Cheap airfares and package deals have made Hawaii a popular holiday option for Antipodeans, especially during our cooler months when year-round temperatures between the mid-20s and low-30s and never-ending Mai Tais are particularly enticing.
Most holidays begin in the capital of Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, and more specifically on Waikiki Beach – a place lauded for its turquoise waters and surfing culture but at the same time derided by some for being “too touristy”.
There’s no denying Waikiki is full of tourists, and if you have the time and budget it’s definitely worth also exploring Hawaii’s other attractions. But if you simply want to kick back and soak up some tropical vibes – ideally outside the peak holiday periods – then the beach has plenty to offer.
After exhaustive research, here are my top 10 things to do in Waikiki:
Beached as, bro
Even by Australian standards, the water here is seriously stunning – warm, crystal-clear and Insta-perfect. Watching the surfers bobbing away offshore, patiently waiting to catch a break, seems like a quintessentially Hawaiian pastime. Plenty of places hire surfboards, stand-up paddle boards and inflatable tubes if you wish to join them. Alternatively, BYO book and hire a chair and beach umbrella for around $US10 an hour or $US45 a day. When ice-cream time rolls around, take a stroll down surfboard lane (that’s the one with all the boards chained to the wall) and grab a treat from Banan, where they turn bananas and other fruit into dairy-free soft serve.
Dine out at Duke’s
Named after surfing pioneer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, this oceanfront restaurant and bar is so popular that your chances of scoring a walk-in table for dinner are extremely slim, but it’s well worth making a booking or trying your luck for lunch instead. Poke (raw fish, generally tuna) is everywhere in Hawaii and Duke’s Ahi Poke, served with a furikake cracker and chilli aioli, is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. For dinner, try the fresh catch of the day with the impressive salad bar.
Anyone for a Mai Tai?
Not all cocktails are created equal, and some of the best around can be found at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Legendary Mai Tai Bar. Grab yourself a seat at the bar or plonk yourself under a pink umbrella and watch the cocktail wizards work their magic creating delicious concoctions, including various twists on the classic Mai Tai and an exceptional Royal Margarita. The hotel itself (pictured below) is also a treasure – a restored 1920s art-deco building dubbed “The Pink Palace” – and local musicians perform in the bar every evening.
Escape the frenzy at Kapiolani
Walking south from Waikiki along Kalakaua Ave you will come to Kapiolani Beach Park, one of Hawaii’s oldest parks and a place where you might just encounter more locals than tourists – especially on weekends, when many people gather for picnics. Beautiful banyan trees offer some nice shade, and the water is inviting – but beware of rocks near the shore. Just five minutes from the beach is the Honolulu Zoo, outside of which you’ll find the outdoor gallery known as Art on the Zoo Fence. As the name suggests, artists hang their paintings on the zoo fence each weekend, and are also on site to discuss their work.
Cruise on a catamaran
A number of catamaran cruises leave right from Waikiki Beach. Take your pick from sunset sails, cruises around Diamond Head and snorkelling trips that offer a chance to swim near turtles. The Turtle Canyon two-hour snorkelling cruise with Snorkel Manu Kai ($US50, including drinks) is highly recommended, with turtle sightings pretty much guaranteed. Gay bar Hula’s operates its own sailing trip each Saturday, and Lonely Planet suggests trying the Na Hoku II and Maita’i catamaran cruises.
Beachhouse at the Moana is the bees knees when it comes to elegant beachfront dining, with verandah tables offering the perfect ambiance for a special holiday meal. Given the prices – $US65 for a rack of lamb and $US55 to $US75 for a steak (plus tip, of course) – you’d expect the dishes to be good, but they’re also surprisingly large, and the service is excellent without being stuffy. The best-value option is the tasting menu – the shared tomahawk steak will leave you very full and very happy.
Maui Brewing Co, described as Hawaii’s largest craft brewery, is based on the island of Maui but its beers are readily available around Waikiki – including at the Maui Brewing Co restaurant on Kalakaua Avenue. The bar has 36 craft and specialty beers on tap and there’s $US2 off all prices during happy hour (3.30pm-5.30pm). A Big Swell IPA or Coconut Hiwa Porter goes down very well with the pub-style food, including wood-oven pizzas and burgers. You can’t go past the fried chicken katsu sandwich (and by “sandwich” they really mean burger).
Take a hike
Okay, it’s not actually in Waikiki, but the walk up Diamond Head – the “volcanic tuff cone” which forms a dramatic backdrop to the beach – really is a must-do. The military-built trail takes you to the edge of a 300,000-year-old crater, and while parts of it are steep and uneven, it’s well worth it for the stunning 360-degree views enjoyed from the summit. The trail walk itself takes around 40 minutes to an hour (unless you’re stopping every five minutes for a selfie), and if you’re happy to extend that you can walk to Diamond Head from Waikiki, enjoying a glimpse of Honolulu neighbourhood life along the way.
Something else healthy
For a nourishing bite away from the madding crowd, check out Heavenly Island Lifestyle. With a quirky and colourful interior and the promise of locally sourced and mainly organic ingredients, the Seaside Avenue eatery is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving an interesting east-meets-west menu ranging from acai bowls and ahi poke to a delicious organic coconut green curry and Hawaiian pho. If you’re feeling under the weather or had a few too many Mai Tais the night before, the “Local Farm Green Veggie Juice” is just the ticket.
The daily grind
It’s not easy to find good coffee in Hawaii. In fact, it’s exceedingly difficult. The best – and strongest – flat white we found in Waikiki was at Island Vintage Coffee, on the second floor of the Royal Hawaiian Centre in Kalakaua Ave. It serves “100 per cent Kona coffee”, which essentially means the beans are sourced from the Kona district on Hawaii’s Big Island. Serious caffeine fiends are best advised to steer clear of Starbucks.
Getting there: Qantas and Jetstar both offer daily flights from Adelaide to Honolulu, with a stop in Sydney. One of the easiest ways to get from the airport to Waikiki is via shuttle, with the efficient Roberts Shuttle service costing $US16pp each way.
Staying there: Flight Centre and other travel companies regularly offer attractive flight and accommodation deals for Waikiki, and there are numerous hotels along the waterfront. But it’s also well worth checking out the Air BnB options – five nights in a cosy Air BnB apartment overlooking the canal and with views to Diamond Head cost us just over $A900 (for two people) including cleaning fees, taxes and access to the apartment block pool and gym.
The writer travelled to Hawaii at her own expense, and also spent time on the much quieter island of Kauai (read more about that here.)
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