Oahu: 72 Hours in the Heart of Hawaii

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday November 9, 2019

This summer, Hawaii celebrated its 60th anniversary as the last territory to become a state in the United States. There's plenty to discover on Oahu, from beaches and shopping to the somber and powerful exhibitions at Pearl Harbor. Here's our essential guide for things to do on Oahu, from shopping and beaches to terrific restaurants and one of the best beachfront hotels.

With a populated history dating back more than 1,500 years, the Hawaiian Islands have long been the epicenter for rich and diverse cultural traditions. Honolulu became capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1845 (visit Iolani Palace, which served as the official residence of the kingdom's last two monarchs from 1882 to 1893), while today, the island of Oahu serves as the entry point for most travelers coming from the continental U.S.

Oahu Road Trip

You'll need a car (or a driver) to traverse Oahu and truly experience all that the island has to offer. Consider splurging on a convertible, but be prepared for quickly passing afternoon rain showers. Head north along route H2 with Giovanni's Shrimp Truck in Haleiwa as your target lunch destination. The island icon dates back to 1993 for its legendary garlicky shrimp plate. From here, you'll be close to Haleiwa Town Center, a pedestrian-friendly stretch of locally owned shops that offer a sampling of island style.

For those looking for international brands in the heart of Honolulu, head to the Ala Moana Center, packed with more than 350 stores and restaurants, including Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Lacoste and more.

Oahu's real beauty, though, is its gorgeous coastline and natural wonders. Continue to drive along the island's northern tip and south along the east side, and you'll discover Instagram-worthy vistas along the way, as well as terrific beaches for surfing, sunbathing and swimming. Be careful of the strong tides, though, and always heed hazard signs. Highlights include Haleiwa Beach Park (slightly calm waters), Sunset Beach (great for surfing), and Waimanalo Beach Park, located on Oahu's southeastern shores and a quiet spot frequented by locals.

Need a hand getting on that surfboard? Consider Uncle Bryan's Sunset Suratt Surf Academy, where local legend Bryan Suratt and his team of wave riders will get you backsiding in no time.

Luau with the Locals

No trip to Hawaii is complete without a traditional luau experience. Originally called "ahaaina," which translates to "gathering meal," King Kamehameha II reimagined the feast in 1819 to include women and create a more inclusive celebratory experience. Today, the luau is a quintessential part of any Hawaii getaway.

Foodie fans will appreciate the Diamond Head Luau, held at the Waikiki Aquarium. Admission includes time to explore the aquarium's 500 different marine species and take in the spectacular views of Mamala Bay. The farm-to-table menu sources local ingredients, and includes traditional favorites such as lychee wood-smoked marlin dip, uala (local sweet potato) chips, Kalua pork, and haupia (a traditional dessert made with coconut milk). The pre-show includes interactive experiences with the cast, and when the entertainment gets started, the talented ensemble uses movement and music to express the centuries-old traditions of Hawaiian culture.

Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941, is a day that will forever haunt American history, marked by the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that left 2,403 dead. There are many Pearl Harbor tours that offer insight and reflection as well as a larger perspective of world events leading up to the attack and response thereafter.

Visitors will be glad to know that after extensive restorations and repair, the USS Arizona Memorial reopened this fall. The USS Arizona remains submerged where the battleship was attacked and sank on that fateful day. Honolulu architect Alfred Preis designed the memorial, which was built over the sunken vessel.

The Remember Pearl Harbor Tour offers a comprehensive experience, which includes Waikiki pick-up/drop-off, visits to both the memorial as well as the USS Missouri, an impactful film at the Pacific Visitor Center, grounds admission, and a group guide.

A Taste of Hawaii

Hawaii's food scene has steadily gained national attention as more local chefs embrace the impact of multicultural culinary influences and reimagined island cuisine. Several must-eat spots include:

The Pig and the Lady — Oahu's Chinatown still feels somewhat undiscovered, until you stumble upon chef Andrew Le's spectacular take on modern Asian cuisine, inspired, in part, by his mother, Mamale. Primary influences come from Vietnam, but other flavor profiles inch their way into Le's vernacular for pops of flavor worth multiple visits.

Vietnamese "pizza," served on crispy layers of rice paper, makes for a sharable first course, topped with sour sausage, egg, shallot and rau ram herb. Other standouts include Cha Ca Hanoi, a punchy dish of fermented turmeric-marinated catfish with vermicelli noodles, peanuts, house pickles and pineapple-anchovy sauce; and the umami-packed red wine beef pho, overflowing with striploin and braised tendon and finished with calamansi, ginger and chili.

Cocktails are equally creative, such as Le Swoon, featuring locally made Ka Hana Agricole Rum, sweet potato, coconut milk and a dash of Aphrodite bitters.

Town — Local ingredients receive international flair at Town with a menu that changes depending upon the weekly harvest. Recent highlights include Sweet Land Farm goat cheese with tomatoes and preserved lemon, hand-cut pasta with Akule (think mackerel), and local pork from 2 Lady Farmers, served with breadfruit and pickled mushrooms.

Kono's Northshore — Pork fanatics need to look no further than Kono's, thankfully, with three locations throughout Oahu. Kalua, a traditional Hawaiian cooking method, is the key to Kono's succulent pork, slow-roasted for 12 hours. Breakfast bombers are a hearty way to start the day, packed with your choice of ingredients and rolled in a flour tortilla.

But for the real Kono experience, tackle the Old School, a massive sandwich served on a French roll and piled high with pulled pork, guava barbecue sauce and grilled onions. Those who want to spice things up can try the housemade habanero hot sauce and cool the palette with a signature milkshake such as the Lava Flow (pina colada and strawberry) or the Wilson (coconut, graham cracker and whipped cream).

Morimoto Asia Waikiki — Chef Masaharu Morimoto brings his signature style to the bustling Waikiki Beach with a menu that runs the gamut from Japanese to Thai to Chinese. The accessible offerings, while not groundbreakingly innovative, are exquisitely executed and show chef Morimoto's sensibility for pristine presentation and delectable combinations of texture and flavor.

Highlights include spicy tuna tacos with guacamole, jalapeno and micro cilantro; crispy whole fish, dramatically presented with papaya slaw; and roasted duck with steamed pancakes, apricot sweet chili and hoisin miso.

Stay a While

'Alohilani Resort — Located on land that was once Queen Lili'uokalani's beachside home, the five-year reimagining cost more than $125 million well-spent dollars under the creative supervision of The Rockwell Group. Led by David Rockwell, the multi-disciplinary firm is behind countless hotels, restaurants and even stage productions, including Broadway's "She Loves Me" and "Kinky Boots."

The soaring lobby welcomes guests to a spacious, airy oasis, with rooms and suites featuring ocean, Diamond Head and city views. Request a Premier Ocean Front view for the ultimate serene views from your private balcony.

Swell Pool & Bar on the hotel's fifth floor offers private cabanas to dream the day away, along with casual bites and refresh cocktails such as the Cabana Boy, prepared with Ketel One Botanicals cucumber mint vodka, Clement Mahina coconut liqueur, lime and pineapple juice.

The hotel has also partnered with the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative to bring indigenous trees back to the Hawaiian Islands. Head north to HLRI's Gunstock Ranch to plant your own.

Halekulani — For serene, five-star luxury steps away from the bustle of Waikiki Beach, the historic property that began as a collection of guest bungalows more than 100 years ago still retains its luxurious flair. Each of the 453 rooms and suites features the property's signature "seven shades of white," a serene palate that shines a spotlight on the breathtaking views.

This summer, Halekulani opened Cattleya Wine Bar within its Orchids restaurant. WineView, an informal tasting with winemakers and industry professionals, is offered on the first and third Thursday of each month and paired with specialty dishes selected by chef Christian Testa. Recent wine selections, such as Cleto Charli Lambrusco from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region and Chateau Musar "Jeaune" from Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, prove that Halekulani continues to push boundaries for oenophiles and casual wine enthusiasts alike.

Late Night

Scarlet Honolulu — For drag and dancing, head to Scarlet, where DJs spin the best of pop, EDM and more until 2 a.m. Familiar "RuPaul's Drag Race" favorites like Shuga Cain, Farah Moan and Jiggly Caliente have all graced the stage, bringing their high-heeled aloha spirit to the LGBTQ community.

Bacchus Waikiki — While Honolulu isn't necessarily bursting at the seams with LGBTQ bars, a friendly spot like Bacchus is all you need to connect with locals and tourists for a fun night out. Friendly bartenders pour stiff drinks, and depending on which night you plant yourself on a bar stool, you may find yourself amid rock 'n roll bingo or meeting up with the Aloha Bears.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at www.wexlerwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.