Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Honolulu

Hawaii’s balmy, picturesque capital is riding the wave of a chic reinvention, replacing kitsch with cool but losing none of its laid-back attitude, says Shane Mitchell.

July 07 2011
Shane Mitchell

If you peer beyond the reef break on Waikiki Beach in the silver first light of day, it’s possible to catch the dawn riders bobbing on the tide. These alaka’i nalu, or watermen (and women), are the hardcore surfers who tote their longboards barefoot across Kalakaua Avenue and paddle into the dark Pacific before the surf line fills up. None care about championship titles or branded gear – they’re just after that perfect curl before coffee.

Honolulu is like that. Easy to dismiss as the capital of tropical clichés – Elvis, aloha shirts, mai tais, tiki torches – until Blue Hawaii is revealed as New Hawaii. Formerly defined by cheap-and-cheerful beachfront concessions, it’s grown into a cosmopolitan city reinterpreted in fresh, playful ways by both home-grown talent and international style setters. No one personifies this paradigm better than hotelier Ian Schrager, who, in partnership with Marriott, recently transformed a tired wing of the 1960s-era Ilikai condominium complex into the modish, contemporary Waikiki Edition hotel. (The Ilikai was featured in the opening credits of TV series Hawaii Five-0, which recently received its own sexy update.) And this smart transformation extends to a select group of boutiques, galleries, nightclubs and restaurants.

A few miles off the beach, Kalakaua Avenue takes a decidedly upscale turn along a short stretch known as Luxury Row, lined with retail outposts for Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent et al. In a city where “dress code” typically implies a pair of Havaianas and a vintage top from Bailey’s Antiques & Aloha Shirts, what distinguishes these boutiques from their mainland counterparts is the ongoing collaboration with Hawaii’s Contemporary Museum and its innovative Cedar Street Galleries to sponsor exhibitions of local artists. Recently, in an upstairs gallery space at Chanel, you could view printmaker Abigail Romanchak’s Tracked, an abstracted GPS map of the East Maui watershed dusted with iron oxide and pulverised red earth on translucent sekishu paper; and snaking up the walls were Maka’i Tubbs’ marvellously irreverent floral Vignette sculptures, fashioned from recycled plastic utensils.

This far out in the Pacific, reuse is on the mind of lots of artists. Designer Mark Chai repurposes industrial PVC storage drums for his “shark-infested” coffee tables at edgy furnishings gallery Fishcake. And the lobby of the Waikiki Edition is dominated by Herbie Fletcher’s dramatic Wrecktangle, an installation of broken boards signed by top surfers Kelley Slater and Mick Fanning.

In fact, from the moment you park under the hotel’s porte-cochère, you know it’s not doing things old school. In lieu of a lei, at reception you are greeted with a chilled coriander and lemongrass tisane. The public spaces are designed for A-list mingling: a lobby bar is tucked behind a swinging bookcase; the Sunset Beach wading pool hosts first-run films on an outdoor screen; the dance club is guarded by bouncers in ninja black. And there’s a terrace fire pit at Morimoto, where the famed Iron Chef serves wagyu beef “loco moco” drizzled with savory hayashi gravy. Meanwhile, the 353 guest rooms are intentionally understated – and many on the small side – but still stylish with platform beds and ocean-view terraces. The lone kitschy note is the minibar’s souvenir-style plastic ukulele. Call it one of Schrager’s inside jokes.

In Jake Shimabukuro’s hands, however, a ukulele is no joke. He’s a pop virtuoso who cites BB King and Jimi Hendrix as influences, and his koa-wood instruments are made by the distinguished 100-year-old Kamaka studio. In 2009, he played a Royal Variety Performance in Blackpool for Queen Elizabeth II. Back on Oahu, home-grown talent, with ukulele or otherwise, can be found in Chinatown’s tiny jazz clubs, such as The Dragon Upstairs. This gritty area has lately morphed into Honolulu’s current nightlife hotspot. Between market stalls selling bitter melon and Peking duck, DJs spin at arty Soho Mixed Media while The Manifest is a mild-mannered coffee shop by day, a buzzy lounge space after sundown.

For more mellow slack-key guitar, Hawaii’s other indigenous musical style, the most sophisticated venue is House without a Key at the venerable Halekulani Hotel, where a trio backs living legend Kanoe Miller (whose hula is as rigorous as classical ballet and arguably more mesmerising). You can admire the sunset performance from the suites in the Diamond Head wing, which has one of Waikiki’s best views of the eponymous volcano. Positioned in front of a freshwater spring that runs from the Koolau Mountains, the hotel’s 453 rooms are spread among towers surrounded by garden courtyards and lanais. And the spa is one of Hawaii’s best: don’t miss an indulgent Waianuhea body scrub and massage with sea salt and night-blooming jasmine. Equally opulent is The Kahala Hotel & Resort, on the eastern side of Diamond Head, with its own beachfront and 333 airy guest rooms.

In Honolulu, pau hana, or cocktail hour, is close to sacred. There isn’t a bar in town that doesn’t have a tropical drink speciality, from the Side Street Inn’s Slammer (a mai tai variation with Southern Comfort and grenadine) to Wai’olu’s Golden Green Goby (an infusion of Ty Ku liqueur, lemongrass-and-ginger tea and fresh honeydew).

The cocktails are merely a prelude to Pacific Rim dining: this melting-pot cuisine pays homage to island-grown ingredients and immigrant, largely Asian, traditions. Seafood gets star billing. At Town the vibe is informal, but the daily market menu means haute cuisine business; chef Ed Kenney pairs tuna tartare with risotto cakes and swordfish with Meyer lemon-and-caper butter. Local star Jon Matsubara serves crisp moi fish with bonito fleur de sel and Korean chilli dust at the very chic Azure, in The Royal Hawaiian hotel (itself fresh from a renovation that returns it to its glorious pre-statehood days; book one of the sixth-floor suites for high ceilings and sigh-provoking views of the bay). Wayne Hirabayashi’s outstanding wok-fried snapper at Hoku’s in the Kahala Hotel is worth the trek to Diamond Head’s eastern side. And steps away from where the Honolulu fish auction takes place on Pier 38, no-frills Nico’s is guaranteed to have the freshest catch of the day. Owner Nicolas Chaize is originally from Lyon, so his “plate lunch” specials may include panko garlic tuna with basil aioli or furikake-crusted mahi-mahi on baby spinach with plum vinaigrette.

On Saturdays, foodies wind up at the KCC Farmers’ Market near Diamond Head. Among the stands selling potted orchids and passion fruit pepper jelly, you can graze on grilled Big Island abalone, lomi salmon bento, roasted Kahuku corn on the cob and smoky kalua pork sliders in lilac-hued taro buns.

Back on the beach, a newly evolved wave-riding style is a tempting prospect, even to neophytes. Stand-up paddle surfing, or SUP, uses an adapted outrigger paddle for added balance; so as well as being easier than traditional wake-riding, it’s also a more versatile workout. Insiders know that Oahu is home to the best board shapers. These craftsmen – Todd Pinder, Mitsu Matsushita, Cippy Cabato – tend to work independently out of garages rather than selling production-line “pop-outs” in the Quiksilver outlets on Kalakaua Avenue. Authentic artisans to a man, they’re adapting to their, and their city’s, new cachet with laid-back grace. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them are also dawn riders.