Honolulu traffic is as bad as you’ve heard. But rather than scream at the brake-riding sedan in front of you, do what locals on the island of Oahu do in stressful situations — crank up the Jack Johnson tunes.
While most any song from the North Shore native will work for the occasion, we’d first suggest “Never Fade” off his 2013 album, From Here to Now to You. “I Got You” gets more streams on Spotify, but “Never Fade” is the project’s moment of Zen. With minimalistic percussions and Johnson’s signature easygoing vocals, the song’s missing but one thing — a hammock.
Actually, we can’t say with certainty that the track will offer the same calm to your nerves as it does ours; laidback strings may not be for everyone. What we do know for sure is that, for the next few months, the timing couldn’t be better for a Hawaii vacation. Late September/early October is one of the slowest times on the islands. Most kiddos are back in school. Many parents are focused on football.
But while the tourist numbers might be slightly down during this shoulder season, energy around the island is still quite high. And with elegant hotels, new restaurants and numerous outdoor adventures on offer, you’d be wise to pack your bags for the Pacific as soon as possible. Just be sure to have a few Johnson songs loaded onto your phone in case an afternoon traffic jam pops up.
The gorgeous hotels
The ride to Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina from Honolulu International Airport isn’t terribly long, maybe 30 to 40 minutes, depending on if other cars are cooperating. But no matter the obstacles, we assure you that the ride will be worth it. A picture-perfect playground in Kapolei (a budding area on the island’s less-cluttered west side), this 2016-opened property feels like a breeze and looks like a beauty.
Employing the kama’aina style of openness and natural light, the ground floor is essentially one free-flowing space with enticement from all directions — reception desks, elaborate floral displays, a coffee shop, seating areas. But there are few walls. The energy (and gentle winds off the Leeward Coast) is meant to travel without restriction.
Walls can be found in the 371 guest rooms and suites, though, but they’ll all be covered in earth tones, flat-screen TVs and banana-leaf headboards, so you won’t mind them much. Bathrooms are awash in marble and have glass-enclosed showers. Balconies deliver grab-your-camera views that peer over the Waianae Range or the stunning Ko Olina Lagoons.
As you’d expect from a Four Seasons property in paradise — the brand has four other locations in Hawaii: Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Hualalai, Five-Star Maui at Wailea, Lana’i and The Lodge at Koele, also on Lana’i — there are a host of onsite amenities: tremendous dining options (more on those in a bit), on-shore distractions (Lokahi Orian’s jewelry-making sessions are a great lesson in local history and artistry) and fun water pursuits in the lagoon.
But Kapolei doesn’t have a monopoly on fine new accommodations. In downtown Honolulu, all-new The Laylow, Autograph Collection may be limited with ocean activities but everything else gets high marks. If you can imagine a W Hotel having a chilled-out surfing cousin, you’d have a solid visual for this Waikiki winner — colorful wallpaper, wicker chairs and an unapologetically midcentury vibe passing through the hallway to the Hideout restaurant and bar.
In general, you’ll love the youthful energy, the mature approach to service and its proximity to hot spots around town.
The great food
There’s a part in “Never Fade” when Johnson croons, “When I first saw you come across the room/And then you saw me, then I knew what to do/I tried to play it cool and attached no strings/But by the end of the day, I needed the whole thing.”
Those words originally may have been meant for a sweetheart, but they’ve never been more fitting than when a server at Maui Onion Burger hands you a Maui-onion- and American-cheese-topped hamburger. It’s love at first bite.
This whole romantic dance takes place at The Street, A Michael Mina Social House, a newly opened food emporium that is a mere five-minute walk from The Laylow. As the name suggests, chef Mina is behind the project, which explains why other big shots in cuisine — Ayesha Curry (International Smoke), Ken Tominaga (The Ramen Bar), Gerald Chin (Kai Poke) — set up kitchens here, too.
Mahina & Sun’s could have easily fit into The Street’s chilled-out aesthetic, but instead, chef Ed Kenney’s fourth restaurant found a home at the new Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club. Already Instagram-famous for its hip pool scene, the property is now creeping into travelers’ timelines for its funky décor and food.
The kitchen whips out a safely sourced grilled he’e (octopus) and watercress salad, fresh avocado tacos and pan-roasted chicken — all served to the beat of attentive servers and live music every night of the week.
We’re not blazing any new culinary trails by suggesting Honolulu’s Duke’s Waikiki or Leonard’s Bakery for a nibble, but both oldies-but-goodies are still so good that they’ll never get old. The former is a local all-day-dining staple that opened back in 1993. The latter keeps a line to the parking lot by frying the finest malasadas (hole-less Portuguese doughnuts) this side of Lisbon.
Chef Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Head Café has been in Kaimuki since 2014. The 30-minute wait lets you know that word of the establishment’s fantastic all-day brunch has gotten around. But no matter what you’ve heard about the dishes, nothing can prepare you for what arrives at your table. The absolutely stuffed volcano eggs skillet can feed a University of Hawaii offensive lineman while the cornflake-crusted French toast topped with sugared bacon is the decadent breakfast concoction you didn’t know you were missing in your life.
And to think: all of this noshing is happening before you even consider Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina’s smorgasbord of options. No matter the time of day — be it an early lunch at Fish House, a late-afternoon snack at Waterman Bar & Grill or dinner at Noe, chef Ryo Takatsuka’s Amalfi-meets-aloha menu of pastas and proteins — there is something to sate you.
And honestly, we don’t know if we’ve had a better dining experience on the island than the one at the well-rounded La Hiki Kitchen. In these tropical environs, you would expect the spicy, flavorful shrimp stir fry, but we promise that it serves one of the best Oreo milkshakes you’ve ever had.
The great outdoors
Johnson’s new album, All the Light Above It Too, released on September 8. The first single off of it is “My Mind Is For Sale,” a thought-provoking groove that touches on Washington, D.C., issues without straying too far from Waikiki with the instrumentation. It’s the perfect song to play as you’re making your hike along Ka’ena Point, a breathtaking stretch of rock and waves on the westernmost tip of Oahu that’s just a short drive from the Four Seasons.
Locals suggest allotting yourself one to three hours for the trek. But because fall temperatures are still pleasantly in the low 80s, and because you’ll be stopping so often for pictures along the craggy coast, we’d lean toward the latter.
Another tip: when you get to the end of journey at Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve, don’t hurry back. Grab a seat in the sand. Cut the music off. Listen to the crashing waves. Admire the soaring seabirds. Just be for a while.
But as you know from all the surfing imagery etched in your mind, Oahu has its adventurous side, too. If you need to get your juices flowing a bit, there are two spots not to miss: Climbworks Keana Farms, a three-hour tour with eight dual zip lines, three sky bridges and two rappels; and Coral Crater Adventure Park, a thrilling new attraction with an American Ninja Warrior-like aerial course, zip-lining and an ATV track packed with hairpin turns and the occasional wild pig sighting.
Of course, if you want a bit more awe with your adrenaline rush, try horseback riding through Kualoa. The gorgeous, 4,000-acre private nature reserve is where a number of blockbuster movies, such as Jurassic World and Kong: Skull Island, were shot. (We’re pretty sure we spied film crews prepping for the Jurassic World sequel during our recent visit.)
When you hop on the filly for your own memorable scene, you’ll pass massive stretches of green and gallop between streams. There’s one section where you reach a slight incline with a few curves in it. The procession of horses might bunch up a little here. It won’t quite feel like a traffic jam but it’ll be close. But “Never Fade” will be cruising through your head, relaxing your nerves in the process. The stalling of stallions won’t bother you a bit.