Oahu, the Gay Gem of the Ocean

If Oahu is the energy center of the Hawaiian islands, Waikiki Beach is its vibrant heart

BY Jeremy Kinser

July 12 2012 4:00 AM ET

Let’s dispense with the somewhat snobbish notion that Oahu is just for tourists and that true travelers venture to Hawaii’s less cultivated and populated islands of Maui and Kauai. With its magnificent stretch of sand beach, inviting warm blue water, and dynamic view of Diamond Head, there’s a very good reason that Honolulu’s Waikiki was a favorite of the Hawaiian royal family and is still commonly considered the playground of the Pacific. As the energetic center of the Hawaiian Islands, Oahu has grown in recent years and is now filled with renovated hotels, exquisite restaurants, boutique shopping, and pulsating nightlife. And since the state’s civil unions law went into effect this year, Honolulu has also emerged as an affordable destination for both same-sex weddings and honeymoons.

Travelers who desire to mix romance with luxury will do no better than the Royal Hawaiian (Royal-Hawaiian.com). The iconic pink palace is the city’s grande dame of hospitality. The rooms are lavishly appointed and offer breathtaking views of the Pacific. The staff welcomes guests with traditional lei greetings and then offers exceptional customer service tailored to every guest’s whim. A section of the beach is reserved for guests of the hotel, providing comfortable lounge chairs and eye-catching umbrellas for relief from the endless sunshine.

Across the driveway is the majestic Sheraton Waikiki (Sheraton-Waikiki.com), which towers over the other beachfront hotels, offering gorgeous views, luxurious amenities, and an attentive staff. The Helumoa Playground is a shared pool area for guests of both hotels and features two freshwater swimming pools (one for adults only), a 15-foot-high waterslide, and a pair of large whirlpool spas.

Adjacent to both properties is the Royal Hawaiian Center (RoyalHawaiianCenter.com), an enclave of dining, entertainment, and shopping opportunities that spans four stories and more than three city blocks. High-end fashion shops — Bulgari, Fendi, and Hermès among others — nestle next to a variety of affordable dining options, including the Five-Star International Buffet, with a tempting array of local, regional, and international culinary delights. The center’s courtyard offers a multitude of entertainment options, including a concert featuring Elton John and Lady Gaga impersonators, as well as complimentary cultural classes in hula dancing, lei making, ukulele playing, quilting, and weaving.

Visitors with classic sensibilities will undoubtedly revel in the Old World luxury of Shangri La (ShangriLaHawaii.org), the estate of the late heiress-philanthropist Doris Duke. Situated on a stunning rocky cliff of the Pacific with a distinctive view of Diamond Head and considered one of the island’s most architecturally significant homes, Shangri La also houses an impressive collection of Islamic art.

There are at least two monthly events with special appeal to the gay and lesbian traveler. On the last Sunday of each month, the Sheraton Waikiki hosts Phoenix, Hawaii’s only oceanfront LGBT party, at Rumfire (RumfireWaikiki.com), the hotel’s stylish restaurant. For the culture-minded, Art After Dark (Honolulu-Academy.org) is a hugely popular art and cocktails mixer at the Honolulu Museum of Art on Beretania Street. The event takes place the last Friday of the month, January through October. Film fans may want to plan vacations around the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival (HGLCF.org), showcasing the best in LGBT cinema, which typically takes place around the same time as Honolulu Pride (late May–early June).

Eat

Azure Restaurant: Patrons with discerning palates and without budgetary restrictions can dine on the island’s most delectable fruits de mer and fish caught fresh each morning in an exquisite oceanfront space adorned with plush banquettes. AzureWaikiki.com

Play

Hula’s: Oahu’s most venerable gay bar is also perhaps its most beautiful. Enjoy a tropical cocktail and a pupu while taking in the spectacular open-air view of Diamond Head and Kapiolani Park. Hulas.com

Waikiki Beach Services: Learn surfing, outrigger canoeing, stand-up paddling, and catamaran sailing from a crew of rugged, experienced beach boys. WaikikiBeachServices.com

Side Trip

North Shore: An hour’s drive from Waikiki takes you to Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach — three of Oahu’s most famous surf spots. Indulge in a tropical fruit–flavored shaved ice while visiting the boutiques in Haleiwa Town and then head to nearby Kahuku to sample the fare of the world-famous shrimp trucks parked along the scenic roadside. NorthShore.com

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