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From Surfboards to Speakeasies

Visit the unexpected Honolulu and find hidden gems among towering hotels.

Courtesy of Halekulani Hotel

When headed to Hawaii, many people fly into Honolulu and stay just long enough to board another flight or ferry to a different island. Its reputation as a crowded, touristy destination full of hi-rise hotels precedes this capital city. And it’s true—hotel towers, condos, and many visitors from all over the world are definitely in the mix. But if you know where to go, a few days in Honolulu can be the urban beach adventure you didn’t know you needed.

Where to Stay: Halekulani Hotel

In the heart of Honolulu, Hawaii, nestled among swaying palm trees and facing the crystal-clear Pacific waters, lies the Halekulani Hotel. Its name, translating to “House Befitting Heaven,” is a promise that this hotel does not take lightly. From the moment you step into the grand open-air lobby, tranquility arrives through soft ocean breezes and a view of the Pacific.

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A staff member described the hotel to me as a retreat amid Waikiki Beach’s hustle and bustle, and it’s true. Once inside Halekulani, the outside world disappears.

 All guest rooms have ocean views and have been designed in the hotel’s signature “seven shades of white,” which helps showcase Hawaii’s natural, vibrant beauty outside the sliding glass door. Touches of luxury are strewn throughout each room, from the soaking tubs and plush robes to the clever design of the closets (which open from both the bathroom and guest room), and the original, Hawaiian-inspired scent of the bath products.

What To Do: Surf and Snack

Waikiki is known for surfing, of course, and as the dawn breaks, you might consider your first immersive experience. With its origins in the Polynesian culture, surfing is more than just a sport in Hawaii. It’s a form of expressive storytelling, a dance with the ocean, and a dialogue with nature. Halekulani arranges surfing lessons on Waikiki Beach with professionals who will guide you from the correct positioning on the board to the moment you’re riding the wave.

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Once you’ve satisfied your craving for adrenaline, you’ll need nourishment, and there’s nothing better than an actual “Hawaiian” pizza. Located in SALT at Our Kaka’ako, a mixed-use dining and retail space, Moku Kitchen offers a remarkable array of pizzas with unique toppings like kimchi and kalua pig; the aforementioned kalua pork with macadamia nut pesto, roasted pineapple, jalapeño, and green onion is like no Hawaiian pizza you have ever had. SALT is a 15-minute drive from Halekulani or a 50-minute walk.

Indulge in Local Specialties

For a different yet equally enticing experience, visit the Kō Hana Rum Distillery. A doable 30-min ride from Halekulani, the journey to the distillery is as beautiful as the destination, taking you through the lush Hawaiian countryside with vistas of verdant mountains and sapphire waters. The distillery focuses on producing Agricole rum, a variant made from fresh, pure sugarcane juice. Its tours explain the cultivation of heirloom Hawaiian sugarcane through to the distillation and aging of the rum. Tours end with a tasting session, where you sample various rums, each revealing a distinctive personality, layered with complex notes ranging from floral to fruity, to grassy and spicy. Kō Hana rum is available in limited quantity, which is one of the reasons that making the short trek to the distillery is an exceptional experience. 

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NatuRe, on the other hand, is a haven for health-conscious travelers. The restaurant takes pride in its plant-based menu, featuring dishes that are not only healthy but delectable. Championing the idea that food can be wholesome, nutritious, and exciting simultaneously, the menu presents a variety of dishes that celebrate Hawaii’s abundant produce, from colorful salads to hearty grain bowls. A 10-minute walk from the hotel, NatuRe is a peaceful, thoughtful dining experience tucked away on a side street.

After dinner, walk around the corner to the Green Lady Cocktail Room, a sort of speakeasy hidden inside the White Sands hotel. The intimate ambiance is accented with vintage décor and dimmed lights, and you can sip on bespoke cocktails against a background of great jazz and hip hop. It opens at 8 pm, which is the best time to get a seat. Just ask the front desk for Room 8.

Crash Course on Honolulu’s Culture

As the capital of Hawaii, Honolulu presents a rich heritage to explore. The native Hawaiian culture remains a fundamental and cherished aspect. The city embraces a colorful mosaic of Asian, Pacific Islander, European, and North American influences. The bustling streets are adorned with many ethnic eateries, cultural festivals, and diverse neighborhoods, all contributing to a captivating atmosphere. 

It’s not surprising to learn that many excellent museums offer unique insights into the island’s history, art, and traditions. Among the best is the Bishop Museum, a premier institution dedicated to preserving and sharing Hawaiian and Pacific Island cultures. Its extensive collections of artifacts, traditional crafts, and exhibits on natural history provide visitors with a deep understanding of the region’s past.

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Another must-visit is the Honolulu Museum of Art, featuring an impressive collection of Asian, European, and American creations. From ancient to contemporary masterpieces, the museum’s diverse exhibits cater to art enthusiasts. Moreover, its tranquil garden and courtyards provide a serene space for relaxation and contemplation. Halekulani offers complimentary access to HoMa for hotel guests.

Perhaps the most unique museum is Shangri La. Nestled on the shores of Diamond Head, the former home of American philanthropist and art collector Doris Duke has turned into  a museum that offers an unparalleled glimpse into Middle East and South Asian treasures. The meticulously curated collection features exquisite ceramics, dazzling textiles, intricate jewelry, and magnificent architectural elements, all showcasing the ingenuity and artistic mastery of the Islamic world. Halekulani offers a complimentary tour of Shangri La for hotel guests on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of every month. 

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Every element of this journey, from the surfboard to the speakeasy, to the rum distillery and dining destinations, is more than an exploration. It’s an immersion into Honolulu’s unique culture, where nature’s splendor coexists with urban buzz, modernity is built upon rich traditions, and every experience is infused with the Hawaiian spirit. The next time you plan a trip to Hawaii, add a few days in Honolulu to deepen your appreciation for island life. 

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