Where to eat, stay, and play on this food and sun lover’s island paradise.
During the five years I spent living in Hawaii, I thought of Oahu as nothing more than a transfer point between islands. I made multiple trips to the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai on Mid Pacific Air’s rattling turboprop airplanes, but I touched down in Oahu only once. It wasn’t until last summer—when I attended the Connoisseur’s Culinary Journey hosted by The Kahala Hotel and Resort in Honolulu—that I finally “discovered” Oahu.
Now, it’s my favorite island.
As a food critic and former chef on Hawaii, I was expecting to be impressed by Oahu’s Hawaii Regional Cuisine, but I was astonished to find the island’s beauty to be as captivating as that of Kauai and the Big Island. What’s more, Oahu’s diversity makes it the most compelling of all the islands: The culture is rich and the history deep.
On Memorial Day alone, I left flowers for a friend at the awe-inspiring National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific; climbed the 1,048 rickety steps of an old rail tram up the side of Koko Crater; and hiked through Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau State Historic Site known as a sacred place of worship. All three spots were high above the crowds—nearly in the clouds—with breathtaking panoramas of the ocean.
I had heard Oahu was beautiful, but I had no sense of the natural wonders found at every turn, such as the gorgeous mountain backdrop at Kualoa Regional Park. Oahu is now my “real” Hawaii. At one time, the island didn’t seem worth spending $19 and 30 minutes on a flight from Kauai—but today, 5.5 hours and $500 (about what it costs for a round-trip flight from Oakland to Honolulu) seems tantalizingly possible.
The Kahala Hotel and Resort
Up until Barack Obama, who vacationed with his family each winter at a private residence on Oahu, every president since Lyndon Johnson has stayed at The Kahala, and it’s easy to see why. The hotel feels far removed from the hubbub of Honolulu, yet it’s only 15 minutes from Waikiki Beach. Located in front of a country club and next to a public park, The Kahala offers its own beach and a 26,000-square-foot lagoon, with stingrays, dolphins, and fish—creating a setting more idyllic than the Hawaii of my imagination.
But the clincher for me was the relaxed setting and genuine aloha from the staff. The Kahala is plantation-style elegant with none of the glitz or stuffiness one might expect.
Of The Kahala’s many dining options (there are five venues), the Sunday buffet brunch at Hoku’s—where Obama has been spotted—is not to be missed. A bottomless catch of chilled lobster, ruby sashimi, oysters on the half shell, lomi-lomi salmon, and succulent miso-marinated butterfish is just the preface to sliced-to-order rack of lamb and prime rib.
We planned to have the brunch on our last morning at the hotel, and I rose before dawn to do some laps in the protected cove. That swim turned out to be the highlight of the trip. I started in the quiet dark, but each time I switched my breaststroke from west to east, the sun’s crown poked a little higher—until I was bathed in full sunlight.
But there are many other ways to enjoy the ocean here. Stunning views can be seen while doing yoga outdoors at The Kahala’s Chi Health and Energy Fitness Center. Moreover, some of the island’s best snorkeling is just a morning shuttle ride away, and the Holokino Hawaii Sailing Tour gives guests a ride in an open sailing canoe while learning about Oahu’s Kona District and ancient Polynesian navigation techniques. Guests can even swim with The Kahala’s resident dolphins.
While I’d choose The Kahala over Mar-a-Lago any day, we’ll see if President Donald Trump honors the tradition of staying here. If the standard 550-square-foot room won’t do, the Presidential Suite should suit him. Or maybe he’ll go huge: The Kahala’s 2,200-square-foot penthouse Imperial Suite is also available. .
Hawaii Regional Cuisine
A term that was coined in 1991, Hawaii Regional Cuisine has matured into a movement. Its distinctive brand of Asian and Pacific Islander flavors reflects Oahu’s cultural melting pot. It’s a farm-to-table philosophy that has caught the imagination of native chefs who take pride in reformulating the humble dishes of their ancestors.
Roy Yamaguchi, a pioneer of the movement, says the signature Hawaiian restaurants that opened decades ago continue to thrive, but “those same chefs are branching out and opening restaurants with more comforting dishes.” Yamaguchi is a perfect example.
His cuisine increasingly has become influenced by the various ethnic groups in Hawaii. In the past six months, Yamaguchi has opened several spots that celebrate Hawaii’s ethnic heritage, including two Eating House 1849 restaurants (think lumpia, rice bowls, and ramen) in Oahu.
Alan Wong also helped revolutionize Hawaii Regional Cuisine while working at The Canoe House Restaurant, which opened more than 25 years ago on the Big Island. He is now known for his two Honolulu restaurants, The Pineapple Room and Alan Wong’s Honolulu.
While these top chefs utilize modern culinary techniques, it’s the island traditions and the farmers and purveyors that drive the menus. Take George Mavrothalassitis, whose Chef Mavro opened more than 15 years ago and remains one of the classiest restaurants in Honolulu.
“When I came to Hawaii, most of the ingredients were imported from the mainland,” he says. “Now, most of the produce and fish featured in top Hawaii restaurants are from the islands.”
Today, menus are laced with island vegetables, meats, and tropical fruits. Not only does eating local products help connect tourists to the land and sea, but it also supports the local economy and enhances ohana—a spirit of family developed between chefs and farmers that carries over to the staff and diners. There’s never been a better time to dine on Oahu.
Hit these spots to gain a whole new appreciation for Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
• Chef Mavro
Whether you opt for four or 14 courses, Mavro-thalassitis’ playful use of indigenous ingredients and adherence to French techniques translate into a classy and lively dining experience. The foods’ presentations—especially those of the ahi tartare and the shutome (swordfish) with beurre rouge and potato “scales”—are whimsical and precise. .
• Roy’s Beach House at Turtle Bay
Ask for a table on the patio at this waterfront restaurant that opened last August, and indulge in some of Yamaguchi’s signature dishes, such as the short ribs with Haleiwa braising greens, and the macadamia nut–crusted mahimahi with Waialua asparagus. Lesser-known creations, including the cockles and chorizo in coconut curry broth, are equally delicious. .
• Koko Head Cafe
Chef Lee Anne Wong has managed to make this fun, high-energy, brunch-only café into one of Hawaii Regional Cuisine’s strongest voices—after less than five years on the island. Her innovative, fulsome dishes are inspired by local comfort fare and Oahu’s panoply of Asian cultures. .
• Leonard’s Bakery
When in Paris, rise at dawn to get a warm pain au chocolate; when in Honolulu, start your day at 5:30 a.m. at Leonard’s. This 65-year-old bakery is famous for its hot, sugar-dusted malasada—a plump ball of fried dough that can be stuffed with chocolate or custard. Or you can simply enjoy it fluffy and plain (so you’ll have room for at least two). .
Complement your culinary adventures with some expeditions.
• Shangri La
With an aim to deepen visitors’ understanding of Islamic culture, this oceanfront museum couldn’t be more relevant. Built as the home of American heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke, the property is filled with more than 2,500 pieces of Islamic art purchased during Duke’s extensive travels. Guided tours start and end at the Honolulu Museum of Art. .
• Iolani Palace
Tour this National Historic Landmark that was once home to King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani. Built in the 19th century, the Iolani Palace can be seen in its original grandeur replete with opulent decor and traditional Hawaiian wood furniture. Take a docent-led or self-guided audio tour from the basement gallery, and meander to the throne room and the lavish bedroom suites. .
• Kahuku Farms
Take a ride in a tractor wagon during the Smoothie Tour, and get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most diverse tropical produce farms in Hawaii. (Bonus: You’ll get to enjoy a smoothie made of papaya, apple, banana, haupia, and pineapple juice.) Stay for lunch at the Farm Café, and shop for local products like chocolate made from the farm’s own cacao. .
• Pearl Harbor
The USS Arizona Memorial, where 1,177 sailors lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor, is perhaps the most moving site in Oahu—and it is certainly the most emblematic of the island’s modern history. The USS Missouri, whose colorful history includes firing the first Tomahawk missile in Operation Desert Storm, is equally awe-inspiring. Visiting these mighty ships is a fitting conclusion to any trip to Oahu. .