I've always been a little chagrined that I had never been to Hawaii. It wasn't a wistful goal, as in "You know, I've always wanted to go to Hawaii", but more an embarrassing fact, as in "I lived in Chicago and never visited the Sears Tower." (I've been guilty of both, but you get my point.) I've lived all across America and have prided myself with knowing it, and here was a popular destination that even infrequent travelers have passed through. It was my turn to visit.
Why did it take so long for me to get there? To be frank: resources and time. Hawaii is expensive since many items us mainlanders take for granted have to be shipped out there. That translates into higher prices. It is also an extremely well-known tourist destination, so it is awash with tourism taxes. Sales tax alone is almost 10 percent.
I also believed there were more important places to visit in the world. I could spend the time getting to another part of America, or I could ride camels in the Sahara, eat hearty foods in Colombian mountains, or even enjoy a quick trip to the gaudy desert next door. In the end, while I was right about it being tough on the wallet, I was wrong about calling it just another part of the United States. Hawaii is a beautiful, unique place.
The eight main islands of Hawaii stretch over a 1,500 mile region, with the most visited being Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the island of Hawaii a.k.a. The Big Island. We opted for Oahu, which seemed like a good Hawaii "starter kit": Oahu has plenty of mainland flights, the extremely popular city of Honolulu, and lots of tourist destinations like the Pearl Harbor war museum and Waikiki Beach.
Hawaiian Airlines is a great choice for getting to the islands. Just don't rely on its mobile app.
Unless you are loyal to a frequent flyer program, your best bet is to go with Hawaiian Airlines. Major airlines come to Hawaii, but most require a stopover in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle. Hawaiian Airlines has a slew of direct flights, many about the price of a cross-country trip, and it provides decent (if unexceptional) Hawaiian-themed meals to and from the islands. Hawaiian Airlines is also affiliated with some major carriers, so you may be able to transfer your points. And bear in mind that going to Hawaii is essentially a cross-country trip--the flight to Hawaii from California took just under six hours.
Hawaii isn't exactly the tech mecca of America, however, and Hawaiian Airlines' app is a perfect symbol of this. People are pretty tough on airline tech, and especially tough on official airline apps, but the Hawaiian Airlines app was getting one and two stars out of five ratings--on average. I thought users were being unduly harsh, so I downloaded the app and printed off the tickets, too. Just in case.
Sure enough, I opened the app at the airport and it went directly to my Safari browser. It's exactly the same as the Hawaiian Airlines website! I might as well have put a link to the website on my home screen myself. The not-really-an-app meant no scannable ticket, no push notifications for flight delays, no nothing. Worse, once we got to the line, the airline required the printed ticket to check in our bag. The airline created an app, but if you're checking a bag you'll need to print out a ticket anyway.
The Honolulu airport itself is just as basic; it definitely fits the quiet island vibe. The architecture is bright and somewhat kitschy, and the tiny size belies Honolulu's status as an international destination. There is also no free Wi-Fi because, I presume, they believe you won't be working while you are there. And why should you be?
Life's a beach
There are two ways to enjoy Oahu: Fill your dance card with outdoor activities showcasing the beauty of the island--or clear your schedule for a mellow time on the coast. We opted for the latter, staying primarily in the popular Waikiki Beach area.
If you do decide to explore, be prepared to either drive or arrange for someone else to drive. Oahu has walkable areas, but the good stuff is spread out across the 600 square mile island. Most people opt to rent a car, dealing with the traffic and, of course, opting not to drink. Honolulu is one of the top 5 worse traffic cities in the United States, so it's really a matter of balancing seeing the island versus keeping your stress level low. Worse, you're stuck with the traditional, restrictive rental car providers as Car2Go, ZipCar, and their competitors aren't available here yet, which is too bad as I sure as heck would have rented one.
Whether catching a cab or going it alone, you'll definitely want to download a good maps app before you arrive. Like most islands, the streets and architecture in Oahu are designed around the coast so the traditional grid of north/south/east/west doesn't really work. Follow a street "straight" and you may end up going a different direction than intended. Oahu isn't one of those places where you just want to wing it.
I kept it simple and used Google Maps, the ultimate navigational app. Google Maps worked perfectly on my island-bound iPhone, down to the moving location dot and the turn-by-turn voice instructions. It was crucial when we were guiding a driver, but it was even more useful as we wandered around the island on foot.
Waikiki Beach is kind of the Times Square of Oahu: Lots of traffic, geared towards tourists, very walkable. It also has some serious bargains on hotels--because of its proximity and size, you can grab an ocean side property across the street from the beach for just a couple hundred dollars a night.
I love to walk, so it was a blast strolling up and down the miles of coast taking in the ocean smell, watching visitors from around the world, and feeling the sand in my toes. It was one of those experiences where regular photos just wouldn't cut it, so I jumped onto Vine. From the folks behind Twitter, Vine lets you post six-second video clips and share them online. The cool part is that recording them is as easy as holding your thumb on the screen--no fumbling for buttons (real or virtual) or struggling with menu settings. I only kept one Vine I recorded (seen above), as I sat on the beach at sundown hearing the waves come in, but it captured what I was experiencing better than any still shot would have.
I already went through my Hawaiian shirt phase in college, but the beachfront stores are willing to supply you with as many tiki shirts, hula skirts, and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts as you can handle. The most populous shops are ABC Stores that, I am told, are a chain of knick-knack places run by a Japanese family. They remind me of airport or hotel convenience stores in that they are conveniently located, have a limited selection, and are marked up quite a bit.
Our driver recommended the International Marketplace, a sort of flea market for local island manufacturers located right in the middle of Waikiki Beach. "It's even better than the ABC Stores, since you can bargain on the prices. You're also supporting the locals more." The International Marketplace wasn't as cool or as rustic as our driver described, leaning more towards an outdoor mall than a hidden gem. We found something nice for our family and immediately went into Morocco mode--eager to negotiate--but without much luck.
Taste of Hawaii
I hesitate to recommend tourist traps--and there are plenty--but if you come all the way to Hawaii, pony up the time and money to go to a luau. As you may have learned from The Brady Bunch or Mad Men, a luau is a traditional Hawaiian beach celebration with hula women, fire dancers, and, often, a roasted pig on a spit.
The fire breather was the most entertaining part of the luau -- aside from the roasting pig.
We opted for Paradise Cove, a small, but modern, village on the other side of Oahu. It had the obligatory watered down cocktails and laying of the leis, but it also had some entertaining dancing representing the many different cultures along Hawaii's islands. It was striking to see the differences between, say, the Samoa and the Maori.
I particularly liked the fire dancer, a guy twirling a double-lit staff while doing rolls and flipping about onstage. He went on for at least 10 nonstop minutes, even after he clearly burnt himself midway through the routine. It was an amazing performance to see with dusk setting in the background.
The roasted pig was tasty, especially when dipped in poi, the thick, pasty sauce made from taro root. On Oahu, most of our meals consisted of seafood combined with local eats like pineapples and seaweed. The Asian influence was strong throughout.
Our favorite meals, however, were on a small strip right outside of Waikiki called Kapahulu street. Nearly every storefront is dedicated to a specific Hawaiian delicacy.
Leonard's is one of the hardcore local food hangouts right outside of Waikiki Beach.
And the must-visit place is Leonard's, a small bakery known for only one thing: Malasadas. A Portuguese import, malasadas are small, dense pastries, covered in powered sugar and often filled with chocolate or custard.
We came right after the lunchtime rush and walked out with virtually all of the six varieties. It was all but empty, but our driver later told us we just got lucky--a couple hundred tourists can be seen lining up outside its doors first thing every single morning.
I dove into the custard one and immediately picked up on the different malasadas influences. The custard reminded me of Spanish flan, while the sugary coating and fry took me back to Bourbon Street. The breading itself wasn't as light as a beignet, but not as heavy as a doughnut.
Honolulu had recently finished one of its Miami-like flash rainstorms--the kind where you are soaking wet and then dry within a minute--so we just sat under the awning, tasting and sharing the malasadas, watching the island world go by.