TRIP REPORT: Seeking summer in Hawaii

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

Morning views on the Waikiki strip. All photos by Katie Pesznecker and Joe Niva.

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker and her husband Joe Niva visited Waikiki in search of some elusive summer sun, sand and surf. She offers some great tips for those Alaskans who took advantage of this week’s “flash sale” to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines. This is her report.

We don’t typically travel outside of Alaska in the summer months but at some point well into June, I’d had enough rain. A fare sale from Alaska Airlines was the nudge I needed to book tickets to Hawaii, and recently we enjoyed four sun-soaked summer days on the sandy shores and buzzing streets of Waikiki.

 Katie at the Moana Surfrider banyan tree. 

Waikiki is an easy getaway with regular direct flights. Its consistent weather and variety keep the destination both dependable and fresh. We’re always looking forward to experiencing new things, and this trip, trying the new restaurant Monkeypod Kitchen topped the list.  

Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort 

Monkeypod is operating in a privately owned space at Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, which just happens to be the hotel we always stay at. The hotel sits at one end of the busy Waikiki strip which means it’s more peaceful than more centrally located locations. For decades, it housed the legendary Shore Bird Bar and Grill, known for grill-your-own-steaks and lots and lots of karaoke. Shore Bird tragically closed in 2017. A generic restaurant briefly occupied the space, generally regarded as a disappointing and overpriced lackluster successor.

The view of Diamond Head from Monkeypod Waikiki  

So when renowned Hawaii chef Peter Merriman announced plans to open Monkeypod at that location, the news was met with enthusiasm and anticipation. Merriman’s restaurants – including three others named Monkeypod located on Oahu (in Ko Olina) and Maui (in Ka’anapali and Wailea) – are revered and super-popular for their craft cocktails and vast beer selections, laid-back island vibes, inspired farm-to-table food, and warm and inviting hospitality. (Of note, one of the Maui locations was where “Top Gun” actor Miles Teller was reportedly punched in the face in 2021 while hanging out with quarterback Aaron Rodgers!)

Joe makes it a happy hour at Monkeypod. 

When Monkeypod finally opened in Waikiki on July 15, we were there for it, having just arrived late the previous night. So we were among the very first customers who showed up, eager to dive into some happy hour apps. Hordes of newly trained employees swarmed the place, cheerful and welcoming, shadowing each other as they greeted and seated customers, slung drinks and ran food orders to and from the bustling kitchen.

Inside Monkeypod Waikiki. 

The opening was preceded by a lengthy renovation that has absolutely paid off. The space is transformed; old patrons of Shore Bird will have a hard time recognizing much beyond the dependably pretty view of the Pacific. Instead, thoughtful and artistic wood carvings and accents define the open-air interior space. Other décor is bright and colorful, and local musicians perform throughout the day, giving Monkeypod’s overall ambiance a playful and whimsical air.

Happy hour munchies at Monkeypod. 

We split a delicious salad of Waipoli Farm mixed greens, organic beets, bacon, chèvre, and Maui onion, dressed in an orange ginger vinaigrette. We also tried the “Pumpkin Patch Ravioli,” with roasted local squash, chèvre, Ma’o Farms spinach, and walnut sage pesto. Finally, a basket of truffle fries completed our afternoon snack. The daily 3:30-5 p.m. happy hour is a great time to visit: most appetizers are half off, wines by the glass are $3 off, and all handcrafted culinary cocktails are $4 off. Bottles of bubbly are half off between 7-11 a.m. on “champagne Sundays.” 

Husband Joe approached the Moana Surfrider, a Waikiki landmark. 

Monkeypod wasn’t our only new culinary experience this trip. My husband surprised me with a booking for afternoon tea at the Veranda Waikiki, located on the ocean side of the iconic Moana Surfrider in its banyan tree courtyard. The tea tradition at Moana has existed for decades, according to its menu: “Guests found a perfect respite from the afternoon sun, while fanned by cool sea breezes. Hostesses presented freshly brewed tea along with light savories and pastries as visitors watched the activity of Waikiki, and talked story as the day wound down.”

Katie + tea = happy! 

You’d be hard-pressed to beat the ambiance and view. Our table sat on the veranda, draped in white linen, topped with beautiful china plates and tea cups. From this vantage point, we enjoyed the colossal banyan tree ruffling in the wind, cheery birdsong, and bright blue skies.

Joe enjoying sun-soaked afternoon tea. 

The tea service itself was impeccable. The waitress presented our options and offered canisters of loose-leaf tea to smell. I chose a sweet peach white tea, while Joe opted for mango pineapple, a local black tea.

Three tiers of treats!

Promptly, a tiered platter of sweets and savories arrived. Afternoon tea service generally features an array of tiny sandwiches, scones with some kind of butter or clotted cream and jam, and a spread of little picturesque sweets. The Moana tea had all the familiarity of these traditional offerings, but with a Hawaiian twist throughout. For instance, tangy lilokoi curd and sweet mascarpone cream accompanied the blueberry orange scones. The Haupia Roll Cake, a Moana classic, was a chiffon cake filled with coconut crème.

Moana munchies: a platter of tea sandwiches. 

But the finger sandwiches stole the show. Playfully interpreting teatime classics, the spread included an eggplant katsu and tonkatsu mustard concoction; a Ho Farms cucumber with wasabi dill cream cheese; and a truffled egg salad. The Asian crab potato salad was delightfully different, with a Japanese-style salad and decadent bits of crab, topped with crunchy trout roe and a dusting of salty potato chips. Perhaps the star was the sweet pea and lobster salad sandwich served on a itsy bitsy buttery croissant.

The view of the banyan tree from the Veranda restaurant. 

I highly recommend the Moana tea experience, available 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday. During our unhurried time on the veranda, the service proved impeccable, the food delectable, and the tea refreshing and tropical as we enjoyed the unfolding sights of the day against a gorgeous Hawaiian backdrop.  

The Moana Surfrider stairwell, steeped in history

The Moana Surfrider is the oldest hotel on Waikiki Strip. It’s worth peeking in just to appreciate its pretty architecture and opulence. History buffs should take it a step further: head up the main staircase to appreciate spectacular photos capturing Waikiki’s earliest days, complete with interesting captions. This leads to a second-floor hall with more photos and memorabilia, as well as entry to the second-floor balcony that looks out over Kalakaua Avenue and offered a surprisingly peaceful nook to observe the bustle of busy Waikiki.

Music at Kani aka Pila 

Our Waikiki visits always include old favorites, like long walks on the canal, enjoying lunch at Paia Fish Market (tacos!), or taking in nightly live local Hawaiian music at the outdoor Kani Ka Pila Grille at our hotel. On our hunt for new things this trip, we also ventured to Heavenly Island Lifestyle.

Joe’s paella at Heavenly 

Admittedly it sounds like a wellness retreat, but in fact it’s a cozy café in the Shoreline Hotel Waikiki with delicious food made from local, organic ingredients. Both indoor and outdoor seating is available and we were able to make same-day reservations. Heavenly is part of a restaurant group that includes other favs, Aloha Table and Goofy Café. We went in with expectations and were not disappointed.

My refined loco moco

Joe enjoyed a killer and colorful Kauai shrimp paella with sea asparagus. I opted for a loco moco – and not your typical nap-inducing loco moco with a giant hamburger patty swimming in gravy on white rice. Nope, Heavenly’s delicious version had a modest portion of locally sourced meat with a ginger soy glace, a sunnyside up local egg, served over organic grains and lentils, with roasted green beans, broccolini and carrots. While I will crush a traditional loco moco when the day calls for it, this healthier version tasted just right as we neared the end of a vacation.  

The Monkeypod spread on our final night. 

As our short trip drew to a close, we once again visited Monkeypod. I repeated with the ravioli appetizer – it’s that good! I completed my meal with a cup of coconut corn and potato chowder and a side of blistered broccoli in a balsamic reduction with chili flakes. Husband Joe crushed the prime ribeye steak, served with herb compound butter, jalapeno mashed potatoes and sautéed bok choy.

A morning stroll along the Ala Wai Canal. 

Our four days in Hawaii was a perfect getaway from what had so far been a dismal Alaska summer, a bright burst of sunshine to lift our spirits. It so happened that while in Waikiki, the city held its annual Waikiki Summer Festival. Main drag Kalakaua Avenue shuts down, and the street fills with food vendors, music, and crafts.

The summer festival on Kalakaua Avenue

We wandered along enjoying the aromas of fresh grilled meats, and watched enthralled as goggle-wearing knife-wielding staff at the Dole booth artfully butchered pineapples, the fruits’ sweet smells filling the air.

A whole lotta pineapples. 

Only hours earlier, traffic crammed the road. To see a vibrant market suddenly sprung up demonstrated once again what we’d reflected on during our brief vacation: that in dynamic Waikiki, no matter how often you visit, every trip promises to be different.  

Katie takes a dip in the Pacific. 

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