Looking back at my time spent in Hawai’i, it felt magical.
There is a song by local artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (or as the locals call him, Braddah Iz) that never fails to invoke nostalgia for me: Somewhere over the rainbow/What a wonderful world. The song combines the two classics and is accompanied only by a ukulele, a Hawaiian instrument with roots from Portuguese immigrants. The story behind the piece is that Braddah Iz came into the studio at 3 AM one night and recorded it in one take, creating a soulful masterpiece despite some lyrical deviations. When I listen to the song now, the song gives me joy but his voice adds a subtle hint of melancholy — that’s nostalgia, I suppose. (related: see Johnny Harris’ The Nostalgia Theory)
Hawai’i is the land of rainbows: when I was there, it rained daily but never for long, and when the sun revealed itself a cheery rainbow would sit over the mountains. It was also a place that presented so much pristine natural beauty. I suppose it’s for these reasons that I found the place to be magical.
I created a lot of memories during the 5 weeks I spent in Hawai’i from February to March of 2021. My first week in Maui was very “touristy”; we went snorkeling in Molokini crater and did the road to Hana. But with O’ahu for the remaining 4 weeks, I tried to live like a local and adapted a more laid-back yet adventurous lifestyle. I felt I better understood life in O’ahu more, and so this piece will only cover my experiences there.
I discovered my love for shave ice in Hawai’i (note that there’s no ‘d’ in shave ice in Hawai’i). How the soft ice immediately melts upon taste is pure magic, and topped with a flavorful syrup you really couldn’t ask for more. I like shave ice the simple and classic way with just ice and syrup, though you can add ice cream, mochi, azuki beans, and a bunch of other toppings to make it more fancy. I tried to get shave ice every day in Hawai’i; the temperature makes it always appropriate, and there’s an endless array of flavors to try out.
There are only 2 things to consider when assessing the quality of shave ice: the ice and the syrup. The perfect ice is soft and melts immediately when your tongue presses on it, without any coarse specks. The perfect syrup is a flavorful one that tastes genuine, unless you’re into very artificial flavors. When ordering shave ice, go with your personal favorites for flavors; though keep in mind that certain flavors like guava, lemon, or mango have much more faithful artificial flavors compared to the real fruit, while banana and grape straight up taste like chemicals.
I recommend 4 shops, all which I’d be down to get any day: Waiola Shave Ice has the fluffiest ice, but its flavors are relatively standard. Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha has tasty natural syrups made from fresh fruits, but the most limited selection of flavors with a coarser ice. Matsumoto Shave Ice’s ice quality also isn’t the best, but it has one of my favorite flavors — Yuzu. Lastly, Shimazu Shave Ice has my other favorite flavor, Durian (a big YMMV here), with also the largest quantities and decent ice. The owner once told me that he gets the flavor shipped from Singapore and you can’t find it anywhere else on the island.
For other Hawaiian foods, the best loco moco I had was from Island Vintage Coffee — the gravy there is much more flavorful than local fast food chains like L&L BBQ. Island Vintage also has some of the best Acai bowls I’ve ever had, low key probably because of the sugar.
We bought a 5-pound bag of rice and got poke very frequently in Hawai’i. I liked Ono Seafood across the board for its different pokes. Their fish are always fresh and the marinade goes well with rice. Fresh Catch’s smoked tako and spicy salmon are also delicious, especially if you like mayo over the traditional shoyu sauce. Maguro Brothers’ selection is guaranteed to be fresh, perhaps unsurprising for a shop founded by two brothers who used to be fish sellers at Tsukiji fish market. It’s baffling how poke in the mainland wildly differs from poke in Hawai’i. In fact, the whole concept of a poke bar where you ‘make your own bowl’ feels foreign in O’ahu; here, a poke is just fish and white rice, nothing else.
Musubi is also a popular snack, which was invented after World War II from the prevalence of canned SPAM thanks to the US army. SPAM is somewhat a staple in Hawaiian cuisine; recently, I visited the SPAM museum in the middle of nowhere Minnesota and learned–somewhat unsurprisingly–that the 40th most populous state consumes more SPAM than any other state in the US. Personally, I love the decked-out musubis at Musubi Cafe Iyasume, featuring grilled eel, avocado, and egg on top of spam and rice. Make sure to eat them while they’re fresh; it doesn’t taste as good when it cools and reheating it isn’t quite the same.
For malasadas, a Portuguese dessert made from fried dough, Leonard’s Bakery is THE place. Leonard’s was hands down the business I went to the most when I was in Hawai’i, partly due to its proximity but also because it’s just so good. You probably won’t miss it if you’re in O’ahu; it’s an institution on the island. In fact, the reason why Alan decided to join me in Hawai’i was for some Leonard’s. Make sure to get the malasada puffs with the classic custard filling; the other fillings taste fairly artificial in my opinion. That being said, if you don’t want filling, Pipeline Bakery does an arguably better classic malasada. On the topic of desserts, Liliha Bakery has some tasty poi donuts, which are similar to mochi donuts. Their coco puffs are good too.
The Waiahole Poi Factory was pretty representative for traditional Polynesian plates. We visited the place during our one-day around-the-island drive for an early lunch. Personally, I’m not a fan of poi, it leaves a slightly earthy yet unfamiliar sour aftertaste, and has the texture of a very soft mochi. The other dishes, lau lau, Kalua pork, squid luau, chicken long rice (which are actually–spoilers–glass noodles) are decent. To me, it was one of those foods you try once to understand what traditional Polynesian food is like.
Going along the around-the-island drive counterclockwise, you’ll find an abundance of shrimp trucks at the north tip of the island near Kahuku for a late lunch: Giovanni’s, Fumi’s, Romy’s, etc. The prawns are big and the butter garlic sauce is very appetizing. However, my favorite shrimp truck was Aloha Shrimp, a bit earlier, near Punaluu. The shrimp here is bigger and juicier, and the thicker sauce is so delicious with rice.
For other local plates, Rainbow Drive–in is a classic and does a great job. Hawaiian food pairs a lot of dishes with plain white rice, like Rainbow Drive-in’s chili and hot dogs, which rather unsurprisingly goes pretty well together. The mix plate, consisting of BBQ beef, breaded chicken, and grilled fish, combines 3 different styles of Hawaiian cooking with 3 types of meats. The place also has a pretty good mac salad, another Hawaiian classic.
You’ll find that Hawaiian food combines together many cultures, along with its natural produce, to put together something truly unique. From the Japanese origins and local ahi for poke to the acai bowls that were popularized by surfers only 15–20 years ago, its signature foods have diverse origins. I once read somewhere that Hawaiian cuisine isn’t so much a melting pot of different cultures but more of a stew, in which all the flavors come together to complement each other, and I think this perfectly describes how diverse the local cuisine is.
Hawaii Regional cuisine is a modern answer to this unique blend of cuisines and ingredients. Founded by 12 monumental Hawaiian restauranteurs like Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi, the approach emphasizes cooking using local regional ingredients and a fusion of the diverse culinary influences found in Hawai’i. We went to quite a few of the restaurants started by the founders — Roy’s in Waikiki, Merriman’s in Kaka’ako, and M by Chef Mavro. Roy’s had the best spring roll I think I’ve ever had, which was followed by a hearty ‘surf and turf’ featuring a crusted local mahi and a juicy braised short-rib on a bed of creamy orzo pasta. Merriman’s had fusion dishes like a luau quesadilla with kim chi, and an honestly mediocre fish and chips. M by Chef Mavro was my favorite restaurant in Hawai’i and it leans more French in cooking style, with an emphasis on local ingredients. The mouse creme brulee is what I’d imagine pure umami to taste like, while the wagyu tartare was smoked so intensely it dissonantly tasted like it was cooked. The wagyu steak with wasabi creme was perfectly complementary, while the yuzu brown butter sauce set a very unique fish dish. Lastly, the chicken was probably the best chicken I’ve ever had; tender, juicy, and naturally flavorful. However, the menu changes pretty frequently, so there aren’t often many constants.
Other fancier places I liked include Tommy Bahama (yes, the clothing company based in Seattle), whose ‘world famous coconut shrimp’ lives up to its name. TBD’s onion soup without any butter or cream accentuated the earthy flavors of onion, while its Mango Kulfi dessert was delicious with a truly memorable presentation. The Pig and the Lady, one of the best Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to, serves some particularly rich and flavorful pho broths and a unique yet perfectly sensical french dip banh mi (bonus: get the egg coffee). Yakitori Hachibei has some very solid Yakitori, as well as plenty of recommendable tapas dishes like a delectable miso grilled cod or a cream cheese tofu spread with bread. Koko head cafe’s french toast contrasted a deep fried crunchy outer layer with a soft and fluffy inner. Lastly, Miro’s fancy 3-course American-French brunch was a delightful yet familiar experience with signature dishes like the duck confit and waffles, but drizzled with an exotic spice syrup.
I developed a serious liking for hiking when I was in O’ahu. I think it’s partly because the island is covered by arrays of mountain ridges that there are an abundance of fantastic hikes (check this out). I must admit that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all the hikes out there, and that there are so many places I had wanted to go to but wasn’t able to. In fact, the biggest reason why I’ll be constantly coming back is the hikes. A caveat though: reconsider some hikes if it’s raining, as most of the trails become very muddy and slippery.
I’ll list the hikes I went on in an order somewhat from least to most favorite. But ultimately, all of these were fantastic hikes and I’d recommend any of them in a heartbeat.
Koko crater: this is an O’ahu classic that you’ve probably heard of. As one of the tallest peaks on the east side of the island, a pillbox bunker was built atop it during WWII and a railway was also built to transport supplies. The hike isn’t too interesting along the route; you follow the rail tracks to the top but you’re ultimately rewarded with an expansive view of the Windward (East) coast. However, the hike is very intense: the incline becomes quite steep and the crater is quite tall. I don’t remember being as tired from any of the other hikes, and many were much longer in duration and length. While the experience itself was grueling, looking back it was very memorable. There are some locals who do the trek daily and time themselves, really putting most tourists to shame.
Makapu’u tidepools: a detour downwards towards the ocean from the Makapu’u lighthouse trail. The tidepool at the end is quite pleasant to take a dip in, but can get crowded. There’s also a pretty epic blowhole next to the pools.
Koko crater arch: a big arch at an incline along the mountains on the eastern tip. We told ourselves that we’d go see the sunrise here, but that obviously didn’t happen; the sun was already cooking me alive when we took our ascent at 9 AM. This hike is fairly short but there is considerable uphill, and may require some light hand action at the end to climb onto and descend the arch. The view eastwards mainly faces the ocean, but you get to see plenty of cars going around the eastern tip. Going under the arch is pretty cool too for pictures.
Wiliwilinui trail: I really liked this hike until the heaviest rain in the last 15 years struck, which caused a power outage in our neighborhood for the night. Parts of the trail turned into a rushing stream, while my pockets and backpack started collecting pools of water that broke all of my electronics except my phone (so much for the gore-tex on my Arc’teryx). I remember loud strikes of thunder and fearing that I wouldn’t be able to make it out as it began to get dark. The hike is otherwise pretty nice, you walk along the ridges inwards and see pristine valleys on either side. This is followed by an uphill trek to the top until you reach the center of the island where the ridge stops. Overall medium difficulty, but extra hard if done in the rain.
Makua caves: there are 2 different caves here, one at the ground level that’s actually a cave. Reaching the upper cave, however, is technically illegal (much like many of the hikes in Hawai’i). You enter through a non-descript entrance into dense fields then follow the trail and slowly ascend upwards through tall grass. Some sections require a bit of hands, but it’s otherwise not too bad. At the top, there are a couple ‘caves’, really just openings in the mountain that help you frame the view to make it particularly picturesque. The whole ordeal takes about 20–30 minutes each way. Come at sunset: even though the mountain on the side blocks the view to the sun, how the sunlight reflects off the Leeward (West) coast is beautiful.
Crouching lion: This is another ‘short’ uphill hike that is quite popular. Some hand action is probably required both during the way up and down, especially if it gets muddy. The view at the top is breathtaking and panoramic: on one side are the mountains, and the other side is the coastline with a small bay. It gets pretty windy up there, so beware.
Ka’ena point: Ka’ena point is westernmost point of O’ahu, and doing this hike felt like going to the edge of the world. The hike itself isn’t too hard terrain wise — the path is also used by off-roading vehicles — but it is fairly long at 3-ish miles each way. We did the walk in the late afternoon and were awarded with a majestic sunset with pink clouds. I saw a seal right next to me when I went out onto the rocks. However, if you plan on doing this, make sure to bring a flashlight because it’ll be dark on the way back. We foolishly did not consider this when doing the hike, but managed to hitch a ride back in a Jeep from two guys who came to do some off-roading (first time hitchiking, I guess). The whole ride back took about 15 minutes and was super bumpy like riding an amusement ride. We definitely got lucky as there weren’t many people out there.
Pali notches: this was another illegal hike from the Pali lookout point. Many parts of this hike require a bit of rockclimbing and absailing with the ropes provided. But it’s really fun. It was definitely the most interesting trail out of all the hikes I did. Upon getting to the top, you can then follow the ridge to go further up. The view at the ridge looks outwards to Kailua on one side and towards the valley on the other. I felt very accomplished after completing the hike.
There are a few other places on the island I liked:
Byodo-in temple: originally I thought to myself “why would I want to check out a faux-Japanese temple when I’ve been to actual temples in Kyoto?” While the temple itself isn’t anything too special (though if you’ve never seen anything quite like it, it’s definitely very unique), the backdrop makes it worthwhile. You know how the mountains in traditional Chinese paintings are often unrealistically shaped to instead convey the steepness ‘spirit’ of the mountain? Here, you get to see this mythic scene of steep mountains with a layer of mysterious clouds as the background to the temple.
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel: the architecture and design of the hotel is a timeless classic. Its Moorish stucco is painted a signature pink, and it’s one the oldest hotels in Hawai’i such that it has beachfront access in Waikiki. I enjoyed having a signature mai tai at the Mai Tai bar while gazing out towards Waikiki beach one afternoon. If I were staying in a hotel in Honolulu, I’d probably pick the Royal Hawaiian for the quintessential experience.
H3 highway: a beautiful yet controversial highway that connects Honolulu with the Windward side. The highway runs through a mini-rainforest and throughout the drive you see natural habitats change drastically. It’s very unique, but I can totally see why it desecrates the pristine valley.
Surfing in Waikiki: the gentle waves of Waikiki was the perfect introduction on learning how to surf. The brief couple seconds of ‘up time’ while riding the wave are exhilarating and make the hassles of going surfing and the long anticipations of waiting for the waves worth it.
My memories ended up being like a pseudo-guide for visitors. Was this intentional? not really, but I feel this really sums up many of the memories and highlights during my time there.
If you’re going to O’ahu, have a magical trip :)
Mahalo for reading and Aloha~