TRIP REPORT: “Take me to Waikiki,” says Travel Stylist Katie Pesznecker

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

Special Correspondent Katie Pesznecker offers this comprehensive trip report on Waikiki (photos and story). She’s traveled to HNL twice recently. I call her my “travel stylist” because she has a special way of sharing the best and brightest elements. Follow along! –Scott

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Waikiki, where palm trees, pupus and pineapples provide a much-needed respite from chilly Alaska. We visited Oahu earlier this fall for our honeymoon and returned again this month, as Hawaii has long been a favorite December destination. After many travel-free months (thanks COVID!), the two trips were absolutely everything. The sun felt warmer, the mai’tais tasted sweeter, and the dreamy scenery of waving palm fronds, frothy ocean waves and sorbet-colored sunsets never looked so good. 

Pretty palm trees sway above the bustling Waikiki Beach. Waikiki was briefly the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1795-1796.  

Why Waikiki? Why not! Often a direct 6-hour flight, it’s relatively reachable for the Alaskan traveler, even if you have to connect through a West Coast airport (bright side, more air miles!). Some Oahu travelers will make a case for sidelining Waikiki in favor of a sleepier Kailua, the laid-back North Shore, or other island destinations. But I love Waikiki for its multicultural vibrancy and its multitude of entertaining options. In this pretty pocket of Hawaii, you can choose between tiki dive bars and contemporary cuisine, opt for niche boutiques versus high-end malls, or choose from an afternoon of poolside relaxation or an evening exploring the electric Kalakaua Avenue at night. 

A view of the numerous hotels fronting the Waikiki Beach shoreline.

My philosophy: don’t choose. Try it all. Don’t limit yourself to safety-net chain restaurants and don’t eat someplace because it’s convenient or cheap. Break out of your comfort zone. Leave the main strip for side street surprises. Poke around for perfect poké. Watch for restaurants that draw long lines of locals. 

That’s how we found Marukame Udon Waikiki on Kuhio Avenue. A late-night line literally snaked around the block, begging curiosity. We returned off-hours the next afternoon, scooting through the serving line with a dazzling view of the bustling kitchen. Cooks in T-shirts reading “Slurps Up” and “Temp-ur-ahhh” dished up chewy homemade noodles, and ladled in savory broth, topping the bowls with crispy beef and soft-boiled eggs. 

There’s no rest for the crew at Marukame Udon. From your spot in line, watch the cooks deftly prep homemade udon noodles. 

There’s a reason this place regularly lands in Trip Advisor’s top 10 of Honolulu restaurants, and with meals generally under $10, you will absolutely be hard-pressed to find this value and quality elsewhere. Go at non-peak hours to can spend less time lurking and more time slurping. 

We opted for the Curry Nikutama bowl, a best-seller with sweet flavored beef, a hot spring egg, kake sauce and savory beef curry broth. Added bonus: arriving at 3 p.m. meant we hardly had to wait for food at this insanely popular spot. 

Across the street from Marukame Udon is the venerable Paia Fish Market Waikiki. This fresh fish shop has humble beginnings in Paia, a seaside sugar plantation town on Maui known for surfing, tiny shops, and sea turtle-watching. Paia Fish Market isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it for its quality and freshness. Choose from locally caught seafood like mahi mahi, ono, and opah, and select the preparation – blackened, grilled, or sautéed in olive oil, wine and garlic, for example. 

We had to slice this 8-ounce portion of mahi mahi cleanly down the middle so we didn’t fight over it. That’s how good it was. Of note: I’m not a coleslaw fan in general, but I could devour a whole plate of this magical cabbage mixture that comes out of the kitchen at Paia Fish Market. 

We devoured our blackened mahi mahi, with seasoned smashed red potatoes, flavorful Cajun rice and tangy coleslaw. Bonus points for efficiency: you order at the counter and food is delivered swiftly to your table. A tiny bar in the corner offers discount drinks at happy hour. 

Don’t miss Eating House 1849, a Chef Roy Yamaguchi concept restaurant on the al fresco rooftop of the centrally located International Marketplace. Yamaguchi is among Hawaii’s best-known chefs with restaurants reputed for elevating Hawaiian flavors. Roy’s Waikiki is one of my absolute favorites, especially for a special occasion. New on the scene, Eating House 1849 offers a more casual environment with a modern menu that celebrates Hawaii’s vibrant cuisine.

 A signature Roy’s dish at nearly all his restaurants, this crispy-on-the-outside, savory-on-the-inside rolls are rounded out by their sweet chili dipping sauce and dainty topper of crunchy greens. It’s a must-have when having pupus at Roy’s and Eating House offers a cheaper happy hour portion. 

We reserved a happy-hour table at Eating House to access a broader range of dining and pricing options and started the night with delicious pupus (the Hawaiian word for appetizer), including the pork and crab pillows (think: very soft rectangular raviolis) with soy chili vinaigrette and crispy garlic; and the chicken spring rolls with mango ginger sweet and sour, watercress and leeks. For entrees, we enjoyed grilled local-caught fish with fresh sauces and sipped on Roy’s pineapple martinis. With a warm breeze rustling through the open-air space, it was a perfect evening ender. 

Katie + a Roy’s pineapple martini = vacation aloha. This house speciality cocktail comes served with a chunk of vodka-soaked pineapple, too. Note the complimentary edamame on the table, a complimentary Roy’s staple. 

Another standout this visit was a hole-in-the-wall called Aloha Table. It’s a ramshackle old-school joint with second-floor balcony and indoor seating that delivers traditional Hawaiian fare and a killer happy hour. You would be highly unlikely to stumble upon this place as it sits in a nondescript bordering-on-shabby building on a side street that almost looks like an alley, but the service is exceptional and their Loco Moco is legit award-winning. 

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, as Aloha Table’s exterior might look shabby, but inside, food awaits. Hawaiians would call it ono, their word for delicious! 

Loco Moco is a Hawaiian staple with a hamburger patty atop a bed of rice, topped with an over-easy egg and brown gravy. In my opinion, most restaurants ruin it with unnecessarily amplified portions – think two beef patties, two eggs, added proteins. Aloha Table has a single-patty option at lunch and happy hour that is possibly the best I’ve ever had, simple and savory and spot-on. We shared it, and also ordered a Hawaiian plate lunch. 

A plate lunch is a Hawaiian staple but surprisingly hard to find in Wakiki. Typically it is two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and an entree, like Kahlua pork, lomi lomi salmon, or teriyaki chicken. Two or more entrees is a mixed plate. There’s something about the sweet marinades and gooey macaroni salad and the fluffy rice that just hits the spot.  

This plate lunch at Aloha Table was scrumptious — rice, fried chicken, mac salad, and even a pile of greens in a Maui sweet onion dressing. 

At Aloha Table, we tried the plate lunch with spicy friend chicken, and between that and the Loco Moco, we left so satisfied. I capped it off with a pineapple mimosa, and my dining companions raved about the happy hour pickled pineapple pupus. 

 Pineapples are everywhere in Waikiki — even in mimosas! This little concoction was sweet deliciousness on a hot Hawaii afternoon. 

Final food recommendation: Heyday, located in the White Sands Hotel. This throwback restaurant is snuggled into a poolside courtyard and includes a bar surrounded with suspended swings. It prides itself as a bamboo bar that’s a throwback to the Honolulu culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and with its string lights and playful décor, you absolutely feel you’ve slid back into time to a Waikiki that was more coconut-casual and less high-end pretention. Swoon. 

The hotel itself is price-point friendly compared to Waikiki competitors and boasts hipster-friendly touches. For example, you can check out a record player and records for your room. The bar and restaurant surrounds a small, glimmering pool, providing whimsical shelter from the hustle and bustle of the city.  

We had a swinging good time at the White Sands dining poolside at Heyday. The bar here packs throwback charm, complete with these swings instead of bar stools. It was amusing and charming to watch patrons gently sway side to side while sipping Hawaiian craft beers. Husband Joe got a kick out of it too, as you can see here. 

At Heyday, we shared a juicy, simple burger that was absolutely memorable, and a rustic cheesy bread that hit the spot after an afternoon of sunshine and happy hours. This bar offers a creative cocktail menu too, and impressive wine options. The retro-chic vibe, laid-back service and spot-on food made for a chill ending to a busy Waikiki day. 

Beyond landmark meals, there’s lots to do in Waikiki, like enjoying beaches to tourist spots like the Honolulu Zoo and Waikiki Aquarium. Shopping options abound, culminating with the legendary Ala Moana Center, the largest open-air shopping mall in the world, and the ninth-largest in the United States. Amazing coffee shops pour iced drinks and scoop out colorful mounds of gelato. 

We love to walk in Waikiki. Here, we stopped for a quick selfie during a sunny stroll between Outrigger Reef and the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where a paved walkway fronts the seaside. 

Personally, I love to set off on foot and just walk the Waikiki streets and beaches, people watch and scout for experiences. Unless you plan several out-of-Waikiki excursions, don’t waste money on a rental car. You can walk or affordably Uber anywhere. The city also boasts a very user-friendly bus service that covers the entire island, all the way up to the North Shore.  

My friend Karianne just happened to be in Waikiki too, and joined us for an Afternoon Delight sail with Mai’Tai Catamaran. 

Better yet, get on a boat. Our best day every time we visit Waikiki is when we take a catamaran sail. Our chosen company is Mai’Tai Catamaran, and many of its sails feature homemade mai’tais and other beverages, sipped as you sail the Pacific, usually snaking around picturesque Diamond Head for views of its squatty lighthouse, backdropped by lively sing-along tunes. This last trip, we even saw humpback whales. The charming and serviceable crew delivers a memorable experience for sure. 

Katie and Joe with the Waikiki strip and Diamond Head in the background, from a balcony at the Sheraton Hotel where a friend was staying. This room boasted a serious view! 

Some final tips and thoughts on visiting Waikiki: 

Be respectful: A lot of people are wondering whether to travel right now because, COVID. Hawaii has it dialed in. The state has a rules, Hawaiians follow the rules, and tourists must step in line. At press time, masks are required indoors, and while businesses can operate at full occupancy, you must show either a vaccine card (with ID) or a negative COVID test from within two days. If you aren’t vaccinated, be prepared to take lots and lots of COVID tests.   

Be prepared: I know we all imagine tropical vacations as laid-back gigs where we go with the flow but with understaffed establishments tweaking hours and streets teeming with eager travelers, I advise dinner reservations for half the nights you’re traveling. It might sound like overkill, but so is waiting in line for tables. Also, pay attention to happy hours. They are plentiful, and specific, and a great way to save money in notoriously expensive Waikiki. 

Hawaii has its own tropical roster of specialty cocktails. 

Be picky: When choosing Waikiki, lodging geography matters. We’re hotel people and almost always book at Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort for a few reasons: 1) It’s on one end of the Waikiki strip so one can enjoy a quieter environment. 2) It has a great pool, and when in Waikiki, a pool is very important to me. 3) It has a fantastic open-air bar, with live, contemporary Hawaiian music every night. I love closing down the day with some ukulele crooning. What matters to you? Beach proximity? Pool? On-site bar? Gym? Waikiki lodging generally isn’t cheap, especially the closer you are to the ocean, so be discerning when booking travel. 

Waikiki is full of breath-taking views. At right is the iconic Diamond Head, and in the foreground, the pink walls of the famous Royal Hawaiian Hotel, one of the very  first hotels built in Waikiki. 

Be flexible: Nothing’s the normal it used to be. Places are understaffed. Sometimes hours and services are limited. Things may move slower than normal. Websites might be mismatched against actual business operating hours. Enter into your Waikiki experience accepting this, and it will curtail stress down the road. 

Happy holidays and happy travels! 

Hawaiians do love their Christmas. In December, Waikiki is bursting with Christmas trees, holiday decor — and even a paddleboarding Santa. Whether he’s just getting exercise or setting off for the mainland, I’m sure he’d join me in wishing you all “Mele Kalikimaka!”  

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