This November, I attended the destination wedding of a college friend in Hawai‘i. The couple — who reside in L.A. — had guests from across the United States and Japan, so one couldn’t exactly blame them for choosing Honolulu — a well-connected midway point — for their important day.
That said, traveling for a wedding and traveling for vacation — in which you’re in charge of the when’s, where’s and with whom’s — is not the same thing. I hadn’t been to Waikiki Beach, the chosen destination, in a decade, when I’d passed through for a night en route to a quieter island. Picturing a city beach congested with cars, tourists and neon lights, I was unenthusiastic. Adding to matters, I was dateless and barely acquainted with anyone beyond the bride, groom and his siblings, who would certainly be busy with wedding duties.
Still, who feels bad for someone Hawai‘i-bound, even if they are flying solo? Aided by tips from Hawaiian friends, I declared a mission: to make the best of my free time and give Hawai‘i’s capital and its surrounds a second chance.
Day 1: Thursday
Arrive at Honolulu International Airport sometime after 10 p.m. Pick up rental car, drop off seatmate I befriended on plane at questionable-looking hostel and check into the Moana Surfrider (2365 Kalakaua Ave.), a high-priced Westin hotel on a highly prized slice of Waikiki beachfront. Have a heart attack when informed of valet parking price ($33) — more than the cost of my rental car! The staff lets me park in front for a half-hour while scouring for other options. In the end, am too tired and relent to these astonishing fees. Joke-cracking valet staff soften sting of financial blow.
At check-in, informed that my Starwood preferred member card earns me an instant upgrade, in this case from a room in the modern tower to a room in the historic wing. Fantastic! Head upstairs and unpack overstuffed suitcase in beautifully restored but extremely cozy room. Note that upgrade can actually mean smaller room. The sounds of neon-lit, tourist-packed Waikiki penetrate the walls. A failing to pack earplugs haunts me, but sleep still manages to come.
Day 2: Friday
Wake up refreshed in oft-touted Westin Heavenly Bed. Head down to the lobby and terrace. Locals and tourists are paddling out into the turquoise surf. Traditional Hawaiian music floats through the air … After a 4.5 mile run — down Kalakaua Avenue, past the popular Kuhio Beach Park, Kapi‘olani Park and back along canal-lined Ala Wai Boulevard — reward self with a cup of Kona’s finest ($3.25) from the Honolulu Coffee Company (www.honolulucoffee.com).
Lunch, with the groom and friends — is a Hawaiian-style egg scramble ($10.95) at Keoni’s by Keo (2375 Kuhio Ave.), where breakfast is served all day.
Recruit three members of lunch party and head up the Pali Highway. At the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout, fierce winds whip around the pass, which offers brilliant views, stretching from the Ko‘olau Mountain Range and down to the beaches of Kane‘ohe Bay. Follow with a Manoa Falls Trail hike ($5, parking). Meandering up through shaded, lush vegetation — past the tangled roots of banyan trees and tropical flowers — the trail ends with a cascading waterfall. En route back to Waikiki, make a stop for finely shaved ice ($2.25) — a Hawaiian institution — at Waiola Shave Ice (3113 Mokihana St.). Taste the rainbow.
End evening with a “hula lomi” massage ($125 for 50 minutes) at the Surfrider’s Moana Lani Spa (www.moanalanispa.com). Massage therapist begins by presenting a wooden bowl of sea salt, which at day’s end will be poured back into the sea. “Put your troubles in here,” he says, and I do. Post massage, drink in the moonlit Waikiki’s shore from the window of a cedar-lined sauna. Honolulu is not so hectic after all.
Day 3: Saturday
Morning latte back at Honolulu Coffee Company ($4.25), then caffeine-fueled cardio set in Surfrider’s gym, overlooking the banyan-shaded vendors of the International Market Place (2330 Kalakaua Ave.) Shower and head solo toward the North Shore.
Somewhere along H1, buildings give way to fields of wind-swept grasses. A light drizzle melts away the city bustle. Oahu, warm and welcoming, begins. Turn onto the Kamehameha Highway, itself a destination, and then break for lunch in the surf town of Hale‘iwa. Lunch on buttery scampi ($6.50, half-dozen) at Giovanni’s Aloha Shrimp (right off the highway), a popular graffiti-ed food truck where shrimp is served over a scoop of rice, al fresco. Next door, purchase a dark-chocolate-dipped pineapple slice ($2.50) at Chocolate Gecko Espresso.
Drive eastward along the North Shore for roadside beach hopping. I test my towel on one perfect sandy strand after another, watching big surf and big surfers work the shore. Stop at Waimea Beach Park to see the brave and foolhardy dive from the famous rock. A bout of rain chases some sunbathers away, but the view from under my sheltering towel is priceless — a rainbow.
On the way back into Honolulu, make perfunctory stop at Leonard’s Bakery (933 Kapahulu Ave.) for malasadas ($0.70 original, $0.90 cream-filled). Fall in love instantly, inhaling two of the famously fattening donuts with a pint of milk. Question why I bother working out at all; then purchase “Big Kahuna” plate lunch ($12) at Haili’s Hawaiian Foods (760 Palani St.). Valet staff mocks choice of rice over poi. I blush.
Evening ends with a post-wedding-rehearsal fete at the swanky Apartment 3 bar and lounge (1750 Kalakaua Ave.), located on the third floor of the Century Center.
Day 4: Sunday
Start the day, as one should in Hawai‘i, with a breakfast of spam and eggs ($8.50), served on the beachfront balcony at the Hula Grill, in the Outrigger Waikiki hotel (2335 Kalakaua Ave.). Then attempt to do what most folks come to Waikiki to do: Lie on the beach and do nothing. Am moderately successful for two hours, and then decide to try the other favored Waikiki activity — shopping. Wander up and down Kalakaua Avenue, where the fanciest of couture houses abut the tackiest of tourist traps. Return with a pair of “Gidget boardie shorts” ($38) and plush beach towel ($35) from Quicksilver (2181 Kalakaua Ave.) and a “poi bowl” soy candle ($10, www.bubbleshackhawaii.com) from one of the ubiquitous ABC stores.
Late afternoon, two charter buses deliver guests to the ceremony at the historic Kawaiaha‘o Church (957 Punchbowl St.), just down the street from ‘Iolani Palace, the residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom’‘s last two monarchs. Kawaiaha‘o is sometimes called “The Westminster Abbey of Hawai‘i,” and as the bride walks down the red-carpeted aisle, portraits of Hawaiian royalty look down from the sunlit balcony above.
A reception, back at the Surfrider, takes place just after sunset. Bilingual emcees introduce speeches and video greetings, in English and Japanese. Dancing continues long after dark A determined after party meets at Tsunami (1272 South King St.) — a lounge where chef Aaron Fukuda serves up fried ahi belly, drunken chicken and hamburgers.
Day 5: Monday
After checking out of the Surfrider and bidding my beloved friends at the valet good-bye, take groom’s younger siblings and cousin from Tokyo to lunch back at Keoni’s. This time opt for Thai food. Then head into the Honolulu burbs, where the groom’s family has rented a marina-front house in Hawai‘i Kai.
Onward to the ever-popular Hanauma Bay ($1 parking; $7.50, entrance fee; www.honolulu.gov/parks/facility/hanaumabay), where a million visitors come each year to snorkel. We don our rental gear ($11 for mask, fin and snorkel) and swim through the labyrinthine rocks toward the deep. Rough waves pummel us as tropical fish go about their business unfazed below. Black cliffs rise at the bay’s western end; white water sprays high into the air as surf collides with turf. The view just before returning to the parking lot is breathtaking: three shades of blue spreading out from a palm-lined shore. This is what I picture as my flight takes off, just before midnight that night — a mental postcard from a perfect Waikiki wedding.