If you’ve got a day or two on Oahu, Bethany Jean Clement has some eating, drinking and a little (very light) exercise for you to do.
HONOLULU — This city isn’t most travelers’ postcard vision of Hawaiian paradise, with waves lapping at a tranquil beach and a bungalow surrounded by lush foliage in the background. The city looks startling flying in, a slew of tall buildings crowding around the harbor’s azure waters. The tourism of Waikiki, Honolulu’s famous beach district, centers on bland, high-rise resorts and the chain boutiques along Kalakaua Avenue.
If that’s not your bag, there’s still plenty of non-cookie-cutter fun around. Here are nine ways to help make a weekend or so here great — centering on eating and drinking that’s not the Cheesecake Factory.
1. Get wrecked at La Mariana Sailing Club: If you value old-school awesomeness over pro-forma fanciness, come here straight from the airport (conveniently, it’s on the way to Waikiki). Founded in 1957, La Mariana is a well-loved, real-deal classic of a tiki bar: carved-wood pillars, rattan-lined walls, lights made out of scallop shells and glass fishing floats. The tropical drinks are strong, thankfully un-updated, juicy but not oversweet. If you’re seated closest to the rows of bobbing sailboats, try balancing a maraschino cherry with a paper umbrella stuck in it on the wooden railing — a tiny lime-green gecko will probably visit to lick it. The sashimi and poke assortment here is perfectly fine, but according to the locals at the next table, go with the kalua pork nachos (and eating nachos with chopsticks allows easy assembly of perfect bites — genius!). A mai tai in hand, La Mariana is a dream of a place. This is how all vacations should start. (La Mariana Sailing Club, 50 Sand Island Access Road, Honolulu; 808-848-2800; lamarianasailingclub.com)
2. Chow down at Marukame Udon: Though it’s been in Waikiki for six years, the line for this Japanese chain stretched the length of the place, with people still stopping to take selfies with the sign. Anxiety about getting a seat proved pointless — the pacing of the cafeteria-style service miraculously matched the flow in the tidy dining room. But be ready with your broth/size choice; while they’re not going to Soup Nazi you, there is pressure. The curry version was rich, thick, and beefy, while the clear dashi of the kake udon possessed an ideal level of oceanic taste. If the noodles could’ve been slightly springier, no one else seemed to mind. Watch the trays of tempura — shrimp, pumpkin slices, whole soft-boiled eggs, lots more — for what’s freshest as you approach. And the Spam musubi here will make you understand the appeal. Warning: Marukame Udon is extremely filling — hopefully you’re bound for a beach chair or bed. (2310 Kuhio Ave., Ste. 124, and also at Fort Street Mall, Honolulu; 808-931-6000; toridollusa.com)
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3. Take a bike ride around Diamond Head: Known to Hawaiians as Le`ahi, Diamond Head is the unreal-looking dormant volcano towering at the end of Waikiki in every photo you’ve ever seen of the place. The bike ride to and around it from friendly Hawaiian Style Rentals on Lemon Road is easy enough for even the laziest rider (and I would know). Along the way, there’s pretty Queen Kapi`olani Regional Park (watch for prehistoric-looking banyan trees), the stately seaside War Memorial, stoic Diamond Head Lighthouse, vastly blue ocean views, hilariously solemn groups on Segway tours, surfers and more. For the (slightly) ambitious, there’s an extra leg out to Kahala and/or the 170-step stairs to the crater’s top partway around. (Hawaiian Style Rentals & Sales, 2556 Lemon Road, Honolulu; 866-916-6733; hawaiibikes.com; bike rentals, $15 for four hours)
4. Try the best version of a doughnut ever: After (or before!) touring around Diamond Head (see No. 3), it’s a quick jaunt to beautifully old-school Leonard’s Bakery for its famous malasadas: warm, cushy, burnished-brown Portuguese-style doughnuts, with an almost custardy-soft center of more dough instead of a dumb hole. Hearing discussion of Leonard’s, the woman renting out bikes just smiled and said, “We like original” — dusted with sugar, completely great. The ones filled with haupia, like liquid coconut pudding, must also be tried. Any bags of leftovers may be looped on your handlebars for snacking convenience. (933 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808-737-5591; leonardshawaii.com)
5. Go swimming right in the middle of it all in Waikiki Bay: Kuhio Beach faces several palm-tree-lined lanes of passing traffic, with myriad high-rises towering above. People sit on benches just beyond an abbreviated stretch of sand, pigeons walking around them (Hawaii’s pigeons are better-looking than ours), while you bob in the buoyantly salty water. You can take a surfing lesson right there, or take a cue from two glamorous women who were luxuriously floating on cheap air mattresses available at Honolulu’s ubiquitous ABC convenience/souvenir stores, listening to music on their waterproof-cased iPhones, impassive behind big sunglasses. When you’re done, rinse off under the open-air shower, pull on a pair of shorts, and walk down the sidewalk past the well-tanned homeless people. Your hotel’s pool is never going to be this surreal.
6. Get real-deal poke plus more Hawaiian treats at Ono Seafood: It seemed like poke was having a Seattle-area moment last summer when three new places serving it debuted — since then, at least a dozen more spots specializing in the Hawaiian raw-fish salad have opened. Honolulu’s hole-in-the-wall Ono Seafood has been making it since 1995, and it shows: The poke there blows all the Seattle versions I’ve tried out of the proverbial water. The Haw’n Style ahi, made with ultra-fresh, jewel-like cubes of tuna, tasted bright, rich and lightly spicy, showing the surety with flavors that comes with time. Tako poke with miso tended gingery, the octopus snappy without chewiness. Squeeze in at one of the shaded picnic tables out front, ignore the guy on his phone (“Yeah, I’m only at the best poke place in Honolulu”), and quietly freak out. Also: Don’t miss the fridge full of more local treats such as lomi salmon (salty bits of fish complemented by sweet-tasting tomato and sharp onion) and pickled green mango (crunchy, salty, and sweet all at once, with the salted, dried plums li hing mui also bathing in the brine). (Ono Seafood, 747 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808-732-4806)
7. Wander the streets: Venture just a bit beyond the main drag and Honolulu starts to reveal its contradictions: the low-slung, tidy, but rundown apartment buildings interspersed among towering buildings; the trees dropping fragrant plumeria blossoms on the sidewalk at your feet. For a more formal walking tour, aloha-hawaii.com’s “7 Must-See Landmarks” is a basic, 2.3-mile self-guided route. It includes Chinatown, full of lovely old architecture and fun to wander around — and home to hot restaurants such as locavore-oriented Senia and, for “cooking with Vietnamese sensibilities,” The Pig and the Lady. (If your feet get tired midday, both serve lunch.) For more insider insight, make a reservation for a Saturday-morning AIA Architectural Walking Tour (aiahonolulu.org/?WalkingTours, $15, or $10 for a self-guide booklet)
8. Drink a bunch of mai tais: Do not let the free mai tai served on Alaska Airlines color your view of the tiki standby, for it is the nadir of the form, made from a cheap mix and possibly even cheaper rum. The mai tai at La Mariana Sailing Club (see No. 1), while a straight-ahead take on the rum, Curaçao, orgeat syrup and/or lime-juice recipe, is such an improvement, it’s not even the same drink. Even better: the mai tai at beachside House Without a Key, at the Halekulani Hotel, leaning more to the limey side (and, at 5:30 p.m. daily for a $5 surcharge, accompanied by sonorous live local music and dancing by former Miss Hawaii winners). The mai tai at Bar Leather Apron wins most theatrical: Made (by, yes, a bartender in a leather apron) with raisin-infused five-year and 12-year rum, coconut-water syrup, spiced orgeat, ohia-blossom honey, lime and absinthe, it’s infused with native kiawe-wood smoke inside a tiki-style wooden box carved with a face, with the smoke pouring out of the nostrils. It costs $18. You already know whether you’d find this intriguing or irritating: Heed your instinct.
9. Stay in a hotel with some character: Waikiki’s rife with anonymous-feeling chain hotels. A pie-shaped room at the little 1962-vintage Aston Waikiki Circle Hotel looks like a lot more fun (and less expensive), with retro appeal and balconies directly overlooking the beach. The Park Shore Waikiki is also more modest than, say, the Trump International Waikiki, but offers an up-close, unobstructed Diamond Head view, plus, potentially, the soundtrack of the nearby Honolulu Zoo. For lots more money, try the 1927 Spanish/Moorish-style Royal Hawaiian (aka “The Pink Palace of the Pacific”) or the 1901 colonial-style cake of a hotel that started tourism here, the Moana Surfrider.