Visitors to Honolulu may hear that, because it's Hawaii's largest city, it is less "Hawaiian" than the rest of the state. The high-rise office buildings and busy traffic of Honolulu don't match people's romantic ideal of what Hawaii should be—remote, palm-fringed beaches and lavish resorts.
In truth, Honolulu is probably the most Hawaiian part of the state, because it best reflects the reality of today's Hawaii. Honolulu contains a multicultural mix of people, a beautiful landscape of greenery and ocean, and a place where amazing events have unfolded—many of them recounted in the city's historic sites and museums.
All that's exciting about big-city life—theater, opera, museums, shopping, nightclubs, fine dining—is set against Honolulu's backdrop of majestic mountains, lush rain forests and sweeping vistas.
With Waikiki along one edge of the city, travelers to Honolulu even have a beach resort. Waikiki remains Hawaii's busiest tourist spot and makes a good departure point for exploring recreational possibilities in Honolulu and the rest of Oahu. Active travelers can ramble through a rainforest and discover ancient religious shrines, swim with the green sea turtles off Waikiki Beach and surf past Diamond Head.
Other activities include hiking a coastline trail, watching for humpback whales, visiting World War II memorials or playing a round of golf at a variety of public and resort golf courses.
Visitors to Honolulu can choose from the best of both worlds—the city's bustle and the beauty of nature.
Honolulu is on the south shore of Oahu and it dominates the island. The city's government administers all of Oahu, and Honolulu is also the state's capital. Oahu itself is a volcanic mass divided into sections by two separate mountain ranges. Both ranges run northwest to southeast: the Waianae Range on the western side of the island, and the Koolau Range to the east. The Koolau separates the city of Honolulu with its hotel-choked neighborhood of Waikiki from the windward side of the island and the towns of Kailua and Kaneohe.
Honolulu's neighborhoods have distinctive identities. The office buildings of downtown Honolulu are just north of Honolulu Harbor. To the south of downtown is Waikiki, which is bordered to the east by Diamond Head. Makiki, to the north of downtown, surrounds the Punchbowl, a crater that is the home of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
The history of Honolulu is really the history of Oahu. The island was an independent fiefdom controlled by a succession of Polynesian chiefs until the 1780s. That's when the ambitious king of Maui, Kahekili, conquered Oahu and killed its chief—his own stepson—in a bid to enlarge his territories.
After Kahekili's death, his sons battled one another for control of the islands. This division made it easier for the now-legendary Kamehameha I to conquer all of the Hawaiian Islands.
With the help of Westerners with firearms, Kamehameha's troops took Oahu in 1795 in a rout that ultimately forced the defenders to flee to the mountains behind Honolulu and over the cliffs at Nuuanu Pali. His court was set up in Waikiki, then moved to Honolulu in 1809.
By the 1840s, Honolulu was a busy port town doing a brisk trade in the sandalwood harvested on the island. Sandalwood later gave way to sugar, and laborers from China, Japan, Portugal and the Philippines were brought in to work the plantations.
After U.S. sugar companies engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, which led to the U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, Oahu's Pearl Harbor became the centerpiece of U.S. naval operations in the Pacific. On 7 December 1941, a squadron of some 400 Japanese planes attacked the base, killing more than 2,400 people and marking the entrance of the U.S. into World War II.
With the advent of jet travel in the postwar years, Honolulu became the gateway for millions of paradise-seeking vacationers, and developers began building the towering hotels of Waikiki.
The best way to see Honolulu is to first decide what most interests you and then group your choices according to their physical location. You might spend a morning exploring Chinatown, stop for lunch at one of the many excellent Asian restaurants there, and relax on the beach at Ala Moana or Waikiki in the late afternoon when the sun's rays are less intense.
Or you might plan tours of Iolani Palace and the Mission Houses Museum, eat a picnic lunch on the Palace grounds and spend the afternoon trekking on one of the Hawaii Nature Center's short rain-forest trails.
Whatever you decide to do, remember not to rush. Outside the city, Oahu is a laid-back island, so relax and take things slowly. If you're driving, make sure to allow extra time to navigate the highway system during the rush hours of 7-9 am and 3-6 pm during the week. It can easily take an hour to get from Honolulu to the airport during those busy times.
Honolulu's nightlife—mostly clustered in Waikiki—showcases an eclectic mix of Hawaiian, country-western, jazz, alternative, contemporary and even Las Vegas-style entertainment. Check local listings for performances by one of Hawaii's excellent entertainers and comedians. Also watch for the Female Comics of Hawaii—five ladies with different styles who perform together monthly in nightclubs and dinner-show settings.
If you prefer a relaxing happy hour rather than staged entertainment, drop by the Waikiki beach hotel of your choice around sunset and sip a cocktail to the sounds of a small combo in an open-air lounge. Favorite spots include the Halekulani Hotel and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Both always engage first-rate musicians.
Most clubs keep the beat going until 2 am, and many stay open until 4 am.
If the physical surroundings of Honolulu don't tempt you to stay a few extra days, the food will. Hawaiian regional cuisine, an easy blend of Asian, Polynesian, U.S. and European traditions, pleases a wide variety of tastes, and the local chefs are inventive. You'll find scrumptious cross-cultural dishes based on fresh local ingredients—especially seafood, vegetables, herbs and fruit—as well as pure Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, French, German, Portuguese and Italian favorites.
Good restaurants are plentiful in Waikiki, especially downtown, but don't overlook food trucks and hole-in-the-wall places in the city's different neighborhoods.
Few Honolulu restaurants offer the types of foods that were prepared by the early Hawaiians. It's mostly at a luau that you'll encounter lomi salmon, kalua pig, poi (taro ground into a purple paste) and laulau (salted pork, chicken or fish, wrapped in a taro leaf and baked). A word about the luau, the traditional Hawaiian feast whose main dish is a roasted kalua pig: There are some excellent ones, and there are some real losers, but they all tend to be pricey. In any case, one luau is usually plenty. One of the best is at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. You might want to ask other visitors which ones they've attended and seek a recommendation.
Standard fare for most Hawaii residents is the inexpensive plate lunch available in many cafes and from outdoor lunch wagons, where they are served in a paper box that is perfect for a casual outdoor meal. A plate lunch typically consists of a serving of fried meat, chicken or seafood, macaroni salad, two scoops of white rice and sometimes corn or pickled cabbage. There are a number of these operations serving shrimp along Kamehameha Highway. Look for the sandwich-board signs and tented picnic tables. Dining there is a no-frills atmosphere, but locals and tourists alike keep going back for more.
For a tasty and less-filling local treat, try saimin (Japanese noodle soup), shave ice (snow cones), malasadas (hot Portuguese donuts sprinkled with sugar) or manapua (Chinese steamed buns filled with red pork).
In restaurants, breakfast is generally served 7-9:30 am, lunch 11 am-2 pm and dinner 6-10 pm.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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