The idea of seeing a city by foot isn’t most travelers’ idea of a week in Hawaii. But Honolulu is well worth a day’s look. (Even if you’re not planning to follow this Brady Bunch guidebook to the Hawaii capital.)
It's lovely, diverse, compact -- with beaches, hiking trails and a United Nations scene of cuisine on offer. Plus, the handbook to 30-something intellectualism, Monocle, last summer put Honolulu as the world’s 11th best in terms of quality of life (the only US city on the list).
Here’s one classic scenario at getting your feet wet with the goodness of Honolulu, without actually getting your feet wet.
Begin a day with a 45-minute self-guided or 90-minute guided tour of USA’s only royal palace, the stunningly ornate, palm-surrounded, Victorian-era building that housed the last Hawaii king and queen until the overthrow of the Hawaii kingdom in 1893. Afterwards it served as the state capitol until 1967 – a year later the TV show ‘Hawaii Five-O’ supposedly set up its police department in the building. It was surprisingly modern from the get-go, with hot water and electric lights before the White House even had electricity. Note: It’s closed on Sunday and Monday.
The palace is in the heart of the compact, appealing downtown. Follow King St northwest to pedestrian-only Fort Street Mall, then head southwest to the water. Take the (free) elevator to the top of the four-storey 1926 Aloha Tower to check out the historic murals of old Honolulu and get a harborfront view. Just south is one of the city’s best museums, the Hawaii Maritime Center, which covers the state’s sea connections from Captain Cook to windsurfing. Visitors can also visit the Falls of Clyde, the world’s last four-masted, four-rigged ship (built in 1878).
Honolulu’s Chinatown – a short walk north (via Fort Street Mall then North Hotel Street) – is a lively scene of noodle shops, noodle factories, herbalists, markets and temples that date from the days when the first Chinese immigrants moved here during the Civil War. Stop in Oahu Market, at N King and Kekaulike Sts, for a bubble tea, then sit down for sizzling butterfish or plump Shanghai noodles at the classic Little Village Noodle House.
Manoa Falls Trail
Assuming you’ve already seen Pearl Harbor – and technically it’s outside Honolulu – fill a part of the afternoon with a short 1300-yard hike to Manoa Falls. It’s near Barack Obama’s old neighborhood of Makiki Heights – and great short walk above a rocky streambed lined with mahogany and orange African tulip trees. The falls drops 100 feet. It’s lovely but not to be swam in. Drive, taxi or take TheBus 5 Manoa Valley from the Ala Moana Center in Central Honolulu, south of downtown.
After the hike, save your appetite for one of the city’s most surprising meals. Side Street Inn, in Central Honolulu, looks like heck from outside – something of a sports-bar with a menu to be avoided. Don’t. It’s a local hangout, with area chefs coming too, that’s famous for its kalbi short ribs and pan-fried pork chops.
Resistance to the tiki is futile in these parts. End the day at the irreverent and unbelievably kitschy ‘50s joint La Mariana Sailing Club (tel 808-848-2800; 50 San Island Access Rd) by the lagoon overlooking the airport. It’s filled with yachties and long-time locals, with killer mai tais to fuel dreams of sailing to Tahiti. Or opening a tiki bar back home in Louisville.
For more on Honolulu and Oahu Island, pick up Lonely Planet's all-color guidebook to Honolulu, Waikiki & O'ahu.