The Brancatelli File



March 1, 1990 -- As a part-time resident and recent guide for 45 first-time visitors to Honolulu, I’m convinced the city exists mostly in dreams. Seduced by repeated viewings of Elvis movies or old issues of Life, people come to Honolulu to live out long-cherished Hawaiian fantasies. Consider these tips as sturdy struts to prop up your dream.

Believe It When: You hear that Waikiki Beach has cleaned up its act. Sidewalk hawkers and pedicabs have largely disappeared, and hotels have primped to the tune of $500 million….You’re told rural Oahu is as beautiful as Maui: beyond Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, the island is mostly lush, green countryside.

Don’t Believe It When: Tour operators say you’ll get special treatment at Pearl Harbor’s Arizona Memorial. All visitors must queue up for the limited number of entry tickets.…Tourism officials claim Waikiki doesn’t court the Japanese, who now represent 20 percent of Oahu’s visitors and account for almost 45 percent of tourist spending….Locals deny prices are rising. Recent hikes are triple the inflation rate as some hotels and merchants rush to cash in on Japanese tourists flush with yen.

Beach Patrol: Hotels and oceanfront residents dislike your using “their” beachfront, but all Hawaiian beaches are public up to the highwater mark. Waikiki is actually a string of different beaches: locals on the make head for “Dig Me” beach near the Kaimana Beach Hotel; Europeans like the beaches in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel; the Japanese prefer Kuhio Beach across from the Hyatt Regency. Also along Oahu’s 112-mile shoreline: Waimea Bay (awesome 40-foot winter waves, but perfect summer swimming), Ehukai (surfing’s famed Banzai Pipeline), Sandy Beach (skilled bodysurfers only) and family favorites Waimanalo and Ala Moana.

Best-Kept Secrets: The $15 Friday-night cocktail show by the Brothers Cazimero, reigning stars of modern Hawaiian music, at the Royal Hawaiian (telephone 808-923-7311)….The gripping documentary on coral diving and the exquisite coral baubles at the Jewelry Design Center (808-949-6729)….The gentle hiking trail up Diamond Head and the panoramic view from the top.

Don’t Miss: The Bishop Museum (808-847-3511), an imposing bastion of Polynesian and Pacific cultural artifacts….Any musical event at the Waikiki Shell (808-521-2911) at Diamond Head. Do what locals do: buy cheap lawn tickets, pack a picnic and party under the stars….The fragrant lei-stringing shops lining Maunakea and Beretania Streets. Orchid leis cost just $3. Cindy’s (1034 Maunakea) probably has the best prices, selection and staff.

Getting Around: Everybody rents a car, usually $15-$20 a day. Driving most Oahu highways is a scenic treat, but avoid rush hours. And no one who values his sanity drives in car-clogged Waikiki. Hoof it or use TheBus, Honolulu’s cheap (60 cents) and efficient mass transit.

It’s That Time Again: Oahu has fine beach weather year-round, but Waikiki’s high season begins December 15. Airfares skyrocket (round-trips from the East Coast, which cost $500 before mid-December, now run $700 or more), hotel tariffs rise, and Oahu overflows with winter-weary refugees until late April.

Sporting Life: Golf all day (Oahu has 28 courses), work on your backhand all night (tennis courts in Kapiolani Park are open until 2:30 a.m.)—or try something exotic. Glider rides cost $40 (Glider Rides, 677-3404). Five bucks more buys a day of wind surfing (Kailua Sailboats; 808-262-2555) and ten bucks more, three hours of hang-gliding lessons (Tradewinds; 808-396-8557). Or canter along mountain, valley and oceanfront trails at 4,000-acre Kuoloa Ranch (808-237-8515; $25 for two hours).

Tastiest Souvenirs: Merchants in Waikiki offer a tempting variety of macadamia nuts and mac-nut candies for about one-third the cost at mainland gourmet shops. Hawaiian pineapple is not cheap, just incredibly succulent and fresh. For about $8, many Waikiki shops will have a boxed three-pack waiting for you at the airport.

Delectable Discount Dining: Stop by Woodlands (808-526-2239) for soothing Cantonese cuisine, including perfect dumplings; Chiang Mai (808-941-1151) for fiery Thai food and vegetarian entrees ($25 for two at either).

Hotel Deals: The Waikiki Parc (808-921-7272), one of Honolulu’s newest hotels, has sleek rooms 100 yards from the beach starting at $105. The little-known Ilima (808-923-1877), four blocks from the beach, rents huge studios for rates starting at $75.

Some Enchanted Evening: Book a table at Michel’s at the Colony Surf (808-923-6552). The continental food is superb, and the three elegant dining rooms open directly onto the beach. Dinner for two, without wine, costs $100.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1983-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.