Waikiki seems to be one of those places that some travelers love, and some travelers love to hate.
I’d been to Waikiki before, and had seen many of it’s major sites — Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, The Aquarium, a sunset booze cruise and beyond — but I’d never actually stayed there or taken the time to thoroughly explore.
So when Vive Hotel offered me the opportunity to spend three nights just three blocks from the beach, how could I say no?
After five nights sleeping off jetlag and blissing out at a relaxing resort on the West Coast of Oahu, Ian and I were ready for a little island action. Despite living on a tiny island in Thailand, we love cities and we were thrilled to explore the nightlife, restaurants, and bustling energy of Hawaii’s biggest.
Our room at Vive Hotel was an oasis. Vive markets itself as a budget alternative to the big hotels on the waterfront, and so I was surprised at how spacious our junior suite was the first time we walked in. Not only did we have a small sitting area, there was also a desk tucked in the corner where I set up a temporary office, a big closet to throw all our bags in, and a pretty generously-sized bathroom, to boot.
Now, I know that in many parts of the world, calling a hotel that generally starts 1t $180 a night a “budget” choice would be silly, but in Oahu, it’s reality. And they really pile on the perks to make you feel like you’re getting a great deal, too. There are free beach chairs, towels, mats, and boogie boards on loan, plus a complimentary iPad in each room. Every morning there’s a simple continental breakfast of tropical fruit, breads and pastries, and while there is a $25 a day charge for mandatory valet parking, it’s actually a steal compared to the $40 a night (ouch, Hawaii!) at some nearby hotels.
They also provide a weekly newsletter with a curated list of events like concerts, 5K runs, and flea markets that tourists might not otherwise know about — I thought it was a great little touch.
From our room, we could peek at Diamond Head through the skyline in one direction, or use the zoom lens on my camera to spy on Waikiki surfers in the other.
What I really loved about Vive though was the staff. They were young and energetic and genuinely helpful every time we asked them a question. When we decided to take advantage of the bus stop across the street to go to Chinatown one night, the concierge was all over it with the route, schedule and advice — and seemed really excited to hear about our plans!
If you’re not really a bus person, there’s also a car rental literally next door. Basically, it’s the perfect location. We loved being able to easily access the areas of Waikiki, Kakaako, and Downtown — we ended up essentially dedicating a day of our long weekend to each.
For our Waikiki day, we took it pretty easy. Ian was okay to skip the big tourist sights (frankly, he was relieved, I think) and just spend a day grazing on food, people-watching on the sand and eventually walking the long stretch of the beach searching for the perfect sunset spot.
I love Waikiki for days just like this — you don’t really need to do much, because just wandering around one of the most famous and energetic beaches in the world is entertainment enough. Surfers, beach bums, joggers, tourists, bikers… everyone just ebbs and flows, all finding a way to share this tiny piece of paradise.
Frankly, our only real complaint about staying in Waikiki was the food available withing walking distance. We found that the majority of options fell into two categories: (A) overpriced, mega-touristy restaurants that locals wouldn’t step foot in without an out-of-town guest, like Duke’s, or (B) straight-up chain restaurants directly transplanted from the mainland, like the dang Cheesecake Factory, which to our dismay appeared to be one of the most popular restaurants in all of Waikiki. I’m not normally one to hate on chain restaurants, but… it was a bit much.
We did find a few promising options though, mostly open during the day. Heavenly Island Lifestyle was the one I was most excited to try, and after making it past the long line outside we absolutely adored both the decor and the brunch dishes we ordered… once they arrived. I had a mini breakfast set that involved a small acai bowl, a taro breakfast muffin, a lentil salad, and fresh squeezed orange juice — heaven!
Yet, we had a pretty serious snafu with service when Ian’s food arrived and was finished while I was still sat waiting — I had told him to go ahead, expecting mine to be not far behind. When the waitress cleared his plate we inquired about my meal, and the look on the her face made it clear she had forgotten to put it in. After watching her frantically run over to the kitchen, she came over without apologizing, and made up some silly explanation about the kitchen being backed up. I was polite but then felt pretty insulted when the bill came out and they’d extended a generous 10% discount — for my meal only, not even the entire bill!
For the first time in my life, I left less than an 18% tip in a US restaurant… and still I felt so conflicted I sat there and wrote a very long note explaining that we totally understand things go wrong, but lying to us about it and then giving such a paltry compensation sans apology wasn’t cool.
The humorous epilogue to this story was after we left I got an Instagram message from a reader who said she recognized me at Heavenly but was too shy to say hi… and I was just dying thinking how hungry and annoyed I must have looked, sitting there glowering at the kitchen, ha ha! Anyway, I’m assuming this was an anomaly, and I’d give them another shot for how great the food was, but it was too egregious not to mention.
Later in the afternoon, Ian and I were wandering around Waikiki when we stumbled on Pau Hana Market. This cute little food-truck grove was strewn with fairy lights and had offerings from ramen to tacos to loco moco. We snacked on a plate of dumplings before I went in for the kill with a heaping serving of shave ice, my favorite Hawaiian treat!
For dinner, we’d kind of struggled to find something that really appealed to us within walking distance, though Buho Cocina Y Cantina ended up being the perfect fit. This modern rooftop Mexican restaurant was buzzing on Saturday night, and we loved the mix of locals, University of Hawaii students and in-the-know tourists that made up our neighboring tables.
We were thrilled, and I’ll be back on a future trip to take in the views during the day (and take more photos of the restaurant’s amazing design — I failed you here, guys!)
After some pretty extensive research, there were really only a few spots left within Waikiki proper that we were absolutely itching to eat at and that we could reach without a car — Hideout, Mahina and Sun’s, and Lemona Shave Ice.
The good news? Staying in Waikiki makes it super easy to access hip neighborhoods like Kakaako and Chinatown either by car or by bus. Upcoming Kakaako is snuggled on the waterfront west of Waikiki, between Downtown and Ala Moana, and is about a ten minute drive or an hour-long walk from the heart of Waikiki. We spent an afternoon and evening here wandering around, soaking up street art, snacking at hip cafes, and daydreaming about moving into one of the many condos we saw under construction.
Our first stop was ARVO, a botanical-inspired café inside Paiko, a modern Hawaiian florist. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Ian declined to do a flower crown workshop with me — weird — but he was an enthusiastic sharer of loaded avocado toast and matcha chia seed pudding.
Wandering around Paiko made me want to move to Oahu immediately — okay, it’s not hard — so I could learn how to make leis, plant succulent gardens, and otherwise become a floral Hawaiian goddess.
There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in Kakaako right now — weekly food truck festival Eat the Street, monthly Honolulu Night Market, brunch and yoga events, antigravity fitness studios, and beyond! Of course, you have to have great timing to hit those, and we didn’t.
But that was just fine — we were content to simply wander around, look for our favorite murals, and of course, eat ice cream. Want to chase street art in Kakaakao? You can always just have a stroll see what you find, but if you want to plan a bit or figure out where the highest concentration of murals is, check the Pow Wow street art festival’s mural map for more information.
My sweet treat must-do in Kakaako? Ice cream from Lucy’s Lab Creamery! Booze-infused flavors like Fruit Loop Vodka and Bacon Whiskey were what caught my eye originally, though I was equally delighted by options like Butter Popcorn, Honey Lavender, Caramel Azuki, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. For sugar addicts in Oahu, it’s a can’t miss!
Just be warned — I’ve never had a cone melt faster.
We ended our night in Kakaako at the movies. Though we considered more energetic weekend options like a bar hop or mai-tai fueled catamaran ride, Hawaii had us in serious chill mode and well, we just love going to the movies. While it’s not necessarily a theater I’d write home about, if you happen be craving a night in front of the big screen, Consolidated Ward was your average big box theater with some special fancy options for food and drink.
The final day of our long weekend was spent exploring what I’d consider perhaps Oahu’s most offbeat and underrated destinations — Downtown and Chinatown. I loved them so much, there’s a whole blog post coming your way about them tomorrow.
In the end, we didn’t leave head over heels in love with Waikiki itself. It is very touristy, we aren’t that into shopping, and it doesn’t have a ton of bars or restaurants that get us super excited. That said, it does have cool, affordable boutique hotels steps away from a beautiful beach, and easy access to neighboring areas we are completely obsessed with.
Neither of those neighborhoods have hotel options we’d consider, or are particularly beachy, so unless we stumbled on the perfect Airbnb in the future, Waikiki ends up being a default base for exploring them. It’s a great base for exploring a lot of Oahu’s big main Southern tourist sites, and it definitely has that classic, Elvis singing Aloha, lei-draped, Hawaiian tourism feel to it.
I think three nights was the perfect amount of time to get an island-style urban fix between more nature-based and far-flung Hawaiian destinations, and I’d definitely tack the same onto future trips to the islands.
What do you think? Do you love Waikiki or avoid it? Let me know in the comments…
… and stay tuned for our final Oahu adventures!
Mahalo to Vive Hotel for hosting us!
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in October of 2016 in Hawaii, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.