Waikiki Beach – 35 years later…
I grew up in Hawaii but left for the mainland for College 35 years ago. I've been back occasionally to see my parents but this past week was the first time over on Waikiki Beach when we stayed there. Quite a change over the years.
Kalakaua Ave. used to be a ton of cheap tourist trap shops. Now it's non-stop couture (French for you can't afford it) stores. Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari, and a bunch of other stores I have never heard of (but that my wife & daughters all recognized – uh oh). Large ornate stores. And most had zero customers in them. Not one really rich customer – zero. I'm guessing they make a couple of sales a day and the profit margin is enough to cover the cost – which is amazing.
But not to worry, the cheap (but overpriced) tourist crap is still available too. There's an ABC Store on every block. The way Seattle has Starbucks Waikiki has ABC Stores. And unlike the couture stores, the ABC stores are packed. So that at least has not changed.
In the evening on every corner there are people handing out flyers, all for the same thing. In Vegas it's for Hookers. In Waikiki it's for shooting clubs. Close to half the tourists are from Japan where the only place you will see a gun is in the movies. Clearly this is a really popular activity based on the number of shooting clubs in Waikiki.
There are a couple of non tourist stops in Waikiki that are still there, and well worth the time. The museum at Fort DeRussy is small but what it has is really interesting including a room showing the career of General Shinseki. The Honolulu Zoo is at the far end of Waikiki and while it has nothing spectacular, it is a good zoo and built around Hawaii having a year round tropic climate. And there's a small Aquarium near it (but for a much better Aquarium travel around the island to Sea Life Park).
Ok, a person's gotta eat. First off, eat different. If you're from Japan don't go to a Japanese restaurant – you've got better back in Japan. Try everything else. And if you're from the mainland, go to the Asian restaurants (Japanese and other) as it's the best Asian food you can get outside of Asia itself. (When I was working in Taiwan my wife and daughters favorite restaurant there was TGI Fridays – when there was an infinite number of incredible Chinese restaurants there. I don't get that.)
Do not leave without getting a hot malasada. It's officially Portuguese but it's very popular in Hawaii. So much better than a donut that it's not fair to classify them together. But make sure you get them hot right out of the fryer. You can get them at Agnes' Bakery in Kailua.
Also go to a drive-in (L & L Drive In is a good one – located everywhere) to get a "plate lunch." This is fusion food back before the term existed with a mix of Asian and Western food. The ultimate is chili on rice, which is the only way chili is served in Hawaii, and it is so good that way that to this day I still make it that way at home.
Good restaurants – Giovanni Pastrami (N.Y. deli) and Spada (awesome Italian) in Waikiki, Pepinos (world's best pizza), The Shack (great burgers), and Buzz's Steak House (good food, awesome location – President Clinton ate there) in Kailua, L & L Drive In (plate lunch) and Teddy's Burgers (great burgers) in multiple locations all over the islands.
Places to avoid – The Yard House (mediocre service and bland food) and Cheeseburger in Paradise/Cheeseburger Boardwalk (same company and both have indifferent service and overcook cold burgers – an interesting combination). And I have no idea why but the people working in every ice cream place on Kalakaua act like they've been told they will be shot in the morning. It must be something about scooping ice cream non-stop for tourists for 8 hours that does that.
And a person has to sleep. The best kept secret is the Outrigger Reef Hotel, right next to the Halekulani. It was built awhile ago when it had a clear view of the beach from both sides and so built really nice rooms on both sides. Recently another hotel equally tall was built next to it so the view from half the rooms is the walkways of another hotel 10' away. But the rooms remain really nice while the price is 1/3 that of the other side because the view is blocked. So if you're not planning on sitting on your balcony watching the ocean (and you don't – you go down to the beach) – that's the best deal in Hawaii. And it's a very nice hotel with very friendly people working there.
If price is not an object the only choice is right next door – the Halekulani. They have the best Sunday brunch anywhere (their spa however sucks). Also absolutely exquisite is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island. And if you want to stay in someplace classic, the Moana Hotel is one of the two original hotels on Waikiki beach and is still very elegant (much of the finish in the hotel is koa wood) – but make sure you get a room in the original hotel, not the new annex.
Every morning the tourist busses drop off a ton of Japanese tourists to spend the day shopping in Kailua. News flash – Kailua is not a shopping mecca. It's just a quiet bedroom community. Mostly you have the same shops in every non-tourist part of Hawaii. The stores love your business but a shopping trip to Hawaii is a lousy way to spend your time.
But there is a lot to do in Kailua (which is why President Obama vacations there). First off, it has the nicest beach in the Islands. And if you're there when the Marine base has BayFest you definitely want to go to that. In the evening you have a lot of night spots filled with locals, including a ton of Marines. (Warning to women who have not met Marines before – they are very focused on achieving their objective.)
Next door is Kaneohe and if you know someone with a boat there, get a trip out to the sandbar off Kaneohe harbor. The sandbar, depending on the tides, is a foot out of water to a foot under. It's about a ½ mile long by 100 yards wide. People go out to picnic, sunbathe, play touch football, and more. But it is all a mile offshore. Very cool trip. One warning, there are no facilities – no bathrooms, no water, no food. You need to bring everything.
What else should you see. You definitely should go on the Pearl Harbor tour (link is just one of many operators). There are three different tours, one of the harbor by boat, one of the Arizona Memorial, and one to see the USS Missouri (where the Japanese surrender was signed) and a WWII submarine. All three tours are very interesting and well worth the time. And if you have a major political influence, try to get invited on the CINCPAC's boat for his Friday afternoon review of the harbor. You get to see things a lot closer and his aides can answer most any question about the Navy. And if you're there when the RIMPAC exercises end, get invited to the party afterwards – it's on one of the carriers. Really cool to see everything.
If you like Aquariums go to Sea Life Park. It's not that large but it is different from many in what it has and how it presents it. The water in their tanks is directly connected to the ocean where reefs keep the fish in but let the ocean refresh the tanks twice a day on the tides. My daughters all loved it when they were little.
Go to the Punchbowl military cemetery. It is inside a dead volcano and is a beautiful military cemetery. Like the cemetery at Normandy it is a very moving experience and you will be glad you went.
The state capitol building in Honolulu and Iolani Palace are both worth the trip. The capitol building is very different from that in any other state, built to include the outdoors – where other capitol's have a rotunda, the Hawaii one is open to the sky. If the House is in session and you see one legislator giving the others hell – that's my mom! Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States and was the seat of government both during the Hawaii monarchy and up through the first couple of decades of statehood. It's also where Steve McGarrett worked.
Hanauma Bay – it is a great place for snorkeling and swimming. The water is flat with very minor waves so it's almost like being in a pool, except you are in the ocean and you can see a ton of fish.
And I want to add a note of warning. The ocean is very unforgiving of mistakes. Every year people die because they don't understand how deadly the ocean can be, and how. Pay attention to the warning signs and follow their guidance. And if the only people you see in the water at a location are all in good shape and tan – don't go in the water there.