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.
THE ACTIVIST: REAL HAWAII
Filmmaker Meleanna Aluli Meyer journeys into the heart of her homeland
"It's a shy city in many ways and not showy," says Meleanna Aluli Meyer of her Honolulu. "There's a deep, enduring quiet and an understated quality that makes it a place for anyone who has the curiosity to dig a little, ask a lot of questions, and be open to the answers. Coming here, you're not at a destination but at the start of a journey."
For anyone caught up in the crowded commercialism of Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue, Meyer's characterization of Honolulu may come as a surprise. But Meyer ― artist, documentary filmmaker, activist, and educator ― believes Honolulu has retained its Hawaiian essence. She speaks of an ethos that's palpable because the culture is still very much alive. Of late afternoon rains that conjure fleeting rainbows against the green hills beyond the city's high-rises. Of poetic street names and a bouquet of the tropics.
"Every time I get off a plane and smell that fragrance, I know that I'm home," she says.
A native Hawaiian, Meyer comes from ancestors dedicated to Hawaiian causes. While most people know Honolulu as Hawaii's state capital, they may not be aware that it was once the seat of an independent Hawaiian nation.
The 'Iolani Palace in Honolulu's Capitol District is the only onetime royal residence within the United States ― and for Meyer, it's a powerful symbol of Hawaiian sovereignty. "When you go to the palace, you realize that you're not in Disneyland. Or Belleville, Illinois," she says. "You're in a different country."
Meyer herself has traveled extensively and lived abroad but made a conscious choice to return to Honolulu. "I spent a good part of my life wanting to move away and to feel at home in my own skin," she says. "For me to be here is a chance to rediscover, recover, and revitalize the spirit. To reconnect."
'Iolani Palace "A place to understand a moment of truth for Hawaii," says Meyer. INFO: Closed Sun-Mon; $6; 364 S. King St.; 808/522-0822.
Harold L. Lyon Arboretum Meyer recommends it as an easy escape from the urban and into the tropical rain forests above Honolulu. INFO: Closed Sat-Sun; donation suggested; 3860 Manoa Rd.; 808/988-0456.
Honolulu Academy of Arts "It's an incredible little jewel," says Meyer. INFO: Closed Mon; $10; 900 S. Beretania St.; 808/532-8700.
The Brothers Cazimero Meyer marvels that you can see this leading Hawaiian music duo on a regular basis at weekly shows at Chai's Island Bistro. INFO: Call for dates; free with dinner ($25 minimum per person); at Chai's Island Bistro ( $$$$), Aloha Tower Marketplace; 808/585-0011.
Native Books/Na Mea Hawai'I Meyer's sister Maile's store offers Honolulu's best selection of island-themed arts, music, and books. INFO: In Ward Warehouse, 1050 Ala Moana Blvd.; 808/596-8885.
THE SURFER: SEA LIFE
Writer Stuart Holmes Coleman uncovers the treasures of the shore
"Honolulu is where you get Hawaii's past and future clashing on a daily basis."
Sipping a drink, Stuart Holmes Coleman is sitting in the Sunset Lanai Lounge, overlooking Kaimana Beach. Though it's within sight of Waikiki's high-rises, Kaimana feels a world apart. Here, Honolulu's shoreline exhales as it opens to the banyan trees and greensward of Kapiolani Park. Palm trees shimmy in the trade winds, and locals venture out for open ocean swims. For Coleman and many Honolulu residents, the modest beach in Diamond Head's shadow is a place of refuge on an island that's home to nearly three-quarters of the state's population.
Coleman sees Honolulu from two perspectives. As an instructor at the East-West Center, a hub for international research and education, he works with students from the Asia Pacific region ― a reminder of Honolulu's role as bridge between Asia and the United States.
But Coleman's deepest connections to Honolulu come from its ocean. A dedicated surfer, he's written Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero, a biography of big-wave surfer and Hawaiian cultural icon Eddie Aikau. And as vice chair and board member of Surfrider Foundation Oahu Chapter, Coleman works on water-quality and beach-access issues. He and his fellow Surfriders are also working to prevent over-development of Oahu's coastline.
Even in busy Waikiki, Coleman says, visitors can feel Honolulu's ties to the sea. "The origins of surfing are right there, and you can surf where Hawaiians have been surfing for hundreds of years." But his favorite spot lies a little to the east. "I love surfing off of Diamond Head. When I'm on the opposite side from Waikiki, all I can see are beautiful cliffs and this timeless natural monument that blocks out the whole city. It's definitely a vision of old Hawaii."
See beaches and bistros
Canoes Coleman says the breaks at Queens and Canoes have "perfect waves for learning with easy rentals and good instructors." INFO: Surfing-lesson and board-rental information available at various beach locations; 808/971-2510.
Town The American bistro with changing art exhibitions is a favorite in the city's Kaimuki neighborhood. INFO: $$$; closed Sun; 3435 Waialae Ave.; 808/735-5900.
Waikiki In a grove of palms near Canoes, just off Kalakaua Ave., you can hang a lei on a bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, father of modern surfing.
East-West Center The center hosts lectures and performances, and features an art gallery as well as a Japanese garden. Coleman says the annual East-West Fest in April is a highlight, as the center's students perform traditional dances usually not seen outside of villages in Asia. INFO: 1601 East-West Rd.; 808/944-7111.
Kaimana Beach (Sans Souci Beach) A beach escape just east of the heart of Waikiki that nevertheless feels a world away. INFO: In front of the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, on Kalakaua Ave.
Where to sleep in paradise
These are three of our favorite Honolulu hotels; see visit-oahu.com for other options.
Moana Surfrider Along with its neighbor, the Royal Hawaiian (528 rooms from $465; 808/923-7311), this Victorian landmark is one of the grand dames of Waikiki. Modernization has reinvigorated the hotel while sacrificing none of its historic character. It's a destination unto itself, and one of the classic Waikiki experiences is tea at Afternoon Tea on the Veranda (1 p.m. daily; call for details). Guests can also take part in a variety of Hawaiian cultural activities, including lei making and hula. INFO: 793 rooms from $430; 808/922-3111.
This small hotel is located on one of surfer-author-environmentalist Stuart Holmes Coleman's favorite beaches, Kaimana (aka Sans Souci Beach). The mood here is tranquil and relaxed ? you're about a 10-minute walk from the hubbub of Waikiki, and Sans Souci itself is an excellent beach for swimming and splashing. Overlooking the beach, the Hau Tree Lanai restaurant is great for breakfast. The "moderate" rooms are very reasonable, but small; the junior suites work better for families. INFO: 125 rooms from $180; Hau Tree Lanai breakfast $; 800/356-8264.
The Kahala Hotel & Resort On the opposite side of Diamond Head with views out toward Koko Head, it offers solitude, luxury, and a getaway still within easy reach of Waikiki. A renovation is also giving new vibrancy to this 1960s classic set in an upscale Honolulu neighborhood. Even if you don't stay here, executive chef Wayne Hirabayashi's Hoku's restaurant is a memorable night out ? especially if you order the crisped whole island fish. INFO: 343 rooms from $395; Hoku's $$$$; 800/367-2525.