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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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