Hawaii’s largest city is the only place in the state that could be called urban. That’s a boon for visitors who want the tranquillity of an island escape without sacrificing the pleasures of civilization. Located on Oahu’s South Shore, the long-standing crossroads between East and West is full of contradictions: Corner groceries that sell homemade Spam musubi bump up against Louis Vuitton boutiques. And you can gaze at skyscrapers while dipping your toes in the Pacific. Even at its most bustling, Honolulu serves up the good life with laid-back flair.
The town is full of early risers sneaking in a few predawn sets. It’s easy to join them if you stay at the grand colonial-style Moana Surfrider ($340-$6,000). Known for its towering banyan tree, the 113-year-old resort, which recently revamped its guest rooms, is well positioned in the middle of Waikiki Beach. The two-and-a-half-mile stretch of glittering white sand and high-rise hotels, dominated at the east end by the 760-foot-tall Diamond Head volcanic crater, was once the playground of Hawaiian royals. Like them, you can ride the waves, but you might consider a lesson at Star Beachboys, a shack that rents surfboards and stand-up paddleboards. It’s near the statue of surfing icon Duke Kahanamoku, who watches over Kuhio Beach Park as it fills with sunbathers. Before you stake out your spot, grab breakfast a block south at Eggs ’n Things, where the Fukunaga family has been dishing out ahi steak and pineapple pancakes since 1974. It’s a 20-minute walk to Ala Moana Center, a vast open-air mall with chic shops and homegrown retailers like Auana Quilts, which specializes in handmade blankets and textiles. You can soothe sore surfing muscles by booking a lomilomi massage at Ho’ala Salon and Spa. If you hear a ukulele, that’s because Centerstage, the amphitheater in the main courtyard, hosts musicians and dancers on weekends.
Don’t leave Ala Moana without perusing Shirokiya, the last outpost of a Japanese department storechain dating to 1662. The Yataimura Quality Food Court there is reason enough for a visit: miso pork ramen, Okinawan sweet potato, udon, bento boxes, and freshly fried octopus balls. (Stick around until 5:30 p.m. for$1 pints in the beer garden.)You’re barely a mile from the Honolulu Museum of Art. Famed for its elegant courtyards and use of natural light, the institution houses more than 50,000 works, including paintings by Van Gogh and calligraphy scrolls from the Ming Dynasty.The Art Deco Hawai’i exhibition, which closes in January 2015, showcases six rarely seen murals that depict island life. You can get a sense of the region’s volcanic history by driving to Punchbowl Crater, an extinct tuff cone that encircles the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. It’s a breezy stroll from the Visitors Center to the top—and a majestic view of the city. Back at sea level, a ten-minute drive leads you to Foster Botanical Garden, a 14-acre oasis amid strip malls and traffic. The spread is the state’s oldest such preserve and teems with prehistoric plants and otherworldly blooms.
Three miles from Waikiki Beach is Chinatown, Honolulu’s coolest neighborhood. Saturated with food stalls and lei vendors by day, the compact 16- square-block area buzzes with bars and restaurants at night.One of the best is chefAndrew Le’s The Pig and the Lady, where signature dishes like coffee-can bread with chicken liver mousse, candied almonds, and chrysanthemum or hand-cut pho noodles topped with bacon and brisket reflect his Vietnamese roots. Around the corner Lucky Belly makes superb ramen, but you’ll have to wait; the tiny spot accommodates only walk-ins after 6:30. Instead you might order a “Beast Bowl,” oxtail dumplings, and a jasmine-lime soda at the take-out window.Afterward pick from among the nearby nightlife options. Manifest is a calm café that revs up with DJs and dance parties as bartenders pour quirky whiskey-based drinks.Hopheads favor Bar 35, awatering hole that stocks more than 150 beers, among them Kona Brewing Company’s passion fruit-tinged Wailua Wheat. If your idea of fun skews romantic, return to Waikiki Beach and drop in at House Without a Key at the luxurious Halekulani hotel ($520-$7,000). Serenaded by Hawaiian music, you can sit under the hundred-year-old kiawe tree and sip a mai tai for a classic nightcap.
Getting There: More than half a dozen carriers—American, Alaska, and Hawaiian among them—make the five-and-a-half-hour flight from LAX to Honolulu, with United Airlines offering the most departures. Peak Time: Winter is Hawaii’s busiest season as snowbound folks seek the sunshine. The crowds max out during December and again around Valentine’s Day, although the summer months also attract plenty of visitors. Discounts on flights and hotels are often available during the spring. Weather Report: Temperatures hover in the 80s most of the year, with the humidity hitting its high point during the summer. The rainy season lasts from October through
Where Waikiki is almost always crowded, Waimanalo Beach is one of Oahu’s quietest, loveliest stretches. Head east out of town and stop at Shangri La, Doris Duke’s museum of Islamic art. Then hop on Highway 1; 16 miles later you’ll reach Sweet Home Waimanalo, where locals choose the Kahlúa pork sandwiches and bok choy slaw. Enjoy postcard-perfect views looking southeast to Rabbit Island and Makapu’u Point. Though the tides can be rough, the cerulean water is gorgeous.