It’s been 18 years since I was last on the island of Oahu and what a difference.
The first time I went, I was in grade school and traveling in an entourage that included my parents, brother and our 80-year-old grandmother. We did all the things families do while in Hawaii — pay a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) and the Dole Plantation, attend a luau, head to the beach, learn how to make leis — and I loved every minute of it. My favorite moment was watching my grandmother attempt to do a Tahitian dance at the PCC — priceless.
Now, having come back from my second trip, I feel just as elated, only this time, I’ve got a better grasp on what it’s really like to live more like a local than a visitor.
Last July, I flew out to Oahu with my boyfriend and his family to attend a karate tournament and celebration held in honor of his uncle, Walter K. Nishioka, founder and chief instructor of the International Karate League. Mr. Nishioka’s story is really inspiring. Fifty years ago, the former head instructor of an Air Force Survival Training Course founded his first dojo, or karate training center, and thus his league was born and has since flourished throughout the islands and even the mainland.
This time, I didn’t stay in a hotel near Waikiki. I didn’t go to a luau or make a lei. I drove by the Polynesian Cultural Center but I didn’t venture inside. Nonetheless, it was still a great trip, thanks in large part to the generosity of friends and family. Better yet, I got some locals’ perspective on what it’s really like to live on the island and why Hawaii continues to be such a favorite getaway for so many around the world.
Here are just a few of the reasons why I love Hawaii:
1. It’s haunted, or at least that’s what the locals tell me.
OK, this might sound like a deal breaker for many, especially the squeamish, but I love the fact that there’s so much history (and mystery) to be found on this island. I’m no ghost buster — far from it, in fact — but I truly agree with locals that there’s an eerie beauty to this island. That’s probably why it’s the ideal locale for shooting ABC’s popular television series “Lost.” It even explains the rich, red earth to be found on the Western side of the island: “The dirt’s red because of all the blood spilt by the warriors,” my boyfriend jokingly explained to me (It's really because of oxidation). Locals even have a term for reactions to all the strange happenings and sightings that cannot be explained on the island —“chicken skin” they call it.
2. The food
The amount of food I consumed here in just a week could put even the most highly regarded competitive eater to shame. It’s part of a vicious cycle here on the islands: Should I exercise some self control so as not to publicly embarrass myself at the beach? Or do I give into steaming hot malasadas (Portuguese donuts) and refreshing shave ice? Let’s just say I chose the latter.
The hotels and restaurants by Waikiki and other hot spots are world-renowned, but if your clients want something with a little more local flavor, I suggest they hit up these places:
Hawaii is home to a large Japanese American population so it’s no wonder you’ll find a number of great Japanese izakaya (pub) restaurants, along with your favorite sushi joints. Be adventurous and try something you’ve never tried before, like roasted gingko nuts or deep fried anchovies, or stick to the tried-and-true like poke* (raw tuna fish marinated in soy sauce and other seasonings) or fried karagee chicken.
2633 South King Street
Honolulu, HI 96826
*A word of advice: If your clients are poke lovers who also happen to be Costco members, clue them into the wide variety of fresh, flavorful poke offered at the members-only warehouse store. The nearest Costco to Waikiki and downtown Honolulu is located in the Iwilei neighborhood.
Like Like Drive Inn Restaurant
Favorites at this 24-hour diner, first founded in the 1950s include steaming hot bowls of saimin (won ton noodle soup served with char siu (Chinese barbecue pork) and kamaboko (steamed Japanese fishcake)), loco moco (a bowl of rice topped with a ground hamburger patty, fried egg and generous amounts of rich brown gravy) and an all-American classic: cheeseburgers. The plate lunch here is might good, too. BTW, it’s pronounced “leaky leaky” instead of “like like.”
745 Keeaumoku Street
Honolulu, HI 96814
Located about five miles north of Waikiki and Ala Moana, you’ll find this old-time bakery and diner where folks are cuckoo for Coco Puffs — decadent chocolate cream puffs topped off with a buttery, salty, sweet Chantilly frosting that’s hard to find here on the mainland. Grab a seat at the counter — if you can manage — and you can order a mean flapjack or plate lunch, too.
515 North Kuakini Street
Honolulu, HI 96817
Waiola Shave Ice
If you can’t make it all the way out to North Shore’s Haleiwa to visit the world-famous M. Matsumoto Store, Waiola makes a great substitute. I had a classic — strawberry-flavored shave ice with azuki (red) beans and ice cream — but I hear the li hing mui (salty dried plum)-flavored shave ice is the best of the best here.
2135 Waiola Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96805
It might just be Hawaii’s equivalent of a Denny’s, Coco’s or Norm’s, but in my opinion, it’s 10 times better. The only-in-Hawaii restaurant chain, which celebrated its 42nd birthday last October, is best known for its Original Recipe Chili — they sell more than 200,000 pounds of it every year. I like it best when served atop a hot bed of white rice; chili cheese fries are good, too. Zippy’s also specializes in more traditional island fare, like saimin and even oxtail soup.
3. The weather and the beach
Take note: If you’re traveling with novice beach goers like myself (i.e. those who are deathly afraid of being swallowed up by the ocean) head to the calmer waters off Ala Moana, right across the street from the popular Ala Moana Shopping Center. One of the prettiest beaches I visited, however, was Kailua, a straight shot north on Pali Highway. The current is deceptively strong, but the waters there are a pristine aqua blue and the sand is ultra fine.
Ala Moana Regional Park
Kailua Beach Park
4) The attitude
Things really are more laid-back when it comes to Hawaiian time. Maybe it’s because I’m a native Angeleno, but I was really surprised to find out the maximum speed limit on most highways is only 45 mph.
5) The people
Arguably Hawaii’s greatest asset. I know the term “aloha spirit” has become so overused it’s almost a bit of a cliché, but there’s really no other way to explain how nice, friendly and welcoming folks are over there. It makes all the difference, don’t you think?