Stretching for around a dozen miles along the southern coast of Oahu, and home to more than 400,000 people, HONOLULU is by far Hawaii's largest city. As the site of the islands' major airport and of the legendary beaches and skyscrapers of WAIKIKI, it also provides most visitors with their first taste of Hawaii. Many, unfortunately, leave without ever realizing quite how out of keeping it is with the rest of the state.
Honolulu only came into being after the arrival of the foreigners; from the early days of sandalwood and whaling, through the rise of King Sugar and the development of Pearl Harbor, to its modern incarnation as a tourist dreamland, the fortunes of the city have depended on the ever-increasing integration of Hawaii into the global economy. Benefits of this process include an exhilarating energy and dynamism, and the cosmopolitan air that comes from being a major world crossroads. Among drawbacks are the fact that there's little genuinely Hawaiian about Honolulu, and the rampant over-development of Waikiki.
The setting is beautiful, right on the Pacific Ocean and backed by the dramatic pali (cliffs) of the Ko'olau mountains. Downtown Honolulu, centered around a group of administrative buildings that date from the final days of the Hawaiian monarchy, nestles at the foot of the extinct Punchbowl volcano, now a military cemetery. It's a manageable size, and a lot quieter than its glamourous image might suggest. Immediately to the west is livelier Chinatown, while the airport lies four or five miles further west again, just before the sheltered inlet of Pearl Harbor.
The distinct district of Waikiki is about three miles east of downtown, conspicuous not only for its towering hotels but also for the furrowed brow of another extinct volcano, Diamond Head. Although Waikiki is a small suburb, and one that most Honolulu residents rarely visit, for package tourists it's the tail that wags the dog. They spend their days on Waikiki's beaches, and their nights in its hotels, restaurants and bars; apart from the odd expedition to the nearby Ala Moana shopping mall, the rest of Honolulu might just as well not exist. The sun-and-fun appeal of Waikiki may wear off after a few days, but it can still make an excellent base for a longer stay on Oahu. Downtown Honolulu is easily accessible, and holds top-quality museums like the Bishop Museum and the Academy of Arts as well as offering some superb rainforest hikes, especially in Makiki and Manoa valleys, just a mile or so up from the city center. You can also get a bus to just about anywhere on the island, while, if you rent a car, the North Shore beaches are less than two hours' drive away.
What to see:
The tragic occurrences and subsequent world-changing events associated with this naval base make it a crucial part of American history and heritage. While the harbor is quite large, the Visitor's Center and Arizona Memorial are the hubs of tourism. Both places are free to enter, and both draw huge crowds. Several tours are available through activity brokers or tour companies. To reach Pearl Harbor from Waikiki Beach, take Nimitz Highway past the airport to Highway 99, and continue past the naval community.
Hanauma Bay Marine Reserve
Famed for its beautiful horseshoe-shaped sandy beach and clear, calm turquoise waters, this natural marine sanctuary is home to thousands of colorful tropical fish. The waist-deep water inside the reef is perfect for novice snorkelers to explore. More experienced snorkelers might want to check with the lifeguard before venturing beyond to deeper waters to see sea turtles and other marine life. The Bay is least crowded in the early morning or late afternoon.
Diamond Head State Monument
This crater of an extinct volcano got its name when Western explorers mistook calcite crystals they found there for diamonds. The historic trail to the 761-foot summit starts inside the crater and is an easy, but steep, 45-minute hike to the top. Stay on the trail, wear appropriate footgear and sunscreen, take along water and bring a flashlight to light your way through the tunnels. Those who reach the summit are rewarded by a spectacular 360-degree view of O'ahu. The tunnel gates close promptly at 6pm.
Where to eat:
Duke’s Restaurant and Barefoot Bar
The biggest reason everyone gathers at this beachfront restaurant is the music and the patio sunsets. The sound is "Contemporary Hawaiian" and appeals to a youngish demographic. Groups that often play here are Kapena, Makana and Lilikoi Sisters (Friday through Sunday evenings). The food includes fresh fish, burgers and a tasty club sandwich. The atmosphere offers a great beach setting with traditional Hawaiian friendliness. There is a breakfast buffet (USD9.95) and lunch buffet (USD10.50). The adjoining bar is a good place to have a drink before heading back to the beach.
Legend has it, the Mai Tai was either invented or perfected here. Fact or fiction: it doesn't really matter. This is a great place to have a drink and relax. Other creative tropical libations include Planters Punch, Navy Grog and the Royal Hawaiian Special. The bar is set in the magnificent old Royal Hawaiian Hotel. From 5:30p to 8:30p each evening, you can relax and take in the mellow Hawaiian music provided by the house band.
Shore Bird Beach Broiler
You are the chef at this eatery. You can pick and poke at steak, ribs, chicken and fresh fish as it all sizzles on your own personal grill. If you'd rather not be your own chef, the restaurant can prepare food for you in the kitchen. This place has been a family favorite for more than 20 years. The salad bar is one of Waikiki's finest, and prices are very reasonable. The dining area features that not-quite-inside, not-quite outside architecture that is so common in balmy Hawaii.