Now's a good time to avoid the crowd on Oahu
by Ed Walsh
Psst – don't tell anybody but the best time to visit Hawaii is now. May through mid-June is considered the low season on the islands because the snowbirds have already gone home and it's too early for the summer vacation crowd. Right now, you will be met with not only lower hotel rates but with generally drier weather and many flowering plants are at their peak. If you can't get away right now, September and October are also good months to enjoy nice weather without the crowds.
Airfares to Hawaii from the Bay Area will soon become more competitive year-round. The very gay-friendly Virgin America announced earlier this month that it will begin daily nonstop flights from San Francisco to Hawaii this fall. Oahu flights start November 2 and Maui flights begin December 3.
If you have never been to Hawaii, the island of Oahu is a good introduction. It offers a vibrant and sophisticated city scene in Honolulu as well as rural undeveloped areas on the North Shore, Leeward Coast, and Windward Coast. About 70 percent of the state's 1.4 million residents live in Oahu. Most tourists who visit the island stay in the Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu. Waikiki is known for its iconic beach lined with high-rise hotels with a spectacular view of the Diamond Head volcano crater to the west.
Almost all of Hawaii's gay nightlife is in Waikiki and you can easily barhop on foot. If you are staying in Waikiki, it is easy to get around without a car. The Waikiki Trolley bus makes regular rounds to the biggest attractions on the island and a number of tour buses originate from Waikiki. Several tours incorporate drive-bys of President Barack Obama's two former homes on the island as well as the prestigious college prep Punahou School he attended.
You can also take public transit to the island's attractions on Oahu's version of Muni called TheBus. The fare is $2.50 and you can get a transfer that is good for up to two connections. A four-day unlimited pass is $35: http://www.TheBus.org has a complete schedule and you can check when the next bus is coming on the site. If you don't have Web service on your phone, you can also call a hotline and punch in your bus number to find out when it will arrive.
If you enjoy bicycling, be sure to check out Holoholo Bicycles. The company offers a number of tours and can take you quickly to parks and other locales off limits to buses. The company also rents bikes from its store in Honolulu's Chinatown, which in itself is an attraction. The tour is a great way to get out of Waikiki and see first-hand the revitalization of the city's downtown.
One of the most visited attractions in Hawaii is the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. The tour of the harbor is free and takes visitors to the floating memorial over the battleship that was sunk in the 1941 Japanese attack that killed 2,403. You can see oil slowly bubbling to the surface from the ship, which still leaks two to nine quarts of oil per day.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is Oahu's most popular snorkeling spot. Colorful tropical fish enjoy the protected crescent-shaped inlet formed by a long-extinct volcano. It is about a 25-minute drive outside Waikiki but it is a good idea to take a shuttle bus from Waikiki because the parking lot usually fills up by 8:30 a.m. The bus costs $22 and includes rental of snorkeling gear and fins. That's a good deal considering it costs $15-$20 to rent that stuff at the beach concession anyway. Admission to the park costs $7.50 and you have to watch a nine-minute educational video before you enter. You can make a shuttle reservation at http://www.hanaumabaystatepark.com. The beach is closed on Tuesdays to give the fish a break from human contact.
If you are a movie fan, be sure to take in a tour of Kualoa Ranch, where a number of films, including Jurassic Park as well as the TV series, Lost , were filmed. It's on the rugged Windward Coast, about a 40-minute drive north of Waikiki. The 4,000-acre ranch includes tours that offer pick-ups from Waikiki hotels.
For more sophisticated art lovers, check out the Honolulu Museum of Art. And while you are there be sure to sign up for a tour of the famed Shangri La estate of the late philanthropist Doris Duke. An estate tour leaves from the Honolulu Museum of Art. The Duke home includes an extensive collection of Islamic art. Advanced reservations can be made through the museum's website, http://www.honolulumuseum.org.
If you would rather look at living art, check out the Waikiki Aquarium and just a short walk away, the Honolulu Zoo. While the aquarium doesn't approach the level of our Steinhart Aquarium or even the Aquarium of the Bay, the zoo is on par with the San Francisco Zoo and among Oahu's most underrated attractions.
The Ala Moana Center is the largest open-air mall in the world and the 16th largest shopping mall in the U.S. By comparison, Westfield San Francisco Centre is northern California's largest at 1.5 million square feet but the Ala Moana bests it by 600,000. The mall has a number of large department stores as well as smaller locally owned shops and a huge food court. It is just outside Waikiki. You will pass it on the way from Waikiki to downtown. A big advantage to shopping in Honolulu is that sales tax is 4.5 percent, about half the rate of most Bay Area cities. The Tax Foundation ranks Honolulu as having the third lowest sales tax rate of cities with a population over 200,000. (Anchorage, Alaska and Portland, Oregon top the list because neither the state nor local governments there charge any sales tax.)
One of the best things to do in Oahu is free. Manoa Falls is just a 20-minute drive outside Waikiki but feels like another world. (TheBus #5 takes about 30 minutes to get there from the Ala Moana Shopping Center.) From the road, it is a little less than a mile hike to get to the falls and the hike itself is a destination as the trail winds its way through a lush forest. Wear a bathing suit under your clothes and bring a towel because after you work up a sweat walking up to the falls, you can take a dip in the very cool pond under the falls. The website http://www.manoafalls.com has detailed directions and tips.
Beach and bars
Honolulu has an unofficial gay beach called Queen's Surf Beach. The name is derived from Hawaii's royal past, not the beach's present clientele. It is at the far Diamond Head end of Waikiki Beach a little past the intersection of Kapahulu Avenue and Kalakaua Avenue. It is conveniently near the snack bar and restrooms. If your phone has a GPS, plug in the address of the Queen's Surf Cafe and Lanai Bar, which faces the beach: 2701 Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96815.
Hawaii's most popular gay bar may also be the most beautiful gay watering hole in the world. Hula's Bar and Lei Stand, at 134 Kapahulu Avenue, has an open-air view of Diamond Head and the Kapiolani Regional Park, just in front of Queen's Surf Beach. It is on the second floor of the Waikiki Grand Hotel. It is a little tricky to get to it. You have to walk through the hotel lobby and walk up the staircase to the left. Hula's runs a gay catamaran cruise on Saturdays. You can make a reservation through http://www.hulas.com.
Fusion Waikiki is a popular late-night gay dance spot, a short walk from Hula's. It's at 2260 Kuhio Avenue on the second floor. LoJax is Hawaii's gay sports bar and it is also on the second floor, right next to Fusion, at 2256 Kuhio Avenue. (This is the bar that used to be Angles.) The space includes a patio with a view of Kuhio Avenue, known for its bars, restaurants, and nightlife.
The In Between is a small bar popular with locals. It is tucked away at 2155 Lauula Street, just a five-minute walk from LoJax and Fusion.
Bacchus Waikiki, at 408 Lewers Street, is just two blocks from LoJax. The lounge and video bar opened in the summer of 2011 with the help of a couple of business partners from San Francisco and quickly earned a loyal following of locals and tourists alike. Bacchus teams up with Aloha Bears for a monthly gay catamaran cruise. You need to sign up in advance and you can do it through the bar's website, http://www.bacchus-waikiki.com.
Tapa's Lanai Bar is at 407 Seaside Avenue, just behind LoJax. It is also a second floor bar and features Karaoke and tapas.
Wang Chung's is a gay but straight-friendly karaoke bar and restaurant serving up Asian- and Latin-inspired food. It recently moved to the Stay Hotel at 2424 Koa Avenue.
There are no full-time lesbian bars in Hawaii but gay women are very welcome in all of Honolulu's predominantly gay male bars.
There are no exclusively gay hotels on Oahu since Cabanas Waikiki went mainstream a few years ago but you would be hard-pressed to find a hotel that is not gay-welcoming. Since same-sex marriage was legalized in Hawaii nearly two years ago, many hotels actively now court the gay marriage market. When comparing hotel prices, remember that most in Hawaii charge a mandatory resort fee that typically runs $10-$35 per night, so be sure to look for that when booking a room.
If you want to live it up, you can't do much better than the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The pink-clad historic hotel first opened in 1927 and has set the bar very high for luxury accommodations in Hawaii. The hotel has a modern high-rise tower as well as the original main building. The hotel does a great job of combining new world comforts while maintaining his old-Hawaiian charm.
The Vive Hotel is more moderately priced and is hip, modern, and close to everything in Waikiki. It is conveniently located – a five-minute walk to LoJax/Fusion on one side and Hula's Bar and Lei Stand in the other direction. The 125-room high-rise boutique hotel is one of the newer properties in Waikiki. It used to be the Continental Surf Hotel but it was completely gutted and very stylishly redone as the Vive. The hotel has no resort fee and includes a free continental breakfast, Wi-Fi, and use of beach gear.
Aqua Hotels and Resorts include more than two-dozen hotels in Hawaii. Aqua is offering an "Out and Proud" 15 percent discount on its select Oahu properties, a copy of the gay Hawaii eXpression magazine, and each guest gets a coupon for a free Mai Tai at Hula's Bar and Lei Stand. (Google "Aqua Resorts LGBT" for more info.)
Hilton offers a "Go Out Hilton" package at all its hotels including the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Waikiki. The package includes a couple of free welcome drinks and a year's digital subscription to Out magazine. The expansive Hawaiian Village is at the far end of Waikiki, opposite Diamond Head. It is a beautiful full-service resort but it is a long haul if you want to barhop. Hula's is 1.5 miles away and LoJax/Fusion about a mile. To book and get your free drinks visit: http://www.goout.hilton.com.
Tiki's Grill and Bar, in the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, 2570 Kalakaua Avenue, is just steps from the gay Queen's Surf Beach. Its outdoor patio seating makes it the perfect place to watch the sunset.
Chef Chai, 1009 Kapiolani Boulevard, is an upscale modern restaurant in downtown Honolulu famous for fusing fresh Hawaiian ingredients with exotic flavors from Asia.
The Surf Lanai restaurant at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is a great way to experience the Royal Hawaiian luxury without completely busting your budget. The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch with seating right on the beach. Egg dishes start at $20 and the continental breakfast is $25. The prix fixe lunch menu is $42.
For a very gay Hawaiian dining experience, Hula's Bar and Lei Stand has a cafe open for dinner and snacks during the week and lunch and dinner on the weekends. The aforementioned Tapa's Waikiki and Wang Chung's are also great places to have a casual bite in a gay setting.
Hawaiian and United have the most flights to Honolulu from all three Bay Area airports. Unlike United, Hawaiian Airlines still offers free meals onboard and even a free alcoholic drink in economy. But all the airlines that service Hawaii charge to check a bag. Airfares should drop, at least temporarily, when Virgin America starts flying to Hawaii later this year, so keep your eyes peeled for deals this fall. Right now, non-stop flights to Honolulu start around $440 but you may be able to save some money if you book flights with stops in Los Angeles or Maui. Alaska, American, and Delta airlines also fly to the islands but with far fewer flights than United and Hawaiian.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal in Hawaii, if you want to get married island-style, Hawaiian Airlines offers wedding discounts as part of its "Wedding Wings" program. Couples are eligible for a 10 percent discount plus all guests will receive a 5 percent discount. After 25 guests book, couples get a complimentary one-way upgrade to first class.