The image of the island of Oahu, long-since associated with Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor, has morphed since the 1940s.
Today, the hipper-than-hip Hawaiian island lives up to its Polynesian name, "The Gathering Place," with a constellation of world-class hotels, restaurants, and a distinctly modern vibe that coexists with ancient traditions.
On the revitalized Kuhio Avenue sits the International Market Place that boasts over 80 stores exemplifying both Tiki and Polynesian pop cultures, originally serving as gathering place to shop, dine, and be entertained. This modernized plaza in the area of Oahu known as Kuluaokau was once a retreat for Hawaiian royalty (notably Queen Emma and King Lunalilo) but has recently received a facelift, and has over 80 stores sprawled over 345,000 square feet of space that coexist with a 160-year-old banyan tree.
But the development in this area is just beginning: a recent undertaking started by the Howard Hughes Corp. will infuse nearly $10 billion to develop an urban strip of land between Waikiki and Honolulu, which means visitors will see several condominium units and skyscrapers over the next ten years.
Here are ways to do the newly-reimagined Oahu on the cheap, the luxury, and anything in-between:
Stay at the recently-opened Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club on Lewers Street, which boasts stylish design and cozy touches, with an outpost of the clothing boutique Olive and Oliver. From the handcrafted mid-century inspired coffee tables to curated local artwork that can be found almost everywhere, this hotel is perfect for the design junkie, with vintage-inspired rooms. Rates range from $190 during the winter season to $250 in the summer. And considering that this hotel is just a ten-minute walk from Waikiki Beach, it’s worth every penny on the convenience scale.
The hotel offers surfing lessons on Thursday (these fill up fast, and are limited to four people at $95 per session), but if you crave adrenaline, head over to the east side of the island to H20 Sports Hawaii for affordable jet-ski, parasail, and snorkel rentals.
Home to Honolulu-born chef Ed Kenney’s Mahina & Sun’s, the Surfjack is a good place for an organic meal. If you want a less pricey option, head over to Dude’s Waikiki for some inexpensive surf ‘n’ turf.
A beautifully designed hotel by Portland-based Official Mfg. Co. is the Laylow, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. The 186-room, 65-suite hotel located on Kuhio Avenue is ideal for the traveler who loves both design and an urban location. Hotel rooms have a signature monstera leaf wallpaper that gives you an aura of Hawaiian nostalgia, and room rates run from $200 during the winter to slightly over $300 during the summer.
In the lobby, coffee aficionados can indulge in Stumptown’s delicious brews; the airy Hideout restaurant is a good place to sample some Pacific Rim cuisine supervised by chef Bryan Bayard (try the cocktails and the coconut-curry seafood stew, for starters).
If you want a more local dining experience, skip across the street to Marukame Udon’s Waikiki outpost, or to Yauatcha Waikiki Hong Kong teahouse (located next door at the International Marketplace) to sample dim sum in four ways: fried, pan-seared, steamed, and baked.
The Royal Hawaiian, a recognizable pink resort landmark that sits right on Waikiki beach, is affectionately called the “Pink Palace of the Pacific.” Don’t let its size (528 rooms and suites) fool you: the Kahehameha suite costs over $9,500 per night and boasts Hawaiian art and teak floors, and is ideal for couples.
For a fancy meal, dine at the Herringbone Waikiki, which is Top Chef Brian Malarkey's ode to California Cuisine with a restaurant that's focused solely on family-style dining (give the weekend brunch a try, with their bottomless mimosas and juices like liliko‘i, guava, and mango). To work off some of those calories, visit Aloha Jet Ski rentals and sprint around in the Keehi lagoon. A beautiful way to see the island is through the eyes of the experts at Hawaii Jeep Tours, which take you to lesser-known scenic spots (including Iolani Palace, the royal residence of the Hawaiian rulers from King Kamehameha III).
To top off the day, book a private charter sunset sail aboard the Vida Mia, a 61-foot wooden yacht built in 1929, which is moored at the private Waikiki Yacht club (celebrities from Louis Vuitton, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Travoltas have journeyed with her).