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Honolulu mixes sophistication with nature's splendor

  • Story Highlights
  • Honolulu balances big-city offerings with the best of nature
  • Minutes from downtown, the Makiki-Tantalus trail winds through a rainforest
  • You can shop at more than 260 shops at the Ala Moana Center
  • On Honolulu's south shore, you can try some night surfing
  • Next Article in Travel »
By Laurie Arakaki
Special to CNN
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- With nearly a million residents, Honolulu has still managed to keep the delicate balance between the city and its natural environment, offering visitors the best of both worlds.


Waikiki and Diamond Head define Honolulu's shoreline.

Only minutes from downtown Honolulu, the Makiki-Tantalus trail takes hikers of all levels through a rainforest. The 8-mile loop, which includes several smaller trails, takes you to the top of Tantalus, an area with an elevation of 2,000 feet.

As you stroll through a bamboo grove and take in views of Manoa Valley, Nuuanu Valley and the Pali, the shade from ancient trees, birdsong and the smell of the forest make you forget that you are in a major city.

Yet about a mile away sits Ala Moana Center, once the largest shopping complex in the United States until the Mall of America emerged. More than 260 shops and restaurants attract locals and tourists. Luxury shops such as Neiman Marcus and Chanel share mall space with local favorites like Hawaiian Island Creations and Shirokiya.

Travel east, and you'll find Kaimuki, a neighborhood close to the University of Hawaii, with boutiques and great restaurants, like Town, opened in 2005 by Hawaii-born chef Ed Kenney. The fresh, creative menu and urban atmosphere have quickly made this eatery a hot spot. Rumor has it that cast members from the TV show "Lost" can often be found dining there.

Surf and turf

Historic downtown Honolulu is enjoying a rebirth as trendy nightclubs, galleries and theaters replace nudie bars and adult movie houses.

One club called Nextdoor, with exposed red brick walls and cement bar, offers its patrons more than a dark, urban atmosphere, hot dance mixes and overpriced drinks. It showcases the arts by hosting a monthly 48-hour film challenge called "Showdown in Chinatown."

If you go ...

Makiki Tantalus Trail
Trailhead: Hawaii Nature Center
2131 Makiki Heights Drive
(808) 955-0100
(888) 955-0104

Ala Moana Center
1450 Ala Moana Boulevard

3435 Waialae Avenue Suite 103
(808) 735-5900

43 N. Hotel Street
(808) 548-NEXT

39 N. Hotel Street
(808) 599-2552

Foster Botanical Garden
50 N. Vineyard Boulevard
(808) 522-7060

Aloha Tower Market Place
1 Aloha Tower Drive
(808) 528-5700

Kakaako Waterfront Park
End of Ahui or Ohe Streets off Ala Moana Boulevard

Maunakea Marketplace
1120 Maunakea Street

Oahu Market
Corner of King and Kekaulike Streets

Next door to Nextdoor, at 39 North Hotel Street, is the club Thirtyninehotel. Climb the narrow staircase to a spacious room where you can spread out and soak in live music and the art exhibits on the walls. In the back, you'll find an outdoor gem -- a large patio that opens up to the city sky and offers a place to hear yourself talk.

A different kind of nightlife swells up on Honolulu's south shore.

Night surfing is incredible to watch or take part in on the south shore. Veteran wave riders are forced to rely more on instinct and feel than sight; and as they will tell you, the experience is altogether different from surfing in daylight hours.

Queen's Beach and Canoes in Waikiki are good spots because of the calmer surf and the city lights.

Remember that lifeguards aren't on duty at night, so with the added thrill comes added risk.


Honolulu's Chinatown tries to balance its historic past with modern development. In 1900, the Department of Health set it on fire to stop the spread of the bubonic plague.

Today you can watch mah-jongg players or walk through the open market where vendors sell everything from fresh vegetables and exotic herbs to live eel and chicken feet. Browse the Oahu Market for some char siu (roasted pork) and don't miss the beautiful traditional leis at one of the many flower stands.

Don't want to climb a mountain to get back to nature?

Visit a tree museum -- Foster Botanical Garden, which singer Joni Mitchell immortalized in her environmental classic "Big Yellow Taxi."

"They took all the trees / Put 'em in tree museum /And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em."

Admission has gone up since Joni wrote that song, but you can still see rare tropical plants, several varieties of orchids, palms and trees protected by state ordinance, like the Bo tree, considered sacred by Buddhists.

But this historic place is not all about plants. Hawaii's first Japanese school, which was located in the garden, was destroyed on December 7, 1941, when a stray artillery shell struck the school while children were in class. A small memorial marks that day.

On the waterfront

Before air travel, visitors to the Hawaiian Islands arrived by passenger ship. "Boat days" were celebrated with dancers and live music welcoming new arrivals and returning kamaaina (locals). Aloha Tower Marketplace, with shops, bars, restaurants and special events, has reclaimed some of the area's former glory.

Right down the street is the Kakaako Waterfront Park. The park offers picnic areas, shore fishing and ocean access for body and long board surfing. Stroll the waterfront promenade for fine views of Waikiki and Diamond Head -- a favored spot for wedding photographers.

You can also join the locals for some Hawaiian-style sledding in the grassy hills. Find a flat piece of cardboard on which to place your okole, or bottom, climb to the top of a hill, sit down, start sliding and hang on! E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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