HONOLULU – If you consider yourself a traveler rather than a tourist, you might tend to avoid Waikiki Beach. It’s too commercial. Overcrowded. Too much of a South Seas cliche.
But if you’ve been there, you know there’s lots to love about the crazy scene: the platoons of newbie surfers dodging catamarans and outrigger canoes. The beach bars. The perfect sandy beach, with visitors from around the world playing beneath windblown palms in the shadow of distinctive Diamond Head.
It’s fun for young and old. Still need convincing? Here’s a list of five things to do for millennials and five things to do for baby boomers at still-wonderful Waikiki.
No. 1 for the millennial
The warm sea and relatively mild surf at Waikiki can provide the perfect place to try getting on a board. I’m a boomer, and I signed up for an hour lesson along with my daughter’s boyfriend (a millennial and fearless snowboarder). Once the instructor persuaded him to abandon his snowboarding habits, he got in several good stand-up rides. I got one long ride on my knees (it was like floating on air) all the way into the beach, where I was happy to stay and nurse a bad case of spaghetti arms. (All that paddling takes it out of you.) $120 for two includes 60 minutes of instruction and an extra 60 minutes with the board, from Hawaiian Oceans Waikiki, in a booth on the beach. hawaiianoceanswaikiki.com.
No. 1 for the boomer
Kick back with a mai tai and watch all those surfers.
A great vantage point: the aptly named, open-air Beach Bar beneath the 138-year-old banyan tree at the Moana Surfrider, the first hotel built on Waikiki (circa 1901).
Oldest hotel, best mai tai: Cruzan light rum with a touch of orange Curacao and tropical juices beneath a float of dark rum ($12). Then get yourself a neon-colored inflatable ring (less than $4 at the ubiquitous ABC Stores) and do some blissful floating on the azure waves. 2365 Kalakaua Ave.; moana-surfrider.com/dining/beachbar.
No. 2 for the millennial
Climb Diamond Head at sunrise.
It’s the most popular hike on Oahu for good reason (don’t expect to be alone). Known as Le’ahi to natives, Diamond Head was used as a military lookout since before World War I, and the old bunkers are still there. The volcanic-crater rim’s high point is reached via a maze of trails, eerie pedestrian tunnels and steep, long staircases. The 0.8-mile climb (gaining 560 feet) isn’t for the faint of heart, but standing at the top is like being on Pride Rock. And the view as the dawn sun lights Waikiki is one to remember. Park opens at 6 a.m. daily; $5/car entry fee. dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/oahu/diamond-head-state-monument.
No. 2 for the boomer
Take in a free hula show at sunset.
Bring a beach towel and sit on the grass for the Kuhio Beach Hula Show beneath the giant banyan across Kalakaua Avenue from the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. The show features skilled dance troupes with authentic performances accompanied by live musicians. There’s a torch lighting and blowing of a ceremonial conch shell to start. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, weather permitting, 6-7 p.m. November through January; 6:30-7:30 p.m. the rest of the year; waikikiimprovement.com/waikiki-calendar-of-events/kuhio-beach-hula-show
No. 3 for the millennial
Tour a ukulele factory.
Oahu has several. Family-run KoAloha Ukuleles offers free tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday-Friday, a short drive from Waikiki. It’s an authentic small factory, hidden in an industrial district, with dust and noise, not a tour-bus stop, which means you might get a private tour to learn about how koa wood is bent into curvy shapes and why the internal “unibrace” gives KoAloha ukes a sweeter sound. If you’re lucky, 72-year-old founder Alvin “Pops” Okami might sing for you. 744 Kohou St., Honolulu. 808-847-4911 or koaloha.com.
No. 3 for the boomer
Tour the palace.
Iolani Palace, last royal home to Hawaii’s monarchs, is 15 minutes from the beach and, timewise, in another world—when these islands were self-governed. The residence of King Kalakaua and, later, Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarchs of Hawaii, was built between 1879 and 1882 in an “American Florentine” style. There’s even a throne room. Go at noon most Fridays to enjoy a free concert on the lawn (weather permitting) by the Royal Hawaiian Band, established by King Kamehameha III in 1836. Tours $14.75-$21.75. 346 S. King St., iolanipalace.org
No. 4 for the millennial
Stay at Surfjack Hotel and Swim Club and ride a vintage bike to the beach.
Part of the Aqua-Aston hotel group, the recently renovated and rebranded Surfjack projects a youthful retro-beach-club vibe accented by the postcard-y “Wish You Were Here!” message written in giant script across the bottom of the pool. Amenities include poolside movie premieres and bikes for guest use. 412 Lewers St., surfjack.com
No. 4 for the boomer
Stay at the classic “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” the Royal Hawaiian hotel, and get a massage.
Built in 1927 and reminiscent of a magnificent, flamingo-hued Moorish castle on the beach, here’s the most exotic lodging at Waikiki. Its Abhasa Spa (the name means “illusion” in Sanskrit) offers massages in the peace of the hotel’s tropical garden, hidden away just a short walk from Waikiki’s busiest shopping district. A rhythmic, Hawaiian-inspired Lomi Lomi massage starts at $145. 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; en.abhasa.com; royal-hawaiian.com
No. 5 for the millennial
Shop for bargain-priced Aloha-wear at Duke’s Marketplace.
You’ll find knock-off garish shirts for $12, surfing jams for $15, or whatever bargain you can strike at the rabbit warren of discount stands tucked behind high-rises off Kalakaua Avenue. “Printed T-shirts, 7 for $19.99,” one booth advertises, and there are puka-shell necklaces galore. Enter through the alley next to the Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber, 2300 Kalakaua Ave.
Or go for the retro classics and collectible shirts a few blocks up Kapahulu Avenue at Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts, which claims the world’s largest collection of Aloha shirts (more than 15,000). For the price-conscious, used shirts start at $3.99. 517 Kapahulu Ave.; alohashirts.com
No. 5 for the boomer
Shop for high-end crystal and fancy clothes at the new International Market Place.
This is where vendors like those at Duke’s Marketplace formerly held court, along with tarot-card readers and, in his early days, entertainer Don Ho. But the long-running market closed about three years ago and a new incarnation opened in August. About all that remains the same is the giant banyan tree at the market’s center, and the name. Otherwise it’s a very upscale shopping mall, home to Swarovski, Sunglass Hut, Anthropologie and Hawaii’s first Saks Fifth Avenue, among many others. Bring your Chase Sapphire card.
I was prepared to hate it. But its creators deserve credit for providing some pleasant public spaces for visitors to rest in $4,000 koa-wood rocking chairs, next to waterfalls and overlooking a children’s area with a water-play feature and sculpted bronzes of Hawaiian royalty—even a banyan treehouse dedicated to the memory of International Market Place founder Donn Beach, who once lived and worked in such a treehouse in the banyan in the mid-20th century. 2330 Kalakaua Ave.; shopinternationalmarketplace.com