The traffic on H-1, a Hawaiian interstate on Oahu (that connects with no other state), is still horrendous.
The volcano on the Big Island is still the source of vog, which — when the winds are right — makes it up to Maui and even Waikiki.
Otherwise things were pretty much as wonderful as usual during my recent trip to Hawaii. Along with a puka shell necklace for my daughter and a trio of Dole pineapples, I brought back a few notes and pieces of news to pass along.
Aoki’s may close for good: Foodie pilgrims head to Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore for shave ice at Matsumoto General Store. The concoction of shavings from a block of ice molded into a ball and smothered in sweet, colorful fruit-flavored syrups often causes lines out the door at Matsumoto’s. A few doors up is Aoki’s, the longtime Avis (“We’re No. 2, but we try harder”) of shave ice. Aoki’s has its own legion of fans, and it’s the recipient of people who don’t want to wait out the line at Matsumoto’s. That line is going to get longer — Aoki’s is closing at the end of May, hopefully just temporarily. The shop lost its lease in the fall on its longtime plantation-era building. The owners have plans for a new building. Aoki’s has been saying since September that it “hopes” to move across the street to another building. But so far, nothing is firm. If you are in Haleiwa this month, get it while it’s cold.
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Andaz opening: The new Andaz hotel, a Hyatt brand, is taking reservations for dates after Sept. 15. It’s a major overhaul for the 15-acre Wailea, Maui, beachfront property formerly occupied by a not-so-gracefully aging Renaissance hotel. Andaz is shooting for the luxury crowd, with room rates starting just above $500 and an oceanfront going for $650. That’s not out of line with nearby luxury hotels like the Four Seasons Maui, Grand Wailea (now affiliated with Hilton) and Fairmont Kea Lani. Whether the unfamiliar Andaz brand can pull customers away from those established hotels will be key. The schematic drawings and slick video of the 297-room hotel look great. But my drive past the property in April showed you’ll have to use your imagination for the time being — right now it looks like one big construction site. With the exception of the recently opened Courtyard by Marriott at the Kahului airport, it’s the first major hotel development in Maui since the recession hit six years ago.
Hotel heats up Kilauea: After more than three years, the dormant national park lodge on the Big Island has come back to life. Rustic, spartan cabins near Volcano House opened last fall with rates starting at $55 per night. The main lodge is in the midst of a “soft opening” while renovations are being completed. Rooms start at $170 a night. The official opening is June 1, after which rates on the deluxe crater-view rooms will jump to $350 per night. Volcano House will never be mistaken for the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite or El Tovar at Grand Canyon, but it’s a major improvement over the tired old inn that closed in 2010. The lodge is managed by Aqua Hotels, which operates several properties around the state.
Hotel prices on the rise: Hawaii tourism is on the rebound. Visits last year were up 5 percent and spending was up 7 percent compared with the year before. The long recession led to a virtual standstill of hotel construction and renovation in the islands. Many signs point to the recession being over in terms of tourism. One of my least favorite: The seasonally adjusted average hotel room rate has stayed above $200 per night for more than a year. There are still deals to be found in Waikiki a few blocks off the beach and at condo resorts on all the islands. But the lack of new rooms, along with a tightening of B&B rules that forced many smaller operators to close, has squeezed rates higher. My advice: Book earlier and plan on shortening your trip by a day or two to compensate for the rise.
Hawaii gets expensive for Japanese: Visitors from the U.S. West Coast are the core of Hawaii’s tourism industry, but a second major source of income is Japan. Those tourists tend to stay longer and spend more money than Americans. Japanese tourism was expected to rise this year as the world economy improved. But the new government’s program to drive down the value of the yen to spur exports has ravaged Japanese spending power in the islands. In July 2012, the dollar was worth 79 yen. Today it is around 98 yen, essentially a 20 percent loss in value in nine months. Some economic forecasters peg the yen at 110 to the dollar by next year.
China fills the gap? China is the “new Japan” in the Hawaii tourism playbook. Though the yuan has also fallen against the dollar, going from 8 to 6 since last summer, less restrictive policies on traveling overseas and a spike in growth of the Chinese middle class have led to a travel boom. Chinese travelers logged just 10 million foreign trips in 2000, much of them to destinations in Asia. Last year, the number was 83 million. That’s tops in the world (Germany is No. 2, the U.S. is No. 3). The number of Chinese-language shopping tours and Mandarin-language advertisements in Hawaii show an aggressive move to capture a big part of that demand. Hawaiian Airlines just announced it will begin flying nonstop to Beijing.