Sun shines year-round in Honolulu

Fri. February 5, 2016 12:00 AM
by Ross Forman

There is one daily nonstop flight here from Chicago, plus connecting flights via San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Las Vegas and even Anchorage, among other cities. United Airlines' morning nonstop flight from O'Hare International Airport is about nine hours, and the connecting flights on American, Delta, Alaskan and other airlines can push the travel time to 10 or 15 hours. It's then a 20-minute drive without rush-hour traffic, or perhaps double that during peak times, into Waikiki.

The commute, though, is well worth it.

This Hawaiian haven – home to Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor and the legendary surfing of the North Shore – is truly Paradise. Doesn't matter how often you've been here, this is a great getaway, a great vacation destination, a marvelous break from the cold and snow of Chicago.

Sun and sand are so much better than Chicago's two most common words this time of year: Polar Vortex.

Tom Skilling would be out of a job if he worked here – it's 80 or 85 degrees with bright sun and limited clouds almost daily, 365 days a year.

"There's no doubt that Honolulu is a destination that is hotter than ever before," said Elizabeth Churchill, the chief revenue officer for Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which manages more than 20 properties in Honolulu and about 50 properties throughout Hawaii and in the U.S. mainland.

"We have a thriving food scene (in Honolulu), with gastronomic hot spots including Town (from chef/owner) Ed Kenney; top nightlife venues fulfilling every niche; a thriving Chinatown full of trend-setting restaurants and local boutiques, international designer shopping, art and cultural venues such as Honolulu Museum of Art, and more – all within walking distance of pristine beaches and vantage points such as Diamond Head.

"More than just a beach getaway, Honolulu caters to all travelers with its diverse activities, picturesque beauty, and unique cultural roots."

That definitely includes the LGBT contingent who opt for a vacation, or a long weekend getaway, to bask in the sun, sip mai tais and maybe try surfing.

"The Hawaiian people, they are so welcoming and friendly, and the amazing weather helps," said Chicago resident Dan Lakin, when asked why he loves the trek to America's 50th state. "Honolulu is filled with things to do from shopping to cultural events to historical sites to playing in the ocean or just relaxing beachside.

"Honolulu is gay-friendly, with multiple gay clubs, a gay beach and more. I've never felt unwelcome anywhere on the island."

Longtime Honolulu businessman Jack Law, who owns Hula's Bar & Lei Stand – one of the oldest and best gay bars in the nation, not just the best and most popular among the five or so gay bars in Honolulu – said he has never endured backlash in Honolulu for running a gay business.

"Although Honolulu and Waikiki can be very transient with frequent travelers, Hula's is always a place where everyone knows your name. I always make new friends (there)," said Lakin, who has been to Honolulu nine times since 2008, most recently in early-December to assist runners in the annual Honolulu Marathon for the Los Angeles chapter of Team To End AIDS, which had about 30 runners in the marathon to support the AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

"The overall gay scene (in Honolulu) is vibrant with something for everyone, whether that's a relaxing catamaran cruise with the Aloha Bears or a drag show at Scarlet. If clubbing isn't your thing, there are plenty of LGBT travelers and locals to hang out with."

Yes, Scarlet has built a popular brand in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood, especially among the 20-somethings – and now there is a new Scarlet in Honolulu, run by Chicago natives. A 10-minute drive from Waikiki, Scarlet Honolulu is worth a drink or two, particularly for Scarlet Fever, its weekly drag revenue; or, for Tikioke on Tuesday, with free karaoke.

"Honolulu is getting a serious facelift that is bound to attract an increase in travelers to the island," Churchill said. "Currently, there is a luxury condo boom, hotel reconstruction and the major expansion of the Ala Moana Shopping Center. Developers are bringing positive changes to once-neglected neighborhoods and hospitality companies such as ours are putting properties under renovation to accommodate today's travelers."

International Marketplace was long a staple in the heart of Waikiki, with its maze of open-air souvenir stands. But now the new International Marketplace is set to open in 2016 and will debut Michelin-starred restaurant, Yauatcha, among its lineup of 10 world-class, chef-driven restaurants, along with high-end shopping.

"Honolulu has grown into a bustling metropolis, yet retaining the small-town atmosphere," said Jim Granzow who has lived in Honolulu for 42 years and runs Granzow Langtry Design with his partner, Brad Langtry – and the two got engaged on Christmas Eve. "The people are sweet and loving. They want to serve the visitor and enjoy assisting them in having a wonderful time."

And yes, there are hundreds of things to do here. Waikiki Beach, for one, is a must – and at the south end of the Waikiki strip is the gay beach, fitting called, Queen's Beach.

The adventurous have several options to hike in Honolulu, such as Diamond Head, though I recommend Koko Crater Trail, which is about a 20-minute drive from Waikiki. Koko Crater is a steep hike with limited shade, so a hat and sunscreen are useful, along with bottled water and perhaps a snack. The Koko hike is 1,048 steps to the top and very popular with locals. Even President Obama hiked Koko Crater during his late-December visit.

Honolulu offers options off land, too. There are helicopter tours that offer a breathtaking view of the green, lush surroundings. Jumping out of airplanes is available at Skydive Hawaii, where the brave cruise through the sky at 120 MPH for tandem jumps of 14,000 feet. We're talking pure adrenaline rush.

In the water, there are of course plenty of options, too – surf, snorkel and simple swimming in pristine blue waters.

Shopping also is suggested in Honolulu, where you can hit some of the world's most famous brands, or a small mom-and-pop shop with plenty of aloha spirit.

Food options in Honolulu are limitless. Name a style, flavor or infusion, and it's here, probably with multiple options.

Surfing For The LGBT Travelers

There are hotels of varying price-points under the Aqua-Aston banner, and all are gay-friendly. After all, Aqua-Aston is a member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) and has been approved by the Travel Advocacy Group (TAG), which recognizes hotels with LGBT-friendly policies and services. The company is a regular sponsor and contributor to organizations such as the Honolulu Gay Pride Festival, Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival, Equality Hawaii, GLAAD, and more.

Aqua-Aston has employee training for LGBT sensitivity, and Aqua-Aston has attended the annual Conference on LGBT Tourism & Hospitality put on by Community Marketing & Insights of San Francisco.

In 2015, Aqua-Aston hosted Hawaii's first LGBT Tourism & Hospitality Symposium at the Lotus Honolulu at Diamond Head.

Plus, Aqua-Aston has hosted LGBT Hawaii-focused webinars with travel agents throughout the U.S. "This is a great opportunity to showcase our hotels as well as provide some insight to travel agents when selling to LGBT customers interested in Hawaii," Churchill said. "All properties under the Aqua-Aston Hospitality banner embody the 'aloha spirit' and welcome all travelers with the warmest of Hawaiian hospitality. Our LGBT guests are extremely important to our brand, and we do our best to ensure that all of our travelers feel a sense of inclusion and the highest level of personal service and comfort when staying at our properties."

Aqua-Aston offers numerous specials for LGBT travelers, such as its "Out and Proud" and "Free To Be" packages.

The two most prestigious hotels managed by Aqua-Aston Hospitality are the sophisticated Lotus Honolulu at Diamondhead, with its signature mix of modern style and island leisure; and the Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites. The Lotus offers a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki with breathtaking views of Diamond Head and the ocean. Amenities range from cultural offerings such as complimentary admission for two to the Honolulu Museum of Art, daily wine service in the lobby, free use of bicycles, and outdoor yoga classes held at the beach or in the adjacent park. There's also a fitness concierge, so if you want to tailor your workout island-style, you can get expert guidance while you train.

The Ilikai is pure Hawaii, as in, Hawaii Five-0. This widely-recognized property was seen in the opening credits of the original "Hawaii Five-0" television series, and home to 25 luxury studios and two bedroom suites on its upper floors. The Ilikai is the place to stay if you want a birds-eye view above the Waikiki shoreline. It's also a hot spot where you can sip sundowners to live music at the rooftop restaurant, Sarento's at the Top of the Ilikai.

Another popular Honolulu property is the Hotel Renew, located steps from the middle of Waikiki Beach.

Aqua-Aston caters to travelers on a budget with its Lite Hotels, such as the Ewa Hotel Waikiki, Maile Sky Court, White Sands Hotel, and the Pagoda Hotel.

Aqua-Aston offers a No Commitments Package for couples looking for accommodations for their wedding in Hawaii. The package offers a group discount without requiring a contract for a minimum block of rooms. Churchill said there were same-sex weddings in December at the Ilikai.

10 Hawaii Favorites From Ross Forman:

  1. Hike Diamond Head: "It's a great way to spend downtime with nature, learn some history about wartime Hawaii and the views are rewarding when you reach the top," Lakin said.

  2. Pearl Harbor: A must for all first-time visitors. Emotional and educational.

  3. North Shore: Jump in a car and venture outside of Waikiki for small-town fun: galleries, beaches, food, snorkeling and of course, surfing.

  4. Food & drinks: "Hawaiian food is amazing and they have some great chefs," Lakin said. "From food-trucks to 5-star (restaurants); be adventurous." Check out Wasabi Bistro for food, and cocktails at the Moana Surfrider Hotel, with live, local singers.

  5. Polynesian Cultural Center: Founded in 1963 and located about an hour's drive from Waikiki, PCC celebrates Hawaii's diverse Polynesian background with award-winning performances and interactive attractions. Amazing luau and not-to-be-missed evening show with fire knife dancers, special effects and more.

  6. Be adventurous: Climb Works Keana Farms, located on the North Shore, offers ziplining. Parasailing in Waikiki is incredible fun.

  7. Sea Life Park: About 30 minutes from Waikiki, this attraction has dolphins, sharks and plenty of native fish.

  8. Hanauma Bay: One of the most popular snorkeling stops; the fish are brilliant. They swim right next to you, steps from the shore, in among the reef.

  9. Dole Plantation: About 45 minutes from Waikiki, this is everything pineapple, including the world's largest maze, spread out over three acres.

  10. Waterfalls: Manoa Falls is found at the end of a 0.8-mile trail that ascends through the lush rainforest. To swim in and around the waterfalls, go to Waimea Falls Park, which also has a beautiful botanical gardens en route to the falls.

Contact Info:

  • United Airlines: 1-800-864-8331 or www.united.com

  • Aqua-Aston Hospitality: 1-866-934-2782 for Aqua Hotels, and 1-877-997-6667 for Aston Hotels. Or, go to: http://gopride.com/Zc5e.

  • Hula's Bar & Lei Stand, located at 134 Kapahulu Avenue, on the second floor of the Waikiki Grand Hotel. The phone number is: 808-923-0669.

  • Granzow Langtry Design, located at 3852 Poka Street. Call 808-737-1795 or go to: www.granzowlangtry.com