Travel

For the Best Taste of Honolulu, Drive Along the Water

Oahu's coast is ideal for day-long road trips. Be sure to pull over for a quick swim or a hot malasada.

May 16, 2019
Photo by Prayitno/Flickr Commons

Pack your bags! In honor of life’s most delicious highways, we give you Hit the Road, Snack, our travel guide of things to eat, see, and do this summer from coast to coast (and beyond!).


Unless you live on Oahu, you can’t drive to Honolulu (duh). But once you fly into the island (and grab a Spam musubi at the first convenience store you can find), you should strongly consider renting a car. While there are public buses, ride-sharing services, and taxis throughout the bustling city of Honolulu, as well as many walkable neighborhoods around the island, at 44 miles long and 30 miles wide, Oahu's coast is ideal to explore through day-long road trips. And you’re definitely going to want to be able to pull over for a quick swim or a hot malasada.

Here’s my veritable guide for the best way to eat through Honolulu (and the surrounding coastal areas on the island of Oahu). Buckle up:


Waikiki

Hawaii’s capital city is packed with exciting activities, from shopping and dining to boating and lounging by the water. One of Honolulu’s most infamous neighborhoods is Waikiki, a lively area packed with shops, bars, and beaches. Waikiki is kind of like Honolulu's Times Square or Champs Elysees—it’s not why you came to the city, but it’s certainly something to see. Pick up sunscreen and a package of salted macadamia nuts at one of the many ABC convenience stores that line Kalakaua Avenue and explore Waikiki beach.

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Stop by Banán, the all-banana soft serve truck at the Royal Hawaiian Center. Or perhaps a visit to Mai Tai Bar in the bright pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel is more your speed? Either way, pause for a dip in their pool or rent chairs to sit on the connected beach for a while. Or get off the avenue and head a few blocks inland to try the pool at the quaint Surfjack Hotel for fewer crowds. Grab a coffee and browse at the connecting boutique Olive & Oliver after your swim.

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When you’re ready to move on, head back towards Kalakaua Avenue, keeping your eyes peeled for Dole Whip—many convenience stores and tourism shops sell the whipped pineapple dessert. But If you’re in need of a real meal, there’s no better option than Marukame Udon. No line when you drive by? Pull over immediately.


Kapahulu

Honolulu isn’t all sitting by the water and snacking—a 10-minute drive will take you to Diamond Head Crater, which features a challenging hike that’s just under a mile, but very steep.


Chinatown (& Downtown Honolulu)

A 15-minute drive from Waikiki, the Chinatown neighborhood of Honolulu is a bustling hub of boutiques: vintage clothing and antique shops, restaurants, tattoo parlors, art spaces, and traditional outdoor markets from the city’s Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Thai, Laotian, and Korean immigrant (as well as Native Hawaiian) communities. Walking tours are offered by the Hawaii Heritage Center if you prefer a guide, but there’s plenty to explore solo by driving around the neighborhood.

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Top Comment:
“Banyan's Island Grill - phenomenal quality from a food truck! Serving fresh, local fish and fresh, local produce in Waialua - right next to the old sugar mill (in the parking lot of Eric Arakawa Designs). Honestly, it was some of the best grilled fish I have EVER had - fresh and simply seasoned well, not covered up by heavy flavors. 2. Surf and Salsa, Haleiwa. In one of the cool, kitschy pockets of food trucks on the south edge of Haleiwa. Living in Southern California, I know and love great fresh Mexican foods and this little food truck makes killer carnitas! Again, not overloaded with huge flavor garnishes that mask the meat - they let the slow-cooked goodness of that delicious pork seep through! And, you mentioned malasadas in the lead-in, yet you failed to mention Leonard's - not only the brick and mortar store on Kapahulu Ave, but Malasadamobiles in Hawaii Kai, Pearlridge, and Waipahu. These are absolutely heavenly!!”
— JasonP
Comment

There are shops galore, many of which sell pieces made by local artisans. Plant lovers shouldn’t miss Ginger13, which is just a short stretch away from the boutique Owens & Co.. Browse unique antiques, vintage goods, and chatchkes all around the neighborhood, starting your hunt at Hound and Quail. For an extra special experience, hang out on the First Friday of the month, where there are art walks, live music, and specials at local businesses.

Need something cold after all that shopping? Wing Ice Cream has got your back, with classic and non-dairy flavor options like coconut pandan, banana and curry leaf, and “experimental mint chip” (hint: there’s cucumber and turmeric in there), as well as shave ice. When you’re ready for a glass of wine or a craft cocktail, head to Tchin Tchin!, or check out The Dragon Upstairs to sip on a gin and tonic and listen to live jazz. For meticulously crafted bespoke cocktails in a speakeasy vibe, make a reservation at Bar Leather Apron just outside Chinatown. Stop at Pig and the Lady, for creative Vietnamese food and impressive pastries, or massive bowls of ramen and pillowy bao at Lucky Belly.

Grab an after-dinner snack (okonomiyaki! gyoza! musubi! udon!) at Shirokiya Japan Village Walk, a massive food court in the Ala Moana Mall, a 10-minute drive away.


Hawaii Kai

Ambitious hikers will want to drive over to the Koko Head Crater Trail for a 2-mile hike laid out on a trail of old railway tracks that’s almost entirely uphill. Wear shoes with good traction and the panoramic view of east Honolulu at the top will be well-worth the trek.


Kaimuki

Whether you’ve been hiking or lounging in the sun, at some point you’ll get hungry. Luckily, the Kaimuki neighborhood is less than 15 minutes from downtown Honolulu. Grab a table at brunch restaurant Koko Head Cafe for black sesame yuzu muffins, breakfast congee, and daily dumplings. For a shorter line, Kaimuki Superette is nearby—get the “Hapa Fried Rice” and a grilled-lemon lemonade, and you’ll be a happy camper. If you’re itching to get back in the car, order a macadamia pesto chicken sandwich and a few energy balls to go at Sprout Sandwich Shop. Of course, you can’t do better than a classic plate lunch in Hawaii, and for that you should head to Rainbow Drive-In, an institution for a reason. Load your plate with combinations of rice, macaroni salad, coleslaw, barbecued meats and beans, Spam, fish, and gravy.

You might not think Honolulu is the place to get great pasta, but the bucatini carbonara at Mud Hen Water will change your mind. Hop across the street to Town for an after-dinner drink and dessert.


Kailua

Plan a day trip down the southeastern coast—take the scenic route along the H3 highway for 40 minutes of driving around verdant state parks and lush forest reserves. Pull over in Lanikai, a small community in the town of Kailua. Start with the Pillbox Hike, a short but steep trek with an unbeatable view at the top. Drive into town for giant pancakes and house-made kimchi at Over Easy. For a right-out-of-the-water-fresh seafood lunch or dinner, stop by Nico’s Kailua. Swing by President Obama’s favorite shave ice spot, Island Snow, which is actually more of a clothing shop (so you’ll want to eat your treat in the parking lot). A few lazy hours spent on Lanikai beach (and splashing around in the warm, shallow water) are mandatory before heading out.

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Waimanalo

Drive south for 20 minutes from Lanikai and you’ll hit Waimanalo Bay Beach’s calm water (for chunkier waves—perfect for surfing—stop at the nearby Makapu'u Beach Park). If you thought ahead, these are both great spots to unpack a picnic. Climb up the 2-mile Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail for another stunning view of the Windward Coast.

Continue to head down Kalanianaʻole Highway—whether you run into traffic or not, a stop at a Leonard’s Malasada truck (one of several locations serving the warm Portuguese doughnuts around the island) is a must.


The North Shore

Explore more of the Windward Coast by driving up to the North Shore. The Valley of of the Temples (20 minutes from Kailua), a memorial park that’s also home to Byodo-In Temple, a non-denominational Buddhist Temple, is open to the public. 15 minutes up the coast is Kualoa Ranch, a lush nature reserve and farm that you’ve probably already seen: it’s a popular filming site for movies and shows like Jurassic Park and Lost. Take a tour of the ranch or hop back in the car.

The surf town of Haleiwa in the North Shore is home to beachy shops and plenty of eateries. Grab a shave ice at Matsumoto Shave Ice, or check out some food trucks, like Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck for garlic shrimp and Aji Limo Truck for poke and fish tacos.

Drive over to the beach for some of the biggest waves on the Island. Lounge in the sand and swim or snorkel in calmer water at Haleiwa Aliʻi Beach Park. Or why not take a sunset stand-up paddle boarding lesson on Haleiwa river or go shark-cage diving in Haleiwa Boat Harbor? Experienced surfers will want to catch a wave at Sunset Beach or Pipeline—but everyone is welcome to watch.


Where to Stay

Honolulu and the rest of Oahu are of course home to a number of hotels and resorts. Keep in mind that you can easily drive around most of the island by day, but might want to make your home base in an area most aligned with your interests.

Honolulu:

The Surfjack Hotel
Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites
Coconut Waikiki Hotel

Kailua & Waimanalo:

Whether you’re on a solo trip, with your family, or a big group of friends, the best way to stay near Kailua and Waimanalo is to rent an AirBnB.

North Shore:

Turtle Bay Resort
Ke Iki Beach Bungalows
Oahu’s North Shore Vacation Rentals
Tiki Moon Villas

Did we miss anything? Share your favorite Honolulu restaurants in the comments below.
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Rebecca Firkser is a New York City-based food writer and cook. Her byline has appeared in number of publications, among them Food52, TASTE, Extra Crispy, Healthyish by Bon Appetit, and Tasting Table.

16 Comments

Tracy May 26, 2019
12th Ave Grill in Kaimuki is sooooo good! Definitely missing from this list! Also Opal Thai which used to be in Haleiwa and is now in the Chinatown area.
 
OldGrayMare May 26, 2019
Grew up in Honolulu...OK, it was 100 years ago and I haven't been back since 2004, but still.....you forgot a couple of special “must do eats...(1) the Loco Moco at Rainbow Drive-In; everything except the tapioca pudding at Dot’s in Wahiawa; the Chocolate-Haupia pie from Tom’s (any Foodland); the fried Haupia at The Willows; and any saimin at Shiro’s in Aiea. Aloha!!
 
Auntie D. May 26, 2019
@OldGrayMare, well, Rainbow's is most ono, Dot's is still there, it's Ted's Bakery now found close to Sunset Beach, The Willows closed down for good, and Shiro's is the best bowl of Saimin, not to be confused with Ramen, EVER!!!
 
Rebecca K. May 18, 2019
Flour & Barley in Honolulu has the best gluten free French bread pizza I have ever eaten. Outstanding.
 
Janice G. May 17, 2019
I love the atmosphere of Duke's on Waikiki! It's absolutely beautiful when the tiki torches ate lit at night. Food's not bad either.
 
Kirk H. May 17, 2019
Between Byodo-In Temple and Kualoa Ranch don't miss the Walahole Poi Factory for some REAL local grindz!
 
Auntie D. May 17, 2019
Aloha my Braddahs and Sistahs!
When on Oahu, eat like a local! Stop into any Foodland Supermarket (there are several throughout the Island, along with Foodland Farms) for a Poke Bowl at their Fish Counter. Personally, we get a 1/4 pound of several different types of Poke (not all are raw you know), ask for a side bowl of Rice and take our local-style picnic to the beach.
Now THAT'S ono!
 
Grace S. May 16, 2019
You left out SALT at Our Kaka’ako, the newest area with great dining options: locally owned & operated restaurants like FISH Honolulu, Moku Kitchen, Highway Inn, Vein, and Boiling Crab. There’s a number of lunch counters like Hank’s Haute Dog, The Butcher and Bird, Pioneer and local favorite coffee shop Morning Brew. There are unique specialty retail shops too. Bonus - there’s parking!
 
JasonP May 16, 2019
As a frequent visitor to the North Shore, I have to praise two places I recently visited:
1. Banyan's Island Grill - phenomenal quality from a food truck! Serving fresh, local fish and fresh, local produce in Waialua - right next to the old sugar mill (in the parking lot of Eric Arakawa Designs). Honestly, it was some of the best grilled fish I have EVER had - fresh and simply seasoned well, not covered up by heavy flavors.
2. Surf and Salsa, Haleiwa. In one of the cool, kitschy pockets of food trucks on the south edge of Haleiwa. Living in Southern California, I know and love great fresh Mexican foods and this little food truck makes killer carnitas! Again, not overloaded with huge flavor garnishes that mask the meat - they let the slow-cooked goodness of that delicious pork seep through!

And, you mentioned malasadas in the lead-in, yet you failed to mention Leonard's - not only the brick and mortar store on Kapahulu Ave, but Malasadamobiles in Hawaii Kai, Pearlridge, and Waipahu. These are absolutely heavenly!!
 
JasonP May 16, 2019
Okay, just re-read the article and saw Leonard's was mentioned - my mistake!
But they are extraordinary!!
 
Judy L. May 16, 2019
No ... Koko Head Trail is NOT in Kakaako ... it’s past Hawaii Kai, next to Hanauma Bay
 
Eric K. May 16, 2019
Thanks for flagging, Judy. I've updated!
 
Carley May 16, 2019
And the nook neighborhood bistro in Pucks Alley!
 
David May 16, 2019
Always the same places in the reviews. Don’t even need to visit anymore to be able to write reviews like this
 
Eric K. May 16, 2019
Any addenda?
 
JasonP May 16, 2019
Helena's in Kapahulu is a must-try for everyone on Oahu! James Beard Award winner, traditional Hawaiian cuisine.
If you like fresh fish, Uncle's or Nico's at Pier 38.