Four million travelers visit Honolulu every year, and most never see the real city.
Yes, Waikiki's fabled beach will give them what they're looking for: surf, sun, sand. But elsewhere, in tropical gardens, in Chinatown market stalls, you can encounter the metropolis that too many tourists miss: a Pacific crossroads with a flavor (and flavors) you won't experience in any other American city.
Honolulu has also been reborn with fresh and exciting art and dining scenes. Even Waikiki has changed, and for the better, thanks to a decade's worth of redevelopment.
To show you the best of this new Honolulu, we've turned to three of the city's best-connected locals: a top chef, a noted Native Hawaiian artist and activist, and a surfer-author-environmentalist. They'll share their favorite things in their favorite city ― a modern metropolis still in touch with its Hawaiian soul.
THE CHEF: FRESH PLACES
Restaurant owner and chef Glenn Chu leads a tour of the five senses
"The first thing I do when I arrive in a city is go to its markets."
That's the travel philosophy of Glenn Chu, owner and chef at Indigo, one of Honolulu's best-regarded restaurants. And it's certainly a good way to discover a Honolulu beyond Waikiki. Past Chinatown's lei shops and herbalists and not far from Chu's restaurant await packed markets like no others in the country.
The ocean scents of fresh seafood mingle with the sweetness of ripe produce as a cacophony of voices echoes through a cavernous building. With dragon fruit, rambutan, and other tropical fruits, the markets are a vegetarian's dream. With fish flipping their last in plastic bins and a pig's head displayed on a counter, they can be a vegan's nightmare too.
Chu loves it all: "The best way to shop is with all your senses."
His appreciation for food was honed at an early age on Oahu, he says, with a grandmother who would bake special rice cookies for her mah-jongg parties. At Indigo, Chu makes full use of his familial knowledge of Chinese cuisine. But he adds some defiantly modern twists ― like Mongolian lamb chops with minted tangerine sauce, and the array of cocktails that lures 30-somethings to his tropical courtyard bar.
The scene is especially lively during the First Friday Gallery Walk ― Honolulu's hottest happening, a monthly gallery open house and celebration of Chinatown's emergence as the city's most vibrant arts district.
Watching Chinatown's revival and Indigo's evolution into a Honolulu institution is especially satisfying for Chu when he ponders another bit of family history.
"My great-grandfather came to Honolulu from the Canton region of China in 1864," he says. "I imagine him getting off the boat at the harbor, then coming straight up Nu'uanu. These are my roots. And the connection to your past helps tell you who you are."
Live like a local
Markets At the Oahu Market (145 N. King St.; 808/841-6924), you'll find great fish, including several grades of ahi. For produce: Ace Market (145 N. King St.; 808/538-6138).
Lin's Lei Shop Chu marvels at the artistry that goes into creating leis, and this is one of his favorites among Chinatown's shops. INFO: 1017-A Maunakea St.; 808/537-4112.
Indigo Among our favorites at Chu's restaurant: goat-cheese won tons with four-fruit sauce. INFO: $$$; closed Sun-Mon; 1121 Nu'uanu Ave.; 808/521-2900.
Nam Fong Chu recommends roast pork and duck. "You can tell it's the best place. There's always a line out front." INFO: $; 1029 Mauna-kea St.; 808/599-5244.
Sandy Beach Park Chu enjoys this world-class surfing and bodysurfing beach. It's absolutely not for novices, but the experts put on quite a show. INFO: 8801 Kalanianaole Hwy., about 14 miles east of Waikiki; oceansafety.soest.hawaii.edu for beach-safety conditions.