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(CNN) — Four of the most glorious words in the travel lexicon? "We're going to Hawaii!" For many travelers to America's 50th state, that means at least a stop in the capital of Honolulu, a city of nearly a million residents on the lush island of Oahu. Despite its epic popularity, the best of Honolulu still fulfills the Pacific promise of easy breezes, slow days, perfect beaches and lots of flowery drinks and shirts.
What may come as a surprise are the twists recently added to some familiar island icons. Recent years have seen major refurbishments at many hotels along the famed beach of Waikiki. New decor. New bathrooms. New spas. Some beachfront hotels have even built new pools.
And the visitors? While the usual travelers from North America and Asia still crowd the beaches, a recent influx of Aussies means you just might hear the guy on the next beach towel say, "Mate, can you chuck us me thongs?" (In Australia, flip-flops are called "thongs.")
The world's busiest holiday playground is offering an updated approach to sand and surf, and the best of Honolulu is the gateway to it all.
Built in 1901, the Moana Surfrider is the oldest hotel in Waikiki. Its beaux-arts architecture makes it the only hotel in Honolulu with the feel of a plantation mansion, complete with rocking chairs on the verandas and staff in historical dress. This best of Honolulu hotel has kept up with time though, with recent refurbishments and a new spa. Free history tours run three times a week; visitors are welcome to join, even if they're not staying at the hotel.
The Halekulani is another lovely old-timer. It's known for opulent style, with the Halekulani Suite famously decorated by Vera Wang and the heated pool's floor set with 1.2 million pieces of glass tile to form an orchid-shaped mosaic. Most rooms offer exclusivity -- private gardens, plunge pool, butler, even interactive cooking lessons with a Halekulani chef.
Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach
Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach is located on the sands of the original Beach Boys Club -- this is Hawaiian Olympic and surfing king Duke Kahanamoku's patch. With the ever-growing resurgence of Hawaiian culture included in hotel design and ethos, the Outrigger still holds daily cultural activities, such as lei-making and ukulele lessons. Lessons are often held in the lobby next to the authentically carved koa wood outrigger canoe. Rooms have been completely refurbished, including extra soundproofing for honeymooners.
Ohana Waikiki East
The Ohana Waikiki East may not be on the beach, but it is just across from it, and just a two-minute walk to the main tourist drag of Kalakaua Avenue. Plenty of rooms have wide ocean views and nice lanais. Family friendly, some rooms have kitchenettes, so you can save on meals or cater to special food needs. Part of the Ohana chain of hotels, this is an absolute best of Honolulu super saver for a night's sleep.
The New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel
Honolulu's best lanai for the price.
Situated at the quieter Diamond Head end of Waikiki, The New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel is affordable, new and right on the beach. Service is solid all-around without being flashy. Aimed at Japanese tourists, the Miyako restaurant has kimono-dressed waitresses and private tatami rooms catering to up to 24 guests.
La Mer at Halekulani resort
Ultra-romantic La Mer is a favorite even among locals. Its best of Honolulu evening ocean views are unsurpassed. The interior is elegant and unpretentious. Service makes you feel both at home and pampered. The meal pacing is "savor each morsel" French, but the food has local influences. Specialties include steamed sea bass with tomato chutney and chorizo cream, and crusted lamb loin with eggplant caviar.
Locals don't often give away their favorite eating spots, but here's the inside info on Alan Wong's in downtown Honolulu. The menu is predominantly seafood with fine-tuned Asian-Pacific flavors.
The menu is funky. The Crazy Asian salad comes with Chinese roasted duck and "sassy" greens. Da Bag us local Kalua pig and steamed clams. Chef Alan Wong is a believer in organic and farm fresh. Held seasonally, Special Farmer Dinners bring local Hawaiian food to the table.
Kani Ka Pila Grille
This one sounds as fresh as it looks. The concept behind Kani Ka Pila Grille is to create a home for genuine Hawaiian food, culture and music to thrive. The food is good to great: lots of fresh seafood and grilled pork. The music is exceptional: performers include the islands' big name slack key guitarists and vocalists such as Kawika Kahiapo, Kaukahi, Cyril Pahinui, Sean Naauao and Weldon Kekauoha. Happy hour starts at 3 p.m., and while tiki torches and sunset may sound clichéd, they guarantee a relaxing wind down to Polynesian time.
Hawaiian afternoon tea at The Veranda is a thrill. The First Lady Tea Service is a palate massage, with tea flavors of papaya, mango, banana and coconut. The usual finger sandwiches and petites fours are served, but a better finish is a sparkling dry rosé and bowl of berries and cream. You'll even get a fan as a keepsake.
Little Village Noodle House
Originally feeding university students, the relocated Little Village Noodle House is now closer to fine dining Chinese, popular in downtown Honolulu and Chinatown. Appetizers are divided into signature and spicy. Lettuce wraps, green onion pancakes or won ton are all generous serves. Vegetarians can do bean, eggplant or tofu dishes -- the twist being bamboo fungus flavoring. The taro tapioca dessert is all local.
Named after surf and swimming Olympian Duke Kahanmoku, Duke's entry is a hall of fame display of photos from yesteryear. Chefs cook up spicy local flavorings such as huli huli chicken, which is marinated in garlic, ginger and shoya and served with pineapple gremolata. The bar staff shakes hot lava-flow cocktails, a blend of pineapple juice, coconut syrup, strawberries and rum. The surf sampler is a great way to taste four locally brewed beers -- Fire Rock Pale Ale, Duke's Blonde Ale, Lavaman Red Ale and Hapa Brown Ale. A trip to Duke's is definitely a best of Honolulu experience not to be missed.
Hau Tree Lanai
In Hawaii, the local saying goes, "we don't eat until we're full, we eat until we're tired." The saying applies here.The breakfast menu includes poi pancakes and waffles, using the local taro vegetable to create a poi paste as the base. The dinner menu has lots of local seafood: Hawaiian red snapper, mahimahi and opa (moonfish) can be cooked in a variety of ways. Hau Tree Lanai sits at the Diamond Head end of Waikiki, where the ocean joins in for a sunrise breakfast and at night you get stunning views of Waikiki with tiki torches along the beach.
Located beachfront at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, Rum Fire is a typically relaxed Honolulu venue. The cocktail menu, however, is high-octane. The Ring of Fire with jalapeno-cilantro-infused tequila could be an original jetlag cure. And if you're looking for love, you can order a Hawaiian Love Affair or a giggle-inducing Gidget's Crush.
Somewhere between New York and Hong Kong. From Sicily to Mexico, wines at bin 1901 can be tasted from late afternoon. Live piano music helps ease the sunburn while you pair favorite wines with pupus or try a flight of wines composed of a trio of two-ounce glasses with small bites. This best of Honolulu experience provides a classy break from mai tais and cold beers.
Vintage 1901, 2365 Kalakaua Ave.; +1 808 921 4600
The cool crowd will be arriving fashionably late. Lewers Lounge in the Halekulani resort packs an old-fashioned, cigar-lounge feel. Live jazz and classical music accompany a menu of elegant cocktails designed by Dale DeGroff, formerly of New York's Rainbow Room. Cool style is the dress code and prevailing vibe at this best of Honolulu hipster hangout.
In the heart of the Kalakaua strip, Kelley O'Neil's attracts tourists and locals with live bands most nights and the usual drinks on tap, with quality Irish whiskeys. Saturdays usually mean a line to get in.
More often known as Moose's, this place serves pub food but is also a club-style venue for 20-somethings. IDs can be checked against a folder of international passports at the door. Moose's runs a curious parade of special nights, with plasma screens for sports and a stage for bikini contests every Sunday.
Downtown Honolulu hides an interactive 1980s disco museum. A DJ and music videos combined with drinks can make the go-go dance cages appealing. The crowd is mixed, with some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget and a younger set researching retro.
When you consider that banjos and ukuleles sound similar, country music in the tropics doesn't seem so out of place. But who cares when the cheapest mai tais in Waikiki listed are on the chalkboard? If the free line dancing and two-steppin' lessons don't attract you, $1 draught beers on Thursdays might.
Waikiki Beach Walk
Entire hotels have been bulldozed to transform the previously slightly seedy Lewers Street into green spaces, boutique shopping and dining. More than 40 retailers are located within this three-hectare development. Noa Noa sells clothing made with Hawaiian and Pacific Island designs, all hand-batiked, meaning each item is slightly different and therefore a one-off. Under the Koa Tree sells only made-in-Hawaii products, such as koa wood furniture and jewelry. Skye's Koa & Ukulele carry handcrafted koa musical instruments.
Located on the central section of Kalakaua Avenue, the International Marketplace sells authentic Hawaiiana, but you can also spend your loose change on rows of kitsch souvenirs. This is the place to buy the swimwear you forgot, an extra sarong or a second suitcase to take all your souvenirs home in. It's also great if your cell phone or iPod need repairs or you want a cheap bite in the food court. Most stalls are open until at least 10 p.m.
Pearl Harbor (Pacific Historic Parks)
The harbor that changed history.
Still the most popular visitor destination in Hawaii, lines to enter the visitor center at Pearl Harbor start forming as soon as the sun rises. The centerpiece of this best of Honolulu tour is the USS Arizona memorial, which floats above the sunken vessel aboard which 1,177 sailors were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Docked next door is the Mighty Mo -- the USS Missouri is the only ship to have fired her guns in both World War II and the First Gulf War. The Empire of Japan formerly surrendered on her decks on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay. Transport to this Pacific Historic Park can be arranged from most hotels. Plan at least two to three hours for all the sites.
Diamond Head Summit Trail
Not bad for a morning workout. Depending on the heat, most people hike the Diamond Head crater first thing in the morning. The park and trail to the top open at 6 a.m. Part of Oahu's State Parks, the trail is only 1,200 meters long, but it winds steeply upward, gaining 170 meters. You'll need either plenty of energy or plenty of time to make it to the top. Along the way are some observation bunkers dating from World War II. A rewarding breeze and sweeping island views from Koko Head to Wai'anae await at the summit.
The first Marine Life Conservation District in the state of Hawaii, Hanauma Bay hosts hundreds of snorkelers daily. Cradled in a volcanic crater, these waters are calm enough for beginners and children. Plenty of tours, shuttle bus options and even the local bus can get you there.
The fall that launched a thousand postcards. Without too much effort, Manoa Falls is reached via a 1,200-meter hike with shoulder-height vegetation akin to Jurassic Park. That's no coincidence: scenes from the third movie in the franchise were filmed here. Once in the rainforest, hikers are surrounded by wonderful, fresh smells and thick vegetation. Online government websites have advice for clearing programs, landslides, rock falls and pig control hunts.
Makapu'u Beach Park
Calm before the storming sea.
Makapu'u means "bulging eye." You'll understand the significance when you see the surf.
You can only bodyboard here while the area is being patrolled and that's not a bad thing.
A hollow shore break can rocket you and your board straight into the sand, so this place is strictly for experienced extreme sport enthusiasts.
If you arrive and the hairs on your neck stand up, take it as a message from the ancestors to practice photography from the lookout up top instead.
Ko Olina Golf Club
Considered by many to be the best golf course on Oahu, Ko Olina is a Ted Robinson-designed course that hosts an LPGA tournament.
The golf academy can help you with your swing or just keep your kids busy while you enjoy a day at the Ihilani Spa.
If you're on a Hawaiian beach and think you can see a large smooth gray rock in the distance, chances are it's the Hawaiian monk seal.
An endangered species -- there are just more than one thousand left in the wild -- the monk seal is endemic to Hawaii and found nowhere else.
The Waikiki Aquarium is home to two rescued monk seals.
It also holds more than 500 marine species and maintains more than 3,500 marine specimens.
Yes, democratic America has a royal palace. Just the one, in Hawaii.
ʻIolani Palace was built by King Kalākaua in 1882 and was home to the last reigning queen of the islands from 1891, his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani.
Tours are stunning: a Grand Hall with a staircase made of Hawaiian hardwoods; valuables from India and France; the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Wedding vow renewal
"Let's do this again soon."
You can't miss the extraordinary numbers of people who marry, honeymoon or renew their vows in Hawaii.
If you're in it for keeps, the Outrigger hotels hold four sunrise vow renewals each week.
The non-denominational ceremonies include a sprinkle of seawater, flower leis, hula and music.
Wedding vow renewals, 2169 Kalia Road, Honolulu; +1 808 923 3111