Honolulu, Hawaii

My fiance and I were fortunate enough to get a couple weeks off for a much needed vacation, so we decided to hop a non-stop flight to someplace we’d both been as kids, but hadn’t been back to as adults: Hawaii!

Given the flight schedules, we decided to fly directly in and out of Honolulu in Oahu and then to spend a week or so in Maui as well. As most tourists do, we decided to stay at a resort on Waikiki beach, which is an absolutely gorgeous beach with pristine views of the Diamond Head Crater and a multitude of bars / dining options.

Upon arrival, we took a quick trip to the beach for lunch. I had an amazing mahi filet, while my fiance sampled his first poke. Of course, we also had to sample a local favorite drink: the Mai Tai.

The hotel staff informed us that there was actually a block party happening on the main street by Waikiki beach, so of course we had to take a look. We were most interested in the food options, including stands making amazing Japanese and Filipino foods. It was amazing watching them prep all the food, with makeshift woks and huge grills filled with goodies. It made me want to be back in southeast Asia wandering a local market! We gravitated to the things we hadn’t tried before, and ended up sampling some (very fresh, and VERY hot!) lumpia (which, I discovered, is apparently what I crave when I end up ordering Thai spring rolls – they are very much a different set of fillings / flavor profile and this explains why I have always been so unsatisfied with the spring rolls!).

After exploring the block party, we found ourselves exploring more of the resort. The hotel we chose to stay at, the Royal Hawaiian, is a gorgeous pink building that is apparently one of the most historic hotels in this area of Waikiki beach.

We did an impromptu tour of the ‘historic’ parts of the hotel (they offer a formal history tour of the hotel on select dates) and loved seeing the historic furniture, as well as the amazing menus for the meals and events they’ve hosted over the decades (they have a huge collection of these old menus, and it’s amazing seeing how formal the events used to be!).

Due to jetlag, we ended up heading to bed relatively early that evening, waking up bright and early (around 6am!) the following day. We decided to get some additional historic sight-seeing out of the way, heading to Pearl Harbor first.

Pearl Harbor itself is a beautiful open-air park, with several museums as well as a submarine and the option to take a quick boat tour to the site of the sunken memorial for the USS Arizona. Despite being 7am, it was absolutely packed with tourists, so we decided to take it easy and see the outdoor sites rather than deal with the crowds in the museums.

The site is definitely moving, with very informative details about the timeline, aftermath, and lasting impact of Pearl Harbor not only for Honolulu, but for the greater US military. Since my grandfather fought in World War II (and was deployed in Japan and later post-war Germany), I wonder if any of these areas were familiar to him contemporaneously. Unfortunately, he passed when I was very young, but it was nice to feel like I’d gotten a glimpse into something that certainly had a large impact into his (and my grandmother’s and mother’s) life. After completing our somber walk through the memorial path, we decided to continue our historic learning with a trip to one of Honolulu’s other premier historic sites: the Bishop Museum.

The Bishop Museum is a wonderful collection of artifacts from across Polynesia, with an emphasis on archeological / anthropological items from Hawaii and a variety of artwork both historical and contemporary. I absolutely loved the collection of royal kahili, or feathered staffs. They have a whole room full of these amazing staffs – essentially tracking the kahili alongside the Hawaiian ruler whose reign they would have been used under – as well as an exhibit on how kahili were made.

Most fascinatingly, they had several kahili made with feathers of now-extinct birds.

They also had an incredible collection of other artifacts, from artwork to clothing. I wasn’t able to take many photos of the anthropological collection, but it had some very interesting highlights, including an authentic thatched house and a diorama that was originally created as a miniature replica of an existing village using some of the volcanic rock / original materials of that village, which now unfortunately is the last remaining “piece” of the village as it was later buried under lava flow.

The Bishop is also participating in the “Triennial” – an art festival taking place across multiple well-trafficked sites in Honolulu. Their art exhibit was incredibly interesting, including a variety of very abstract multi-media pieces.

After the Bishop Museum, we wandered the neighborhood a little and decided to stop in to a restaurant in a local strip mall, where we’d seen reviews claiming the “best butterfish” in Honolulu. Not ones to try only a single dish at a restaurant, we of course had to try a couple: the ahi poke, the butterfish, and a couple accompaniments (edamame, miso soup, etc.).

The butterfish was legitimately among the best fish I’ve had in a while (I’d never heard of butterfish before, but it does taste very rich and has a wonderful, buttery texture). The poke was great as well – it had a good kick from the fresh chilis and a nice tart bite from some onion as well. Now that we’ve sampled several other pokes during our time in Hawaii, I wouldn’t say it was the best I’ve had, but it was fresh and delicious!

After our “first” lunch, we headed back to the area near the hotel to explore a bit more. As part of our exploration, we decided to try a couple extra Hawaiian favorites: spam musubi and udon.

For the spam musubi, we actually just lucked into finding a shack on the side of the road that offered all variety of spam treats. We got the “basic” spam musubi, which we figured would be the best introduction. It was fine, although certainly not anything to write home about. I appreciated the bite more when I got a bit of nori with the spam, but I think generally the spam itself would be an acquired flavor.

After that, we went to the udon restaurant, Marukame Udon, which offers hand-pulled udon in a variety of broths with any number of delicious fried accompaniments.

We tried the udon with dashi broth, accompanied with chicken katsu, as well as shrimp tempura and another spam musubi (this time, with teriyaki). Everything was delicious – the udon definitely was among the best I have ever had with a perfect mouth-feel and chewiness.

After that, we ended up back on the beach!

The following day, we wanted to explore a bit more of Honolulu, venturing further northwest and into the true “downtown” area (if “downtown” is synonymous with the financial district as evidenced by the multitude of business parks and large banks).

We started our day with a tour of the Iolani Palace, which was the home of Hawaiian royalty before it was ultimately colonized by the United States.

You enter through what appears to be a security outpost, and then proceed to the palace itself for the tour of both the first-floor entertaining rooms and the upper-level housing.

The tour itself was insightful, sharing a variety of details about Hawaiian culture, the royal family’s history, and of course pointing out the amazing architectural features of the property (including really impressive amenities for the day, like fancy metal washing tubs and flush toilets!). They also had electricity before either the White House or Buckingham Palace, which was quite a feat.

Inside, the main focal point is the grand staircase, which has one of the few “authentic” (everything else has been restored to period) pieces of cloth / furnishing.

The palace also showcases some royal cultural pieces, including ceremonial kahili, royal jewels, and of course beautiful clothing and furniture.

The tour ends in the basement, where the palace is currently exhibiting a collection related to the royals’ charitable works supporting efforts to treat lepors in Hawaii. After the Palace, we decided to walk in the vicinity, finding a couple interesting cultural sites. The first was the statue of King Kamehameha the Great, located at Aliiolani Hale which is essentially across the street.

We also walked to Kawaiahaʻo Church, which is a famous coral church where several Hawaiian rulers are interred. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enter the property, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Then, we proceed on to our next foodie destination: Chinatown! We’d read mixed things about Honolulu’s Chinatown online, and can say it met expectations. It’s a bit seedy, a bit rundown, and a bit out of the way, but does have everything you’d expect of a Chinatown, including a touristy market (with live Hawaiian music!), interesting architecture, and, of course, good food.

We ultimately ate at a dumping restaurant along the river, which was a ton of fun and felt very authentic. They had servers with dumpling trucks circulating the restaurant, passing you any number of delicious treats based on your own preferences. After lunch, we wandered back towards the financial district on our way back to Waikiki.

On our way, we hit the Aloha Tower, which in “normal times” is a viewpoint along the harbor. Now, it’s just a nice building on the Hawaii Pacific University campus.

That evening, we tried a VERY touristy but apparent favorite for their coconut shrimp: Tommy Bahama. Yes, the restaurant is located on the top floor of the eponymous clothing store. The drinks were generous pours, the food was not especially refined or fancy, but the coconut shrimp were a good bite.

For our next morning in Honolulu (although we’d be exploring Oahu the next couple days, which I’ve recorded in a separate post), we started out with a breakfast off-resort at Heavenly Island Lifestyle. This little restaurant has become one of my favorite places, with an emphasis on local, fresh cuisine. We tried the Hawaiian pho (super light, the perfect portion for breakfast) as well as loco moco, a Hawaiian specialty which includes what is essentially a hamburger patty with rice / beans / runny egg. Both were delicious and had us coming back for the next couple mornings.

Our last stop in Honolulu itself was a famous bakery, Leonard’s. They specialize in malasadas, which are a type of Portuguese donuts that are light and can be either just the fried dough itself or a filled pastry. We sampled both, and they were absolutely delicious.

They were incredibly light despite being essentially fried dough, although ultimately they ended up being a poor choice right before the strenuous hike we took up Diamond Head right afterwards. The next couple days we explored more of Oahu, ending up most afternoons back at Waikiki Beach!

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