HONOLULU
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|April 2021
Hawaii’s capital city is as much Pacific idyll as it is cosmopolitan cool, offering indie shops, fusion food and sunset hulas under banyan trees. Dive in for a microcosm of the islands’ warm aloha spirit.
Pol O Conghaile
“When a Hawaiian says ‘aloha’, you must respond with energy,” says the guitarist leading a hula group on Kuhio Beach. It’s a word imbued with love, compassion and respect — a catch-all for laid-back island life. It also captures the spirit of Honolulu: a city of shave ice and tropical print shirts, of shady lanais (verandahs), fragrant leis (garlands) and buff beach boys surfing as sunshine smacks off cool, blue water. The skies are bright year-round and the ocean infuses everything, from fresh poke bowls to stories of early voyagers arriving by canoe.

Aloha doesn’t preclude a sense of momentum, however — as evidenced by Honolulu’s lively fusion food scene and the murals of its de facto arts district, Kaka‘ako. The area once defined by warehouses and vacant lots is now home to SALT at Our Kaka‘ako, a trendy mixed-use market and retail space, and is the heart of the annual POW! WOW! Hawaii festival. “POW! means the punch of art,” explains Jeff Gress, a local artist and the festival’s operations director. “WOW! is the reaction.”

Honolulu is huge by Hawaiian standards, but a mere speck compared to other US cities. Its coastal setting on the island of Oahu, dramatised by a cinematic ring of mountains, feels at once like a remote outpost and a bustling Pacific crossroads. It’s a city of traffic snarls and growing pains, but also a place where surfboards lean against office walls and everyone wears slippahs (flip-flops).

Concrete and glass blocks sprout from a downtown dotted with banyan trees, but walking around here, you’ll also encounter Iolani Palace (the only royal palace on US soil) and Chinatown — a mash-up of grit and gentrification, where you can visit the city’s best galleries, eat its most fashionable food and hear the visceral clunk of cleavers chopping pork belly in old-school markets. If Hawaii is the convergence of Polynesian, Asian and American cultures, Honolulu is its most thrilling expression.

SEE & DO

SURF’S UP IN WAIKIKI: It would be rude not to surf in Waikiki. Make your way to the beach in the morning before the wind and crowds pick up, then take a lesson with one of the local beach boys or rent a $20 (£15) long board for a better chance at balancing. Beginners should head for ‘Canoes’, the easiest break within swimming distance. If you manage to stand up, you’ll catch a sparkling view of the condo crammed skyline.

CHILL IN CHINATOWN: This is where Second World War sailors were inked with the motto ‘stewed, screwed and tattooed’; plantation-era immigrants made new starts; and Sailor Jerry set up shop. Today’s Chinatown is a sausage grinder of a city quarter, squeezing out a fascinating mix of history and the here-and now. Stroll through Oahu Market, browse garlands chilling in fridges at Cindy’s Lei & Flower Shoppe, wander the galleries, drink at one of the many dive bars and get your ‘grinds’ (eats) at a cutting-edge restaurant like Senia, a collaboration between chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush. restaurantsenia.com

BISHOP MUSEUM: Hawaii’s state museum is the place to get your cultural and historical bearings. A planetarium shows the stars that guided epic Pacific canoe voyages, while a large hall explores creation stories, the wao (realms) of Hawaiian life and historical chapters such as the grisly fate of Captain Cook. Small treasures like tiny pearl shell hooks make big impressions, too. bishopmuseum.org

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