Destination

Honolulu, HI, USA (Waikiki and More)

I’m adding a new component to my posts with this trip. It’s called “TL;DR,” which is what young folks these days say for “Too Long, Didn’t Read.” I’ve captured a summary list of places to stay, eat, drink, or see, with links to some more information on each. If you’re looking for a quick bite-sized nugget with only places to go, stop after this list. If you want more details, keep reading the post in its entirety. Would love feedback on this new feature!

-Aaron, February 7, 2017

TL;DR

  • Stay
    • Ritz Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach: We stayed here as the guests of family. Ordinarily we would not stay so lavishly, but this was a treat for us. If you’re looking for luxury in a super convenient location in Waikiki with top-notch service, you won’t beat this place.
  • Eat
    • The Pig and the Lady, 83 N King St, Honolulu, HI 96817
      • Delicious Vietnamese-influenced comfort food. We had the Laotian fried chicken and grilled bok choy amandine to start, then seafood and chorizo pasta and soft shell crab cha ca. Outstanding. Parking is easy nearby at the municipal parking lot at 918 Smith Street and after dinner you can take your pick of any number of bars in the rapidly gentrifying Chinatown neighborhood.
    • Leonard’s Malasadas, 933 Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu, HI 96818
      • No stop in Honolulu is complete without hot, sugar coated Portuguese donuts fresh from the fryer and pao doce (sweet bread).
    • Rainbow Drive Inn, 3308 Kanaina Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
      • Don’t argue with me. Loco moco, with the mac salad. Add a saimin if you’re aggressively hungry.
    • Side Street Inn, 1225 Hopaka St., Honolulu, HI 96814
      • Arrive here hungry or go home with enough leftovers to feed a small township. The fried rice with lup cheong (Chinese sausage) and spicy fried chicken (which isn’t spicy at all) are absolutely fantastic. Consider a side salad if you don’t want oil oozing out of your pores.
  • Drink
    • Waikiki Brewing Company, 1945 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu, HI, 96815
      • If you’re staying in Waikiki, wander over this way for an open air beer bar that has trivia on Sundays.
  • See
    • Diamond Head
      • A mild-to-more strenuous hike will take you from the crater floor to the best view of Honolulu. Pack a small bag, bring some water, and your camera for these sights.
    • Manoa Falls
      • A relatively straightforward hike gives way to a beautiful waterfall, and along the way you’ll see forest and tree views that will make you feel like you’ve landed on Pandora (the planet in Avatar).
    • Hanauma Bay
      • $7.50 (or free for locals) will get you into this pristine beach, where you will see stunningly clear water and beautiful coral.
    • Waikiki Beach
      • Whether you stay on it or just walk through it, you can soak up the sunshine on one of the nicest beaches in the world with plenty of vendors nearby ready to take you surfing or sell you lunch.

Urban Sprawl in Paradise

Anyone who has been to Hawaii before knows there are many different ways to experience America’s fiftieth state. From the calm old world tranquility of towns like Hilo (on the Big Island) and Hana (on Maui) to tourist destinations like Kapalua and Lahaina on Maui, there are so many facets to Hawaii to see for yourself. But any comparison should be made to the capital, Honolulu, so you can appreciate what the biggest city in Hawaii does and does not have.

Current State Count: 28

Been stuck at 28 of these great 50 American states for some time now, and it doesn’t look like there’ll be much movement on my quest for 50 states anytime soon. But the upside is that I’ll be aiming to add some new American cities to my articles coming up!

Trip Background

Last September, my wife and I were headed from San Francisco to New York and they oversold our flight. As soon as we heard the gate announcement, “We’re looking for two volunteers…,” I was already first at the podium asking what the offer was. It was $300 in travel credit per person and we’ll get you out an hour and a half later. Sold.

We managed to find relatively good prices from San Francisco (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL) of around $400 (through Los Angeles (LAX)), so our end cost of getting to Honolulu was around $100 a person. In addition, my cousin had gifted us use of her condo in the Ritz Carlton Residences, so we figured a long weekend and some sunshine were the perfect answer to what has been one of the rainiest winters in recent Northern California history!

Day 0: Transit

Although our route was not the easiest or shortest to get to Hawaii, I was glad to see American is flying newer planes to Hawaii from LAX. Our flight actually landed an hour early, which allowed us to get our rental car before the agency closed. A quick 20-minute drive later, we were at the Ritz Carlton Residences, sipping our passion fruit slushees and on our way up to our room.

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The Ritz Carlton Residences

Day 1: Walk the Beach

We had agreed in advance not to live by an agenda on this trip, in spite of my normal planning efforts. As a result, she slept in on our first day (while I did some work from the room). After our morning coffee and some reading, we decided to walk the length of Waikiki Beach, starting at the Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon and proceeding southeast past the majestic hotels.

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Looking east from the west side of Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon

We spent a couple hours meandering down Waikiki Beach, occasionally taking off our sandals to wade into the water or stopping for some fish tacos for lunch. Although Waikiki has earned its reputation as a tourist trap by virtue of thousands of tourists sitting on the beach or wandering the streets, we actually found this walk to be super relaxing. Upon returning to our hotel, we were treated to this delightful sight:

Someone had told the concierge that we had gotten married and were celebrating. Thank you Stef! As we ate our delicious dessert, we were treated to a lovely pre-dinner visual:

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Waikiki Sunset

After feasting our eyes to nature’s regular evening show, we set off for our only reservation of the weekend: dinner at The Pig and the Lady. This place is renowned in Honolulu for serving up Vietnamese fusion and the reputation was well earned.

We began with two appetizers (the Laotian Fried Chicken and Bok Choy) before the wife and I each took down our seafood and chorizo pasta and crab vermicelli, respectively. The food was of such high quality that it stunned us into silence – which is a no easy feat for a restaurant. Oh also be on the lookout for the fantastic Big Trouble in Little China motif in the bathroom (this is in reference to John Carpenter’s 1986 cult classic film).

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Day 2: Hiking Diamond Head and Stuffing my Face

Let’s set up a scenario. You have decided you’re going for a moderately strenuous hike and you know you need to eat a proper breakfast before scaling said mountain. What do you eat? Bacon and eggs? Oatmeal? Orange juice?

No. Malasadas.

Mala-what-uh’s?

Malasadas.

Portuguese donuts.

Little doughy balls dropped into hot oil then covered in sugar. And in Honolulu, you go to Leonard’s Malasadas. There’s bound to be a line, but wait your turn patiently, order a half dozen (and feel free to mix flavors but make sure the majority are the original sugar flavor), and maybe grab a loaf of the pao doce (sweet bread).

With our tummies now full of Portuguese donuts and coffee, we drove to Diamond Head so we could scale the crater and get the best view of Honolulu from up on high. Pack a small bag, bring some water, and do not forget your camera or GoPro for these sights! You can either drive your car to the main parking lot but if you’re feeling cheap or can’t park, you can easily find small lots along Diamond Head road just east of the main entrance and then walk in.

The hike from the parking lot up to the summit is relatively straightforward if you’re in decent shape. There are some rough spots and a set or two of stairs, but we were able to get to the top in less than 40 minutes. Once you get there, you will be treated to a stunning view of Waikiki to the west and Pacific Ocean sweeping from south all the way to the east.

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The View from Diamond Head

In fact, if you look back into the Diamond Head crater, you’ll see the path you just came up:

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Looking down into the Diamond Head Crater

One of the coolest parts of the hike is seeing the old lookouts built into the mountain that were used to spot potential Japanese naval activity. It’s pretty easy to imagine the levels of tension in 1940’s Hawaii, but now you can enjoy the vistas for what they are:

The descent is pretty easy, although you may feel a little vertigo on one long set of steps, and within 20 minutes we were back down at the parking lot and headed out of the park.

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The signage near the entrance

We really worked up a hunger from all of that hiking and gorgeous views so I persuaded my wife to go to Rainbow Drive Inn, which has and always will be one of my staples in Honolulu. Serving Hawaiian comfort food, the portions are large, the prices low, and the settings sparse. But rarely will you find a place that has consistently served quality food to generations that hasn’t gone mainstream (aka raised prices to outrageous levels).

The wife opted for teriyaki chicken and fries while I went with what I love: loco moco with mac salad. In case you’re not familiar with loco moco, this Hawaiian staple is a scoop of white rice with a hamburger patty and fried egg on top, covered with gravy, and served with a side of macaroni salad. Certainly not a healthy option but one I guarantee you’ll enjoy!

After lunch, we drove out to Hanauma Bay but we arrived too late to actually stay on the beach for more than a few minutes. We stopped at a vista point on the way back to Waikiki and found a most unusual site: wild cats and mongooses sharing piles of food that evidently someone had left them.

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Cats and Mongooses…in the “wild”

We decided to pull off the highway at Maunalua Bay Beach Park to take in the sunset, and we were treated yet another beautiful Hawaiian evening.

From here, our nighttime plans took us to Ala Moana Shopping Mall for some shopping (yes those are Hello Kitty waffle treats) followed by authentic ramen and Japanese curry over rice at Goma Tei.

 

Day 3: Hiking Manoa Falls and Visiting Hanauma Bay

Our third day in Honolulu began with amusement from a clever sign writer:

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We decided to continue with our outdoorsy theme by driving to Manoa Falls. It costs $5 to park your car and you’re probably not going to spend more than a couple hours here.

The ascent to the falls itself will take you through some lovely groves of bamboo, trees, rocks, and streams, and when you get to the falls itself, you’ll understand why this is such a popular hike. It’s relatively easy and should only take a half hour or so to make the one-way journey.

Knowing we would be spending our afternoon relaxing on the beach, we stopped at Banan for a tasty soft serve and then Zippy’s, the ubiquitous Hawaiian chain, for some plate lunch kits. From there, it was back to Hanauma Bay to lay out our beach towels, read, doze off, and soak up the sun. Despite being popular, this beach never felt crowded and it was easy for us to find a place to pitch our camp for a few hours.

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Hanauma Bay

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Hanauma Bay

We once again returned to Waikiki after our suntanning session and spent the rest of the evening at the nearby Waikiki Brewing Company, over pints and amusing Sunday night trivia.

 

Day 4: Being a Fat Kid

Our last full day in Hawaii began earlier than expected with the sound of bagpipes. Because this was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the parade route took the thumping drums and processional of cars directly by our hotel. So we opted for a poolside day.

We decided to make our last real meal an excursion to the Side Street Inn. It was a longer walk than we expected from Waikiki to the restaurant, but it was a nice casual 30 minute stroll that took us to what initially appeared to be a janky alley near Ala Moana Shopping Center.

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Side Street Inn – or a public dump. Not quite sure.

Having had virtually no veggies this trip, we decided to have a salad along with the famed fried rice with lup cheong (Chinese sausage). Our server thought we were done with just those two dishes, but when we added the fried chicken, she smiled and sighed – and I knew we were in for a challenging (aka awesome) meal.

By the way, just for the purposes of comparison, I placed my hand next to this massive pile of fried rice:

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Lup cheong fried rice

After eating as much as we could (we still had about half of the fried rice and half of the chicken left), we decided to take our leftovers for the flight and walk back towards the hotel. Our route took us alongside the water near Ala Moana Shopping Center, and along the way we ran into a fantastic sight.

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Peaceful protest, impromptu nap, or playful tourist child?

A mother and her young child were clearly out for a stroll when the young girl decided the best place to put her head down for a nap was the middle of a busy path. Tourists and locals alike walked by, watching the cute kid roll around, occasionally sit up, and decide (after much thought) that it was easier to continue lying on the pavement. After spending a few minutes watching the bemused tourists, we returned back to the hotel to finish packing.

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The last view from the hotel

On the way to the airport, we made one stop at Leonard’s to buy some malasadas for the flight home and were saddened to find out that they were out of the pao doce (sweet bread). So let this be a lesson to you – buy your sweet bread in the mornings or go home heartbroken.

We dropped our rental car off, boarded our flight to Phoenix (which sadly departed late, meaning we missed our connection to SFO), and eventually got home to SF only 6 hours late. 😦

 

Final Thoughts

Honolulu is the most urban of the Hawaiian cities and Oahu does not have the most beautiful beaches in the state. Yet it still provides gorgeous sunsets, manageable hikes, and a lot of really good food. Also, flights on Alaska from Seattle, Hawaiian from Northern California, and American from Los Angeles are your best bets if departing from the west coast.

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