while the “Vietnamese pizzas” (grilled rice paper layered with seafood or vegetarian toppings) are an ideal starter. Keep some room for their special dessert sundae, with flavours that change weekly. Seats go fast, so if you have only a few days in Honolulu it’s worth booking online before you fly out.
Alan Wong’s is a date-night regular for former US President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama during their annual Hawaiian holidays. It is said they always save room for the twice-cooked short rib and coconut sorbet in a chocolate shell for dessert.
The high numbers of Japanese tourists and year-round warm climate of Hawaii means conditions are perfect for the local special, poke. Every local has “their” place but most tend to agree on hole-in-the-wall gem Ono Seafood. It has been serving up paper plates of ruby red ahi tuna (left), with a kick of chilli, ginger and “secret shoyu” and sesame sauce, to delighted customers years before poke bars populated every food court.
Mexico has margaritas, Italy has Aperol Spritzes; Hawaii has the Mai Tai. For a classic experience of this rum, pineapple and curacao concoction, head to one of two Waikiki institutions: the Mai Tai Bar at the instantly recognisable pink palace The Royal Hawaiian or the elegant House without a Key at the nearby Halekulani.
If you prefer a spin on cocktail staples, try speakeasy Harry’s Hardware Emporium. Enter through a maze and a door marked “closed for renovations”, offer the password posted on their Facebook page, and you’ll be rewarded with a dark and decadent 38-seat space that feels a world away from its Waikiki. Also downtown, Bar Leather Apron has scooped plenty of prizes, including “World’s Best Mai Tai” for its version that is finished with an infusion of Kiawe wood smoke.
Many Australians visiting the US have only one request; “Where can I get a decent coffee?” If you want to play it safe, Bills Waikiki serves up a strong flat white and a brunch menu with the same choices as the Sydney venues. On the main street Kalakaua Avenue, Gorilla in the Café is the pick. Those in caffeine withdrawal mode will instantly perk up with its robust blend, roasted in house.
Ala Moana, the world’s largest open-air shopping mall, is the reason to come to Hawaii with an empty suitcase in preparation for four major department stores and more than 300 boutiques. If you’re close to a budget blowout due to Australia’s lacklustre exchange rate, consider the Waikele Premium Outlets instead, loaded with staggering discounts on labels like Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Kate Spade. On the hunt for a Hawaiian hipster fix? Look no further than the artsy Kaka’ako district, where street art, breweries and artisan everything prevails. Its epicentre is Salt, an outdoor mall of restaurants, boutiques and small galleries.
The Pearl Harbour National Memorial features a moving 75-minute experience on the USS Arizona where, after a short documentary, you will take a boat ride to the memorial and hear a comprehensive retelling of the December 1941 bombing. Reservations are not mandatory but recommended.
A North Shore road trip is a great way to sample the authentic Aloha spirit often difficult to find in tourist-soaked Waikiki. Do as locals and visitors alike and pepper the trip with food truck stops, including the lemon butter shrimp at Giovanni’s and a cool-down treat at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice. Don’t miss a pitstop in the cute town of Wahiawa, described as “Hawaii’s most underrated town”, which evokes a time when coffee farms and the Dole Pineapple Plantation, not ABC Stores and Starbucks, ruled the island.
As you leave the shores of Waikiki, getting around becomes slightly trickier. Fortunately, the Oahu Bus Line has frequent routes to Chinatown, Pearl Harbour and Kailua Beach once the journey gets outside of a taxi or rideshare budget. Despite the chilled out “island time” vibe of Honolulu, its bus system was recently ranked in the top 10 in the US for public transport convenience.
Nearer the beach strip, the Waikiki trolley overs a frequent loop between the Kalakaua Avenue and Ala Moana Mall for $US2 (it’s about a 20-minute walk). Uber is prolific – just don’t forget to tip. So long as you tip at least five per cent, your five-star rating will stay in check. Taxis are the easiest way to leave the airport, and a trip to Waikiki will cost about $US45 ($AU60). Remember to check before you get in whether the driver accepts credit card (many will only take cash).
If you have more than a few days on the island and want to explore beyond the most populated spots, a rental car is the easiest and most cost-effective option. Traffic is rarely an issue and Hawaii is easier to navigate on the right-hand side of the road than other, busier US states. You’ll need an Australian driver’s licence, but an international licence is overkill for most rental companies.