Oahu is an enchanting mix. Here, some of the best the island offers
Some thousand years ago, seafaring Polynesians followed the stars across the Pacific to a collection of remote islands now known as Hawaii. Tropical sun warmed the water, and trade winds cooled the land. It was nature's perfect design, and so they called it home.
Their ancient kings ruled from Oahu. Its immense waves were the stuff of enchantment well before the Beach Boys sang of Waimea Bay in Surfin' USA. In fact, on Hawaii's most-visited and third largest island, many residents are vacationers who sent home for their belongings after experiencing the plumeria-scented beach life and inclusive spirit of aloha.
Settlers through the centuries have changed Oahu's face. That multicultural history influences everything from food to shopping to design. "Our diverse backgrounds certainly play a large part here," says Maura Fujihira, owner of the Honolulu home store Fishcake. "History may influence design to a degree, but nature is what inspires it."
Honolulu, Hawaii's capital and design center, epitomizes beach chic--as seen in past and present renditions of television's Hawaii Five-O. But the finest view of the city is from the seat of an outrigger canoe. A sprawling skyscraper silhouette against a tropical blue sky and 1.5 miles of soft Waikiki Beach sand has made Oahu an international tourism sensation.
Waikiki's contribution to the city's vibe is unmistakable. Even downtown, high rollers go about their business in casual wear. The notable "Aloha" shirts (called Hawaiian shirts when they hit the mainland) riff on themes of the good life--the hula, indigenous flowers, surfing, tikis, and pineapples. The laid-back island way has endured through waves of immigration, from early traders and sailors to missionaries who clothed natives and banned the hula, the soul of Hawaii expressed in rhythmic motion. Plantation owners brought workers from China, Japan, Portugal, Russia, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to work the pineapple and sugar cane crops after the native population dwindled from disease that outsiders brought with them.
That multiethnic legacy remains. Honolulu's Chinatown is the best place to find traditional Hawaiian leis. And the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which has one of the world's finest collections of Asian art, also coordinates tours of Shangri La, built in the 1930s by heiress Doris Duke. The only child of tobacco and electric energy tycoon James Buchanan Duke, she wanted Shangri La to be not only her home but the repository of her growing cache of art and artifacts of the Islamic world. It's now a public museum housing Duke's collection of some 3,500 objects.
A drive through Honolulu reveals no distinct Hawaiian architecture. "It somewhat depends on the historic time period," says architect Frank Haines. Protestant missionaries built the "Westminster Abbey of the Pacific," Kawaiahao Church. Hawaiian monarchs who visited Europe built Euro-inspired styles, such as the Italianate Aliiolani Hale, now the Hawaii SupremeCourt building. Its Italian-sculpted bronze statue of King Kamehameha faces Italian Renaissance-style Iolani Palace.
True Hawaiian architecture is in the details--from the stately homes of Kahala Avenue to the North Shore beach cottages. Neutral colors and local materials don't compete with nature. Indoor-outdoor living spaces, landscaping, and plantings play integral parts in design. Water serves as a visual element. American Institute of Architects' Honolulu chapter highlights examples on its "Exploring Downtown" walking tour.
Oahu's most compelling attraction embodies a sequence of events. King Kalakaua gave Pearl Harbor to the United States in 1875. The U.S. Navy's farthest west port was bombed by Japanese aircraft on December 7, 1941, triggering America's direct involvement in World War II. Today the starkly elegant U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, designed by architect Alfred Preis, floats above the wreckage with the names of the 1,177 dead carved into its white marble.
"The most interesting thing about the memorial is how unobtrusive it is. It's very subtle and it blends--you don't notice it every day," says Tim Schmitt, a U.S. Navy Operations Specialist 2nd Class stationed in Pearl Harbor. "I think that subtlety actually contributes to its impact."
Oahu has a more urban edge than the other islands, which pays off in its shopping scene, from the luxury boutiques on 2100 Kalakaua Avenue where shoppers browse everything from rare Tahitian pearls and designers like Gucci and Chanel to the island-funk hawkers on Waikiki Beach selling shell leis and grass skirts. In the North Shore's Haleiwa, local handcraft and art boutiques bump against the world's best surf shops.
A proper road trip to the North Shore begins by stocking up on hot, doughnut-like malasadas from Leonard's Bakery in Honolulu. On the island's westernmost tip, nature's high design sings among 850 acres in Kaena Point State Park, with tide pools for shell hunting and natural stone arches offering views of the Makua coastline, where early-morning dolphin sightings are common.
The historic surf town of Haleiwa lies east along the coastal Kamehameha Highway. Past the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, the graceful Japanese architecture of Kaneohe's Buddhist Byodo-In Temple, a scale replica built entirely without nails, stands at the foot of the Koolau Mountains. Its temple grounds are a beautifully landscaped paradise with wild peacocks and koi. Nearby Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens is a visual wonder--man's manicuring hand against nature's breathtaking steepled cliffs. So Oahu.
Oahu embraces its native culture. From the ancient storytelling of the hula or visits to sacred temples called heiau (like Puu O Mahuka, a huge rectangle of rocks twice as big as a football field), the spirit of aloha endures. Even traditional food such as poke (raw seafood salad) and plate lunch (meat with scoops of macaroni salad and rice) are resurging. Gourmet cuisine offers an equally eclectic dining pleasure, an experience promoted by local chefs.
"Hawaii Regional Cuisine was created to unite farmers and chefs and utilize more local ingredients," says chef Roy Yamaguchi of Roy's restaurants. Yamaguchi is Hawaii's first recipient of the James Beard Award. "The beginnings are close to how California cuisine evolved: local, fresh ingredients from the community," he says.
Tiki torches light a view of Maunalua Bay at Yamaguchi's flagship restaurant on Kalanianaole Highway. Contemporary design flows with the waves outside as distinctly Hawaiian dishes cross the table. Goat cheese-encrusted salmon. Cilantro grilled tiger shrimp. Braised beef short ribs.
An enchanting mix. One that might just inspire a vacationing visitor to send for her things and stay awhile. Aloha!
Photography: Joe Schmelzer
Produced by Krissa Rossbund
The North Shore is a popular shopping area, from local handcraft and art boutiques to some of the world's best surf shops.
The starkly elegant U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, designed by architect Alfred Preis, floats above the sunken wreckage of the ship.
A sculpture of Duke Kahanamoku, a young Olympic swimmer in the early 1900s, who revived the ancient sport of surfing.
Fishcake, a Honolulu home store, is located in the Kakaako District.
Downtown's Ala Moana Center is one of the world's largest open-air shopping malls (2.1 million square feet of retail space). But the heart of Hawaiian design beats strongest in local boutiques and galleries such as those in the Kakaako District, including Pacific Home, Fishcake, SoHa Living, and Anne Namba Designs. Namba's classic kimonos are sold in high-end retail chains like Saks Fifth Avenue.
Maura Fujihara, owner of Fishcake
Pacific Home, a shop in the Kakaako District
SoHa in the Kakaako District
Koa wood items from Martin & MacArthur.
The warriors of ancient Hawaii, known as koa, carved fighting instruments and honed canoes from strong indigenous hardwood--also known as koa--with swirling grains and rich colors. Koa wood remains sacred and is popular for furniture and suitcase-friendly boxes and bowls. Michael Tam, CEO of koa retailer Martin & MacArthur, warns against pieces carved with flowers and leaf designs that claim antique lineage. "Monarchs and plantation owners lived in an island paradise full of tropical flowers," he says. "These motifs were never intended for furniture design."
A koa wood table.
Leonard's Bakery in Honolulu, known for hot, donut-like malasadas.
Treats from Leonard's Bakery.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi of Roy's restaurants, Hawaii's first recipient of the James Beard Award.
Light, luscious Hawaiian cuisine
A breezeway in The Royal Hawaiian hotel.
You know you've checked into paradise when you're greeted by a phalanx of pink-attired hotel staff members serving freshly squeezed fruit juice, an oshibori towel, and fragrant flower leis. Welcome to Hawaii. More specifically, welcome to The Royal Hawaiian.
Originally opened in 1927, the resort known as the "Pink Palace of the Pacific" reopened in early 2009 after closing for a seven-month-long first-class face-lift spearheaded by WCIT Architecture and interior design firms Philpotts & Associates and Henriksen Design Associates.
Retaining the hotel's historic integrity while maximizing its modern luxuries, today's Royal Hawaiian is truly a mix of past and present. The historic (and highly recognizable) pink facade still warmly welcomes guests. Rooms and suites (528 in total) remain charming-yet-updated reminders of the hotel's past. Orchid-lined corridors lead to generous gardens punctuated with palm trees and lush flowers. Private cabanas and sunset-pink deck umbrellas beckon from around the Royal Beach Tower pool.
"The Royal Hawaiian's rich historic context laid the basis for our design," says architect Robert K. Iopa. "We recaptured spaces that were previously renovated and converted them back to the functions they once served--interior spaces that provide shady respites and cool breezeways that make the most of the Royal Coconut Grove and Waikiki Beach."
Welcome to paradise! For more info, go to the Royal Hawaiian Web site. 
A suite in the historic wing of The Royal Hawaiian hotel.
The Royal Hawaiian's Porte Cochere Driveway.
The Royal Hawaiian, circa 1927
Abhsa Spa at The Royal Hawaiian.
View of Diamond Head.
A chair in the historic wing suite of The Royal Hawaiian.
The Royal Hawaiian's King Kamehameha Suite
Hawaiian Quilts Native Hawaiian women blended the ancient art of kapa moe-- bedcovers made from a cloth derived from the inner bark of trees--with quilting skills brought by missionaries to create the distinctive Hawaiian island quilts.
Hawaiian quilts are generally two solid colors--one for the background and one for the appliqué that's usually an organic, nature-inspired design. Women tended to create quilts based on personal experiences or dreams, and each quilt is given a name.
The last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, stitched a crazy quilt of scraps during her imprisonment in Iolani Palace. It reads: "Imprisoned at Iolani Palace . We began the quilt here . "
Celebrities love dining in Oahu as much as the cameras love shooting there. Popular restaurants, many of which are located at Waikiki hotels, offer bountiful island cuisine and attract A-list stars. Kristin Davis, Ben Affleck, and Morgan Freeman are among the guests of the beachfront Orchids restaurant at the Halekulani.
Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, and Drew Barrymore have dined at the Kahala Hotel & Resort's Hoku's, while Janet Jackson and Will Smith enjoy its Seaside Grill.
At Outrigger Reef Hotel on the Beach, Cameron Diaz feasts at Ocean House, an open-air, beachfront restaurant boasting a spectacular view of the sunset and Diamond Head. Comedic actor Rob Schneider has dined at Shore Bird.
The Royal Hawaiian's Mai Tai Bar has served Hollywood royalty. Elizabeth Taylor has been spotted there, as has funny-woman Ellen DeGeneres, for whom a cocktail is named.
Lucky patrons at Duke's Waikiki at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach have been treated to surprise performances by legend Jimmy Buffett.
A shop vignette.
Pretty little keepsakes
A snapshot from paradise
Design Hawaiian style
Catching a wave.
Surfboards, a form of folk art
Getting Around Honolulu
1. U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.
National Park Service, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. Free admission; $5 for museum audio tours (808/422-3300; nps.gov/valr).
2. AIA Downtown Honolulu Architectural Walking Tours.
Saturdays 9-11:30 a.m., $10. Advance reservations required. Tours begin at AIA Honolulu office, historic Stangenwald
Building, 119 Merchant
St., Suite 402 (808/545-4242; aiahonolulu.org).
3. Diamond Head State Monument.
Off Diamond Head Road between Makapuu Ave. & 18th Ave. in Honolulu. Visitors can hike to stunning panoramic coastal views that include the Waianae Mountains and sometimes catch a glimpse of humpback whales. Its 140 acres feature some of Oahu's favorite attractions, including the Waikiki Aquarium. Admission charged (hawaiistateparks.org).
4. Leonard's Bakery.
933 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu. Home of the malasada. Malasadas trucks also roam the island (808/737-5591; leonardshawaii.com).
5. Pacific Home.
Find Hawaiian-style fine furnishings at 420 Ward Ave. in Honolulu (808/596-9338; pacific-home.com).
6. Anne Namba Designs.
324 Kamani St., Honolulu (808/589-1135).
307C Kamani St., Honolulu (808/593-1231).
Atelier of local artist and interior designer Mary Philpotts, whose family has shaped Oahu's art and design tradition. 40 S. School St., Honolulu (808/275-3075; placehawaii.com).
9. Polynesian Cultural Center.
Eight miniature island villages, hands-on activities, performers, and events, as well as a canoe pageant and night luau (reservations required). Admission charged; 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy., Laie (800/367-7060; polynesia.com).
10. Byodo-In Temple.
47-200 Kahekili Hwy., Kaneohe. Admission charged (808/239-9844; byodo-in.com).
11. Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Hawaii's largest fine-arts museum. Admission charged; 900 S. Beretania St., Honolulu (808/532-8700; honoluluacademy.org).
12. Kawaiahao Church.
957 Punchbowl St., Honolulu (808/522-1333; kawaiahao.org).
13. Aliiolani Hale.
Originally constructed as the official royal palace in 1874, it now houses Hawaii's State Supreme Court; 17 S. King St., Honolulu (808/539-4994).
14. Honolulu Design Center.
Three floors of home furniture, lighting, and accessories, plus a restaurant and wine bar. 1250 Kapiolani Blvd., Honolulu. Free and open to the public (808/956-1250; honoluludesigncenter.com).
15. Roy's Restaurant.
6600 Kalanianaole Hwy., Honolulu (808/396-7697).
16. Ono Hawaiian Foods.
726 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ate here (808/737-2275).
17. Helena's Hawaiian Food.
The James Beard Foundation called this fun hole-in-the-wall a regional classic; 1240 N. School St., Honolulu (808/845-8044).
18. Tanioka's Seafoods & Catering.
Get your plate lunch and poke (raw fish salad) here. 94-903 Farrington Hwy., Waipahu (808/671-3779; taniokas.com).