Returning to Hawaii: The Ultimate Beach—and Food—Vacation – San Francisco Bay Times – San Francisco Bay Times

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By David Landis–
“Aloha oe! Aloha oe! Until we meet again.”
The famous lyrics to Hawaiian Princess Lili’uokalani’s famous 1878 song rang in my head as I returned to Honolulu and Kauai this year with the Landis clan to celebrate Thanksgiving.
You see, I’ve been lucky enough to have been regularly visiting these magical islands since 1960, when our Uncle Lou worked for the military and lived near Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Yes, the islands have changed a lot since that initial trip, but much of it is for the better. There’s still the tropical vibe, but now in many cases, the food offers an elevated island experience that makes Hawaii even more special.
We started our recent trip in one of my favorite cities, Honolulu. For COVID protocols, this city is #1. First off, before you even travel to Hawaii, you have to register with the Go Hawaii site and have proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. Once you arrive in Honolulu, every single restaurant requires proof of a vaccine card to dine indoors and also takes your temperature. Plus, all the retail stores require mask wearing. All of that made us feel comfortable, especially with Omicron rearing its ugly head. But be forewarned: make reservations well in advance or you may not get into the restaurant you choose.
Ground zero for us in the city was the gem of Hawaii, the historic Halekulani Hotel. Besides the Mauna Kea Hotel on the Big Island, this is our personal favorite for an unmatched luxury hotel experience in Hawaii.
The Halekulani has been closed for more than a year of renovation and the results are stunning. Much of the work was behind-the-scenes, fortifying infrastructure and the like. The public spaces look refreshed and renewed, as do the hotel rooms—with a quiet palette that just speaks “relaxing.” Our Diamond Head view room had its own balcony, plenty of storage, two twin beds that we pushed together to make a king bed, and a comfortable chair for reading while enjoying the vistas. In all the bathrooms, the hotel installed Toto washlet toilets—another Gay Gourmet favorite. But we had hoped that while the hotel had been closed for so long that those bathrooms would have gotten a much-needed renovation (double sinks, new countertops, and tiles would be nice). Maybe next time?
There is so much about the Halekulani that is first-class. Let’s start with Orchids, the Hawaiian meets Mediterranean cuisine restaurant run by the talented Chef Christian Testa, located both outdoors and indoors on the first floor of the property, and with panoramic ocean views. By far, this was the best meal in Honolulu. Chef Testa’s fresh, innovative approach and sourcing of local ingredients make for a dining experience like no other on Oahu.
We started, of course, with the Halekulani’s famous mai tai—one of the two best on the island—which put us in the right tropical spirit for the evening. Next, we enjoyed the hotel’s own smooth Silk red blend from Santa Barbara as well as a crisp white wine, the Albariño de Fefiñanes from Spain. The amuse-bouche that whet our appetite was a delectable biscuit with lemon mascarpone and bacon jam. Our starters included the local fresh onaga carpaccio, spiced with just the right amount of jalapeño heat in a lemon olive oil dressing; and the fresh, chunky tomato soup with a crispy crouton; the squid ink pasta with grated bottarga; the creamiest lobster bisque (with lemongrass accents); an extremely tender grilled prime filet of beef with a Barolo reduction and Hudson Valley foie gras; and the freshest Hawaiian seabass (called Hapu’upu’u) with asparagus flan in a lemon caper sauce. For dessert, one must have Halekulani’s signature, the fresh coconut cake filled with coconut amaretto cream. Simply divine!
The hotel’s other not-to-be-missed offering is the House Without A Key. This currently outdoor, oceanfront stop for cocktails and pupus (appetizers) has some of the best traditional Hawaiian music on the island—plus we had the pleasure of meeting the current Miss Hawaii, Courtney Choi, dancing the hula! The hotel is currently renovating the space and when it re-opens, it will have a pool bar, an exhibition kitchen and more—and will be open all day. But in the meantime, the evening respites at this magical space are destination-worthy.
Other culinary highlights in Honolulu? We love Merriman’s newish restaurant in the hip Kaka’ako arts district at the SALT Center. It’s called Moku Kitchen, and has Honolulu’s other best mai tai. Moku’s version—the one served also at their Monkeypod restaurants—is delightfully strong with the added benefit of passionfruit foam on the top. The food at Moku, while casual, is fresh and seasonal, and a perfect choice for lunch. Offerings include fresh fish tacos, local greens, crispy fries, deviled eggs with shrimp, hand tossed pizzas, a great burger, and more. While in Kaka’ako, don’t miss touring the out-of-the-way alleyways for some of the best mural art in the country.
Other places to visit? Make a stop at the Sky Waikiki and Raw Bar, outdoors atop the 19th floor of a building on buzzy Kalakaua Avenue: great cocktails and spectacular ocean and mountain views; Bar Leather Apron—we didn’t get to visit, but we hear great things about their craft cocktails, especially the Garden Negroni with coconut-washed Campari; enjoy drinks at sunset on the beach at the Moana Surfrider; Doraku Sushi in the Royal Hawaiian Center for terrific sushi; Tommy Bahama’s—besides a Hawaiian-inspired retail clothing store, they have an outdoor, rooftop restaurant with some of the best coconut shrimp, macadamia-crusted fresh fish, and a passionfruit mai tai that shines; Roy’s Waikiki—go for cocktails but I’d skip dinner; Buzz’s SteakHouse near Lanikai with beach views—great salads and burgers for lunch; the Haleiwa Beach House on the North Shore for oceanfront views and tasty lunch offerings, including fresh salads and crispy fish and chips; Tiki’s Bar and Grill at the south end of Waikiki has delicious cocktails, food, and live music; Leonard’s is famous for the Portuguese doughnuts known as malasadas (now a Hawaiian mainstay)—unfortunately we missed Leonard’s this trip, but we’ll head there next time; Mariposa’s (at Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Center) for a just-caught ahi tuna salad luncheon with an ocean view; and visit the wonderful Plumeria Beach House at the famed Kahala Resort south of Diamond Head—the food is tasty (again, with beach views) and afterwards you can visit their lagoons and dolphins!
While in Honolulu, we loved renting electric bikes from GoGo Rentals, biking down to Diamond Head along the coast and back along the Ala Wai Canal; visiting the Lyon Arboretum, a research garden that is part of the University of Hawaii and only a 20-minute drive from Waikiki (reservations suggested); the beautiful Byodo-In Buddhist Temple near Kailua, which was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Japanese people in Hawaii; the Hoomaluhia Gardens on the East Shore (also near Kailua), where you can hike through peaceful gardens to a gorgeous lake; and the Waimea Falls on the North Shore (be sure to reserve in advance). Make sure also to leave time to relax on Waikiki Beach, still one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with the impressive Diamond Head as your backdrop.
From Honolulu, we flew to the beautiful garden isle of Kauai, possibly our most favorite. Our family has been gathering here for Thanksgiving since the early 80s, and while it’s changed a bit, there still now is no building higher than a palm tree. It still feels like old Hawaii.
Kauai sadly has different COVID protocols—less stringent than Honolulu. But we opted to eat outside to make sure we were safe.
We usually stay in Princeville on the North Shore at the SeaLodge condominiums (which have terrific views), but this time we opted to try something new: the Hanalei Bay Hideaway condominiums at the Hanalei Bay Resort. Our third-floor units had sweeping views of Hanalei Bay and Bali Hai, along with numerous amenities, including: tennis, swimming, beach access, the Happy Talk lounge, and more. The units had been recently renovated in a modern style with 3 generous decks. Because the condos connect, it made for a nice family gathering when we wanted that and privacy when we each needed space.
Kauai has not in recent years been known for its restaurants, but that’s beginning to change. Some new chefs are doing exciting things on the island now. At the top of the list, I’d recommend Fish Bar Deli in Kapaa, run by two women from Northern California. This seasonally-driven and craft cocktail haven not only has the freshest and most innovative cuisine and spirits (pan seared fresh island fish, kimchee grilled cheese, buttermilk fried chicken, and craft mai tais), but also has an adjoining gourmet food retailer with everything to spice up your Hawaiian kitchen.
Also of note: Bar Acuda in Hanalei, run by another former San Franciscan, offers up American tapas delectables that melt in your mouth, including Hawaiian fish with Yukon gold saffron mashed potatoes, fennel-orange jam and True Leaf farms sunflower sprouts; the Hanalei Dolphin has its own seafood market so the restaurant has the freshest seafood and sushi, along with dining outdoors right on the Hanalei River; Sam’s Ocean View in Kapaa has craft cocktails, an oceanside setting, and contemporary Hawaiian food; Tiki Iniki in Princeville, owned by rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife, has some killer cocktails and tasty bar food; Pink’s Creamery in Hanalei sells tropical ice cream flavors like Haupia (coconut cream custard) as well as mango and cream; Wishing Well Shave Ice and JoJo’s Shave Ice are local favorites, featuring the Hawaiian version of a snow cone; Postcards Café in Hanalei concocts mouth-watering delicious mai tais, as well as creative fish and lamb entrees; and the Kalypso in Hanalei is known for its Iniki (Hurricane), and in the Gay Gourmet’s opinion has the best mai tai on the island. I also like Oasis on the Beach in the Waipouli Resort in Kapaa, mostly for the views. One of my favorite cocktail and music haunts in Hanalei, the iconic Tahiti Nui (made famous in the movie The Descendants), was unfortunately closed for the week due to COVID.
For Thanksgiving, we booked something special. We weren’t sure that restaurants would be open, especially during COVID, so we hired White Ginger Catering (owned by the amiable Ginger Zeitz) to cook for us. We chose her “Kauai Fresh” menu option, and from start to finish, it was an impeccable dining experience. She arrived right on time and began cooking (with a mask) in our condo kitchen while we enjoyed cocktails on the lanai. The menu consisted of fresh vegetarian rolls, kale salad with macadamia nuts and purple carrots, the tastiest fresh Kauai shrimp and ahi tuna, and mango cheesecake. She set the table and served us—and even cleaned up! Our entire family give Ginger the highest recommendation and we now have a new Thanksgiving family tradition!
What’s there to do on Kauai? We love the Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens and Sculpture Park near Kilauea, a magical respite from the stress of the real world. Not only does this vast garden feature formal gardens, hardwood and wild forests, and picturesque flowers in bloom year-round—but when we visited, the famous albatross birds were nesting; what a sight! You can either book a walking tour or riding tour, but reservations are required. The Lydgate Farms’ Chocolate Farm Tour in the jungle hills outside of Kapaa also is a must: a 46-acre farm that grows the highest quality cacao beans to make some of the world’s finest craft chocolate. During the tour, you not only sample various chocolates and beans, but also some of the tropical fruits grown right on the farm.
The Lighthouse at Kilauea (reservations also required) is also a fun outing; it’s located on a peninsula on the north shore and often you can see both red-footed booby birds and spinner dolphins from its perch. Ke’e Beach and the Na Pali Coast trail (the Kalalau Trail) are gorgeous, but now require reservations in advance for parking (there is also a shuttle from Hanalei, also requiring reservations). And a word to the wise: even avid hikers find the Kalalau Trail to be a challenge. It’s magnificent, but make sure you’re in shape, wear proper clothing and a hat, watch your step, carry water, and know that you’ll come back with boots stained with the Kauai red clay.
Waimea Canyon on the opposite side of the island with its panoramic views—dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”—is worth a trip, but it’s an all-day affair. Anini Beach and Lydgate Beach are great for snorkeling; you often can swim with sea turtles. Limahuli Gardens, located at the base of Bali Hai, is an attractive garden with a one-hour walking tour, built on a verdant hillside with ocean views. The Coconut Coast has a 4-mile biking trail on the East Shore—on previous trips, we’ve rented bikes for a leisurely ride with picturesque ocean views.
It’s easy to see why Hawaii is such a popular destination, especially for urban-weary San Franciscans. It’s an easy, direct flight from the city. And now, besides just relaxation, the islands are offering up tasty culinary treats as well.
Bits and Bites
My loyal readers know that I’ve lamented the closure of the historic Cliff House, but now the space has been reborn with a site-specific art exhibit called Lands End, focusing on climate change. It is on display through March 27.
I’ve just sampled some tasty chocolates from Giddy Candy in the Castro. It’s a great place for holiday gifts.
Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park is offering some new cocktail concoctions, including the tasty-sounding “Pumpkin Alexander.” It’s a drink with brandy, pumpkin chocolate liqueur, Kahlua, and cinnamon syrup. Sounds yummy!
I had the good fortune to try peppermint-flavored truffle fudge holiday chocolates from John Kelly Chocolates, a gay-owned chocolatier in Los Angeles. All I can say is, put these at the top of your holiday list to impress your friends! They’re available online and at Neiman Marcus. While you enjoy gourmet chocolates, you can also support an LBTQ+ owned business.
Some great news from another Gay Gourmet favorite: Original Joe’s is opening a new location in the Marina in the old Lucky Brand location at Scott and Chestnut. Plus, they’ll be opening a new Mexican restaurant in West Portal called Elaine’s, named after owner Elaine Duggan.
I also hear that the Hammer Museum in LA has nabbed celebrity chef Alice Waters to help open Lulu’s, a new café/restaurant there with an environmentally conscious twist.
Some great holiday wine gift ideas that help the planet from the folks at Calhoun and Company: for those who love a great California Chardonnay, the 2019 Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay (sustainably grown), rich and creamy with balanced minerality; and Rabble 2020 Rosé from Paso Robles, a winery that invests in zero-carbon offset emissions—and also gives a portion of profits to 1% For The Planet. Also of note: VDR (Very Dark Red) from Scheid Family Wines’ Hames Valley Vineyard; 2018 Charles Woodson’s Intercept Wines Limited Edition, an homage to Charles Woodson’s 2021 enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame; and W. & J. Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port, perfect for an after-dinner toast and organic to boot.
Speaking of wine, Bright Cellars Wines is a monthly club that matches you with the wines you love by taking an easy 7-question quiz. The company’s holiday gift cards make it easy to buy for someone you love—and who loves wine?!
On December 25 and 26, one of my favorite annual holiday events—Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, with the indefatigable lesbian comedienne Lisa Gedulgig—returns in a virtual format, partnering with Lazy Susan Chinese for the food. Deadline to order is December 19.
“Cocktail-forward” The Madrigal from Hi Neighbor (owners of The Vault Garden) has opened its snazzy new digs in the former space on Van Ness occupied by Corridor.
The good folks at Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) reminded me that you can buy farm fresh from local Marin farms. There are holiday gifts and packages onsite—and online—from renowned specialty meat sources such as Rossotti, Fallon Hills and Stemple Creek ranches; shellfish meal kits from Hog Island Oyster Co.; honey and honey gifts from Sola Bee Farms; sumptuous yarns and fleece from Barinaga Ranch, and pure wool from Joe Pozzi Ranch; holiday wreaths from Little Wing Farm; and cheese delicacies from Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Farmstead, and Nicasio Valley, as well as dairy products from Straus Home Ranch.
Frizata, a direct-to-consumer frozen foods company, is launching service in the U.S., first in the Bay Area. The company aims to promote meat alternatives while offering products that don’t use preservatives or artificial ingredients. Nearly 50 frozen food products can be shipped directly to your home.
Russian River Brewing is releasing its popular Pliny the Younger Triple IPA February 4–17 at its brewpubs in Windsor and Santa Rosa.
And since everyone who drinks should get into the holiday spirit with quality spirits, NEFT Vodka is an ultra-premium vodka with a great, smooth taste and a memorable container: it’s a one-of-a-kind, portable, and unbreakable barrel that keeps NEFT cold for up to 6 hours in any season. (What a great idea!) The company is offering a holiday $5 discount: just use the promo code CHEERS when you checkout online.
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau:
Go Hawaii (Safe Hawaii):
Halekulani Hotel, Orchids restaurant and House Without A Key:
Moku Kitchen:
Sky Waikiki and Raw Bar:
Bar Leather Apron:
Doraku Sushi:
Buzz’s Steakhouse:
Haleiwa Beach House:
Plumeria Beach House:
Hanalei Bay Resort:
Hanalei Bay Hideaway:
Fish Bar Deli:
Bar Acuda:
The Hanalei Dolphin:
Tahiti Nui:
White Ginger Catering:
Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens and Sculpture Park:
Lydgate Farms Chocolate Farm Tour:
Graton Resort & Casino restaurants:
John Kelly Chocolates:
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy:
Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT):
Frizata U.S.:
NEFT Vodka:
The Madrigal:
Bright Cellars Wine:
David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: [email protected] Or visit him online at:
Published on December 16, 2021
© 2021, San Francisco Bay Times
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