It’s always darkest before the dawn. I was thinking about that phrase – literally, not figuratively – as I made my way to the Waikiki beachfront for a traditional Ho’ala sunrise ceremony. Let me tell you, at 5:30 in the morning, it’s dark – like, need-a-flashlight dark.
Of course, I’m always up before the sun IRL. But given the demands of a typical day, I never have the luxury of stopping to contemplate what sunrise actually means or why it matters; it just happens. You know, right?
This morning was different. The only demand on me was to find a good spot to roll out my towel. So I had time – time to sit on that dark beach, the sand cold and damp beneath me, the waves lapping gently in front of me, and think about my place in all of it.
It was a transcendent experience: As dawn approached, I felt connected to the earth in a way I never had before. And in those fleeting moments when the inky sapphire sky gave way to a brighter shade of pale, I was completely energized with the possibility of new.
Kinda profound, really – and all before a cup of coffee. No wonder the Hawaiian people created the Ho’ala ceremony to welcome each day. It’s a pretty awesome experience.
The new spin
For somebody who has wanted to go to Waikiki since The Brady Bunch travelled there in 1972, you can bet I had a long list of adventures planned – hike Diamond Head, try canoe surfing and explore Pearl Harbour, to name a few. I’m certain that these activities top most folks’ itineraries, but there is more to Waikiki than meets the postcard. For starters, there’s an earnest desire by the locals to reclaim the traditions that gave life to the islands’ distinct culture, and you don’t have to look far to experience this renaissance.
In addition to hotels like the Marriott Waikiki Cvomplex, which offers the Ho’ala ceremony, there are hiking companies, like Hawaii Forest & Trail, that provide a range of island tours, explaining as they go about the importance of indigenous crops and vegetation and what they mean for the survival of the culture. On these tours, you’ll learn about the massive reforestation projects now underway to repopulate the land with indigenous vegetation – a process that will take several generations to complete, our guide told us.
But you don’t have to travel into the mountains to experience the revival. Unique cultural offerings are all around you. Restaurant menus are filled with dishes using local ingredients, and spas are incorporating meaningful rituals into their therapies, all of which allow you to connect with the earth (and yourself) in ways you can’t experience at home.
Being authentic is important to this state, not as a tourist gimmick but as a genuine way to make sense of life. As one of our guides said, “Our parents’ generation tried hard to be American, but younger generations are trying hard to revive our culture and get back to our roots.”
To that, I say “E ala e” – awaken and arise to all that Waikiki has to offer.
Built in 1901, the Westin Resort & Spa beachfront property is the oldest hotel in Waikiki. She doesn’t show her age, though, thanks to many upgrades and renovations, including a nearly 20-million-dollar rejuvenation in 2014. This property checks all the boxes for a perfect tropical holiday: beachfront access, ocean views, a luxury spa and a variety of dining choices. Given that it’s a Westin property, you can be assured of a great wellness program that features a host of activities, including a 24-hour gym, morning yoga sessions, running and aquasize programs and, because it’s Hawaii, weekly hula lessons, natch.
If you’re looking for an authentic island experience but craving an urban home base, the Ritz-Carlton is the place for you. Just a short walk from the beach, the Ritz-Carlton offers two eighth-floor infinity pools with private cabanas, a luxurious spa and several dining options, including Dean & DeLuca for a quick gourmet bite and The Horizon Terrace, an airy outdoor bar and patio where you can enjoy signature cocktails and scrumptious eats. To keep holiday pounds at bay, there’s a state-of-the-art fitness centre, designed by celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, that’s open 24/7. But it’s the ultra-chic rooms that seal the deal here, complete with balconies with beach views, smart TVs, a kitchenette and an en suite laundry, so you’ll want for nothing. (Here’s how to maintain healthy sleep habits while travelling.)
New to the Ritz-Carlton, La Vie just opened this past summer. With a menu developed by executive chef Shaymus Alwin, the focus is on classic French-inspired cuisine using local ingredients. I had the chance to preview a tasting menu that included Truffled Asparagus à la Nage with Hamakua Mushrooms for a soup starter and Hapalua Wagyu with Pommes Aligot and Beef Tongue Bordelaise for a main. Instagrammable and memorable! The service matched the food, which is to say “first-rate.”
For something a little off the beaten track, check out Waikiki’s newest farm-to-table Japanese restaurant. Well, not just Japanese. As the owners say, “Our menu is not going to be strictly Japanese or any particular style. The only rule when it comes to our menu is that we use only fresh, locally sourced ingredients.” Still, it’s definitely Asian inspired. Expect to be surprised and delighted with dishes like Applewood-Smoked Waimana Egg and Potato Salad and Kale Udon with Basil Pesto. Oh, and try the sake. Divine.
An inspiring way to start the day, this traditional sunrise ceremony includes Hawaiian chants that are meant to bring awareness to the sun’s gifts and encourage moments of personal reflection. It rounds out with an early-morning ocean dip to cleanse your body, mind and spirit. This portion is supposed to be done in reverential silence, but, um, the water is a tad cold at that time of day, so don’t feel bad if you let out a screech or two.
Diamond Head trail
You can’t visit Waikiki without making a trip up Diamond Head, the iconic volcanic formation that’s visible from much of the city. From the trailhead to the summit, it’s 1.3 kilometres, with a 171-metre climb. Toward the top, there’s a steep 99-step walk, but don’t be deterred: The view from the summit is breathtaking. At a leisurely pace, with time for photos, you can complete the circuit in about two hours.
Tip: Go early in the day to avoid the hot sun. (To help you stay protected, check out the best sunscreen for your scalp, lips, ears and all those other easy-to-forget places.)
Moana Lani Spa
Oahu’s only beachfront spa, this property offers 17,000 square feet of pampering. Each treatment begins with a ho’awe bowl ritual, where you imagine emptying your worries into a bowl of salt, which is then removed from the room while you enjoy your treatment. At the end of the day, all of the salt collected is returned to the ocean. My fave treatment? The Stones of Apuakehau, an 80-minute session where your legs and feet are wrapped in ’awa mud and local river stones are placed on your back and neck to draw out toxins, followed by a full-body massage.
You don’t need to stay here to book a treatment in this beautiful and contemporary spa. For a traditional island experience, try the Ho’omalu treatment. Translated as “a sense of peace,” this therapy starts with a leg and foot mask, followed by a hot volcanic stone treatment and lomilomi massage – think flowing massage movements where the therapist uses their hands and forearms to knead and stretch your taut muscles.
If you find it hard to organize activities before a trip, check out this website for easy vacay planning. Simply type in your destination and start exploring all the offerings. All of the tours and activities have been vetted, and many come with travel tips from local experts. It really takes the hassle out of organizing activities. You don’t have to be a Marriott Bonvoy member to book, but you can earn points by booking activities and members can redeem activities with points.
Next, check out this U.S. desert town if you’re in search of a spiritual vacation.