Hawaii has routinely been on our inventory of places we all want to go for holiday. It’s an accessible destination light on the typical hassles of “world-like” travel filled with familiarity amongst tropical island life and “hula” allure. It is by far the coolest state the US has to offer. To simply put it Hawaii is authentic. The Hawaiian islands cast their spell on you promoting one’s questioning of, “Why can’t we surrender our present lives and move Dorian Paskowitz style to Hawaii?”. The island of Oahu has always been known for its Hawaiian shirts, leis, and sunburned tourists. Yes, it’s true, there is an overabundance of them, but subsequently all those unfavorable things begin to blend together with their surroundings making Oahu a top Hawaiian island destination that should not be deserted.
Here’s my TAKE on this majestic island...
I recently went on a photographic assignment for Travel + Leisure magazine to canvas the island of Oahu for the second time in my career. As a native Californian I have also spent time there with my family and girlfriend (now wife) as Hawaii is the Bahamas of the West Coast. My first assignment back in 2009 focused on Waikiki, also for Travel + Leisure, and now my most recent assignment seven years later. A lot and not a lot has changed. The Brooklyn hipster scene has certainly made the ten hour nonstop flight to Honolulu adding to the island’s culture and variations in nosheries and hangouts. The only difference in Honolulu is Brooklyn men that are dressed in Civil War reenactment costumes with decorated waxed mustaches are replaced by young cool Hawaiian locals that beat to their own Pahu drums.
Oahu isn’t just Honolulu, albeit a city like no other in the United States. It’ll remind you of other cities that have collaged into one place. You’ll get a sense of Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, West Palm Beach, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, any town Chinatown, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Of course there’s the world famous surf reef break on Oahu’s North Shore, the incredibly young and sexy watering hole of Waimea Bay, the pristine beaches of Lanikai and Kailua, and the unmistakeable Diamond Head crater.
Ten hours of non-stop flying from New York City’s JFK arriving into Honolulu International it was hard to believe that I was still in the United States. After retrieving my luggage I headed straight to the Hawaiian classic Halekulani hotel where I was received with multiple alohas, open arms, and what had to be a perfume enhanced lei followed by swift bellman service up to my ocean view room overlooking Waikiki’s timeless beach. It was four o’clock in the afternoon so i quickly threw on my bathing suit and aimed for the beach to cleanse away the hours of traveling. Just in time to make my way to House Without A Key bar and restaurant situated under the immortalized Banyan Tree as written in the 1925 Charlie Chan mystery novel. The sun began it’s daily descent with hundreds of tourists on the beach attempting selfies and group shots posting immediately to their Instagram and Snapchat feeds while I safely ordered the bar’s signature Mai Tai and listened to the live sounds of the nightly Hawaiian band. The beautifully garnished cocktail of spiced and coconut rum instantly pushed me back into my chair and, without objection, felt the heavenly offshore breeze as I watched a former Miss Hawaii winner dance the hula to the ever so relaxing sounds of the band’s ukuleles. The Hawaiian spell was taking hold.
After two tumblers of Mai Tai I rolled out of the hotel roaming the streets of Waikiki bustling with tourists and Hawaiian friday-nighters. The energy was curious and I wondered where I should go first. I had a list in my pocket chock-full of recommendations from the Travel + Leisure writer, Maggie Shipstead, the Halekulani’s concierge, and from friends that had recently visited. Where to begin?
BEST RESTAURANTS IN HONOLULU
The best meal I had while in Honolulu. Authentic homemade-style Vietnamese food. Get there early if you don’t have a reservation. Doors open at 5:30 PM for walk-ins but better to make a reservation in advance. Try their P&L Pho and Green Papaya & Avocado.
The line out the door may scare you but it goes quick in this fast served Udon oasis. Watch the Japanese chefs hand make udon while you wait in line or turn around to see the best people watching on Waikiki’s Kuhio Avenue.
For seafood lovers you’ve reached Mecca. Throw on a jacket and enjoy one of the most elegant restaurants on the island. Located in the Halekulani hotel the service and quality will not disappoint. However certainly not for the casual tourist on budget.
Best Mai Tai on the island with a simple bar menu and live entertainment. Perfect at sunset.
Hipster drool fest. Straight outta Brooklyn you’ll find yourself in one of these Chinatown same owner hang-outs ordering the Pork Belly Bao, Belly Bowl Ramen, Miso Pork Cheeks, Sea Urchin Pasta, or their epic Tavern Burger.
The name says it all. Honolulu’s craft brewery with Hawaiian inspired pub fare located in the ultra-cool Kaka’ako commercial and retail district. Not to be intimidated by the local motorcycle club members with highly decorated patches or the possibly recognizable pro-surfers that frequent this joint.
Dive right into the local scene at this Miami’s design district-style night market full of food trucks, graffiti murals, fashion shows, art booths, retail vendors, and music. Bookend with DJ’s and local club performers you’ll find yourself walking up and down Cooke Street mixing with the locals. Certainly the most efficient way to immerse yourself in Honolulu’s "hang loose" generation scene. The night market pops its tents up only one night a month so check the calendar.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN HONLULU
You’re in Hawaii so do as the locals do. Surf, SUP (stand up paddle board), boogie board, just get in the water. It’s everywhere!! Waikiki is known for it’s beginner size surf and is the perfect playground to try it out. Legendary surfer Hans Hedemann has opened up his surf school right on Waikiki with professional (and good looking) instructors with a guarantee to get you “up” during your first lesson. It’s peacefully addictive so be prepared to rent some kind of board wherever you are on the island.
The late Doris Duke’s Shangri La home was conceived from Duke’s travels around the world and is an impeccable representation of her aesthetic and lifestyle. You’ll find architectural references from India, Iran, Syria, Morocco, and Hawaii. One of the most elegant homes you’ll ever set eyes upon and fortunately is open to visitors with advance reservations.
A wonderful museum to learn the history, arts and culture of the Hawaiian people.
If you’re in the mood to shop you’ll find every high to low end retail store on Kalakaua Avenue. From Gucci to Volcom to Forever 21 everyone will be able to find something.
Cruise around the newly energized streets of Chinatown full of bars, restaurants and shops.
A collection of vintage furniture and “unusual” objects from Hawaii, the mainland, and around the world. Definitely worth the visit while you’re in Chinatown at least for it’s Indiana Jones style of decor. Get lost searching for that unique object to bring home. Brooklyn hipsters and any antique collector will adore this shop.
If you’re inspired to take up the ukulele head over to Bob’s Ukulele shop for the highest quality ukuleles in town.
A perfect collection of art ranging from Hawaiian paintings and drawings, Japanese woodblock prints, Antiquity, Medieval and Renaissance, 17th to 20th century, European, and American art.
To get a different perspective on the island brave a trip with a “doors off” helicopter ride with one of the many charters offered out of Honolulu. A one hour charter will show you the entire island of Oahu. Your concierge at the hotel will certainly be able to help you find the right trip.
After spending two luxurious nights succumbed to the smooth bed linens and perfectly dense pillows at the Halekulani it was time to get out of the city and explore the rest of Oahu. The Halekulani offers Lotus car rentals if you want to speed in style. Of course I chose one in orange.
A quick twenty minutes later I was traveling through the Tetsuo Harano tunnel on Interstate H3 immediately finding myself surrounded by lush tropical mountains peaking into the clouds. This was the Hawaii that we have all heard about or seen in Jurassic Park. I wanted to pull over but my Louts kept me moving towards the town of Kailua.
My first adventure would be to hike the famous Lanikai Pillbox trail near the town of Kailua. This is a narrow steep trail that features two military bunkers and a supposedly breathtaking view of Lanikai Beach. As I “blazed” the trail I quickly realized this was going to be a grueling hike straight up the mountainside. Reaching the top an hour later I was rewarded with an epic view and enough adrenaline to take photographs. The morning clouds cleared away to crystal blue waters and warm sunshine. Along the way I met some locals that hike the steep trail every morning with their dogs. What a life.
After the full morning hike I headed down to Moke’s Bread and Breakfast to appease my morning appetite. There is no place like Moke’s. Hands down the best breakfast I’ve ever had surrounded by sky blue walls and bizarre yet somehow genius decor. I ate Moke’s famous mouthwatering Lilikoi Pancakes and tried the savory dish The Loco Moco (homemade hamburger patty served over white rice, topped with two eggs and brown gravy). The menu claims that the pancakes will “change your life” and so they did. The only thing I could do after eating at Moke’s was to somehow drag my way to Lanikai beach to take a nap allowing my body to come out of its food coma.
Lanikai is a stunningly chill residential beach town situated just to the east of Kailua. With palms outstretched over the water and Hawaiian 50’s style beach homes Lanikai is as beautiful as everyone says it is. Classic Hawaiian outrigger canoes lined along the shore with a mix of locals and tourists sunbathing and frolicking in the clear blue waters.
After sleeping off the Lilikoi pancakes I sped over to Kailua Beach Park where I found an overflow of kite boarders, boogie boarders, kayakers, and beachgoers. One of Oahu’s most beautiful beach parks it sprawls along the coast for a few miles with postcard style palm and pine trees, picnic tables and sand dunes. The ocean is the heart and soul of the the Hawaiian islands. It’s always calling to you and you want to play in it.
BEST BEACHES IN KAILUA
KAILUA BEACH PARK
Ready to hit the road again my destination was Turtle Bay Resort along the North Shore near the town of Hale'iwa. Driving back over H3 then North on H2 eventually descending down route 99 into the small heavenly surf town. Situated right along Wailua Bay Hale'iwa is filled with surf shops, Hawaiian style and acai bowl food trucks, galleries filled with glossy photographs of Pipeline waves, incredibly healthy and tanned water athletes with no care in the world except when the next set of big waves were to arrive.
Continue the drive, now along route 83, and you’ll notice that the entire North Shore is one long beach that expands miles and miles of breathtaking shore. You’ll see signs for Turtle Beach, Laniakea Beach, Waimea Bay, Three Tables Beach, Sharks Cove, the world famous Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach. All equally utilized by beach goers and pro-surfers.
When you round a sharp bend and head down a steep grade you’ll sneak a glimpse of a massive body of water with a crescent shaped white sand beach filled with young groups of sun worshippers. You’ll want to take the turn into the Waimea Bay Beach Park entrance. Hawaiian’s and tourists from around the world come to Waimea Bay for a reason. Its scale dwarfs any fine sand beach you’ve ever seen and the people watching is spellbinding. Young cool hip groups of teenagers and Hawaiian families camped out for the day create a modern day George Seurat painting. Take the plunge off the rock cliffs into sometimes too shallow water but only after watching how the locals do it.
After washing off the sand I got back into my crowd pleasing Lotus “rental” and drove off down the road towards Turtle Bay Resort. I’ve heard about Turtle Bay for years and for some reason it has always eluded me. Maybe because it just sounded resort-y. First driving up I noticed the 1970’s architecture and was quick to say “oh no” but once arriving into the valet area I realized there was something special going on here. The hotel sits on a peninsula bookend by Turtle Bay and Kuilima Cove. Turtle Bay being the place for surfers to find that perfect wave and Kuilima Cove for swimming, snorkeling, and all other water activities protected by a coral reef keeping the waters calm. The genius design was imagined by developer Del Webb who wanted all 452 accommodations to have an ocean view along with 42 semi-private beach cottages. More recently Turtle Bay Resort underwent a $45 million resort-wide Eco-sensitive renovation. All the rooms are spacious with ocean view balconies. Throw down a little more money and get yourself a beach cottage set along the pine tree lined coast of Turtle Bay. Simple in island style decor and luxurious bedding every room comes with all the modern amenities. In the hotel you’ll find a state of the art spa, Hans Hedemann’s surf school, a water slide for the kiddos, several restaurants, bars, live entertainment, an incredible coral wall for surf spectating, pools, golf courses, horse stables, trails for hiking, BMX bike park, game rooms, and shops. Turtle Bay is resort-y by definition but when you’re there, like most of Hawaii, it all blends together into one picture perfect postcard.
BEST HOTEL ON THE NORTH SHORE
BEST RESTAURANTS ON THE NORTH SHORE
Get the acai bowl with granola. It’s energizing!
Perfect for breakfast if you want to get away from the morning crowd and somewhat overpriced buffet at Turtle Bay Resort.
Quick and simply delicious Thai food. Try their glazed chicken wings, lettuce wraps, and Pad Thai.
The most talked about restaurant on the North Shore where pro-surfers and celebs conform to hang out. Don’t expect old Hollywood meets a Hawaiian style establishment. The food is good and you should dine there if you’re staying at Turtle Bay Resort but has a “golf club” style atmosphere.
Hang ten with their garlic shrimp.
Great for breakfast and lunch. Try their breakfast bombers!
Perfectly good break from all the Hawaiian food you’ll be eating.
SHARKS COVE FOOD TRUCKS
Besides Shark's Cove Grill there are many food trucks to chose from all in one area. Whatever sounds good to you at the time. They’re all quite good.
The best Hawaiian shave ice you’ll ever have if you can wait out the long lines. Matsumoto’s has a super cool logo so you’ll want to be sure to buy one of their t-shirts.
BEST BEACHES ON THE NORTH SHORE
KA'ENA POINT STATE PARK
THREE TABLES BEACH
LOG CABINS BEACH
I wasn’t ready to leave Oahu when the time was up. I wanted to figure out a way I could convince my family to come from New York City to Oahu and make a new life for us. The Hawaiian spell is real and it’s constantly pulling me to go back. I want to be a better surfer. I want to share Hawaii’s grade of lifestyle with my kids. If there was only a way to say “To hell with New York City!”. But when i got back and saw my house and family I knew where I belonged and remembered who I was, a New Yorker who just had a serious love affair with Oahu.
Words and photographs by Noe DeWitt