Waikiki is no longer a paradise just for the upper-crust. More than 100 years have passed since Waikiki was the exclusive playground of Hawaiian royalty and their chosen friends. Now, cheap hotels and package tours allow just about anyone to visit. These days, however, the playground is of a different sort. From throbbing nightclubs to quiet parks, from long-boarders to the lions at the zoo, Waikiki has something for everyone. One can walk from one end of the island to the other in 20 minutes, but 20 days is not enough to experience all Waikiki has to offer.
It all begins at the yacht harbor where every boat imaginable, from sporty, racing numbers to salty-dog blue cruisers, lines the water. It is here where Hawaiian canoe clubs train and stately yachts strut their stuff. Next door, the Hilton Hawaiian Village stages hula shows to welcome the weekend and blasts fireworks visible from miles away. The beach is wide, the water is safe and any beach toy imaginable is available to rent.
However, not enough visitors find time to visit the other end of Waikiki, where 200 acres of parkland wrap around the base of Diamond Head Crater and there's always a quiet spot in the shade. This is where the locals come to jog in the park, swim at Sans Souci Beach or barbecue dinner with family and friends.
Where to Stay
Diamond Head Bed and Breakfast
This grand Hawaiian home is set on the flank of Diamond Head crater in a lush tropical garden -- a shady oasis from the bustle of Waikiki. Antiques fill the rooms, and original artwork hangs on every wall. A common area includes a large living room and a formal dining room, but the best place for reading and napping is Joanne's enormous lanai. One of the 2 guest rooms features an enormous koa wood bed and a private lanai that overlooks Diamond Head. The bathroom is huge and comes complete with an old-fashioned soaking tub. The other guest room has both a queen- and full-size bed as well as a lanai with a great view. Both rooms have televisions and small refrigerators, and one phone line is for guests. In the morning, there is an ample breakfast.
Best Luxurious Hotel
To enter the Halekulani from busy Lewers Street is to step into a sanctuary of elegance. Fountains and verdant greenery banish the urban clamor of Waikiki, and the series of courtyards and buildings recalls a rambling estate. The guest rooms are the hotel's best feature. The centerpiece of a majority of the rooms is a fabulous ocean view. Other amenities include a glass-walled shower and separate soaking tub, top-of-the-line bath products, comfy robes, cable television, wireless Internet and the daily newspaper. The hotel houses La Mer, one of Hawaii's finest oceanfront restaurants for elegant dining; Orchids, an oceanside dining room with a view; the House Without a Key, an informal spot that serves light meals and cocktails and provides live Hawaiian music in the evenings; and Lewers Lounge, the place for after-dinner drinks.
Best Family Hotel
Outrigger Waikiki Shore
The Waikiki Shore is the only condominium resort directly on the beach in Waikiki. All 32 apartment units have a kitchen or kitchenette, washer and dryer, cable TV, daily maid service and large lanais that face the sunset. Waikiki Shore is part of the Outrigger chain, and guests have full access to the pool and amenities at the neighboring Outrigger Reef Hotel. There are plenty of dining options in the hotel and many others just down the street. Adults will love Serenity Spa Hawaii, a full-service spa and salon, and the whole family will enjoy the Weekly Aloha Activities.
Best Budget Accommodation
Royal Grove Hotel
The value of this friendly little hotel in the heart of Waikiki cannot be beat. The Royal Grove offers air-conditioned rooms with kitchenettes and private lanais for the same price as Spartan lodgings in a boardinghouse. A tiny pool - ideal for a quick dip - is in the central courtyard, and sand and surf await just 200 yards away for surfers and beach bums alike. Dining options include a sushi bar, Me's BBQ, a Korean lunch joint and Ruffage Natural Foods, which sells health foods and tasty sandwiches, including mean tofu burgers. Get to know the other guests and the owners, the Fong Family, as they have been known to organize potluck meals complete with singalongs as Mr. Fong plays the ukulele.
Best Gay-Friendly Hotel
The Cabana at Waikiki
The Cabana at Waikiki is no blushing rose. A rainbow banner hangs outside advertising itself as "Waikiki's exclusively gay getaway." With only 15 suites, this gay-owned-and-operated hotel is a cozy escape from the hubbub of Waikiki. Pale bamboo furniture and white walls give the suites a fresh and airy feel. Each one sleeps up to 4 on a queen-size bed and a pullout sofa. A TV, VCR and CD player are in each room, and the kitchenette is stocked with the necessities. A complimentary breakfast is served every morning on the downstairs patio, and complimentary cocktail hours during the week feature different drinks. In the evenings, the patio's hot tub is a big hit. The best thing about the Cabana, however, is its location - just a block and a half from Hula's, Honolulu's favorite gay bar, and only a short walk from Queen's Beach, where gay beachgoers swim and tan in a low-key, tolerant atmosphere.
Best Youth Hostel
Polynesian Hostel Beachclub
The location of the Polynesian Hostel Beachclub is the envy of finer hotels in Waikiki -- the Beachclub is just half a block from Kapiolani Park and the Honolulu Zoo and one street from Kuhio Beach. Fanciful murals brighten up the stairwells, and a patio downstairs has hammocks for napping, a pay phone, coin-operated laundry, Internet access and stacks of free beach toys. The common room has cable TV. The friendly staff works hard to match you with roommates you'll like and activities you'll enjoy. Bigger hostels might offer more to do, but for a quiet bed between stints at the beach, it's hard to find a better place than the Polynesian Hostel Beachclub.
Food and Drink
Where to Eat
Duke's Canoe Club
Duke's is the place to hang out in Waikiki. Named after surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, this indoor/outdoor bar and restaurant is crammed with Waikiki memorabilia, such as koa wood surfboards and sepia photographs of fabled long boarders. Tiki torches and palm-frond matting add Hawaiian charm. Duke's starts serving breakfast at 7 am and keeps going through the night. The lunch buffet is an excellent deal and features grilled mahi-mahi, teriyaki chicken, kalua pork and cabbage, and the salad bar. For dinner, there is a nice pupu menu of appetizers, and fresh local fish platters. The bar menu features local cocktails and choices for more casual dining. The 11-and-under set have a separate menu with deals such as a cheeseburger, fries and visit to the salad bar.
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
The Hau Tree Lanai
Robert Louis Stevenson commended the "lovely scenery, pure air, clear sea water, good food and heavenly sunsets" of Sans Souci, the site of today's Hau Tree Lanai. This open-air restaurant at the base of Diamond Head remains Waikiki's best location for beachfront dining. The best time to dine is just before sunset when waiters light tiki torches and stand back in respectful silence as the sun sinks below the horizon. The catch of the day (market price) is served fresh and simple, the lamb chops are just right and the tabouleh and eggplant dish is a delicious vegetarian alternative. The ambiance in this quiet corner of Waikiki is refreshingly serene.
Best Local Seafood
Padovani's Bistro and Wine Bar
Philippe Padovani's Waikiki restaurant serves local seafood at its finest. One seafood specialty is Moi, a fish once reserved for Hawaiian royalty. At Padovani's it is pan-fried and served with tomato confit. But owner/chef Padovani offers diners far more than just seafood. His roast Muscovy duck is just one of his astonishing successes from the land. Brother Pierre creates desserts that range from flawless pastries to fresh fruit sorbets and chocolates handcrafted from Hawaiian cocoa beans. The wine list is impressive, with an emphasis on finer American, French and Australian wines.
Best Family Restaurant
Kids and ichthyologists will love Oceanarium, the restaurant at the base of a 3-story, 280,000-gallon fish tank. Waiters take your order while colorful reef fish dart in and out of rocky shelters next to you and giant rays soar overhead. Dinner is standard steak-and-seafood fare, while lunch offers a variety of sandwiches and salads. Kids get their own keiki menu with perennial favorites such as hot dogs and burgers. The themed buffets are a big hit, too. The best thing about Oceanarium, however, is the fish tank that surrounds diners. At various times, scuba divers feed the fish. As an added plus, you can arrange for a diver to swim a Plexiglas sign with a personalized message to the wall of the tank next to your table.
Best Umbrella Drinks
The Mai Tai Bar
The flamingo-colored Royal Hawaiian Hotel is the best place to sip umbrella drinks. The Mai Tai Bar is right on Waikiki Beach, providing excellent people-watching opportunities, and the views of Diamond Head and the sunset are hard to beat. The signature Mai Tai sports an orchid, a cherry and a slice of pineapple, along with the requisite umbrella. If the price seems too high to pay for a mixture of curaçao and rum, don't worry. As a regular puts it: "Count it as at least 2 drinks. Possibly 3." Beer and wine are also available, and you can soak up the drinks with a bar snack.
Eggs 'n Things
Whether you need to start a new day or recover from the old one, cheerful waitresses in flamboyant aloha-wear keep that coffee flowing. The omelettes are huge and come with potato, rice or buttermilk pancakes. The tofu omelette comes with green or white onions, while heartier eaters can opt for corned beef hash. Stuffed with fresh fruit, the crepes suzette taste wonderful with the restaurant's not-too-sweet coconut syrup or homemade orange marmalade sauce. Daily specials keep the regulars happy.
Where to Go
Best Kid Stuff
Founded in 1904, this small aquarium is on the quiet end of Waikiki and provides excellent educational exhibits. Sharks surround you as they swim restlessly in their circular tank. The chambered nautilus should not be missed - this aquarium is famous for being the first in the world to capture and breed this strange creature. The clowning monk seals are always a hit, and a touch tank lets kids get close to starfish. If that's not enough, the aquarium is right next to Waikiki's best snorkeling spot.
Best Day Trip
Oahu's Rural North Shore
The North Shore is only an hour drive from Waikiki but seems a world away. The shortest route crosses Oahu's fertile central plain. Detour east to Mokuleia if gliding strikes your fancy, or head straight into historic Haleiwa, the world capital of surf. Art galleries rival surf shops along the main drag of this time-warped town. Surf breaks are to the east - Waimea Bay, Pupukea Beach Park ("Shark's Cove") and Ehukai Beach Park ("Banzai Pipeline") are all great places to watch monster waves in the winter months. Shark's Cove is great for snorkeling in the summer. Drive east along Oahu's windward coast to pass roadside fruit stands, sleepy towns, Kaneohe Bay, rural Waimanalo, Makapuu (great for whale watching in the winter) and Sandy's Beach before getting back to Waikiki.
Diamond Head Crater
Diamond Head Crater is Hawaii's most famous landmark and the view from the top is magnificent. The trailhead is a short bus or taxi ride from Waikiki. The United States Army built a trail up the crater in 1908 and added bunkers during World War II. The hike to the summit takes about 30 minutes and twists along a trail, up some steps, through a very dark tunnel and then straight up 99 steps and a spiral staircase. The trail passes through an old gun emplacement before giving way to the 761-foot summit and 360-degree vista of the island of Oahu and the blue Pacific.
From a Boat
The best view of Waikiki is from the ocean. Bound by Diamond Head at one end and the Ala Wai yacht harbor at the other, Waikiki is a dazzling palm-fringed beach backed by skyscrapers and the unmistakable pink domes of the Royal Hawaiian, all cupped by the green ridges of the Koolau Mountains. There is no better place to watch the sunset than from the sea. The easiest way to get out on the water is to find a catamaran on the beach.
Best Surfing For Beginners
Canoes, offshore from the statue of Duke Kahanamoku
The waves at Canoes always break clean and seem to roll on forever. Most people surfing Canoes are novices, so few will notice if you miss some of the finer points of wave-sharing etiquette. Rent boards on the beach in front of the Duke Kahanomoku statue, where Uluniu Avenue meets Kalakaua. Rental booths also offer inexpensive surfing lessons that include rentals. Some will even refund your money if you don't catch a wave. For the true Waikiki experience, however, find one of the aging beach boys for whom surfing is a way of life and ask for guidance. They will fill you with stories and teach you how to surf with aloha spirit.