Rediscovering Oahu's Unmatched Travel Experience - P. 2


Hyatt Regency Waikiki

From Zippy’s it’s less than two miles to the Hyatt Regency on Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s busy main strip. We made a halfhearted attempt at locating cheap parking and decided it was worth paying the $35 per night for valet service. The hotel comprises a pair of 40-story circular twin towers joined at the bottom two levels by an open-air shopping and dining arcade, the reception lobby with a big waterfall and a beautiful pool area that overlooks the center of Waikiki Beach. Being just a half block east of the International Market Place and directly across the street from the Beach, the hotel is right at the center of the liveliest part of Waikiki.

Cheap Eats Marukame Udon is one of several inexpensive eateries in a small courtyard just off Kuhio Avenue, away from Wakiki’s main strip of deluxe hotels and shops on Kalakaua.

We could have gotten a lower rate by booking another four-star hotel through a discounter like Hotwire, Priceline or but had decided that booking directly through the Hyatt site using my Gold Passport would give us benefits that more than justify the $219 a night rate — plus a $25-per-night resort fee which includes reliable wi-fi access and use of various resort amenities like the the pool and use of chairs and towels on a choice plot of beach across the street for which everyone is charged, regardless of whether you go through a discounter.

For starters, as we expected, the check-in clerk upgraded us to a Regency Club floor, then performed a quick welcoming ceremony. I was presented with a kukui nut lei and the women were draped with orchid leis. It was the kind of touristy touch that was well appreciated by our teen daughter.

That upgrade also got us a good-sized 37th-floor room with a spectacular view of the ocean and of Waikiki. Most importantly, it earned us access to the Regency Club, an exclusive lounge on the third floor that would provide us each morning with exactly the variety of tasty, healthy breakfast foods we like to load up on before an active day. What’s more, the Club provides a wide assortments of evening snacks that are easily enough to serve as a deluxe dinner of small plates, including freshly-baked desserts. It also provided one of the big indulgences of our days at the Hyatt — all-day access to a speedy, state-of-the-art espresso machine that whipped up first-rate lattes, cappuccinos and an assortment of other coffee drinks. The convenience, luxury and savings on meals that our Regency Club access provided would more than make up for the small premium we paid by booking directly with the Hyatt. But more about the Regency Club lounge later.

Waikiki Beach

We had originally planned to spend the afternoon exploring Waikiki. But the sun was at precisely the angle to make the waters below too transparently turquoise for our teen to resist. We changed into swimsuits and sandals and went down to the street level. They were out of towels and beach chairs at the counter at the main entrance, so we took the escalators back up to the pool on the second level and found an abundance of them there.

Waikiki Beach — a stretch of more or less white sand a half mile long — was colorful and lively with swimmers, surfers and sunbathers, giving credibility to its claim to be the world’s most popular beach. We positioned our chairs and towels on a slightly raised, level rectangle of sand known as Hyatt Beach.

Society of Seven
The Society of Seven LV is a spinoff of Waikiki’s longest-running show. Like the original SOS, the group entertains with its dazzling musicianship combined with fast-paced costume changes and hilariously wicked impressions of pop music legends. Here they recreate the sounds of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

About a thousand feet offshore, off to our left, we could see the dredging barge of the The Waikiki Beach replenishment project which had begun on January 24, 2012. The surf eats away at the sand of Waikiki Beach at the rate of about a foot or two a year. During the 1920s and 1930s the state conservation department imported many barge-loads of replacement sand from Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County. More recently the state and local hotel operators hit on the solution of setting up a dredging barge a quarter mile offshore to suck up sand washed offshore and dump it onto a pile on Kapiolani Beach Park on the eastern end of Waikiki Beach. From there bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment move the sand to various points. A short section of Waikiki Beach was closed every morning until noon from mid-March through the end of April. Most stretches remained open and swimmers had free access all parts of the water. The $2.5 million project plans to restore 37 feet of sand, putting the beach back to its 1987 width.

On a Saturday afternoon during spring tourist season Waikiki Beach is a bit too lively with surfers, kayakers and tourist catamarans to be an ideal swimming beach. In mid spring the ocean temperature around Oahu is about 76-77 degrees, perfect for inveterate swimmers like our teen and me but a bit cool for those spoiled by heated pools. The other problem with swimming at Waikiki Beach is the large amount of sharp rocks underfoot. Still we enjoyed a refreshing half-hour swim before heading back up to shower and change for our evening in Waikiki.

Kalakaua Avenue

We were eager to take in the sights and sounds of Waikiki. Kalakaua Avenue is the showcase strip along which aloha-mellowed tourists from all over the world stroll, pretty much around the clock. Since my two years there as a teen, the biggest change isn’t in the structures lining boulevard but the composition of the tourists. Back then the vast majority were Whites, mostly from the mainland, some from Europe. The only Asian tourists were Japanese. They were unmistakeable because they always moved in tight clusters led by tour guides holding up small flags bearing the logos of their tour companies. They acted like anthropology students taking a potentially hazardous trek through some newly discovered land, conscientiously recording the native fauna.

Today the racial mix on Kalakaua is about 55/45 Asian to white. Japanese no longer travel in groups and make up somewhat less than half the Asian tourists. Koreans are surprisingly numerous, making up about a quarter of the Asians. The recent boom in their numbers was driven in part by the visa-waiver program for visitors from Korea which took effect last year. Chinese from the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong combine to make up a similar number. A few South Asians and assorted groups of Southeast Asians were also visible. Whites are about as likely to be Canadians, Australians or Europeans as US mainlanders. It being the start of spring break, we saw groups of American college kids, mostly girls. The few Oahu residents we saw on Kalakaua were mostly local merchants, hotel workers and street performers.

The truly international but distinctly Asian-flavored mix gives Kalakaua Avenue a cosmopolitan feel not matched by even the more international Asian cities like Hong Kong or Singapore. The closest thing to Kalakaua’s lively multi-cultural mix may be the Las Vegas Strip, Vancouver’s Robson Street or possibly Fifth Avenue in the summer. But none of those streets offer the luxuriant tropical ease of Kalakaua’s broad palm-lined sidewalks and abundance of open-air architecture only possible in a place with year-round paradisal weather. For sheer upscale ambience Kalakaua beats out Rodeo Drive or Rue d’Antibes in Cannes. It fairly drips with the gracious touches made possible by the many billions of dollars poured into the deluxe hotels and glitzy boutiques lining Kalakaua with an eye toward wooing the world’s most reliable flow of tourists.

International Market Place

The Waikiki Strip isn’t all deluxe hotels and pricey shops. Even along toney Kalakaua you can find plenty of tourist schmaltz. The timeless International Marketplace (IMP) just across from the Outrigger Hotel is an agglomeration of stores and stalls selling souvenirs, trinkets, gewgaws, knickknacks and cheap meals of every variety from Cantonese to Hawaiian to Indian to Korean. IMP runs a long half a block along the north side of Kalakaua through to the decidedly less upscale but perhaps even more atmospheric Kuhio Avenue which runs parallel to Kalakaua along most of the half-mile long Waikiki Strip. IMP may be a bit cheesy in its Polynesian-themed decor but over the past half century it has become a truly organic and authentic part of the Waikiki scene as merchants have evolved niches catering to every tourist taste.

These days Korean merchants operate the majority of stalls lining the western side of IMP, just as they control most of the sushi bars on the islands as well as the mainland. Stalls offer bargains like 3 tee-shirts for $12, 2 bikinis for $10, 5 puka-shell necklaces or bracelets for $20. A few yards away you can climb into a giant transparent plastic ball and roll around in a small artificial pond. You can watch a free Hawaiian song-and-dance show while eating $1.50 tacos or $6 combo plates at the open-air food court. Bargains at the IMP are every bit as obscenely cheap as outdoor markets in any Asian city. In fact the IMP makes you feel that you are in an Asian city.

Sadly, IMP is destined to pass into Waikiki history. In May of 2010 Queen Emma Land Co, which owns its 6.48 acres, signed a deal with Taubman Centers of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan — developer of the Beverly Center, Short Hills Mall and Fair Oaks Mall — to transform the property into something more in keeping with its prime location at the heart of the world’s most popular vacation resort. That probably means another upscale, sterile mall like Taubman’s other ventures. But any changes to IMP’s organically textured ambience is likely to take years if not a decade or more given Hawaii’s exacting development protocols and rowdy preservationists.

Kuhio Avenue

We knew we would be strolling the lush byways of Kalakaua many more times, but on our first evening we wanted to explore the smaller, less upscale Kuhio Avenue to find a locally grown eatery. Over the past quarter century Waikiki has seen an influx of unpretentious litle Japanese eateries catering to the many tourists from Japan wanting to give both their wallets and their taste buds a break from the fare at hotel buffets and upscale chain restaurants.

Some of these unpretentious little Japanese eateries have been started by young Japanese who decided to forego the corporate grind back home and settle in Hawaii, often in hopes of fitting quality surf time into their lives. We found a tiny, unpretentious box of a takeout place, like those you might find in the back alleys of Osaka or Kyoto. It was in an L-shaped courtyard just a few yards off Kuhio. The combo plates, served in styrofoam boxes, were perfect for satisfying our appetites for a few bites of local authenticity before hurrying off to the Outrigger Hotel back up on Kalakaua for our evening’s main entertainment.

Society of Seven

The Society of Seven is Waikiki’s longest-running show, a true Waikiki institution. The act came together under that name in 1969. The group’s frenetic mix of song, dance and slyly goofball comedy was probably intended to appeal to middle-aged tourists from the mainland but became a big enough sensation among the locals that even teens like my high school buddies and I scraped together the money to see it. By the 1980s the group began dividing their time between Hawaii and the mainland, with regular stands in Orange County and Las Vegas. In 2001 it launched a second unit called SOS LV (for “Las Vegas”). But the original group — by then comprising all new members except Bert Sagum — ended up in Las Vegas and the second unit became the Outrigger’s mainstay.

So the Society of Seven we went to see that night wasn’t the original but the LV version (which had become redefined as “Latest Version”, according to the looped video playing outside the entrance to the theater) — a fact that wasn’t apparent to us until after the show ended. Nothing in the writeup on Viator, through which I had booked our seats, had hinted at the switch.

Actually what we saw was a society of six augmented by a female performer identified as the group’s musical director. When the show began I was disappointed not to recognize any of the performers from the several times I had seen the group over the years. I ascribed it to the passage of time. After all, the group’s composition had been different in each of the prior performances due to retirement and other attrition — and the last time I had seen it had been a decade ago.

But this latest show was every bit as entertaining as the other performances. The SOS is perhaps unique in having enjoyed so much success without women in the regular lineup. The group keeps audiences dazzled with their ability to reproduce every major musical act through dozens of frenetic costume changes. They seem to be a cast of dozens rather than six or seven. Each SOS member is not only a virtuoso musician capable of playing any one of a several instruments, but also a gifted vocalist and a talented mimic who can bring to hilarious life the antics and quirks of pop icons like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, James Brown, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and even Justin Bieber. The two-hour performance kept us alternating rapidly between hilarity and nostalgia.

After the show the SOS members came out to a long table to greet the audience. It was only while chatting with them that I learned that we had been watching something other than the original SOS. Rather than feeling cheated, we were glad we decided to revisit a show we had enjoyed so much on prior occasions.


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