Four friends fly into Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, for a week based in the beachside neighbourhood of Waikiki. One bears an extra piece of checked baggage and a commitment to filling it with wearables. Two have arrived open to consumer temptation. While I, the fourth, would sooner poke an eye out than waste a holiday in Hawaii having a browse. Will the paved paradise of Waikiki suit the whole group? Or is the non-shopper destined for boredom and disappointment?
The Hawaiian Islands were first settled, it's believed, by Polynesian people from the Marquesas Islands who arrived by canoe around AD400. About 1000 years later Tahitians may or may not have conquered those original inhabitants. Nobody seems to know for sure. But I bet you anything that when Oahu was named – it means The Gathering Place – it was not a reference to the positioning of elastic-waisted trousers.
My heart sinks a little as a five-lane road of fast-moving vehicles channels us into Waikiki. There may be palm trees and a Pacific Island breeze but we are undeniably in the US. Our chauffeur deposits us at the entrance of high-rise hotel Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger, right on the shopping strip of Kalakaua Avenue. From my ocean-facing room, 21 storeys up, I can see Jimmy Choo beside Forever 21 across the road, and I know we're above a Macy's and next door to a mall.
Yet my misgivings begin to abate over a late lunch downstairs at Maui Brewing Co where carefully crafted dishes that represent Hawaii's diverse present-day population are served in a relaxed setting. By the time we've licked the remains of ahi poke (pok-AY) tostada and pork belly bao from our fingers the light outside has changed so much I'm compelled to get to the water.
The hotel is only a block back from Waikiki Beach. This is where Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, who popularised Hawaii's ancient sport of surfing, refined his skills on a 52-kilogram wooden longboard back in the early 1900s. To get there I cut down "surfboard alley" lined with countless stored boards standing tall in their colourful covers.
It's about half an hour before sunset and the glaring light of day has given way to the pinkish hue of magic hour. The beach is well populated but doesn't feel busy or crowded. I swim out into the gently rolling swell and look back. Just about everyone in the water and on the sand and in the outdoor restaurants is turned towards the sinking sun with a kind of quiet reverence. As though it's the first sunset they've ever seen or they know it will be their last.
That evening, after local fish and Napa Valley wine and Hula Pie at Duke's restaurant, I wander the night markets on Duke's Lane with my friends. Even on weekend evenings this neighbourhood has a chilled vibe. I head to bed when the others go to Ross Dress for Less, where one of them stays and raids the discount racks until the shop closes at 1am.
Over breakfast at Aroma Caffe it is indisputable which of us looks freshest from the neck up but all eyes are on the new shoes and jumpsuits. We've made individual plans for this morning – I rent a 250cc scooter from a man called January at Cruizin Hawaii and ride east from the city towards the Windward Coast. In less than an hour I'm at Hanauma Bay where the natural craggy coastline is finally visible and the winding road follows the contours of the landscape. It's such a clear blue day I can make out the next main island of Molokai, 42 kilometres away.
At Sandy Beach Park, near Halona Blowhole Lookout, I buy fresh fruit smoothies from food trucks. Wil from Texas, who whips me up a mango and pineapple drink, says Hawaii allows him to be his authentic self. Julio, originally from the Philippines, tells me he loves the Oahu lifestyle as he's passing me a bright green guava and coconut drink (for the road). Maria and Morocco are visiting her home island with their teenage kids and enjoying a break from Seattle's rain. I slip my green smoothie into the scooter's console and sip it at stop lights on the ride back into Honolulu.
The group meets up for lunch at Beachhouse at the Moana where we share poke nachos and our recent exploits. One had taken the hotel's free "trolley" to Diamond Head and walked up the 230-metre-high tuff crater of Leahi (brow of the tuna), another took a surf lesson, and one went in search of the perfect Aloha shirt and found it at Roberta Oaks – a local designer.
Down on the beach we pile into an outrigger canoe and, as instructed by our in-boat guides, power paddle to catch a few Waikiki waves. We then stay at the beach – chatting on our towels and going in for dips – until it's time for a sunset sail on Holokai Catamaran in the warm late-afternoon breeze. Apart from February, when it can rain constantly, there's very little temperature variation in Hawaii outside 23-27 degrees.
We easily fill our next five days. There are more freshly prepared meals, long walks and talks, a self-drive ATV tour of Kualoa Ranch where the Jurassic Park movies were filmed, and a nail-biting hour in an escape room (we make it out with only 54 seconds remaining). Breakout Waikiki is part of a shopping complex called Waikiki Beach Walk where there are regular live performances – often promoting Hawaiian culture – and independently owned clothing shops. When the others disappear into Blue Ginger I race to the Ukulele Store's free afternoon lesson.
When it's time for four friends to fly home after a week in Honolulu the extra checked piece one brought is now full. Two have trouble zipping up their bulging bags. And I, the fourth, know the weight of my luggage hasn't changed at all. But my heart's a little heavy.
Hawaiian Airlines flies daily from Sydney direct to Honolulu (Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney). Pre-book your airport transfer with locally owned and operated Executive Chauffeur Hawaii. See hawaiianairlines.com.au and echawaii.com
The freshly launched Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger with rooms and suites from about $195 (plus tax) for a double. See outrigger.com
Hire a moped, scooter or motorbike from Cruizin Hawaii for four hours, the whole day or even a week from $US35 (half day). See cruzinhawaii.com
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON OAHU
Traditional Hawaiian food is, like the culture, super sociable. So find friends and order sharable plates such as poi, Kalua pig, poke, luau, haupia. Try helenashawaiianfood.com
During Waikiki Hoolaulea – Hawaii's largest street party – Kalakaua Avenue closes to cars and opens to people, food, music and entertainment. See alohafestivals.com
CATCH A COMP
Oahu's best surf beaches are only an hour's drive from Honolulu so consider booking your trip to coincide with a North Shore competition. See gohawaii.com
Oahu is crawling with food trucks specialising in local favourites. Everything from shave ice, acai and malasadas to fish tacos, BBQ prawns and huli-huli chicken. Try giovannisshrimptruck.com
If you're interested in war history then give yourself a full day to visit Pearl Harbour museums and exhibits such as access to Battleship Missouri. See pearlharbor.org