Hawaii is the destination of the moment for Americans. The former kingdom is at once enticingly exotic and reassuringly familiar, with a benign tropical climate, plush resorts on postcard-perfect beaches and — at the time of our visit — a low rate of COVID-19. There were many sound business reasons for a trip, including several new and reimagined resorts that needed reviewing, but personally, I was just thrilled to return.
As my previous visit to the Hawaiian archipelago had included stops on the Big Island, Maui, Lanai and Molokai as part of a cruise itinerary, I decided to start this trip with a visit to Oahu. Aside from Honolulu, it is a place of much historical interest, not least because of Pearl Harbor and the Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States. It is also an island of great beauty, crossed by two mountain ridges and ringed with beaches. The most famous of these, Waikiki, is the location of our longtime recommendation, Halekulani, and its new sister hotel, Halepuna, set just behind it. Unfortunately, both properties were closed for renovations during our trip. Another notable Waikiki hotel, the nine-suite Espacio, has garnered a great deal of laudatory coverage in the travel press. However, since we were traveling as a couple, I couldn’t justify paying upward of $5,000 a night for an accommodation with a minimum of two bedrooms. And to be honest, overtouristed Waikiki no longer ranks among my favorite Honolulu neighborhoods.
Instead, we tried two resorts in quieter areas on opposite sides of the city’s metro area. First, we drove from the airport around Pearl Harbor to Ko Olina on Oahu’s west coast, the drier side of the island. In addition to reliable weather, the location has the advantage of being away from the congestion of the city but within easy reach of hikes, beaches and golf courses. Nor is it difficult to reach the sights and restaurants of Honolulu.
We pulled up to the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, a former JW Marriott property that reopened in 2016 after more than 18 months of major renovations. Initially I felt skeptical about the resort because of its large room count — 371 rooms and suites — but I soon discovered that guests disperse around the various restaurants, four pools and a stretch of golden beach that fronts a man-made lagoon. The only time I was aware of the property’s size was when we approached the new adults-only infinity pool one afternoon. There, we had to put our name on a waitlist for two of the dozens of umbrella-shaded loungers. In the interim, Katie, a delightful waitress who remembered us from the day before — including our drink order — set up loungers on a beach-view terrace. A half-hour later, a text alerted us that our poolside loungers were available. Despite the waitlist, the pool area didn’t feel too loud or overcrowded. An amusing swim-up mai tai truck parked against the pool’s lower edge tempted us, but we opted for more discreet glasses of wine.
The previous day, we had spent a couple of hours relaxing on the beach, where Katie brought us refreshing Aperol spritzes enhanced with hibiscus grenadine. The Four Seasons’ loungers occupy about a third of the sand; Disney’s Aulani resort takes over the rest. A psychological barrier keeps guests to one side or the other, leaving the Four Seasons end of the beach relatively quiet. Although calm for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding, the lagoon offers little of interest to snorkelers. For that, rocky Secret Beach, a few steps north of the property, is a better bet. I heard reports of impressive wildlife sightings there, but the morning I planned on snorkeling, the surf was too rough for my taste. I’d missed my chance. The previous morning the sea had been flat.
We could see the small bay of Secret Beach from the terrace of our Oceanfront Room, a scenic setting for a room-service breakfast. Since we faced northwest, toward the cliffs of Ma‘ili Point, we also had spectacular sunset views. Wide sliding glass doors separated the terrace from the spacious room, and additional sliding doors of louvered shutters shielded us from the sunrise. The shutters gave the room a tropical ambiance, as did a bamboo-framed armchair with yellow-green ikat cushions and a bamboo desk chair. The rest of the décor was brown and beige. A love seat stood at the foot of the extremely comfortable king bed. The bath had vanities with counters of russet-veined gray marble, as well as a large shower stall and separate tub. The reassuring aroma of Bulgari bath products permeated the space.
Although we didn’t patronize the coffee shop, which has a wonderful terrace overlooking the property’s original oval pool and the beach beyond, we did try the three other restaurants in the hotel. Breakfasts in La Hiki, underneath the coffee shop’s terrace, were delicious. I especially enjoyed eggs with savory Portuguese sausage, purple sweet potatoes from Molokai and mixed mushrooms from an Oahu farm. Mina’s Fish House, by star chef Michael Mina, has expansive terraced patios overlooking the beach and offers dishes such as a rich bisque of local corn with king crab, and steamed monchong (a firm local whitefish) with meaty Manila clams, sweet coconut rice and cilantro oil. I also enjoyed our dinner on the terrace of Noe, a romantic Italian restaurant beneath trees festooned with lanterns and strings of lights. Our waitress made thoughtful recommendations for wines to pair with dishes such as kanpachi crudo and beef tenderloin with a flavorful balsamic reduction. Flavorful, too, was the saffron campanelle with king crab, lemon and local tomatoes, but considering that the chef had apparently spent 10 years living in Italy, it was disappointing to find that the pasta was overcooked.
I regretted not leaving time to have a massage in the full-service spa — the three treatment pavilions in the gardens looked especially inviting — but we had an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable stay at the Four Seasons Ko Olina. Even though it is larger than most properties I favor, the friendly staff provided surprisingly personalized service. And because of the myriad children’s activities, I would happily return with my extended family.
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial was on the way to our next hotel. I don’t often write about such famous and popular tourist sites, which are well enough documented without my contribution, but some readers might not realize how fascinating and deeply moving a visit can be. I highly recommend leaving at least half a day to see it. We continued east to the oldest neighborhood in Honolulu, Chinatown, which has become much less seedy in recent years. The pedestrian-friendly quarter is now home to a stylish selection of bars, restaurants and boutiques. It remains rough around the edges, but we very much enjoyed our lunch and meander there.
The location on Oahu’s dry and relatively quiet west coast; the warm and often personal service; our room’s memorable views; the quick room service; the family-friendly atmosphere; the many activities offered; the mostly excellent food.
The occasional wait for a lounger at the new adults’ infinity pool; the lack of a dedicated bar open in the evening that is separate from the restaurants.
If you reserve an Oceanfront accommodation, as opposed to Prime Oceanfront, request a view of Ma'ili Point in order to enjoy the sunset.
It had been far too long since we’d checked up on one of our longtime Honolulu recommendations, The Kahala Hotel & Resort, a 338-room property tucked at the end of an upscale residential neighborhood and surrounded on three sides by a golf course. On the fourth side is the resort’s quiet palm-lined beach, a blissful alternative to crowded Waikiki. An offshore reef shelters it from the surf, making it suitable for swimming and giving it a range of turquoise hues that is mesmerizing when viewed from a few stories up.
The hotel’s exterior looks contemporary, but inside it feels like an oasis of old Hawaii. The soaring lobby-lounge has a restrained midcentury tropical décor in tones of caramel and coffee, enlivened by towering chandeliers covered in colorful glass confetti. On one side is the Veranda, an inviting bar with live musicians nightly and a well-shaded terrace. Opposite is the front desk and very helpful concierge, who responded to all my emails about restaurants and Pearl Harbor tickets within 24 hours. (Concierges at certain other understaffed hotels on our itinerary took a week or longer to reply.) A staircase leading down from the lobby to the pool sweeps along a wall of thriving orchids.
After a warm welcome, we headed up to our Ocean Front Lanai room, my favorite category aside from the suites. (Ocean View Lanai rooms overlook a parking structure in addition to the water.) Like the lobby, it felt old-fashioned. Some pieces, such as the striped dressers that served as nightstands, exhibited wear, and the bath, with its white tile and granite-topped vanities shaped like antique desks, wouldn’t suffer from an update. Still, I appreciated the room’s refreshingly unfashionable nods to traditional luxury. A complimentary plate of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts had been placed on the coffee table in front of the sofa at the foot of the bed. We took them onto the terrace to nibble, while gazing at the palm trees rustling at the edge of the ocean.
Directly below us was the lagoon of Dolphin Quest, where small groups can interact with the animals, swimming with them and feeding them. Our view also encompassed The Kahala’s oval swimming pool. The old-school pool came with a welcome technological innovation: We were given a disk with buttons allowing us to summon a waiter at will. I only wish the wines and cocktails had been served in something classier than disposable plastic cups.
The indoor-only Hoku’s restaurant has a tempting (if expensive) “global Hawaiian” tasting menu by acclaimed chef Jonathan Mizukami, but still feeling cautious, we had decided to dine only outdoors on this trip. Numerous other excellent restaurants are a short drive away. However, we did enjoy the simple but tasty breakfasts on the patio of Plumeria Beach House, served by cheerful and efficient waitstaff.
The Kahala is not the kind of resort likely to draw Instagram influencers, which suited me just fine. I loved its tucked-away yet convenient location, diligent service, tranquil beach and strong sense of place. Overall, a few dings on our room’s dressers seemed inconsequential.
The nostalgic atmosphere; the responsive and helpful concierge; the pretty and tranquil beach; the quick service at the pool; the location within Honolulu but away from crowds and traffic.
The small and relatively unimpressive pool; the signs of wear on some of our room’s furnishings; our sizable but dated bath.
The hotel’s website has a helpful map showing the locations of various categories of accommodations; Ocean Front and Beach Front accommodations are especially recommended; the spa mostly comprises converted guest rooms, meaning it’s not a dedicated separate space.