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A Local’s Expert Guide to Waikiki

Her hips sway gently to the sounds of a slack key guitar played by a heavier-set male with a red and yellow, hibiscus print button down shirt. She wears a flower tucked behind her right ear, a sign that she’s unattached, as free as the palms that dance overhead under the guise of yet another golden dusted Hawaiian sunset. Her knees peek out coyly from under her grass hula skirt as she finishes the mele (Hawaiian for song). All the boys are starting to paddle in, their bronzed shoulder poised towards the horizon searching for a last wave to catch in. They’d all drink mai-tais from pineapples all night at Duke’s, fall asleep under the stars on the beach and do it all over again tomorrow.

Sounds like paradise doesn’t it? This is what probably arises in your mind’s eye when anyone utters the word Waikiki. Its very name means “spouting waters” in Hawaiian, which bears reminiscence of a time before the strip of hotels towered over Kalakaua Avenue and whale-shaped trolleys shuttled sunburnt tourists down a slew of one lane roads, it remembers when this part of the island was swampy and used for irrigation. Waikiki since then has seen more beach weddings and luaus than one can imagine, yet the footprints we leave in the sand never remain. Though O’ahu itself covers 596.7 square miles and you can drive around and through its heart it in a matter of hours, Waikiki is where most visitors choose to stay because of its rich history, sublime character and unshakeable beauty in the form of sand, surf, sunshine and shakas. Yet no one knows this place better than the locals, or kama’aina in Hawaiian. Come journey with me as I share my local’s guide to Waikiki.

Where to Stay

So you just got off the plane and maybe you haven’t booked your hotel yet in true Hawaiian style? Though you won’t be sleeping in a grass hut during your time on the island, you’ll be treated to some of the finest island hospitality during your time here. Locals too like to plan a “stay-cation” in Waikiki sometimes because it gives us a chance to feel a part of the “island magic” that sometimes goes too easily unnoticed during our day to day. Whether you’re staying on the strip or off doesn’t really matter too much because Waikiki truly is a tropical metropolis. It feels like a city due to its skyscrapers, crowds and walkability. Granted, the scene is casual so shirts are optional but keep the footwear as the ground gets hot. Navigating Waikiki Beach is easy too, as it is only about two miles long.

The Modern Honolulu Photo Credit: Modern Honolulu/Facebook
The Modern Honolulu
Photo Credit: Modern Honolulu/Facebook

The Modern
The Modern Honolulu embodies this urban-island feeling best and you can choose a room either with a cityscape or ocean view. This is due to its location as it is further west than the hotels on the strip. Everything on Kalakaua Avenue is still in walking distance, including Ala Moana Shopping Center which is only two minutes away. You won’t be fighting as much traffic going back and forth between your room and the rest of the adventures that you may embark upon when you stay here. The Modern also features two breathtaking pools: the Sunrise and Sunset pools. They are main attractions for the locals because of the chic and sophisticated feel to both of them; one of which is perched on the second floor complete with a sandy floor while the other is set in the midst of duality, juxtaposed between the ocean and the city. You can eat, drink, lounge at these pools or head down to the fitness center, do some yoga or take a cat nap before heading to the Study Bar for some live music or put on your dancing shoes and head to Addiction Nightclub, one of the hottest and most talked about clubs on the island.

View from the pool at Sheraton Waikiki. Photo Credit: Sheraton Waikiki/Facebook
View from the pool at Sheraton Waikiki.
Photo Credit: Sheraton Waikiki/Facebook

Sheraton Waikiki Hotel
Two words: infinity pool. The Sheraton Waikiki boasts one of the finest infinity pools on the island which makes it a favorite hotel for locals to book at for an entirely new side of luxury. Located right on the Waikiki strip, you’re right in the center of the action with the beach as your backyard and the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in the front. Because of the sheer size of the Sheraton, you’ll more than likely be able to snag a room with an ocean view where you can watch the sunset. The hotel itself is also very family friendly and features a kiddie pool and slide for the young ones. There’s really nothing the Sheraton is missing. There are so many places to eat right in the lobby, ice cream, a great ocean-front bar called Rum Fire, a turtle mascot that walks around the premises and the list goes on. Lawson’s Station in the lobby is a great place to grab a snack as they’ve got fresh baked goods, bentos and musubis on the daily, as well as mochi ice cream, an island favorite.

Shopping

Woman shopping in Waikiki
Woman shopping in Waikiki

Even though Queen Emma’s banyan tree, the thatched roofs and all the bartering we used to do at the old International Marketplace is now a thing of the past and Saks 5th Avenue and upscale shopping and dining have planted their roots over the same soil, Waikiki is still an incredible place to shop. Nowhere else in the world can you walk five minutes to a Lamborghini store or Louis Vuitton to cool off in their A/C after laying out for hours under spotless skies, breathing in the salty air. You can get all the luxury goods in the world without having to leave Waikiki. Though Ala Moana is only a few minutes in driving distance to the west, the construction currently going on and the normatively always crowded parking lot can make it a hassle to go to; especially if you’re already parked at your hotel. O’ahu recently was graced with the opening of a uniquely Hawaiian, Urban Outfitters and H&M is still fairly new as well. We can remember when Victoria’s Secret first opened and how long the lines that went out the door were. But if you’re on island, you don’t necessarily want to shop at the same places you have in your local mall back home, that’s where we come in. You’re going to want to buy a new swimsuit at a local Hawaiian shop. And for the guys, we’re sure the many surf brands like Billabong, RVCA, Quiksilver have got you covered.

Fighting Eel FB_RSZ
Pick up a bathing suit at Fighting Eel.
Photo Credit: Fighting Eel/Facebook

Fighting Eel
Fighting Eel is where most local wahine (Hawaiian for women) would like to spend most of their paycheck. Located in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center on the ground level, this is one of their 4 locations on the island. Designed by Lan Chung and Rona Bennett, their creations seamlessly make the transition between a day in the office, walking around Haleiwa Town on the North Shore and drinks and dancing at First Friday’s in Chinatown. The cuts are flattering and can be found in solid colors and refreshing prints throughout the season. They also carry other local and bigger, brand name designers and jewelers who complement this tropical sophistication.

Pink Sand
Some girls spend their money on designer handbags, Hawaiian girls spend their money on designer swimwear and Pink Sand in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center knows what they want. From the biggest names in swimwear like Acacia to Stone Cold Fox, shop here to find the perfect suit. You might also be able to find something to wear to an elegant dinner such as a breezy, maxi dress or a short sun dress to throw on before grabbing a bite to eat. Some of the swimwear styles are a bit more revealing on the bottom as they’re designed in a Brazilian style, but try it on! This cut is flattering on just about any body type, you’ll get a better tan and it’s how you can tell a local from someone who flew here. For those who are a bit more conservative, there’s something for you too as most brands usually do a wider cut to accommodate the needs of your inner mermaid.

Inside To the Sea Photo Credit: To the Sea/Facebook
Inside To the Sea
Photo Credit: To the Sea/Facebook

To the Sea
We all know you want a piece of paradise to take back with you since we all seemingly leave so much of ourselves here when the time comes to head back to the airport. Venture to To the Sea to fulfill that need. Whether it’s a t-shirt for him or a pillow case for those pillows in the living room that you adore the store is filled with memoirs of your time on the island and in Waikiki especially. The designers stocked are local and some of them have done collaborations with the shop making them limited edition and highly coveted. We’d describe the items as playful, a nod to that forever young, endless summer vibe of Waikiki.

Nohonani Huts
Along Nohonani Street, down an alley, you’ll find a series of huts that remind us of the vendors and products that you used to be able to get at the International Marketplace before it was torn down. There are all kind of knick knacks such as jewelry, signs, license plates, novelty items and funky souvenirs you can pick up for those people who don’t just want a shirt that says “Hawaii” on it. Most times you can barter a bit with the store owners but do so kindly and with the recognition that this is their livelihood as well. Wander down the path and you never know what you might find.

Food

Treat yourself to delicious Hawaiian cuisine.

Hawaii is often called the “melting pot” of the Pacific making O’ahu and its population of almost one million people a hub for cultures meshing, mixing and trading flavors. An ode to O’ahu’s diversity and how all its people have come to live alongside one another, trading secrets and recipes from first to fifth generations, is its food. Waikiki, as part of O’ahu’s urban center, is where business men and women gather contiguous with visitors from six continents. It is no wonder that it is a gem of the culinary world. The cuisine here is called Pacific Rim. Its palette is truly inimitable as flavors are fused together and take on a life of their own as they come in contact with each other, adapting to the tastes of a people who have refined what it means to be fresh. From fine dining to hole in the walls, locals have seen some of their old favorites withstand the test of time and others which have not. We love our rice, know our fish and we eat a wider variety of fruit than just pineapples. Here’s where to eat in Waikiki if you want to know what Hawaiians like.

Wailana
Wailana Coffee House is Hawaii’s take on a 24 hour diner. Featuring all you can eat pancakes, the menu is packed with a lot of local favorites and even if you order an omelet you’ll find that it’s got a Hawaiian touch. The waitresses dress in Hawaiian attire and many of them adorn their hair with flowers and their faces usually bear a smile. Located on Ala Moana Blvd, it’s not right on the main drag of the Waikiki strip but I can’t think of a better reason to leave it. There’s a parking lot to the right of the coffee house where they validate as well but on the weekends it can fill up pretty quickly. For the full effect of the place we suggest going late at night for your own take on midnight breakfast.

Island Vintage Coffee
Island Vintage is located on the second floor of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. Though it’s known for its 100% Kona coffee which is roasted daily, we recommend the acai and poke bowls. The shop itself is breezy, featuring open windows with a very farm to table like feel to it. There are a few tables but nothing tastes as good as when it’s eaten on the beach. You can’t go wrong with a majority of things on the menu, which is good to know because things can be a bit pricy. If you’ve got a few bucks to spare, though, treat yourself to a truly fine palette infused with care and aloha.

Yakiniku Hiroshi Waikiki
This is Japanese food at its finest and you get a chance to be a part of the culinary process at this yakiniku style restaurant on Royal Hawaiian Avenue. Yakinku means you have your own grill at each table and can cook your meat, vegetables and whatever else you order exactly to your liking. What makes Hiroshi’s so good is that it’s worth the price and locals know their Japanese food and this is a cut above the rest, literally. From items such as beef tongue to rib-eye to garlic squid and king crab, there’s something on the menu to make your mouth water. They validate parking for up to two hours but if you’re going to Hiroshi’s you’ve got to be willing to fully indulge.

Outside seating at Duke's Waikiki Photo Credit: Duke's Waikiki/Facebook
Outside seating at Duke’s Waikiki
Photo Credit: Duke’s Waikiki/Facebook

Dukes
Duke’s Waikiki was created to honor the spirit of the legend himself, Duke Kahanamoku who is known as the father of surfing. Duke himself spent countless hours in Waikiki surfing the perfection that manifests itself in the form of waves on this part of the island. The restaurant is located at the Outrigger Hotel and is beachfront, making it easily accessible and a beautiful place to dine, grab drinks or listen to live Hawaiian music throughout the day and on into the night. Performances are done by the likes of Kapena, Maunalua and Henry Kapono, true legends doing justice to Hawaiian culture and history. The food features a blend between American and local cuisine, the service is always good and the beers are always cold. Aloha to that.

Laperts Ice Cream
No one does ice cream or sorbet better in Waikiki than Lapert’s. Their sorbets are made daily in small batches using local ingredients to ensure quality and a taste that will leave you feeling satisfied yet wishing you had room for more. Flavors include Aunty Lilikoi’s Passion Fruit, haupia (Hawaiian for coconut), hayden mango, luau delight and lychee. Their ice cream is what they like to call “super premium” and with flavors like winter cookie land, Big Island inspiration, Heavenly Hana, coconut pineapple, caramel coconut macadamia nut, banana fudge and Kona coffee to name just a few. Come taste the Lapert’s difference. What started out as a humble business on Kauai, owned by a couple who fell in love with the islands on vacation, is now a local gem. Located in the Hilton Hawaiian Village Rainbow Bazaar, it’s a perfect snack to cool you down after a day in the sun.

Imagine dining with this view at Orchids.
Imagine dining with this view at Orchids.
Photo Credit: Orchids at Halekulani/Facebook

Orchids at the Halekulani 
Whether you want to eat here for breakfast, lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch, you simply can’t go wrong at Orchid’s. It redefines Hawaiian elegance of old and new and has left many locals speechless with its flavors. Sit on the patio, looking out onto the Pacific Ocean, with fresh flowers on your table, a delicious rack of lamb on your plate and some of the finest service on the island. Be sure to make reservations early and go through the menus offered online to decide which meal of the day you’d like to indulge in most. Surely it won’t be an easy decision to make but keep in mind that their Sunday brunch was called “O’ahu’s Best Brunch” by Honolulu Magazine. Savor it as long as you can and hopefully you’ll be able to squeeze in another meal here if circumstances are in your favor.

Nightlife

When locals want a night out, we don’t just do the hula. Waikiki is where the city lights stay on longest but out here we can still see the stars. From clubbing under strobe lights to a laid back night starting with pau hana time (Hawaiian for “happy hour”) or listening to live Hawaiian music with a classic view, you can do it all in Waikiki. Walk out onto “the wall”, watch the sunset or gaze at the city lights as they flicker like stars of their own making. On a Friday night you might even catch a firework show courtesy of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The thing to remember when driving is that many of the roads are one way so do yourselves a favor and walk, take a cab or book yourself an Uber. The strip at night is lively with a variety of street performers who often attract large, cheering crowds. It’s also a pleasant walk to take with all the shop lights and to get an entirely different experience of the city. The energy that awakens under the moon here is exciting because it holds the warmth of aloha. Remember to avoid the fountains along the strip no matter how tempting they look because they are sometimes used as makeshift bathrooms. Gross, but definitely a tip worth knowing!

Dance the night away in Waikiki
Dance the night away in Waikiki

Parking
Going out in Waikiki if you’re not staying at a hotel within walking distance can be a bit tricky. You can park at The Shell on Monsaratt Avenue for free but that’ll probably be the farthest you’d want to walk. There’s also parking at the Royal Hawaiian Center but that requires validation with a purchase of $10 from one of the shops in the center. Likewise, the zoo offers parking now serviced by attendants. Never leave your valuables in the car, a rule of thumb that should always be followed.

Rum Fire
Located within the Sheraton Waikiki, Rum Fire offers a great happy hour and food inspired by the street carts that we all know and love from around the world, making its mix an eclectic one. Crafted by sous chef Danny Chew, the menu utilizes his knowledge of island flavors and fine dining to create delectable dishes and a truly satisfying late night selection featuring the likes of seared ahi belly and Kahuku shrimp bao to name a few. With a wide cocktail menu and extensive beer list, a night at Rum Fire includes live Hawaiian music at 5:00pm daily with local DJ’s starting to spin today’s hits at 9:30pm. You’ll be on your feet and grooving in no time, look behind your shoulder and remind yourself of where you are as you’ll find the Pacific Ocean winking back at you just a few feet away.

Addiction Nightclub FB
Party scene at Addiction Nightclub
Photo Credit: Addiction Nightclub/Facebook

Addiction Nightclub
Addiction is where all the locals like to party. Located at the Modern Honolulu, this chic, upscale nightclub hosts Honolulu’s hottest DJ’s with bottle service and velvet ropes. The dress code here is strictly enforced so you can’t just wander in from the beach in your flip flops. The ambiance is set to mirror something you’d find in New York City with bright neon lights. Make a mental note Addiction Nightclub can be enjoyed on Thursday through Saturday nights only. See for yourself if the addiction is real.

Activities

If anyone tries to tell you that Hawaii isn’t the birthplace of surfing you shouldn’t listen. Waikiki beach is one of the best places in the world to learn how to surf but make sure not to get ripped off by someone on the street trying to give you surf lessons. Go to a hotel concierge and ask about the activities they offer on the beach which could range from canoe rides to stand up paddle boarding. No matter what your cup of tea is, Waikiki has all the benefits of being in a city coupled with the “great outdoors.” This mix creates the perfect atmosphere for adrenaline junkies to try something new. Whether you’re out on the water or strolling down the strip with shopping bags in hand, be sure to wear sunscreen. A sunburn is the quickest way to ruin a vacation. Looking back at the city from the water, whether you’re on a board or a boat, you’ll spot the iconic Pink Hotel, otherwise known as the Royal Hawaiian. Across a shimmering blue blanket of salt water, you’ll spot Diamond Head standing tall to your right. Keep in mind the Duke Kahanamoku statue is somewhere across the way and that he’s watching over all that come to play in Hawaiian waters.

Catch a wave with Faith Surf School.

Faith Surf School
Learning how to surf in Waikiki can be a bit hectic due to the sheer number of people in the water. That being said, don’t let it stop you from getting up and riding the waves. Head on over to the beach in front of the Outrigger Hotel and locate the guys in the blue shorts. Instructors for Faith Surf School, these are the guys that you want to give you surf lessons. Faith was started in 2000 by Tony Moniz, a big wave rider who has surfed professionally for the past 30 years of his life. Faith is a family operated business and you’ll often find his wife Tammy and some of the Moniz keiki (children in Hawaiian) working alongside the crew of licensed instructors as well as their parents, assisting all levels of wave-riders to enjoy and understand just how central surfing is to our culture on the island. Faith also offers other water-borne activities such as canoe rides, stand-up-paddle board lessons, surf tours and rentals so that you can continue to make the most of the warm, Hawaiian waters. You’ll want to bring a towel, sunscreen and a hat/sunglasses if desired for when you’re in the water. You can also store your belongings behind the desk for safe-keeping. Never leave your items unattended on the beach.

View from the top of Diamond Head.
View from the top of Diamond Head.

Hike Diamond Head
No visit to Waikiki is complete without hiking Diamond Head. This is the closest thing you’ll get to a hike in Waikiki. The trail itself is pretty mellow, but the view that it leads to is breathtaking and allows you to see all along the South Shore of the island. Diamond Head is a crater and the geography of the islands are due to these undersea volcanoes that erupted years and years ago. The gates are open from 6am to 6pm and last call is at 4:30. We suggest going early in the morning when it’s not too hot and it’s not as crowded. You do have to pay but it’s not a hefty fee: $5 per vehicle or $1 per person. You could opt to walk up as there are a lot of great places to eat along the way such as the Health Bar or Diamond Head Grill, which has the best banana, blueberry and pineapple scones.

The Beach
Though Waikiki beach is about two miles long, the nicest part of that stretch is a section called Kaimana’s. It is further away from the hotels and thus less crowded. It’s also a nice place for a picnic as there is a grassy area near a banyan tree and the Waikiki aquarium is also in close proximity as well.

Enjoy a stunning catamaran cruise.

Catamaran Booze Cruise
There are a variety of catamarans that set sail out of Waikiki daily that will take you out on the water in style, just as long as you don’t get sea sick. If you go on one of these cruises, I suggest sitting at the back of the boat as the front is where the most turbulence is thus generating the most seasickness. The Maita’i Catamaran leaves from near the Sheraton Hotel making it the most accessible of the bunch and with barefoot boarding you’ll feel truly at home. The catamaran leaves at 11:00am, 1:00pm, 3:00pm and 5:00pm for a sunset cruise. Here’s to a party at sea!

Fireworks on Friday at the Hilton
For a truly cliche yet perfect experience have your eyes turned skywards on Friday evenings and plant yourself on the beach near the Hilton Hawaiian Village to watch a weekly fireworks show. You can plan a whole evening around this event. Pack a picnic dinner and gathering friends, family or a loved one for a front row seat of this spectacle. What better way to start your Friday evening!

Use this local’s guide to Waikiki to enjoy the best of Oahu in true Hawaiian-style.

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