Words by David McGonigal
When passenger aircraft lacked the range to fly the Pacific non-stop, Australians were very familiar with Hawaii, if only for a stopover in Honolulu. But then LA, San Francisco, even Vancouver became a single hop away and Hawaii was overlooked. Now Hawaii is back in vogue and the stream of Australian visitors is growing rapidly. And what a different destination Hawaii is today.
No longer is Waikiki a slightly shabby place to buy tacky T-shirts and postcards in the dingy stalls within the International marketplace before a predictable lunch in a fast-food chain. Now, stylish shops abut five-star hotels and there’s a thriving local food scene combining the best of Polynesian, Asian and European cooking to great effect. While the International Marketplace still features the 160- year-old Banyan tree, it’s now home to Hawaii’s first Saks Fifth Avenue and there’s not a hula girl snow dome to be seen.
The tropical beauty of Hawaii is as remarkable as it has ever been. Even flying in you have soul-filling vistas of turquoise sea touching coral reefs, then sand before forest clad volcanic peaks come into view. Diamond Head, the ridge rising to the 232m cone at the end of Waikiki Beach, is instantly recognisable. Indeed, it looms in the distance as you wander the streets of Waikiki.
Some planning has to go into the daily schedule when staying at Waikiki. If you are staying in the iconic beachside Moana Surfrider hotel you can always begin the day with yoga on the beach before a poolside breakfast. Then, is it going to be a swim off the beach or an excursion to snorkel at nearby Haunama Bay? The truly enthused may wish to climb Diamond Head.
Alternatively, there are the shops of Kalakaua Avenue where you can find everything from high fashion to various flavours of macadamia nuts. It’s just a $US2 bus ride to Ala Moana Shopping Center, which seems to grow every year. Here you’ll find shopping from Apple, Balenciaga and Crocs to Victoria’s Secret and Zara.
Lunch in the heat of the day is likely to be light. Poke (pronounced ‘Poke-eh’) is the local raw fish salad; with the most popular variations being tuna or octopus. Many locals recommend the quite basic Alicia’s Market between Honolulu and Waikiki for some of the best of this local favourite.
Towards the end of the day you’ll probably be resting up in a beachside bar with a Mai Tai (there’s no drinking on Waikiki Beach itself), watching the sun do its daily pyrotechnics. When it comes to dinner you’re spoiled for choice. There’s everything from Nobu Waikiki to a variety of steakhouses. Visit one of Chef Chai’s two restaurants; the one in Waikiki or his original at 1009 Kapiolani Blvd Honolulu. Chef Chai who is originally from Bangkok is now executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines and his melding of the best of various international cuisines is a sign of how far food in Hawaii has come.
Depending on your enthusiasm, it takes a few days to see and do everything in and around Waikiki and Honolulu. Pearl Harbour and the USS Arizona and Battleship Missouri memorials are popular highlights.
All the other islands are only a short flight away. Kauai is the northernmost and a helicopter flight reveals the lush vegetation that won its fame as the set for ‘Jurassic Park’. The population of Molokai is almost half native Hawaiian, so it’s an island that remains close to its Polynesian roots. Lanai is a real laidback getaway; on the entire island there isn’t a single set of traffic lights.
Maui is the second largest island and the one with the best beaches and great whale watching during the winter season. Finally, there’s the Big Island: Hawaii itself. Not only is this the place where Captain Cook was killed but the Mauna Kea volcano rises to 4205 metres above sea level. There’s occasionally snow on the summit - even here in the tropics.
With the growing sophistication of Hawaii combined with its natural attractions it’s easy to see why Australians are rediscovering Oahu and beyond. The greeting here is as warm as anywhere else in the Pacific.