Check-in with Waikiki: A surfing, shopping and culinary destination famous for its hospitality.
Diamond Head, Hawaii, in 1936 and today. Images from Library of Congress and Brooke Nasser.
Three hundred years ago, Waikiki was a marshy plain where Native Hawaiians cultivated taro, fished for manini and moi, and surfed on mile-long cerulean waves. This famous beachfront still provides fish and surf, but its bloomed into an international shopping destination on par with Bond Street, Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive— offering couture for every fashion persuasion, from young hipster stylings to the ultra -kitsch.
In the 1980s, the city invested in a revitalization project led by former Mayor Jeremy Harris. The concept: Make the experience of walking along Kalakaua Avenue feel like being in a beautiful park rather than an urban metropolis. The project was a resounding success. Rows of shops give way to swaying palms and shimmering ponds along a one-mile stretch of pristine white-sand beach.
Central to the stunning natural beauty is the Waikiki Historic Trail that stretches the length of Waikiki. Designed by Native Hawaiian historian George Kanahele, visitors are greeted by a 6-foot-tall bronze surfboard-shaped placards, describing everything from information about Waikiki’s 19th century Chinese-owned duck farms to the names of local surf breaks.
Waikiki has been an ocean-lover’s dream since Hawaiians invented surfing, riding oval planks of thick koa wood down the steep faces of white-crested ocean waves. From Kaimana Beach near the Natatorium War Memorial on the east side of Waikiki all the way to Gray’s Beach at Fort DeRussy, visitors can rent surfboards, bodyboards or stand-up paddleboards from oceanside stands and take lessons from the pros.
Connor Kennedy is a surf instructor at Hans Hedemann Surf School, which operates out of the Park Shore Hotel, a site very close to where Queen Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, once lived and, yes, surfed. He represents the next generation of the Waikiki beach boy, one of the traditions for which Hawaii is famous.
“People come to Hawaii, and they want to learn to surf,” Kennedy explains. “I think it’s great that we’re teaching people how to surf where surfing was invented.”
As with retail shops, there are now an array of hotels, resorts and lodging houses in Waikiki, offering everything from traditional Hawaiian charm to modern exclusivity.
Ho’okipa, or the giving of a warm welcome and complete hospitality, is a fundamental value in Hawaiian culture. Before the first transoceanic airplane landed on Oahu jump-starting a booming tourism industry, Hawaiian royals were hosting famous artists and dignitaries in their Waikiki estates with all-day luaus, musical concerts and hula performances.
Hawaii’s first resort hotel, The Moana Hotel, opened in 1901. Rooms went for a cool $1.50. Seemingly overnight, the pristine shores of Waikiki became a coveted, though still exclusive, tourist destination.
An Oahu Landmark, The Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Original photography from Brooke Nasser.
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, with its cotton-candy pink Spanish-Moorish architecture, debuted in 1927 on land previously owned by King Kamehameha III. Waikiki’s newest resort offered glitzy international glamour. It has since become a Waikiki landmark. At the turreted entrance visitors can stand in the wide fanning shade of ancient coconut trees from a grove planted in the 18th century.
In addition to retail, hotel and recreation options, Waikiki extends its hospitality with culturally diverse food offerings designed to satisfy every taste and exceed all expectations. Strolling down Kuhio on any given night, visitors can sample everything from Japanese udon to Vietnamese pho to Baja fish tacos.
Expanding the culinary offerings of Waikiki has walked hand in hand with a renewed interest in authentic Hawaiian culture. The International Market Place fluently interlaces the culture of Hawaii with a modern shopping and dining experiences. Chef Michael Mina recently opened The Street, a social-house-style eatery with 10 different cuisines on display. The 4.5-acre complex also features Hawaii’s first Saks Fifth Avenue.
The changing exterior of the International Marketplace. Kamehameha Schools Archive and Brooke Nasser.
As with all things Hawaiian, nature is front and center. A giant Indian banyan tree remains the focal point of the new design at the International Market Place. New Zealand entrepreneur Harry McFarland planted the now-famous banyan on land that originally comprised King Lunalilo’s estate. The banyan’s twisting limbs bear the mark of generations of Waikiki’s residents and tourists, and have stood witness to many of her incredible transformations.
Fire pits and lanterns light around the roof-top deck saltwater infinity pool, just as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. Alohilani’s contemporary ambiance is balanced and chic. Two restaurants conceived by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and a 280,000-gallon oceanarium in the lobby make it compelling as well.
Enjoy the Friday night Waikiki fireworks right from your luxurious room balcony, not that the views of the Pacific Ocean aren’t matched in splendor and awe. This 307-room tower offers the best of Hawaiian hospitality in stately elegance. The resort is steps away from Luxury Row, Waikiki Beach and Kalakaua Avenue, where the shopping and dining are world-class.
The newest Outrigger hotel may have the best location of all – in the heart of Waikiki, steps from Waikiki Beach and next door to the renewed International Market Place. Local delights like Maui Brewing Co. and Hawaiian Aroma Caffe are right in the lobby.