Planning a family vacation for our first visit to Hawaii involved many decisions, beginning with which island to visit. While friends made a strong case for Maui, we settled on Oahu so that we could visit Pearl Harbor. As city people, we also knew we would not be deterred by the crowds; in fact, we looked forward to the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and Waikiki. I knew there would be no shortage of cultural sites to visit, including the Iolani Palace, America’s only official royal residence. The palace, built in 1882, recently underwent an extensive renovation. I also wanted to see the statue of King Kamehameha, who in 1810 united the islands into one royal kingdom. The statue can be seen frequently in scenes from CBS’s hit series, Hawaii Five-0.
Settling on a hotel proved to be simple. The five-star Halekulani (the name means “house befitting heaven”) had everything we were hoping to find in a full-service hotel. Situated on the beach, the hotel offered stunning ocean views. A large salt water pool was watched over by an attentive staff that doled out towels, water, suntan lotion, even frozen fruit bars. A wait staff was on hand to take orders for food and drinks. Other amenities at the hotel included three top rated restaurants, a spa that focused on the traditions and cultures of the Pacific Islands, and Lewers Lounge, with live jazz music every night.
From the moment we pulled up in the Halekulani’s circular drive, service was impeccable. Although I had booked garden view rooms, we were upgraded to ocean view rooms, a nice surprise. A desk agent not only checked us in, but walked us to our rooms on the seventh floor to point out special features and answer any questions we might have. Waiting on our coffee table was a snack of papaya and mineral water.
The room itself was elegant and spacious. A terrace became a favorite place to sit early in the morning to watch the surfers challenge the waves or late at night to appreciate a spectacular sunset.
After unpacking, I spent time in the hotel’s gym, hoping to overcome the lethargy that settles in after a long plane ride. When I returned, my husband was quick to point out the magnum of Champagne and a birthday card, courtesy of the manager. While we were checking in, my daughter had mentioned that I was celebrating a milestone birthday, but the complimentary Champagne was unexpected and our first hint that the Halekulani staff was on its toes.
Halekulani in the Evening
After enjoying the Champagne on our terrace, we made our way down to one of the hotel’s restaurants, the open air and aptly named House Without a Key. The night was warm with a slight breeze, so dining outside was the perfect option. Fish are plentiful in Hawaii and the restaurant offered several local fish dishes that we were eager to try, including onaga, long-tail red snapper. While we ate, we enjoyed Hawaiian music by a trio and graceful dancing by a young woman we were told was a former Miss Hawaii.
The House Without a Key was also where we enjoyed a buffet breakfast each morning with selections to satisfy both American and Asia diners. Macadamia nut pancakes was a special item offered one day.
The Ukulele Store
Each day after breakfast, we would leave the hotel for a sightseeing trip. My husband was interested in buying a ukulele, so on our first full day we traveled to the northern part of the island to visit The Ukulele Store, a well known mecca for musicians all over the world. The ukulele originated in Hawaii, and the music from this string instrument can be heard in many places on the island, whether in concert venues featuring local artists or in the hotels. After a lunch of tacos, we drove to a beach our son had found on the northern shore for an afternoon of sunbathing and swimming.
That evening we ventured into Waikiki, an area filled with restaurants. We chose Arancino di Mare, a bustling Italian restaurant that specializes in fresh seafood, homemade pastas, and pizzas. Once again, we dined outside not only to enjoy the night air, but also to people watch.
USS Arizona Memorial
The following morning we took an Uber to Pearl Harbor. We spent nearly an hour going through the visitor center with two separate galleries – Road to War and Attack – that summarized the historical events leading up to and including the bombing on December 7, 1941. After viewing a documentary film about the attacks, we boarded a ferry that would take us around the USS Arizona Memorial, where more than 1,777 people died. We learned that in addition to the men who died on the boat whose bodies were never recovered, any service person who survived the attack can request to be cremated and have the remains buried on The Arizona site. Recently, cracks were discovered in the foundation of the memorial, so we weren’t permitted to actually go on board. But the experience proved to be very moving thanks to our guide, an elderly man who was a child when Pearl Harbor was bombed and spoke in great detail about what it was like to live through such a tragedy.
Alan Wong is considered the king of Hawaiian regional cuisine, so we had to visit his restaurant. Alan Wong’s is not located on a beach or even outside. Instead, the restaurant is on the second floor of a nondescript office building, on King Street. But the understated address does not deter locals and visitors. The Obamas visit whenever they vacation on Oahu. After just one visit, we could understand why. Our appetizers included seafood dumplings, chunky beef tartare, spicy beef tacos, and seafood cakes with lobster and shrimp. We were disappointed that the restaurant’s famed appetizer, “Da Bag,” steamed clams with Kalua pig and shiitake mushrooms in a foil bag, was unavailable. For entrees, two of us chose the steamed opaka, short tail pink snapper, one opted for king salmon, and the fourth for twice-cooked short ribs. All were delicious. For dessert, we enjoyed “The Coconut,” Haupia sorbet in a chocolate shelll, and a Waialua chocolate “crunch bar.”
The Iolani Palace
The Iolani Palace is filled with stories about the islands and those who ruled before Hawaii became our 50th state. If you haven’t read up on Hawaii’s history before visiting, taking a guided tour through the palace is one way to fill in the blanks. Many native Hawaiians believe the U.S. used illegal means to make Hawaii a U.S. territory. One Uber driver told us that some native Hawaiians are not happy Hawaii is a state. We saw some sporting T-shirts that read, “Make Hawaii Native Again.”
A Staircase inside the Palace
In its day, the Iolani Palace was certainly a home fit for a king. And the structure was ahead of its time, having electric lights before the White House, indoor plumbing and a telephone. The building fell into disrepair after the overthrow of the monarchy, but a multimillion dollar effort has restored the palace to its past glory. Exhibits in the basement of the building detail the restoration and also display a dazzling array of royal jewels. Not to be missed.
Of all the restaurants we visited in Hawaii, Senia made us feel like we were back in New York. The sleek industrial look and the emphasis on small plate offerings echoed restaurants in trendy neighborhoods like SoHo or the Lower East Side. Still, the two chefs, Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, focus on showcasing Hawaiian foods, with simple ingredients prepared with flare. Sometimes a simple ingredient can be transformed, like the charred cabbage which elevated this pedestrian green vegetable into something memorable. Corn ravioli was a surprise twist on this ubiquitous pasta dish. Simple made simply wonderful.
Trees in the Foster Botanical Garden
Hawaii boasts a breathtaking array of flowers and trees, so we made time to visit Foster Botanical Garden to see some of them up close. Arriving early in the morning, we managed to avoid the crowds and found the garden quiet and peaceful. We wandered through a greenhouse filled with orchids and other tropical plants, some beautiful some surprising like the corpse plant. Two outstanding trees included the cannonball tree, which resembles a large telephone pole, and the redwood-size Quipo tree.
Our last afternoon in Honolulu was spent shopping on King Street where upscale fashion houses like Chanel, Hermes, Ralph Lauren, and others do a brisk business. We discovered ABC stores, not like the ones we find in Virginia which sell only spirits, but full service stores selling everything from prepared foods to electronics to clothing. We also enjoyed one of the island’s famous snacks, shave ice, fine ice topped with sweet fruit juices.
Flowers in the Foster Botanical Garden
Visits to the Spa Halekulani allowed us to relax with manicures and pedicures. We reclined on zero-gravity beds and hot towels rather than bowls of water were used to relax our feet. Two of us also had massages which received high marks.
Hard to say if we saved the best restaurant for last, but Taormina which celebrates Sicilian cuisine was exceptional. Seated at a table in the restaurant’s window, we were able to watch the lively activities outside. Service was impeccable and the food fabulous and faithful to another island, Sicily. A standout – pasta con sarde, homemade pasta with sardines.
My husband and I weren’t ready to call it a night and so decided to visit the Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge. After a busy day, it was a wonderful way to relax and unwind enjoying an after dinner drink and listening to Maggie Herron, who sang and played the piano, and was backed up by a very talented bass player.
The Halekulani is a popular venue for weddings, and each day several bridal parties could be seen having photos taken in the hotel’s lovely gardens. Our last evening there was no exception, as we actually watched one couple take their vows underneath a flower-covered structure in the hotel’s garden. One last trip to the hotel’s gift shop to pick up last minute items and we retired to our rooms to pack.
How often do you stay at a hotel that not only meets but exceeds your expectations? The Halekulani was truly a paradise within paradise and certainly was a major reason our vacation was so enjoyable. We reluctantly said goodbye the next morning. Until next time, mahalo.