Whenever we’ve asked for advice about where to go in Hawaii, whether for this latest excursion or one twenty years earlier, we invariably hear the same suggestion: skip Honolulu. It’s a place where the conventional wisdom has travelers stopping only long enough to catch a connecting flight to some other, presumably better, Hawaiian destination. We’re told Honolulu is too crowded; too touristy; too developed; too this or too that.
That’s too bad. Because what we found in Honolulu is an island city with almost too many great things to count. That won’t stop us from trying, though. We love Honolulu, and here’s our abbreviated list of reasons why you should too.
Beaches to bum on
It wouldn’t be Hawaii without surf, sand and sun, and Honolulu has each in abundance. Whether your thing is just relaxing with a Mai Tai in hand at a resort on Waikiki, spying on sea creatures under the sparkling clean water at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, or bodysurfing the rough and rugged waves at Makapuu there’s bound to be a beach to suit your needs.
Culture(s) to explore
Originally settled by Polynesian migrants and eventually annexed by the United States, this Pacific Ocean archipelago is the very definition of East meets West. Nowhere is that dynamic more on display than in the cosmopolitan city of Honolulu.
Visit working Buddhist temples in bustling Chinatown, marvel at one of the best collections of Asian art we’ve seen anywhere, or spend a day or days exploring the 42 acres of the kitschy, but sincere, Polynesian Cultural Center.
And don’t forget to dine on fabulous ramen at any one of the city’s wonderful Japanese restaurants or sample a less wonderful but apparently popular Hawaiian Spam musubi. Saki please!
Jungles to trek
Leave the city streets behind (you can even take the number 5 bus) and immerse yourself in Jurassic Park jungles, literally. On the short but muddy trek to the 100-foot-tall Manoa Falls you’ll pass through bamboo-laden rainforests Jurassic enough to serve as a backdrop for the movie and also for the T.V. series Lost. You’ll never feel so far from the city and yet be so close to civilization.
Volcanoes to climb
Climb out of the woods and into the sky atop two different volcanic craters that both offer panoramic island views. Diamond Head is probably Oahu’s most popular hike so try the Koko Head Crater Trail for a steeper and less crowded alternative.
Or choose any one of Honolulu’s other fantastic hikes.
Art and artifacts to appreciate
Find refuge from the mid-day heat in the cool climates of Honolulu’s great museums. There’s no shortage of options from which to choose. There are collections devoted to Hawaiian artists (Hawaii State Art Museum), contemporary artists (The Spalding House), international masters (Honolulu Museum of Art), and natural history (The Bishop Museum).
With so many world class museums around it’s okay to spend a little of your Hawaiian vacation indoors. That sunburn needs a break anyway.
History to relive
A conquering king leads his forces to victory on the eastern slopes of Oahu and unifies the Hawaiian Islands under his monarchical rule.
On a winter day that still lives in infamy, a surprise attack on Oahu’s western harbor draws a large republic into the Second World War and changes the course of history.
These events, and others, are commemorated and illuminated by Oahu’s palaces, museums, temples, monuments and statues like nowhere else on the islands.
Architecture to ogle
There’s more to Honolulu architecture than tiki huts and resort towers. Although those things certainly exist, they do so alongside a city of breathtaking architectural diversity. There’s the customarily Gothic Cathedral of St. Andrews and the distinctly Hawaiian State Capitol building whose cone-shaped legislative chambers were patterned after the island’s volcanoes. There’s King Kalakaua’s Iolani Palace featuring architectural elements seen nowhere else in the world and Doris Duke’s 14,000-square-foot Shangri La that draws its inspiration from Islamic art.
Energy to enliven
Honolulu is the energetic Yin to Hawaii’s hang-loose Yang. With spirited nightlife and bustling streets, Honolulu gets you out of your hammock and makes you feel alive.
So don’t let the naysayers dissuade you. Sure, Honolulu isn’t Maui but Maui isn’t Honolulu either. Each has its own charm. Each is remarkable in its own way, and each deserves your love. I know they each have ours.