By Trip Styler, on September 17, 2013

A modern Honolulu

Packed tightly with palms and people, Waikiki Beach is Oahu’s big kahuna, bustling 24/7 with a tidal wave of activity. While I love Honolulu‘s tropical turf (and surf), my ideal way to experience Waikiki is mingling maximum aloha with minimalist modern.

I used to frequent Oahu in my university days during reading breaks (for the record, I never opened a book). Because I ate at chain restaurants and hung out with the chock-a-block bathers on Waikiki Beach, I call this Honolulu version 1.0. Ten years and many mahalo trips later, I’ve uncovered version 2.0: Honolulu’s modern side, splashed with style and substance.

If you want to do Oahu like you’re a VIP at the luau, start at The Modern Honolulu, the da kine property in the bevy of boutique hotels that have stormed the shore over the past five years.

Lavish lounging at The Modern Honolulu


Gallery-white throughout, its canvas is brought to life with tropical cues – orchids in every hallway, ukuleles in every room, and a Herbie Fletcher “wrecktangular” surfboard installation behind reception, featuring the broken boards of surfing greats like Kelly Slater and the Irons brothers. What really makes me hang ten is the hotel’s dual pool scene: beachy upstairs, with sand brought in from island beaches, and swish downstairs. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the queen-sized mattress beds surrounding the pools, where I lounged from sunrise to sunset.

If budget is more your beat, you don’t need to skimp on style at Vive Hotel Waikiki, the strip’s newest boutique property, opened Summer 2013. Skipping the expected plumeria-print tapestry, rooms are treated with midnight blues and dark woods. This thoughtfully renovated property includes Honolulu 2.0 touches like complimentary WiFi and continental breakfast. While there’s no pool, the world’s biggest swimming hole – the beach – is two blocks away.

Viewfinder Tip: Just west of Waikiki Beach, visit Ala Moana Beach Park, a calm, collected, and crescent-shaped bay perfect for swimmers of all ages. 

Just above the waves 15 minutes east of Waikiki, you’ll find a modern, healthy take on shave ice at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha. Trust me, it’s worth the trip for the all-natural flavors and friendly service alone. My frosty selection was doused in a kale-spinach-apple concoction. Due to the nearly negative calorie count, I didn’t feel a hint of guilt shoveling the savory-sweet snack into my mouth. Honestly, I think I consumed more calories just standing there.

And since you’re out that way, don’t miss the nearby Koko Head Crater trail, an “up-cycled” climb that repurposes an abandoned railway track into a stairway to heaven (or hell, depending on how fit you are). The second I watched Lt. Commander Steve McGarrett scale this mountainside on Hawaii Five-O, I knew I had to conquer the unique assent. Plus, the 360-degree view at the top will have you breaking out into spontaneous hula. Note: it’s quite the climb, so wear proper hiking/exercise gear, and go early in the day – think 6 a.m. – to avoid the heat.

Koko Head trailhead


When the light dims, the food scene sizzles, and Hawaii’s hottest city has a bounty of indie restaurants all over town. Salt Bar & Kitchen is part of this mix, infusing ingredients from the island with trends from afar into their cocktails, contempo-casual fare, and au courant architecture. If the mood strikes for an Eastern meal, sit under Edison bulbs on a bare wooden bench at Lucky Belly for a giant bowl of ramen (one is enough for two people). While the digs are as cool as the cucumber adorning my favorite bevy, the sake-based toki doki, the service is as warm as the people of Hawaii. 

Sometimes Honolulu gets overlooked by jetsetters, its insider finds getting lost in the crowd of camera-toting beach lovers. But dig a little deeper into the Pearl City and you’ll find sophistication in the sand.

Where do you go in search of sophistication in the sand?