While Waikiki Beach’s waves and sand make Oahu famous, there’s a revitalized upscale area further inland vying for your attention.
Kuhio Avenue, one of the major roads to cut across Waikiki, used to be a rundown, crime-prone neighborhood. But it’s seeing a transformation thanks to the new Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, which anchors the emerging luxury strip.
The Ritz-Carlton debuted in July 2016 as the chain’s first Oahu property, but it keeps expanding — a spa opened in February 2017, and a stage for community events, a second tower with nearly 260 rooms, an expanded spa, a Ritz Kids facility, a large pool and poolside bar and grill are in the works for summer 2018.
Our Forbes Travel Guide editors scoped out this revived area and reveal why you should visit:
The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach is a misnomer. Technically, the 38-story tower is made up of residences, but it’s a hotel — a first for the brand. Owners put their units into the rental pool so that you can enjoy true residential accommodations, but with Ritz-Carlton service and amenities.
Accommodations have living rooms with pullout sofas, dining areas and kitchenettes or full kitchens with Miele appliances, full-sized refrigerators, dishwashers and everything you’d need to prepare a meal (plates, silverware, etc.). Washer/dryers and detergent also offer a convenient perk. Limestone bathrooms are outfitted with separate tubs and showers and electronic Toto toilets.
Our pick for the best room is the Premier Three Bedroom Suite, a spacious corner unit facing Diamond Head that affords striking sunsets.
Architect Guerin Glass designed the building with a theme of mauka (“mountain” — there’s a 3-D kapa, or bark cloth, pattern on the back) and makai (“sea” — the front opens to alfresco water vistas at every turn, from the lobby to the rooms’ balconies), which also explains why the chic, contemporary spaces either are shaded in soft greens and yellows or cool blues and grays.
Make time for the hotel’s eighth-floor infinity pool, the highest in Waikiki (it will convert to an adults-only oasis once the second tower resort pool opens). Gaze at the treetops in Fort DeRussy park and the ocean from a lounger in the wood-lined cabana, the pool or the Jacuzzis on either end.
Check out the three-treatment-room spa, whose services draw on Hawaiian healing techniques and Oahu’s surroundings. Try the Huki Huki: Renew, which includes a mud wrap, lomi lomi massage and scalp treatment and uses the native ki plant to pull out toxins.
The in-demand culinary options are another reason to visit this Oahu hotel (more on that later), but one of our favorite food-and-drink perks is the mobile craft bar. The in-room amenity gives you a taste of the elevated tropical cocktails available downstairs.
Mixologist Seth German wheeled a white-cloth-covered bar cart to our room to make the tropical Hanalei Moon, a smoked mai tai with Kauai’s Koloa rum, housemade orgeat syrup, pineapple and orange juices, Grand Marnier and angostura bitters in a glass coated with Vieux Pontarlier absinthe (to add an anise aroma and balance it out) and a purple orchid garnish (see him in action here).
The Waikiki hotel has a strategic location for shoppers — it’s around the corner from Luxury Row, a small strip of high-end stores on Kalakaua Avenue. Chanel, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Miu Miu and Bottega Veneta all have boutiques there.
Tiffany & Co. signals the beginning of Luxury Row, and The Ritz-Carlton can set you up with a VIP personalized shopping experience, where the store pulls things for you ahead of time for viewing in a private room.
What’s unique to the brand’s Hawaii flagship store is its Patek Philippe watches, which have a three- to five-year waiting list. Only six Tiffany stores in the world carry the watches, and the Waikiki location also offers hard-to-find co-branded Patek timepieces.
Since Hawaii is a popular place to pop the question, Tiffany coordinates with hotels on proposals and even fields requests to do them in the three-story store (if you go this route, the shop reports that the most sought-after engagement ring is the six-pronged design that’s more than 130 years old).
The newest and biggest addition to the local shopping scene is International Market Place. The 345,000-square-foot, three-story open-air mall replaces a crowd of stalls hawking chintzy souvenirs like coconut-shell bras, aloha shirts and cheap ukuleles.
One remnant remains from the mall’s former life — a grand 160-year-old banyan tree. Besides the banyan, the luxury mall embraces its tropical environs with an Astroturfed inner courtyard, cascading water features and lush greenery. We love the upper-level perch, where you can sit in a koa wood rocking chair and peer down on the courtyard.
Anchoring the Market Place is a three-story Saks Fifth Avenue — Hawaii’s first — facing Kuhio. Other first-time shops for the island include Christian Louboutin, Hervé Léger, Trina Turk, Intermix, Jo Malone and Sugarfina (the Dom Pérignon champagne gummy bears are irresistible).
International Market Place’s top floor is a new dining hot spot. It’s home to Yauatcha Waikiki, the first U.S. branch of the London dim sum tea house that debuted in February, and Eating House 1849 from Hawaiian-fusion pioneer Roy Yamaguchi.
We opted for Stripsteak Waikiki, an indoor-outdoor space dressed in chocolate browns and wood. At famed chef Michael Mina’s first Hawaii outing, a Japanese-influenced steakhouse, meat rules the menu. Go straight for the peppery, tender A5 wagyu. Mina’s secret is that he butter-poaches cuts before searing them.
You could get away with pairing it with the flight of duck fat fries and dips (complimentary in lieu of bread) — truffle fries with truffle aioli; herb and garlic fries with housemade ketchup; and furikake (a Japanese seasoning that typically includes dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed) fries with a sweet tonkatsu sauce. Warning: They are all addictive.
Bolster your meal with the fried rice, which packs great spice and chunks of pork belly, and “Instant Bacon,” thick slices of crispy pork belly doused in a black-pepper-soy glaze topped with a tempura oyster.
If you prefer seafood, this is the only Stripsteak outpost with a sushi and poke bar. But once you see the fuss made when the lobster pot pie (a signature at Mina’s Stonehill Tavern in Dana Point, California) arrives at a neighboring table, you won’t want to feel left out. Kona lobster makes it local, and the chef deconstructs the dish and then gives you an impressive tableside presentation.
Either way, follow it up with the Shaka Sour, an eminently drinkable cocktail with Death’s Door gin, Lillet Blanc, yuzu and mangosteen. A big orange shaka sign left on the frothy egg white top makes it distinctly Hawaiian and a must for your Instagram feed.
End on a refreshing note with the macadamia nut semifreddo, which gets some zip from a quenelle of lilikoi (passion fruit) apple banana sorbet and brûléed bananas.
Mina will expand his presence at the International Market Place, as his second eatery, casual food hall The Street, opens later this spring.
But for more in-demand dining, head back to the Ritz-Carlton. The hotel’s Sushi Sho from heralded Tokyo sushi master Keiji Nakazawa is very exclusive — it accommodates 10, there are two seatings nightly and you can only make reservations between 2 and 4 p.m. daily for the multi-course omakase (chef’s tasting). To nab a seat, book as far in advance as possible.
The much talked-about Sushi Sho overshadows the other onsite restaurant, BLT Market. But at BLT, you will discover local, seasonal food with none of the hoop jumping to secure a table.
Start with the dressed local oysters, which get deep flavor from truffled shishito pepper puree and smoked trout roe. Then move onto the creamy Keahole lobster roll wrapped in cucumber slices and topped with pancetta bits and caviar.
The show-stopping entrée is the colossal pork shank with sweet pineapple glaze that arrives on a cutting board accompanied by a large bowl of saffron paella with clams and prawns. You will need at least two people to tackle it. The pork is brined for five days, braised for several hours and then deep-fried. The result is juicy, succulent meat encased in crackling skin.
After a heavy meal, opt for the light yuzu panna cotta with ginger ice cream, matcha meringue and matcha sponge cake that looks like clumps of natural sea sponge (but in green, of course).
The food alone will be enough to lure you from the beach and to the Kuhio corridor.