There’s nothing better than a well-deserved vacation. We decided to go to Honolulu as this was (a) easy to get to (b) guaranteed weather (c) has a beach.
We set our alarm for 3:45 am on the first day of vacation, having booked a 7:00 am flight from LAX. I declared us on vacation as we rolled down our street in the quiet of the morning at 4:15 am.
The flight was on time and we had window seats. When we got to the hotel, the Royal Hawaiian, at 11:00 am we were able to check-in early.
Our first job was to go and get a Mai Tai, so we headed to the Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai Bar when it opened at 11:15 am and got the A1 seat at the front by the sand. Lunch and a very strong Mai Tai later and we were very happy campers indeed. We went back to the room for a well-deserved nap.
We had 6 full days, plus arrival and departure half days, in Waikiki. Our main goals were (a) sleeping (b) getting in the water daily (c) eating and drinking, but we also made some effort to get out and see stuff. We decided to be militantly indifferent to the cost of everything, and as such, we blew through half our travel budget for the year!
My previous visit to Honolulu is documented here, including visits to Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, a walking tour of downtown Honolulu and an Island Tour. Here’s what we got up to this time.
Things to do
Hiking Diamond Head crater is a must-do for those who are able. The views of Honolulu from the coastal side of the crater rim are spectacular. Take the bus to get there (see below) and go early – take advantage of that jetlag and be hiking by 7:00 am. The hike is moderately hard – and there are a lot of steps – but it only takes about 45 minutes to get to the top. It costs $5 for non-residents of Hawaii and you purchase a ticket from a machine near the start of the hike. There are bathrooms and a gift shop.
If you want to learn everything you need to know about Hawaii and its history, Bishop Museum is the place to do it. Allow at least 2 hours to see everything plus another hour for a planetarium show. Tickets are $25 online + $3 for the planetarium. You can get there on the bus (but get the 2L express!).
Tour of Coastline
As mentioned in my previous blog post, an Island Tour is a great place to see the coastline. We were lucky enough to have a friend drive us to show us the sights from Waikiki to Waimanalo. We saw a number of sights including a secret lava tube; the Halona Blowhole; a whale breaching in the distance; Sandy Beach with really scary-looking waves; Makapuʻu Lookout; and the beautiful Waimanalo beach.
Since there is apparently no good snorkeling off Waikiki Beach, and Hanauma Bay is basically impossible to get to unless you have your own car, I booked us on the Waikiki Turtle, Snorkel and Lunch trip with Hawaii Nautical. It cost ~$300 for two. We got the bus to Kewalo Basin Harbor and then boarded the catamaran. Part of the tour was supposedly whale watching but we didn’t see any. We arrived at a place offshore called Turtle Canyon, which, amusingly enough is just about opposite the Royal Hawaiian, maybe 1/4 mile away.
Unfortunately, the water was extremely cloudy so we could only see turtles when they surfaced, and then only between about 50 other people all trying to push to the front to see them. All in all, not ideal! It’s probably better to spend the $$$ to rent a car and figure out how to get into Hanauma Bay.
The box lunch was nice though…as was the walk back from the harbor to Waikiki.
Swim at Waikiki Beach
It’s basically a requirement to go to Waikiki Beach when in Waikiki. We went in the water every day even though it was pretty cold in March. It’s shallow for quite a long way out and underfoot it’s mostly sand but there were a few rocks to stub your toe on. The waves weren’t too big but big enough to try to body surf.
Places to eat and drink
Mai Tai Bar
The Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel became a favorite spot of ours. It’s an outdoor bar on Waikiki beach where you can get extremely strong Mai Tais, other cocktails and great food. It opens at 11:15 am and on least two days we were there before noon, nabbing the best spot right at the front by the beach and quaffing Mai Tais. In the evening there is a line but we only waited ~15 minutes for an open table. This is a must-do!
Azure is the main evening restaurant at The Royal Hawaiian. It’s a fixed-priced 4-course menu with the option for matching wines. We had an early reservation and were seated in the best spot right by the sand. The food was exceptional and the wine pairings were great. It was a great night, just as long as we didn’t look too closely at the bill.
Orchid is within the Halekulani hotel and it was a challenge to actually find it from the street. We chose this restaurant to try because they had a tasting menu, though annoyingly without matching wine suggestions. The service was haphazard (but friendly) but the food was excellent… possibly better than Azure. Another great night (and another hit to the bank balance).
Maui Brewing Co
Maui Brewing Co is on the main street of Waikiki and offers casual dining and free-form seating. There is shaded and non-shaded seating with a bit of a view over the street. The Mai Tais here were interesting – they were topped with pineapple cream and the food was fine.
Barefoot Beach Cafe
We went to the Barefoot Beach Cafe for dinner on the first night. It’s located in Kapiʻolani Regional Park, south of town. It’s very casual and the food was ok but the main highlight was the pineapple smoothie, served in a pineapple!
Gilligan’s Beach Shack
By the Hilton Hawaiian, Gilligan’s Beach Shack food truck is a must-do for Waikiki. It’s only open for lunch and the garlic shrimp are the best. Sit by the Hilton lagoon to eat but watch out for the persistent birds!
The Liliha Bakery is on the top floor of the International Mall. It appeared to have seating at the back but we just went to the bakery part at the entrance. Even though it seemed chaotic inside they have a ticket system, so just take a ticket and wait your turn. We got cream puffs and coco puffs on the recommendation of our friend. They were amazing.
Leonard’s Bakery is another must-do thing in Honolulu. The bakery is located in a low-rent high street on a corner with about 5 parking spaces. We decided to go on the Friday of our vacation, which was a public holiday in Hawaii. We walked there from Waikiki to take advantage of some of the sights and it took about 40 minutes. It was kind of rainy and when we got there the line was down the street and cars were double parked everywhere.
We learned later this was apparently a quiet day! So we duly stood in line, which to be fair, moved quite quickly. Little did we know that someone ahead of us had ordered about 20 boxes of 12 donuts, and this was the main cause of the delay.
While waiting in line a local cop showed up with sent everyone scrambling to their illegally parked cars. The cop was nice and didn’t seem to book anyone though.
We eventually got our masaladas (freshly cooked) and some coffee but by now it was pouring with rain so we found some shelter by the nearby Safeway and ordered a Lyft home. We had our coffee and one donut in the rain. It was good! We got two original (plain sugar), two with custard and two with dobash (chocolate). The originals were the best!
Of course in Hawaii you need to get yourself an Acai bowl for breakfast. The two places we went were Acai Bowls and Tea in the Hilton Hawaiian Resort and Café Glacé on Lewers Street. Both delicious.
Because we planned this as a “Big” vacation we opted to stay at The Royal Hawaiian hotel.
After doing extensive research and walking up and down the main street, we concluded that there is no point in staying in a hotel across the road from the beach. Plus the main good beaches are the one by the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the one by the Royal Hawaiian. Further up the main street towards the park, the beach isn’t very nice and neither is the atmosphere.
So, book the Hilton if you don’t want to spend $$$$, otherwise the only other options are the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider.
At the Royal Hawaiian we got a king bedroom with a garden view. Aside from being so much more affordable, the garden view room is very quiet. The disadvantage is you can’t sit in your room and look at the beach.
The hotel is really beautiful with pink decor throughout. On the ground level, it’s pretty much open to the elements which means you feel the hotel is bigger than it really is. There are plenty of seats around to hang out on the ground floor. There is a “bather’s elevator” which you can use to get to the tiny pool or the beach in short order.
There is a little bakery which is very nice but it only has coffee out of a machine. The Mai Tai Bar and Azure are very good as described above (we didn’t try the Surf Lanai).
You couldn’t be closer to the beach if you tried. The wifi is strong and available throughout the hotel. They have an actual tea kettle in the room and a mini-fridge, and tons of channels on the TV (we watched so many movies).
We will definitely be staying there again.
Tips for Honolulu
We used Lyft and The Bus for our transport needs. It was very easy to get a Lyft to and from the airport (except because we hadn’t used the app for two years we had to put in our new credit card!).
To use the Honolulu bus, which actually goes all over the island, you get a HOLO Card for $2 from the ABC shop, top it up with $5.50 (also at the shop or online) for an all-day ticket (or $2.25 for one ride), then tap on when you get on the bus and away you go. To find out what bus to take, don’t try to use their poor website, just use Google Maps. We used the bus for Diamond Head, the Bishop Museum, the Ala Moana Mall, and the harbor where we joined the Turtle Tour.
ABC Stores are prevalent in tourist areas of Hawaii and have everything the tourist needs – from t-shirts to gifts, from sandwiches to beer, from snorkel gear to towels. The best bit about the ABC stores is that if you spend $100 and keep the receipts you can claim a gift – we snagged our second ABC Stores Hawaii mug on this trip!
I’m not sure if it’s the effects of the pandemic, but everything seems to be booked out early. If you want to go to Duke’s restaurant, book a table on the same day you book your flight. If you want to get the best Island Tour or Whale Watch tour, don’t wait until the week before your vacation to book it. The Iolani Palace is closed on Sunday and Monday so book that ahead too. Book other restaurants as soon as you know you want to go. Otherwise expect a line and a wait of 45 minutes.
4 thoughts on “Splashing out in Waikiki”