Oahu is a Hawaiian paradise filled with world-class beaches and verdant surroundings -- not to mention the draw of famous Waikiki in Honolulu and North Shore's sky-high surf. That being said, there's more to “The Gathering Place” than pristine sand and waves. Read on for six rookie mistakes to avoid on your vacation to Oahu.
1. Spending all of your time in Waikiki.
The tropical yet urban pull of Waikiki is difficult to resist. Who wouldn’t want to float in Sheraton Waikiki’s beachside infinity pool, or be massaged by cool stones at the Moana Surfrider’s beachfront spa? Self-care activities aside, locals will tell you there’s more to Honolulu than its most famous tourist neighborhood. For example, consider Honolulu’s micro-neighborhoods. Chinatown is one of the most multicultural areas in Honolulu, and in recent years, it has transformed from a former red-light district during WWII to a lively arts and dining hub. Arts at Marks Garage hosts rotating works and performances, while former farmer’s market vendor The Pig & The Lady continues to be a brick-and-mortar hit with Vietnamese dishes like pho French dip. In Kaka’ako, rotating murals lend a contemporary, creative flair to older and newer, industrial-chic buildings, like the Salt retail complex. It offers everything from gourmet hot dogs to craft coffee to lively dining spots like Moku Kitchen. (Tip: Order the butternut squash ravioli.)
2. Bypassing hard-to-find local eats.
Pricey restaurants, like seafood-centric Merriman’s in Honolulu and Mina’s Fish House in Kapolei, as well as the tasting menu at Senia, are all worth the splurge. They highlight the state’s farm-raised produce and local proteins. However, for a complete taste of Oahu, be sure to seek less flashy (and often carb-heavy) eats. What these places lack in ambience and elevated presentation, they make up for with comforting local flavor that even captures the attention of top culinary tastemakers. In the mostly residential area of Kalihi, for example, Helena’s Hawaiian Food serves Hawaiian classics, like kalua pork with a side of poi (a traditional dish of pounded kalo, or taro), which have been recognized by the James Beard Awards, otherwise known as the Oscars of the food world. Try Pioneer Saloon on Monsarrat Avenue in Honolulu for plate lunches and the restaurant inside of Aiea Bowl for oxtail soup and pies.
3. Assuming rush hour traffic doesn’t exist on an island.
In 2012, traffic app Inrix ranked Honolulu as the most congested city in the U.S. even beating Los Angeles. Although the city has moved down in rankings, rush hour traffic is still frustrating (it can take 40 minutes to drive eight miles from the airport to Waikiki, a trip that should be 20 minutes at most). With this in mind, make a game plan for exploring the island, especially if you only have several days on Oahu. If Honolulu is your home base, plan to spend the entire day on the North Shore, for example. That way, there’s ample time to meander along the scenic route (HI-83, Kamehameha Highway), stop at one of the fresh fruit stands, and beach hop.
4. Packing only flip-flops.
Some vacationers arrive in Oahu with the sole intention of spending all day in beach gear. However, Oahu is full of active land pursuits, like hiking, so pack your sneakers to tackle the island’s “pillbox” hikes. These “pillboxes” are WWII-era cement bunkers that now act as hiking trail accessories. Many have been painted over in bright colors and make for excellent photos. There are several hikes to choose from, including the Lanikai Pillbox hike in Kailua, Pu‘u Ma‘eli‘eli in Kaneohe, and the ʻEhukai trail on the North Shore. On the west side of the island, Māʻili Pink Pillbox hike offers numerous switchbacks and a few minor scrambles, and from the top of a cluster of pillboxes: sweeping valley and Pacific Ocean vistas.
5. Ignoring the arts scene in Oahu.
Similarly, Oahu is home to a thriving arts scene. Don’t miss surf-inspired prints, paintings, and photographs at Greenroom Gallery, in several locations throughout Waikiki, or at Polu Gallery on the North Shore (and a short walk from the famous Matsumoto Shave Ice). Meanwhile, Pegge Hopper Gallery showcases painted landscapes -- find it among the open markets, lei stands and restaurants in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In Kailua, artist Lauren Roth opened her eponymous studio, where she sells tropical-themed prints in vibrant pastel colors. The Honolulu Biennial curates more than 40 artists from Hawaii and other places connected to the Pacific twice a year. It’s the state’s largest contemporary arts festival. Oahu’s hotels get creative, too. The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club hosts painting workshops and the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina has a full-fledged art and craft market.
6. Thinking Waikiki lacks authenticity.
Today, Waikiki -- and particularly Kalakaua Avenue -- is packed with flashy retail storefronts found in major cities around the world, so it’s easy to write off the over-trafficked strip as a tourist trap. However, dig further into Waikiki’s past and a more complete picture emerges. In Hawaiian, Waikiki means “Spouting Water,” and before people began arriving by steamship in the early 20th century, most of the area was comprised of wetlands and fishponds that provided natural resources to the Native Hawaiian population. Although it looks much different now, you can still connect with old and new culture at most resorts and hotels. Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort offers lei-making lessons, hula classes, and traditional Hawaiian musical entertainment, Coconut Waikiki Hotel provides ukulele lessons, and Shoreline Hotel Waikiki presents live musical performances that blend reggae, R&B, and acoustic sounds.
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