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Travel: Is Hawaii Welcoming Tourists After the Maui Fire?

Even those who don’t speak a word of Hawaiian can usually figure out when aloha means hello or goodbye. But since Aug. 8, when Maui experienced the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, mixed messages are causing mainlanders to wonder if the welcome mat is truly waiting for them halfway across the Pacific.

To come or not to come? That is the question.

One faction of Hawaii residents is telling visitors to stay away so that more resources are available to those recovering from the loss of loved ones and property. Another camp is pleading for tourists to bring much-needed revenue, especially after what is now a one-two punch between the travel-restricting pandemic that lasted roughly two years and the wildfire that only a few months ago ravaged Maui and decimated historic Lahaina Town.

Considerate of both these viewpoints is Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Henry Kapono, who in between hard-ticket concerts plays Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort on Sundays.

“Mixed messages are out there,” said the 75-year-old Oahu-born fixture. “The locals in West Maui are especially feeling the hurt of what happened and trying to heal at the same time. As they support themselves, their friends and community, the hope is that they can see the bigger picture of tourism being a key part of that support.”

Because of the devastating fires, Kapono’s Maui gig on his current 50-year anniversary tour has been postponed three months to December. In between, however, he organized a benefit concert in Maui that raised $200,000 for victims.

“It’s really sad about Lahaina,” said one half of the legendary, long-disbanded Hawaiian pop duo Cecilio & Kapono. “I have so many memories of working places that burned to the ground. It will take a while, but we know that Lahaina will come back in some shape or form. Until it does, Maui has other places to enjoy paradise, and people are welcome to have fun on the other islands as well. That’s what Hawaii is all about.”

Maui hosts about a quarter of all visitors to Hawaii, and although much of “The Valley Isle” is fully operational now three months after the catastrophic fires, Oahu, where nearly half of the state’s tourists flock to, seems to be welcoming island-bound travelers with the widest open arms — slathered with sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, of course.

The Outrigger Reef's signature pineapple crème brulée. (Photo by David Dickstein)
The Outrigger Reef’s signature pineapple crème brulée. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Living up to its nickname of “The Gathering Place,” Oahu is seeing visitorship nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. Vacation-hungry Americans are being wooed by the tropical beauty and weather, world-class resorts and restaurants, and walkability of Waikiki — all accessible without a passport and, for many, a non-stop flight to Honolulu.

Also nonstop is Oahu’s vast array of unique experiences and attractions. With an eye out for what’s new, improved and special, let’s explore this eclectic and exciting island by land, sea and air.

On the ground

Japanese tourists have a blast ATVing on the North Shore. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Japanese tourists have a blast ATVing on the North Shore. (Photo by David Dickstein)

If you’re born to be wild, then get your motor running and head out for an adrenaline junkie’s kind of off-road adventure. New to Oahu is a 2 1/2-hour Pua Pua‘a Piglet ATV Adventure from North Shore EcoTours (northshoreecotours.com), and it packs a Hawaiian punch. Climbing, crawling and sloshing through rocky and often muddy trails in a rugged 4×4 ATV, with no more than three of these six-seaters on the tour, adds to the thrill of plowing through jungle and farm land while being caked in brick-red volcanic dirt that takes a couple of hot showers and loads of laundry to get off your skin and clothes. North Shore EcoTours also offers hikes and rides on electric, solo-rider Mongoose ATVs. Along the way a guide points out interesting landmarks and vegetation ripe for selfies. The Pau Pua‘a tour runs about $300 for two people — a bargain compared to ATV adventures around the world that are half as exhilarating.

Ko Olina Golf Club is a premier course in west Oahu. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Ko Olina Golf Club is a premier course in west Oahu. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Driving on a much different type of course is achieved at the official golf club of the Four Seasons Resort at Ko Olina, Disney’s Aulani Resort and other tony properties on Oahu’s west side. Rated one of Golf Digest’s “Top 75 Resort Courses in the U.S.,” Ko Olina Golf Club (koolinagolf.com), where LPGA star Michelle Wie developed her game, is gorgeous and challenging, yet comfortable for the golfer who may feel unworthy or intimidated playing courses used for pro tours. The grounds also have an above-par pro shop and a Roy’s Hawaiian fusion restaurant. Greens fees are very fair for a facility of this caliber — about $250, less if staying at a partner resort.

Hawaiian history comes alive at the Royal Hawaiian luau. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Hawaiian history comes alive at the Royal Hawaiian luau. (Photo by David Dickstein)

OK, so the most touristy thing one can do in Hawaii is go to a luau. They’re expensive, hokey and cookie-cutter, but not doing one, especially on a first visit, is almost sacrilegious. So, props to the ‘Ahaaina Luau (royal-hawaiianluau.com) at the gorgeous Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach for being different. Oh, it’s pricey, all right, costing $225 or $250, depending on how close you want to sit, but hokey and cookie-cutter it’s not. The show, held on Mondays and Thursdays, follows a three-course dinner that fuses Hawaiian, Korean and Japanese flavors. Told through story, song and dance, the history of Hawaii includes the colorful past of the hallowed grounds upon which the luau’s guests are gathered. Sure, it’s a commercial for the Royal Hawaiian, but it works, and how special for those actually staying at the near-century-old resort.

On the subject of entertainment, opening night isn’t for another year, but we mention Cirque de Soleil’s next permanent show because it’s bound to make a great property in the heart of Waikiki even better. The Outrigger Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel is where an 800-seat theater that’s been dormant since the pandemic is being renovated for a production that will blend Hawaiian culture with Cirque’s signature avant-garde sights and sounds. The show’s name hasn’t been announced yet, but the hospitality company behind it has made a name for itself as ambassadors of the aloha spirit.

The newly renovated Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Hotel. (Photo by David Dickstein)
The newly renovated Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Hotel. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Corny as this may sound, Outrigger’s respect for local culture isn’t just a checkbox. It’s laid in the flooring of the flagship Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Hotel, where Hawaiian words are learned while strolling the lobby area. It’s baked in the locally made pono pie at Duke’s inside the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, home of the to-die-for dessert somehow free of gluten, sugar and dairy. And it’s woven in the island-crafted robes hanging in the closet of each unit at the Beachcomber … but they’ll charge you if stolen. The aloha spirit does have its limits.

No gluten, dairy or sugar makes the pono pie at Duke’s a “yes.” (Photo by David Dickstein)

The cultural center at the newly renovated Reef property is a benchmark among all island resorts, as is the hotel’s Kani Ka Pila Grille for live Hawaiian music. Paradise is chowing down on kalua pork nachos and pineapple crème brulée washed down with your favorite umbrella drink while enjoying home-grown contemporary artists every night in a casual outdoor venue, and with no admission charge. Indeed, the spirit of aloha is alive and well while eating, drinking or relaxing at an Outrigger (outrigger.com) property. If you want to add “sleeping” to the list, rates at Outrigger’s top Oahu hotels begin at around $400 a night, which is low for three-diamond AAA-rated hotels in Waikiki that behave more like those with four diamonds.

Four Seasons' lead bartender Michael Milligan leads a mixology masterclass. (Photo by David Dickstein)
Four Seasons’ lead bartender Michael Milligan leads a mixology masterclass. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Recommending a genuine four-diamond property, on the west side of the island is the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina (fourseasons.com). New there is the Noe Mixology Masterclass ($75), a one-hour lesson starring gin, bourbon, rum, mescal, tequila and, on many days, Michael Milligan, formerly from Costa Mesa and now the Four Seasons’ lead bartender who made this guzzling guest the best espresso martini of his life. More hands-on expertise is found at the resort’s elegant Naupaka Spa. Try the 50-minute Signature Lomilomi Massage ($225) and you won’t be either sore or sorry.

Honolulu’s Waikiki area has grown as a foodie destination since the pandemic, and two of the more exciting newcomers are La Bettola Waikiki at the ‘Alohilani Resort (alohilaniresort.com) and Redfish at the Wayfinder Waikiki (wayfinderhotels.com). La Bettola, opened in June, features authentic Italian fare married with local ingredients under the guise of renowned chef Tsutomu Ochiai. His neighbor at the Alohilani is “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto’s Momosan, home of perhaps the best ramen and sushi on Oahu.

The signature dishes at Redfish are the poke bowls, but it’s hard to beat the honey walnut shrimp. Opened in May, Redfish augments a boutique hotel with a cool and kitschy vibe that’s only outdone by its ‘60s-feel sister property, the White Sands Hotel, a few blocks away. Best of Waikiki’s chain restaurants: Hula Grill at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, Tommy Bahama Restaurant on Beachwalk Drive and Monkeypod Kitchen at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Hotel.

In the air

Since you’re probably already spending thousands on a Hawaiian vacation, what’s another $400 to guarantee an even more memorable trip? That’s how much it is, per person, to see Oahu at rainbow level. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (bluehawaiian.com) has a 65-minute Complete Island Tour from Honolulu that includes the biggies: Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, Diamond Head, the surfing mecca of North Shore and Oahu’s tallest waterfall.

On the water

A couple shares a romantic moment on the Waikiki Sunset Cocktail Cruise. (Photo by David Dickstein)
A couple shares a romantic moment on the Waikiki Sunset Cocktail Cruise. (Photo by David Dickstein)

Sailing tours are among the more popular things to do while in Hawaii, and if you’re hoping to set a course for more romance than adventure, climb aboard the 150-foot, three-deck Majestic for a crowd-escaping Waikiki Sunset Cocktail Cruise (majestichawaii.com). Operated by Atlantis, which will be happy to take you under the water as well in one of its submarines, the cruise ($79 for adults, $39.50 for children) parallels the Waikiki coast for stunning views that culminate at sunset when the orange sun sinks behind the Hawaiian horizon. Majestic is the only cruise around with a full-service bar and lounge that offers open seating.

Source : TheOrangeCountyRegister