The Brancatelli File



January 4, 1989 -- The County of Honolulu encompasses the whole island of Oahu, but the city itself is strung out along the Southern shore of the island. And much of the Honolulu encountered by travelers lies between the airport to the west and Diamond Head, the famous extinct volcano, to the east.

Waikiki, where virtually all the hotel rooms are, is a 600-acre enclave bordered by the Pacific Ocean (south), Diamond Head (east) and the Ala Wai Canal (west and north). Downtown Honolulu is 7 miles west of Waikiki. But that's the last time you'll hear directions in familiar terms, because local use their own compass-point terms: Diamond Head (easterly, toward the volcano); ewa (westerly); makai (southerly, toward the sea), and mauka (northerly, toward the mountains). Expect to hear directions like: "Your hotel is on the makai side of Kuhio Avenue," or "Drive Diamond Head of Lewers Street."

No makeover on Waikiki has been as revivifying as the $100 million renovation of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The Village is just that: a 22-acre community of four high-rise guest towers, 2,500 rooms, a private lagoon, 100 shops, several gardens, 11 bars and restaurants, three pools and two nightclubs. The complex now offers both elegant understatement and spectacular glitz. The understatement comes in the new public areas: they are invigorating, open-air facilities overlooking a long stretch of palm-shaded beach. The glitz? A two-tier, 10,000-square-foot "superpool" surrounded by lava-rock waterfalls and flowering plants. Double rates begin at $139 per night. Address: 2005 Kalia Rd.; telephone 800-445-8667 or 808-949-4321.

The Hyatt Regency Waikiki, undergoing its own $35 million face-lift, is Honolulu's most frenzied hotel lobby, atop a busy shopping atrium. It's also home to two popular dance halls. But the private, 110-room Regency Club is another story, because club guests have exclusive use of the rooftop sundeck. Forty stories above the hubbub, all is grandly peaceful: the tanning, the cool-water Jacuzzi, the unattended cooler of beer and soft drinks and the endless view of the Pacific and Oahu's green, misty mountain ranges. Regency Club rates begin at $195. Address: 2424 Kalakaua Ave.; 800-228-9000 or 922-9292.

Just a few steps away is the Aston Waikiki Beach Tower, an all-suite hotel that's as urbane and sophisticated as you'll find in Honolulu. Each suite has a large, wrap-around lanai, a wet bar and full kitchen facilities. Rates begin at $239 for a one-bedroom suite; two-bedroom suites, which accommodate a maximum of six people, go for $335 and up. Address: 2470 Kalakaua Ave.; 800-367-5124 or 926-6400.

Sheraton's Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the legendary Pink Palace, is no longer Waikiki's finest guesthouse. But its Moorish-style main building—opened in 1927 and still pink, turreted and protected by lovely formal gardens and palm trees—remains the most evocative piece of architecture on the beach. Rates begin at $160 in the main building. Address: 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; 800-325-3535 or 923-7311.

The main building of another famous Sheraton, the Moana Surfrider, is still undergoing a $50 million restoration. Built in 1901, the Moana was the first hotel on Waikiki Beach. Rates for a double room range from $115 to $230. Address: 2365 Kalakaua Ave.; 800-325-3535 or 922-3311.

And then there is the Halekulani, Hawaii's best resort. George Lang's accompanying story has all of the glorious details. If the Halekulani is booked up, however, it's not facetious to consider the Waikiki Parc Hotel as the "Halekulani Lite." It was built by the company that owns the Halekulani and it's located right across a narrow lane. The Waikiki Parc's public rooms and 298 guest rooms are decorated in the same cool whites and blues as the Halekulani. And the Waikiki Parc has the same style as its sibling: quiet, reserved and dedicated to unobtrusive service. About a third of its rooms have ocean views. Rates for two range from $90 to $165. Address: 2233 Helumoa Rd.; 808-921-7272.

Three of Honolulu's most notable hotels are situated in residential neighborhoods away from the crush of Waikiki. Long considered the city's best resort, the Kahala Hilton has everything from a tennis club and spa to dolphins and penguins cavorting in a beachside lagoon. There's even a secluded island 50 yards offshore where guests can picnic. Rates begin at $180. (Address: 5000 Kahala Ave.; 800-445-8667 or 734-2211.) At the quieter northern edge of Waikiki, the Colony Surf is usually rated Honolulu's finest "small" hotel. It offers just 100 one-bedroom suites and studio apartments in two residential towers that are located on a quiet beach in the shadow of Diamond Head. Rates begin at $100. (Address: 2895 Kalakaua Ave.; 923-5751.) Tucked away in one of Honolulu's coolest, greenest corners is the elegant seven-room Manoa Valley Inn. Built as a gabled country mansion in 1915, the inn was restored in 1984 by a local sportswear mogul who used cash generated by his Waikiki boutiques. Rates range from $80 (with a shared bath) to $145. (Address: 2001 Vancouver Dr.; 800-634-5115 or 808-947-6019.)

True to a mostly Asian heritage, local dine out much more often those of us on the mainland. Add 6 million hungry tourists and you've got a town that teams with restaurants.

For obvious reasons, Honolulu has an unusually vibrant hotel dining scene. In fact, a trio of grand "gourmet" rooms rank near the top of any accounting of the city's best dining. The Third Floor (Hawaiian Regent Hotel, 2552 Kalakaua Ave.; 922-6611) marries exceptional renditions of continental standards with a dazzling hors d'oeuvres buffet featuring crab-stuffed celery, smoked trout, sashimi and many other items. At Bagwells 2424 (Hyatt Regency), chef On Jin Kim loves to experiment with local meats, fishes and tropical sauces. One example: opakapaka (pink snapper) in phyllo pastry on a puree of mango. Bagwells also has a 400-bottle wine cellar (10 are available by the glass) and a lounge where guests can sample dishes from the dinner menu. Michel's at the Colony Surf is surely Honolulu's most romantic restaurant. Tuxedoed waiters serve classic French cuisine in a stunning chandeliered dining room that opens directly onto the beach. Dinner for two without wine at any of the three can easily cost $125.

It's taken the California Pizza Kitchen (Kahala Mall, 4211 Waialae Ave.; 737-9446) only a year to establish itself as one of Honolulu's most popular lunch and dinner spots. A Beverly Hills transplant, CPK is a slick black-and-yellow café with crisp pizza, excellent salads and acceptable pasta dishes. Among the 22 pizzas and 13 pastas are several bizarre-but-effective combinations (for example, Thai chicken pizza with peanuts, and angel-hair pasta with shrimp, broccoli, scallions and black-bean sauce). Lunch or dinner for two costs about $35. But the brightest light on the dining scene remains Keo Sananikone, the Laotian refugee who operates five exceptional Thai restaurants around town. His flagship, Keo's (625 Kapahulu Ave.; 737-8240), is irresistibly exotic, overflowing with fresh flowers and greenery, Tiffany lamps and Asian antiques. And the kitchen continues to turn out a dizzying array of spicy Thai dishes laced with basil, lemongrass and other seasonings. Dinner for two with a Thai beer costs about $50.

Of course, Honolulu has a nearly endless list of superlative Asian restaurants. Kyo-ya (2057 Kalakaua Ave.; 947-3911) specializes in cooked-at-the-table Japanese dishes such as shabu-shabu (paper-thin slices of beef with broth, noodles and vegetables) and sukiyaki. Dinner for two costs about $50. Saigon (1344 Kapiolani Blvd.; 955-5040) makes tasty summer rolls (pork, shrimp, chives and mint) and winter rolls (pork and basil) as well as spring rolls. Two can dine on rolls, garlic-infused soups, and fish and noodle dishes for less than $30. Alcohol is not served (although you can bring your own), but there is fresh, tart lemonade. And Dynasty (1830 Ala Moana Rd.; 947-3771) is a huge Hong Kong-style dining room that operates 24 hours a day. The dinner menu lists 170 items, including exotic specialties such as tripe, sea cucumbers and chicken feet. Two timid diners can feast on traditional Cantonese dishes with beer for less than $40.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

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