Gay-friendly Oahu is perfect for newlyweds and other sun-seekers
by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
As enthusiasm builds for the historic legalization of Gay marriage in Washington and a few other states this November, wedding planning and honeymoon ideas become a priority for couples tying the much-awaited knot. Oahu, the most populous of the Hawaiian islands, provides not only a picturesque backdrop for memories that will last a lifetime, but for Northwesterners the frequency of daily flights and year-round warm weather adds to the convenience of this tropical destination. Hawaii itself made civil unions legal earlier this year, a sign of progress for the Aloha State, which has long embraced LGBT visitors and continues to be a romantic escape for all couples - and a hot zone for those still looking for love. Begin organizing your trip with a glance at www.visit-oahu.com. These are my itinerary suggestions for Oahu-bound couples and singles.
Waikiki, where the vast majority of visitors stay, is freckled with hotels to fit all tastes and budgets. Among them is the Ilikai Hotel & Suites (www.ilikaihotel.com), a favorite shooting spot for the crew of TV's popular crime drama Hawaii Five-O. This oceanfront gem was built in 1964 and shares a unique bond with Seattle, as its architect, John Graham Jr., was also the man behind our city's star attraction, the Space Needle. With 968 rooms on 26 floors (213 are residences or long-term vacation homes), the Ilikai is a giant. Located on the west end of Waikiki, a five-minute walk to Ala Moana Center (see Shopping, below), it appeals to tourists and many locals who appreciate its classy yet understated appearance and feel. Its spacious guest rooms feature cushy beds, flower-patterned armchairs, work desks, wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, microwaves, coffeemakers with Hawaiian coffee, wonderfully-scented bath amenities, and lanais (verandas) facing out to the water or mountains. On the premises, the Ilikai also boasts a swimming pool, retail shops, open-air lobby, and free WiFi throughout. As part of the Aqua Resorts line of hotels (www.aquaresorts.com), an active supporter of Gay events such as the Rainbow Film Festival, the Ilikai and its sister properties offer specific packages for LGBT guests, such as the 'Out and Proud in Waikiki' deal, with 15% discount at any of their eight hotels plus a copy of eXpression (Hawaii's LGBT magazine) and a free mai tai at Hula's Bar & Lei Stand. On their website, click on the 'Hotel Programs' and 'Diversity Program' tabs for more information.
If smaller and hip is more your speed, the Hotel Renew (www.hotelrenew.com), on the opposite end of Waikiki and a block from Hula's, is Honolulu's first designer boutique property. With only 72 rooms, Hotel Renew has time to spoil its guests, starting with complimentary breakfast in the lobby-area lounge each morning. The attractive, mostly male front desk staff is helpful and efficient, and once inside your room the refined interior tells you that this honeymoon or much-needed escape begins with a little sophistication. Dark paneled walls, wood-framed art, pomegranate-colored throw pillows and bed slips, square-shaped sink basins, and slick work desks accentuate its simple-meets-chic look. There's no swimming pool, restaurant, or gift shop on the property, but the beach and waterside eateries are just footsteps away. Views are very limited with no lanais, and depending on the season the pedestrian traffic at night can be a tad bothersome. Overall, Hotel Renew is highly suggested for visitors wanting something low-key though modern and hip.
BARS & RESTAURANTS
The Gay nightlife scene hasn't changed in Honolulu - Hula's (www.hulas.com) is still the premier bar to dance and mingle at, while Fusion (www.fusionwaikiki.com) caters to a weekend crowd with their drag show extravaganza. Phoenix, the monthly Gay night at RumFire (inside the Sheraton Waikiki), is well attended. Also try The Hideaway Bar (1913 Dudoit Lane) and Wang Chung's (www.wangchungs.com) for more excitement. For a mixed group of partiers, Tiki's Grill & Bar (www.tikisgrill.com) at the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel has a great 'happy hour' with yummy appetizers in a lively atmosphere.
As for food, let's start on the North Shore. Luibueno's (www.luibueno.com) serves up terrific Tex-Mex and Latin grub at reasonable prices. For around $10, you can get two fresh fish tacos and a microbrew during happy hour. Back in Waikiki, one of my personal favorites that offers something for everyone is the Makai Market Food Court at Ala Moana Center with a range of ethnic cuisine, including Filipino, Japanese, Italian, traditional Hawaiian, and mainland fast food. Up on the second level of this massive shopping mall is Panya Bistro, an upscale bakery and diner that makes a worthy Loco Moco, aside from mouthwatering pastries. New to Waikiki, for those looking for a trendy setting, bin 1901 at the Moana Surfrider (www.moana-surfrider.com) is a polished wine bar with nightly entertainment and a good selection of pupus (appetizers). For a quick beach snack, the Queen's Surf Cafe & Lanai over by what used to be the Gay hangout has reasonably priced hot dogs, burgers, and plate lunches.
For an elegant meal, Sarento's (www.sarentoswaikiki.com), atop the Ilikai Hotel, puts out exceptional Italian dishes with magnificent views of Waikiki Beach. The Caprese salad with gnocchi was quite memorable, as was their version of Bananas Foster with actual banana bread. But the crown jewel was Sarento's handmade pasta al funghi, served with prosciutto, fresh basil, and Hamakua mushrooms. Friday evenings at this restaurant, which also has a scenic bar, are especially nice due to its spectacular vantage point of the weekly fireworks display. The glass elevator ride to the top floor is a fun part of the experience as well.
There's plenty to do on Oahu besides lying on the beach or going for a swim. I strongly recommend an excurison outside of Waikiki for a more authentic snapshot of the island, and a great spot is the North Shore. You can rent a car or take public transportation, though the best option if you're up for an adventure is the Surf Bus (www.northshoresurfbus.com). A shuttle will transport you from your Waikiki hotel to the North Shore, complete with drivers who double as tour guides and your choice of two separate activities, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Among these activities are snorkeling, biking, paddleboarding, and free time to explore. I did the bike ride, most of it on a paved trail, in the morning and I decided to stroll around the town of Haleiwa in the afternoon to buy cheap souvenirs. The Surf Bus has several different tours available at various price points, and I can't overstress how friendly and professional they were. This is something couples can do together, even if they decide to try different activities when they arrive on the North Shore. Another attraction, and one that doesn't require any sweat, is a visit to the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures. Doris Duke was a tobacco heiress who fell head over heels for Oahu so much that she purchased an oceanfront home and transformed it into a hub for her impressive art collection. The home was completely designed to her liking, utilizing imported rugs, tiles, furnishings, and lighting from the Mediterranean and Middle East. It may not sound fascinating on paper, but in person it's a visual delight. Tours begin and end at the Honolulu Museum of Art (www.honolulumuseum.org).
You can't go on vacation and not come back with new clothes, or perhaps home goods if you've recently been married. Ala Moana Center (www.alamoanacenter.com), at a whopping 2.1 million square feet, is the world's largest open-air mall with 290 retail stores and 70 dining options. Large department stores like Nordstrom, Macy's, Neiman Marcus, and Sears; brand-name shops like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, True Religion, and Banana Republic; and Hawaiian-based boutiques like Tori Richard, Town & Country Surf, and Blue Hawaii Lifestyle are just a few of the places in this multi-floor complex to browse through. Open until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday (7 p.m. on Sundays), Ala Moana features daily hula shows and has many popular restaurants, including Romano's Macaroni Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, celebrity chef Alan Wong's Pineapple Room at Macy's, and Tommy Bahama's. A few items to pick up at Ala Moana: inexpensive Hawaiian flipflops at Long's Drugs, scented candles at Tori Richard, and cool T-shirts at Town & Country Surf. Save room for a cheap ($1-$3) draft beer at the new Yataimura Beer Garden inside the Shirokiya store.
The Royal Hawaiian Center (www.royalhawaiiancenter.com) has undergone several renovations in past years, adding new shops and a well-received Pa'ina Lanai Food Court (Panda Express, Mahaloha Burger, Paradise Cafe, etc.). For newlyweds, the Honolulu Home store has a variety of Hawaiian-made picture frames and quilts, while fashionistas might opt for the Hermes boutique, and electronic buffs will surely get lost in the Apple Store. I love the oversized lounge chairs positioned throughout the mall, because after a long day of shopping it's exactly what you need to rest your feet. Ahhh!
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