Approximately 5 million people visit the Hawaiian island of Oahu each year, many of them headed to the island’s south shore in the heart of Honolulu for the stretch of manicured white sand beach known as Waikiki. With its clear views of the Diamond Head volcanic tuff and calm yet surf-friendly waters, the area is arguably the Aloha State’s most famous destination. Breezy, idyllic temperatures and a lush tropical landscape lure travelers from far and wide to the Pacific’s own piece of paradise. To help you make the most of your island retreat, Forbes Travel Guide has crafted a two-day itinerary packed with fun, sun and adventure that is sure to fill you with plenty of what Hawaiians call Aloha ʻĀina — “love of the land.”
The key to a memorable vacation starts with a well-chosen hotel, and while beachfront Waikiki certainly has its attractions, we recommend checking into the quietly chic Four-Star The Modern Honolulu. Set apart from the main Waikiki drag, the boutique-styled Modern, a 353-room property with 30 suites and one penthouse, is fronted not by the beach, but by Ala Wai Harbor (a public beach is just a five-minute walk away).
You know you’ve arrived at a hip, oceanside wonderland when you check in and see the jutting Herbie Fletcher surfboard sculpture behind the front desk. Your room, like the hotel’s name, is modern, fresh and immaculate. A custom teak platform bed swathed in imported white linens is the centerpiece to a room that is the very picture of coastal bliss. There’s a cream-colored chaise lounge shaded by plantation shutters for a quick nap should you need it. Wispy white gauze curtains flutter when you let the ocean breeze in. Cool amenities such as a ukulele and three brightly colored sarongs give the hotel an added sense of place.
If you can picture Victoria’s Secret models in these surroundings, it’s because they’ve been here. The Modern was the onsite location for an episode of Hawaii Five-0 that had appearances by supermodel Behati Prinsloo and fellow Angel Jasmine Tookes. It’s also the location of Waikiki’s best nightclub, Addiction, a magnet for visiting A-listers — but more on that later.
The first order of business is to freshen up, don your swimsuit and head down to The Modern’s sleek Sunrise Pool for a refreshing dip before catching some sun on one the luxe chaise lounges. Order the signature frozen coconut lime mojito, along with some fresh pineapple chunks sprinkled with li hing mui (salted plum powder) for a mid-morning snack while basking in the relaxing scenery before you.
When you’ve had enough sun, run upstairs, put on some comfortable shoes and bring your credit card, because it’s time to go shopping. A five-minute car ride away is Ala Moana Center, the biggest outdoor mall in the United States. You’ll find haute couture and chic brand-name boutiques from the likes of Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Carolina Herrera and many more.
The other option is to take the Waikiki Trolley to Kalakaua Avenue, which has been renovated in recent years into Waikiki’s own version of Rodeo Drive. Visit the high-end corridor of shops spanning Tiffany and Co., Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Armani. There are also hundreds of other shops at the DFS (Duty Free Shopping) Galleria and the Royal Hawaiian Center.
Once you’ve put a dent in your debit card, taxi back to your hotel to drop off your purchases. Then, head to Honolulu’s Chinatown, where you’ll encounter some of the city’s most innovative and exciting food. A good bet is chef Andrew Le’s critically acclaimed The Pig & The Lady for one of the best bowls of Vietnamese pho you’ll have in your life. Just be sure to wash it down with a Vietnamese iced coffee.
If you want a local’s perspective and someone to guide you around, book a private Chinatown walking tour with Aloha Food Tours for a two-hour trek for some of Chinatown’s best bites. Potential stops could include Lucky Belly for ramen and modern Japanese tapas; hidden gem Maguro Brothers for ocean-to-table ah tuna poke; and Wing Ice Cream Parlor for small-batch ice cream in local flavors like guava habañero chili or vegan lilikoi banana coconut.
Replete from the wonderful eats, you’re close enough to Pearl Harbor to make a trip to the historic site and pay homage to the soldiers who gave their lives. While you’re there, snap some photos of the U.S.S. Bowfin submarine, fighter planes and torpedoes on display.
Alternatively, you could just head back to The Modern and make a beeline for the floating mattresses at the adults-only Sunset Pool. There, work on your tan or lightly snooze while enjoying the gentle buoyancy and occasional splashes from the water beneath you.
About an hour before the sun goes down, head up to your room to get ready for dinner. Just make sure to catch the sunset; they are absolutely spectacular in Waikiki. If it’s a Friday evening, book an outdoor table ahead of time at The Modern’s signature restaurant Morimoto Waikiki by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Your seat will serve as the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the Friday Fireworks Show at neighbor hotel Hilton Hawaiian Village, which starts at 7:45 p.m. Begin your evening of dining at the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended restaurant with one of the seasonally inspired cocktails, like the Cucumber Shiso Collins (Bombay Sapphire gin, St. Germain liqueur, fresh cucumber and lemon lime). Then, indulge in the chef’s omakase, a multi-course selection of Morimoto’s signature dishes.
If the night’s still young by dinner’s end, you can make the five-minute walk to the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s beachfront, where you can take a stroll with the twinkling lights of Waikiki illuminating your steps. Sink your toes in the sand and let the ocean waves lap at your feet.
Another option is to pay a visit to The Study, a Modern Honolulu lounge that is hidden behind a bookcase during the day but opens up to reveal a sexy bar in the evening. Live music — perhaps a singer-songwriter one night or a soulful jazz crooner the next — further sets the mood for a relaxing nightcap. But if you’re still restless for a night on the town, from Thursday through Saturday night, head to the Modern’s Addiction Nightclub, where you can dance the night away until 3 a.m.
Yes, you’re on vacation, but you should absolutely wake up before dawn in Waikiki because a pre-dawn swim in the blissfully cool ocean is one of those things you just have to experience. And if you’re so inclined, make the short walk to the public beach for 6 a.m. surf lessons. This is great way to meet some cool locals, too.
For breakfast, relax at the hotel with a lovely Sunrise Pool breakfast underneath the shady acacia trees at The Grove. Or, if you have a car, start your epicurean exploration. Head to Kaimuki, a local neighborhood roughly 20 minutes away, for an all-day local brunch menu at chef and TV personality Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Head Cafe. Eschew a table in favor of bar seats that face the open kitchen, and watch as dish after mouthwatering dish appears in front of you. Everything on the menu is shareable, so order as much as you want without regret. Maybe it’s the daily pop tart, covered in lychee frosting and filled with local mango jam; the fresh fruit bruschetta that will light up your Instagram page; or the killer skillet known as Volcano Eggs, which features runny yolks oozed into a bed of spicy tomato sauce flavored with cheese, local vegetables and diced Portuguese sausage.
When you’re finished with your incredible breakfast, make the 20-minute ride to the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse trail on the Southeastern tip of the island. There are numerous scenic points along this drive, so be camera ready. Plan to make several stops so you can marvel at the intensely turquoise shade of water set against jutting volcanic rock formations.
At Makapu’u Point, it’s an easy 20- to 30-minute hike to the top, where panoramic views of Koko Head Crater can be seen on one side, and Waimanalo Beach all the way to Mokapu Peninsula on the other. The scenery is of such magnificence that you’ll want to continue driving. So, if time permits, continue along Route 72 to Kailua, then cut across the spectacular Ko ‘Olau mountain range on Route 61 before heading back to Waikiki (about 45 minutes to an hour). Otherwise, just turn back around, because the return drive (about 20 minutes) is just as dazzling.
If you’re ready for lunch, head north of Waikiki to Nico’s Pier 38, a sprawling, pier-front restaurant by French-born chef Nico Chaize. The specialty here is simple ocean-to-table fare. The daily fresh catch plates, made of fish caught the night before and bought in the Honolulu fish auction that same morning, are famous among locals.
From here, it’s a quick five-minute trip to the airport. Don’t worry, though; you’re not leaving yet. You’re headed to Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours for a 45-minute, guided aerial tour of the entire island. A must-not-miss excursion, the tour takes you above the Diamond Head crater, over the tops of the Ko ‘Olau Mountains featured in Jurassic Park, to the fabulous beaches of the famous North shore, the Dole Pineapple Plantation, Pearl Harbor and more.
The helicopter tour will help you fall a little more in love with this island and, hopefully, give you reason to return because, sadly, your two-day sojourn is coming to an end. For your last meal on the island, you could go totally local and try Hawaiian food at Ethel’s Grill with dishes like loco moco (a hamburger patty topped with white rice, eggs over easy and brown gravy.), Japanese hamburger steak or ahi tuna tataki. Or you can seek out the best sushi on Oahu by splurging on traditional Tokyo-style edomae bites at places like Sasabune, Sushi ii or Sushi Ginza Onadera — considered the best outside of Japan.
But for a closing meal that’s unique, head to local-born chef Ed Kenney’s Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki. It’s on the patio here, in the shadow of a mural of intertwined hands by Case Maclaim, that you’ll experience the story of Hawaiian food as it is now. Kenney’s food is a modern interpretation of the Hawaiian dishes he remembers growing up with as a child. The hyper-local menu uses fish caught by local farmers and produce only found on the islands, and turns them into memorable courses like his inspired roasted beet poke with gorilla ogo (seaweed), avocado and smoked macadamia nuts; or the I’a Lawalu, opah that’s buried in coals and steamed in banana leaf with local vegetables and coconut cream.