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FAST TIMES AT A HONOLULU LAYOVER
By Joe Brancatelli
November 12, 2009 -- Life and business travel move in mysterious ways and both have conspired lately to keep me from spending any quality time in Honolulu. I used to be a regular here and, ever so briefly, a Waikiki resident--and it's always a blast to come back.
But a 48-hour layover? Really? That's all I get? That's just not fair. I need at least 48 hours to remember the traffic patterns in Waikiki, where most of the streets start with a K, end in a vowel and play havoc with tourists in their rented convertibles.
Still, if you race around like a maniac and interview everything that moves (including those swaying palm fronds), you can find good intelligence. In other words, I got news and notes to share.
Rampaging oil prices early last year wiped out Aloha and ATA, two carriers that had been growing their mainland-to-Hawaii route networks. Into the gap has come--surprise!--Alaska Airlines, which is hubbed and headquartered in Seattle. Alaska launched two new routes this week (Oakland-Maui and Oakland-Kona) and announced three more (San Jose-Maui on March 11; San Jose-Kona on March 12 and Sacramento-Maui on March 26). And even though it didn't even fly to Hawaii until October, 2007, it now will have 73 roundtrip flights a week. That's an astounding 11 percent of Alaska's total capacity. I flew Newark-Seattle and then Seattle-Honolulu to get here and even though I'm no fan of Boeing 737s on long routes, Alaska does a decent job in its 16-seat first-class cabins. But it really is long past time for Alaska to have in-seat power ports on these long hauls.
Alaska Air is not alone, however, because there's suddenly a revival of service to Hawaii from the mainland. Continental is adding flights from the West Coast, Air Canada is pioneering a Calgary-Honolulu route and American Airlines is restoring some service from its Chicago/O'Hare hub. And even US Airways is growing in Hawaii. It launches Charlotte-Honolulu flights on December 17. It's only the second nonstop to Honolulu from the East Coast; Continental flies nonstop from Newark.
A subsidiary of commuter carrier Mesa Air called go! launched in the inter-island market several years ago and its goal was simple: Destroy Aloha and/or Hawaiian Airlines, long the incumbent in the islands. Mesa helped bury Aloha, but the cost was high. It's been dogged by lawsuits, paid a fat settlement to Hawaiian and is bleeding cash. It got some breathing room last month when Republic Air, which controlled an inter-island start-up called Mokulele, did a deal with Mesa to leave go! as the survivor. But why fly the tinny, tiny 50-seat aircraft that go! operates when Hawaiian Airlines flies full-sized Boeing 717s? Hawaiian's coach fares start at $49 one-way and it offers advance-purchase first-class seats for $149. First class may seem extravagant on the short, inter-island routes, but the club access, the early boarding, the free baggage allowance and the extra legroom really make you feel as if you're on vacation. (And you are on vacation, right?)
Hilton, Marriott and Starwood each have a substantial amount of hotel inventory in Honolulu and let's be honest: You want to stay free on a frequent guest award. Starwood has tried to differentiate its Waikiki properties lately by shifting the recently renovated Royal Hawaiian into the Luxury Collection and rebranding the Moana as a Westin. But both properties, icons of a Waikiki before mass tourism, have dreary modern wings that aren't up to snuff. And the Sheraton Waikiki, currently getting made over, is a big, ugly tower full of small, ugly rooms. Hilton's big Honolulu presence, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, is a self-sustaining village. But it's also a factory and not particularly Hawaiian. You might do better across the street at the Doubletree. Hilton has also rebranded the old Prince Kuhio hotel as the Hilton Waikiki. The newish Embassy Suites is a decent, but not great, remake of a once-dreary dive managed by Outrigger, the local lodging giant. All of Marriott's Waikiki hotels are also conversions. The best is the Courtyard, which is also managed by Outrigger. It's decidedly not a run-of-the-mill Courtyard. And beware the JW Marriott: Nice as it is, it's isolated at a resort on the "wrong" end of Oahu, far from downtown Honolulu and even farther from Waikiki and Diamondhead.
But the big news in Honolulu is the Trump Waikiki, a condo hotel due to open next week. I got a sneak peek at the rooms and they are stunning: gigantic, with lavish kitchens, top-flight furnishings and all-marble bathrooms. Even if you think Donald Trump is a vulgarian (uh, guilty), you'll be impressed by this property. It's not only the first luxury hotel here in a generation, it's also unlike anything else in town. The longer you stay in Honolulu, the more you'll want to stay here. Opening rates are insanely low, too: $255 a night for a studio and $435 for a studio with an oceanfront view. They'll sleep four. Trump's one-bedroom suites start as low as $525 a night. Outside Waikiki, the Kahala Resort has just finished a renovation. Formerly a Hilton and a Mandarin Oriental, the Kahala is now self-managed. It should be better for what it charges and you have to crave a quiet, almost isolated, experience. But the hotel's beachfront location is among the best in Hawaii and the staff is friendly and helpful.
Coincidentally, I happened to show up at Chef Mavro on the night it got its AAA five-diamond award. Is this charming dining room just outside Waikiki expensive? Yes, but nowhere near as pricey as some places staffed by celebrity chefs who don't belong in the same kitchen with George Mavrothalassitis. And Mavro has the quaint conviction that he should actually be in the kitchen of the place that bears his name. He has matched all of his dishes with appropriate wines from around the globe, so all you do is order three or four courses and enjoy. Here's something else rarely said about temples of truly great cuisine: It's relaxing and fun to be here. Hell, I even loved Mavro's take on Brussels sprouts--and I despise Brussels sprouts. And do not ignore the amuse bouche or the little tidbits that come at the end of the meal. They are prepared with the same flair and attention as everything else at Chef Mavro.
At the other end of the price and experience scale is the Little Village Noodle House in Chinatown. It's a cheap and tasty example of the best of Hawaii-style Chinese food. The dumplings are great, there's plenty of tasty duck, many familiar dishes are done well--and don't miss the wonderful steamed basa (a mild Vietnamese catfish) in a light, fragrant ginger-onion-soy sauce. It's a BYOB place; four people can eat heartily (and take home leftovers) for about $80.
The sugary malasadas (a yeasty pastry of Portugese origin) are still addictive at Leonard's, Hawaii's best bakery. … Like Times Square in New York, Waikiki has been cleaned up and Disneyfied. It's actually boring now. Do we really need Prada, Chanel and Max Mara (complete with a front-window display of winter coats) at the beach? … A Friday-evening tradition in Waikiki--fireworks sponsored by the Hilton Hawaiian Village--is being cut back to once a month. … If you're into Hawaiian shirts, there are two interesting options: Avanti on Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main drag, specializes in silk reproductions of classic patterns. Jams World, located in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center on Kalakaua Avenue, has more outré designs and also offers a full line of tropical women's wear. If you can't bring yourself to indulge in extraordinarily colorful stuff, try Reyn's or Tori Richard, the choices of Hawaii's business community.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.