Aloha, one of my favorite places to spend the holiday season (or any season) is Hawaii! It’s the perfect getaway for a tropical vacation while staying on American soil (although I have heard tourists ask what currency is used there — facepalm). As a Westcoaster, the rainbow state is only a stone’s throw 3-4 hour flight away, and Hawaiian airlines is the BEST domestic airline…free Mai Tais, anyone? We’re lucky to be this close to paradise.
It’s very festive around the holiday season, and it’s a great reprieve from snowy weather — the average is high 70s with frequent showers. But with many resorts and beaches and shopping and malasadas? Start planning your Hawaiian getaway now for next year.
Mele kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way of saying Merry Christmas to you!
Honolulu is the capital of Hawaii, and it sits on the southern part of the island of Oahu. It’s famous for Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head volcanic crater and of course, Pearl Harbor.
I’ve been to Honolulu a few times, so this last time our family did not do a repeat of the main tourist attractions, but rather, spent a nice Christmas holiday on the Ko Olina westside (westside!) of Oahu. If it is your first time to Hawaii, there are some must sees on your itinerary that I will not cover here:
- You need to go to Pearl Harbor and visit the USS Arizona memorial. This is the first thing that should be on your list. Over 1,100 men died aboard this ship during the surprise Japanese kamikaze attack during WWII on December 7, 1941. This is a historic event with which every American should be familiar.
- Hike Diamond Head. This dormant volcano is one of the coolest geologic formations in the world. There’s so many hiking trails and tours you can take to see it up close, but I highly recommend seeing it from the sky, either by helicopter or if you fly from Oahu to the Big Island, sit on the left side of the plane.
- Stay in Waikiki at least once. This iconic beach is teeming with hotels and resorts and is the epicenter of shopping and nightlife on the island. It’s a bit too Vegasy for me (read: I am old), but you have to experience it at least once.
- Do the Polynesian Cultural Center show. Sample the poi, enjoy the pig melee, marvel at the fire dancers, learn the hula. It’s an efficient way to experience everything, all at once.
- Visit the Dole factory. There’s pineapple EVERYTHING. And have you even lived if you’ve never had a Dole Whip? Answer: you haven’t.
Ko Olina is the quiet, family oriented resort part of the island. Highly recommend if you’re traveling with kids, especially since Disney has their large resort, Aulani here. If you stay at this resort, there are the normal Disney features such as character brunches, except the characters are wearing Hawaiian shirts and it’s the cutest.
I had the biggest celebrity encounter of my life here, the one and only Mickey Mouse.
Speaking of legends, most of the resorts will be DECKED OUT in holiday trappings, and you may even see an island version of the man himself, Santa! His sleigh apparently does stop here, but he probably gives balls of poi instead of lumps of coal.
And that Hawaiian sunset though, am I right? So many colors, so serene and beautiful.
Spend at least a day (probably more) on Waikiki (even though it’s a trek from Ko Olina). This crescent beach stretches all the way to Diamond Head and is dotted with high rise hotel after high rise hotel.
This man made beach is always packed, and even though there’s a lot of surf enthusiasts, you’re not going to see the same kind of waves like on North Shore. That’s okay, because you can get an awesome view of Diamond Head. So iconic.
The bright pink Royal Hawaiian hotel is one of the most famous hotels in the country.
Opened in 1927, it’s hosted notable person after notable person, and it’s beachfront bar is the best place to enjoy a Mai Tai and there’s Diamond Head again!
There is a lot of shopping malls, plazas around this area. Mostly high end and souvenir touristy. The International Marketplace has lots of kiosks that will sell you carved candles, let you shuck oysters for pearls and hawk abalone shell trinkets. I have all of these things. The malls are also great places to grab some of the best quick food in the city.
Hawaii has a very large Japanese population (and attracts a lot of tourists from Asia), so there’s some bomb Japanese food here — since it’s a little colder this time of year, there’s nothing better than slurping up some udon or ramen.
No better place to do that than Waikiki Yokocho, which is like the greatest alley in the world because the aroma of dashi fills your nostrils as soon as you descend the escalator from the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. There’s saimin, musubi, tonkotsu, karaage, curry! Everything your kawaii heart could ever want.
Alternatively, Ala Moana, one of the largest malls on the island. There’s the Shirokiya Japanese Village inside where there’s more than 30 stalls serving everything from yakitori to tonkotsu, but it’s a little more frenetic than Yokocho and I think the food is less authentic. And there’s plenty of places serving up Hawaiian classics like poke, macaroni salad and loco moco which is one of my favorite things ever: fried egg, hamburger, gravy on rice. The dish of every Americanized child of Asian immigrants’s dreams.
Honestly, whatever you eat, make sure you save room for dessert. On the island exists the perfect pastry, the ultimate in confections.
I’m talking Leonard’s malasadas. These are world famous Portuguese doughnuts that are out of this world. Rarely does a food live up to its hype, but this does. These little holeless fried puffs of heaven are plain sugar dusted or filled with haupia, coconut, guava or chocolate. I would travel to Hawaii just for these malasadas, no joke. Undoubtedly, I will dream of these warm, crisp yet soft pillows of sugary goodness tonight. Sigh.
Hawaii is not all about delicious food. It has a very interesting history, and the man at the center of everything is King Kamehameha. Kamehameha I was the first ruler of the unified Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810. Before him, the thousands of Hawaiian Islands were all independent, and threatened by Western colonization. We know what eventually happened, as Hawaii is a part of the US today, but his leadership staved that off for another 140-ish years.
One of the most famous statues of him is in front of Hawaii’s Supreme Court building, near the state capitol and Iolani Palace.
Iolani Palace is the only royal palace on American soil, and it was the home of the last two Hawaiian Monarchs. The palace was built in an Italian renaissance style, and can be toured to learn more about King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani.
Around the holidays, there’s a large Christmas tree, decorations (see the opening picture of this post) and events that include food trucks, like Leonard’s. I obviously had another.
And no trip to Hawaii is complete without snorkeling or scuba diving. The reefs and sealife are magical and there’s plenty of places to see honu (turtles) and schools of colorful fish all around. Hanauma Bay State Park, on Oahu’s east side, is one of the most popular places to go, and it actually limits the amount of tourists that visit, so as to not further damage the reefs. Everyone watches an educational video before entrance, and there’s a nominal fee. You can rent snorkels there, or go with a tour group (parking is difficult if you don’t get there early). This is why December is a great time to go, not as crowded as the summer.
It is the perfect, picturesque bay and the water is very temperate and clear. I mean, you can literally see the wildlife from the parking lot, it’s so clear. I saw plenty of turtles and schools of fish (look out for the state fish: Humuhumunukunukuapua’a) and I didn’t even go that far (fear of open water).
After a long day of beach and snorkeling, you’ll want to enjoy a nice dinner to relax (and eat your new friends you made, just kidding but kind of not, there’s a lot of fish served in Hawaii). I know there will be criticism of my next choice, but bear with me.
Roy’s is a nice place to have dinner in Ko Olina (Kapolei, actually). I know. It’s a chain. But…Roy Yamaguchi started his restaurant empire in Hawaii, and it’s one of the few nice choices that’s not in a hotel on the Ko Olina side of the island. And the food is consistent and prepared well.
And if you’re digging this chain restaurant vibe I’m feeding you, don’t forget to head to McDonald’s on the island to try one of the FANTASTIC taro pies. Way better than apple.
Happy Holidays and safe flights and good nights to you and yours!