When someone says the word, it can only mean one thing – Hawaii. Though it is only a small area when compared with the rest of Oahu, and the other islands, probably nothing says Hawaii to people that have been or haven’t been to Hawaii, like the word, “Waikiki”.
Waikīkī – fresh spouting water (Hawaiian language)
Waikiki is a word that makes my stomach jump when I hear it. Just on the surface to me it means late nights out partying at some great Pacific oceanfront beach clubs. It means block parties and Saturday and Sunday mornings walking for about a mile from parking at Ft. Derussy where military had free parking, down to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, that big pink hotel on the beach, where I used to grab some sun for four to eight hours on many weekends and holidays. Waikiki is Hawaii to some people, and to others it is just a part of it. To me, it’s a part, but a part that has been burned into my mind from endless trips there day and night. For me, Waikiki is the heart of tourist Hawaii. It’s the place that most vacationers to Oahu remember as the place that means Hawaii to them. At least in part.
Through the wonders of the internet, maybe you want to listen to the same Hawaiian music I’m listening to as I write this? Click here to open my Youtube playlist in a separate window. (Let it play in the background as you read. You might also take this time to save this article to read later. A cool feature of the Chrome browser is that you can right click on the tab for this page and choose “Pin Tab”. Try it! Then it’s always there for you to read. Right click and “Unpin Tab” when done.]
What Area is Covered by Waikiki?
As you can see, Waikiki covers an area of streets and beach on the southeast side of Oahu, just northwest of Diamond Head Volcano and next to the Ala Moana Beach Park, separated by a bridge. When you cross that bridge coming from Ala Moana area, you are ‘there’. What the map doesn’t show is that the street section is jam packed with high-rise hotels. This is the most dense area of accommodations that exists in the islands. Originally Waikiki’s area wasn’t so large, it has grown by 300% over the years to its present-day state. Millions of pounds of sand have been trucked in to grow the beach, which is pulled back out and covers the reef even more.
Foreign tourists first arrived in Waikiki in the 1830’s. The first road was built there in the 1860’s. Before that, as early as the 1450’s – we know that the Hawaiians built fish ponds and taro patches over Waikiki for food. In 1450 Waikiki was established as the center of government for the island (Oahu). Later on, in the mid to late 1800’s the Royal Kamehameha family members would vacation in Waikiki. That has all changed dramatically. In January of 2010 there were about 400,000 visitors to Oahu, with a significant number of them passing through Waikiki. Most tourists do find themselves there at some point if they are staying on Oahu for more than a day or two. Waikiki is the second biggest town on Oahu.
What Is Waikiki All About?
There is a stretch of sandy beach that wraps around the Hilton Hawaiian Village all the way down to Walls Waikiki – the famous bodyboarding spot where tourists can learn to catch waves in a couple of hours on a day with calm swells. You can walk the entire length of the beach, about 9,000 feet – nearly 2 miles – in about an hour. It’s slow going through the deep sand and probably you’ll be carrying beach-chairs, backpack and maybe even your kids. I must have made that trek over a hundred times in the five years I lived on Oahu. The sand quality is somewhere between harsh and great. In certain places it is very deep and a hard slog. In others, like in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, it is harder packed. The sand is always clean in Waikiki, they have tractors drive over it every morning to filter the sand for debris. Keep in mind there could still be metal bottle-caps, or bits of broken glass occasionally, not to mention sharp shells and coral. Don’t get the wrong idea, I’ve never cut my foot there, but the possibility exists for children.
The weather in Waikiki is brilliant. It’s sunny and mild most of the year. The summer months are quite warm, but by December and January it is cool enough for long sleeves and maybe even a light jacket on certain days. The winds blow year round, but mostly in the summer you’ll have a nice wind coming over the water. The trade winds are pretty constant all year round. I have told friends many times in the past, “Hawaii has the most perfect weather of any place on earth.” I really believe that!
Surfing!Out in front of many hotels, and especially down by the Duke Paoa Kahanamoku statue in Waikiki, there are surfboards for rent. Coincidentally, or not, there are also people there that will teach you how to ride a surfboard in just about an hour or so. Fear not! The board you will be riding initially is akin to riding a waterlogged double-bed. Not only is it not difficult, but it would actually be difficult to fall off. Still, you will. We all did when first learning. The boards, most of them waterlogged and weighing around 70 lbs, are very stable and very good for helping you learn to stand up on them. What they are not so good for, is floating. I know, right? You’ll have to have a lot of energy to paddle the heavy board, and you on top of it, back out to try again after a wave takes you in. Persevere and you’ll be riding like a pro before long, and upgrading to a board that is closer to ten pounds. It’s less stable, but so much easier to paddle out on repeatedly!
Quick story… When I was in the Air Force, I was lifting weights to see how big I could get. I wasn’t Arnold yet, but I probably thought I was. My weightlifting buddy and I went down to Waikiki to learn surfing one Saturday. The crowds were glorious. More girls in bikinis than ever before. We were in our little grape-hugger bikini bottoms and ready to surf! The local Hawaiian guy renting the boards to us gave us slabs of two tree trunks to ride on the waves that morning. I’m barely exaggerating. Each board had to weigh 120 lbs. Well, we didn’t say a word, just manned-up and proceeded to tire ourselves comatose over the next two hours, trying to paddle those giant boards back out to the waves over and over. Later we learned we had been ‘had’. The rental guys do that to muscle-heads all the time. So, lesson learned I guess. The boards are heavy for everyone, but don’t accept one you can barely carry!
Surfing is fun, but there is a steeper learning curve than bodyboarding for bigger waves. Personally, I wanted to ride the biggest waves I could, as fast as I could, so I learned bodyboarding before surfing. Bodyboarding at Waikiki is epic at one spot known as “Walls”. Walls is located at the southeast end of Waikiki. You can see a long pier going out into the ocean, and bodyboarders are out there all times of year. Waikiki Walls is a great place for learning the sport, and you can rent boards on the beach hourly, half-day, or full-day. A good board is about $100, and you should also invest in some Churchill fins if you plan to get serious. I would say that more people learn bodyboarding at this spot in Hawaii, than at any other. Head to Waikiki if you want easy, safe waves, and a lot of people to watch to learn how to do it yourself. Note, the summer swells at Waikiki can be huge and if you’re just learning, you shouldn’t be out there in anything bigger than 2-3 feet Hawaiian scale. A lot more about bodyboarding found here.
Read about my two near-death experiences while bodyboarding in Hawaii! Click here for the article.
The food in Hawaii in general, is exceptional. Eating out will suck your wallet dry faster than anything, but, you’ll have a smile on your face for as long as you’re stuffing it! Some of the best oceanfront dining experiences in Waikiki are at these restaurants: Duke’s Waikiki; Shore Bird; Royal Hawaiian Hotel; Hula Grill at the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel. My favorite though, and they have multiple locations throughout the islands, is “Roy’s Restaurant.” Sometimes known as Roy’s Steakhouse, because they do have steak, but it’s so much more. The best description is “Asian fusion.” Try it, though expensive, I know you won’t be disappointed. My favorite there is the “Seared Ahi.” Simply delicious.
There are two rooftop restaurants I strongly recommend – one is Roy’s, mentioned already. The other is Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Both in the same area, and both so delicious!
While in Waikiki, or anywhere in Hawaii, you’ll have to try some of my other favorites – ahi poke, huli-huli chicken, mahi-mahi sandwiches, and ono with walnut sauce… WOW. Along with seared ahi, these are my five favorite foods to eat in the islands. If you have some more recommendations, list them in the comments section so we can all benefit!
There is a free one-hour long Waikiki Beach Hula Show put on by the Hyatt with female hula dancers and male and female dancers of other Hawaiian styles. This free show happens near the Duke Kahanamoku statue on the beach in Waikiki.
Along Kalakaua Avenue there are various street performers including B-boy troupes, hip hop singers and rappers, Silver Man, Gold Man, sketch artists doing caricatures (cartoon likenesses) of people, some one, two-person live bands. My favorite is always someone playing the drums on pots and pans or plastic paint cans, anything that isn’t a drum. The performances are free – but donations are welcome and sometimes aggressively encouraged.
Fun Facts about Waikiki
1. Waikiki is where in 1794, King Kamehameha I and his army from the Big Island, Hawaii landed and made war with the Oahu residents. He eventually won, pushing many of them off the Pali cliffs!
2. Modern surfing is said to have originated in Waikiki. Back at the turn of the 20th century, famous people like writer, Jack London, learned surfing at the beach. He wrote some amazing stories about it too, one of them, The Kanaka Surf, is a favorite of mine.
3. There are condos available for sale in Waikiki for as little as around $100,000 and up to more than $5,000,000. All is not what it seems though, the monthly fees for the $100,000 condo can be extreme!
Waikiki Positives and Negatives
1. Meet people from all over the world. I’ve met people from nearly every continent, and dozens of countries, while visiting Waikiki. The Hawaiian islands are a melting pot of culture and ethnicity, and Waikiki brings that to another level because visitors make it much more diverse.
2. Great food! I have had some of the best food of my lives in the restaurants of hotels that line the beaches of Waikiki. It’s expensive, sure. I mean really expensive, but then the view and the food cannot be beat. If you can afford it, you’ve got to eat at these places as much as you can during your stay. Don’t forget that many of the top hotels have free live music, hula dancing, and even a luau going on at night as you eat your dinner.
3. Shopping! The streets are lined with places to shop, inside and out. Mostly clothes and souvenir items. The Ala Moana Mall is right next door if you need something more substantial.
4. Surfing, bodyboarding, bodysurfing, paddle-boarding, and swimming! World class water that is warm, gentle, and mostly free from coral and sharp shells.
5. Many rooms available right on the beach. At least for a night you should book a room on the beach (ocean-front) so you can see Waikiki’s beaches at night in the lights. Hopefully you’ll luck-out and it will be a full-moon night and you’ll see Diamond Head Volcano looming in the background. Such an amazing, romantic spot.
6. Everything is close together. You can walk the length of Waikiki, there is no need for most people to take a cab, bike, or motor-scooter if you’re just going to stay within the area. The adventurous can walk to Ala Moana Park, Diamond Head, Golfing, or even up to one of the amazing mountain hikes.
1. Driving and parking are, no joke, a nightmare sometimes. So many people packed into one tiny spot, and thousands more coming from all over Oahu to dine and party at night, means Waikiki is a real horror-show when you have a vehicle. Parking can be expensive too!
2. Too many people in one place. If you don’t like crowds, you are probably not going to enjoy Waikiki all that much. It is like an endless stream of people on the crowded sidewalks near the beaches, and in the water you will have lots of company. The good news is, you can head out away from Waikiki, and things quiet down real fast!
3. Expensive. Of course Waikiki is one of the most expensive places to do anything on the islands. Even bottled water price will shock you. If you are coming to Hawaii and you want to avoid spending money, you should probably just skip through Waikiki anyway to see it… and hold on to your pocketbook until you get further away where prices come down a bit.
4. A bit wild at night. After midnight and people have had more alcohol than they should have, the scene can be just like anywhere else in the world and put you a bit on-edge. There are thousands of military and college kids on Oahu, and Waikiki is ground zero for their exploits. Just take care like you would anywhere else. Hawaii is paradise, but be safe about it anyway.
Here is more about living in Waikiki if you want to see another article I wrote about it.
Here is the best video of Waikiki I have ever seen. This one is about 22 minutes long, but it captures the essence of the place, and goes from the beach, to the streets, to the marketplace, to the hotel room. Thanks to Harry Juselius!
Overview of Waikiki
Waikiki is the heart of Hawaii. Most people that come to the islands to visit, have gone to Waikiki for some of the activities mentioned above. Personally, I think you have to see it to believe it. While it might seem like New York City on a beach initially, I think with time you’ll come to appreciate it like I do now. It has nearly everything you could want in Hawaii, except empty beaches. That’s what the rest of Oahu and the other Hawaiian islands are for!