VOLANTE Jody Miller gets a taste of Polynesian culture without leaving the United States as she heads to Hawai‘i, and gets to delight mind, body and palate on Waikīkī
Pristine beaches miles from the nearest town. Mountain view sunsets that lure romance-hungry honeymooners. Hiking to the pinnacle of an ancient volcano. Hawaiʻi has enticed pleasure and adventure enthusiasts since the late 19th century. From surfers and party-goers to movie stars and literati, Hawaiʻi has never lost its allure, and visitor numbers are at an all-time high.
Once a playground for Hawaiʻian and foreign royalty, Waikīkī was the world’s decadent tropical playground. Over the past few decades, however, favour and prestige had moved to Hawaiʻi’s more remote islands and beaches on Maui, Kona, Kauaʻi and the big island. After all, Honolulu is a big, multicultural city with many of the same issues of urban centres on the mainland. But it’s still the state’s cultural and historical epicentre, overflowing with vibrant culture, cuisine, art and festivals, not to mention the miles of glorious golden sand beaches crowned by one of the state’s most recognized natural landmarks—Lēʻahi, commonly known as Diamond Head.
Join the festivities
Submerge yourself in local culture at any of the myriad of local festivals that happen year-round. Attending any of these celebrations is an ideal way to dive in and rub elbows with locals and like-minded visitors. There is a lot going on here, and there is something for everybody, whether you’re a history buff, art nerd, culture warrior, or the just plain curious. We’ve hand-picked a few of our favourites.
The King Kamehameha Floral Parade: King Kamehameha I Day on June 11 is a public holiday in Hawaiʻi. The parade honours Kamehameha the Great, the monarch who first established the unified Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The days long festivities culminate with the exuberant Floral Parade. The parade route begins at Iolani Palace, then making its way to Kalakaua Avenue and ending on Monsarrat Avenue at Queen Kapiʻolani Park. The floral-covered floats and trolleys are accompanied by marching bands and pā‘ū riders in traditional costume on horseback. When it’s over, enjoy food, music, hula and demonstrations at the Ho‘olaule‘a.
To experience the celebration and its historical significance in depth, attend the Lei Draping Ceremony the day prior in front of Iolani Palace. Join lei makers, local dignitaries and citizens as they drape the 30 ft statue of Kamehameha I in 30 in layers of plumeria leis while guest musicians sing and play traditional Hawaiʻian songs.
Pow! Wow! Hawaiʻi: a week-long event that takes place during Valentine’s Day week in the Kakaʻako district and brings over a hundred international and local artists together to create murals and other forms of street art.
The Honolulu Festival: scheduled every March, participate in a rich and vibrant blend of Asian, Pacific and Hawaiʻian cultures. The three-day celebration of local art, music and dance climaxes in a grand parade through Waikīkī.
The Aloha Festival: each September, the Aloha Festival is the largest cultural celebration in the state, with more than 100,000 attendees each year. The multi-day event is a premier showcase of Hawaiʻian music, dance and history.
Hawaiʻi Food and Wine Festival: a gastronomic getaway in late October. Sample fare from more than 100 international chefs, culinary personalities, and wine and spirit producers.
Mango Jam Honolulu: a June festivity showcasing a diverse mix of live entertainment, food and craft booths. Featuring a beer garden and a farmer's market highlighting one of Oʻahu's most beloved fruit.
The Royal Hawaiʻian Center: Honolulu’s heartbeat
The heartbeat, the pulse, the corollary artery. Whatever you want to call it, Royal Hawaiʻian Center is where something is always happening and a place where you will spend a lot of time while in Waikīkī.
Spanning three city blocks on famous Kalakua Avenue, RHC is situated on Helumoa, Waikīkī’s historic coconut grove. Set amidst an abundance of local flora and fauna, the Royal Grove is RHC’s vortex. Here you will find entertainment, fairs, events and workshops let by expert professional artisans. The outdoor courtyard, with ample seating and raised stage, is home to local music and dance performances. It’s the ideal spot to gather for a relaxing evening after a day of shopping, sun-bathing or to just chill with a shaved ice after dinner. There is also an expanded rooftop meeting space for those planning a memorable private or corporate event.
RHC boasts a total of 310,000 ft², seamlessly connecting nearly 90 unique shops across four levels. Renowned international luxury ateliers sit alongside one-of-kind boutiques for a truly diverse shopping experience. RHC is part and parcel of the local experience. This is especially true of the innovative and varied dining experiences. From specialty teas and Hawaiʻian coffee, to shaved ice, Asian street fare and handmade malasadas (an imported Portuguese doughnut), RHC is a foodie paradise that is anything but a bite at a local mall.
While we would love to give a shout out to them all, there are a few very notable stand-outs that you should not miss.
Island Vintage Wine Bar: don’t gasp in disbelief if you spot the Obamas here. This is one of their favourite spots, and for good reason: the food and service are unmatched. Neither too fancy nor pretentious, you will feel right at home the moment you step inside. Winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for three consecutive years, IVWB features a selection of rare and highly allocated wines, as well as a sampling dispenser with over 40 choices. A certified wine sommelier will amicably guide you throughout your meal. IVWB features a diverse menu of fresh, organic and expertly prepared dishes that are simply some of the tastiest on the island. But first, order the Lilikoi Mimosa made from fresh passion fruit from Hilo. Even if you hate mimosas, you will become an instant fan. There is a lot to love here, but be sure to order anything poke, the Truffle Avocado Crostini, the fried eggplant with chili, and the best waygu burger in existence.
TsuruTonTan: if you are an udon snob and think you can only get the real thing in Japan because the water and flour are different, you are absolutely right! And because Tsuru Ton Tan only does each and every dish right, they import all its ingredients from Japan, including the flour to make fresh noodles daily and kombu kelp and bonito for the dashi broth. Since they can’t import the water, the very finicky owners and chef have developed a water filtration system to duplicate the water from Japan. All this plus locally grown vegetables and meats are carefully chosen to showcase the highest-quality noodles. The end result is intense flavour (they are not shy on the spice here) served in hand-crafted bowls with portions big enough to share.
Wolfgang’s Steakhouse: when you have the hankering for a great steak no matter where you are in the world, it needs to be quenched. With its white tablecloths and star-level service, Wolfgangs’s is a bit of New York in the tropics. A top secret dry-ageing process happens on premises in a clandestine back room. Lusciously tendre and juicy, the steaks are carmelized to perfection. The staff is on point without a hitch and the VIP room is a fave for celebs and athletes.
Island Vintage Coffee and Island Vintage Shave Ice: the same exacting standards as IVWB apply at these exceeding popular satellites. Expect long lines any time of day. They are that good and everyone knows it. Worth the wait and then some.
Stay and play in one place
Two hotels under one iconic brand. Originally opened in 1907, the Halekulani is Oʻahu’s leading luxury property and a member of Leading Hotels of the World. Characterized by its Seven Shades of White signature décor and sublime attention to detail, Halekulani is also home to some of Honolulu’s best dining:
La Mer is Hawaiʻi’s longest standing AAA-Five Diamond restaurant and the only one in Hawaiʻi to receive a five-star designation by Forbes Travel. Within La Mer, L’Aperitif envelops patrons in Belle Époque opulence for pre- or post-dinner cocktails.
House without a Key is revered as dining and cocktail hub with the backdrop of a century-old kiawe tree. The ultimate place to experience sunset cocktails along with steaks, burgers, seafood and brick oven pizzas al fresco with the ocean waves as a soundtrack.
For jazz aficionados, Lewers Lounge has been showcasing top jazz artists since its opening in 2013. The Live at Lewers series has continued evolving its legacy as one of the world’s greatest jazz rooms with prior appearances by Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Jack Jones, Eddie Henderson, Tierney Sutton, Robert Cazimero and many more. New on the menu are jazz-inspired cocktails as complex, smoky and sophisticated as the music that is its muse.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Orchids is home to the award-winning Sparkling Sunday Brunch. Enjoy prosecco and specialty coffees and teas while feasting on chef-prepared sushi, ramen, omlettes, prime rib, poke, freshly baked bread and pastries, ice-cream, fresh seafood and more. Enjoy attentive white table cloth service and panoramic views of the Pacific.
Barely a stone’s throw away, sister property Halepuna opened just in time for the global pandemic in 2019 and reopened 2021. Halepuna boasts an understated luxury and the same premium service as Halekulani at half the cost. Enjoy reciprocal privileges as well as free admission to local attractions and museums with a flash of your room key.
Halepuna is also home to two of our favourite dining venues. The Halekulani Bakery is a morning must stop. With cutting-edge European equipment and an international staff, the mouthwatering baked goods are some of the most original near and far. Most salient is the heavenly Everything Croissant. Think of an everything bagel, but on a square croissant with herb cream cheese in the centre. There are no words, just moans of rapture in every bite. In addition to sweets and an extensive coffee selection, there are savoury options perfect for a light lunch or a grab-and-go for your beach tote.
Honolulu’s latest and long-awaited fine-dining establishment, UMI by Vikram Garg, has opened to rave reviews. Helmed by global restaurateur and innovative star chef, Vikram Garg, the bold new concept, Ocean’s Harvest, is a decadent tribute to the nurturing, life-giving abundance of the sea. It features expansive dinner and breakfast menus with superior seasonal ingredients, refined traditions, progressive techniques, and vibrant cultural infusion with masterful execution. •
Jody Miller is a writer for Lucire and a co-founder of Lucire Rouge.
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From issue 38 of Lucire