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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE BEST OF WAIKIKI

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

January 2, 1989 -- Even though it's just two-thirds the size of New York's Central Park, Waikiki hosts 75,000 visitors a day and has 25,000 residents. It encompasses more than 1,000 retail shops, 440 restaurants, 350 bars and nightclubs, 34,000 hotel rooms, six beaches, several parks and a golf course.

Herewith a subjective collection of the best of the maelstrom.

Best People Watching: Stake out a beachside table at the Surf Room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and settle back with an iced tea. In less than an hour you will have heard a dozen languages and marveled at hundreds of lean, bronzed bodies in impossibly skimpy suits. If you prefer street life, hustle up a table at the open-air Burger King (corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Lewers Street). All of Waikiki passes by eventually.

Best Ice Cream: At Dave's Hawaiian (1050 Ala Moana in the Ward Warehouse) you can bust any diet with scoops of coconut macadamia, Kona Delight (Kona coffee candy and macadamia nuts) or vanilla studded with succulent whole poha berries. (They're the Hawaii variant of the gooseberry.)

Best Way to Get Around: Waikiki traffic is horrendous--thousands of tourists from all over the world driving unfamiliar rented cars on narrow streets with names like Keoniana, Kalaimoku, Kanekapolei and Kealohilani--so take advantage of TheBus, Honolulu's cheap (60 cents) and efficient transit system.

Best Car Rentals: Waikiki is clogged with rented Mustang convertibles and Suzuki Samurais, so be creative. Aloha Funway rents Maseratis, Jaguars and Porsches for $89 a day and up. Wander into its lot at 1984 Kalakaua Ave. for the exotic cars.

Best Snack: The Original Maui Kitch'n Cook'd Potato Chips are very thick, very crisp, sinfully addictive with a Diet Coke, and available in limited supplies. When you find them, be prepared to pay up to $4 for a 7-ounce twin-pack. (They sell for $8 in mainland gourmet shops.)

Best Sportswear: Waikiki is the vapid T-shirt capital of the world, but Crazy Shirts, with half-a-dozen Waikiki locations, turns out witty designs. Many of its T-shirts, sweatshirts and sport shirts spoof the current "logowear" trend; there's also a series featuring hilarious cat-and-mouse cartoons by B. Kliban.

Best Aloha Shirts: Skip the gruesome imported polyester travesties purveyed by most shops and hit the racks at Bailey's Antique Clothing Shop (2051 Kalakaua Ave.). It offers hundreds of the best designs ever produced by local shirtmakers. Although prices start at about $7, expect to pay as much as $500 for vintage rayon prints with coconut-shell buttons.

Best Bad Souvenirs: If you're looking for the silliest and most absurd trinkets Hawaii has to offer, Woolworth's (2224 Kalakaua Ave.) is a treasure trove. It's crammed with leis made from chewing-gum packages; plastic ukuleles; cheap beach sandals, wooden ashtrays and garish aloha wear.

Best Bar: The Mai Tai, the outdoor bar of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, owns the best location on Waikiki Beach. It's great for gazing at Diamond Head during the day, watching the sunset and scanning the night skyline.

Best Postcards: Truly memorable items can be found at P.S. Write Soon (374 Kalaimoku St.). Among its offerings: enchanting black-and-white photos of old Hawaii ($1.25), reproductions of works by local artists ($1-$5) and copper postcards embossed with Hawaiian designs ($1.50).

Best Sandwiches: Hidden behind an aging hotel, Ruffage (2443 Kuhio Ave.) is a scruffy-looking health-food store, but it turns out tempting fish, fowl and vegetable sandwiches on dense, crunchy multi-grain breads. A sandwich and one of the fruit shakes make a tasty $6 beach picnic. If only red meat will do, try Hamburger Mary's Organic Grill (2109 Kuhio Ave.), an alfresco bar and grill that's on target with huge burgers and overstuffed sandwiches. Lunch for two, with beer, costs about $20.

Best Sundries: The ABC Stores are handy combinations of grocery stores and hotel sundry shops. They're open 7 A.M. to midnight seven days a week, and there's a branch every block or so. They carry everything travelers need, including beach mats (89 cents) and Remy Martin X.O. ($85).

Best Book: DeSoto Brown's Aloha Waikiki ($7.95) is an engrossing paperback that uses pictures, postcards and promotional brochures to outline Waikiki's 100-year odyssey from swampland to big city beach resort.

Best Souvenir: Nothing compares with fresh-picked pineapple. Fresh From Hawaii kiosks scattered around Waikiki will box three and deliver them to your departing flight for $8.27. Or they'll air-courier three pineapples to your home for $23.95; pineapples shipped on Monday are delivered by Wednesday or Thursday.

Best Place for Macadamia Nuts: Mac nuts are everywhere in Hawaii: in cookies, cakes and muffins; in chocolate candies and brittles; even in syrups and fish sauces. Hawaii Country Store (2201 Kalakaua Ave.) offers the widest selection and lowest prices.

Best Kept Secret: Honolulu's Kapiolani Park at the east end of Waikiki is a gem of a public park at the base of Diamond Head. It's home to the Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium, the long-running Kodak Hula show, a golf driving range and lighted tennis courts. It's perfect for jogging, kite flying or lying in the sun. And pop, classical and Hawaiian music concerts at the Waikiki Shell become huge public picnics. Locals buy the lawn tickets, pack dinner, spread a blanket and party under the stars.

Best to Avoid: Unless you're intrigued by the prospect of seeing a Hawaiian sweatshop, skip the Hilo Hatties Fashion Center Tour. There are plenty of other places to buy polyester aloha wear.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright 1989-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.