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“An artist told me he was upset with Chinatown because it was supposed to be the artistic centre of Hawaii, but it wasn’t delivering,” says Brandon Reid, Honolulu bar owner. “He said all we needed was wall space, lighting and a bar. We looked up and there was a ‘For Lease’ sign on this window. It just unfolded from there.”

The result was The Manifest (32 N Hotel St, manifesthawaii.com), a lively bar within the capacious interior of a former X-rated cinema. It’s a world away from the tourist bustle of Waikiki, filled with locals catching up in the dimly-lit main room, and local art hanging on the walls above them. Even smoother is the small back bar, where the barman will ply you with an ever-changing selection of Japanese whisky.

For a long time Chinatown it was the city’s notorious red light district, home of brothels and dodgy bars. However, in recent years the district has shrugged off its reputation for vice, and transformed itself into an attractive entertainment zone.

It’s not just about drink; there are some impressive up-to-date food offerings in the area’s narrow streets. The Pig and the Lady (83 N King St, thepigandthelady.com) creates delicious Vietnamese-inspired “Southeast Asian Fusion” dishes, while Cake Envy (1129 Bethel St) serves an array of tasty cheesecakes.

However, the diverse bars are the most distinctive element of Chinatown, adding style and colour.

After leaving The Manifest I step across the street to Smith’s Union Bar (19 N Hotel St). This place is what the Americans call a “dive bar”, an unreconstructed piece of Chinatown’s raucous past. Opened in 1934, it hasn’t changed much since then. The long bar is covered with wood veneer, there’s matting on the walls and just a hint of Tiki design in the grass canopies above. This is a place for no-nonsense beer and spirits.

 

 

Nearby is Bar 35 (35 N Hotel St, bar35hawaii.com), where Reid worked before opening The Manifest. It’s a big, lively, dimly-lit space with clusters of people on low couches, drinking and chatting. A DJ in the corner is matching his music with exotic landscapes projected onto the wall behind him. If you’re a beer drinker, this is your destination – there are over 150 beers in stock.

Down a narrow alley is The Mercury (1154 Fort St), a recently renovated, slick place with unadorned concrete floors, big windows and booths. The bar itself is an impressive construction of wooden planks held together by laminate. Though it’s not a big space, there’s a stage for live music.

The Mercury serves food, including poke (the Hawaiian raw fish salad), and has an interesting cocktail menu. I watch as a guy sitting next to me at the bar receives Grandpa’s Favorite, a bourbon and whisky cocktail in which the bourbon is passed through applewood smoke just before being served. 

I end the night listening to live jazz at The Dragon Upstairs (1038 Nu'uanu Ave, thedragonupstairs.com), decorated with huge Chinese theatre masks and a long painting of a golden dragon. The bartender tells me there’s no set cocktail menu, as they make drinks to order. A popular suggestion, she says, is the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, based on (believe it or not) cake-flavoured vodka. I settle for a variant of a Moscow Mule.

It’s been a great night in Chinatown, my newly favourite part of Honolulu. Walking along the streets on a balmy evening, past human-scale buildings, I feel like it’s a district with personality and a past.

“It’s the oldest part of the city,” says Reid. “It’s where the entire world poured through, onto this island.”

They never stopped pouring. And neither did the barmen.

 

 

 

Disclosure: Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism and the Oahu Visitors Bureau.

You can get Hawaii included as a stopover on a Navigator  or on our Discoverer round the world deal

 

 

 


Published by Stuart Lodge

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Honolulu may be the capital of a tropical paradise, but everyone needs a break from palm-shaded sun-kissed sand and surf from time to time (no, really).

The solution? Take a walking tour. Here are three options to get you out and about, sampling the food, architecture and history of a unique Pacific city. 

Food Tour

The recently launched Aloha Food Tour is a great way to dodge a visit to the huge Ala Moana shopping mall if you’re not a fan of shopping. You can leave your travelling partners to their retail therapy and join the tour instead. 

In the streets north of the mall, I join guide Ryan Conching for a journey through the interesting eateries of this diverse neighbourhood.

Starting from a popular brunch spot which serves waffles made from the local root vegetable taro, we visit a local restaurant to try shoyu chicken, a delicious Hawaiian marinated dish involving garlic and ginger. Then it’s Japanese grilled food at a tiny place in a curved brick building with a few aluminium-topped tables. 

A classic bar offers the chance to eat loco moco, a hefty dish invented in the 1940s for hungry surfers. It’s white rice topped with a hamburger pattie, gravy and two eggs over-easy. At Ryan’s urging I add the bar’s hot sauce, made from pineapple, papaya and chilli. It’s excellent.

The next bite is small but weird – it’s a spam musubi, basically a snack-sized piece of Spam wrapped by seaweed to a chunk of sticky rice. There’s no escaping Spam in the Pacific, but it is surprisingly tasty.

 

 

We end the tour with shaved ice, another Hawaiian favourite. The ice, heaped in a bowl over ice cream, is flavoured with syrups from the conventional to the unusual. I try it with Pog (passionfruit/orange/guava) syrup and the enchantingly named Li Hing Mui, derived from pulverised dried plum. It’s a perfect dish for a humid day.

Tour $75, book via alohafoodtours.com.

 

Architecture Tour

Each Saturday the American Institute of Architects runs a tour through the city’s historic downtown area, an attractive repository of architecture from the 19th century onwards. Highlights include the Iolani Palace, once the home of Hawaii’s monarchs and the only former royal palace on US soil; grand civic buildings constructed in a Spanish revival style; old churches; a royal tomb; and the hyper-modernist State Capitol with legislative chambers in the shape of volcanoes.

Tour $10, book via aiahonolulu.org.

History Tour.

Waikiki seems all about the here and now, a dining and shopping hub with a beautiful beach attached. But there are historic secrets beneath the sand and concrete. 

Visit waikikihistorictrail.com to download the Waikiki Historic Trail’s free PDF and map, or follow the trail online. From Kalakaua Park to the Dule Kahanamoku Lagoon, its 23 stops tell tales of temples, taro plantations, fishing grounds, local myths, Hawaiian monarchs, military installations and historic hotels. It’s a fascinating insight into Waikiki’s often overlooked past.

When you’re finished, grab a bite from the all-day breakfast menu at Goofy (1831 Ala Moana Blvd), a nearby upstairs café imitating the humble beach shacks of the good old days. I recommend the Eggs Benedict with taro muffins, purple Okinawan potatoes and fresh kale. Not historic, but tasty.

 

Disclosure: Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism and the Oahu Visitors Bureau.

 

You can get Hawaii included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer Round the world deal