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Mike Yardley: Working up an appetite in Waikīkī

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 13 Apr 2024, 1:30pm
The view from Koko Crater Summit. Photo / Supplied
The view from Koko Crater Summit. Photo / Supplied

Mike Yardley: Working up an appetite in Waikīkī

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 13 Apr 2024, 1:30pm

It’s entirely understandable that on arrival in Waikīkī’s sun-kissed playground, you will soon surrender to the dazzling arsenal of holiday indulgences along the glitter-strip. Whether you’re stuffing yourself sinfully at the Cheesecake Factory or marinating in Mai Tais, decadence flows freely in Waikīkī. It has worked its monopolising magic on me, far too many times! 

But without wishing to sound like a virtuous try-hard, on my latest visit to Waikīkī, I made a personal pact that I would off-set my culinary and cocktail indulgences, by working-out for those rewards. I duly explored a plethora of nature experiences in close proximity to the holiday mecca, to counterbalance the inevitable binging and boozing. And it fast became an eye-opener about the ravishing outdoorsy treasures, string around the south-eastern coastline of O’ahu. 

Kūhiō Beach in Waikīkī. Photo / Supplied

From sun-up to sundown, a very mellow meander is to strike out on the Waikīkī Beach Walk, a 3km-long shoreline stroll, stretching from the landmark hotels towering above Kalakaua Ave, to the adjoining Kūhiō Beach and further east to Kapi’olani Beach, which is a lesser-trafficked swimming spot then the heart of Waikīkī. Gazing out on the satin-blue sea and the pillow-soft sand, fringed by swaying palms and noble banyans, this glittering sweep of beaches would surely win the sash in any beauty parade. 

Sling the words “walks” and “Waikīkī” into a sentence and the Diamond Head Crater instantly springs to mind. It is one of Hawai'i's signature trails and a staple for the active sightseeing list. From Kapi’olani Beach, it’s an easy stroll to the trailhead for the Diamond Head climb. Admission is $5, but go early in the creamy light of morning to watch Waikīkī’s golden necklace light up. It will take a couple of hours to knock-off this trail, which does include a steep haul up to the summit of the 760-foot-high crater. But those resplendent views across Waikīkī and over the island’s westside are seriously drool-worthy.  The trail was actually built over a century ago by the US military, with many switchbacks traversing the steep slope of the crater interior. The ascent continues up steep stairs and through a lighted 225-foot tunnel to enter the Fire Control Station, which directed artillery fire from the costal defence system, back in the day. 

The view from Diamond Head. Photo / Supplied

Further east, pass through Kahala and head to Hanauma Bay. O’ahu’s most popular snorkelling spot became a victim of overtourism, so changes have been made to this safeguard spectacular nature preserve and reef ecosystem. Scallop-shaped Hanauma Bay is actually a sunken volcanic crater ringed with golden sand with an opening to the ocean on one side. Reservations are now required to visit the bay which includes watching a short education video upon entry, stressing how best to experience this precious marine preserve. The Hawaiian values of kuleana (responsibility) and  mālama (to care for) are now very conspicuous in Hawai’i’s post-Covid visitor messaging – not dissimilar to our Tiaki Promise. A filigree of inner reefs cushions the sapphire-hued bay from the open ocean and it’s a techni-coloured snorkelling delight. The bay abounds with a confetti of tropical fish, from silvery needlefish and buttercup yellow tang to parrotfish and the Hawai’i’s brightly striped state fish, Humuhumunukukuāpua’a (Reef triggerfish). 

From there, I jaunted to another coastal jaw-dropper, the combo sensation of Hālona Beach Cove.  Not only are you graced by a heart-stealing beach, but just around the corner is the Hālona Blowhole. Overlooking some of the most turbulent waters in Hawai‘i, particularly in winter, strong currents and big waves send waters rushing into the molten lava tubes below the blowhole’s lookout, sending geysers as high as 30 feet in foam-flecking fury. through the blowhole. You can literally hear and feel the waters churning beneath your feet, just before the eruptions. A very frothy frisson. When you’ve had your fill of the feisty waterworks, lay out your towel on the golden sandy curve of the adjoining cove, best known as Eternity Beach. Wrapped in impressively jagged cliffs, the crystal blue water pops so intensely, it looks photoshopped. The sweet seclusion of this cove only adds to its seduction. Watch your step heading down to the beach – the rocky path can be slippery. This was the filming location for one of Hawai’i’s classic movie scenes, as featured in From Here to Eternity. This is the beach made famous by the iconic love scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, getting all hot and steamy in the surf and sand in the 1953 classic. The beach was also cast as Whitecap Bay in Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Ready for more hiking? One of Hawai’i’s more unique hikes would have to be the Koko Crater Trail. Fuel up, because you’ll need some pep in your step to conquer this extinct cinder cone volcano. The novelty of this hike is that it follows the old railroad used by the military to reach their infrastructure at the summit of Koko Head. It’s an unforgiving, unrelenting thigh-burner, as your haul your way up 1200 feet, ticking off 1048 railway sleepers to reach the top. But as much as I felt jelly-legged at the summit, the endorphin rush was nearly as satisfying as the stupendous views across east O’ahu. I felt very virtuous knocking that one off.   

Scaling the Koko Crater Trail. Photo / Supplied

Finally, if you are still upright and haven’t started imitating a penguin walk, take a stroll on the nearby trail to Makapu’u Point Lighthouse, the easternmost point of O’ahu.  It’s a doddle of hike compared lung-busting Koko Head, leading around craggy cliffs to the historic red and cream lighthouse that stands guard over the indigo ocean, as it has since 1909. It’s still home to one of the world’s largest lenses – this shining beacon can be seen by seafarers 50km off the coast. This is a spectacularly panoramic walk, serving up great vantage points of the offshore islands, Molokaʻi and Mānana. Channel your inner-twitcher, because you’re likely to spot some great birdlife, like the red-tailed tropicbird, wedge-tailed shearwater, and the state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene or Hawaiian goose. It’s a soul-singing trail.  

All of these coastal gems can be reached by taking the Waikiki Trolley’s Blue Line. The hop-on, hop-off operator is the hassle-free, affordable way to zip around the southeastern coastline, with a high-frequency schedule. The live on-board commentary is illuminating and entertaining. In addition to the Ocean Blue Line, Waikiki Trolley also operates three other lines including the Heroes & Legends Red Line which encompasses all the key attractions in Honolulu. Book a pass to suit your needs, whether you want a 1 day or 1 week pass. www.waikikitrolley.com 

Alright, time for some indulgent treats! My go-to for loco moco is Rainbow Drive-In, a Waikīkī institution that has been fawned over by locals for 60 years. Like an all-day breakfast, this is a rice and hamburger patty positively drowned in brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. Follow it up, with a legendary strawberry slush float. You’ll find it on Kapahulu Ave, arcing around the foot of Diamond Head. It’s also home to Ono Seafood is a great stop for mouth-watering fresh poke, while Leonard’s Bakery is a must for the gloriously sugary, oven-fresh malasadas. These sweet and airy balls of deep-fried dough were introduced to Hawai’i by Portuguese plantation workers in the late 1800s.  

Photo / Supplied

My favourite burger joint in Waikīkī would have to be Cheese Burger in Paradise. For nearly 30 years, this Kalakaua Ave mainstay has been swooned over, serving over 1400 diners a day. Their signature cheeseburger is made from a blend of ribeye, chuck and premium ground beef, housed in a Brioche bun. Just down the road, head to Hula Dog in Kuhio for a salivating Hawaiian-style hot dog. A Polish sausage is encased in freshly-baked bun, topped with guava mustard and topical relishes, like mango, coconut and papaya. Delicious! 

A sure-bet gift for loved ones back home is a box of goodies from the Honolulu Cookie Company. Distinctively shaped like a pineapple, their shortbread cookies are available in a variety of flavours, from white chocolate ginger spice to mango macadamia. I love how you’re always offered a free sample cookie, whenever you walk in one of their stores. Happy grazing! 

Libations? Duke’s Waikīkī at the Outrigger, is a forever-favourite. Stacked with memorabilia of the surfing god, Duke Kahanamoku, this place blends a proud history with conviviality, at reasonable prices. It’s a top stop for pau hana (happy hour) and their barefoot bar is one of the few places in town where you can enjoy cocktails with your toes in the sand. Their coconut mojito and lava flow cocktails are stand-outs. 

Duke’s Waikīkī bar. Photo / Mike Yardley

Another effervescent haunt for sundowners and spirited vibes is Splash Bar at the Sheraton Princess Ka’iulani, adjacent to the gorgeous pool area. (This would have to be one of the more generous-sized pools in Waikīkī.) Bartenders stir up inventive cocktails with a sharply priced happy hour running daily between 3pm and 5pm. Complement your libations with some tasty pupus (bar snacks), from the lip-smacking menu. For a handcrafted cocktail to remember, whistle up a Tropical Itch, a radiant concoction of Maker’s Mark, Pineapple Juice, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, St. Elizabeth All Spice Dram, Passion Fruit Puree, Fresh Lime Juice and Bitters. Phew! Plus, it’s served with a logoed backscratcher!  

Pair that with the succulent Kalua Pig Sliders, which are slathered in Pineapple Salsa & Guava BBQ Sauce. I also ventured to Splash Bar for a cracking breakfast. The freshly baked pastries were the first guilty pleasure before I decadently fortified myself for my day’s intrepid hiking with Pineapple Sausage Hash Moco. A twist on the standard loco moco, this heaped hash included potatoes, griddled sweet onions, served over rice with two poached eggs. I was good to go! Splash Bar is open across the day, serving a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Few Waikīkī experiences can beat the buzz of waking up to a gun-barrel view of that fabled sweep of her silken sands as the rising sun gilds the beach. I had the pleasure of luxuriating within the stylish, vibrant embrace of the Sheraton Princess Ka’iulani. Gracing the former estate of Hawai’i's last princess, the hotel’s history gallery delivers an indelible glimpse of its regal heritage, in the heart of Waikīkī. When the hotel first opened in 1955, it was the tallest in the neighbourhood and despite its chic, contemporary ambience, it has never neglected the past, conserving many historical and cultural elements.  

Sheraton Princess Kaʻiulani view along the beachfront. Photo / Supplied

Entering the lobby, you are greeted by Princess Kaʻiulani, a life-sized portrait dressed in a sophisticated yellow morning dress. You can walk through the princess’s life via the image gallery. You can see the garden, the kimono dresses, and the princess’s transformation into a sad and dignified woman. There are numerous nods to the resort’s rich history including various weapons and musical instruments on display, that once belonged to royalty living on the island. A rich variety of complimentary cultural activities are laid on by the hotel, from ‘ukelele and hula lessons to lei making and history tours. What cut a striking impression throughout my stay was the exceptionally warm, attentive and charismatic nature of the staff, across all touch points. It is such a truly cheerful hotel. 

Just one block back from the beach, across the road from the Moana Surfrider and adjacent to the International Marketplace, there’s no denying the desirability and supreme convenience of the hotel’s central location. But it felt distinctly more relaxed staying here, compared to some of the showpiece beachfront hotels, despite still being in the heart of the action. And it’s considerably lighter on the wallet. The hotel is nearing completion of a major renovation of its 664-room Ainahau Tower. I was lucky enough to be one the first guests to experience one of the refreshed Ocean View rooms – and what an uplifting delight. Add to that those primo beachfront views from your own lanai, where a spectacular fireworks display spangled the skyscape on my first night. 

Refreshed accomodation at the Sheraton Princess Ka’iulani. Photo / Supplied

The renovation has imparted modern tropical redesigns, emphasising and respecting the history and story of Waikiki. My room was light and bright, rendered in a calming beachy palette of interior colours – a medley of papaya, mocha and sky-blue hues. The refresh also incorporates all-new platform beds, renewed ambient lighting, and updated wall coverings, drapes and flooring. The attention to detail is astounding. Keen-eyed observers will notice touches paying homage to meticulously researched historical images - everything from the historic property’s original plantings to the pinstriping of Princess Ka’iulani’s Mu‘umu‘u. From the thoughtful interior designs to the endearing staff, this hotel goes above and beyond. www.princesskaiulani.com 

I flew on Hawaiian Airlines to Honolulu from Auckland. In addition to the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian Airlines connects to 15 US mainland cities. Treat yourself to Extra Comfort, which is very reasonably priced. Hawaiian Airlines’ Extra Comfort seats on the Airbus A330 offer considerably more legroom, priority services and enhanced amenities to make your long-haul travel experience decidedly more comfortable. The spirit of Aloha is readily apparent from the moment you step aboard. www.hawaiianairlines.com 

Explore the world with the trusted name in travel insurance, Cover-More Travel Insurance, which has you covered with added safeguards, over and above the typical travel cover, for the likes of medical treatment. In addition to single-trip cover, multi-trip annual cover is another great option, wherever you want to go. Check out the full range of protections and tailor the level of cover to your requirements. Cover-More’s 24-hour global assistance centre is just a phone call away. https://www.covermore.co.nz 

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings. 

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