O’ahu: Where to Stay (Or Not) in Waikiki

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The Shore Bird’s beach-side porch at Waikiki’s Outrigger Reef on the Beach

On my recent trip to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, I was given the opportunity to travel around the island, and to visit/experience several hotels along and near Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach.

The following are my picks, for where to stay — and not stay — on your own fun, relaxing and/or romantic Waikiki vacation.

Go forth and book responsibly.

Set on the southwestern tip of the island, Honolulu is O’ahu’s urban center and Waikiki is its most touristy district. You’ll see enormous numbers of Japanese tourists in fascinatingly island-incongruous outfits, as well as young Australians in dreads and organic cottons and Americans of all ages in comfortable shoes. A series of stunning beaches spread along a 1 ½-mile-long ribbon of white sand (some of it imported from Southern California’s Manhattan Beach), Waikiki Beach is laid end to end with concrete sidewalks, well-landscaped parks, and commercial enterprises.

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Waikiki Beach Walk

Here you’ll find the palm-fringed Waikiki Beach Walk; a metric ton of ABC Stores (these packed-to-the-rafters convenience stores are literally found on every block); boutiques for everything from luxury fashion brands to Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops; coffee chains and gleaming restaurants; and (mostly) high-rise and largely expensive hotels, all of which have their own lobby-based worlds.

Outrigger Reef on the Beach: This is where I was booked for all five nights of my stay, though I would have been fine with just one or two. This well-renovated mid-range hotel is possibly better suited to a budget-minded girls’ getaway: there’s almost nowhere to sit off by yourselves, the Shore Bird’s bar scene is loud and crowded (despite being set on a sweeping, beach-side porch), the pool has no beach view, and while I didn’t have a chance to try the seemingly elegant Ocean House Restaurant, I can attest that the pool-side grill specializes in over-salted fried food at a premium price.

However, the Outrigger does gets you right on the beach, their on-site Serenity Spa has comfy robes and some kick-ass masseuses, and there are cool touches of Hawaiian ohana spirit, like ukelele and lei-making classes and an amazing band of award-winning Hawaiian musicians who play pool-side. And if you’ve come to O’ahu to renew your vows, the traditional Hawaiian ceremonies performed on the Outrigger’s stretch of sand in the blush of sunset are full of love and grace.

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Scenes from Outrigger Reef on the Beach: the bar band, the pool, the spa, and a double vow renewal

Also, my Pacific Tower room was comfortable and stylish, with an innovative wood-shuttered separation between the bed and sink areas. If you’re okay skipping out on a beach view, you might want to book a second-floor room to get your own quiet, outdoor patio. If you’re a light sleeper, know that the Outrigger’s soundproofing is low, and a lot of light comes in from the hallway at night; to block this, line up  a couple of pillows at the base of your room’s front door. Be sure to try the refreshing pineapple black tea provided, and enjoy the free wi-fi.

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My bed, bath area and patio view at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach

Sheraton Waikiki: Yes, it’s enormous, yes, it’s half-full of multi-generational families on vacation, and yes, its Rumfire nightclub is obnoxiously loud, but  I fell in deep like with this sprawling hotel next door to the Outrigger Reef on the Beach. Not unlike the Mafia in Godfather 3, it kept pulling me back in.

I didn’t visit a guest room, but I could see that the beach-side ones have balconies with wood-slat, padded lounge chairs. At the infinity pool overlooking the beach, you can borrow orange inner tubes and float-gaze out at the Pacific and the far-off peak of Diamond Head. The adjacent bar, The Edge, serves lunch and sexy-looking cocktails on a relatively quiet, romantic patio with the same view as the pool. There’s a fancy Japanese restaurant right on-site, as well as a Peet’s Coffee & Tea, my personal idea of a good time. At the back end of the lobby, there are hand-carved pool tables, and rocking chairs set beside a dreamy, lotus-studded koi pond.

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The soaring tower, infinity pool, Edge bar and grill, and koi pond at the Sheraton Waikiki

Moana Surfrider: Also a historic and elegant standby built in 1901, this study in white has all the peaceful, adult trappings of a romantic hotel, and I’d personally love to give it a whirl. I was surprised, though, to find it populated almost entirely by women on girls’ getaways.

The patio bar, stocked with frou-frou tropical cocktails, is settled around a ginormous banyan tree, but sheltered from it by umbrellas at every table; I’d ask to have my umbrella lowered so I could look up at the tree during the day and at the stars at night. You can eat all your meals — including a fancy afternoon tea — on an adjacent veranda, or head indoors to the wood-paneled wine bar or gently glowing surf-and-turf restaurant. The spa here looks drop-dead amazing (hello, private ocean-view whirlpool), there are soft and colorful touches in every room, and, like its neighbor the Royal Hawaiian, the hotel itself is set on one of Waikiki’s widest stretches of beachfront.

The Royal Hawaiian: Pure Hawaiian-style luxury in a big pink package. After breakfast, a short tour and a wander ’round the lush grounds and airy lobby, I can firmly say that I’m on board. Light on families and people under 40, this elegant grande dame from the 1920s is full of quiet nooks and special touches. The beds have hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts and pillows, and the Maile bath products are Hawaiian-made, as well. A big ol’ side porch offers rocking chairs with a garden view, and there’s a Cartier in the plush-carpeted lobby — and who doesn’t want to gawk at sparkly things? No one I want to travel with, that’s for sure.

The beach-adjacent pool is an intimate affair, beach activities like surfing and outrigger canoeing (which I strongly advocate as a darn good time) are based right here, and the main restaurant is all candlelight and chandeliers and ocean-air flow-through. Hear that? It’s me sighing…as I try to figure out how to pay for all this.

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Scenes from The Royal Hawaiian: the back lawn, the pool, the lobby, and the linens

Hilton Waikiki: It’s a block or so off the beach, but a few things caught my eye (and tastebuds) here. The pink-lit bar in the gorgeous, marble-inlaid lobby is set beside a lushly-landscaped central courtyard, and the live music playing here was a gentle trill rather than a raucous jam. The panoramic view from the 37th floor events room is an ideal way to see Waikiki and Honolulu’s hills from on high, and you can get a similar vibe from guest-room balconies even a dozen floors below. The 10th-floor heated pool has its own bar and grill and a wide-angle view of the Pacific, and the new chef, Food Network Challenge-winner James Aptakin, is seriously talented. The main restaurant here, Mac 24-7, is known for multi-pound plates of tropical pancakes, but I’ll remain ever loyal to Aptakin’s delicate skill with seafood, sauces and food-allergy work-arounds.

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The bar, central courtyard and view from the 37th floor at the Hilton Waikiki

Hilton Waikiki Hawaiian Village: This giant hotel is not a place to stay unless you’re in O’ahu on a multi-generational family reunion. It’s a something-for-everyone kind of place, unless your something is romance: the pool, lobby, and beach are all packed with gleeful and running children and their tired adult family members. Oh, and there’s a Benihana that looks just like a red-lacquered Buddhist temple. The shopping village here, styled loosely after a Chinatown market, is adorable and full of cheap places to eat, so by all means, consider a visit.

The Modern Honolulu: I confess that I didn’t have an opportunity to visit this hotel myself, but nonetheless think it bears mentioning. Several folks on my media trip were booked here, and they all agreed that it’s delightful. A sexy, streamlined boutique hotel designed for grown-ups, it has a lantern-lit adults-only pool ideal for wafting and lounging, with a Sunday afternoon DJ; a private couples’ suite in the spa; two glamorous Japanese-Hawaiian restaurants; and iPods and iPads upon request. No, it’s not on the beach — it’s a block away, around the corner from the Outrigger Reef — but it appears that this is where romance might just take hold in Waikiki.

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I was invited to experience O’ahu by the O’ahu Visitors Bureau,
who sponsored my lodgings at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach,
as well as a breakfast at The Royal Hawaiian 
and cocktail parties at the Outrigger and the Hilton Waikiki.

That aside, all opinions and observations
presented here are my own. This is, after all, what I do.

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