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Wonderful Waikiki and Honolulu: great Hawaii destinations

HONOLULU – I’ve always felt this is an underappreciated destination.

I feel that way more strongly now.

They’ve always had Waikiki Beach, one of the most glamorous and prettiest stretches of sand on the planet, with the extinct crater of Diamond Head looming to the east and watching over things. They’ve always had Pearl Harbor.

But there’s so much more to this place.

First of all, it’s a major city. It’s also the centre for Hawaiian business and, in some ways, Asia-Pacific business. So it punches above its weight with fascinating restaurants and museums and shopping and culture. Not to mention awesome scenery and great golf courses.

And some really, truly outstanding hotels, including the Westin Moana Surfrider.

Waikiki used to be a little on the tacky side. But Kalakaua (Kal-ah-kow-wah for those not versed in Hawaiian pronunciation) Ave. is now lined with so many posh stores it could pass for Rodeo Drive. There’s Prada and Fendi and Chanel and lots of other fancy places; a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, an Apple store, and lots more. But the streets are lined with pretty fountains and lava rock and palm trees and elegant blossoms of all colours, giving the place an unmistakably tropical feel you won’t get on Fifth Ave. in New York or Bloor St. in Toronto, especially given our winter.

They’ve just started tearing down a Waikiki institution. The International Market Place was an outdoorsy, jungly set of ramshackle shops that thoroughly entertained visitors for years. But it’s now surrounded by those posh shops I just mentioned and is being torn down, although I’m told they’re keeping the magnificent, multiple trunk banyan tree that was a centrepiece of the complex.

There had to have been a dozen weddings or wedding photo shoots when I was there last week. Every time I turned around, I saw a bride and groom; usually Asian and looking extremely happy and ever so nicely outfitted. Very cool.

As fancy as it is, you’ll still find Mickey Dee’s and a Jimmy Buffett’s restaurant and a separate Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant that I don’t think he’s connected with. Not to mention the ever-present ABC stores (think Shoppers Drug Mart with more towels and t-shirts and sunscreen and macadamia nuts, as well as liquor, this being the U.S. and all) that I love because they’re mostly only found here (and in Las Vegas from what I can see).

Waikiki is a beautiful spot these days, with great parks and all those wonderful beach activities that I’ll get into later. But as I was saying, there’s so much more to Honolulu than Waikiki. There are great neighborhoods and up-and-coming areas with terrific food. I had dinner my first night at Town. It’s on Waialae Ave. in the Kaimuki area of town, not far from Waikiki. They do a great and intriguing mixture of fresh Hawaiian food with Italian twists. You might find organic lettuces with pancetta (yum and Manchego cheese (yum) as well as spicy gnocchi with eggplant and spinach and local opah (a tender, white fish) with local veggies and Meyer lemon.

It’s a nice space, too, with cool lighting and nice, colourful prints on the wall that makes the place feel like a summery version of downtown Toronto more than Waikiki.

Also tremendous was the Beach House at the oh-so-lovely Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel.

They have a great beach bar under another giant banyan tree, which is dripping with vines and new trunks. The Planters Punch is good but the Mai Tai’s are better, and they make an excellent poke; Hawaiian marinated fish that’s like ceviche. Fabulous stuff.

The crab cakes have hardly any filler and are dead perfect. They even serve smoked bacon as an appetizer, three pieces served upright in a shiny silver container. That’s a new one on me.

The seared Ahi tuna was ender and delicious, served in an unusual style with a porcini rub that was earthy and different than the usual Asian spice.

The also make a pretty good mango mousse cake with golden sugar lace like a giant spider web and mango sauce. And the wine list has my favourite California winery, Opolo, from Paso Robles.

Even better, you can dine on the verandah and watch the sun dance on the water at Waikiki and listen to the live entertainers under the banyan tree a few feet away.

The lobby is sleek and pretty, with white balconies and pillars and pretty floral displayers. There’s a piano player at night.

One of the great features are the dozen or so rocking chairs out on the (narrow) front porch. It’s a fabulous place to stay out of the afternoon sun and watch the passing parade on Kalakaua Ave.

The rooms are nice, with black and white Hawaii prints and a good-sized bathroom. Great Westin beds, too!

It might be the best location on Waikiki. But since this also is the original hotel on the beach, it’s not surprising they picked the best spot.

MORE COMING THIS WEEK ON Ko’Olau golf, Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu, canoe surfriding and the very nice Vive Hotel Waikiki.

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