What you need to be doing in Honolulu

It’s no longer just about the retro prints, daiquiris and leis. Find out what to see, consume and do when next in Honolulu. From the old and ingrained, to the emerging and eclectic. But surfing on Waikiki beach? That’s always been a must.

  • Make PDF
  • Print Article

Honolulu is an interesting mix. On many fronts it’s established yet contemporary, traditional but modern and elements of elegance exist along the clashes of bright and bold. It’s a cross section that reigns true for the characters walking the streets and sand, the buildings that line them, and the offerings on both retail and hospitality fronts.

The below listed highlights of Honolulu, the majority to be found on or near the famed sands of Waikiki beach, are a mix too.  Some are ingrained must dos and age old finds, others a little off the beaten track, and existing owing to modern trends.

Pick up a beach lunch from Pi (1), who since the 70s has been making fresh sandwiches, salads and smoothies to go. From 11am to 2pm, the long line packed with locals and clued in visitors (it moves quickly) speaks volumes of the good things that come out of this tiny tenancy tucked under the Outrigger hotel. Our pick? Turkey and avocado on whole wheat bred, crammed thick with carrot, tomatoes, lettuce and sprouts. You can’t beat a classic sandwich when done right.

Come dinnertime, look away from those offerings catered towards the masses. For a simple experience that very much ties into the ‘slow food movement’, jump in a cab for Town (2), where the mantra is “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always”. Under chef/owner Ed Kenney, the menu changes regularly and is based on local ingredients. The wine list is sourced the world over, with a solid line up of European reds. Highlights of a past visit included tuna, seared and served atop a medley of roasted tomatoes, eggplant and endive, and a striploin char grilled to perfection, laced with a little roquefort butter, and arguably the finest French fries ever created.

At the other end of the spectrum, sits Nobu (3), who Vogue have described as the “world’s hippest restaurant chain.” It’s a step away and above from the Japanese restaurants dotted along Kalakua Avenue, and possibly one of the few chains that has still retained integrity, owing to the finesse of the dishes, and that of the staff. Anything tuna based will astound, mainly owing to the lack of food miles between the catch and the kitchen. The ‘tacos’ in particular are impressive.

For a special occasion dinner overlooking the famed beach you can’t go past La Mer (4). Housed in the Halekulani hotel, it’s celebrated as Hawaii’s longest, consecutively ranked AAA Five Diamond Restaurant, and is where French inspiration marries with Hawaiian ingredients. The degustation and matching wines, will blissfully occupy an evening.

You wouldn’t go to Waikiki without catching (or trying to catch) a wave (5), and while there are many operators along the beach hiring boards, it’s best to go to those closest to where you’ll paddle out from, as considering the size of the board you’ll need, the walk down the beach, becomes less of a task. The waves will be packed, so keep your wits about you, and in mind that the normal rules of the surf fall to the wayside. Don’t be surprised to find instructors standing on the sandbank, pushing their students on waves, who in turn paddle back into the sets on return. Infuriating and kook like behaviour! But a fun experience all the same.

Diamond Head is the mountainous backdrop to Waikiki (6). It’s 338 metres high and was formed by explosions beneath the surface after most of O’ahu’s volcanic activity had ceased. In 1910, they built a trail to serve the military observation stations located along the rim, and now it makes for one great hike. You can do it the long or the short way, but go the long. Start from your hotel in central Waikiki and walk along the beach promenade before turning up Monsarrat Avenue, past houses and shops. Diamond Head Road then begins, that leads to the park’s entrance (tuck $1 in your shorts for the entrance fee). The last part of the hike is the most intense, alternating between steps, slopes and stairs, but the 360-degree views of the island make it worth it. It’s about 12km return to central Waikiki.

Do like the locals and take your post exercise breakfast at one of two takeaway options. Like it green? You’ll love the Diamond Cove Health Bar (7), where power packed smoothies and acai bowls await. Or for those seeking something with a little more substance/grease order from the Diamond Head Grill (8). A three egg omelette packed with fillings and a side of rice, will set you back $9.50. But for the ultimate refuel (and then some) try the traditional ‘loco moco’, a homemade hamburger and egg sits over fried rice, then laced with gravy. Sounds intense and cardiac arrest inducing, but oddly it works.

The Moana Surfrider hotel (9), opened in 1901, making it the state’s first hospitality offering. It’s now owned by the Westin, and still occupies a regal position on the beach, the presence of which is only exemplified by the white colonial style architecture and large banyan tree occupying the courtyard. The good news is you don’t necessarily have to be a guest to enjoy the surrounds. You’re welcome to take breakfast on the veranda (ala carte or buffet) and come sunset, their Beach Bar is the place to be, and the lilikoi and coconut mojitos, the perfect accompaniment. Another interesting and slightly more ‘sexy’ spot for drinks lies around the pool at The Modern Hotel (10), and then later at their hidden bar, The Study.

On the shopping front, you’ll find all the major brands, and for ease, head to one place, the Ala Moana Centre (12). From Chanel to Crocs, it’s all there. For independent offerings, head to Banana Bay (13), a family run store with a solid selection of beachwear, including Seafolly. Across the road, The Greenroom (14) is a hybrid of a gallery and boutique that celebrates contemporary surf-inspired art. Original works and prints sit for sale, making for a more refined memento than the traditional printed polyester shirt.

For true holiday respite book into the Abhasa Spa at The Royal Hawaiian (15). It’s consistently ranked as one of America’s best and it’s easy to see why. From beginning to end the experience is seamless, and while it’s decadent, it does come across as light of hand and refined. The therapists, easily some of the country’s best are so fluid with their work (get the abhasa harmony massage), it’s hard not to fall asleep.

At the time of our visit Bill Granger’s Hawaiian outpost of his famed Bill’s empire was yet to open. There’s something about eating his banana hotcakes in their cultural birthplace that just seems so right…

1. Pi, Outrigger shops, Outrigger Waikiki On The Beach,  2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu.

2. Town, 3435 Waialae Ave #104, Honolulu

3. Nobu, 2233 Helumoa Road, Honolulu

4. La Mer, Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Rd, Honolulu

5. Our surf boards were provided by The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, were in good condition and well priced.

6. Diamond Head

7. Diamond Head Cove Health Bar, 3045 Monsarrat Ave #5, Honolulu

8. Diamond Head Grill, 3158 Monsarrat Ave, Honolulu

9. Moana Surf Rider Hotel, 2365 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu

10. The Modern Hotel and The Study,  1775 Ala Moana Boulevard, Honolulu

11. Ala Moana Centre, 450 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu

12. Banana Bay, Outrigger shops, Outrigger Waikiki On The Beach,  2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu

13. The Greenroom, 2255 Kalakaua Ave. #18 Honolulu

14. Abhasa Spa, 2259 Kalakaua avenue 1-A, Royal Hawaiian, Waikiki, Honolulu

Image credits: 1940s Hawaiian postcards, British Vogue and Pepper Passport. 



  • Go to The Burger's Priest for BEST BURGER EVER. But… they’re closed on Sundays. So go on Saturday. They tell you to go to Church on Sunday. (Image credit: Johnny Madden).

    The tasty and trendy travel guide to Toronto

    Who better to share her picks of what to see, do, eat and experience in Toronto than Pepper Passport contributor and clued in local Danielle Oron? From addictive kimchi fries to art galleries, this is one excellent travel guide.

  • pepper passport - burleigh -2

    Is Burleigh better than Byron Bay? Possibly, yes.

    If the surf culture, cult coffee scene and diverse markets are anything to go by, we’re thinking Burleigh Heads is well on its way to becoming the new Byron Bay.

  • 'All of the places you'll find on this list I have been to and love - they're fun, romantic and trendy, so choose according to your palate's desires and go from there.'

    Nicky Charman’s ultimate guide to NYC

    “All of the places you’ll find on this list I have been to and love… you MUST have the lobster soup dumplings!”

  • travel-guide-new-zealand-south-island-pp-3

    Why we’re kicking ourselves we didn’t holiday here sooner

    Please note, this article is best enjoyed with a glass of wine.