Like many people who call Los Angeles home, I am accustomed to a certain lifestyle: long hours at a day job to cover a rent that rivals the national debt, freelance gigs that dominate my “time off,” traffic that turns an errand to buy some milk and eggs into a daylong road trip, and breathing air that can not only be seen but sometimes even tasted.
It’s difficult to leave such a glamorous life behind, but when I was offered a chance to visit the Hawaiian Islands and check out some of the posh vacation destinations offered by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, I bravely accepted.
I packed a few essentials -- swim trunks, my iPod, and my boyfriend -- and boarded a flight for Honolulu. Having been raised on the island of Oahu, it felt curious to return as one of the many tourists I used to poke fun at. I made a mental checklist of the things I wouldn’t do, such as wearing my camera like a necklace or overusing the word mahalo.
My first destination was the W Honolulu Diamond Head (2885 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; 808-922-1700). The hotel was unassuming -- so much so that we missed it on our initial drive down Kalakaua Avenue, sending us back around the circumference of the neighboring Kapiolani Park.
We were in a corner suite, which gave us a beautiful view of the inactive volcano of Diamond Head and a view of the ocean that was partially obstructed by larger hotels next door. The suite had lanai -- or patio -- appointments on two sides, which promoted a delicious breeze. (Be careful with your food, however -- lunching on the lanai led to a Hitchcockian experience of birds muscling in.) Our room’s decor was an uninspired mix of Polynesian wood furnishings amid white backdrops. All in all it was not up to the standard of urban cool that the W is famous for, a fact spokespeople seemed aware of as they showed us what the redesigned rooms would soon look like: Cobalt blue predominated over polished white furniture, while intricately designed sliding-glass fixtures maximized use of the small space. White netting resembled a sail over a bed, while a chair featured a blue woven back meant to resemble deep-water vegetation. It was a decidedly W postmodern vision of an undersea lounge.
The hotel does provide comfortable beach chairs and towels at the front desk, but unfortunately, the nearest beach is mostly waveless and located next to the historic but dilapidated Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, a swimming pool built by the military that is now a depressing visage, in such disrepair that people may no longer enter it.
Rumor has it that the W hosts some swinging nightlife as well, but having escaped from hipster Los Angeles ourselves, we opted out of experiencing it.
Instead we enjoyed our first dinner at the Moana Surfrider Resort on Waikiki Beach (2365 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; 808-922-3111). First opened in 1901 and having undergone a $50 million restoration in the late '80s, the hotel is a gorgeous example of beaux arts architecture, easily evoking a feeling of Old World glamour. Its restaurant, Beach House, is a joy to behold, with both patio and indoor seating offering panoramic views of the ocean. But the real joy lies in the food. Our waitress bragged that the steaks are so good we wouldn’t need the accompanying sauce, and it was true. Her knowledge and enthusiasm made her a welcome guide as we navigated the menu. Ultimately, we ordered diver scallop potato cakes with kula citrus-herb butter, and filet mignon seasoned with alaea salt blend and served with citrus bearnaise and cabernet jus. We also drank the first of what would be many piña coladas on our vacation, eventually judging each establishment on their preparation of this cocktail. The scallop potato cakes were rich without being oily; the potato flavor practically vanished and complimented the texture of the dish while allowing for the taste of scallop to predominate. The filet mignon, very rare, as I ordered it, was so tender it was like pudding, and boldly salty. Despite our waitress’s boast, I used the bearnaise sauce, which added a flavor of melted savory pastry -- my eyes rolled back in my head.
The next day we moved into the Sheraton Waikiki (2255 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; 808-922-4422). The expansive lobby bustled with families, shops, a virtual-surfing game -- all of which made for a discombobulating Vegas-style vibe. We were later informed the hotel was originally designed to reflect exactly that.
Our room was on the top floor of the 30-story hotel. It was small, mostly white, and minimal in decor. It offered a flat-screen TV with terrible reception. Oddly, the restroom had shutters that opened across a bar-like top, as though the designers thought you might want to prepare and serve martinis as you brushed your teeth. The best features of the room came from outside: a god's eye view of the Pacific and the lulling sound of waves. At night, the poolside floor show sent echoes of Hawaiian music and applause up to our room; I found it cheerily atmospheric, but it annoyed my boyfriend.
The hotel had a tiny adjacent beach that was packed with families. When requesting towels for the beach we were given small bath towels. We indicated we wanted the larger towels that were also available, but the brusque employee informed us those were “actually called chair covers” and were not allowed outside the pool area (a mere 10 yards from the beach), so we settled for six small towels between us.
The highlight of this hotel was its tapas bar, Rum Fire, which boasts the largest selection of vintage rum in the United States. The decor was swanky and urban and, we learned, an intentional departure from Polynesian aesthetics; apparently its operators hoped to distinguish it as “happening.” From the perspective of two people from Los Angeles specifically hoping to discover the islands' unique style, this approach was a miss, because the bar looked like one more citified, hipster hop -- not bad, per se, just not what we flew in for.
We were given a crash course in rum varieties and did some taste testing, all of which was fun and illuminating. Of all the drinks we tried -- and there were many -- our favorite was something called the "deconstructed piña colada": Cruzan single-barrel rum and pineapple juice, topped with coconut foam and sprinkled with li hing mui (salted dried plum, a candy originally from Vietnam that’s a favorite on the islands and a cherished childhood memory of mine, though when most mainlanders first try its intense flavor they spit it out and cuss repeatedly). I’ll be honest. I don’t remember actually leaving Rum Fire, only waking up the next morning.
That night we set out in search of Oahu’s gay scene. We hit three bars: Hula’s Bar & Lei Stand, Fusion, and Angles Waikiki.
Hula’s Bar & Lei Stand (134 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu; 808-923-0669), located on the second story of the Waikiki Grand Hotel, was buzzing with energy and felt neighborly. It's a large, dimly lit space with many hidden alcoves and tiny tables, and there are screens from every angle showcasing music videos. It was delightful to see people in shorts and flip-flops rocking out to the latest club singles -- a scene I could easily adapt to. Hula’s was my pick of Oahu's gay nightlife.
Our next stop, Fusion (2260 Kuhio Ave., Honolulu; 808-924-2422), was nothing short of a David Lynch experience. A dance floor cuts the awkward L-shaped space in half. A tiny audience of about 10 took in Fusion's drag show, which seemed to feature three performers for every spectator. The acts themselves were fun -- brazen and energetic -- but the meager audience proved an unsettling match, making it seem like we were watching auditions.
Angles Waikiki (2256 Kuhio Ave., Honolulu; 808-923-1130) had the most meat-market feel of the three. We had been inside a total of 20 seconds before I was hit on. Well-lit and sparse, it felt a little like an army mess hall, and seemed to be populated more by out-of-town businessmen on the down low than by the cheery locals who seemed drawn to Hula’s. As we enjoyed a local microbrew on the lanai we listened to a pornographer as he tried to recruit two American soldiers to perform on his website. Aloha!
The next day we left Oahu for the more remote island of Kauai. Our home for the next few days would be the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas (3838 Wyllie Rd., Princeville), located on the lush, northern side of the island. We knew we were in for good times when we accidentally tried to check in at the wrong resort and the hotel clerk said, “Oh, you’re staying at the Westin? You guys are stoked!”
The Westin Princeville is still undergoing construction of future villas, but the features are in full effect, with multiple swimming pools and cabana bars. (Of note is the kids' pool, which includes a waterslide and soft, giant turtle fountains, which we just had to get in after all the kids had gone to bed.) The suites are like condos and include a washer and dryer, a kitchenette equipped with dishes and cookware, a shower for two, and a Jacuzzi-style tub, all of which is laid out comfortably in an understated cream and chestnut color scheme. Instead of an ocean view, one is treated to picturesque green rolling hills that multitudes of feral roosters and chickens call home. Yes, thousands of wild roosters -- they don’t tell you that in the tourist brochures, but the sound grows on you and is eventually charming. And these are some handsome roosters, the kind you see hanging upside down in the paintings of Dutch masters.
Because our suite came equipped with a kitchen and the grounds feature many BBQ grills, we initially thought we’d do a little grocery shopping and cook for ourselves. One night at the resort’s restaurant, Nanea, changed our minds. For the next three days we ate every meal, save one, right there. Though the entrees started around $25, not including cocktails, the cost of groceries was also high, making restaurants seem less cost inefficient in the end.
Nanea has an intimate wood-carved interior and ample outdoor seating situated next to man-made waterfalls and a koi pond set in lava rock. Tiki torches cast a warm, romantic glow at night. The staff was easygoing and friendly, though not at the expense of professionalism. Because we eventually sampled nearly the entire menu, I won’t list our choices here except for one notable dish that threatened to make me break up with my guy and marry it instead: “duck two ways” -- five-spice seared breast and Kalua duck laulau with lilikoi citrus glaze. Laulau refers to a style of cooking in which meat is wrapped in Taro leaf and simmered in an imu (an underground oven), though this step is often accomplished today by steaming on a stovetop.
Furthermore, both my boyfriend and I agreed that the Westin Princeville had won our piña colada contest. You could have hooked us up to an IV drip of the stuff.
The following day we went on a kayaking trip down the Hanalei River, courtesy of Princeville Ranch Adventures. Our friendly guide was a laid-back local who regaled us with stories of the island’s history as we made our way to a secluded cove for some snorkeling. The boyfriend and I regressed to excited 8-year-olds as we splashed amongst Hawaii’s glorious, aquatic natives.
Because this is a cruel, heartless world, the time came when we had to leave. By then we were on a first-name basis with the friendly staff and had almost certainly developed a chemical dependence on their piña coladas, so it was with heavy hearts that we flew home. Even so, the magic of the islands and the luxury that marked our stay remained with us.