Beyond surf and sand, Oahu has a thriving urban culture that embraces creativity while staying rooted in tradition.
By Linda Domingo
A trip to Hawaii without setting foot on a beach could be considered heresy. Especially on Oahu, where the surf lifestyle reigns and the island’s shores consistently rank at the top of “world’s best” lists, the allure of soft sand and warm, impossibly blue waves is what brings most travelers from all over the world. But while the beach lacks naught, there’s much to be discovered away from it—in the urban centers of Honolulu where locals shop, play and dine.
Just northeast of Waikiki lies Kakaako, a neighborhood that was once a grouping of stark gray and tan warehouses. Over the past four years, artist and curator Jasper Wong has invited more than 100 of his closest artist friends to paint the town whatever colors they choose. The initiative is called Pow Wow Hawaii, an annual festival in February that leaves welcome traces of creativity in its wake, and has transformed the former blank canvas into an outdoor gallery of murals that is worth viewing year-round.
“By flying people from all over the world to Hawaii, we are exposing international arts to the local audience and vice versa,” Jasper explains. “We’re trying to create bridges to different parts of the world.”
Along with an eclectic group of businesses that have taken up residence in the district in recent years, Pow Wow Hawaii has helped to reinvigorate Kakaako, making it into a unique shopping, culture and dining destination for both tourists and residents. Conveniently walkable, Kakaako offers glimpses into an urban Hawaii that is on the forefront of cool without forgetting the area’s rich history.
On the culinary side, home-brewer-turned-pro Geoff Seideman converted an old warehouse into Honolulu Beerworks, the island’s newest craft brewery (set to open soon), while England-born bartender Christian Self and local disc jockey Timo Lee joined forces to create Bevy, an undeniably hip eatery that takes its mixology as seriously as its music and art. Also nearby is Shokudo Japanese Restaurant & Bar for Asian fusion cuisine, and Highway Inn, a 67-year-old institution that serves authentic Hawaiian dishes, including “laulau” (pork wrapped in taro leaf) and “poi” (a sticky, nutritious food made from taro plants).
Saturdays bring some of the country into the city—the Kakaako Farmers Market takes over a strip of Auahi Street with fresh produce year-round and is a good spot to grab a cheap breakfast. Then, every third Saturday of the month, vendors, entertainers, locals and visitors gather in Kakaako for the Honolulu Night Market, essentially a big block party where you can eat, drink, be merry and even catch a game of futsal, a version of soccer played on a smaller field.
And the vibrant area continues to grow, as landowner Kamehameha Schools has started construction on a mixed-use development featuring independently owned shops, restaurants, bars and galleries that’s slated for completion in 2015, adding yet another dynamic to the ever-changing Kakaako District.
A hub of office and government buildings, downtown Honolulu also houses some fascinating attractions, including Iolani Palace, a grand historic landmark (and the stand-in for the police headquarters in the original “Hawaii Five-0” TV show). The Honolulu Museum of Art, a structural maze surrounding tranquil green spaces, showcases a broad collection of works from around the world, from ancient to modern times. For more art, the museum’s extension, Spalding House, is located just outside of Waikiki in the residential Makiki Heights neighborhood. The house is one of Hawaii’s hidden treasures for not only its collection, but also its gorgeous views and Zen environment.
In what many might consider an entirely different demonstration of artistry, the Honolulu Fish Auction is a great reward for those who rise early enough to witness it. Buyers gather as an auctioneer rings a brass bell at 5:30 a.m. and bidding begins—hundreds of tuna, mahi mahi, swordfish and more make up a magnificently fresh culinary display. It’s not only a unique experience, but also an informative look into an important part of locals’ lives. “Hawaii has become a foodie destination,” explains Brooks Takenaka, assistant manager of the United Fishing Agency, which operates the auction. “Fishing for us is important not only from a cultural perspective, but a food and survival perspective.”
The Hawaii Seafood Council leads tours on Saturday mornings by reservation. If you go, be sure to wear clothing appropriate for temperatures of about 48 F and closed-toe shoes with which you don’t mind stepping into a half-inch of sanitizing solution.
A particular section of downtown is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of Hawaii’s multicultural identity: Chinatown. This historic district juxtaposes traditional Asian goods merchants with new retailers that showcase Hawaii’s youth and artistic talent. The Arts at Marks Garage is a good starting point for tourists, with resources such as maps and directories, and a gallery space.
It’s easy to bring home a mass-produced cliche from any one of the Hawaiian islands, but in Chinatown, you’ll find some true gems—boutiques with fashionable pieces that maintain the local flair. Barrio Vintage features a curated collection of one-of-a-kind pieces for men and women, while Roberta Oaks’ retro-inspired outpost even makes the aloha shirt cool, with sharp fits and eye-catching prints. Other shops like Homecoming and Milk & Honey contribute to Chinatown’s spreading reputation as the island’s fashion hot spot.
Of course, the biggest draw to most Chinatowns across the globe is that of the culinary variety. Lucky Belly is a staple in the neighborhood, with decor that blends rustic with industrial, and a relatively simple menu of which ramen is the star. Just down the street is The Pig & The Lady, the brainchild of 2012 Hawaiian Rising Star Chef Andrew Le, who gets help—and inspiration—from his mother, Loan Le, lovingly referred to as “Mama Le” by regulars. The restaurant’s Vietnamese-inspired dishes are some of the most flavorful bites found in Oahu. Meanwhile, for apertifs and digestifs, check in with Brandon Reid and Justin Park, who lead a squad of bartenders at Manifest. No one goes thirsty at this beautiful bar, enhanced by exposed brick and concrete, not to mention one of the best whiskey lists in Hawaii, making it the perfect place to toast the end of an idyllic trip to the island—and make plans for a swift return. LBM
Where to Stay
Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa
Directly across from the beach, the Hyatt Regency Waikiki’s guest rooms have stunning mountain and ocean views. The resort features world-class shopping at the Pualeilani Atrium Shops and gourmet restaurants including the elegantly decorated Japengo, which focuses on Hawaii’s local products and fresh seafood. (hyattregencywaikiki.com)
Voted among the top boutique hotels in Honolulu by Hawaii Magazine’s readers, The Modern’s sophisticated accommodations are only enhanced by irresistible pools, renowned dining, including Morimoto Waikiki—conceived by Masaharu Morimoto of the “Iron Chef” TV show—and The Study, a speakeasy-like bar hidden behind a wall of books. (themodernhonolulu.com)
Hilton Hawaiian Village
Situated on Waikiki’s widest stretch of beach on 22 oceanfront acres, this resort boasts no less than 20 restaurants and bars, five pools, a fabulous spa and the opportunity to view exotic wildlife and lush gardens. Daily on-site activities range from lei making to lessons in hula dancing or playing ukulele. (hiltonhawaiianvillage.com)
Oceanfront views and a breathtaking infinity pool add to the experience at the newly renovated Sheraton Waikiki, which also features nightly poolside entertainment, a wide variety of water sports and cultural events, and first-rate dining at Kai Market, Yoshiya, RumFire and the Edge of Waikiki bar. (sheraton-waikiki.com)
Overflowing with natural beauty, many of the Hawaiian islands offer unique experiences.
The Big Island
Home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea, and the largest volcano by volume, Mauna Loa, it’s no surprise that the Big Island of Hawaii continues to grow. Nearly twice the size of all the other islands combined, the Big Island is home to resorts, golf courses, historical sites and beautiful beaches alike. Red hot lava flows from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, while history is preserved at the birthplace of King Kamehameha I. Coffee plantations take travelers inside the process of harvesting the rare 100 percent pure Kona coffee, but those more interested in just sampling fresh brews—and other Hawaiian delicacies—can visit downtown Hilo to find restaurants, shops, art galleries and museums.
Blanketed in green, the Valley Isle is home to dramatic vistas in a variety of environs. The tropical Iao Valley State Monument and sprawling Haleakala National Park draw hikers, horseback riders, history buffs and those simply on a quest to experience an unforgettable sunrise. The charming town of Lahaina allows visitors a sampling of local culture with shops, restaurants and the storied whaling village. And, of course, Maui’s beaches are irresistible and just as diverse as its inland landscapes, with areas great for families, surfers, snorkelers, sunbathers and more.
Known as the Garden Isle for its dense greenery and miles of undeveloped terrain, Kauai is where you’ll find some of Hawaii’s most spectacular scenery. On the South Shore, explore sunny Poipu, a resort destination brimming with beautiful beaches, the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail and an emerging dining scene. Traveling up the coast, the 3,000-foot Napali cliffs and waterfalls are pieces of untouched paradise. The North Shore boasts the lively Hanalei Town, with green taro fields alongside shops, galleries and restaurants, in addition to some of the island’s best beaches, Lumahai and Kee. Across the island, there’s ample opportunity to sunbathe, golf, dine and embark on new adventures to explore Kauai’s tropical rainforests.