Look, I'm not proud of this, but for much of my life the idea of a Hawaiian vacation has inspired the same reaction in me as the idea of a Hawaiian shirt: It’s a perfectly fine choice—for someone else. Of course, the beaches looked beautiful, and sure, it did seem like everyone there was pretty admirably laid-back, and yes, I knew you didn’t need a passport to go there. But as a denizen of the East Coast, I was much more drawn to seaside destinations like Nantucket or Florida or Puerto Rico or even California, which didn’t require 11 hours of plane travel. Admittedly, my reservations about Hawaii were largely rooted in pop-culture stereotypes: I wasn’t a surfer, I didn’t care for Spam (more accurately, I didn’t care to learn if I cared for Spam), and if I wanted poke I could, by 2019, go to literally any neighborhood in Manhattan to get it. There was also the matter of all that kitsch to contend with: In my mind Honolulu conjured up Don Ho, intensely caloric frozen drinks, honeymooners who lacked imagination, and that Full House episode in which John Stamos performs Elvis’s “Rock-A-Hula Baby.” Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that; it’s just never really been how I wanted to spend my vacation.
And then, all of a sudden, it was like everyone I knew was Instagramming from Hawaii’s third-largest (and by far most populated) island, Oahu. “The shopping is kind of insane,” one friend who’d been there for a wedding told me. “Did you hear about the restaurants?” asked another, a film producer who’d spent a month or two there. He proceeded to rattle off establishments that, according to him, served the absolute best versions of everything from local delicacies like pig’s head to recherché global treats like the buttery Breton kouign-amann. “It’s a total scene,” he said. It felt like a sign when, not long after this, I was offered a chance to witness this American splendor, courtesy of an unexpected source: France. To be specific, Hermès asked me to attend the grand reopening of its Waikiki boutique.
Waikiki, as it turns out, has become synonymous not with surfers and honeymooners and the like but with high fashion and luxury: The allure of the Aloha State has resonated profoundly in Asia, where the Hawaiian Islands, a mere seven-hour flight from Tokyo, are a regular stop on the well-heeled tourists’ circuit. On Oahu, for every peripatetic beachcomber enjoying white sand and spine-tingling turquoise surf, or shave-ice enthusiast queuing up at Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa, countless international visitors are opting instead for opulence. They’re availing themselves of the beachfront hotels, lining up at the cash registers of one of any number of the luxury houses along tony Kalakaua Avenue, and spending their evenings sampling tasting menus at buzzy restaurants, which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound like a bad vacation at all.
At the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, an appealingly modern tower with panoramic city and shoreline views situated a seven-minute walk from the sand, Huy Vo, the PR director, showed off a soothingly celadon-toned suite and explained that, while conventional wisdom would dictate that Waikiki hotels must revolve around the beach, guests didn’t tend to mind not being on the ocean. (A good thing, given that cheek-by-jowl hotel crowding on the waterfront makes new construction there impossible.) “They’re typically repeat visitors,” Vo said of the Ritz-Carlton’s clientele. “They’re really here for the shopping and dining.”
There are increasingly inviting options in both categories. Dior, Fendi, Prada, Saint Laurent, Chanel, Moncler, Harry Winston, Miu Miu, Omega, Loro Piana, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Saks Fifth Avenue all have significant footprints on Waikiki. Tiffany & Co. enlarged its presence last summer with a three-floor jewelry mecca in the heart of the shopping district, positioned right around the corner from Hermès’s revamped 13,000-square-foot boutique.
The expanded Hermès, according to a representative of the brand, did several million dollars in business on its very first day. It helped that the late April reopening coincided with Golden Week, the annual Japanese holiday that this year dovetailed with the imperial transition and delivered ten days of retail-fueled R & R instead of the usual seven. “I’d like to say we planned it that way, but it was just luck,” Bob Chavez, president and CEO of Hermès USA, told me.
“This is our thirtieth anniversary,” Chavez said at the opening ceremony. “We opened here at Waikiki in 1989, and our original location was where a Cheesecake Factory is right now.” Chavez was addressing members of the local media at the airy new location on Kalakaua Avenue, all smooth leather and sunlight-dappled wooden slats. “We’ve come a long way over the years,” he added. So has the neighborhood.
The Waikiki store is Hermès’s third-largest in the U.S. by sales volume, after the branches on New York’s Madison Avenue and in Beverly Hills. (The fourth-largest is the Ala Moana location, a five-minute drive away.) Chavez and I sat on the newly added third floor of the boutique, by a bar cart and under a light fixture all accented with Hermès’s trademark saddle-stitched leather. On the ground floor was a small boat covered in the same sumptuous leather, commissioned by a client to go flyfishing in style. “We like to let our customers dream,” Chavez said. “Somebody had a dream of an Hermès canoe.”
Windows facing the street held beaded sculptures by the Mexican-American artist Raúl de Nieves, some of which were posed with one of the house’s wait-list-only handbags. For seekers of island-chic souvenirs, a display featured Pro Kadima paddles, a beach towel, a silk scarf, and a more-than-$10,000 surfboard emblazoned with a colorful print called Sea, Surf and Fun, all of which were exclusive to Waikiki. The scarf was designed by Filipe Jardim, a surfer from Rio de Janeiro who now lives in Biarritz, France, and creates the occasional hang-ten-inspired image for the fashion house.
On opening night, the brand threw a party for 400 guests in the gardens of the Royal Hawaiian hotel. And it was there, during what must have been the world’s most expensive luau (featuring a heaving raw bar, an outdoor fire pit, break-dancers, a musical act incorporating synthesizers and 16 pineapples, and a mirrored maze built expressly to hold it all in), that I bore witness to a parade of seemingly every Hermès bag in existence. Here, a four-colored Birkin in Miami Vice–style neons; there, a navy crocodile Kelly Cut with a pavé-diamond buckle; everywhere, an investment accessory with a price tag in at least the four digits. In other words: not your average beach party.
And in case you needed reminding, Waikiki is not your average beach neighborhood. Take the area’s second-oldest hotel, the serene, understated Halekulani, which was founded on the waterfront in 1907. Thanks to erosion, it no longer has much by way of a beach, but its main pool, with its stunning mosaic of a diaphanous cattleya orchid made of more than a million glass tiles, is a spectacle in itself. Among the hotel’s other amenities are three restaurants that vary from casual fare to French fine dining; an award-winning spa; and elegantly appointed guest rooms along with a clutch of sprawling suites. The ratio of staff to guests is almost two to one, and under a hot-pink sunset and over a slice of the hotel’s famous lighter-than-air coconut cake one evening, a new friend told me that both employees and guests tend to return year after year. I could see why: Other than my occasional Instagram posts from paradise—insufferable to everyone but me, I’m sure—my digital footprint had never been smaller. It had, I realized, become very easy to pretend that life off the island did not exist. That alone is probably worth the plane fare.
A different kind of escape was available at Sushi Sho, where one night I pulled up one of ten hotly coveted seats at the hinoki-wood bar tucked behind a darkened glass door off the Ritz lobby for what had been hailed as some of the best omakase in the world. Seafood is hardly lacking among the island’s varied cuisines, with everyone you meet eager to tell you where to find the best sushi and poke or which beach truck has the best grilled shrimp. But chef Keiji Nakazawa—a master chef of Edomae sushi in Tokyo who came to Hawaii to challenge himself— operates on another level.
“He came here to prove that you could elevate Hawaiian fish to the level of Japanese fish,” my server translated for me, the sole non-Japanese speaker at the 5 p.m. seating, as Nakazawa prepared nigiri using moi, which is an island fish, he explained, that was once reserved for Hawaiian royalty. He topped off some opah belly with “caviar” he squeezed out of a freshly cut finger lime and served it alongside other classics like radish-topped ankimo, macadamia-dusted toro, and mebachi-maguro.
Nakazawa “is the very best there is,” one of my fellow diners told me a few hours later—she and her adult son had flown in from Japan for the weekend just for this reservation, which they’d made several months in advance. And then the check came. To justify the cost I pretended it included airfare to Tokyo, which is certainly how it felt, especially when you added the sake pairing, which I had, because Nakazawa is also a sake sommelier, and you don’t say no to those kinds of opportunities—at least not when you’re in the aloha spirit. For a change of pace, I walked a couple of blocks back to my hotel through the throngs attending the annual Spam Jam street festival, which is exactly what it sounds like.
By the following night, over a bowl of pho and possibly the world’s best fried chicken at local Chinatown favorite the Pig & the Lady, I’d begun to square my embarrassing misconceptions of America’s 50th state with its reality. Yes, the glitzy, well-trodden enclave of Waikiki may, for many, still be synonymous with a mid-century golden age when Bing Crosby crooned “Mele Kalikimaka” and hotels lured everyone from Clark Gable to the Shah of Iran for fun in the sun. And, yes, there are still tourists getting layered in leis in the Royal Hawaiian’s porte cochere, and “beachboys” patrolling the pink-umbrellaed sands outside, and, at the Halekulani, a nightly hula performed by either the current or a former Miss Hawaii, depending on the night.
But Oahu is also the kind of place where you can carve your own wave, so to speak—snatching up an Hermès scarf that you won’t be able to get anywhere else, for example—and still wake up at dawn and beat the crowds to hike Diamond Head for the panoramic views. It’s where Doris Duke built her 1930s pleasure palace, Shangri La, which is now run by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. It’s where a pair of Per Se alums named Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush chose to open their new Honolulu restaurant, Senia, aiming to please locals and visitors alike with exquisitely rendered tasting menus featuring revelatory delicacies like triple-smoked king salmon and charred cabbage dressed with shio and kombu. The thing I missed about Oahu before I saw it for myself was that, like any other place where people live and work and constantly shape their own narratives, it never boils down quite as easily as you think it will. Or anyway, not to just one thing, and certainly nothing gleaned from old songs or sitcom reruns.
And while I’m correcting the record: Those boxy floral shirts, the ones I once saw as more of an attitude adjustment than actual feasible adult garment? They have been finding their way onto runways and store shelves from the likes of Gucci, Richard Quinn, Dries Van Noten, and Balenciaga over the past few years. I tried on the so-called Original Aloha Shirts at Kahala Sportswear in Haleiwa, the North Shore outpost of the 1936-founded brand once beloved by John Wayne. And wouldn’t you know it? I came home with two in my luggage. Turns out they suit me after all.