An Insider's Guide to Waikiki

Join Honolulu writer Alex Salkever for a getaway in the city's liveliest neighborhood.
Text by Alex Salkever

Even though we live in Honolulu, my wife and I like to stroll Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag in the wacky vacation mini-metropolis of Waikiki. Sidewalks teem with people, and the street performers are out in force. On this night a street-corner choir of Tongans the size of NFL linemen belt out gospel standards. Tourists stop in their tracks, pausing in their nightly itinerary of checking out Louis Vuitton and Prada at stores that stay open much later than those outside Waikiki. It's the Hawaii equivalent of an all-night bazaar.

While much of the shopping scene here consists of the aforementioned luxury chain stores, many storefronts promote non-chain companies and local wares. At Cinnamon Girl, Jonelle Fujita's simple, bright dresses are Little-House-on-the-Prairie-meets-Honolulu. Blue Ginger, another Hawaii clothing chain with a Waikiki outpost, has fabulous sundresses in two-color floral patterns that incorporate indigenous plants.

At Nohea Gallery, in the Westin Moana Surfrider hotel, local artisans put on a stunning show with Mission-style rocking chairs made from lustrous koa (a prized Hawaiian wood) or creamy mango woods. Chic gold bangles from Ulana O Kukui―woven in the style of Hawaiian mats hewn from coconut palm fronds―glitter enticingly.

Our morning tradition is a 20-minute promenade past coconut palms to the quiet side of Waikiki at the base of Diamond Head, the iconic volcanic crater. Separated from the hustle and bustle by the green expanse of Kapiolani Park, this side of Waikiki is where many locals beach and bunk.

The New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel has one of the best views in Waikiki for the dollar. Modestly appointed corner rooms with sweeping views overlooking the crescent of beach and cityscape run about $360 a night, which wouldn't even get you a garden-view room at one of the marquee resorts on the other side of Waikiki. When we check in, we spend a good 30 minutes just soaking up the vista before going for a swim at Sans Souci Beach fronting the hotel.

We have breakfast at the Hau Tree Lanai, the hotel's main restaurant. This is supposedly the spot where writer Robert Louis Stevenson came for inspiration and relaxation in Hawaii. (I find the coconut-macadamia nut pancakes most inspiring, compelling me toward a nap on the beach.)

Later, it's worth wandering up Kapahulu Avenue, on the eastern end of Waikiki, a bustling hub of kitsch shops and popular restaurants. Our first stop is usually Bailey's Antiques and Aloha Shirts, home to more than 7,000 vintage aloha shirts at prices ranging from $4 to $5,000. For collectors, it's a must. Farther north on Kapahulu, Peggy's Picks is for lovers of storied junk, a combination of genuine antiques and complete bric-a-brac, mostly with island flair.

It's now pretty hot, so we take a shave ice break. Waiola is one of the prime purveyors of this snow cone/ice cream sundae hybrid. The thinly shaved ice features toppings such as sweetened condensed milk, served atop treats such as sweet Japanese-style adzuki bean paste.

Dinner means Michel's, a classic oceanfront continental restaurant. Grammy Award-winning guitarist Jeff Peterson is the house act. Of course, in Waikiki, music is everywhere―at every pool bar, in every lounge, on every beach. And there's almost never a cover charge. Jeff is one of Hawaii's top-notch slack-key guitar players, as is fellow Grammy winner Ledward Kaapana, who regularly performs at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. As the moonbeams play across the gentle surf and Jeff strums the Andy Cummings anthem "Waikiki," we sit back, soak up the mood, and revel in a perfect Hawaiian evening.