Traveling these days is still somewhat complicated though more feasible, and wanderlust and curiosity are motivators to figure out how to journey with care. We recently visited Honolulu—a favorite US getaway because it’s is literally and figuratively so far away—and found mucho aloha persevering, even through the necessary layers of tension and protocol. Beyond the gorgeous spring weather, chill island vibes and grounding forces of nature, we realized a visit to Honolulu also satisfies our Japanophile urges given the neighboring island nation’s historic and ongoing influence on the city’s culture.
Surfing, swimming, hiking and aimlessly road-tripping around Oahu are all lovely things to do when visiting Honolulu and the options for each are endless. While we’re used to visiting Hawaii with a few key plans on the schedule and a lot of room for serendipity, we quickly learned that more structure is needed these days, as many venues and activities require reservations in order to manage and maintain COVID safety measures.
The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club
Home base for our visit was the The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club. Perfectly located on the edge of Waikiki, the 100-room hotel is in walking distance from any place you’d want to go within the touristy neighborhood and at the same time far enough from the commotion that you can relax. Self-described as “laidback modern aloha,” the hotel is not only more affordable than many of the other Waikiki properties, it’s also more desirable. Their charm comes from a thoughtful aesthetic that eschews Hawaiian vibes creatively executed with simple materials. Rooms range in size and layout and all feature comfy beds with soft sheets and well-lit bathrooms with large showers. Rattan light fixtures incorporate used soda bottles and the prints and patterns throughout are a fresh take on familiar island style.
While free coffee is a morning amenity of the hotel, the lobby-side shop by Banks Journal features espresso drinks and cold brew alongside their clothes, books and mementos. The on-premises restaurant Mahina & Sun’s is situated poolside and serves up delicious island fare and tasty cocktails. Speaking of poolside, the entire property is situated around its pool which has “Wish You Were Here” painted on the bottom giving ample photo opportunities from the rooms that look down upon it.
Helmed by Honolulu-born Keaka Le—who has cooked at Gramercy Tavern, Untitled at The Whitney and most recently at Honolulu’s The Pig and The Lady—Kapa Hale is the chef/owner’s first restaurant of his own. Open for brunch, lunch and dinner, the restaurant (which opened late last year) serves up dishes based on regional cuisine but blended with flavors from all around the world. Le named the restaurant after Kapa—a patterned fabric made by native Hawaiians—and says that his approach to food is similar: allowing many ingredients to weave together and tell a story. The restaurant is off the beaten path and when we visited had great local vibes to complement the creative and delectable dishes. Reservations are available online for groups up to 10 people.
Morning Glass Coffee
Hawaiian coffee is definitely a thing, though finding an exceptional cup proved surprisingly hard. Some of the best coffee we found in Honolulu was at Morning Glass Coffee, thanks to their locally sourced beans. With two locations (on Manoa Rd, Honolulu and Waihee Rd, Kaneohe), the cafes are only open for take-out at the moment, but customers are able to order online ahead of time. Along with all the usual suspects, there’s Vietnamese iced coffee, plenty of matcha drinks and teas. There’s breakfast fare like scones and strata, while for lunch there are six sandwich options.
Serving up incredibly tasty dishes from jackfruit tacos to lengua rice bowls and barbacoa quesadillas, the beloved Thyda’s Tacos truck is located across from Whole Foods on Queen St. Their fare is on par with the best of LA’s street tacos and options with an island twist are a welcomed nod to place. The perfect spot for a quick after-beach meal, the truck regularly sells out of various items, so we recommend arriving well before their 3PM-5PM closing time. Follow their Instagram for updates and specials.
With an extensive wine list that includes sake, Merriman’s Honolulu (their fourth location) works with smaller scale wineries that focus on low-intervention practices. The all-day menu—featuring fresh-daily fish, Waipio Valley taro falafel and house-made kimchi—provides farm-to-table fare in a big restaurant that doesn’t compromise quality or experience. The focus on local produce and regional cuisine makes for food that’s fresh and high-quality. And the service is a perfect balance of fast-paced thoroughness and chill, warm vibes. Reservations can be made online for groups up to six; for larger parties they suggest calling the restaurant directly.
Plants, crystals and home goods in a space so vibe-y you never want to leave, Ginger13 is just one of the many spots in Honolulu’s Chinatown worth visiting. Founded by Cindy Yokoyama, everything on offer here (from macrame coasters to essential oils) has been carefully selected with Hawaii as a muse. You can also count on Yokohama to share insights on other businesses in the neighborhood as it’s a tight knit community helping to revive this part of town.
Bar Leather Apron
After stocking up on goodies at Ginger13, walk seven minutes to Bar Leather Apron for a phenomenal cocktail in a bar that feels very Tokyo. Founded back in 2015 by Justin Park and Tom Park, the bar is tiny but buzzy. The inventive drink list features a farm-to-glass section (cocktails made using local ingredients), highballs, classics, contemporary favorites and signature drinks including an old fashioned made with umami-infused Japanese whisky. And if whisky is indeed your drink of choice, the bar has a remarkably extensive list of sippers. Their alcohol-free concoctions are new to the menu and present a delicious option for non-drinkers or an intermission between rounds. Currently open with even fewer seats and extra spacing, Leather Apron has reservations available online.
The Pig and The Lady
Another seven-minute walk away, Honolulu’s adored Vietnamese restaurant, The Pig and The Lady has been a firm favorite for a decade now. Open for dining in (reservations via their website) and take-out, this eatery is a family affair helmed by Andrew Le, his mother Loan Le and brother Alex Le. The team offers up tasty, vibrant dishes including soft shell crab vermicelli, Souther Vietnamese curry, pho and more. Be sure to save space for their inspired desserts—avocado yuzu curd tarts, brown butter pound cake with toasted coconut, sorbets and soft serve.
Ohana Hale Marketplace
Hawaii’s largest indoor market, Ohana Hale Marketplace looks somewhat mundane from the outside, but inside are 250+ shops and 50+ kiosks, each one a local small business. From BYOB sushi bars to hot dog vendors, the snacks are bountiful and easy to navigate, as all food stalls line the perimeter of the massive space. Permanent booths—selling everything from handmade jewelry to pool toys, craft supplies, superhero figurines and beyond—create a flea market atmosphere.
Check out this Google Map for a full list of the places above, plus more of our favorites in Honolulu.
Hero image by Josh Rubin