Honolulu has always been decried as “L.A. on the beach.” Sure, it’s a big city, however Oahu is also an island loaded with many cool things to do which vacillate between the obvious, and the lesser known. Of course there is Pearl Harbor, which includes the Arizona Memorial, as well as the battleship Missouri, which is fascinating because this was where the U.S. and the Japanese signed the treaty to end WWII. Located on the port side of the ship is a plaque commemorating this historic events, as well as additional historical info. But there is much more to consider on Oahu.
The Iolani Palace, downtown Honolulu, was built in 1882 and brags that it’s the only royal residence in the United States. That’s because back in the day Hawaii was ruled by a king. The Hawaiian Kingdoms’ last two ruling monarchs both lived here. The tour is limited; just parts of the two-story interior, but there is a comprehensive museum in the basement.
Though the palace is architecturally beautiful from the inside and outside, it’s the museum that really sells this visit. Old photos, state jewels (the Royal Order of Kamehameha Knights Grand Cross and Collar is pictured here), dinnerware, military and ceremonial swords and a history of the odd relationship the Hawaiian Islands have had with everyone.
From a royal palace to a Buddhist temple, Byodo-In Temple near Kanohe is called the “best kept secret” but once you arrive and see the tourists , well it’s not all that secret. Patterned after an ancient temple in Japan, this baby was built without the use of nails. Start by ringing the 3-ton brass prayer bell. From there the temple can be entered, but it’s meant for quiet reflection, not noisy conversation so turn off your cell phones. There is a small gift shop, koi pond, and beautiful visuals. Is it worth the drive up to the leeward side of the island? I’d say yes if you have something else planned in the vicinity.
The –obviously - great thing about Honolulu is the water – specifically being underwater. I don’t surf, but I do scuba and a wreck dive 120 feet down, just a few miles off the coast of Honolulu with Rainbow Scuba was a fantastic experience. They do everything for you, and guide you down, through, and around the wreck site, in our case a boat from the 1950s. This was my first wreck dive and frankly a whole lotta fun. Plus this water is way warmer than my home in Santa Barbara.
At North Shore Shark Adventures in Haleiwa you can get in a protected cage and hang out with sharks – and you don’t need any special gear. The boat takes you 3 miles out and they will get 6 of you in a (very safe) cage with snorkel equipment, which means you’re barely under the surface, but are close to these fascinating and beautiful animals. Sadly, people demonize sharks, and should you chose to be willfully ignorant, you’ll never understand these creatures (nor anything else in life for that matter). There were four sharks during our 15-minute drop down under the warm Pacific. The sharks won’t hurt you and hanging out with sharks in their home is unbelievably awesome. They do not add chum to the water to attract the sharks, they naturally move to the boat when they hear the hum of the engines.
As a restaurant reviewer I’m always looking for authentic food native to where I am. Two picks worth mentioning: Helena's Hawaiian is located in a crappy strip mall and is a small space which has seen better days but the food is terrific and cheap. Butterfish and pork wrapped in poi leaves then steamed gives this an earthy subtle tobacco note. The pork is smoky wonderfully moist and very flavorful. The Pipikaula short ribs are meaty, fatty and rich. You won't find many tourists here and that’s exactly the point, this is excellent traditional Hawaiian food.
As a stark contrast to that, Sushi Sasabune has some of the most incredible sushi I’ve had buy you pay dearly for it. The best option is to go with their 13-course dinner. Yes, 13 courses, but you can stop whenever you like. This is not an order off-the-menu thing (though you can do that) they will bring you what they want and even tell you the preferred way to eat it. Some folks don’t like being told how to eat their food, but when you’re in the hands of a sushi master, don’t argue. We went back the next night too.
The Mai Tai is the quintessential drink on the islands: maligned, mocked and most are sticky sweet, weirdly viscous and plied with so many fruit and flowers it looks like a parade. After seeking out every iteration across Honolulu, I had that eureka moment. Located inside the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, the 1944 Mai Tai made at Tiki’s Grill & Bar uses Cruzan Estate Light Rum, Myers Dark Rum, Orange Curaçao, Orgeat Syrup and fresh lime juice, then topped with Passion Fruit Foam (made with Licor43 - a Spanish liqueur made of fruit juices and vanilla) passion fruit puree, pasteurized egg whites, and the juice of a lemon. This is killer. You get the mellow rum, a hit of tangy citrus from the juices and the delicate addition of passion fruit seals the deal, adding a flavor dimension, making this mai tai immensely drinkable.
Distilled in downtown Honolulu, made from local island sugar cane, and then filtered through lava rocks, Hawaiian Vodka has a creamy viscosity, a unique sweetness backed by a rich maple, almost rum-like note with a minimal burn and small wisps of mint. The lava, actually a large cube of crushed lava rock, and the copper pot still work their magic to create a very fine and unique version of how cool vodka can be. Currently it’s only available on the islands but will hopefully make its way to the mainland. Distiller Dave Flintstone is having a tough time keeping up with demand. Pick up a bottle locally or ask for it at a bar.
To make your time easier on Oahu consider the Go Oahu card, a valuable asset to get discounts to many traditional activities and sights on Oahu (Iolani Palace, Pearl Harbor and museums) as well as things you may not have thought of. Using it wisely you’ll save yourself some cash.
For hikes around Honolulu check out my other post On Oahu: HIKING HONOLULU
And Watch my “2 Minute Travel” video I shot On Oahu: ON OAHU VIDEO
|The Battleship Missouri at Pearl Harbor|