Staggeringly Close to a Surf Break: Top Waikiki Beach Bars
PHOTO: Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian (photo courtesy of The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, Waikiki)
For those that imbibe, perhaps one of the most celebrated rituals of a languid tropical holiday is the slow consumption of a tropical cocktail in staggeringly close proximity to a surf break. Oahu’s world-famous Waikiki Beach draws visitors from virtually every point of the compass, and first-time visitors can be presented with a dizzying array of hotels, bars, and restaurants to choose from. In the Hawaiian Islands, a local tradition known as pau hana takes the place of Mainland Happy Hours. Translating literally to “work finished,” pau hana is that moment to relax at the end of a long day at the office, or sightseeing, or in the ocean — each of which can be exhausting in their own manner.
I’ve included some of my favorite Waikiki beach bars here, complete with the Mai Tai Price Index (the introductory price for a Mai Tai), number of steps to the beach, and some special notes to take some of the guesswork out of your vacation, or if you’re kama‘aina (local), your literal pau hana.
Mai Tai Bar
The Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel has several classic cocktails, including several versions of the bar’s eponymous tipple. You can try Trader Vic’s original 1944 recipe (which is almost entirely liquor and no fruit juice, similar to a Long Island Iced Tea), or the more familiar Royal Mai Tai, which “Trader” Vic Bergeron developed especially for the hotel in 1953. The hotel recently unveiled an updated beverage program with several new cocktails, including the unmissable Luxury Collection standard “The Last Cocktail.” High rollers can try the “Ali‘i Mai Tai,” made with two aged rums, topped with foam and sprayed with the hotel’s logo for $35.
Mai Tai Index: $15
Steps from the beach: Depending on what side of the bar you’re sitting on, no more than about ten.
Next door to the Royal Hawaiian, sister hotel the Sheraton Waikiki houses RumFire, which specializes in shared plates, and of course, rum. There’s a happy hour here from 4-5 p.m., which is rare for a beachfront bar, and with normally priced cocktails starting from $9, this comfortable indoor/outdoor ultra-lounge with a view is another great stop on our tour. The intro Mai Tai here is the “Sunset Mai Tai,” which is made with Old Lahaina Rum from Maui, and gets a nice tart kick courtesy of the inclusion of lime and passionfruit puree. For happy hour, don’t pass up a $6 shot of Koloa Coconut Rum from Kauai — it’s a rum drinker’s coconut rum that has the propensity to haunt.
Mai Tai Index: $10
Steps from the beach: The hotel sits on a seawall above the ocean, so probably about 25 until your toes touch sand on the neighboring Royal Hawaiian section of Waikiki Beach.
Duke’s Beach Bar
Named for famed waterman Duke Kahanamoku, this bar and restaurant inside the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort is famous for its breakfast and lunch buffets, salad bar, and commanding second-floor view over the beach. Comfortable kitsch is the theme here, with a decor and vibe that has remained solidly dependable for decades. It can be popular with families in the evenings, and the bar is often crowded with guests waiting for tables during peak dinner hours, but the wait feels shorter with concoctions like the Lava Flow (a fancied up version of the Pina Colada) and the Hawaiian Salt which is made with Ocean Vodka from Maui, passion fruit, and salty-sour-sweet li hing powder — a local favorite.
Mai Tai Index: $12
Steps from the beach: it’s just down the stairs!
House Without a Key
On the other side of the Sheraton Waikiki is the sumptuous Halekulani (Hawaiian for “House befitting Heaven”) and the House Without a Key, named for the 1925 Charlie Chan novel of the same name, which was written at the then-Gray’s Hotel. Today, there’s nightly live entertainment and hula from one of five winners of the Miss Hawaii crown who perform four sets of three hula each evening, with a different costume and lei for each set. Towering overhead is the kiawe tree, some ancient coconut palms and an unimpeded view of Leahi (Diamond Head) to the East.
Mai Tai Index: $14
Steps from the beach: about twenty.
The Beach Bar
At The Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa, guests have been enjoying the shade of the banyan tree for over a century. The centenarian arbor has grown to shade the entire courtyard, and like many of the beach bars in Waikiki, there’s live music to be enjoyed almost every day. The Moana is notable for being the oldest hotel on Waikiki Beach, with graceful architecture that harkens back to another era. Fans of the golden age of radio will remember the hotel from the popular program “Hawaii Calls,” which introduced Hawaiian music to listeners across the country for decades. Contemporary guests at The Beach Bar can enjoy gracious service and some artful takes on popular cocktails, such as the Guava Kaffir Rita and the Lilikoi (Passionfruit) and Coconut Mojito.
Mai Tai Index: $12.50
Steps from the beach: from some tables, just one, but leave your cocktail on property — Hawaii beaches have open container laws.
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