Isolated from the mainland, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Hawaii is actually part of the United States. In so many ways it feels very much American, but at the same time, it also feels quite un-American too. Walk along the streets of Waikiki and you’ll quickly notice how ethnically diverse it is. An island of paradise, it is a mishmash of Polynesian, American, and Asian cultures, and almost combines the best of all those worlds.
Hawaii has always been on my wish list of travel destinations, so when I found out that my family was heading there, I jumped at the opportunity to go with them. It would be a short, action-packed 5-day trip filled with great food, fun, shopping, and sunshine.
Located in the southeast area of Oahu is Hanauma Bay, a bay carved out by volcanic activity centuries ago. It was a popular fishing spot for locals for many centuries, and today is now a wildlife preserve which is visited by millions of tourists from around the world. A popular destination amongst sunbathers and snorkelers, May and I decided to head down there to catch some sun and get in some snorkeling. Neither of us had been snorkeling since our trip to Thailand last year (click here to go to the post). It was also a different experience as this was shallow water snorkeling rather than deep sea snorkeling. We purchased a disposable underwater camera and got some really cool shots!
Polynesian Cultural Center
One of the biggest and most popular tourist attractions in Hawaii, the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is an attraction that you don’t want to miss. The Polynesian-themed theme park or living museum is located in Laie, on the northern side of Oahu. It is a full-day experience in which you can experience the different exhibits showcasing 6 Polynesian islands and cultures (Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii, Aotearoa, Tahiti, Tonga), participate in a Hawaiian luau, and even watch a Polynesian show.
Left: The Ali’i Luau is a big dinner buffet and luau, complete with ceremonial entrances, live entertainment, and even the unearthing of a roasted pig. Lomilomi salmon, chicken long rice, Kalua pork and all the sweet potatoes you could eat. Right: Traditional ceremony to kickoff the luau.
Left: Ask a Samoan tree climber how they gather coconuts, and they might be nice enough to show you. Right: Fijian drummers take to the stage and delight us with some comedy and music.
Left: The Lagoon hosts a “parade” of canoes that showcases the signature dances of each of Polynesian culture. Shown here are the hula dancers of Hawaii; Right: The paddling guide takes us along the lagoon in a canoe.
In addition to the daytime exhibits and demonstrations, PCC features an evening Polynesian show titled Hā–Breath of Life. The show features songs and dances from throughout Polynesia. The stage set is beautiful, but the highlight of the show for me was the fire dancing (below).
All In One Day Oahu Tour
The Oahu Visitor Bureau was kind enough to provide us all with Go Oahu Cards, which we used for the All of Oahu In One Day Tour. This full-day bus tour takes you 120 miles around the eastern half of the island. With various stops along the way, it is a great way to experience the southern, eastern, and northern regions of Oahu.
Above: One of the stops on the tour was the Dole Plantation, where we enjoyed some Dole Whip pineapple soft serve served with fresh pineapples, and some great Baja-style BBQ corn (which has butter, mayo, lemon-lime juice, baja seasoning, and parmesan cheese).
Above: Several scenic stops were made including one at Halona Blowhole lookout on Oahu’s South Shore, where we were treated to some amazing panoramic views.
Left: Nuʻuanu Pali is a section of the windward cliff of the Ko’olau mountain located at the head of Nuʻuanu Valley on the island of Oahu. It has a panoramic view of the northeast coast of Oahu. Right: We also stopped by the town of Kailua, where we enjoyed some great Kona coffee and admired some coffee plants.
We stayed at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, which is a stone throw away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki Beach. A central commercial district, it’s easy to see why it’s such a popular destination, as there is something for everyone here. Whether you’re into sunbathing, shopping, eating, surfing, or boating, there is no shortage of things to do here.
Left: The largest mall in Oahu, Ala Moana Center is full of high-end designer stores like Prada, Cartier, Harry Winston, and Louis Vuitton. We were fortunate that their Memorial Day sales were still going on, as we scored some amazing deals there. Centre: Roughly a $60 one-way cab ride away from Waikiki, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is a great market to go to for just about everything you can imagine. From souvenirs to clothes to macadamia nuts, the prices here are much lower than what you can expect in town. It is also open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 9am-3pm, so it gets pretty busy there. There were very few dining options there as there was only one food stall. Right: Much of what you can find at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet you can find at the International Market Place. The only thing is that it’s much smaller, there aren’t as many vendors, and the prices are quite a bit higher. However it is a popular shopping spot just because it’s located in the heart of Waikiki.
There are 3 Japanese restaurants in Waikiki that I highly recommend.
Doraku has locations in Miami Beach, Downtown Brickell, and Honolulu Waikiki. Doraku is known for the best happy hour, sushi and inventive dishes. If you’re into Japanese food and sushi, then you might like their unique twist on classic rolls and dishes.
Left: Japanese style snapper carpaccio served over shiso leaf, topped with marinated cucumber, sweet onion, tomato, Kaiware sprouts, finished with Kabayaki sauce; Centre: Misoyaki butterfish – black cod glazed and baked with Yuzu Saikyo miso. They don’t call it butterfish for nothing, it melts in your mouth. Right: The popular Emperor Roll, a must get sushi roll. Tuna, salmon, crab, shrimp, scallop, avocado rolled together, crusted in panko and flash fried, served over a bed of spring mix and tempura sweet onions, topped with house aioli sauce.
Left: We tried several Japanese beers for the first time. Something a bit different from the Sapporo and Asahi that we’re so used to. Right: Double Happiness – tuna, salmon, scallop, ika, shrimp, crab, shiso leaf, Kaiware sprouts, wrapped with nori and sliced cucumber sheet, topped with garlic aioli, tobiko, and ponzu sauce.
When we arrived, there was a lineup of around 50 people snaking out the door. The line moved quickly though, as they had a cafeteria-style ordering system. It was recommended to me by several of my friends, so I was excited to try it out. In Vancouver, there is an abundance of ramen restaurants, however there really aren’t any udon restaurants anywhere. To be honest, up to this point I had thought that all udons are pretty much the same. That was hardly the case at Marukame Udon, as they use handmade noodles, their broth is flavourful, and there’s a full à la carte tempura bar for you to load up your bowl of noodles.
Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin
The specialty at this Waikiki “hole-in-the-wall” is tonkatsu (a Japanese bread-crumbed pork cutlet), and insiders insist that “this is what it’s supposed to taste like” – “tender” and “fried to perfection”. You certainly won’t find tonkatsu of this calibre at your local All You Can Eat sushi restaurant.
Left: Eggplant-sandwiched Kurobuta pork menchi katsu, served with crispy potato strings, chopped shiso herb, roasted sesame miso sauce. Right: Katsu Loco Moco, a Hawaiian-inspired take on a Japanese dish. It was basically served with curry gravy and a sunny side up egg over rice. The curry sauce was delicious and the rice was great for soaking it all up. The best part is that you can ask for free refills on the curry sauce!
Located a short cab ride away from Waikiki Beach is a little hole in the wall shack called Ono Seafood, where they specialize in one thing and one thing only, tuna poke. In case you don’t know what poke is, it is raw ahi tuna (‘poke’ is actually just raw fish, so sashimi basically). Commonly served over rice, Ono had about 8 different variations of this dish. We ordered 5 of them and were blown away by the flavours and freshness of the fish. At $7 per plate, this was easily the best value meal that we had. Right: Spicy ahi tuna poke.
If you like masaladas, or Portuguese donuts, go check out Leonard’s Bakery. We were lucky to get freshly fried donuts and they were delicious, warm, and sweet. It is about 3 blocks away from Ono’s Seafood, so you might as well hit them both up if you’re in that part of town.
Seaside Bar & Grill
Want a great value breakfast? Go to Seaside Bar & Grill, where you can find full breakfasts for as cheap as $4. When you go here, try something a little different than your standard American breakfasts. Try their coconut pancakes (left) or their Loco Moco (right). Loco Moco is a traditional Hawaiian breakfast dish. It’s a grilled hamburger patty, topped with a runny fried egg and gravy, and on a bed of rice. You won’t be disappointed.
Want a decent lunch spot with a nice view of Waikiki beach? Check out Lulu’s Waikiki. They have an open air dining room, retro-surf atmosphere, and a family-friendly menu.
Left: This particular ahi tuna poke was served on a crispy fried wonton wrapper. I found it a bit salty for my liking. The ahi tuna from Ono Seafood is far and away superior; Right: Kalua pork egg rolls
Spam, spam, and more spam…
In case you haven’t received the memo, Spam is kind of a big deal in Hawaii. The residents of the state of Hawaii consume the most Spam per capita in the United States. It became a dietary staple as a result of the U.S. military occupation after World War II. Since fresh meat was difficult to get to the soldiers on the front, World War II saw the largest use of Spam when it was served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Left: At McDonald’s, you can find Spam, Portuguese sausage, and eggs with rice. Right: You won’t have a problem finding Spam Musubi anywhere in Hawaii. Take a slice of spam and marry it to pressed rice and nori seaweed and voilà! Below: Spam flavoured macadamia nuts from the Dole Plantation??
May and I had an absolute blast in Hawaii. It’s a place that I’ve always wanted to visit, but it was never on my ‘MUST VISIT’ list of travel destinations. After our brief 5-day getaway, it’s easy to see why so many people love it here and come back for vacations. It’s really a place that has something for everyone, whether you’re into outdoor activities, cultural attractions, shopping, or dining. Since we only stayed in Oahu this time, I think our next visit to Hawaii will have to include Maui for some tropical R&R.
Have you been to Hawaii? We would love to hear about your experiences, so feel free to share in the comments below.