Aloha, Oahu. The island home of the Hawaiian capital Honolulu is a study in delicious contrasts: luxe hotels, emerald-cloaked volcanic craters and the turquoise glint of the Pacific Ocean adding its own frisson at every turn.
Hugging the powder-soft sands of world-famous Waikiki Beach, The Royal Hawaiian occupies a swathe of the island’s most hallowed real estate. And as the hotel’s director of rooms, working at the iconic “Pink Palace” for the past six years, Australian-born Rachel Lindsay has the lowdown on island life.
“There’s definitely more to Hawaii than the beautiful beaches and surf breaks, although they help set a laid-back scene,” she says. “There are plenty of lesser-known outdoor experiences you can have here that make a memorable stay.”
And as Lindsay explains, Oahu is also a place where you can try authentic local food, raise a cocktail at a dreamy beachfront bar and indulge in some serious retail therapy. Here are her picks of the five best places to eat, swim and play.
Ultimate water activities
“Hanauma Bay, on the south-eastern coast of the island and about 25 minutes’ drive from Waikiki, is a calm and protected bay that’s also a marine life nature reserve. It’s my favourite spot to see how stunning underwater Hawaii really is.
“They limit the number of daily visitors to protect the area so be sure to make a reservation online. Visitors also watch a short video before heading down to the water so they know how to protect the ecology.
“You’ll see all sorts of marine life amid the coral – turtles, brightly coloured fish and starfish. There are hiking trails as well, so you can bring the family and spend the whole day here.
“Book a private yacht through Global Ocean Club for a super-luxe experience. You can tailor each trip with added extras – things like having a Michelin-starred chef go on board and cook for you – and you can hire the yacht for as little as two hours or for a whole weekend and sail to another island and stay overnight. A lot of our guests enjoy doing that.”
Ultimate food and drink
“If you’re interested in trying local food, you have to try a quintessentially Hawaiian plate lunch – a combination of rice, protein and mac salad. It’s delicious, affordable and super filling.
“Go to the Highway Inn in Kaka‘ako for a plate lunch that reflects the cultural diversity of Hawaii. Try its slow-cooked kalua pork and cabbage, a very local dish, and lomi lomi salmon (raw salmon with onions and tomato) with poi, another local dish, made from pounded taro. Like Vegemite, poi is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you have it with the lomi lomi salmon it gives it another flavour complexion.
“Without sounding too biased, I must say the Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian is the best place to get a drink. When people come to Waikiki they want to be able to have a cocktail on the beach and this is one of the few spots. There’s a list of around a dozen Mai Tais, including my favourite, the citrus-based Bali Mai Tai.”
Ultimate day trip
“There's so much to see and do on the North Shore, which is about an hour’s drive from Waikiki. Pipeline is the world-famous surf break that hosts the annual Billabong Pro surf competition, and Waimea Bay is a great surfing spot for experienced surfers during winter thanks to the huge swell.
Outside the winter months it's fantastic for anyone. It has a huge rocky outcrop that people jump off - it’s very entertaining and an iconic Hawaiian sight. Would I do it? No way!
“While you’re there, head to Waimea Bay Botanical Gardens. It's a beautiful lush tropical landscape and it’s easy to see why so many Hollywood productions, such as Jumanji, George of the Jungle, and the TV series Lost, have filmed here.
“The North Shore also offers horseback riding at Gunstock Ranch, where you can take part in the Hawaii Legacy Forest project. The family that owns the ranch is replanting it with native species so you can book a tour and plant a tree. You’ll get a certificate and the GPS location of the tree so you can track it from anywhere in the world and watch the progress of the tree. It connects people with a sense of place; it’s a really cool and unique experience.”
“If you’re after something unique or one of a kind, head to the North Shore where a long stretch of the Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa Town has boutiques selling locally made products. Everything from local art to fashion, swimwear and jewellery.
“Ala Moana is the island’s largest outdoor mall. It has something to suit every budget, from Chanel and Gucci, to Bed, Bath & Beyond, Macy’s and Nordstrom.
“Go shopping for designer brands at Waikele Premium Outlets which stocks Calvin Klein, Coach, Michael Kors and Saks 5th Avenue. If you go after Thanksgiving it's crazy busy but you’ll find some amazing deals – it’s just like Australia’s Boxing Day sales.”
“There are so many beautiful beaches on Oahu but my pick is Lanikai Beach. It’s on the west side of the island, about 40 minutes from Waikiki, and more of a locals’ spot, with public beach access paths between homes.
“It’s great for swimming as it’s pretty calm - you can just float around. A little further down, Kailua Beach is a beautiful stretch of beach in a charming town that reminds me of Byron Bay before it became really big.
“Hire a kayak and paddle across to a little island nature reserve called the Popoi’a Seabird Sanctuary, about two kilometres offshore. You can pay the kayak people for access – it’s about $10 and they’ll give you a time slot to head over. It takes about 45 minutes of paddling and is a unique experience that not many people know about. Take a picnic!
“Closer to Waikiki, I absolutely love Ala Moana Beach for swimming or stand-up paddleboarding. It's across the road from Ala Moana shopping centre and there’s a beach club atmosphere.”
Where to stay
Anyone who’s visited the renowned sands of Waikiki will have been struck by the flamingo-hued vision of cupolas and bell towers overlooking the beach. Otherwise known as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”, The Royal Hawaiian is as iconic as its address.
Shirley Temple created a sensation when she holidayed here in 1935 (the hotel’s bartenders created the vivid fuchsia Shirley Temple mocktail in her underage honour) and a Golden Age of Hollywood roll call, including Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, have all enjoyed its sumptuous hospitality.
And as The Royal Hawaiian celebrates its 95th birthday this year, it remains a portal to a glamorous past. You can step back in time in the historic original wing, where brocade wallpaper and ornate beds remain much as it was when former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a frequent guest.
Or choose a thoroughly modern room or suite in the more recent addition of the 17-storey Mailani Tower. Whichever you choose, sunsets are made for raising a cocktail to another perfect Hawaiian day.