© Hawaii Tourism Authority / Tor Johnson
The Big Pineapple offers big waves, big skies and big rewards
We can thank Barack Obama for making Honolulu an “it” place to be again. For decades, the city rode the wave of tropical clichés: dashboard hula dolls, aloha shirts, unmemorable Hawaii Five-O episodes and, of course, the endless lava flow of sickly sweet mai tais.
But, for the past few years, the US President’s home state has been receiving broader, international attention and with it a strengthened local pride, hotel and museum makeovers, and a rising interest in high-end eateries like Roy's Waikiki (Hawaii Kai Towne Center, 6600 Kalanianaole Highway; royshawaii.com), Chef Mavro (1969 South King Street; chefmavro.com) and Alan Wong's (1857 South King Street, Third Floor; alanwongs.com), all longtime advocates of regional cuisine. These days, you won’t get a table at any of these restaurants without a reservation. In fact, these places are so popular you might want to book online before leaving Canada.
Honolulu is above all a bustling metropolis, which, thankfully, offers plenty of cool tropical escapes. Its most iconic, and certainly most rewarding, is Mount Leahi, which is an affordable cab ride from Waikiki’s major hotels. Diamond Head, as Mount Leahi is often called, offers an excellent morning of moderately challenged hiking with worthwhile rewards: glorious views of Waikiki and Oahu’s south shore. Go early on a Saturday morning and treat yourself to breakfast at the Kapi’olani Community College Farmer’s Market (4303 Diamond Head Road; kapiolani.hawaii.edu). Open from 7:30 to 11AM every Saturday, the market has become a jammed-packed, must-visit-and-taste gathering spot for locals and visitors alike. It’s the perfect place to sample the best of Hawaii: ginger lemonade, Kona coffee, local honey, fruits and fresh abalone, not to mention original variations of sandwiches, pizzas and the breakfast plate loco moco. For less of a tourist circus, the market is now open Tuesdays from 4 to 7PM.
Stretch in the city
If you’re planning to be in Honolulu in February, you’re going to want to spend most of your free time outdoors. The temperature is usually bearable — it can peak at 27°C in the day and drop to 18°C at night — and in most cases, taking a cooling dip in Waikiki is as easy as crossing the street to the beach.
Besides hiking up Mount Leahi, the city has no shortage of ways to exercise. You can get around Waikiki by foot and go for a run through the quiet 56-hectare green oasis of Kapi’olani Regional Park, which not surprisingly is the starting point for the annual Honolulu Marathon in December.
But who wants to run when there’s surfing? It was pioneered here and introduced to blown-away tourists by local Waikiki beach boys as early as 1901 when the first large-scale hotel, the Moana Surfrider, opened. Today, the idea of surfing still makes a lot of us dreamy-eyed for our youthful days, though sadly, the act of navigating a massive wave while balancing on a board might be more than most sea legs can handle.
No worries. Hawaiians also came up with that safer, gentler version of surfing, paddleboarding. Hotels around Honolulu have capitalized on the craze with many offering lessons. A reputable school is Hans Hedemann Surf (2586 Kalakaua Avenue; hhsurf.com), which is located across the Honolulu Zoo in the Park Shore Hotel. Paddleboarding is often done in calm lagoons where you can take your time, do “laps” and see the fish, rocks and sandy bottoms. It’s the ideal sport for debutants and families. And, if you really want a workout, try standing up. You’ll be surprised how challenging it can be.
Most visitors think that the island of Oahu begins and ends in Honolulu. Yet barely an hour’s drive outside Waikiki, separated by the Koolau Mountain Range, is the island’s magical and lush, windward side. Here everything is greener, slower and lower. In fact, there is only one hotel on the windward side, the Paradise Bay Resort (47-039 Lihikai Drive, Kaneohe; paradisebayresorthawaii.com). The Kualoa, Kailua and Lanikai beaches are less crowded, yet still offer plenty for water lovers such as kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling and boat excursions.
There’s also amazing hiking and riding at Kualoa Ranch (49-560 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe; kualoa.com), located in the Ka’a’awa (Kualoa) Valley. Essentially a 1618-hectare working cattle ranch that extends from the mountains to the sea, you’ll find a variety of terrain here from dense rainforest to open valleys to cliff faces —amazing locations that inspired many a TV and Hollywood director to film here. To name a few: Jurassic Park, Windtalkers, Pearl Harbor, Godzilla, Magnum P.I., LOST and, yes, even Hawaii Five-O.
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