Hawaii? Who doesn’t know about Hawaii? Beaches, hula, mai tais, surfing—a sweet-paced life of simple pleasures. Pretty typical, right? It can be, but there’s so much more. On Oahu, the contradiction of exclusive golf courses and mega-hotels on the sovereign land of the Hawaiian people looms large. To have the best experience, it is important to understand that you’re a haole, a foreigner, here, and the most crucial rule to observe in this sacred, wondrous place is aloha. Aloha is the Hawaiian word for love, peace, and compassion. It is a word of welcome and a way of life. If you’re looking for luxe resorts and touristy luaus, there’s Google. For the atypical traveler looking to live aloha with the locals, this is a guide to the goods.
Let’s get this out of the way: Waikiki is a rather Vegas-y, overpopulated strip of hotels and restaurants towering over a thin strip of crowded beach. Avoid it. The guaranteed best move is to rent a private home through VRBO or Airbnb in one of Honolulu’s coolest neighborhoods (Kakaako, Kaimuki, or Manoa), Kailua (great for “on-the-beach” spots), or Haleiwa, a lowkey little surf town on the North Shore. Or camp in the county campgrounds (camping.honolulu.gov/parks) on the side of the island you’re most interested in. You can even camp on the beach!
EAT + DRINK
Kama’aina, the people of Oahu, sure do love to eat—every gathering calls for big, heaping plates of ono grinds (delish food), with plenty of rice and mac salad, aka “plate lunch.” You’ll find “drive-ins” (really just diners and takeout counters) all over the island that specialize in this style of meat-and-sides meal. The iconic Rainbow Drive-In (3308 Kanaina Ave.) is a sure bet for teriyaki chicken or sweet and sour ribs. For traditional Hawaiian cuisine, go to unfussy Helena’s (1240 N School St.) for kalua pig, poi (taro), and laulau (smoked pork wrapped in taro leaves). The fusion of Asian cultures on Oahu means that piping hot bowls of saimin, ramen, pho, and various other noodles and hot pots tempt you from every direction—get your slurp on at Aunty’s Ramen (1110 McCully St.). On the North Shore, snack up with a cacao elixir and a papaya bowl at The Sunrise Shack (Sunset Beach). The one thing you must eat before you leave the island is Waiola Shave Ice (3113 Mokihana St.)—sweetened syrup drizzled atop a mountain of fluffy snow.
After your obligatory post-meal nap, it’s time to find a dive bar to do some karaoke, drink cheap beer, and bask in the performances of “ringer” singers who come in every night just to show off. This Honolulu short list will not disappoint: 8 Fat Fat 8 (1327 S. Beretania St.), a family-run dive with great fried rice; Goody Goody Bar & Grill (1272 S. King St.), which I swear has an autotuning mic; and, the most divey of all, Chinatown’s Smith’s Union Bar (19 N. Hotel St.), for $3 drinks and intense duets with strangers.
The best time to beach is on weekday mornings, as opposed to weekends, when the entire island is trying to do the same. On the North Shore, don’t miss Turtle Bay (yes, there are turtles), and learn to hang ten in Haleiwa with the all-female instructors of North Shore Surf Girls (Kahalewai Pl.). On the island’s windward side (east or north of the island), Kailua and Lanikai Beach are unbeatable for sun, swimming, kayaking, and windsurfing; on the leeward side the secluded Yokohama Bay is an incomparable stretch of white sands. Sign up for the Waimea Valley Moon Walk (held every full moon) for a guided, after-dark tour of Waimea Valley’s botanical garden where an expert botanist (read: adorable science teacher) explains the wild history of the native and invasive trees, flowers, and plants of the islands.
It’s good manners when traveling to bring back omiyage (souvenirs) for your friends and family, but skip the mass-produced crap. Cindy Yokoyama’s handmade jewelry is the focus of Ginger13 (22 S. Pauahi St.), a stunningly curated boutique that also offers fragrances, incense, and stationery. Maura Fujihira’s gorgeous gallery and designer dry goods boutique fishcake (307 Kamani St.) is a beautiful space featuring art, one-of-a-kind homegoods, and clothing. Don’t bounce from your housestay without leaving a thank you gift—Paiko (675 Auahi St.) is owner Tamara Rigney’s adorable coffee shop and “botanical boutique,” where you can find the perfect floral or plant arrangement to say mahalo to your hosts.
By Valerie Bronte
Photographed by Carli Wentworth
top photo: Lanikai Beach in Kailua
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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